Bloomability by Sharon Creech
Sharon Creech (born July 29, 1945) is an American writer of children’s books. Sharon has written over 20 books for children and young adults. She is the first writer to win both the American Newbery Award (for Walk Two Moons) and the British *Carnegie Medal (Ruby Holler).
*note: The Carnegie Medal is a British award that annually recognises one outstanding new book for children or young adults. Started in 1936, some well known Carnegie Medal winners include The Borrowers by Mary Norton, The Last Battle by C.S. Lewis, Watership Down by Richard Adams and one of my favorite chapter books Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pierce.
Bloomability is written from Sharon Creech’s own experience of teaching English both in England and in Switzerland.
Bloomability (for grades 5-8 and up – I think a high schooler would enjoy this as well) is one of those novels that will clearly resonate with third culture kids. I know I definitely identified with the character on many levels.
The story centers on a middle-grade school girl named Domenica Santolina Doone, known as Dinnie. Dinnie has moved many times in her life, as her father, a jack-of-all-trades, seeks out jobs and “new opportunities”, but nothing prepares Dinnie for the changes which come about, when her aunt and uncle, with her parent’s permission, take Dinnie overseas to attend an International School in Switzerland, where her uncle is now headmaster.
The novel deals with issues like loss, homesickness, identity, language learning and culture, all bundled in a journal type of narrative by Dinnie. You will laugh, you will say to yourself “yeah, I know how that feels” and you will cry with her as she comes to grips with her past and her losses, you will cheer her on as she articulates her hopes for the future and learns to accept and appreciate who she is. I can’t recommend this enough!
What resonated with me about Bloomability:
Language: The novel is sprinkled throughout with Italian words and expressions, as Dinnie learns Italian, something many TCKs experience as well – that world where multiple languages converge and find expression, those sentences blended with mixtures of English and other languages, those words or expressions that fit perfectly in one language but are just not easily translated.
Identity – Dinnie gravitates towards the classmates who stand out above the crowd – exuberant, opinionated and who know exactly who they are. She struggles with the question: “Who am I?” She sees herself as uninteresting and bland. Throughout the school year, she begins to slowly understand what makes her unique, different and interesting. She writes:
“Sometimes I wanted to be the same, because then you’d have friends, and you wouldn’t be just the new kid, but inside, deep inside, deep inside my bubble, I also wanted to be different. I wanted to be interesting…”
Being different is OK: many TCKs, especially those that attend International school can identify with Dinnie’s observations about cultural and social differences among her peers:
“Here everybody was from different places, not just me. Most of the people were new, not just me. Everybody had a different accent, not just me. “
Because everyone was different, being different was the norm and no one in particular stood out. Everyone was accepted for who they were.
Homesickness – Homesickness is a very strong emotion when you move to a new place, when you are away from family or when you are transplanted into a new culture.
I love the picture she paints of homesickness – homesickness doesn’t just happen when you are sad, often it hits you in the middle of a special moment that takes you back to other moments that you cherish in other times and other places, and overshadows the present.
“I cannot even begin to explain why I liked fishing…What I liked was casting the line and then sitting there, watching the water.
First I’d see the water and the banks, …and then it would happen. I would see things that weren’t outside of me, but were inside of me. And that day as I sat on the riverbank, what I saw was my father and my mother and Stella and Crick… And while I was seeing them I had two contrasting feelings. One was complete happiness, as if I was back in a comfortable place with people I knew and who knew me. The other feeling was complete and overwhelming homesickness. It was as if the two feelings were taking turns, and I was waiting to see which one would win...”
Creech describes a common occurrence for TCKs or for anyone who has moved around frequently, especially as a child. Whenever you encounter a new place, you are immediately seeing other parallel places you’ve been in your mind. Creech calls it “double vision”. Dinnie and her classmates take to school trip to Val Verzascaa. On the trip, Dinnie describes her double vision:
“And all the way, I was having double vision. I’d look at what Guthrie was pointing at and I’d see something else laid thinly over it, like a transparent photo. The grapevines on a Swiss hillside were overlaid with grapevines I’d seen in Ohio… The castle slid behind an image of a stone tower I’d seen in Virginia. Even the gelato was submerged beneath an ice cream cone I’d eaten with Stella and Crick. It was as if I were carrying around all the places I’d ever lived, and nothing I was seeing was just what it was – it was all of the places, all smooshed together.”
I can relate, can’t you? Sometimes, when I visit a new place, that doesn’t give me double vision, I feel both awe at the scene – isn’t the world an amazing place with so much beauty and diversity? but also insecure, like I’m venturing out into such a wild unknown that I don’t recall other places overlapping in my mind.
The Beauty of nature
When I read Bloomability, my first impulse was want to jump on a plane and head back to Switzerland and explore all this natural beauty that Creech describes in her novel. I have been to Switzerland as a child and now I want to revive those memories in my mind as an adult. Creech paints pictures with words that describes perfectly the beauty of this country – the majestic mountains, glimmering lakes, the lush forests and trickling brooks as well as the small picturesque villages strewed between the natural beauty. It transported me back and made me thirst for more. Dinnie has never lived in such a place and she finds herself awestruck by it like she never has before.
Connection with family
Transplanted in Europe, into another culture, Dinnie can now relate to her grandmother, who immigrated from Italy. She imagines what it must have been like for her to leave her home, her country and find herself in America, far from everything she’s ever known. She can now understand for the first time her grandmother’s struggles to learn another language and culture. She longs to travel to the small town in Italy where her grandmother grew up. She even dreams of returning to Europe with her grandmother and exploring Italy together.
The gift of friendship
For the first time in her life, Dinnie begins to develop deep friendships with her classmates. It is these friendships that hold her together during hard times, as she copes with all the changes and homesickness. Dinnie is by nature an introvert and she gravitates, as I did, to classmates who are polar opposites, who thrive on adventure, especially adventures with a group of people. She gets pulled into excursions and social situations that she would never do on her own. She discovers the power of friendship and shared experiences, to chase the blues away, to vanquish her internal cycle of negative thoughts. Guthrie, one of her classmates, is always at the center of everything, full of exuberance. Guthrie thrives on adventure and people. He befriends Dinnie and draws her out of herself:
“One Saturday, Guthrie appeared at our door and said: “Get your tennis shoes on! We’re going on an expedition!” I followed him …I ran along behind him and in the woods the trees were golden and the path was golden from the leaves which had already fallen…. At some point, we came to a bend, and there, lapping at our feet, was the clearest river I’d ever seen. The water rolled and bubbled along over fat stones, and you could see the whole bottom as clear as anything. …”
Through Guthrie and several other close friends, she learns the sheer joy of shared experiences, laughter, deep conversations, helping each others through tough times and being accepted for who she is. The memories of these friendships she will always carry with her.
For further discussion:
**Spoiler alert: At the end of the novel, Dinny returns to the US to rejoin her family who have moved once again, this time back to Bybanks, Virginia where she has family roots. Dinny is left with a choice by her aunt and uncle – she is more than welcome to return to Switzerland in the fall after the summer break (Her aunt and uncle would love to have her back, although they don’t pressure her), or she could stay in Bybanks and start her life over again there – she felt torn: after a year away, she longed to reconnect with her family, warts and all, but she also felt the pull to return to this place that held so many happy memories, that had helped her heal and learn about herself:
“I didn’t know how what I wanted to do, or what I should do. I hoped, though, that when the time came, I would know…”
There’s a part of me that hates these kind of endings, the ones that leaves the character with a fork in the road and you wonder what road they will choose. I often find myself writing that missing chapter so I can feel a sense of closure. Dinnie, a fictional character, has taken on flesh and blood and I want what’s best for her, to see her continue to flourish and grow as she did that year in the Swiss Alps, and yet, I also want to see her reconnect with her family and to feel needed and loved by them.
Just as in real life, there is no perfect solution, no one road that will not have it’s twisty turns, sharp rocks or dark forests.
This is what life is like for many TCKs – all those changes and forks in the road that lead to uncertainty. If you read this aloud with your son or daughter, or read the book at the same time, I think this ending is perfect for discussion – what would you choose to do if you were Dinny? What would influence your decision?
As I said earlier, I can’t recommend this book enough. It is one of my favorite books for older TCKs (along with Jean Fritz’ Homesick: My Own Country – see my blog post https://kidsbookswithoutborders.wordpress.com/2016/09/18/homesick-my-own-story/
Note: Since it was written in 1998, there are certain things that date it such as internet, email or cell phones, but that, I feel, can be refreshing and allows Creech to focus on other timeless issues.