Behind Dan Richards’ mild mannered appearance lurks a superhero; or at least, he was dressed in a superhero costume one of the first times we met at the International SCBWI conference in Los Angeles. Dan is a great supporter of his fellow book creators, especially those in the Pacific Northwest. He has a great sense of humor (case in point: his first novel, Stu Truly) and a great imagination (case in point: his picture books). It is a genuine pleasure to celebrate my neighbor and friend, and his newest book, Stu Truly (Yellow Jacket).
My first novel came out in July. Put simply, it’s the story of a middle school boy, Stu, having his first crush. Stu tells his story in his own awkward, embarrassing, humorous way and from the standpoint of a boy suddenly blindsided by the rapid changes happening to and around him. On the surface it’s a cringeworthy romp through the not-so-serious hallowed hallways of middle school. But a recent experience reminded me how middle school moments linger with us long after we’ve left the building.
I stopped by to see a friend a few days ago that I hadn’t seen for several years. He welcomed me into his home and we sat for an hour discussing my book and the memories it brought up for us both. He grew up on a small farm in a rather poor Midwest town and was so smitten by his first crush that he skipped eating lunch at school, so he could save up his lunch money to buy her a gift. At last, he surprised her with a––camera. “Obviously, I was quite the romantic,” he joked. But here’s the not-so-funny part. She took his gift, threw it on the floor and stomped on it. Yep, that’s right. Stomped on it. He told me the experience haunted him for many years and impacted other dating relationships.
Here’s the interesting thing: My friend is eighty-two and yet he could remember the details of the moment and how it affected him as if it were yesterday.
I shared my own story of revealing a secret middle school crush to the girl, now a woman, many years later at a high school reunion. After listening to my admission, the woman gave me an annoyed look and said, “Yeah, you told me that at the last reunion.” WHAT?! Seriously? How could I have forgotten that? Her reaction left me feeling just as awkward and embarrassed as I felt as a twelve-year-old boy.
My friend and I laughed at our shared humiliation, but we also noted how those sorts of feelings are very real and not to be taken lightly. Middle schoolers deserve more empathy and understanding than we, as adults, tend to give. It may be a ‘crush’ or ‘puppy love’ from our adult viewpoint but for them it’s very real with the capacity to be both exhilarating and soul crushing. Such moments can make or break a young man, or woman, right at the point where they are taking their first steps into the adult world.
So, is a novel like Stu Truly simply a light romp through the annals of middle school? Or is it a safe conduit for middle schoolers, and former middle schoolers, to gain perspective on feelings and experiences often kept hidden away? The power of story is the ability for even something seemingly lighthearted to cause a reader to feel, remember, gain perspective, and even heal.
I wrote Stu while my son was in seventh grade. The quirky way my son and his friends interacted influenced every aspect of the story and infused Stu and his own friends with colors and textures true to life. And in return, it’s my hope that Stu gives readers insight and perspective as they take their first steps into the adult world. Or at the very least gives them a few laughs as they tromp their way across the socially awkward landscapes known as middle school.
Dan Richards grew up in a small town eating meat, avoiding vegetables, and cheering at the annual Irrigation Festival parade. He’s a graduate of the University of Washington’s Writing For Children Program, where he wrote his first picture book, The Problem with NOT Being Scared of Monsters. Stu Truly is Dan’s debut novel. He lives with his family in Bothell, Washington. Visit Dan online at his website.