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On Chrysanthemum and Jealousy
How this beloved picture book got me thinking about the unhelpful ways we talk about being jealous and why we should change our tune
We’re in a Chrysanthemum phase at my house.
Another Chrysanthemum phase, I should say, because we’ve had many. We have the audiobook (which is spectacularly performed by Meryl Streep) out from the library, and let’s just say my kids really know how to make the most of a two-week lending period. My Libby app tells me we have listened to this 13-minute audiobook for 10 hours and 13 minutes over the past two years!
When my kids are into an audiobook, they want to listen over and over in the car, and my daughter also likes to listen at home while following along in the physical book. The other day, she told me to pause the Chrysanthemum audiobook and asked me about this part, which comes just after three other mice, Victoria, Rita, and Jo, have mocked Chrysanthemum’s name for the second day in a row at school.
My daughter wanted to know what, exactly, the word jealous means (which is interesting since I’m pretty sure she doesn’t know the meaning of envious, begrudging, discontented, or jaundiced, but those she wasn’t so concerned about). I told her being jealous means wishing you had something another person has or wishing you could do something another person can do. And she nodded thoughtfully and then asked, “Are Victoria, Rita, and Jo really jealous of Chrysanthemum’s name?”
In the many, many times I had read and listened to this book, I’d never stopped to consider this part, aside from being very amused by Chrysanthemum’s dad. But now that I have, I will tell you, as I told her, that I don’t think the other mice are jealous of Chrysanthemum’s name at this point in the story. Later, sure. When the class meets Mrs. Delphinium Twinkle, they all think she’s an “indescribable wonder,” so the other kids want flower names like she has, and then they’re jealous that Chrysanthemum has one. But at this point, Victoria is being mean about Chrysanthemum’s name because it’s different and longer than everyone else’s, and Jo and Rita go along with whatever Victoria does.
And yet the dialogue on this page feels 100% realistic to me because “they’re just jealous” is a phrase that well-meaning adults spout off all the time when a kid is upset about something another kid has said or done. It isn’t as bad as saying “maybe he just likes you” to a girl who’s being teased or harassed by a boy, but it’s not particularly helpful or tuned in. And what’s with that “just,” anyway? Not only here, but whenever people say “just jealous.” Is the implication that jealousy isn’t an emotion that’s worth our attention?
This page in Chrysanthemum has gotten me thinking about all the ways we talk about jealousy. Sometimes, like Chrysanthemum’s parents, we’re dismissive. Oh, don’t listen to her; she’s just jealous. Sometimes jealousy is a green-eyed monster. Yikes! Sometimes we turn it into a compliment—but not in a way that feels completely genuine. That shirt looks so good on you. I’m jealous! Sometimes it’s the worst kind of accusation. You’ve always been jealous of me!
It’s no wonder there’s so much shame attached to jealousy. There’s this sense—at least for me—that I should be able to get over jealousy quickly. That I’d be able to avoid it altogether if I had enough perspective and self-esteem. But as every kid who has ever wanted someone else’s toy or wished they could swing across the monkey bars like that older kid over there will tell you, it’s impossible to get through life without feeling jealousy. I’d venture to say it’s impossible for most of us to get through a day without feeling jealousy, especially if we spend any time at all on social media.
I could say a whole lot more here about Chrysanthemum. I could write a whole essay unpacking the use of the word “perfect” (such a charged word!) or analyzing why the ending is so satisfying or why Chrysanthemum and my daughter’s other favorite Kevin Henkes character, Lilly, are so appealing to kids.
But I’m going to stick with jealousy, because the truth is that I’ve been feeling lots of social media jealousy lately when it comes to publishing things. I have a lot pinned on my next book; it feels extra special to me, and for the first time since I became a published author I don’t have anything else under contract yet, and I desperately want this novel to reach more readers than my last one did. I am so hopeful that Coming Up Short will be well received and so scared it won’t make any splash at all. So when someone else posts an ARC giveaway but my book doesn’t have physical ARCs, or when someone shares some kind of exciting bookish news I’m crossing my fingers I might get . . . well, I don’t feel jealous in a mean-spirited or begrudging (or discontented or jaundiced) way, but I definitely feel a twinge of jealousy. On particularly anxious days, I feel a lot more than a twinge.
And here’s the thing: jealousy is never a pleasant emotion, but it’s easier to bear if I make room for it instead of scolding myself for experiencing it and attempting to push it away. If I greet it, thinking something like, “Ah, there you are again, you uncomfortable emotion! It makes total sense that I’m feeling you now,” then the ache is still there, but I also have space in my heart and mind to genuinely celebrate other people’s books and to strategize about how to take care of myself by setting social media boundaries or getting some exercise or having an honest conversation with a writer friend.
None of these things magically take away the hard feelings, but they help—and they are only possible if I first acknowledge what’s hard in a non-judgmental way.
So I guess what I’m saying is, I think we should stop putting the word “just” in front of the word “jealous,” as much as we can—when we’re talking to other adults and especially when we’re talking to kids—because that dismissiveness makes an already crummy feeling a whole lot crummier.
I think we should honestly admit to jealousy—not only in a glib “that shirt looks so good on you; I’m so jealous you can wear that color!” way—but in a way that normalizes it as an emotion we all struggle with.
And I’m grateful for books—like Chrysanthemum and the Lilly books and so many of my favorite middle grade novels—that open up conversations about complicated emotions like jealousy—and I’m going to try my best to keep writing books that explore those messy emotions, too.
Speaking of books that explore messy emotions, Saint Ivy is coming out in paperback next month, on May 10th. I got two early author copies—they look great, and they have a sneak peek of Coming Up Short! This book was a pretty quiet pandemic release, but I’ve already heard from a few middle school educators who have used it for literature circles and to spark productive conversations about kindness, friendship challenges, and self-compassion, and I hope it will become accessible for more classrooms and middle school readers at the much lower paperback price point! Don’t forget that I have a discussion and activity guide available (along with lots of other resources for educators on my website).
In addition, the first trade review for Coming Up Short is in, and it’s a great one from Kirkus Reviews—phew! You can read the whole thing here.
And I’m planning an in-person launch at Children’s Book World in Haverford on release day, June 21, at 7:00pm EST. If you’re in the area, I’d love to see you there! The event will also be livestreamed on Facebook and YouTube, and if you can’t make it in person but want a signed and personalized copy, you can order one here and CBW will ship it to you or you can pick it up. (The site says books will ship June 27th because we were originally going to do the launch party a few days later, but they should actually ship June 22nd now that we’ve moved it up.)
Here are three recent MG releases I’ve loved:
-Gillian McDunn’s Honestly Elliott, which features cooking and baking, explores ADHD and celiac disease, and has one of the most charming narrators around.
-Ernesto Cisneros’s Falling Short, a moving and entertaining friendship story with two equally endearing point of view characters and lots of basketball, humor and heart.
-Erin Entrada Kelly’s Those Kids from Fawn Creek—which I’m not quite finished with yet, but wow is this a master class on character and point of view. I’m savoring it.
And Brigit Young’s Bright is an upper MG release that isn’t out yet but will release on July 5th. It’s such a special book about the nuanced ways kids react when school is hard, different kinds of intelligence, and self-esteem. I highly recommend it!
Happy spring, friends! I wish you lots of energizing outdoor adventures and lots of cozy time snuggling up with a good book.