Anthropologist and poet Ruth Behar makes her middle grade debut with Lucky Broken Girl, the story of a young Jewish-Cuban girl in Queens that was inspired by the author’s own experiences. Ruthie Mizrahi and her family are still adjusting to life in America when a car accident leaves Ruthie confined to her bed in a full-body cast. In her year of recovery, Ruthie discovers the love and support of her community and family, but also confronts anger, fear and despair as she comes to terms with her new circumstances and changing personality. A love letter to a diverse New York City neighborhood and a sensitive portrayal of growing up with unforeseen challenges, Lucky Broken Girl is gentle, heartfelt and highly entertaining.
What can you tell us about your own experience that inspired this story? Why did you decide to transform your story into a book for young readers?
The story was inspired by the year I spent in a body cast, confined to my bed, when I was 9 going on 10. It was a traumatic experience, for me as well as my family and our friends and neighbors. Imagine an immigrant family, just arrived from Cuba, penniless and afraid, and suddenly they have an invalid girl to take care of. When I sat down to write, I wanted to conjure how I felt at that young age, when it seemed to take forever to get back on my feet. I also wanted to honor all the people who surrounded me and tried to help me heal.
The child’s voice came easily. It was as if Ruthie was whispering the story into my ear, letting the adult Ruth know what she was going through. Transforming my story into a book for young readers wasn’t a choice but a necessity. It was the only way the story could be told. I was listening to Ruthie and putting down her story on the page.
What was the biggest challenge in writing your first novel for young readers?
My biggest challenge was figuring out where the drama was in a story that essentially takes place while nothing much is happening, while a girl is in bed and waiting to recover. Figuring out how to make immobility of interest to a young reader, who is more accustomed to action-packed storytelling, was something I struggled with as a writer. But then it became clear that Ruthie’s journey of the heart was filled with movement and that you can go through huge transformations while being perfectly still.
The pre-accident chapters could easily have been romanticized as a time when everything was perfect for Ruthie, but there is clear tension between Mami and Papi regarding decision-making, parental roles and finances. Did this refreshingly honest representation of family spring naturally from your experiences, or was it something you intentionally created as part of Ruthie’s narrative?
The tensions between Mami and Papi in the novel definitely spring from my own experiences when I was growing up. As a sensitive child, I worried a lot about the arguments between my parents and was scared of my father’s temper, while I felt sorry for my mother who tried so hard to please him. My parents were struggling to get by, and I didn’t want to be a burden to them. I put huge pressure on myself to succeed as an immigrant child, to learn to speak “good English” and do well in school. The memory of those feelings found their way into the novel. That’s why there isn’t a romanticized image of the time before the accident.
“You can go through huge transformations while being perfectly still.”
We don’t get to see Ruthie grow up, but you, of course, grew up to become an anthropologist as well as a writer. Did that influence the way you wrote and described Ruthie’s neighborhood?
I think I’ll always see the world as a cultural anthropologist. By that I mean I never assume that people think alike or should think alike. I am fascinated by how culture and history shape human behavior and make us different. In writing about Ruthie’s neighborhood, I tried to show how people of diverse nationalities and backgrounds intersected in Queens, New York. Bringing together immigrants from Cuba, Mexico, Puerto Rico, India and Belgium, among others, I wanted to show how people hold onto memories of their home places while assimilating in different ways to American life.
Ruthie gets to know her friends and their family traditions through food, and the food in her house is described in detail, from the flan to the arroz con pollo. What is your favorite childhood food memory?
As a child, I loved my mother’s flan. It always seemed magical to me, how the alchemy of eggs, milk, sugar and vanilla produced something so divine. I later learned to make my own flan, and I enjoy preparing it for special occasions. I also have fond memories of the cream puffs that my friend Danielle’s mother would make for us at the end of the school day. Danielle and I felt so sophisticated eating those exquisite delicacies in our working-class neighborhood in Queens.
In the afterword, you mention that the fear Ruthie develops during this difficult year is something you share with her. What about her discovery of storytelling and art? Do you credit your time recuperating with sparking your interest in artistic pursuits?
Yes, the time I spent recuperating opened my eyes to literature and art, and there is no question that this period in my life made me the person I am today. Though it was a terrible experience to go through, I am grateful for all that I learned. This is why Ruthie is a “lucky broken girl.” I was very lonely during that year and books were my best friends. I became an insatiable reader. But we didn’t have books in the house. Books were a luxury to us as immigrants. The tutor that my public school sent to our home to teach me filled our house with books. Ever since, I have lived surrounded by books. Unable to move, I had to use my imagination and pretend I wasn’t stuck in bed but solving mysteries like Nancy Drew.
Reading awakened my curiosity and made me look beyond myself. It was a time in my life when I became attuned to the suffering of others, when my heart opened. I listened to the stories of people around me and felt their pain. That time in bed recuperating taught me empathy, and having empathy is the foundation for all artistic pursuits.
“You have to give up something old in your life to let in something new.”
Ruthie’s reaction when Papi suggests she be a secretary rather than an artist feels very mature—she decides to learn typing anyway, just in case, and use it to support her storytelling abilities as well. What advice would you give to children who are drawn to the arts but feel the understandable responsibility to follow more financially predictable paths?
I am a strong believer that children who are drawn to the arts should follow their dreams and not feel they have to give them up in order to be financially stable. I think doing something you hate just for the sake of a salary is not a wise choice emotionally. Doing what you love opens doors. And there are so many paths to becoming an artist. Children need to be shown the diversity of ways that artists have achieved their goals, so that they can gain confidence and be able to pursue their dreams without fear.
One of the final hurdles that Ruthie must overcome is the realization that part of her personality has changed, and it is difficult to reconcile her past and present self. How can we best help children with these complicated transitions, especially when even adults have trouble thinking of identity and personality as fluid rather than fixed?
The crux of my book is precisely that: Despite the difficulties, you can reconcile the distance between your past and present self. By the end of the story, Ruthie is aware she has gone through a metamorphosis and is not the same person she was before the accident. She mourns the loss of her former self but comes to accept who she has become. We have to help children to accept the transitions in their lives, teach them that change is inevitable, and that at each phase they will learn new things about themselves and others, and gain wisdom and knowledge. My cousin Judy told me that whenever she buys a new garment, she gives away an old garment from her closet. That’s the kind of advice we might give to children (and adults, too). You have to give up something old in your life to let in something new.
I am at work on a new novel for young readers. It is set in Cuba at the time of the revolution. I was inspired by Carson McCullers’ wonderful novel The Member of the Wedding. The story focuses on a 12-year-old girl who watches jealously as her older sister prepares to marry and is fitted for a beautiful lace honeymoon nightgown sewn to fit her measurements. Then things get more complicated as the revolution brings about dramatic changes and her parents decide to send her out of Cuba against her will with the Peter Pan Operation.
Author photo credit © Gabriel Frye-Behar.