“Planet Middle School” or How Puberty Means Alienation from the Body

10636878The emergency-room doors

crack open

and I feel my heart split.

Thus begins Planet Middle School, a middle grade novel in verse by the wonderful Nikki Grimes. The 12-year-old girl at the center of the book is Joylin, a basketball star who is lost in her own ever-changing body. Aren’t we all? Our relationship with our physicality is probably one of the most important ones we’ll have in our lifetime. Some of us have a pretty easy-going one, some of us have an incredibly dysfunctional one, and for a lot of us it’s a dynamic that changes on a day-to-day basis. It’s safe to say, though, that puberty, across the board, is a period that is usually fraught when it comes to the body. In fact, it sometimes feel like we are in a Twilight episode about body-snatchers, never quite sure what it’s doing, why it’s reacting, and how to control it.

Planet Middle School puts the issue of our inner-outer struggle at the front and center. It’s very telling that the novel opens with a focus on an internal organ in a location that is dedicated to corporal ills–the novel’s plot basically consists of a series of “attacks” either thrust upon the body or coming from within it. In small poems, we see Joylin cringing as she goes bra shopping, wishing her chest would disappear when she plays basketball, dreading the pains of her first period, yearning to be more of a girly-girl, feeling uncomfortable when she tries to be one, and lusting after a boy who won’t even give her the time of day. These are all pretty standard tribulations for her age-group, but what drew me into Grimes’ story was how effectively she describes how our interior world is forever shifted by our physical experiences. And vice-versa.

The story also makes it a point to note that the estrangement one feels with their physical exterior is something we all experience. KeeLee, Joy’s best friend, feels constrained by the expectations of what a preacher’s kid should look like or act like. Jake, her other best friend, has no idea of how to react to Joy being an ACTUAL girl. One of the most heart-breaking moments comes when Caden, Joy’s brother, is chastised by his father for not being as athletic as his sister. Oh boy, you’re almost overwhelmed by the social expectation of masculinity with that simple scene.

Throughout all this, Joy knows that the answer is to be herself. But, of course, that is easier said than done, especially when you feel that your body is turning against you every single day. It’s only when one of her loved ones faces mortal peril, that Joy begins to understand that the point is not to overpower your body or let your body overpower you. The only real solution is to see it as a vessel for your own empowerment.