This blog post comes from Shawna Railey, writer behind “The Messy Life of Blue.”
When I was fifteen, alone in my apartment, sometimes with no way of knowing how I would eat next, I often sat on the back of the toilet and stared up at the sky through my tiny bathroom window. I would slide the frosted glass up and breathe in the salty air, searching for something constant in a world I didn’t yet understand.
The Messy Life of Blue is about a girl who lives with her father and three brothers. My own childhood couldn’t have been more different, so I’m pretty sure the only reason I was able to write about Blue was because of all the books and television I devoured growing up. (Can I stop and get a hands-up for the classic family sitcoms of the 80s? I mean, who didn’t love Alex P. Keaton?) The truth is, my father left when I was two years old, and I grew up without any siblings. However, like Blue, I did experience an incredible amount of loss, the biggest of all occurring when I was fourteen. One Thursday evening, my mother, the only family I had and someone I loved very much, left me alone in our apartment, empty but for the cockroaches crawling on the walls. And she never came back.
I tried my best to fend for myself: forging her signature when it was time to register for high school, stealing sneakers from the lost and found so I would have them for gym, sneaking food from the pantry when I would go to a friend’s house. One year, I even worked at a Christmas tree lot for a day and asked that my only payment be a tree of my own. I’m still proud that at the end of my shift, I was told I could pick any tree I wanted.
If you’re wondering right now how a child could live alone for four years, the short answer is luck and strength. The long answer is many sleepless nights. Someone eventually gave me a bed, but I slept on a bare mattress all through high school. I was constantly searching for loose change: for the Laundromat, gas money so a friend could drive me somewhere, or for a one-dollar cheeseburger from McDonald’s. While I watched my friends celebrate holidays with their families, I’d spend my first Christmas morning alone. And then the next one. And then the next one after that, too.
Mothers don’t just up and leave one day without having at least a couple issues before that. So, even before I was on my own, books had always been an escape from the harder parts of my life. Whether I was learning Karana’s story as she battled against the wild dogs on the island of the blue dolphins, spilling tears on the pages as they painstakingly described where the red ferns grew, or laughing out loud as I commiserated with Peter dealing with his infamous brother, Superfudge, books were my friends. I remember the librarian at my school, tiny in body but large in sunshine, putting books aside for me, just like Ms. McLeod does for Blue. And Scholastic Book Fairs were like portable, paper Disneylands as far as I was concerned. I always skipped recess that week just to get extra time with all those books, relishing in their newness, book smell, and magical words.
For those reasons, I’ve always known I wanted to write for children. I wanted to give back to something that had felt, at times, like my only friend. Books not only enriched my life, but they brought me so much joy. Writing books is my childhood dream come to life.
I don’t know what made me write a story so foreign from my own. It was only when I became an adult that I realized everything I had been through, all the pain and the struggles, were actually a blessing. I could use my past to help children who were experiencing similar things. With humor and honesty, I could speak to a child, even if it was just for a moment in those pages. My deepest hope has always been to make a difference for even just one child, like so many others did for me when I needed it most.
It’s funny how our realities morph into the stories we tell. I think The Messy Life of Blue was my way of dealing with the pain of losing my mother, even though my loss wasn’t caused by death. Did my own mom wear sparkly red nail polish? No. But one of the most vivid memories I have is of her setting her own acrylic nails. She took out this little bottle of powder and I watched her magically transform her nails into perfection. The Wizard of Oz was one of my own childhood favorites; my mother preferred Dirty Dancing. She must’ve made me watch it with her at least 150 times. Could my mother, like Blue’s, also swim like a mermaid? I wouldn’t know. We lived five minutes from the beach, and I spent almost every summer at the community pool, but yet, I don’t remember ever seeing her swim. Kinda sad.
One last reason I wrote The Messy Life of Blue was to show that we all grieve in our own ways. Whether it’s Blue, her brothers, her father, me, you, or anyone else going through the unimaginable, there isn’t a “right” way to experience loss. But if there is one thing I know, it’s that a good book can help.