When my son was small we called him Nicholas. It was a big name for a small boy, but it was the name we’d chosen and we hoped it would suit him. When he was about two, though, we started taking him to a babysitter who watched several other children. One of them was a baby named Nicholas. When he heard that, our son proclaimed “Nicholas” to be a “baby name” and insisted on being called “Nick” from then on.
Names and naming are one of the ways children can exert some control in their world. My young nephews call their parents by their first names; my daughter, when a preschooler, would insist on my calling her “Ariel” or “Belle” or “Jasmine.” I think she took especial delight in ignoring me when I called her name in stores, insisting that I call her by her nom-de-jour; I always worried that I’d be picked up for kidnapping this blond, blue-eyed child whose name I obviously didn’t know. I’m pretty sure she knew I worried — that was the point.
Two terrific middle grade novels — Bud, Not Buddy and Becoming Naomi León — both put the issue of naming front and center, from their titles on. In Christopher Paul Curtis’s Bud, Not Buddy (1999) the eponymous hero insists on the proper way to shorten his name — partly, no doubt, because he doesn’t have anyone to worry about him, anyone to take notice, to care. An orphan in 1930s Michigan, moving from orphanage to foster home and back again, Bud has little control over his life. He asserts it in small ways, then: through his name, his “Rules for Having a Funner Life and Making a Better Liar Out of Yourself,” and his small battered suitcase, tied with string, in which he carries the few treasures that help ground him, including flyers announcing a blues band that he believes features his father on upright bass.
Bud is a 10-year-old survivor, an African-American boy in the upper Midwest in the 1930s. Naomi Soledad León Outlaw, protagonist of Pam Muñoz Ryan’s Becoming Naomi León (2004) is in some ways his mirror image. While Bud insists on his name, Naomi is having trouble living up to hers. Neither an outlaw nor a lion, Naomi embodies the contradictions that a child of dual heritage must. But, like Bud, Naomi takes control of her chaotic life in part by making lists: “Regular and Everyday Worries,” “Everything We Know About Our Father,” and “Things I Am Good At.” That list, she notes, is short: “1) Soap carving, 2) Worrying, and 3) Making lists.” There’s a calming, ritual quality to the lists even when they collect within them tiny stories of anxiety and failure.
Separated by the better part of a century as well as their race and gender, Naomi and Bud nonetheless travel similar journeys. Naomi, who lives with her great-grandmother and her younger brother, Owen, in a trailer park in Southern California some time in the fairly recent past, has two parents, while Bud is motherless. But Naomi’s mother is too flawed to raise her, so Naomi, like Bud, puts together a surrogate family out of the adults and other children she meets along the way. Bud spends much of his story searching for his father, whom he believes to be a “fiddle player” in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Naomi also seeks her father, a carver in Oaxaca, Mexico, after her mother unexpectedly re-enters her life, bringing with her a potential new stepfather and the threat of separation from her brother Owen. We know Naomi’s mother is bad news when we learn that she, too, is trying to live into a new name, Skyla; she also doesn’t answer to Mom, Mama, or Mother. Nor does she match Naomi’s “preferred list of ‘Possible Moms,'” a list that includes “1) Volunteer, 2) Business, and 3) Nursery.” Still experimenting with her own identity, Skyla isn’t ready to help her daughter find her own.
Naomi’s lists and Bud’s rules help ground these characters and reveal them to us, their readers. In Bud, Not Buddy, Bud’s “Rules and Things Number 83” is:
“If a Adult Tells You Not to Worry, and You Weren’t Worried Before, You Better Hurry Up and Start ‘Cause You’re Already Running Late.”
Bud has plenty to worry about: the foster family he’s been placed with seems to want a punching-bag for their son; the librarian who usually helps him at the public library has married and moved to Chicago; and the man who picks him up as he’s trying to walk to Grand Rapids may possibly be a vampire. In a lovely gesture, the novelist names the librarian Charlemae Rollins, the name of a real-life African-American librarian well known for her collections of non-stereotypical literature for children. In another such gesture, he names the helpful stranger (who, though he is carrying blood to the hospital, is not a vampire) for his own grandfather, Earl “Lefty” Lewis, a Pullman porter and Negro league pitcher. Weaving his own family history into Bud’s story, Curtis provides a convincing portrayal of a time many of our children know little about — and makes it seem not all that different from our own. Though even in this recession few of us will ever see a “Hooperville” (Bud’s mishearing of “Hooverville,” the tent camps that grew up alongside freight lines), the struggle to be known and loved will be familiar to most of us.
Besides sharing significant names, list-making, and fractured families, Bud and Naomi are joined as well by art. Naomi carves soap; Bud discovers a talent for music. And in the end both find more comfort and more control in art than they have in their names or their lists. Naomi’s journey takes her from the California town of Lemon Tree (another problematic name, as it’s named for the citrus groves the town has displaced) to Oaxaca, Mexico, where she hopes to find her father in the celebrations of La Noche de los Rábanos, the Night of the Radishes. This annual event is a pre-Christmas celebration, festival, and radish-carving competition. Naomi knows little about her father, but her list of things she knows about him ends, “6) He is a carver, 7) In Gram’s eyes he was always a good, kind man, 8) Once, he wanted us.” Carving reunites them as music reunites Bud with the remnants of his family.
Our families give us our names, making their best guess at the time of our birth as to who we will become. They also give us potential. The talents we’re born with and develop through our lives may change, even as our names change — Bud Caldwell may have a different last name; Naomi may grow into the surname León; my daughter no longer asks to be called Jasmine, nor is my son quite so insistent on “Nick” anymore. But these novels of loss and recovery, of growth and development, remind us that it is what we do — the lists we complete, the art we make, the lives we touch — that make us who we are.