One of my favorite childhood stories is the night my parents chose my name. I was their first child and they debated endlessly, until one evening as they sat in a diner and heard “Patricia” on the juke box. My mother and father listened to Perry Como croon about the darling who’d made his every dream come true, and they knew! They just knew! Good thing I turned out to be a girl.
I’ve always cherished this story, even though, like most kids, I had mixed feelings about my name (how I pined to be a Debby or a Tammy!). Our name is the very first word we learn, and it travels with us all through life. Gift or curse, it’s got a meaning or story behind it, a clue to where we came from, and maybe where we’re headed.
Fiction writers choose their characters’ name with care. Sometimes, a name itself is at the very heart of the story. Below are some terrific middle grade novels that center on the importance of names, identity, and self-discovery.
Boys Without Names, by Kashmira Sheth
from Indie Bound: For eleven-year-old Gopal and his family, life in their rural Indian village is over: We stay, we starve, his baba has warned. With the darkness of night as cover, they flee to the big city of Mumbai in hopes of finding work and a brighter future. Gopal is eager to help support his struggling family until school starts, so when a stranger approaches him with the promise of a factory job, he jumps at the offer. But Gopal has been deceived. There is no factory, just a small, stuffy sweatshop where he and five other boys are forced to make beaded frames for no money and little food. The boys are forbidden to talk or even to call one another by their real names. But late one night, when Gopal decides to share kahanis, or stories, he realizes that storytelling might be the boys’ key to holding on to their sense of self and their hope for any kind of future. If he can make them feel more like brothers than enemies, their lives will be more bearable in the shop—and they might even find a way to escape.
Dillon Dillon, by Kate Banks
from School Library Journal: For as long as he can remember, Dillon wondered, “What kind of parents would name their child Dillon Dillon?Parents who had forgotten that a name was the first thing you wore against your raw naked skin? Dillon’s parents were smart. They would not do a thing like that. Not on purpose.” He turns 10 on the family’s annual summer vacation at the lake and feels bold enough to ask about his name… Symbolism that could overwhelm the plot is sensitively tempered by Dillon’s emotional journey, the development of strong secondary characters, and engaging subplots. Reminiscent of Kevin Henkes’s gentle novels, this introspective, somewhat magical story is perfect for all children who wonder about their place in the universe.
The Naming of Tishkin Silk, by Glenda Millard, illustrated byPatrice Barton
from School Library Journal: In the Silk family, a child’s first birthday is a significant one: it’s the day the youngster is given a name. Griffin and his five older sisters all had their special moment, but their younger sister died before her first birthday and their mother is recovering from her grief in a hospital. Griffin is attending public school for the first time in his life, has been put a grade ahead, and is having difficulty fitting in with the other kids. Then he meets Layla, who immediately connects with Griffin and his unusual family. He even shows her the elaborate Naming Day books that were created for each Silk child. But Griffin cannot bring himself to tell Layla much about his baby sister (whom he has named Tishkin), or that he is afraid that he didn’t love her enough—that his jealousy caused her death and his mother’s withdrawal. Slowly and patiently, Layla teases out Griffin’s feelings and eventually suggests that a Naming Day party for his sister would be a wonderful event for the entire family… This book is a little gem. Griffin is described as an uncommon boy (he was born on February 29), but his feelings and fears are those of all children. Barton’s soft pen-and-ink drawings perfectly fit this quiet story.
So B. It, by Sarah Weeks
from School Library Journal: Heidi and her mother have lived in an apartment that adjoins with their neighbor, Bernadette, since the 12-year-old was probably no more than a week old. Bernadette accepted and loved them from the moment they arrived at her door but could never ask questions since Heidi’s mentally challenged mother simply “didn’t have the words to answer them.” Bernadette’s agoraphobia further isolates the child. Heidi struggles with knowing nothing about her father or her family history, and never having a real last name. Then she finds an old camera, which prompts her quest to learn the identity of the people in the photographs it holds and to discover her past. While traveling by bus from Nevada to Liberty, NY, the girl relies on her luck, instinct, and the people she meets on the way to learn the truth about her mother and her own background. Readers will pull for and empathize with the likable characters, especially Heidi as she struggles for self-knowledge.
Please share your favorite name books, or your own personal stories about the importance of a name!
Tricia now likes her name very much. Her new middle grade novel, MO WREN, LOST AND FOUND, a sequel to WHAT HAPPENED ON FOX STREET, will be published August 23.