I’ve chosen to spend most of my life in a small college town in the mountains of North Carolina, and despite the understandable yen to explore the world in my youth (which I did), I have always loved it here, loved the sight of the mountains and nature all around. But one of the things I grew up knowing how to do was to look around and edit large parts of it in my mind, especially the power lines cutting through almost every view in our neighborhoods, or the random billboards and abandoned car lots that line some of our country highways.
So I could especially relate to a specific moment in the new middle school novel Vicious is my middle name by my friend Kevin Dunn. The main character Sydney is already dealing with a lot—forced to move away from her best friend and home town in New York state after her father died, not to mention dealing with literally vicious bullies in her new school. Despite it all, she finds friends of all ages, and she starts to fall in love with the land itself, when the threat of an asphalt plant rises like a shark’s fin on the horizon. Unlike the people around her, Syd hasn’t learned to ignore such sights, and her questions and complaints lead her and her growing network of allies to do something about it.
And what they do about it is the best part, the moments when I get lost in the story and want life to be more like this, more often.
At a critical turning point in the book, a punk rock singer pen pal writes to Syd, “Fortunately, we’ve got punk rock to show us the way, right? It was such a revelation when my punk friends here in Chicago taught me that instead of sitting around waiting for someone else to make a change, you have to do it yourself…. or even better, do it with friends!”
I admit to knowing little about punk rock, but I loved learning about DIY culture. I also like, as I think back over this book, that it really isn’t a story of how one girl saved her town from building an asphalt plant right beside a school, but how so many people helped along the way. Kevin paints a picture of a world where power turns people into bullies but also one with solutions that are available to all of us: pay attention, never stop asking questions, find allies, research your rights and exercise them, allow yourself to care about the world around you, and create your own ways to spread ideas, art, and music. And maybe, just maybe, have fun while you do it.
You can buy a paper copy of this book to gift a young person (or young at heart person or DIY punk culture curious person) at https://regalhousepublishing.com/product/vicious-is-my-middle-name/
Or a kindle version at Amazon (consider posting a review if you do).
And since this song and artist are mentioned often in this book, here’s a link to a performance by our Doc Watson playing (and discussing) the song “Shady Grove.”