Elizabeth Eulberg is the author of more than a dozen books, including the bestselling YA novels The Lonely Hearts Club and Better Off Friends, as well as the Great Shelby Holmes mystery series for middle-grade readers. A former publicist in New York City, Elizabeth now lives in London. Here, Eulberg reflects on her new middle-grade novel, The Best Worst Summer, and the ways that childhood experiences remain the same across generations, even as technology and trends change.
“What’s the difference about being a kid now vs. 30 years ago?”
During the spring and summer of 2019, I asked that question to any parent I came across. I was working on my latest middle grade novel, The Best Worst Summer, about a girl who uncovers a time capsule buried in 1989; the book spans the two timelines. On the first page of my writer’s notebook—generally reserved for figuring out my main character—I had a graph that simply said “Then vs. Now.”
Not surprisingly, there were plenty of differences.
There are some obvious ones, of course, especially when it comes to technology. The internet wasn’t around in 1989—something that seems to emotionally scar schoolchildren when I mention it during my presentations. No internet? THE HORROR! How old are you? Did you have indoor plumbing? How are you able to possibly walk on your brittle old bones?
Smartphones have replaced virtually all the numerous devices I used in the ’80s, including cameras (which required film!), VCRs, Walkmen/boomboxes, Ataris/Nintendos, TVs, postcards, letters, phone calls (remember when long distance calls were a thing?). Yes, kids in the ’80s lived in the dark ages where we had to sit down in front of the TV at 7 p.m. to watch Family Ties; we couldn’t stream it with the push of a button. If your parents accidentally recorded over your VHS tape that had New Kids on the Block on the Arsenio Hall Show it was lost forever—along with any trust you ever had in your parents (I’m talking to you, Mom.).
But as I talked to parents and kids while doing my research, what I quickly realized was the only thing that really separated our generations was stuff. The experiences of being a kid are—for better or worse—the same. I was bullied a lot as a kid and, unfortunately, bullying is still prevalent today, if not more so because of social media. I struggled with reading in grade school and was diagnosed with dyslexia. There weren’t the tools for it that we have now. At the time, I was just told I was a better visual learner, as “auditory processing issue” wasn’t yet understood. I was also really insecure about my place in school and among my friends. I just wanted to feel like I belonged.
It’s those insecurities that are a universal part of being a kid, no matter the time. Kids still struggle with school, teachers, parents, siblings, divorce, crushes, and the general sense of wanting to feel secure.
Above all, there’s this feeling—especially when you’re growing up and trying to figure out who you are—of looking for ways to connect. If the last year has shown us anything, it’s a basic human need to want to interact with people. Fortunately, we do have the internet now so Zoom helped us connect when we couldn’t be face-to-face, but that desire to bond with a friend, parents, or sibling is still there. I learned it doesn’t matter if it’s the ’80s, ’00s, or now.
This became all the more clear when I put together a virtual time capsule for the release of The Best Worst Summer. It was my friend Jen Calonita who suggested that I ask our fellow authors what items middle grade them would put in a time capsule, and post their replies around the book’s release. It was a really fun project that gave me an insight into the childhood of some of my favorite authors. (Check out #BestMGTimeCapsule on Twitter and Instagram to see the replies.)
What I noticed is that there was a theme. Dana Middleton picked her baseball glove because she would throw around the backyard with her father who eventually became her fast-pitch softball coach. Liesl Shurtliff would put in her ballet slippers as she and her friends would do choreographed dance numbers during recess. Supriya Kelkar selected Super Mario 3 because she would play with her neighbors after school, while Rena Barron also picked Super Mario Brothers because she would play with her younger brother.
The items themselves brought a connection to somebody in their life. Even as the answers were coming in, I was looking at ways to connect myself. I’ve never meet Janae Marks, but when she said Mariah Carey’s Daydream album, I knew when we finally meet I was going to pull up a Mariah song to have a dance party. When Rena Barron and Supriya Kelkar both picked Super Mario, I automatically thought we need to have an author gaming tournament when we have conferences again. Both Jen Calonita and I put in New Kids on the Block items, something we both bonded over when we met a dozen years ago when Jen was a debut author and I was her publicist. We still fight over Joey McIntyre to this day. (He’s mine, Jen!)
Other selections included books (Max Brallier, in the most on-brand pick, chose Bart Simpson’s Guide to Life), movies (Angela Dominguez put in Labyrinth and The Goonies), and TV shows (Christina Soontornvat wanted to go down in Fraggle Rock). All had an impact on their childhood and something they watched or shared with family and friends.
But what about kids today? With all the technology they have at their disposal, the stuff they’d place in a time capsule in ’21 must be different, right?
During my virtual school visits this year, I asked students in third to fifth grade what items they would put in a time capsule for 2021—besides masks, hand sanitizers, and Covid tests. Their answers ranged from books (Harry Potter, Wings of Fire, Dog Man being favorites) to Disney+ gift cards, paints and canvas, and Lego sets. But the “whys” they picked these items were the same as my author friends’: each was because of something they did with a parent/sibling or a way to connect with friends by having virtual watch parties or playing online. “The stuff” gave them memories—a connection—to somebody in their life. So yes, kids now have iPhones and the internet and four million different shows to watch. But the heart of being a kid remains the same.
Thirty years from now there will be different stuff. What will phones, TVs, and life for a kid look like in 2051? Nobody knows. But what I do know is that while the items will be shinier, sleeker, and probably smaller, the human need for connection will still be there. Being a kid will still be the same: the good (having so much ahead of you) and the bad (bullying, insecurities, etc.). And I think after the past year, we all can agree that what we’ve missed the most is another simple connection: a hug. No internet required.