Helen Frost’s Spinning Through the Universe: A Child-centered Universe

“I have found the best way to give advice to your children is to find out what they want and then advise them to do it,” suggests former President Harry Truman. This is predominantly the perspective of a child-centered text, that the goal is to look at childhood from a child’s perspective rather than by taking adults ideas of what children want, and to give the children the power to act upon these desires. Helen Frost’s Spinning Through the Universe is primarily a child-centered text, as it presents a complex concept of childhood through a story in which the children have agency, and where issues of morality are left to their interpretation.

Spinning Through the Universe takes a look at the complicated world of playground politics, showing a girl being teased from different points of view. First, Shawna, the girl who is being teased, expresses her feelings, that she thinks, “they’re all perfect and something’s wrong with me” (19). Then Kate, one of the popular girls, expresses that she hates how her friend Natalie has been calling Shawna names, but just stands by silent when it happens (20). After this, Natalie explains that she has been teasing Shawna because she is jealous that Kate sat with Shawna on the bus (22). When all three sides are exposed, one can see how complicated a child’s life can be. The affairs of the 5th grade world can seem almost as perplexing as the business world.

The book also shows what children yearn for from the child’s point of view. Around fifth grade can be when children start to act embarrassed of their parents, but the poems in this book show how, despite that, children genuinely want their parents to be there for them, physically there. In one poem, Chrystal tells how much she dislikes that her parents are divorced and her dad lives far away (23). In the next poem, Monique is sad that her dad will not make it home for her birthday because he is in the military (24). Later, Ryan makes a list of jobs his mother could do where she would be home at night. He wishes that she didn’t work so much, even if it meant they would have less stuff (67.) While parents often think children care most about the material things such as new toys and birthday parties, these poems show that what children really want most is just to be with their parents.

Although it does show how much children care about their parents, Spinning Through the Universe does not present childhood as a helpless time, with children needing their parents for everything, but rather shows that these children have agency. The kids in Mrs. William’s class handle some tough situations throughout the course of the story and handle them very well, with very little adult help. One example is Manuel’s poem “Birthday Candles,” where he tells how his sister Nina is in a wheelchair and she cried on her birthday last year when they blew out the candles for her. He wants to come up with a way for his sister to blow them out herself, so he devises a plan to set up a blow dryer that Nina can hit the switch on to blow out the candles. (55-56). This touching poem shows children solving problems themselves.

In the poem “Hard Problem,” Kate tells of a situation in which she works to solve a problem without getting adults involved, and does so rather effectively. She finds out that Dustin is cheating, but she doesn’t want to get him in trouble, so she emails him to let him know that she knows. She says at the end, “He didn’t answer, but I think it worked” (59). Kate handles this problem very maturely. She realizes that she has agency, and rather than passing it off to an adult, she takes the initiative to act on the situation herself.

It is significant that Frost brings up issues such as cheating, because an adult-centered text may not bring up such an issue, unless for purely didactic purposes. Spinning Through the Universe tackles many sensitive issues which more adult-centered texts tend to avoid, such as child abuse, homelessness, and death. For instance, Maria is being abused by her father. This presents two issues, that of what the abused child should do, and what her friend who finds out should do. It deals with Maria’s feelings in a complex way, because she is afraid they will send her father to jail if she tells, but obviously she does not want to be hurt anymore (32). In an instance of aporia in this text, this is the one time that the children do go to an adult by telling the friend’s mother. Still, the fact that the subject of child abuse is even dealt with at all shows a child-centered impulse in this text.

The story also presents us with two characters who have experienced homelessness. Rosa was homeless at one point, but is not now, and Sam is homeless throughout the course of the story, and lives in a shelter. A more adult-centered text would most likely avoid an issue like homelessness, especially involving children. Our society does not like to recognize the fact that there are children out there without a rood over their heads. Also a child-centered impulse of this text, there is no lesson involved with these two homeless children. The text does not make a point of any kind about homelessness or what should be done about it. It leaves these details up to the reader to contemplate. This is not the case in more adult-centered texts, which give a clear picture of right and wrong, or at least a clear message.

Finally, through Spinning Through the Universe, Frost engages in a discussion of one of the most delicate subjects in life- death, and more importantly, death as a result of war. Halfway through the story Monique’s father is killed while fighting for America. The diverse feelings associated with this type of death are dealt with from the children’s point of view. Natalie expresses her discontent at the teacher saying, “Monique lost her father,” because Natalie feels it is better to “say things straight out,” meaning to say, “Monique’s dad got killed” (43).

Monique is upset that people are calling him a hero, because she wanted him “to be a hero here” (44). For Shawna, this experience makes her realize how lucky she is to have her dad around (45). These sentiments are common of adults at a time like this as well, yet this text shows how children have the same complex thoughts and feelings. While some authors may feel that death is an issue children cannot handle, the truth is that is an issue no one can really “handle,” and Frost presents it to children in a very realistic format.

In Frost’s story there are few solid answers to the tough issues, because in life there are few solid answers to these issues. Spinning Through the Universe takes the world of a child in the full-spectrum of life, discussing the gray areas, not just the black and white. As it deals with real-life issues among realistic characters, this story is a refreshingly child-centered approach to poetry, and is unique in the fact that the poetry tells such a touching story.

Works Cited
Frost, Helen. Spinning Through the Universe. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux,
2004.

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