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Saturday, November 8, 2014

My Interview with the International Reading Association!

I found out the interview had gone live via twitter:

Bullying, awkward flirting, & middle school politics. Unfriended author covers it all.

Wahoo! These were challenging, thought-provoking questions. Thanks to IRA and April Hall for this!

For all you copy-editors and copy-editor wannabes (we are a strange tribe, but passionate) -- can you find my typo? (Hint: think missing punctuation.) Virtual prizes for all winning entries!

Also -- what are YOUR favorite books about teen friendship politics and bullying? Virtual prizes for those, too. GOOD LUCK, YOU GUYS.


Five Questions With... Rachel Vail (Unfriended)

November 7, 2014
Rachel Vail has done it all: novels, picture books, short stories. She even recently wrote for The Huffington Post about the complicated lives of middle-school students.
Her debut novel in 1991, Wonder, received an editor’s choice award from Booklist, as did the follow-up Do-Over. Her most recent book, Unfriended, takes a look at bullying, as do several of her novels. Her characters take on different dimensions, demonstrating that no character has just one dimension, like those characters written by a literary hero, Judy Blume.
Vail said she sees the act of reading and writing as a weapon against bullying and light to illuminate the conflicts students face every day.

Why have you chosen to write on the topics you have, specifically bullying?
I didn’t really set out to write about bullying. I always try to approach my characters with respect and honesty about how it really feels to grow up right now. I want to tell stories that provoke thought as well as laughter, and ultimately a nod of recognition, “yes, oh, me too. With Unfriended, I set out to look at the social politics of middle school. Bullying is naturally in there. I didn’t want to make characters to embody the archetypes of bully, victim, and bystander. That felt facile—and not really true to how these things usually play out. I wanted to get inside each character at the moment of feeling disempowered or callously mistreated—and then to turn around and see what the other kid intended. Very few of us plan to be bullies, or see ourselves that way. I love writing in the voices of middle-schoolers, who are just beginning to realize they don’t have the full story, and wonder why a friend’s interpretation of what just happened can seem so completely off. The emerging awareness of multiple perspectives is a big reason I wrote Unfriended from so many viewpoints—letting the form of the book reflect the questions it’s asking.
What gives you the authentic voice of a middle-schooler in conflict? Is it mostly from personal experience or your experience as a parent?
Authenticity is one of the most important elements to me in writing. I use many routes in. I started writing when memories of painfully awkward cafeteria snubs and flirtations were still hideously fresh, so I never got to experience the blissful amnesia about adolescence that is the well-earned compensation for achy knees. On the other hand, I have two kids of my own, and the emerging wrinkles to prove it. I also stay in touch with readers and other young teens, who keep me honest. But mostly I use memory and specifically some acting exercises to get to the depths and heights of that crazy tumult of being an adolescent. And then I edit and revise and throw stuff away for a long time, until it reads easy and smooth, like the simple immediate truth.
You’ve not only written books, but you recently wrote a column for Huffington Post about the 15 things middle school kids want parents to know. What compelled you to write that?
Although I am a parent myself, and have been an adult for some time now, I still also owe an allegiance to Team Kid. I promised myself while writing my first book that I would always tell the truth about how it really feels to be in the midst of growing up, without sugar coating anything or goosing the consequences in the direction adults might want them to go. I also spend a lot of time each day thinking in the mind and worldview of adolescents, so that voice is as comfortable for me to slip into as my old gray writing cardigan (which nobody gets to see me in, ever.) I thought I might be able to do a valuable thing, if I could express the sometimes hard-to-hear truths that middle school kids wish their parents could hear, and understand. It was a little weird for me, since I usually don’t write directly for an adult audience. But it was fun—and helpful to me as a parent, too!
Which do you like more, writing series, where you can follow through on big themes over several books, or one-offs, where you can tie up loose ends in a single story?
I don’t really know how to write series, though I have done it a few times. I’ve recently heard other writers discuss the topic and have learned that I do it all wrong, in fact. When I’ve written series, I tend to think I am writing just the one book, but then there is another character within the story, or another journey within the character I still have left over, tapping at my attention, wanting its chance. My characters tend to get their grips on me, especially when I really love one of them or find that voice especially fun or difficult to write from within. It’s like Michael Corleone says: just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.
You’ve been writing for more than 20 years now. How have you seen the treatment of bullying change in literature over that time?
I read Judy Blume’s Blubber when I was in elementary school in a single shocked gulp. I remember feeling like Judy Blume got it. She understood that the bully wasn’t necessarily the strongest, prettiest, coolest person in school, and the bullied kid wasn’t simply angelic and perfect. I felt exposed by that book, caught in my complicity in some less-than-kind stuff that was happening in my own school. Paula Danziger, Eleanor Estes, Robert Cormier, and Paul Zindel, among others, also took on the subtleties of cruelty and kindness in kid-world. I think for a while thereafter, the theme of bullying arose mostly in stories of difference and identity—racial, gender, sexuality, religion, ethnicity, class. Bullying may be popping up as a hot topic again now in the context of the rise of social media among middle-schoolers. Authors such as Rebecca Stead, Rainbow Rowell, Wendy Mass, Jay Asher, Mariah Fredericks, and many others are exploring aspects of the social whirl that threaten to consume the kids who don’t always realize how cruel, or how powerful, or even how wonderful, they really are.
It seems to me that reading fiction together and discussing what choices characters make is a great way for adults to broach potentially uncomfortable conversations about what is happening in the lives of adolescents we love. Also, reading is a way of thinking with somebody else’s mind; engaging with challenging fictional characters makes us more empathic. So reading is inherently an anti-bullying strategy.
April Hall is editor of Reading Today Online. She can be reached at ahall@reading.org.

#middlegradebooks #unfriended #bullying #friendship #amwriting

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Marathon Day

Sure, I didn't run the marathon today.

I did, however, run an errand (farmer's market!) and also might later run the dishwasher.

Good thing Lightning and I carbo-loaded last night after all.


Friday, October 31, 2014

Teen Halloween

The first Halloween I had as a mom, Z was a few weeks old. I could barely dress myself, never mind him, at that point. We stayed home and handed out candy dressed as exhausted people in pajamas.

The second year, he was walking and delightful and I was PSYCHED. He loved Sesame Street already so I bought my tiny little man a Big Bird costume. This baby who almost never fussed at all smiled when I showed him the costume, saying "Big Bird!" But the smile turned to panic as I tried to put the thing on him. He was screaming, wailing, sweating like a construction worker in August as I attempted to shove his unwilling little legs into the stripey bottoms. When I had to stifle a curse, I stopped and took a breath. And thought, insanely, WTF is WRONG with YOU, baby?

He lay there on the changing table, looking sad and scared. Was he imagining that Big Bird was suddenly eating him up? Or that he would actually become Big Bird? Or... or, who cares? He didn't want to wear the thing.

So what the heck was I doing? And WHY?

Well, because, he was so cute. And I knew he'd LOVE trick-or-treating. And I also knew I couldn't take him without a costume. Because, rules. Society. What kind of mother was I?

I put him in his yellow feety pajamas, cut a red sweatshirt, and wrote POOH on it. He didn't know he was in costume and it was one of the happiest, best nights of his whole life up to that point.

Fast forward a bunch of years. Now there are two kids, and they are both taller than I am. They still like to dress up...
Z, their buddy J, and my baby L

And they still like to go out:

Though this year Z is in college and L is going out with friends and it will be the first time in so many years that I won't be on 69th street with my friend Lauren, dressed up and trying to find our boys.

But I can't even think about that or I'll cry.

And anyway what I am really thinking about right now is remembering and still coping with the way we've had to navigate the unique and poignant stress that is Halloween for teens.

I no longer attempt to shove their unwilling legs into anything. That would just be weird.

But it's a tough one to manage, Halloween as a teen. Are you too old to trick-or-treat? Dress up? Have your mom or dad plan the evening? Are you also too young to not do those things, or care?

When I was in elementary school and, okay, maybe a bit beyond, I always wore elaborate costumes I had to explain at every door, when a well-intentioned adult would look at my friends and me and say: Oh! A football player, a witch, a ballerina, two apples, a pumpkin, and... hmmm... what are you this year, Rachel?

I would show my multiple props and explain what seemed obvious to me: I'm Mozart! (violin, sheet music) I'm Thomas Jefferson! (same white wig, but now the Declaration of Independence and a quill pen)...

On and on. I think maybe if Halloween had happened more frequently I'd have remembered the excruciating horror of humiliation I'd set myself up for the last time and choose to be something normal, obvious this time. But it took me years

The ski jacket over my costume might have also hindered the recognition of various 18th Century heroes. (Okay maybe it was ONE of the problems though.) My mom was afraid I'd be cold. She should have known the flop-sweat and burning embarrassment would keep me nice and toasty.

Eventually I just went as a skier, with my jacket zipped and goggles on. Fine, the first year or two I might have brought ski poles. 

(Is it any wonder I write about the humiliations of being an adolescent? I prepared SO WELL.)

All to say, it's hard to navigate this holiday of childhood imagination and adult campiness for those who are smack in between. 

So my question to you -- how do you manage, yourself or with your tweens and teens?

And: what was your most embarrassing costume ever?

The adorable little ones are easy to be sweet to. Please remember the big galoots need some sweets and some sweetness too, if only this one last time, these precious last grasps of being a kid...

Take their picture, too...

Mine already don't look like this anymore, either...

Happy Halloween!

Rachel Vail

Monday, October 13, 2014

Next weekend -- and a review!

It's Monday -- time to start thinking about next weekend! Will you come hang with me, hear me read from my new book UNFRIENDED*, and I could sign a copy for you? Here's where I'll be, when:

Saturday Oct 18 4 PM The Hickory Stick Bookstore in Washington, CT

Sunday Oct 19 2:30 PM Bank Street Bookstore NYC (112th and Bway)

Lemme know if you can come!

* UNFRIENDED just got a STARRED review from Bulletin! Here it is:
R* Gr. 5-8
After two years of rejection, Truly is finally summoned by her ex-best friend Natasha to the eighth-grade Popular Table in the lunchroom, little knowing the disaster dominoes that will consequently topple. In changing groups, Truly leaves behind smart, arrogant, and determinedly offbeat Hazel, who’s none too thrilled at being jettisoned in favor of girls she considers beneath her; additionally, angry, insecure Natasha grows convinced that Truly is conspiring to nudge Natasha out of the group, and the actions of Hazel and Natasha result in a growing anti-Truly storm that rages over social media and text messages. Those are only a few of the strands of this fascinatingly intricate, poignantly authentic look at middle-school dynam- ics and their amplification through technology. Narration alternates between six eighth-graders: Truly, Hazel, and Natasha, plus the popular group’s low-key leader, Brooke; Brooke’s long-term friend who’s starting to become a romantic possibility, Clay; and the boy who likes Truly, Jack. The result hearkens back to Vail’s wonderful The Friendship Ring series in its opportunity to see how various characters delight, suffer, and rationalize, complicating the portrayals: sweet Truly really does dump Hazel without a backward glance; Hazel repents her pot-stirring account hacking and finds herself liking Brooke; Natasha is so influenced by her bitter and puni- tive mother that it’s a miracle she manages to be functional. The author rises to the difficult technical challenge of keeping all these chaotic plot elements in clear and compelling play, and she not only plausibly pulls her characters out of their combined downward spiral but manages to give everybody some grace and hope. This will be an irresistible starter to a discussion of ethics and values, and readers will appreciate both the cautionary tale and the message of survival’s possibility. DS

Friday, October 10, 2014

New piece (by me!) in The Washington Post

My piece on The Top 5 Things Adults Get Wrong About Teens just went live on the Washington Post's website!

I love the photo they chose to illustrate it:

So now -- what else do YOU think adults get wrong (or RIGHT!) about teens?

Tuesday, September 30, 2014


My first public read from UNFRIENDED is tomorrow night!

Please join me and all these awesome authors for Teen Author Reading Night tomorrow, Oct 1, at 6-7:30 PM, Jefferson Market Branch of NYPL, corner of 6th Ave and 10th Street.

Here's who'll be there, doing short readings and then answering any/all questions you may have:

Moderator: David Levithan

Lisa Amowitz,Vision
Laurie Crompton, Adrenaline Crush
Timothy Decker, Lies in the Dust
Heather Demetrios, Exquisite Captive
Jaclyn Dolamore, Dark Metropolis
Amelia Kahaney, The Invisible
Gordon Korman, Memory Maze
Rachel Vail, Unfriended

So... now I better figure out which bit to read!

If you've read Unfriended yet -- any suggestions?

Since there are 6 narrators, I know I have to do a piece that has at least 2 POVs... can I manage 3?

Do you have a favorite narrator?

I am so psyched to hear all these other authors read...

Monday, September 29, 2014

How You Know It's Not The End of the Story Yet

Just saw on the news this morning that a huge truck is jamming up the entire FDR drive here in NYC -- they had to shut the whole thing down, which, with the UN in session to boot, is no doubt making a LOT of people really, really cranky this morning.

It brings me back to the U-Haul truck I drove home from college one year. I dropped off my boyfriend at his house, not far from mine, and proceeded home. It had been many hours for me behind the wheel (my then-boyfriend was not a fan of driving a truck and did not want to take a turn; I felt lucky he even rode with me) during which I kept checking my mirrors because I felt way TOO WIDE for my lane.

So as I approached what my family calls the Troll Bridge, right off the Bronx River Parkway -- maybe any readers from Westchester County NY know what I'm talking about? -- I was a little nervous the truck would be TOO WIDE to fit through. But no, we looked just slim enough. So in I went.


What the...???

I checked my mirrors. No problem. Only then did it hit me, a few minutes after the top of the tunnel hit the roof of my truck. TOO TALL.

I tried to get out of the cab of the truck to survey the damage but couldn't open my door. Somebody yelled to me to keep going. So I tried. No. Stuck. More horrible sounds but not much movement. Somebody else yelled that I had to throw it into reverse and back it up, out of there. There were cars lining up on both sides of the Troll Bridge, waiting to get through. I felt like Pooh in Rabbit's hole.

Put it in reverse and floor it! The stranger yelled again.

Not wanting to spend the rest of my life in that Troll Bridge, and without a better idea, I did what the unseen stranger suggested.

With a great clattering and screeching -- and probably the truck was making noise too -- I backed out of the Troll Bridge. It was kind of slow and then POP I was out, into the daylight again.

I got out to survey the damage. Everything looked fine except the tires, weirdly, were on a sheet of metal.


I had sheered the roof right off the top of the truck and backed up onto it.

Exhausted, humiliated, grateful, I thanked the crew that had very helpfully gotten out of their cars and helped me, including helping me back up off the roof and lug it to the side of the road, and drove the now convertible truck filled with all my sad belongings from a failed rooming situation at college home for a Thanksgiving and family that were waiting for me.

My dad returned the truck for me the next day because I was too humiliated and depleted, and explained to them where they could retrieve the top portion of the truck I had rented.

When an envelope arrived a few weeks later for me from U-Haul, I was scared but not surprised. I was living with new people by then, strangers, and feeling very raw and tender and fragile in the world. And this would be just one more thing, one more blow. I opened the envelope slowly, wondering if the U-Haul people were suing me or just demanding some huge payment I didn't have.

It was a check.

For the full amount of my deposit.

I started to laugh and couldn't stop for a while. My new roommates probably thought I was nuts. I called home -- my parents thought I was kidding. When I swore I wasn't, they cracked up too. A check! They sent you a check? Maybe you could get a part time job wrecking stuff; it pays pretty well!

I have felt ever since that it was a moment of grace and forgiveness, receiving that check. Maybe it was somehow a sign from the universe that in spite of how things seemed to be going, right then, the end of the story wasn't me stuck in a rented truck sans petulant boyfriend, sans escape route, sans roommates, sans friends, sans ROOF, in a TROLL BRIDGE.

The end of the story was yet to come. A check. My money back. A funny coda. A memory of a crowd of people yelling at me to FLOOR IT and then clapping when I emerged, backwards, topless.

And that experience seems to me to be a perfect metaphor for something. But what? Maybe to keep going through the bad part because the funny is just a few beats down the way?

Or maybe the real nugget of wisdom here is: don't drive trucks through Troll Bridges. Or on the FDR drive.