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Five Questions With... Rachel Vail (Unfriended)

by April Hall
 | Nov 07, 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@/.

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