Rachel Vail likes to text, just like the characters in her new novel, “Well, That Was Awkward.”
“I prefer it to talking on the phone,” she told KidsPost.
In the book, which is for age 10 and older, texting plays a large part in identity mix-ups at a middle school. See, there’s a smart, funny girl named Gracie who believes that her nose is too big. She likes the same guy, AJ, as her shy, cute best friend, Sienna. Gracie is sure that AJ will never like her as more than a friend. So she tries to help Sienna’s romance by pretending to be Sienna and answering AJ’s texts for her. Sound complicated? It is! And also funny, embarrassing and surprising.
Does this situation seem like some of the who-likes-whom dramas at your school? Well, the basic idea is at least 120 years old!
Vail says that her book was inspired by her father’s favorite play, “Cyrano de Bergerac,” which was written in 1897. It’s about a smart, funny French man with a big nose. Cyrano uses a form of communication that’s much older than texting: writing letters. He writes beautiful, romantic letters to Roxane, the girl he loves. But he writes them for his friend Christian, who also likes her. Cyrano wants to help his friend because he thinks that Roxane can never love his homely self.
Some details in “Well, That Was Awkward” come straight from Vail’s life. She has a lively pet tortoise named Lightning — and so does Gracie. Both author and character like to race their tortoises against a neighbor’s pet rabbit. The novel is set in New York City, which is where Vail lives. It includes “fun neighborhood details,” such as the peacocks at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, she says.
Vail drew on her own feelings during middle school. Like Gracie, she felt “mostly awkward,” she says, about that time growing up in New Rochelle, New York.
“I remember spending so much time wondering if I was enough: smart enough, pretty enough, good enough,” Vail says. “Worrying I was weird, but simultaneously worrying I was ordinary. Wanting to fit in but also to stand out.”
She also remembers, with cringe-
worthy clarity, a certain wardrobe malfunction at a dance. Her top slid down, exposing her strapless bra! Vail hid, sobbing, in the bathroom for hours while her best friend tried to comfort her.
Although that actual incident isn’t in the novel, the feelings and memories helped Vail create characters that have all the complicated emotions of middle school kids.
“It’s the first time a lot of us experience adult emotions . . . ambition, jealousy, lust, admiration, shame, pride — sometimes within the span of a minute,” she says.
Vail is drawing on those same confusing feelings for her next novel. She describes it as a “hideous, hilarious drama of middle school friendships called ‘Bad Best Friend.’ ”
The most recent version includes journal writing, which Vail did as a kid.
“When something happened that was upsetting or exciting, I wrote it all out,” she says of her old journal.
Writing in a journal, just for yourself, can be a helpful way to deal with the joys, pain and embarrassments of life.
Vail recommends “putting down your roiling thoughts and feelings into words . . . [which] gives you an outlet that is private and safe.”
But she also shares advice she received from one of her readers: “Don’t let your sister find your private journal, or she might put all the pages on Instagram.”