We spoke with Vivat, 27, about middle school, finding a “thing,” and the allure of books that combine art with text.
Washington Post: Why set your book in middle school?
Booki Vivat: When I was deciding what I wanted to write, I had this character in mind and a character that was a fictionalized version of myself when I was young. I went back to thinking about when things started changing for me — when I started feeling this sense of impending doom and the sense that I wasn’t sure what I was doing and where I was going. For me that was middle school; I felt this pressure to have things figured out. What better place to have my character who is terrified of change, terrified of not knowing where she is going, than in middle school?
WP: What are Abbie’s big concerns?
BV: Abbie is wrestling with three big questions — she’s wrestling with them in her middle school context, but these are questions we’re all kind of dealing with as we grow up. The questions of who I am, where do I belong and what is my thing.
WP: What do you mean by a “thing?”
BV: What am I good at, what am I known for. Everyone is searching for their thing. In our culture, our society, there is an expectation that when you know what your thing is you know who you are. For me that was a question that came up in middle school.
WP: What makes middle school so scary?
BV: In middle school things get a little more serious. There’s a level of uncertainty and change that feels very big, going from elementary school to middle school. For me, in middle school we went from having one teacher to having a bunch of teachers to having lockers to having shifting schedules. Also, in middle school you are changing so much. You enter one way and you get out physically a different person as well as mentally. There is this level of uncertainty that is terrifying.
WP: Abbie has big emotions.
BV: The great thing about kids is they are honest about having those emotions. As an adult you feel like you have to hold it in, but as a kid you have the freedom to feel things. When you start getting older you’re told to calm down, be more controlled. I wanted my readers to feel like the big feelings were valid and completely understandable.
WP: What was your goal in writing this book?
BV: I wanted to highlight the fact that growing up and getting older is a process. You can feel like something is your thing one moment, and then the next moment it’s not your thing anymore.
WP: You have lots of drawings and lettering in your book. Why not just tell the story with words?
BV: It felt like the book had to be very visual. There are a lot of things you can show by using words and art together that add another depth and can help take the reader into the story in a different way than words can.
WP: What is the appeal of illustrated books for kids?
BV: Kids nowadays are very savvy and they are visual learners. They can ascribe a lot of meaning to actual images because so much more is readily available. It’s a whole new level of literacy. They are seeking out different ways of telling stories and different ways of reading stories.
WP: How did the book come about?
BV: It didn’t start with a manuscript or query letter or any typical form of getting a book published. I have these planners where I write down my appointments and I started keeping them a few years ago. I noticed as the years have passed I started doodling and playing around with text and using it as a creative outlet. Soon doodles started taking over the page. I’ll draw my appointments but also how I’m feeling that day.
At one point this fell into the hands of an editor at Harper Collins. She saw a doodle I had done; it was very dramatic and very personal. It said ‘I live my life in a constant state of impending doom.’ It was a picture of me being crushed by words. She said ‘There’s a story here. That’s our girl.’
WP: Did you ever think your planners would be the basis of a book?
BV: Absolutely not! The planners — I was doodling them for myself. I never thought I would be an artist, I just started drawing out of the desire to express myself. If I’m having a bad day you can see it on the page. If I’m nervous you can see it on the page. I never thought anyone would see them.
WP: Will there be a sequel?
BV: I’m working on it now.
WP: Did you always want to write a book?
BV: I always had this very broad dream I would write a book one day, but I didn’t know if it would ever happen. Now that it’s happened it feels so surreal.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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