Dorothy's List: 'Unfriended'

Dec 7, 2015

For this month's Dorothy's List, seventh graders at Green Mountain Union in Chester have been reading the novel Unfriended by New York author Rachel Vail.

Drama. That’s the word Green Mountain Union seventh graders use to talk about social interactions that get out of hand.

Drama can be fueled by overwrought emotions, anxieties and misunderstandings. And it’s pretty much universal to the middle school experience.

The novel Unfriended has middle school drama to a dizzying degree. Green Mountain Union librarian Jeanie Phillips asks this class of seventh graders if they experience that level of drama at their school. Students answer mainly in the negative.

But while the middle school drama at Green Mountain Union may not reach the level Rachel Vail writes about in Unfriended, these students say it does exist, as it likely always has among adolescents.

But one big change? Seventh grader Willem Bargfrede says social media gives kids license to post things they might not say face-to-face.

Willem Bargfrede: "I think that people don’t want to have to see people’s reaction to what they’re saying, so they put it online."

And that’s what happens in Unfriended. The book’s drama starts when Truly Gonzales gets asked to sit at the popular lunch table by her ex-best-friend Natasha. Truly jumps at the offer, leaving her current-best-friend Hazel to fend for herself.

The author uses six narrators in Unfriended. So we see the story unfold from multiple points of view. Here’s an excerpt of that scene, told in Truly’s perspective, starting with what she says to Hazel:

"Hazel watched me go without answering. But I could hear my lock slipping into the handle hole behind me, and the trusty, familiar click of it locking tight. I knew I could count on Hazel. She’s my best friend. She’s prickly and demanding, sure, but she’s very loving, down deep. I knew she’d understand. I mean, the Popular Table. You don’t get invited to that every day. If she got asked, I’d be happy for her, I think. No, I would. I’d lock her locker for her and wait to hear all about what happened, after. We’re solid, me and Hazel.

I didn’t even have to look back and make sure."

In the next chapter Vail shows us Hazel’s take on the situation:

"You didn’t even look back, Truly. Just left me standing there like a lawn jockey with your stupid lock hanging from my finger in place of a lantern. No Come on, Hazel! Not even a Sorry, do you mind? I’ll be right back. Nothing."

While the middle schoolers at Green Mountain Union say they don’t necessarily have a Popular Table in their cafeteria, they can relate to the friend drama, and how it can escalate on social media.

Seventh grader Sarah Devereux wants to know how Vail got so in tune to the problem:

Sarah Devereux: "Have you seen any of this happen on social media, with either people you know or you don’t know?"

We put Sarah’s question, and questions from her classmates, to author Rachel Vail.

Rachel Vail: I have, Sarah. I’ve seen a lot of it happen on social media, both with people I know personally and with people I don’t know. And I’ve read lots of stories about it. It’s very confusing, the fact that we’re now connected with our friends 24/7 if we want to be, and sometimes even if we don’t want to be.

"It's very confusing, the fact that we're now connected with our friends 24/7 if we want to be, and sometimes even if we don't want to be." - Rachel Vail, 'Unfriended' author

Vail says middle school drama was different when she was young, because friends weren’t connected all the time.

Rachel Vail: When I was growing up, you might have an argument or a weird moment with a friend at a party on a Friday night, and then there’s a forced away time. Now, on the way home from a middle school party, kids are texting one another, and posting, and chatting, and tweeting, depending on your social media of choice. It’s harder to get away.

And Vail says, because of cell phones, there are always cameras around too.

Rachel Vail: If you’re not invited to the party, you might see pictures of the party. If you were at the party and you did something embarrassing, everybody at the party, just about, has a camera with them. That wasn’t the case when I was growing up. And I think that it adds some social pressure to a time that’s already feeling very exposed and fraught.

Seventh grader Willem Bargfrede wondered if Vail thinks all this has changed middle schoolers:

Willem Bargfrede: "Do you think kids today are different because of social media?"

Rachel Vail: Willem, I think kids are the same, in some ways, as they ever have been. I think my kids, myself, my parents, my grandparents, everybody went through a time of feeling awkward and of having some feelings for the first time.

"I think kids are the same, in some ways, as they ever have been. I think my kids, myself, my parents, my grandparents, everybody went through a time of feeling awkward and of having some feelings for the first time," says author Rachel Vail.

As you become an adolescent, as you move into your teenage years, those feelings that are new – like feelings of passion for a subject or a sport or an artistic endeavor or even a crush on another person – those things have been the case for ever and ever. I think what’s different is, the social media does change the ability to disconnect.

But, Vail also thinks social media can help kids too.

Rachel Vail: On the other hand, I think that social media gives kids now a chance to connect with people who share an interest or share a passion, or something that feels familiar and like them. So kids don’t have to feel as isolated. You can go online and find other kids, even if the kids live across the world, who are like you. And the fact is, there are kids like you.

Green Mountain Union seventh graders Graeme McGrath, Aidan Webster and Willem Bargfrede work on a poster in the library during a class discussion on this month's Dorothy's List selection, 'Unfriended' by Rachel Vail.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR

Seventh grader Briana Stariknock thinks Vail did a great job writing from the perspective of kids her age:

Briana Stariknok: "How do you, as an adult, get into the head of a middle school kid?"

Rachel Vail: Authenticity is so important to me and I feel like I have a tremendous responsibility when I’m writing from the point of view of somebody to make sure that I’m not mediating it through my adult sensibility and my limited sensibility. I am just one person, with my one life experience. So, I make sure to do a lot of research, not just reading books about particular facts, but I also do a lot of listening.

I love getting these questions from you, Briana, and your classmates also, because it’s important to me to know what kids are thinking about. I ride the subway in New York City and I eavesdrop on people. So I listen to people all the time, even when they don’t know I’m listening. But, I also make it a point to really listen carefully when people are talking to me or with me.

But, she says, just as important as listening to middle schoolers, is remembering what it’s like to be that age.

Rachel Vail: I also use my own memories, my own imagination. I think there are lots of things that haven’t changed at all from when I was a kid. And so what I do is I really work on remembering exactly how it felt the time I was embarrassed, the time my top fell down when I was at a dance with my friend Jill, and the time that I liked somebody and he didn’t like me back and everybody knew about it and it was horrifying. And it can make me cry just remembering it because I try to get very specific about the memories.

Aidan Webster, a seventh grader at Green Mountain Union, reads from Rachel Vail's novel 'Unfriended'.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR

Seventh grader Aidan Webster wonders if there was anyone closer to home helping Rachel Vail with her characters:

Aidan Webster: "Well, I was wondering if her kids helped her write the book, too."

Rachel Vail: Yeah, my kids do help. Sometimes they help, not realizing that they’re helping. I’ll ask them questions and I pay attention to the kinds of things that they’re struggling with or having fun with or that they’re friends are struggling with. And sometimes I actually ask them to read something that I’ve written and they’ll tell me, “Oh no, you can’t say that.”

And Vail admits, sometimes there are consequences to criticizing mom’s work.

Rachel Vail: Sometimes I’ll ask them to read a chapter that I’m struggling with and one of them will say, “You know what’s wrong with this? Nothing happens in this scene.” So then they’re punished and they have to go straight to bed. Especially if they’re right. Or if they say, “It’s just not very funny. It should be funny there.” So then they get punished. But then they also actually get rewarded because, that’s what I need.

It seems that like middle school, social media is complicated. Unlike writing novels, one of the problems with social media is that it’s hard to revise your story once it’s out there.

Next month on Dorothy’s List, the 2015 Newberry Medal winning novel-in-verse The Crossover, by Kwame Alexander.

Dorothy’s List is sponsored by the VPR Journalism Fund.