Books Navigate the Good, Bad—and Often Complicated—World of Middle School Friendships

As a new school year begins, authors of middle grade books hope reading about relatable characters their age can help tweens and teens better understand their own friendships and, ideally, make better decisions.

For middle schoolers, relationships with peers can be confusing—conflict, changing alliances, bullying. In an attempt to curb cyberbullying, especially among its youngest users, Instagram recently announced Restrict, a new feature that allows users to hide comments from designated people, without those people knowing. (Tweens and teens are hesitant to block or unfollow social media "friends" for fear of retribution when the other user sees it.)

But there’s no Restrict feature in real life. When school starts again, with new anxieties about who grew apart over the summer or who will sit with you at lunch, kids need other tools to help navigate their in-person relationships. Books can be there to help.

Many middle grade authors deal with these angst-filled tween and teen issues, creating complex characters for readers and writing different ways to handle behavior from bullies or “frenemies.” They don’t shy away from the most difficult times of the tween and teen years.

“As a writer, I hope to entertain my readers. But, because I write for the age group that I do, I also hope to help them navigate their lives,” says Lynda Mullaly Hunt, author of Fish in a Tree and the recently-released Shouting at the Rain. “Books can hand a flashlight to a kid struggling in the dark with life events. Understanding human emotions and connections are tricky and I know that books can help in this regard—along with other vital human skills. … I’ll take that reader by the hand and lead them on a journey, albeit difficult, of disappointment and sadness. In a book, it’s a safe journey. This is how we help kids grow emotionally and intellectually.”

Hunt is not alone in dealing with these issues in books. In Raina Telgemeier’s forthcoming Guts, the main character not only deals with her anxiety but also the fear and jealousy of her friend finding a new best friend. Jen Wang’s Stargazing shows what can happen when someone worries that others will like their friend better. Jerry Craft’s New Kid deals with finding your place somewhere new and different, figuring out who your friends are, and handling daily racist microaggressions of kids and adults. Craft's Jordan navigates his new school and the kids around him. Can he trust Liam? Is he really a friend? Readers try to figure it out along the way as well.

Much of the school day, especially in middle school, is spent concerned about social situations and trying to read and react to actions by peers that are much more nuanced than the stereotypical bully stealing lunch money or openly and cruelly mocking an outfit. It is little comments, the icing out, the blaming of the victim. It’s the pick-pick-pick of microaggressions day after day, the slow disintegration of a friendship without explanation, the difficult attempt to tell true friend from potential foe.

When author Torrey Maldonado takes his novel Tight to classrooms, he talks to kids about the relationship between the main character Bryan and his friend Mike. Readers are often conflicted about Mike. Is he a good guy or not? Does it matter why Mike is the way he is? Does empathy for his situation mean Bryan should suffer the consequences? Maldonado talks to them about what it means to be a real friend, homing in on a train surfing passage from the book.

“Do you think Mike and Bryan are friends?” he asks them. “They say yes, and I say let me ask you a question, ‘What do friends do?’”

Maldonado says the kids tell him that friends “value each other" and "try to get each other out of trouble.”

He then asks them to rewrite the dangerous situation, considering how true friends behave. He hopes the realistic depiction of the relationship between Bryan and Mike—and his questions of the readers—spark conversation and help kids sort out their own friendships. Hunt also hopes readers remember her characters and think first when deciding who is worthy of their friendship.

Lynda Mullaly Hunt

“I’d like my readers to consider who deserves to know their hearts and who doesn’t,” she says. “I’d like my readers to be brave enough to put themselves out there, to join groups and find ways to meet lots of different people and know that some people will become friends and some won’t and that’s okay. And that if they reach out to someone and it doesn’t work out that they can handle the disappointment and move on. Just because you don’t have deep connections with everyone you meet, does not mean you are flawed.”

She worries that books often have “BFFs” in them that create an unrealistic picture of friendship. As students head into a new school year, Hunt offers a reminder that friendship can come in many forms. And that’s OK.

“Not every friend needs to be a soulmate and I think kids have this expectation sometimes,” she says. “It’s okay to just go bowling. Relax and have fun. Perhaps the soulmate kind of friendship will evolve. But I sometimes wonder if there’s too much pressure on kids to find that soulmate BFF early on.”

Hunt doesn't set out to write happily-ever-after books finish with a renewed and strengthened friendship or the mean kid changing her ways.

“I don’t typically plan to have the cruel characters come around in the end,” she says. “I think showing the bully stay mean but losing their power over others is more powerful than topping off the storyline with whipped cream and a cherry. Instead, I show secondary characters following the cruel out of fear, as is often the case in real life, but realizing that a bully only has power if we give it to them.”

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Kara Yorio

Kara Yorio (kyorio@mediasourceinc.com, @karayorio) is news editor at School Library Journal.

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