Reluctant middle schoolers, meet Abbie Wu. Not only is she dreading middle school, but she's also a middle child, which means she really knows how much it stinks to be stuck in the Middles. But as she bemoans her situation and gripes about each day, her friends begin to find their own passions and hobbies. Will our neurotic young hero find her “Thing”? It turns out that Abbie has far more talents than just being Frazzled.
We spoke with publishing veteran and author Booki Vivat about the Middles, impending doom and more.
How much of worrywart Abbie Wu was inspired by your own middle school self?
Abbie is very much a reflection of who I was when I was young and, to some extent, who I am now. Although our circumstances may be different, our worries still stem from the same place. Who am I? Where do I belong? What is my Thing?
It’s been a long time since I’ve been in middle school, but I think that frazzled kid will always be a part of me. There’s just something about middle school that sticks with you—for better or worse. It almost feels inevitable that so many aspects of Abbie’s story are rooted in my own personal experiences. As I was writing, I felt like I was both excavating my past for inspiration and working through my own unresolved feelings about growing up.
Did you face the same pressure to define yourself at such a young age?
The pressure to define yourself often extends far beyond middle school, but for me, it certainly started there. Middle school was when everything shifted. All of the sudden, I was expected to know who I wanted to be and what I was going to do with my life—but I didn’t know what I was doing in the present, let alone what I wanted my future to look like. The worst part was that it seemed like everyone had it figured out but me. Sometimes I feel that way now, even as an adult!
What is the most frustrating part of being in middle school? Of being a middle child?
To quote Abbie Wu herself, “The worst part about middle school is the fact that it is MIDDLE school.” There’s nothing quite so frustrating as “The Middles,” the in-between places and the gray areas of growing up. Middle school embodies this confusing transition period between childhood and adulthood. How someone actually gets from one to the other is kind of unknown, and there’s so much fear associated with the unknown—especially for kids! It’s something that is out of their control and impossible to fully prepare for, but also completely unavoidable.
Being a middle child has a different set of frustrations. Growing up, I was technically the oldest, but I spent a lot of time around our older cousin, so I still identify with a lot of those middle child feelings of being overlooked and underappreciated. Being a middle kid, there’s sometimes this idea that you need to prove you belong, to work harder and do better in order to be seen. Part of Abbie’s journey in this book is realizing that, even though she’s worried about middle school, she can still survive and find a place there. She has the power to carve out a space in the Middles that is her own.
What is there to look forward to?
Though it is undeniably intimidating and scary, middle school often marks a shift towards independence and access to more opportunities than ever before. For me, it was the first time I felt like I was making significant decisions about what I wanted in life, rather than just allowing teachers or parents to choose for me. Middle school is one of the first stages in growing up where kids can begin to really express their opinions and distinguish themselves as individuals. That comes with a lot of pressure, but there’s also an exciting element to it.
Do you cope with your worries by doodling? How did they help shape this book?
I started keeping a planner a few years ago to get my life in order, but over time, doodles of my feelings and emotions took over every page! My planner became more of a creative outlet and visual record of my life. Drawing became a way, not just to remember, but also to work through my experiences and emotions.
The idea for Frazzled actually came from a very dramatic personal doodle I drew that said: “I live my life in a constant state of impending doom.” I didn’t know it at the time, but that drawing was the beginning of Abbie Wu. I started writing about this hilariously dramatic kid who always felt like she was living on the brink of impending doom—just like me. Because the idea for Frazzled came directly out of my doodling, that set the tone for the book and established a foundation for the rest of Abbie’s story to unfold.
What advice do you have for young worriers? How can parents and teachers help ease worriers’ anxieties?
I think it’s important for worriers to know that their feelings and emotions are normal. Everyone worries, and it’s not necessarily bad to worry about things. Abbie has a lot of fears, but one of her biggest is the idea that everyone has things figured out except her. Over the course of the book, she realizes that it’s actually okay not to know what you’re doing or to feel uncertain about doing it—just as long as you don’t let those fears stop you from actually doing things!
As a parent or teacher, I think the best thing to offer is support and encouragement. That can mean anything from nurturing curiosity and creativity as an outlet for expressing these feelings or channeling them into something like a sport or activity. For me, writing and illustrating this book was a way to personally process through my worries. Everyone deals with their fears in different ways. Helping ease a young worrier’s anxiety might not necessarily be about finding a definitive solution, but rather supporting and empowering them to figure out what works best for them.
What’s it like to publish a book after working in publishing for so long?
One of my first thoughts when I saw the finished book was, “Did I really make this?” It’s so surreal to think of people reading this thing that I made, this thing that is so much a part of me. Because I work in publishing, I’m used to seeing other people’s stories at various stages on the journey towards becoming a real book, but it was an entirely new thing for me to experience this for myself. I’m very aware of how much goes into getting a book published, so to now experience that from the other side as an author is really special.
Will there be more episodes for Abbie Wu?
Flannery O’Connor has a great quote that basically says if you’ve survived childhood, you have enough to write about for the rest of your life. Middle school is such a formative time in a person’s life. There are a lot of experiences and emotions to explore with Abbie now that she’s in the thick of it. This is definitely not the last you’ll see of Abbie Wu! She still has a long way to go before she makes it out of middle school.
Author photo credit Kamolpat Trangratapit.