Gaby’s first day of seventh grade is a train wreck. Her former best friends ditch her; she does not know anyone in her new homeroom except Lily, one of the least popular girls in school, who promptly gloms on; and her newly assigned term project is to write a book - a whole book - on a topic of her choosing.
This is Murphy’s Law in action. Come to think of it, Murphy was probably in middle school when he came up with the idea.
Though she is a fictional character, I know Gaby very well. Hers is the first-person voice that narrates my wife’s newly published book, “Gaby and The Best Middle-School Self-Defense Book Ever.” Like many works of fiction, Gaby’s personality, her life and the people around her are a composite drawn from those the author has known. Linda and I have been married for 31 years, which means I know most of the participants, and it also entitles me to my own walk-on role. I am the dad who annoyingly lingers to read all of the displays whenever his family visits a museum.
Gaby’s world is similar to my own daughters’ lives when they were Gaby’s age, around the turn of the millennium. Technology and teenage slang evolve, but adolescence is pretty much a universal experience.
Just when you most crave the friendship of your peers, they are apt to withdraw it because they are seeking someone else’s approval. “Sometimes you have to be your own best friend,” Gaby’s mother once told her; she remembers this advice when she finds herself eating lunch alone. Later in the term, when she finds herself part of a new social circle, she takes a look at the dynamics of a clique - and is startled to realize that cliques do not only exist in middle and high school; adults too can confront them, in the workplace and elsewhere.
Cliquish behavior can evolve into bullying. Rather than confront a bully, the natural tendency is to shy away from the abuse or even to tolerate it, because if you are desperate enough for attention, even negative attention may suffice. Besides, middle school teachers do not like having their classrooms disrupted by social drama. But avoiding or enduring a bully may only invite more persistent bullying. So Gaby learns that it can be better to stand up to a tormentor, even if it means getting into some hot water herself.
One of my wife’s pet peeves when our daughters were younger was the casting of grown-up actors to portray teenagers, who may then expect to sport the clear skin and adult shapes that nature is not ready to give them. So it was no surprise to see this topic come up in her book, along with other middle-school concerns such as shyness, crushes, hovering parents and fights with friends.
The dramatic arc centers on the relationship between Gaby and Lily. Lily seems to have a lot of practice at being her own best friend, yet she confidently invites Gaby to team up on their writing assignment. It is Lily’s idea to write a self-help book about middle school life. Gaby is skeptical at first, and she also holds back because - as Lily surmises - she wants to see if a better offer will come along. But Gaby soon appreciates the maxim that you should write about what you know - and if you don’t know it, you can consult an older sister, that sister’s friends or Google.
Lily’s mastery of being her own best friend seems to be exactly what makes her such good best-friend material for someone like Gaby. Through Lily, Gaby discovers that true friends do not value one another for social status or connections, and they don’t bail out if they happen to have an argument. A good friendship is robust and elastic; it easily stretches to include others.
Parents are going to play at least a supporting role in any book about young teens or near-teens. The parents in my wife’s book seem very familiar to me. Gaby’s mom, like my wife, works in her husband’s office and has flexible hours. “This can be good and bad,” Gaby observes. “She’s pretty available to take me places, but she’s here more than I want, particularly when something is wrong.” What Gaby really means is that her mother is around too often when something not very important is wrong. If something really, truly awful were to happen, Gaby would want her mother close at hand - and she knows it.
Lily’s mother likes to march around the house for exercise, using a pedometer app to measure her distance while she reads on her smartphone. This, too, is very familiar, but I am not naming names.
Gaby’s “brilliant” big sister Audrey is a tenth-grader who is already considering her college options, just as my daughters did at that age. And Audrey has a warm circle of friends who camp out in the kitchen to bake cupcakes for a fundraiser, and who are kind to the little sister who wants to interview them for her class project.
Gaby and Lily eventually broaden their research to include members of their own grade. They quickly discover that everyone has more or less the same concerns, even the “populars” who hide behind their fragile wall of cool.
We live in a jealous time. I suppose someone will be churlish enough to read a book like this, or at least a column like this, and say something to the effect of “Oh please - check your privilege!” Gaby and Lily are indeed fortunate to have loving, comfortable homes, with supportive and engaged parents, and to attend schools where teachers are eager to teach and students are ready to learn, teenage drama notwithstanding.
Don’t presume that these youngsters don’t know how lucky they are. There is a difference between being young and being clueless, so they surely do. But Gaby and Lily are not responsible for conflict in the Middle East, or for hunger in the inner cities, or for violence in the streets. The problems they have, though minor in the cosmic scheme, loom large precisely because they have none that are bigger. There is no cause to feel guilty about this. The adults who brought them into the world have worked hard to give Gaby and Lily a safe and wholesome childhood. That is an achievement, not an indictment.
To save the world, you have to first survive middle school. Gaby and Lily have written an excellent book to show you how.