My daughter just read So Sick of Secrets, my new novel for middle school girls. Thankfully, she loved it and thought readers would connect with this high-spirited story about friendship and fate. But, what made her really happy was that at 28, she was long past those haunting years. “It was hard enough when all we had was AOL,” she said. “Everyone had their little groups and it was easy to feel excluded. I can’t even imagine what these girls go through now with texting and Snapchat. Brutal.”
Brutal, for sure. In doing research for the novel, I became immersed in the surreal existence of today’s thirteen-year-old girls. Just when they are trying to form an opinion of themselves, what they think, what they’re good at and how they want the world to see them, they have to walk this scary tightrope. At any moment, a hurtful photo, message or post can send them over the edge and make no mistake, emotional recovery is not a sure thing.
As we all remember, scars linger and can be a deterrent in forming healthy relationships, pursing passions or caring about the future.
Of course, some things haven’t changed. There have always been cliques that not only excluded kids, but demonized them. Bullies, too. Or, our supposed “friends” who spread rumors as a joke, but couldn’t take them back even if they were sorry. And who could forget the kids who made fun of our clothes, hair and bodies, giving us nicknames that often stuck?
But, what is different now is social media, the most inhumane and damaging weapon ever to infiltrate school hallways. We didn’t experience sexting, embarrassing photos uploaded without consent, or vile group messages that couldn’t be deleted. We didn’t have girls crying in the guidance office because a boy they thought was a friend just sent a sexually explicit threat.
This was the world in which I entered when I created the character, Stella Jacoby, and I immediately felt her angst. Maybe the technology is new, but the emotional pain is not. The greatest challenge was letting her express her fears without making her sound whiny or pathetic. I also hoped to breathe enough life into her that she could navigate through her dark despair on her own. She does make mistakes and falters, but still manages to find her courage and prevail.
As Glinda the good witch said, “You always had the power, my dear. You just had to learn it for yourself.”
If you are the parent, loved one or family friend of a middle school girl, please listen to her but mostly urge her to listen to herself. Survival may be as simple as her discovering that she has two voices. The one used to speak out and the one she hears in her head. If she is in search of a best friend, hopefully she will discover it is within.