In middle school we start developing what becomes one of the most crucial skills we’ll gain in life: communication. That’s where Jennifer Castle and Deborah Reber come in. They’ve written a book vital to tweens and early teenagers: Friends and Frenemies is a back-to-school must-have that examines the complexities of friendship and helps readers start building communication skills that literally last a lifetime. Zest recently sat down with Jen Castle to talk about the good, the bad, and the awkward of making friends.
Zest: What inspired you to write this book?
Jen: I spent many years producing “It’s My Life,” the PBS Kids website that covers “life skills issues” for tweens. One of my favorite elements of the site was something we called “You Said It.” Every few weeks, we’d put up a new question and invite kids to send in their responses for us to post on the page. We’d ask things like, “What’s the coolest thing your Mom’s ever done?” or “Do you feel like you fit in at school?” The most popular “You Said It” questions were always the ones about friendship. “How do you make new friends?” “What do you like most about your BFF?” “Have you ever felt like your friends were ignoring you?” “What types of things do you and your friends fight about?” Often, these pages were filled with kids not just sharing their experiences, but also asking for help and offering advice. It was proof to me that everyone’s confused about how to navigate the stormy waters of friendship—it’s an area that can bring you great joy and fun and support, but also terrible pain and turmoil. We can weather a lot in life if we have strong friendships to rely on, and creating a guide for tweens with practical, real-world advice on how to create those friendships seemed like something that would help a lot of people. (Also, during the process of researching and writing, Deborah and I learned a lot about how to handle grown-up friendship troubles—it’s true, you never truly outgrow them!)
Zest: Why do you think friendship troubles are so prevalent during the middle school years?
Jen: Middle school is pretty much the sweet spot for everything that’s raw and confusing about growing up. School itself is more high-pressure, both socially and academically. Your mind and body are changing at warp speed and at the same time, so is everyone else’s around you. (Yikes!) You’re feeling not-so-fun things like insecurity and anxiety at a much more intense level than before. With all that going on, it’s easy to let emotions and impulses control your interactions with friends, while positive forces like communication and openness suddenly seem more challenging and risky. The whole mix is a recipe for disaster!
Zest: What’s your favorite piece of advice from the book?
Jen: The recurring theme in the book is COMMUNICATION. If you can communicate honestly and positively with the people you care about, you’ve mastered the hardest part of friendship. So I think the most useful advice we offer is the “I-Messages.” It’s something I use myself! We’re often eager to assign blame when we’re in conflict with another person: “you did this so I did that!” “If you hadn’t said that, I wouldn’t have gotten mad!” It might feel good to say that stuff, but it’s not likely to get the result we want. “I-Messages” (which use the template of “I feel BLANK when you BLANK because BLANK) force us to examine our emotions, then present them in an honest and positive way without making someone defensive. It helps you own your feelings. “I-Messages” take a bit of practice, but I really hope readers latch on to them and try them out in their own lives. It’s a communication tool that will really last a lifetime and come in handy in all sorts of situations.
Zest: What was the hardest chapter to write?
Jen: Hands down, the chapter “Opposite Sex Friendships.” We knew we wanted to address the topic, because it’s an important one. But it was also a tricky area, because it covers sensitive topics such as gender stereotypes and crushes. We wanted to make our advice practical and universal, and both of those were challenging. We also wanted to be inclusive and address the subject of same-sex friendships turning into crushes. In the end, I love the way we handled this chapter. Sometimes, simply acknowledging that a situation is painful and confusing, and calling attention to why it’s that way, is advice in and of itself.
Zest: What do you hope readers will take away from this book?
Jen: I hope kids will read the book and think over and over again, “YES! I have experienced that! That sounds exactly like what I’m dealing with!” I hope they try the journal exercises and quizzes, too, so the book feels more interactive to them. I’d love for readers to keep this book on their desk or nightstand and refer to it whenever they need some reminders or specific help with something. And, of course, it’s my hope that parents, educators, and caregivers will also enjoy the book and engage in dialogue about it with the young people in their lives. Maybe, like me, they’ll find that the advice applies to them as well!
Friends and Frenemies releases on August 28,
but you can preorder a copy of this back-to-school must-have TODAY.