Heading Back to School with Healthy Friendship Tools by Laura Shovan and Jessica Speer￼
“Healthy friendships feel safe and accepting.”
This sentence, from the introduction of the new guidebook BFF or NRF? (Not Really Friends): A Girl’s Guide to Happy Friendships (Familius), jumped out at me.
“Yes!” was my first reaction. And then, “I wish someone had told me this when I was in middle school.”
BFF or NRF? author Jessica Speer and I interviewed each other about showing kids positive friendship skills in real life and in fiction.
Congratulations on the new book, Jessica! I knew BFF or NRF was going to resonate with me — and with middle grade readers — when I read this line in the introduction, “Just like learning anything new, friendship skills take practice.” When Saadia Faruqi and I wrote A Place at the Table, we wanted to show that “friendship skills take practice.” As middle schoolers, our characters Sara and Elizabeth are learning that, if they’re going to form a lasting friendship, they’ll have to communicate about their needs and expectations. Those aren’t always comfortable conversations.
How can your book help real-life kids navigate the challenges of peer relationships and improve their friendship skills?
I love that you and Saadia also wanted to share that friendship skills take practice. This nugget of wisdom helps kids (and adults) be more gentle with themselves and others. We are all learning as we go. And we all mess up.
BFF or NRF grew out of a friendship program I ran for preteen girls. One of the things I learned from this program is that every girl experiences friendship struggles, feels alone at times, and worries she doesn’t belong or fit in. Hearing the similar experiences of others provided a sense of relief for girls. It helped them know that they are not alone.
When writing my book, I wanted to share that universal experience. I also filled the book with quizzes, activities, and stories. It can be tough to navigate social issues the moment they happen. The book’s interactive nature gives readers a chance to reflect when they are not right in the moment. These activities give girls a chance to think about who they are, how they want to behave, and how they might respond in challenging situations.
Friendships change throughout our lives. Sometimes they grow deeper and other times they fade or change. This is especially true in middle school.
I love that the characters in A Place at the Table experience friendship changes too. When you and Saadia crafted your story, what changes did you want to make sure your characters experienced?
For so many kids, the beginning of middle school is a time of shifting friendships. Often, they are meeting new people after being with the same group of peers throughout elementary school. Having two characters narrate A Place at the Table allowed me and Saadia to look at these friendship dynamics from multiple angles. Both Sara and Elizabeth are clinging to old friendships: Sara is fearful of losing the closeness she had with her best friend from her Islamic private school; Elizabeth’s best friend is newly interested in being popular and fitting in.
Part of Sara’s emotional arc is realizing that she can make new friends without betraying or walking away from old friendships. She begins the book very closed, socially. Through her kitchen partnership with Elizabeth, Sara opens up to a wider friendship circle. Elizabeth’s story, on the other hand, is about setting boundaries with a friend who is saying and doing things that are upsetting to both Elizabeth and Sara.
I think Sara and Elizabeth would have benefitted from the Friendship Pyramid in your book. A girl like Sara could use that visual aid to see that she values her Close Friend and wants to put in the work to stay close. But someone like Elizabeth might realize that friendships change. A former Close Friend might have moved into the Acquaintance or Not Really Friends (NRF) zone. And that’s okay!
What kind of feedback have you gotten from readers about elements of the book like the Friendship Pyramid and the interactive quizzes? How do you envision kids incorporating these things into their lives and how they deal with relationships?
I’ve heard from readers as well as parents that the Friendship Pyramid helps them understand the bigger picture of their social world. That friendships change, close friends are harder to find, new friends are always out there, and what behaviors are common in NRFs (Not Really Friends). I love it when readers realize that most kids experience friendship struggles, not just them. And, as shared earlier, that friendship skills take practice.
As you mentioned, the preteen years are a time of intense social change. My hope is that BFF or NRF helps readers navigate the bumps in the road and see that struggle is normal. At the deepest level, I hope readers avoid limiting beliefs about themselves that they carry into adulthood. I’m always amazed by how many adults are still hurting or healing from their middle school years.
In A Place at the Table, your characters experience healing in several ways over the course of the book. Can you share more about this healing, especially the scene with Elizabeth and her old friend?
That’s a great observation. Elizabeth and Sara take active roles in helping their families heal from some of the challenges of immigration, such as mental health and financial issues. But both characters are also working to repair existing friendships — which goes back to your book’s focus on friendship skills.
Toward the end of A Place at the Table, Elizabeth looks at her longstanding friendship with Maddy through a new lens. This is largely because of what Elizabeth has learned about racism and being an ally from Sara. Although Elizabeth and Maddy talk things through, I wanted to show that it’s not necessarily “forgive and forget” between them. Because Maddy had been behaving and speaking like a bully, Elizabeth sets some healthy boundaries with her old friend.
I found myself rereading your chapter, “Navigating Conflict and Bullying.” Not invited to a friend’s party — that’s happened to me. “Something you said was misunderstood and caused drama” — literally, last week. Adults struggle with these issues. How can we help kids cope with conflict and bullying in a healthy, affirming way?
Yes, unfortunately relationship struggles, conflict, and bullying don’t go away. As humans, we can’t seem to stop bumping into each other. Different perspectives, expectations, needs, interests, sensitivities, personalities, as well as moods make conflict inevitable. As we grow, we learn how to navigate conflict in healthier ways, but it is still hard and uncomfortable.
To help kids learn to cope in healthy, affirming ways, I first define the difference between conflict and bullying in BFF or NRF. Conflict is often labeled as bullying, but there is a big difference, especially in how we respond. Bullying behavior needs to stop immediately. This is stressed in BFF or NRF along with ways kids can find help.
Conflict, on the other hand, is common. Every conflict is unique and the response differs depending on the situation and people involved. BFF or NRF shares a menu of ways to respond to conflict, including recognizing and navigating our own uncomfortable emotions.
All we can really control is ourselves, but how we respond internally and externally has ripple effects. And of course takes a lot of practice. That brings us back to where we started. Friendship skills take practice. We are all a work-in-progress.
Laura Shovan is the author of the award-winning middle grade novel-in-verse, The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary, and Takedown, a Junior Library Guild and PJ Our Way selection. A Place at the Table, co-written with Saadia Faruqi, is 2021 Sydney Taylor Notable. Laura is a longtime poet-in-the-schools in Maryland.
Jessica Speer’s book, BFF or NRF (Not Really Friends)? A Girls Guide to Happy Friendships grew out of her friendship program that strengthens social awareness and helps kids learn to navigate common struggles. She has a master’s degree in social sciences and explores social-emotional topics in ways that connect with pre-teens and teens.