Alexa graciously agreed to answer my questions about her book.
Why did you decide to focus this series on middle-school girls?
Because my editors made me (!)—but with very good reason. After all, middle school is arguably the time when female friendships can really start to unravel, largely because girls go through so many life-altering changes during those years. Obviously, there are all the puberty-related physical and emotional changes, as well as all sorts of new social and academic pressures. It’s also the time when most girls really start to break away from the familiar voices of authority in their lives, to develop a more independent outlook and pursue new friendships, romantic interests, ideas about what they want their future to look like. All of these things can cause huge shifts and upsets with the people we’re closest to—and that’s what the FRENEMIES series is all about: Growing up and changing and drifting apart (and then lashing out at the people closest to you in really inappropriate ways!). Obviously, these issues don’t stop once you make it through middle school, but the tween years are typically when it all starts and when every tiny event in your life can feel like the biggest deal EVER. If your friend doesn’t invite you to spend the night, your crush doesn’t notice you, you don’t get the must-have outfit or get to go to the biggest party of the year…YOUR LIFE IS GOING TO BE OVER! It really does feel that way. I know it did to me.
Why are female friendships so turbulent during this period?
Again, I think it has a lot to do with all the changes we go through and how much that can feed our insecurities as well as spark a lot of envy and jealousy. Some girls may be developing more quickly or slowly than others, some may be getting involved in romantic relationships, some may be exploring new ways of expressing themselves—whether in the way they choose to dress or by making new friends or joining new clubs and pursuing sports or other extra-curricular activities. Some may be taking their academics more seriously than they ever have in the past. All of these things fuel a lot of excitement as well as confusion, self-doubt and—potentially—a whole host of awfully dramatic mean-girl maneuvers between supposed “friends.” Speaking from personal experience, I was horribly self-conscious about the fact that most of my friends went through puberty in middle school while I was still waiting for all those “developments,” and that they were all starting to “go out” with guys while I was pretty nervous and awkward around the opposite sex. I was a real late bloomer, and seeing all my friends advancing in physical and social ways sparked plenty of self-doubt. On the other hand, I began to flourish academically and in extra-curriculars, which helped to balance me out but definitely took me in new directions as far as my friendships were concerned.
How can a pre-teen or teen tell a frenemy when she meets one?
I think the red flags are there no matter what your age. There are the obvious acts of betrayal, like talking behind your back or stealing your boyfriend—but I don’t think those are nearly as common as some of the more subtle ways a frenemy shows her true colors. That might include talking about herself but never taking the time to listen to you; only coming to you when she needs or wants something; not supporting your interests or goals; becoming threatened, jealous or envious—rather than excited for you—when things are going your way; constantly trying to one-up you; disappearing whenever you need her (e.g., when she gets a “better” offer to do something with someone else). Most important, it’s a feeling you get when you’re around her: You don’t feel good about yourself, you don’t like who you are, you don’t feel confident being yourself around her, you feel drained rather than energized after spending time with her.
What are the lessons you try to teach in this book?
I’m actually not trying to teach any lessons at all. I think the moment you make a conscious effort to convey a particular message—at least in a work of fiction—it winds up backfiring because it’s only going to come across as preachy and moralistic. As my editors say, “You’re not writing an after-school special!” Particularly when you’re writing for teens, they’re going to see right through that kind of thing and run screaming for something less obvious. So all I’m really trying to do is tell the story with humor and heart. That’s not to say there aren’t deeper messages in there, though, because I think there definitely are—they just weren’t messages I consciously tried to deliver. Some of the takeaways that I think (hope!) shine through: That insecurities can drive us to do absurd things to the people we care about the most in our lives—and that that can be awfully unproductive; that it’s okay to pursue new interests and express yourself in new ways, and that people who’ve truly got your back will support you; that if you’re feeling threatened or uncomfortable or hurt around your friend, you need to explore those emotions—possibly with her—rather than lashing out and making the problem worse. I think the book illustrates what not to do a lot more than what to do, though! I guess that’s why, ultimately, it comes across as fairly light and humorous with subtle messages woven in, when all is said and done.
Can frenemies ever really turn into besties at the end?
It really depends on the nature of the relationship and what’s causing the tension. If one friend betrays or hurts another in an unforgivable way, then I think it’s going to be awfully hard to get past that. However, if it’s a matter of two people drifting apart and pursuing different paths, I firmly believe they can be best friends again—if and when their paths and interests and lives converge again. It may take years, even decades, for them to find that common ground…but I absolutely think it’s possible.
How can moms help their daughters learn to navigate female friendships?
Wow. Great question. As a fairly new mom myself, I think the biggest thing all parents can do—no matter how old their children are—is to lead by example. A mother who has loving, supportive female friendships in her life is probably going to do a great job of raising a daughter with the same. Beyond that, I think moms can encourage their daughters to pay attention to how they feel when they’re around their friends, and to honor those feelings and instincts. As I mentioned before, if your daughter feels insecure or unhappy or unable to be herself in the presence of her friends, that’s a major problem and something that needs to be addressed—most likely, she needs to make some new friends. Another really important message Moms can reinforce: Don’t view differences between yourself and other girls as a sign that any of you are doing anything wrong. All relationships are about the right fit—so if you don’t connect or click with a particular person, that’s doesn’t have to mean one of you is any better than the other…it just means you’re not meant to be friends. Emphasize that everybody is different—not better or worse.
About the author: Alexa Young spent the first several years of her professional life working in the music industry and subsequently worked as an editor for the now-defunct teen magazine JUMP, as well as for SHAPE magazine. As a freelance writer, she’s contributed to a number of national consumer magazines, including Marie Claire, O: The Oprah Magazine and Family Circle. She holds a bachelor's degree in Literature/Writing from the University of California, San Diego, and lives in the Los Angeles area with her husband, son and dog. FRENEMIES is her first novel. The second book in the series, FAKETASTIC, is scheduled for a January 2009 release.