From Teaching to Writing
TeachingBooks asks each author or illustrator to reflect on their journey from teaching to writing. Enjoy the following from Merrill Wyatt.
Tangled Up in Middle School
by Merrill Wyatt
“What we do is, we meet up at Mr. G’s Ice Cream Barn.”
I overheard this in my 8th grade technology classroom one October morning a few years ago as I was walking around to see how my students were doing. They were supposed to be building Lego robots, and this group was doing exactly that. As I checked their progress, I assumed they were making afterschool plans.
Until I heard the next part.
“Once we’re there, we’ll slide the winter shutters over the windows and use the ice cream machines to barricade the doors. Then we can make bombs out of the whipped cream cannisters. I saw a video about that on YouTube.”
Gaping in astonishment, I demanded, “You’re going to do what, now?”
This was one of my favorite groups of students. The last thing I expected them to do was commit a crime. The kids all blinked at me like they were confused as to why I might have a problem with this plan.
Then one of them started laughing.
“Don’t worry, Mrs. Wyatt,” he assured me. “We’re just deciding how we’d survive the zombie apocalypse.”
Apparently, should zombies overrun the planet, the five of them were going to make their way to the local ice cream shack from their various neighborhoods. Once there, they’d protect the building as described above and then arm themselves with their dubious ‘bombs’. Before waiting out the months for the apocalypse to be over by stuffing themselves with ice cream.
This wasn’t some thrown-together plan based on a fantasy of getting to spend the night unsupervised in an ice cream shop, however. They had plotted out the distance to Mr. G’s from their various houses (one friend lived 1.1 miles away and another only .5 miles, with the other three at about .9 miles). Decided to bypass other possibilities like a grocery store on the grounds that everyone would think to run there. And taken into consideration their choice of location would have on everyone’s mental health (the school was closer, but did they really want to wait out the end of the world in the same they’d suffered through so much homework and awkward social encounters?
I was impressed by the thoroughness of their planning.
So impressed, in fact, that I finally understood a character I had been grappling with and Ernestine, Catastrophe Queen (Little Brown, 2018) was given her final form. Not only was she obsessed with zombies – she had a plan. And just like those eighth graders, she couldn’t wait to put that plan into action. The only difference was, Ernestine decided to try and start the zombie apocalypse since obviously, she couldn’t launch her perfect plan to stop it until it began!
That approach was a (slightly) exaggerated characteristic of something I admired about my students. Like them, Ernestine was a creative thinker. While some educators shudder at the thought of teaching middle school, I love the fact that students ages about 11-14 are able to both understand complex thoughts and perceive the world in unique ways. What is and isn’t possible hasn’t quite become fixed in their brains yet. They might not believe that Scooby Doo is ‘real’ the way most five-year-olds do, but can still believe that Fred’s complex traps might just work – and then think through how to fix them so that they actually do.
It was this original way of thinking that I also brought to my next characters, Sloane and Amelia, in Tangled Up in Luck (Simon & Schuster, 2022). When their English teacher, Mr. Roth, assigns his students the task of solving a mystery that had plagued the town for over a hundred years, I found it perfectly believable that a twelve-year-old and a thirteen-year-old could discover what generations of adults had not. Simply because their brains wouldn’t wander down the same paths or get stuck in the same ruts as those adults.
A perspective, I should say, I share with Tangled Up in Luck’s would-be thief!
However, Sloane and Amelia’s curiosity and resolve aren’t the only things they have in common with my actual students. They also have all the self-doubts and insecurities all of us have at that age. Not only is Sloane grieving the loss of her mother to cancer, her dad is too. Both of them keep trying to push away their own sadness because they don’t want to make things worse for the other. In the process, however, they’ve also lost the ability to talk to each other. And Sloane feels like she has to smother her real personality or risk being cast out by her volleyball teammates and friends.
Amelia, meanwhile, has never felt accepted by or close to anyone, not even her own family. Unlike Sloane who pretends to be a different person than she really is in order to stay safe in the school’s pecking order, Amelia is unabashedly herself. But that doesn’t mean she isn’t crushed when she’s bullied or left wondering why no one likes her for who she is. Being resilient doesn’t stop her from also being sad and lonely.
Over the course of Tangled Up’s three books – Tangled Up in Luck, Tangled Up in Nonsense, and Tangled Up in Mayhem (Simon & Schuster, 2023) – Sloane and Amelia help each other to learn to be their full, creative selves with unabashed pride. It might take surviving bullies in Tangled Up in Luck, long-dead bootleggers in Tangled Up in Nonsense, and possible (but not probable) ghost clowns in Tangled Up in Mayhem, but they find a way to embrace the challenges and responsibilities of growing up while holding onto their sense of wonder. Along the way, they hold the entire seventh grade class accountable for bullying, crash a weird flower competition, and almost fall from a rollercoaster.
And just like my students, they always have a plan to survive it all.
Because if you can survive middle school, you can survive anything!
Books and Resources
TeachingBooks personalizes connections to books and authors. Enjoy the following on Merrill Wyatt and the books she’s created.
Listen to Merrill Wyatt talking with TeachingBooks about the backstory for writing Tangled Up in Mayhem. You can click the player below or experience the recording on TeachingBooks, where you can read along as you listen, and also translate the text to another language.
- Listen to Merrill Wyatt pronounce her name
- Enjoy this story map multi-leveled lesson for Tangled Up in Mayhem
- Discover Merrill Wyatt’s page and books on TeachingBooks
- Visit Merrill Wyatt on her website, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and her GoodReads page.
Special thanks to Merrill Wyatt and Simon & Schuster for their support of this post. All text and images are courtesy of Merrill Wyatt and Simon & Schuster and may not be used without expressed written consent.