Rachel Vail (1966-) Biography
Personal, Addresses, Career, Member, Honors Awards, Writings, Sidelights
Born 1966, in New York, NY; Education: Georgetown University, B.A., 1988.
Office—c/o Writers House, 21 W. 26th St., New York, NY 10010.
Editor's Choice designation, Booklist, 1991, for Wonder, and 1992, for Do-Over; Pick-of-the-List designation, American Booksellers Association, 1991, for Wonder; Blue Ribbon designation, Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, 1992, for Do-Over; Books for the Teen Age selection, New York Public Library, 1992, for Do-Over, and 1994, for Ever After; Best Books designation, School Library Journal, 1996, for Daring to Be Abigail.
Wonder, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1991.
Do-Over, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1992.
Ever After, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1994.
Daring to Be Abigail, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1996.
(With Avi) Never Mind!: A Twin Novel, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2004.
If We Kiss, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2005.
"FRIENDSHIP RING" SERIES; YOUNG-ADULT NOVELS
Please, Please, Please, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1998.
Not That I Care, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1998.
If You Only Knew, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1998.
Fill in the Blank, Scholastic (New York, NY), 2000.
Popularity Contest, Scholastic (New York, NY), 2000.
"MAMA REX AND T" SERIES; PICTURE BOOKS
Mama Rex and T Shop for Shoes, illustrated by Steve Björkman, Scholastic (New York, NY), 2000.
Mama Rex and T Lose a Waffle, illustrated by Steve Björkman, Scholastic (New York, NY), 2000.
Mama Rex and T Run Out of Tape, illustrated by Steve Björkman, Scholastic (New York, NY), 2001.
The Horrible Play Date, illustrated by Steve Björkman, Scholastic (New York, NY), 2001.
The Sort-of-Super Snowman, illustrated by Steve Björkman, Scholastic (New York, NY), 2002.
Mama Rex and T Turn off the TV, illustrated by Steve Björkman, Scholastic (New York, NY), 2002.
Mama Rex and T Have Homework Trouble, illustrated by Steve Björkman, Scholastic (New York, NY), 2002.
The (Almost) Perfect Mother's Day, illustrated by Steve Björkman, Scholastic (New York, NY), 2002.
Halloween Knight, illustrated by Steve Björkman, Scholastic (New York, NY), 2003.
The Reading Champion, illustrated by Steve Björkman, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 2003.
The Prize, illustrated by Steve Björkman, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 2003.
Mama Rex and T Stay up Late, illustrated by Steve Björkman, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 2003.
Over the Moon, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1998.
Sometimes I'm Bombaloo, illustrated by Yumi Heo, Scholastic Press (New York, NY), 2002.
Born in New York City, children's book author Rachel Vail grew up in nearby New Rochelle, New York. In her youth she never intended to be a writer, but with the encouragement of various teachers, both in high school and later at Georgetown University, she worked to develop her talent. In an autobiographical sketch for Horn Book, Vail recalled one instructor in particular named Doc Murphy. A theater professor, Murphy encouraged her to focus on the essentials of character. Vail observed, "I think writing would be so much more exciting and less daunting to children if the emphasis were put on the details, the questions that propel the writer to create astonishing, unique characters who, by their juxtaposition with other astonishing, unique characters, make stories happen."
Vail's emphasis on character was apparent to readers of her first novel for children, the coming-of-age story Wonder. As twelve-year-old Jessica enters seventh grade, she finds that she has suddenly become unpopular. Sheila, her former best friend, and five other girls succeed in ostracizing Jessica, giving her the humiliating nickname "Wonder" after one of the girls describes Jessica's new polka-dot dress as "a Wonder Bread explosion." With determination, and with the welcome attentions of Conor O'Malley, the object of her first crush, Jessica perseveres.
Lauded by critics for its skillful rendering of character, Wonder proved to be a highly successful debut novel for its author. "Vail has the measure of this vulnerable age and its painful concern about identity within the group," noted a Kirkus Reviews commentator. School Library Journal contributor Debra S. Gold also spoke favorably of Wonder's title character, commenting that "Jessica's first-person account reveals a three-dimensional character with whom readers will laugh and empathize." Deborah Abbott noted in Booklist: "Piercing and funny, Vail's breezy story describes the hazards of junior high, sketched with the emotional chasms universal to the age."
One of Jessica's schoolmates, Whitman Levy, becomes the hero of Vail's next story, Do-Over. Eighth-grader Whitman faces some severe family problems, including his parents' imminent break-up, while also struggling to deal with his first real crush and get a handle on his acting role in an upcoming school play. Vail balances the comical tale of the teen's various escapades with several thorny issues, including Whitman's discovery that his best friend Doug is a bigot. Eventually the self-conscious and somewhat bewildered Whitman comes to understand how to deal with all that confronts him in a moment of self-realization while on stage: "I could screw up or I could be amazing, and there's no turning back, no do-overs."
Reviewers noted that Do-Over again highlights Vail's skill in dealing with character and dialog. School Library Journal contributor Jacqueline Rose called the author "a master at portraying adolescent self-absorption, awkwardness, and fickleness, all with freshness and humor." In the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, Roger Sutton compared Vail favorably with popular children's book writer Judy Blume, noting that "Vail is funnier than Blume, and more moving, partly because of her natural ear for teenaged talk, and partly because she never, ever preaches. This is the real thing." Stephanie Zvirin, in Booklist, likewise spoke of the "sharp and genuine" dialog in Do-Over, commending Vail's "remarkable talent for capturing so perfectly the pleasure and pain of being thirteen—in a real kids' world."
In Ever After Vail employs a new narrative technique, presenting much of her story in the form of diary entries written by fourteen-year-old Molly. Best friends Molly and Vicky live year-round on a small Massachusetts island. The presence of a new friend, summer visitor Grace, causes Vicky to feel insecure and puts a strain on her relationship with Molly. Vicky's possessiveness begins to disturb Molly, and ultimately destroys the girls' friendship when Molly learns that Vicky has been reading her personal journal without permission. "That Vicky and Molly's rift is likely to be permanent … is just one hallmark of the authenticity of this carefully conceived story," noted a Publishers Weekly reviewer. A Kirkus Reviews commentator praised Ever After as "an unusually immediate portrayal of a thoughtful teen finding her balance among her peers while making peace with her own capabilities." School Library Journal contributor Ellen Fader characterized the book as "a breezy, smart-talking novel that explores the ever-fascinating arena of young teen friendship," while Hazel Rochman, in Booklist, expressed a common critical refrain when noting that "the contemporary teenage voice is exactly right."
Daring to Be Abigail features a narrative format similar to that which Vail employs in Ever After . The story unfolds through the letters of Abby Silverman, an eleven year old who has decided to "reinvent herself" while away at Camp Nashaquitsa for the summer. Abby's newly adopted boldness wins the acceptance of her fellow campers, but also seems to require that Abby—now Abigail—forsake Dana, an unpopular girl in her cabin. Although she likes Dana, Abigail succumbs to peer pressure by accepting a dare to urinate in Dana's mouthwash. Unable to stop Dana before she uses the rinse, Abigail is thrown out of the camp, and addresses a final, poignant letter to her dead father, whose apparent disappointment with his daughter was the central reason for her crisis of identity and her efforts at "reinvention."
Deborah Stevenson, writing in the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, noted that Abigail's "vulner-ability and her poignantly, desperately upbeat letters home will engender reader sympathy and understanding." Booklist reviewer Stephanie Zvirin praised Vail for once again being "right on target when it comes to the reality of preadolescent girls, catching how they act and what they say, their nastiness and envy and sweetness, and how confusing it is to long for independence, yet be afraid of the freedom and responsibility that come with it." Lauren Adams, reviewing Daring to Be Abigail for Horn Book, commented: "As in her other books, Vail displays her talent for capturing the humor and angst of early adolescence; this latest novel … is her most sophisticated yet."
In 1998 Vail launched the unique "Friendship Ring" series. These small-format books (each volume is about the size of a compact disc case, with bright neon covers to match) chronicle the middle-school travails of a group of friends trying to cope with adolescence. "Each book is like an episode in a sitcom, told in the first person by a different member of the group," Rochman explained in a review of one book in the series, If You Only Knew, for Booklist. However, throughout the books "Vail backtracks over the same events, viewing them from a different character's perspective," Christine M. Heppermann wrote in a review of the series for Horn Book. "It's a technique designed to correct the misconceptions of any seventh-grader who regards her peers' apparently carefree lives with envy and feels totally alone at the bottom of 'the pit.'" Like all middle-schoolers, the characters have many insecurities. Are they popular enough? Are they pretty and feminine enough to get boyfriends? The characters also frequently have family problems; one girl's son's father abandoned her family, leaving her mother bitter and depressed; another has an older sister and a father who fight constantly. Vail addresses these issues "with complexity and humor," Rochman noted in a review of Not That I Care, "in a quick-talking, immediate, sitcom mode that offers no formula happy ending."
Vail teamed up with fellow young-adult novelist Avi for Never Mind!: A Twin Novel. The book's perspective alternates between two fraternal twins. Meg, a hardworking student, will be attending a more prestigious school for seventh grade, while her twin brother Edward, does only as much schoolwork as is required. The popular and athletic Meg is worried that the girls at her new school will think less of her if they realize she has a scrawny "loser" brother, so she lies and tells them that he is a future rock star. Predictably, this one little lie quickly spirals into a giant, hilarious mess. "As screwball comedies go, this one is consistently entertaining," Heppermann commented of Never Mind! in a Horn Book review, "and the dual narrators remain sympathetic and genuine-sounding." Edward in particular "is hilarious—wry, touching, and very smart," declared Booklist reviewer Rochman.
If We Kiss is a story about a high school freshman named Charlie (short for Charlotte) and her attempts to understand grown-up feelings of love and lust. Charlie gets her long-awaited first kiss from Kevin Lazarus outside the school one day, but this quickly turns into much more than just a kiss. Charlie, shocked by Kevin's surprise move and unsure of how she feels about it, tells no one about the experience. Then her best friend, Tess, unaware of this complication, becomes involved with Kevin, and Charlie's mother begins dating Kevin's father.
"The author's frank representation of teen sentiments and razorsharp wit will keep readers turning pages to see how Charlie will handle her dilemmas," wrote a Publishers Weekly contributor. Several critics praised Vail's prose style in If We Kiss; School Library Journal reviewer Angela M. Boccuzzi-Reichert commented that "Charlie tells her story in a fresh voice," and a Publishers Weekly critic declared Charlie "much funnier and more knowing than any ninth-grader on the planet."
In addition to her young-adult novels, Vail has also written several picture books for younger readers. Many of these books feature Mama Rex and T, a mother-and-child dinosaur duo who face difficulties that will be familiar to young children and their parents. In Homework Trouble, T forgets about a diorama he has to make for school until the day before it is due; in The Horrible Play Date, he and friend Walter have trouble playing nicely together. The latter tale "will strike resonant chords among its readers, no doubt," predicted a Kirkus Reviews contributor, while another critic for the same magazine praised the "droll sense of humor" in Homework Trouble. Vail spins another picture-book tale about childhood difficulties in Sometimes I'm Bombaloo, which finds a little girl named Katie struggles to control her temper tantrums with the help of her loving, caring parents. "Vail gets right inside a kid's psyche," Ilene Cooper noted in Booklist, "captures the intensity of emotion that children … feel when they are angry, and then distills it with laughter." A Publishers Weekly contributor also praised the book, nothing that Vail's "kid-friendly phrasing and language add immediacy and some humor to the proceedings."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Seventh Book of Junior Authors and Illustrators, H. W. Wilson (Bronx, NY), 1996.
Booklist, September 1, 1991, Deborah Abbott, review of Wonder, p. 54; August, 1992, Stephanie Zvirin, review of Do-Over, p. 2013; March 1, 1994, Hazel Rochman, review of Ever After, p. 1254; March 1, 1996, Stephanie Zvirin, review of Daring to Be Abigail, p. 1184; September 15, 1998, Kathleen Squires, review of Over the Moon, p. 241; October 15, 1998, Hazel Rochman, review of If You Only Knew, p. 422; November 15, 1998, Hazel Rochman, review of Not That I Care, p. 591; February 1, 2002, Ilene Cooper, review of Sometimes I'm Bombaloo, p. 940; March, 2002, Nina Lindsay, review of Sometimes I'm Bombaloo, p. 204; April 1, 2004, Hazel Rochman, review of Never Mind!: A Twin Novel, p. 1365; March 15, 2005, Ilene Cooper, review of If We Kiss, p. 1285.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, September, 1991, review of Wonder, p. 24; December, 1992, Roger Sutton, review of Do-Over, pp. 125-126; February, 1996, Deborah Stevenson, review of Daring to Be Abigail, p. 207.
Horn Book, November-December, 1992, Ellen Fader, review of Do-Over, p. 731; May-June, 1994, Rachel Vail, "Making Stories Happen," pp. 301-304; May-June, 1996, Lauren Adams, review of Daring to Be Abigail, pp. 337-339; January-February, 1999, Christine M. Heppermann, review of If You Only Knew and Not That I Care, p. 71; May-June, 2004, Christine M. Heppermann, review of Never Mind!, p. 324.
Kirkus Reviews, August 8, 1991, review of Wonder, p. 1095; July 15, 1992, p. 927; April 1, 1994, review of Ever After, p. 486; January 1, 2002, review of Sometimes I'm Bombaloo, p. 53; July 1, 2002, review of Mama Rex and T: The Horrible Play Date, p. 964; July 15, 2002, review of Mama Rex and T: Homework Trouble, p. 1046; April 15, 2005, review of If We Kiss, p. 483.
Kliatt, May, 2004, Michele Winship, review of Never Mind!, p. 5; May, 2005, Heidi Hauser Green, review of Ever After, p. 31.
Publishers Weekly, August 9, 1991, review of Wonder, p. 58; December 20, 1991, "Flying Starts," p. 24; February 21, 1994, review of Ever After, pp. 255-256; June 8, 1998, review of The Friendship Ring, p. 61; July 20, 1998, review of Over the Moon, p. 218; December 24, 2001, review of Sometimes I'm Bombaloo, p. 63; May 10, 2004, review of Never Mind!, p. 60; April 11, 2005, review of If We Kiss, p. 56.
School Library Journal, August, 1991, Debra S. Gold, review of Wonder, p. 196; September, 1992, Jacqueline Rose, review of Do-Over, p. 282; May, 1994, Ellen Fader, review of Ever After, p. 136; March, 1996, Connie Tyrrell Burns, review of Daring to Be Abigail, p. 198; March, 2002, Nina Lindsay, review of Sometimes I'm Bombaloo, p. 204; May, 2005, Angela M. Boccuzzi-Reichert, review of If We Kiss, p. 140.
Voice of Youth Advocates, August, 2004, Pam Carlson, review of Never Mind!, p. 207.
Washington Post Book World, July 18, 2004, Elizabeth Ward, review of Never Mind!, p. 11.
BookPage.com, http://www.bookpage.com/ (July 18, 2005), Heidi Henneman, interview with Vail and Avi.
Rachel Vail Home Page, http://www.rachelvail.com (July 6, 2005).
Teenreads.com, http://www.teenreads.com/ (July 18, 2005), Kristi Olson, review of If We Kiss; "Rachel Vail."*
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