Growing up is complicated, and school is where a lot of it happens. We talked to three writers with books for and about middle and high schoolers about what they really learned in school.

Alyssa Milano

With Project Middle School, actor and author Alyssa Milano kicks off her activism-themed middle grade series about Hope, an 11-year-old who is driven by a desire to help others.

What was the inspiration for Project Middle School?

We’re living in such a difficult time. There’s a lot of intolerance and indifference in the world these days. And now that I’m a mom, I see how naturally good children are. Kids are filled with hope—they want to help other people. Children are born with a voice, and with so much empathy, and I never want them to lose that.

What did you really learn in school?

Project Middle School is about all kinds of learning! Hope is a really dedicated and diligent student. She has a genuine love of learning, especially when it comes to science. But I also wanted the book to be about all the things kids learn in school that aren’t academic—how to speak up for yourself, how to respect and work together with other kids, and how to deal with social situations that are challenging while still remaining true to yourself.

Favorite book as a kid: Anything by Shel Silverstein.

Favorite book as a teen: Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut.

Favorite word: Compassion.

“Middle Grade Blowout” 10:30–11:15 a.m. // Room 1E14

Tegan Rain Quin

Tegan Rain Quin, along with her identical twin sister, Sara Keirsten Quin, is one-half of the musical duo Tegan & Sara; they make their authorial debut this spring with High School, a co-written memoir of their adolescence.

What was the most challenging aspect of writing a memoir with your sister?

It was figuring out how to write about our drug use during that time. I didn’t want to glamorize drugs, but I also didn’t want to demonize them, because experimentation with drugs was integral in the development of both my and Sara’s identities as young people. It was something we got along about, and it helped to repair our fractured relationship. So I labored over how to write about those experiences a lot. Oddly, the most gratifying part of writing High School was digging into these harder topics and coming out on the other side pretty sure that I had done a good job of not exoticizing the rougher parts of our youth, but still managing to share the lessons I learned then.

What did you really learn in school?

School is where I learned to use charm and humor to deflect criticism and disarm aggression. And it’s where I first learned how important friendship is. How affirming it can be to be surrounded by a community of people who get you. I also learned to use actual recording equipment in high school, which ignited my desire to create, record, and share my music with people. I acquired skills in some of my option classes that I still use today. For what it’s worth, I also loved English class. And look at me now—an author.

Favorite book as a teen: Fall on Your Knees by Ann-Marie MacDonald.

Favorite word: The word I unfortunately use most is “literally.” But I really do love using it—especially when I am using it correctly. Which I always strive to do.

“Sharing the Past with Tegan & Sara” 1:30–2:05 p.m. // Downtown Stage

Raina Telgemeier

Raina Telgemeier’s latest autobiographical graphic novel for middle graders, Guts, concerns her childhood experience with anxiety and tummy trouble.

What did you really learn in school?

I had a wonderful first-grade teacher who taught all the basics, but she also instilled the values of trust, sharing, and community. We planted a garden, made stone soup, sang songs, met her dogs, and even went on a field trip to her house. She wanted us to see that teachers were real people with lives outside of the classroom. None of this could possibly be quantified, but every kid remembered her as the best teacher of all time.

Favorite book as a kid: Robert C. O’Brien’s Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.

Favorite book as a teen: Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics.

Favorite phrase: I’m gonna go with “thank you” as one of the best phrases in the universe.

“The Very Best in Middle Grade: Soman Chainani, Meg Medina, Raina Telgemeier, and Tracey Baptiste” 1:30–2:05 p.m. // Choice Stage