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Doing the Write Thing: Vivian Teo
Vivian Teo was a financial journalist before switching to writing articles for parenting websites such as Sassy Mama and The New Age Parents; as well as her own blog, "The Stuff Childhoods are Made of", where she shares her own tips for parenting, and reviews and recommendations for local family-friendly attractions.
Now, she makes her first foray as an author.
My BFF is an Alien is the first in a four-book series, and it's a lively action-packed adventure that celebrates the bonds of friendship. Schoolgirls Abriana and Octavia have been assigned to be class buddies, but there's something different about Octavia. Abriana finds herself going headlong into a quest that could mean life or death for Octavia.
So make yourselves comfortable, grab a cup of tea and dive into the fantastic world of My BFF is an Alien—it's a tale that is, literally, out of this world.
Tell us a little about My BFF is an Alien.
My BFF is an Alien is a middle-grade story that starts off with a friendless and awkward 13-year-old Singaporean girl (Abriana) who meets a new classmate (Octavia), who turns out to an alien with superpowers. The two girls become friends and they embark on a quest to find an important element lost in Singapore that will help Octavia’s war-stricken planet. Along the way, the two girls tackle obstacles like mean girls in their school, a challenging camp and even certain local foods.
Middle-grade and early young adult readers can expect an exciting adventure with a dash of mystery and sci-fi, and a whole load of teenage drama in this story!
What was the inspiration behind this story?
I started with a goal—to write a middle-grade story that would not only be fun for children to read, but would resonate with and inspire them through themes like friendship and courage. My initial story idea was something completely different albeit also being one in a local school setting. But as I developed the story, I hit a plateau—the storyline and characters stopped exciting me at some point. And if it didn’t excite me, it wasn’t going to excite anyone else.
So I started brainstorming for new story ideas again. I tend to do a lot of thinking at night before bed and that was when the idea of having a BFF who is an alien with superpowers came to me. By two or three in the morning, I had conceived the entire plot from beginning to end. I even had the book title and character names. As I made up the story in my head, I cried and laughed silently to myself at various points. And I knew this was it! The story, of course, changed a little during the writing and editing process, but most importantly, I was really confident and excited about the story this time round.
The story centres around two female leads: Abriana and Octavia. Why did you choose two girls to be your main characters?
I’m a mother of two girls who will turn eight and ten this year; so I’m always on the lookout for good local middle-grade books for my girls who love adventure stories. There are many good ones out there but I noticed that many adventure stories often have male protagonists and sometimes I do wish that more featured female lead characters that are relatable to and even role models for my daughters.
This was also why I wanted to write a story with kickass female lead characters going on adventures, tackling school and navigating friendships.
Given that the story features female leads, are you afraid that it would isolate male readers?
In our society, it’s often fine for girls to read books featuring male characters but you hardly see boys picking up books that feature female protagonists.
I feel this needs to be changed. I feel that when we tell boys they shouldn’t read a so-called “girl’s book”, we’re signalling to our boys that there is something wrong about stories featuring girls, or that the female psyche is something not worth understanding about.
There’s also the misconception that books which feature female characters are slow-paced and unlikely to capture the attention of boys. I believe this is hardly true for a good adventure story. My BFF is an Alien is fast-paced, exciting and funny, and the moral dilemmas presented in the story are relevant to children regardless of gender. I hope that parents will let their boys pick up My BFF is an Alien, and one day, a children’s book can just be called a children’s book—not a girl’s or a boy’s book.
Are you more like Abriana or Octavia?
I wrote My BFF is an Alien from Abriana’s perspective. It felt really natural to do so because I was a girl a lot like Abriana when I was 13. I was insecure and socially awkward when I started secondary school. I imagine some of the speech and decisions she makes in the story are also those I would have also said and made back then. Some of her quirks, like the frown she does when she is concentrating, I still do up till today! In a way, Octavia reflects the person that Abriana probably wishes that she could be. I may have grown in confidence to become more like Octavia but there are always days when I’m Abri again.
My BFF is an Alien is also a story about friendship, displacement and dealing with bullies. Do you think that tweens are able to relate to the issues in your story?
As children become tweens, friends become a much bigger part of their lives and navigating friendships gets a lot trickier. It is human nature to want to belong and this need for a sense of belonging is even more pronounced when you're a tween or teen.
Like Abri, when you’re socially excluded, your self-worth takes a hit. Even Octavia, with her confidence and higher social class back home, is not immune to it.
Sadly, mean people are a reality of life whether you’re studying or working. You’re bound to come across them in your life. It’s not uncommon to see younger children displaying mean behaviour, which can escalate into bullying. I hope the story does tell children in a subtle manner, “please don’t act like those mean girls!”
I also hope the story sends the message to kids who feel lonely or inferior because they are not outstanding or popular, that it’s okay to be the underdog and it’s okay not to be popular.
I think kids need to know that they’re never alone. Chances are there is another kid also looking for a friend—you just need to notice and empathise. As C.S. Lewis said: “We read to know that we’re not alone.”
What were the challenges when writing this book? And what was the biggest lesson you learnt?
The biggest challenge for me was writing the book itself. I know I have a good imagination—I often make up bedtime stories for my kids—but I never studied creative writing (I’m a finance and economics graduate). So, I never knew how to actually go about writing a book.
I had been a financial journalist for most of my working life, before I became a freelance writer to spend more time with my children. When you’re writing and breaking news in a fast-paced environment (I’ve done up to 10 a day), you do so in clear concise language.
It's very different when you're writing books. To write write book, I turned to books. I read books like Mary Kole’s Writing Irresistible Kidlit and Cheryl Klein’s The Magic Words, and tonnes of middle-grade books. I’m a firm believer that books, more often than not, hold the answers to our problems.
One lesson I had learned is that it was near impossible for me to write a book when I’m in the same room as my two kids! I got interrupted every few minutes, either with homework questions or by loud singing, chit-chat and laughing. I managed one sentence per hour!
Now, my mornings are very important to me as that is the only time I can get quality work done. My advice to aspiring authors out there is to really make an effort to carve out uninterrupted time to work on your craft.
Have your jobs inspired or influenced your book in any way?
My former career as a journalist had inspired some scenes in My BFF is an Alien. Abri’s father was a journalist, and Abri—who is a budding writer herself—uses what he had taught her to problem solve in various scenarios. I really had fun adding these parts to the story!
I think my writing—whether it’s through my books or opinion pieces in parenting websites—do reflect my interest in issues concerning children today, like childhood education and psychology, bullying and social media usage. I also write about the joys and struggles of motherhood and I’m always touched when I see comments that my writings had resonated with other mothers alike. I like to think that through My BFF is an Alien, my words, too, will inspire and touch the hearts of children.
Can you give us a sneak peek as to what happens next?
I really hate spoilers when it comes to books and movies, even with very minor stuff! I don’t want to ruin it for anyone who’s like me so I hope readers can read till the end of book one, ride the emotions that come with the ending and anticipate what the ending means for book two. But I can definitely say that more adventure, trouble and ingenious ruses from the two girls await in the next three books!