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Truth and Consequences

Tweenhood can be gnarly to navigate.

Which is why Dave McGrail ’97 created Surviving Middle School, a pair of interactive “Choose Your Own Adventure”-style books—one for girls, one for boys—that allow preteens to see where their decisions could lead. Here, McGrail—a lawyer and father of two—shares how these survival guides came to be.

What inspired your Surviving Middle School books?

I keep a daily journal about what’s going on in our girls’ lives, assuming I can get more than “Fine” out of them at dinner. Some of the stories they come home with are absolutely hilarious, while others are outright disturbing. One day, I plucked a few of the more thought-provoking dilemmas from the journal and started expanding on those. I love writing, and before I knew it, I had a good chunk of the raw material for the first book. Of course, like any good Swattie, I did my academic research along the way.   

How do these “interactive” books work?

The reader often has to make choices and enjoy (or suffer) the consequences. The most renowned interactive books may be those in the “Choose Your Own Adventure” series, which was extremely popular in the 1980s. The storylines were fanciful, and books included The Cave of Time and The Abominable Snowman. I loved those growing up.

My books are also interactive, written in the second person, with a light tone to keep tweenagers engaged. While the books address serious issues such as the treatment of girls/women, internet porn, and homophobia, the interactive format, conversational tone, intermittent illustrations, and interspersing of lighter dilemmas (e.g., your run-of-the-mill school dance quandaries) are all designed to make the books accessible and fun.

Do any of the scenarios draw from your own personal experiences?

Yes, the boys’ book does. I was a pretty straitlaced kid, but I had my moments of recklessness and idiocy. There are a few semiautobiographical storylines in the book, most notably the firecracker/firework obsession, the jobs weeding gardens and selling pet insurance, and, alas, just about every single encounter with a girl. Also, Hanbom “Terence” Lee ’97 makes some cameos.

What do you hope readers gain from these books?

I hope readers will come away from the books able to identify and weigh the choices they have, to recognize the long-term consequences of their decisions, and to choose wisely (in real life). The books promote values that are important to me—empathy, tolerance, and inclusivity—and hopefully (subtly) foster those values in young readers.

Tell me a little about yourself: your family, work background, etc.

I am a beneficiary of the Quaker matchbox, married to Lauren Basta McGrail ’98. We have two wonderful daughters, Macy, 15, and Delilah, 11, who generally tolerate my reindeer games. They also edit my books and have no problem calling me out for writing something that is “completely unrealistic” or “would never happen in middle school.” They were instrumental in helping me create authentic text messages, complete with ridiculous abbreviations and nonexistent grammar. I own a small law firm in New York City, where I cannot get away with telling a client that I will “c u l8r.”

I am sure that the irony that I have stumbled into the “Common Good” section of the Bulletin will not be lost on Lauren when she reads this on her way to the office as executive director of the Eugene M. Lang Foundation, where her daily mandate is to do good.   

What influence does Swarthmore have on your writing or in your life in general?

Absolutely none, other than my marriage, family, enduring friendships, core values, political leanings, love of learning, creative spark, writing style, and social plans, depending on when Lauren is heading to campus.

Anything else?

The books have led me down paths I never could have imagined. Both the girls’ and boys’ books have been used by teachers, while the girls’ book sparked Chance to Choose, a nonprofit to help girls make good choices, and is currently a part of Girls Inc.’s national mentoring program. I have had recent discussions about turning the books into interactive podcasts and am excited to see where those lead.