There’s a kind of inferiority complex at work in the middle-grade market, which is sometimes perceived as receiving less attention and respect than its YA older sibling (which, in turn, has its own self-esteem issues when compared to the adult publishing world). But while the first-ever Middle-Grade Editors Buzz Panel at BEA wasn’t an SRO affair as were the YA and adult panels, it was still quite full. And more importantly, the five editors on stage confirmed what most devotees already know: middle-grade fiction can have all the action, wonder, and power as books published for older readers.
Moderator Lisa Von Drasek, librarian at New York’s Bank Street College of Education, opened the proceedings by explaining that she hates to be told what to read. “And then [these] books came. And then I fell in love.” Just what were those books? The Unwanteds by Lisa McMann; Wildwood by Colin Meloy, illustrated by Carson Ellis; Icefall by Matthew J. Kirby; The Apothecary by Maile Meloy, illustrated by Ian Schoenherr; and The Dragon’s Tooth by N.D. Wilson.
The editors then had a chance to describe the books and what made them, like Von Drasek, fall in love with them. Lisa A. Sandell, executive editor at Scholastic Press, spoke first about Icefall, describing Matthew Kirby as “an editor’s dream,” and explaining how she fell for the “uncommonly complex characters” and detail-rich setting of his first book, The Clockwork Three. Sandell said she was “totally giddy” when she received the manuscript for Icefall, which she described as the story of a Viking princess’s “journey to find herself and her place in the world.”
Representing Random House, editorial director Jim Thomas had also worked on previous books from his author, N.D. Wilson. The Dragon’s Tooth is Wilson’s fifth book, and launches the five-book Ashtown Burials series. While Thomas said that The Dragon’s Tooth employs some of the Americana and mythology present in Wilson’s earlier books (including a connection to his first book, Leepike Ridge), he maintained that The Dragon’s Tooth, like Wilson’s other books, isn’t just about escapism. Rather it’s about recognizing the wonder in the real world (Thomas used the example of the speed at which the Earth hurtles around the sun—18 miles per second) and getting kids to “go out and engage in it.”
Liesa Abrams, executive editor at Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing, spoke next about Lisa McMann’s The Unwanteds, the bestselling YA author’s foray into middle-grade. She praised the author’s openness and said that the book’s premise—a world in which 13-year-olds who display any creativity are sent to their deaths—is particularly well-suited to the insecurities of the tween years. Referencing the book’s title, Abrams said, “Who among us has never felt unwanted?” adding, “No one feels it in the most powerful, painful way than a 12-year-old.”
In discussing Wildwood, set in a magic-inflected version of Portland, Ore., Donna Bray, v-p and co-publisher of the Balzer + Bray imprint at HarperCollins, said that Meloy is “someone who really knows how to launch a story right from the start.” She proved her point by reading from the first chapter, “A Murder of Crows,” singling out the high stakes, “bizarre mystery,” pacing, humor, and characterizations evident in just those few early sentences. And her pitch didn’t end there: “If you need a reason to buy the book, it’s on page 173 and it’s a badger with a rickshaw,”—85 illustrations by Meloy’s wife, Carson Ellis, appear throughout—“It doesn’t get better than that.”
Jen Besser, v-p and publisher at Putnam, rounded out the panel by discussing The Apothecary by Maile Meloy (Colin Meloy’s sister) and kept with the family theme, explaining that she was first introduced to Meloy’s writing by her older sister, also an editor. Besser later drew a connection between the stories her sister would share with her as a child (both invented tales and dog-eared paperbacks) and the “gift” of getting to share The Apothecary with the audience. She also noted that modern-day readers might well find parallels between the book’s 1950s London setting, amid fears of nuclear war, and the “constant low-grade or maybe high-grade tensions” they might themselves feel regarding current world events.
Von Drasek wrapped things up by offering her thoughts on the question “What is a middle-grader?” reminding those in attendance that the category encompasses not just voracious readers but also the “not-really-reading eight-year-olds.” She also asked the panelists to offer a shelftalker-style promo for their books, for librarians and booksellers who only have a few seconds to make their case to potential readers. When none of the panelists gave an immediate answer, Von Drasek offered her own suggestions (The Unwanteds: “a cross between The Hunger Games and Harry Potter”; The Dragon’s Tooth: “a roller-coaster ride”). Few galleys remained at the end of the program, suggesting that attendees agreed with S&S's Abrams, who pronounced the arrival of a middle-grade buzz panel "awesome."