A bright spotlight shines on fiction for middle graders at BookExpo on Friday, June 2, when five editors share their enthusiasm for debut novels at the Middle Grade Editors’ Buzz Panel. Here, the editors provide advance word about the books they’ve selected to showcase, and explain why they’re eager to introduce them to booksellers. Anne Holman, general manager of the King’s English Bookshop in Salt Lake City, will moderate.

Amy Fitzgerald, editor, Carolrhoda Books, on Auma’s Long Run by Eucabeth Odhiambo

Auma is a 13-year-old girl who loves school and running—a combination that could be her ticket out of her small Kenyan village. But when AIDS begins to ravage her community, she has to figure out how to help her family while still fighting for her own future.

Auma’s struggle resonated with me. While her struggle is singular, much of her experience in Kenya echoes the experiences of kids in the United States. Society as a whole doesn’t encourage kids—especially girls—to think critically, question authority, or forge unexpected paths for themselves in the face of hardship.

I love any chance to talk about this book! It has so many nuances that can’t be conveyed by a few words on a book jacket or in a catalogue. Getting to discuss it in more detail and place it in the larger context of the current children’s book market is really helpful.

Amanda Maciel, executive editor, Scholastic Press and Paperbacks, on Molly Ostertag’s The Witch Boy (Graphix)

In 13-year-old Aster’s family, girls are witches and boys are shape-shifters. But Aster can’t seem to shift—and he can’t stop spying on the witchery lessons his sisters and female cousins are learning. When one of the other boys shifts into something monstrous, Aster wants to use his skills as a witch to help, even if that means defying everything his family believes. The Witch Boy is a beautifully rendered story about identity and belonging, both perfectly modern and as timeless as magic itself.

This is the first graphic novel I’ve edited, and I couldn’t have asked for a better author-illustrator to venture into this world with. Molly just graduated from art school in 2014, but she has a voice and a vision that’s incredibly confident and captivating. Aster’s world pulled me in immediately—his story is a classic coming-of-age tale that is utterly heartfelt and genuine. And I could stare at Molly’s art for hours—and I have—and the more hours I stare, the more I love it! She has a gorgeous sense of color and composition.

I’ve worked in children’s book publishing for 16 years, but I’m new to graphic novels. Molly is deeply connected to the graphic/comic world, but new to children’s books. I really feel like we’re a perfect team to bring The Witch Boy to young readers. Getting to kick off her pub year at BookExpo is a huge honor. This show is an opportunity to connect with the entire publishing community, and I can’t imagine a better place to fully convey my excitement about this book.

Liz Szabla, associate publisher, Feiwel and Friends, on Greetings from Witness Protection! by Jake Burt

This is a funny and heartfelt debut novel about a foster-care girl who is placed with a family in the witness protection program. What she finds, besides the kind of family she’s never had, is that hiding in plain sight is complicated—and dangerous.

Greetings from Witness Protection! has a Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life meets Hoot vibe in its humor and pacing. But Jake Burt’s talent is all his own. He knows his audience well—he teaches fifth grade—and his protagonist, Nicki, is one of the most satisfying and fully imagined characters I’ve ever read.

I see great things ahead for this book and author, and it is invaluable to have the opportunity at BookExpo to build buzz by, in effect, hand-selling Jake’s debut novel to the ultimate hand-sellers, independent bookstores.

Nancy Siscoe, senior executive editor, Knopf Books for Young Readers, on The Stars Beneath Our Feet by David Barclay Moore:

It’s Christmas Eve in Harlem, and 12-year-old Lolly and his mom are still reeling from his older brother’s death in a gang-related shooting a few months earlier. Then Lolly’s mother’s girlfriend brings him a challenging gift: two enormous bags filled with Legos. Lolly loves Legos, and prides himself on following the kit instructions exactly. Faced with a pile of blocks and no instructions, he must find his own way forward. His path isn’t clear—and the pressure to join a “crew,” as his brother did, is always there. But building a fantastical Lego city provides Lolly with an escape—and an unexpected bridge back to the world.

David Barclay Moore paints a powerful portrait of a boy teetering on the edge—of adolescence, of grief, of violence—and I was immediately drawn in by his powerful writing. Lolly’s voice is so distinct—it’s a remarkable blend of innocence, bravado, grief, and anger. Moore also paints a picture of present-day Harlem that is nuanced and lived-in. I love that the story is specific in its details, but universal in the emotions it explores.

To me, The Stars Beneath Our Feet is impressive in every way, and when you find a truly outstanding new writer, you want to tell everyone you know. A forum like this at BookExpo allows me to tell not just everyone I know but the entire publishing world. It’s a thrill and an honor to have the ear of so many committed book lovers at once.

Sarah Shumway, senior editor, Bloomsbury Children’s Books, on Kamilla Benko’s The Unicorn Quest: The Whisper in the Stone

This is the first story in the Unicorn Hunt, a middle grade fantasy series featuring two sisters who find their way into a richly magical but troubled world. Separated, they each undertake a quest, and discover magic, long-buried secrets, friendships, and their own courage.

The allure of unicorns is pretty universal, so this novel has that appeal, but I especially love that Kamilla is telling such a touching and thoughtful story of sisterhood and its complicated bonds. Also, this is wonderful fantasy in the vein of so many of my own—and many readers’—favorites from childhood. Kamilla has a wonderful reverence for the fantasy she loved as a child, and still loves, and brings that rich appreciation as well as fresh imagination and emotion to her story, world, and characters.

Editors, like booksellers, read and sing the praises of a lot of books, but the books we love don’t all get the opportunity to shine as brightly as we might hope among the crowded shelves. I love that the Buzz Panel is a forum to share the books that we hope will shine brightest, and is an opportunity to speak directly to a crowd that can help to amplify the books’ light so that it might reach more readers.

Friday, June 2, 11–11:50 a.m. The Middle Grade Buzz Panel takes place in Room 1E12/1E13/1E14.