What sparked the creation of the Renegades of Middle Grade site? When did it officially kick off?
Ponti: It started with laughter. It’s always so much fun when middle grade authors get together. There’s also a wonderful sense of camaraderie and common purpose. After being part of some great events like the North Texas Teen Book Festival, Tweens Read, and NerdCamp MI, I wondered if there might be a way to capture the spirit of that online. So, last year, I reached out to some of my writer friends to see if they were interested.
It’s felt more like a really long soft opening for a restaurant. The website went live last summer, but we were all too busy to do much with it. During Covid-19, however, we’ve started coming up with ways we might come together virtually. We’ve also updated the website to include the eight “rookies” who’ve joined us recently. To be honest, more than anything, this feels like the official launch.
How did it come together? How did you recruit members of the band, so to speak?
Ponti: Imagine that sequence in Ocean’s 11 when George Clooney and Brad Pitt assemble the team. Then replace all the really attractive people in great clothes with the staff of your high school newspaper. I called some friends and we just started brainstorming names. The criteria have been the same since the beginning: good writer, good person, fun to be around. The idea was always that any of us could say, “If you like my books, then you’re going to love these other ones.” But more importantly, we work in a world of kids and educators, and we wanted to be able to say to any of them, “If you like books, let me introduce you to some really great people.”
Gibbs: The band consists of fellow authors who all met and became friends on the festival circuit. Most of us met at either North Texas Teen Book Fest, Tweens Read, or OMG—although James and I met at TLA in 2015. The middle grade community has so many wonderful people in it; Renegades was really just a way to continue those friendships and promote one another online.
What are the logistics involved?
Ponti: As a disclaimer, let me say that we’re much better at writing than we are at tech. For proof, consider that my editor’s been working from home for the last six months and I still can’t make it so that the emails from her laptop don’t go straight to my spam folder. Everything about Renegades is homemade between us. There’s no outside help from publishers or web design friends. Hopefully what the site lacks in polish it more than makes up for with heart. For better or worse, most of the content and design work has fallen to me. I didn’t feel like I could ask people to join something and then instantly give them work to do. Besides, everyone is super busy and we all have different deadlines, which make it hard to coordinate. Now that we’re up and running, we’re sharing responsibilities.
Is there an organized division of labor for putting up content, etc.?
Ponti: I don’t know that organized is a word that applies to us. If you look at the pictures of our workspaces on the website, you’ll see that it’s not an overwhelming quality. That said, we’re all great teamwork people and we’re figuring this out as we go along. We get together for Zoom chats to brainstorm and usually one person will take the lead on helping that idea come to fruition. That’s what’s happening now as we try to work out what we jokingly call Renegades TV [a planned video series]. It’s also happening with an effort we’re putting together to do group virtual school visits.
Gibbs: James really did the lion’s share of the early work—recruiting authors, designing the website, etc. The way it usually works is James writes very nice emails to the other authors asking for them to turn material in to him and then I badger the ones who don’t do it.
What’s your goal for this site/community? What does its success look like to you?
Ponti: We want young readers, educators, and other middle grade fiction fans to feel like there’s a welcoming space where they can connect with some of the people who write the books they enjoy. And if there’s that, and they see our goofier side and join in our mutual sense of humor and love of books, then the community expands to include them too. That’s really important. Each of us was once an awkward middle schooler looking to fit in, and we want today’s awkward middle schoolers to know that they do.
As far as success, we’ve never actually set any specific objectives. The closest we’ve come was when I was having dinner with [fellow Renegades] Sarah Mlynowski, Karina Yan Glaser, and Elizabeth Eulberg. One of us said, wouldn’t it be awesome if we got mentioned in Publishers Weekly, and we all agreed that it would be. So, now that you’re taking care of that, it’s probably time to set a few more goals.
Gibbs: One of the greatest things about the MG community is that we do not have to be competitive with one another. In fact, it’s beneficial to everyone to support each other. In MG fiction, a rising tide lifts all ships. One of the most common questions you get from readers is, “What other books should I be reading?” So it’s great to be able to point them to the Renegades website and say, “Any author on this website is writing books you would like.” Ideally, we should be giving the careers of the newer members a boost and making people aware of new—or less noticed—books by more familiar authors.
What’s next for the Renegades? What will Renegades TV look like?
Ponti: We’re really trying to figure out an effective way to do virtual group school visits, probably three [authors] at a time. We’ve broken up into trios to record sample videos and should be posting those soon. As for Renegades TV, that’s something we’re trying to figure out too. I don’t know if it will be a YouTube channel or just a series of posted videos, but it will be some combination of group videos, book trailers, and hopefully plenty of goofiness that shows we don’t take ourselves too seriously.
Gibbs: The community is now exploring the ways that we can do more events virtually, either as individual authors or as groups. Personally, I can’t wait for the day when we can visit schools and go to festivals again, but the advent of virtual visits may be one of the few positive things to come out of this pandemic. The idea that three or four authors could visit a school simultaneously from four different cities is no longer science fiction. We could easily continue doing things like this in the future.
In addition, most of us have done some really great things online this summer, and much of that has been recorded. So Renegades TV will be a kind of one-stop shopping for locating those videos—just in case your kids want to watch something that is funny and somewhat educational.
What else should people know about the Renegades?
Ponti: A few years back, some writers were having dinner together during ABA, and Laurie Halse Anderson said the most wonderful thing about middle grade authors: “You have to remember that we’re not competitors, we’re coconspirators.” That’s always stayed with me, and it’s really the special sauce at the heart of Renegades. We’re coconspirators who are spread across the country. We have different publishers, different skill sets, and no set plan other than to share our love of books. That feels like a really great place to be.