The pandemic has been a challenge for millions of Americans, and children’s authors and illustrators are no exception. We asked several of them to tell us their noteworthy quarantine stories, and we’re continuing a series with their responses. Here, Leslie Margolis, the author of We Are Party People, Ghosted, and the Maggie Brooklyn Mystery series, among other books for young readers, reflects on the “intense and complicated” and also humorous reality of working on a middle grader novel while quarantining with her own tween children.
Last week, I tripped over Leo, my 12-year-old, as he rolled an onion down our staircase, for science. He did this 30 times in a row, clocking and recording each bumpy descent. Then he bowled an apple. And not just any old variety, but a honeycrisp, my favorite kind, and the last one we had. By the time he’d finished the experiment, it was bruised and battered, leaking juice from an open wound all over our floor.
Living through 2020, I can relate to that apple, but that’s another story.
I’ve been writing middle grade fiction, since before I had kids. I finished Girl’s Best Friend, my first mystery about a dog-walking detective, as my son took his first steps. I started Ghosted, a Christmas Carol and Mean Girls mashup, when my daughter, Lucy, began clashing with her class queen bee.
Now, my kids are 10 and 12, the same age as many of my characters and readers. Some have suggested that living with primary source material must be dreamy. Don’t they inspire me every day? Help with ideas? Edit early drafts? To which I always respond, “Hah!”
And that was all before Covid-19. Living with and writing about tweens, in quarantine, is intense and complicated.
Not that I can complain. My family is healthy and safe. We live in Los Angeles, where it’s warm enough to hike, bike, hang at the beach, and play charades with friends, outside, from a distance, all year long. My husband and I are both writers. We’re lucky we can work from home, with flexible schedules, and we are grateful to be working.
Lucy and Leo are in fifth and seventh grades, which is ideal for virtual learning. Their school put together an amazing curriculum, on the fly, and their teachers are incredible.
I know this for a fact because I hear my kids, in class, in their bedrooms, all day, every day—Monday through Friday. My son’s room is next to my office. We share an air vent.
My daughter is down the hall. She often wanders in to ask things like, “Are you still writing that same book? Why is it taking so long? What are we doing tonight? What’s for lunch? What’s for dinner? What’s for dinner tomorrow? What’s for lunch-dessert?” (My kids gave up believing in the tooth fairy years ago, yet they still insist that “lunch-dessert” is real.)
Sometimes Lucy commandeers my computer to play Adopt Me on Roblox. One miserable afternoon, she got swindled out of her prized rideable, flyable, golden unicorn. But that was nothing compared to the day my son’s Instagram account got hacked. Annoyed, Leo taunted the guilty party, who then threatened to dox him.
In October, we had parent-teacher conferences on Zoom. Five minutes into the meeting, Leo’s English teacher squinted at us and said, “Excuse me, but is that a Kardashian on your screen?”
Equally confused, my husband and I frantically studied the laptop until we noticed our new background: Kylie, standing smug, polished, and coiffed, in front of her new mansion.
How did she get there? Horrified, I blurted out excuses. “So sorry. That’s not—Leo’s little sister did that! I didn’t know she even knew who the Kardashians were.”
“That’s Leslie’s laptop, by the way,” my husband told him.
Way to throw me under the bus, I almost said, before realizing that I had done the exact same thing to our daughter. Well, it was her doing....
When we told Lucy that she was too young for TikTok, we didn’t realize she already had an account, with over a thousand followers.
“You should post a video about one of my books,” I suggested. I even offered to pay her. She had zero interest.
Last Tuesday, I had an author visit, and was scheduled to Zoom with four different fifth- and sixth-grade classes over the course of the day. I told Leo and Lucy the night before that I couldn’t be disturbed. I wrote it on the family calendar and even hung a “Do not enter” sign on my office door.
That morning, I logged into Zoom, then tried to share my screen and launch my PowerPoint.
It didn’t work. Nothing did. I had no clue why. Meanwhile, 25 tiny faces stared out at me, waiting.
I panicked, then realized something. “Hey, Leo?” I called. “Can you come here?”
“You can’t be disturbed,” he reminded me, from outside my door.
“It’s an emergency,” I said, feebly.
Leo swooped in, pressed a few buttons, and within five seconds, had everything up and running.
So, yeah. Okay, fine. Writing books for tweens while living with tweens may not be ideal, especially during a global pandemic, but it certainly has its advantages.
For more Authors’ Quarantine Stories click here.