Nicole Melleby specializes in thoughtful realistic fiction for upper middle grade readers with a focus on complicated family dynamics. Her latest novel, How to Become a Planet, is the story of 12-year-old Pluto, who has just been diagnosed with depression and anxiety, and her tentative journey navigating her mental health and her crush on new friend Fallon. PW spoke to Melleby about writing for this age range, reading queer-coded novels as a child, and her upcoming LGBTQ+ middle grade anthology.
You have said that your books take place in the area of New Jersey where you grew up. Which Jersey girl from your books do you relate to the most? Are any of the locations from your own childhood?
The one I relate to the most is probably Brie from my second book [In the Role of Brie Hutchens…]. I set her school at a Catholic school in the area that had closed because I didn’t want to use the one that I went to. She goes to Sissy’s Diner with her dad, which is something that my dad and I do every Wednesday. The other two, Fig from Hurricane Season and Pluto from How to Become a Planet, both live in Keansburg by the boardwalk, which is where we spent a lot of time. There’s an amusement park and there’s also a water park, and we stayed there all the time. We had all our birthday parties at that boardwalk. I like to name drop a little—places that, if you’re from the area, you’d recognize.
All three of your books are aimed at middle school readers. What draws you to writing for that age?
I had started with young adult. I got my MFA for young adult literature and then slowly found my way to middle grade. I think that I have more of a middle grade voice; I don’t know what that says about me, but my natural voice is that of a 12-year-old. The more I started writing about that age group, the more it felt right, especially because all of my characters are queer and I think that’s such an important time to see that reflected in these books, as you’re slowly understanding who you are. I read once that young adult novels have the characters trying to explore themselves outside of their friends and family, but for middle graders, it’s about exploring who you are within your friends and family and within the people around you, because you’re too young to really have that independence, and I like that. I like being able to write about these characters within the world around them. That’s really what I love about middle grade books.
What role does family play in How to Become a Planet?
In my first book, Hurricane Season, I wrote about a relationship between a daughter and her father, and their struggles in the face of his bipolar disorder. When I decided I wanted to write a story about the main character, a middle grader, having depression instead of the parent, I wanted to kind of invert that. Pluto has her single mom and it’s kind of the two of them against the world in a similar way that Fig and her dad are, except it’s her mom who’s struggling to understand and to figure out how to make this okay for Pluto. They’re trying to navigate it together: her mom sometimes does the wrong thing, and they get frustrated with each other. But at the heart of it, they’re both trying really hard to make it work. I wanted Pluto’s mom to be a really supportive parent, but she’s still going to make mistakes, and they have to learn how to communicate with each other and grow from there.
As you mentioned, Hurricane Season and How to Become a Planet each deal with characters navigating mental health issues. What do you hope that your readers take away from these scenarios?
I really just want them to know that they’re not alone, that there are other people who are struggling and that I see them and I’m listening. And with Pluto especially, I wanted to show that mental illness isn’t an adult issue. It could be just as much a child’s issue. Pluto is 12. She has the diagnosis of depression and anxiety, and I wanted to show specifically that she has to get past that diagnosis by the start of the novel, and I wanted to show what comes next. You’re still who you’ve always been. You have to figure out now what to do with that diagnosis and how to keep yourself healthy and safe. I want readers to know mental illness isn’t the worst thing that can happen; there are ways to figure out how to make it work for your family unit, and ultimately, there’s always hope at the end of the tunnel. It’s not like at the end of the books the mental illnesses are cured or everything’s great. [The characters] learn how to reckon with that. I always want to leave with that message of hope at the end.
Pluto and her mother share a love of astronomy. What about that field drew you to frame this book with it?
I always start with a character first. Once I had Pluto and I knew I wanted to name her Pluto, I had to start thinking about what that means for someone who’s named after the planet that’s not a planet anymore, and how would that affect them. Then once I started thinking about her struggles with depression it fell into place. Has Pluto the planet changed? No, just the definition has, and that’s the same when it comes to Pluto with her depression, her diagnosis: has she changed? No, it’s just a new understanding of who she is. And I knew, okay, that’s where I want to go with this.
Pluto regularly calls the Hayden Planetarium Question & Answer Hotline. How did you find out about that hotline’s existence? What would you ask if you called?
My friend, Josh Levy, who is also a middle grade author from New Jersey, wrote Seventh Grade vs. the Galaxy, which is a middle grade sci-fi book. We were having coffee one day and I had hit a wall with the book while I was drafting. Josh started talking about how when he was working on his book, he always wanted things to be as scientifically accurate as possible, so he had called the hotline to ask them a question. He told me this and I thought, that’s Pluto—that’s exactly what she would be doing. She asks these questions that they clearly are not equipped to answer. I called a couple of times just to see what it was like, but I never actually asked a question because I didn’t really know what to ask—I think I’d be too nervous to ask anything.
Pluto knows way more about astronomy than I do. I was never really great at science. I probably could have called them a bunch of times—I had to do a lot of astronomy research on the book.
Growing up, did you read books that you felt reflected queer experiences? How have portrayals of queer experiences changed since you were a kid, and who are some of your favorite contemporary queer authors writing for children?
The books that I always think of as being my favorite books growing up—Harriet the Spy was one; Little Women was another—have these main characters, Jo and Harriet, [who] read very queer coded and then you learn down the line that the author of Harriet the Spy was queer herself. I didn’t know, reading these books, but I related to these characters and had seen myself reflected in these characters and then later on found out there was a reason for that. I think that’s something that always kind of stuck with me.
As for how it’s changed, in the past couple of years, it’s grown a lot. When I first started writing Hurricane Season, there were maybe just a few middle grade specific LGBTQ books: Tim Federle’s Nate books were some of them, and George [by Alex Gino] had come out a few years before. As far as queer girls go, Barbara Dee’s Star-Crossed had just come out, Ashley Herring Blake’s Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World came out while I was working on Hurricane Season, and it was great to see both those books and know that this is something I definitely want to do, that I can do. They’re paving the way for me to do this. Since then there have been so many different voices within the same queer categories. I think there’s still obviously a lot of room for more intersectionality but we’re getting there.
Some of my favorites are Blake, Kacen Callender—you can’t go wrong with either of them. I love A.J. Sass’s Ana on the Edge. That’s a great book as well, with a non-binary figure skater, which is exciting to see. It’s a beautiful array of voices, and I hope it continues to grow and we keep making room for more.
Your next book, This Is Our Rainbow, is an anthology of LGBTQIA+ middle grade stories, edited by you and Katherine Locke. What was it like putting that together?
It was thrilling. It all happened because Dahlia Adler, who runs [LGBTQreads.com] https://lgbtqreads.com/ and has put together a bunch of anthologies, had tweeted something like, someone should be putting this [anthology] together if they’re not already. I said, okay, but I have no idea how to do it, so I’m not going to actually do it. And she said, well, Katherine Locke has done it before, so I’m going to pair you two up, and she did. Katherine and I talked and realized that we meshed well, so we decided to go for it. It was a really exciting process just to sit down and think about, okay, how many voices can we include in this anthology? Who should we reach out to? I really couldn’t ask for a better lineup. We got so many wonderful queer voices—Mariama Lockington, Aida Salazar has a beautiful verse short story. These are the people who always pop into my head when I think queer kid lit. We were lucky to have some stories that skew to the younger middle grades, some that skew a little older, we have a couple of graphic novel shorts in there, and the story in verse. We tried to appeal to as many different types of readers as possible, in addition to reaching as much representation as possible so that it can be a book for as many kids as we possibly could make it for.
You’re also writing a book with A.J. Sass. What is your process for collaborating with another author?
It’s been really fun to figure out how we wanted to go about this. Both of our characters were adapted from our characters in our short stories for the anthology; the characters are next to each other on the back cover of the jacket for the anthology, and we saw them together and we said, oh, they’re so cute, we should write a story. We were kind of kidding at first and then we decided to go for it. I think it was Andrew [Sass] who said that to get these characters together, we need some sort of summer camp or something. So we decided, let’s do a queer summer camp. We looked up a bunch of queer summer camps. That’s something that does exist, which I think is really, really cool. Once we had the idea, we would each write a chapter back and forth. I’d write from my character’s point of view, send Andrew the chapter, [he’d] read through mine and make notes and then write his. It’s been interesting sometimes because I’ll have to write dialogue for his character and I’ll tell him, you can tweak any of this dialogue that you need to. We’re still working on it, but I think so far we’ve meshed really easily.
It’s been the most fun I’ve ever had drafting a project. Normally writing feels like such a solitary kind of thing while you’re in it, but with Andrew it’s been a whole different experience.
How to Become a Planet by Nicole Melleby. Algonquin, $16.95 May 25 ISBN 978-1-64375-036-1