After living on several continents and teaching high school in Egypt, Dan Gemeinhart found his home in Washington State, working as an elementary school teacher-librarian and immersed in rich middle grade literature. The journey toward publishing his first middle grade novel spanned 10 years, eventually culminating in a full-time career as an author and a body of work that explores themes of community and belonging. In his sixth novel, The Midnight Children, a hunted found-family of “Ragabond” orphans find an ally in a lonely, artistic boy with a longing to transform his community. PW spoke with Gemeinhart about his unconventional style choices in The Midnight Children and the meaning of home in middle grade fiction.

The Midnight Children follows in the tradition of 21st-century children’s books with a narrative style that could have been plucked from a century earlier—books like The Mysterious Benedict Society, The Penderwicks, or A Series of Unfortunate Events. Yet other elements of the story, like the satirical and gory depiction of the meat industry, come across as distinctly modern. What was the point of origin for your story?

The seed for this story came years ago. It started as a bedtime story for my oldest daughter when she was three or four. That opening scene where a boy wakes up in the middle of the night and hears a noise and looks out the window to see a mysterious group of children moving into the house across the street—no furniture, no grown-ups, just the kids—that scene has stayed the same through all the different versions I’ve done. I’m really excited that this story that started as a special thing for me and my daughter will now be out there for other people to enjoy.

There are hints of magic throughout the novel, but you never confirm whether the magic is real. Why did you make the choice to leave it ambiguous?

To me, it kind of matched a lot of other elements of the story—where it’s kind of a scary story in a lot of ways but not a horror story, and it’s kind of an old-timey story but it’s not an old-timey story, and it’s kind of a magical story but it’s not entirely a fantasy—and the whole narrative is threading that needle. It felt like the magic worked best that way because if you go full magic, then it really departs this world entirely. With a little bit of magic, kids can still imagine it happening to them, and it added to that slightly otherworldly tone that the book already had.

Your imagery in this novel is concrete yet demands a conscious stretch of imagination—like when Virginia’s tone of voice “held [Ravani] at arm’s length, and maybe even frowned a little.” How did you arrive at that distinct narrative voice?

That voice really came to me through all the writing and rewriting I’ve done over the last 10 years, in many versions of the story and during which almost every element has changed. One of the last elements to pop into place was that tone and that voice. I tried first person; I tried third person; I tried past tense; I tried present tense; and all different tones from very serious to light and jokey to the one I landed on, which is kind of that old-timey voice with some interesting imagery and different kinds of language and words. Since the setting became amorphous—there’s no real named setting, there’s no named date—that is just how the story seemed to want to be told. It’s a storyteller, it’s third person, and they are right there with the reader. It hopefully feels like someone is being told the story.

The imagery that the narrator used came about through me figuring out how it felt the most fun and how it felt the most interesting and how the voice could best match the story and the setting. You could say trial and error, but I would say more like working really hard on how the story should come out, like chipping away at the marble until the statue that was always meant to be could be there.

Your website’s author bio mentions that you moved around a lot in your youth, including to different continents. Did that experience inform your creation of the Ragabond siblings who bounce from town to town?

I think for sure, and hearkening back to all my other stories, every single one of the books I’ve written has been a journey story. None of the books that I’ve written have been about a kid or group of kids in the house or town that they live in and that’s the story. This one is the most like that because it does all happen in one town, the town of Slaughterville, but even this story has a lot of movement in the backstory—and even movement in the story itself, not through our main character, Ravani, but through the Ragabonds. It’s about trying to find where you belong and trying to find where your family belongs, and I definitely think that, subconsciously, that came out of my childhood.

Has living in a variety of countries given you a different perspective on what home means?

Growing up, moving around so much, home was never a place. Home was where you were next. Home was where you were with your family. It’s a theme of lots of stories, especially for middle grade—finding where you belong. Because that’s the big question you wrestle with as a middle grader, as a 10- to 18-year-old. As you leave childhood behind and as you start to become the kind of person you’re going to be, it’s answering all those questions: “Who am I? Who do I want to be my friends? What kind of person am I going to be? What kind of person am I not going to be?” I think the central beating heart of almost all middle grade literature, no matter what the background is for that particular story, is the protagonist trying to figure out who they are and where they belong.

Both The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise and The Midnight Children deal with building community as well as finding comfort and strength through connection. Can you speak to the role that community has played in your life or in your work as an author?

Where we are, who we’re with, who we choose to be with, and how we choose to interact with those people—that’s life. That’s how we define ourselves as people: the relationships that we have and what we give or take from the world around us. And so those are the questions that we, even as grown-ups, wrestle with in our jobs and in our personal lives and our families.

In my first book, The Honest Truth, one of the main themes is said by one of the minor characters, “We’re all in this together,” this being not just the situation of the book, but life. And that’s the definition of community I’ve always tried to be a part of as an adult—when I was a teacher and librarian, trying to serve those kids and their families and the other teachers I worked with, and now I work from home, but still I’m looking for ways to interact with the world around me and to give back to those around me.

As 12-year-olds, Ravani and Virginia support and uplift one another in the face of bullying, and their positive actions ripple out to effect change throughout their town, even going so far as to shake up the local economy. What inspires you to empower middle grade characters as opposed to writing for other age groups?

I got into writing middle grade through my work as an elementary librarian. I had thought forever ago that I wanted to write grown-up books, and I tried one that thankfully never got published because it was a trainwreck. But then I got a job as an elementary teacher-librarian so I had to read all these books so I could do my job and handsell these books to kids and see what was out there with kid lit, which I hadn’t really interacted with since I was a kid. And I was blown away by how far middle grade literature had come in 25 years and how many amazing authors were writing such incredible stories of depth and beauty and meaning and humor.

So that’s what I started to write, and I never looked back. I love that time of our lives that middle grade readers go through. It’s such an interesting, exciting, sometimes scary, sometimes confusing part of our lives, and that’s why I think middle grade literature is all those things as well. It deals with almost all the same big things that grown-up literature does, but in a way that I think is so much more fun and engaging.

Are there things you wish you had known before undertaking your decade-long publishing journey that might help aspiring authors?

The short but strange answer is no. I wrote several books that never got published—years of my life, a decade of failure and rejection—but that was kind of the journey I had to get through. And every one of those setbacks taught me something, and every one of those setbacks made me work a little harder or try something different, dig a little deeper. Now I might whisper some words of encouragement to myself because it could be very demoralizing to fail at something for 10 years when you’re trying so hard and care so much, but I think the lessons I needed to learn, I don’t think you can learn those just by having those told to you. I think you have to learn them through failing and doing.

What are you working on now?

I’m in kind of a fun phase where [The Midnight Children] is about to come out so I’ve been doing a lot of talking and thinking about that, but then you start thinking, “OK, so I’ve had these other ideas in my head and on my computer for the couple years it took me to get this book done.” So you rub your hands together and say, “What should I do next?”

I am playing with a couple of middle grade novels that are in the very, very early stages, and I’ve also written the rough draft script of a graphic novel that is with my agent right now to see if that goes anywhere. That was a really fun learning experience to flex a different kind of muscle. And I’m working on some picture books. So right now, I have some pots simmering, and hopefully some of those will turn into something good.

The Midnight Children by Dan Gemeinhart. Holt, $16.99 Aug. 30 ISBN 978-1-2501-9672-9