Author Ali Benjamin’s first middle grade novel, The Thing About Jellyfish (Little, Brown, 2015), was a National Book Award finalist, a New York Times Notable, and a fall 2015 PW Flying Start. If Benjamin’s fiction debut sounds like a tough act to follow, her sophomore novel is in some ways about the very challenge of coming on the heels of a fan favorite. PW spoke with Benjamin about the creative catalyst for her new book, The Next Great Paulie Fink, the cover of which is revealed here exclusively for the first time.

“It took a long time for me to write this book and then feel like it was something that I was comfortable bringing out into the world,” Benjamin said of the project. “Right from the start, it’s a pretty complicated story, in that it’s told through 13 or 14 voices.” The core narrative centers on a girl named Caitlyn who has moved with her mother to a small town in Vermont, where she joins a tight-knit seventh grade class. “Her class is so small that there are only 10 other kids in the grade,” Benjamin explained. “On the first day of school, her fellow classmates learn that one of the kids who had been in their class, Paulie Fink, is not coming back, and they’re not sure why. Paulie was a bit of a prankster, a clown, and was always getting into interesting kinds of trouble.”

The reserved Caitlyn can’t help but feel overshadowed by Paulie. Benjamin noted, “The class keeps telling stories about this kid who Caitlyn is not, until they reach the point where they decide to fill the hole left in their class: they will hold a reality-style competition to replace him, and Caitlyn will be the judge. Her job is to literally fill the shoes of a kid she doesn’t know. Through running the competition, she learns a lot about herself and her classmates, while trying to construct an idea of this person who has reached a legendary status among her peers.”

While the action unfolds in a small classroom, the story evokes larger issues, Benjamin said. “As the kids are doing all of this, they’re studying ancient Greece and the Allegory of Plato’s Cave, which is the story of unlearning our assumptions and learning that we can be wrong.”

Seeking the Next Great Story

Landing on the idea for her second novel did not come easily to Benjamin. “I think it would be fair to say I failed at writing two other follow-ups, very different projects,” she said. The story that would become The Next Great Paulie Fink was influenced, in part, by current events. “A few different things fed into it. It’s hard for me to separate the outside world from my interior writing experience. I just felt like the world around us turned upside down; it got very distracting,” Benjamin said. “Suddenly we were living in this crazy reality-TV world. I saw people picking their stories, some of which had more truth than others. I was looking at the world around me, the way people were constructing meaning. People could be looking at the exact same thing or moment in time and experience it in completely different ways. It was incredibly jarring, and something I wanted to think about.”

Another source of inspiration came in the form of her family’s personal brush with internet fame. “I had a weird experience years ago: when my younger daughter, Charlotte, was seven, she wrote a letter to the Lego company that went viral. And I’m a pretty private person. It was originally posted on a sociology blog, and within a week it had gone around the world several times. It was the number one story on Yahoo at one point.” The letter, which called out the gender stereotyping in the company’s toys, drew a wide range of reactions. “Some of the comments on the article were like, ‘Charlotte for president!’ and some were horrible. So many people would read the story and project whatever they wanted onto it.” At the heart of The Next Great Paulie Fink, Benjamin said, is “a story about whom we elevate and what stories we share about them. How do we use stories to construct meaning—and are they true?”

Benjamin acknowledged the supportive role that her editor, Andrea Spooner, v-p and editorial director at Little, Brown, has played throughout the book’s development. “She’s literally the most patient person on the planet,” she said. “I’m certain that I’m not an easy writer to work with in that I have lots of stops and starts. She saw a very fledgling version of this book and was able to see through it to more of a finished product than I could. She was so encouraging. The whole team at Little, Brown was unbelievably patient.”

On her passion for writing books for young readers, Benjamin said, “I love middle grade readers. I would say that was one of the great surprises of becoming an adult, because I didn’t like middle school when I was that age. I had a diary in seventh and eighth grade that I’ve kept, and when I read it I think, ‘I don’t like who I was then!’ I love how they are wrestling with the big questions, how excited they are to talk about big ideas, and how they’re figuring out who they are separate from the adults in their lives.”

The Next Great Paulie Fink is due out from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers on April 16, 2019. Though the details of her book tour are still in the works, Benjamin said, “I really look forward to it. I love talking to large groups of kids. I also love when I have a chance to sit in a room with a few of them and have a conversation—I get so much out of that.” Benjamin recounted a recent visit to a summer camp in Maine: “We were in a cabin in the middle of the woods, with no electricity, and we sat around and talked about books. It was a really lovely moment of connection with kids from all different walks of life. Kids are really open to that connection. They’re hungry for it.”

Benjamin also described the optimism she derives from the children’s book community. “Writing The Thing About Jellyfish showed me the quality human beings out there who are sharing stories and are actively engaged in kids’ lives. It’s something that, when I get down about the way things are, makes me feel so much hope. I’m incredibly grateful to kid lit in general for being so full of heart, and a depth and breadth of caring people. It’s such a rewarding thing.”