If there were themes to this year’s selection of Middle Grade Editor’s Buzz picks, it was that representation matters and that even in our darkest hours, we must maintain hope that the world can become a better place, if people will fight to make it so. Selections ranged from a spooky story set in a town populated by an evil cult, to a novel-in-verse about an immigrant child detained at the U.S. border, to the memoir by an 85-year-old survivor of Hitler’s invasion of Poland.
Wesley Adams, executive editor of Farrar, Straus, and Giroux Books for Young Readers, introduced the Zoom audience last Friday afternoon to Chance: Escape from the Holocaust, Caldecott Medalist Uri Shulevitz’s first middle-grade book, a childhood memoir that in words and pictures chronicles his family’s eight-year journey to escape the Nazis. Born in Warsaw, Shulevitz fled with his parents when the Germans invaded Poland in 1939, and made their way to the Soviet Union. Shulevitz was only four years old.
The title comes from, Shulevitz explained, the reality that “nobody knew what to expect. Life—or fate—was playing Russian roulette with our lives. Chance, blind chance, decided who was going to live and who was going to die.” But this is not a Holocaust memoir, he insists: his family was not sent to the camps or even to a ghetto. Rather, it is a memoir about survivors.
Much of the discussion between Shulevitz and his editor touched upon the art: not only does Chance include the only existing family photos and other ephemera from that period in Shulevitz’s life, but it also features his simple illustrations. Adams noted that the book’s subject matter is harsh at times, but the “impressionistic vibe to the pictures” lends another layer of meaning to the story.
“What was most important to me was to convey the emotions,” Shulevitz explained, noting that certain scenes were forever seared in his memory, such as that of his mother lacing up his shoes and telling him that he would have to “get used to walking a lot.”
Adams told Shulevitz that Chance is “very much a portrait of your love for drawing from a very young age. Making art saved you from loneliness and despair.” Shulevitz concluded the discussion by declaring that if his book provides comfort to any child during these difficult times, when the world is a global pandemic, and gives anyone hope that they will persevere, “that they need to fight and not give up,” then he will happy to have written it.
Phoebe Yeh, v-p and publisher of Crown Books for Young Readers, introduced debut novelist Kelly J. Baptist, author of Isaiah Dunn Is My Hero, [about a boy named Isaiah who discovers a love of language after finding his late father’s journal, which is filled with stories about a superhero also named Isaiah Dunn. Recalling her initial response to Isaiah Dunn, Yeh said, “I was struck by the voice. Isaiah was someone I wanted to know.”
Baptist disclosed that Isaiah Dunn took a roundabout journey to publication. She said she wrote a novel, The Chronicles of Isaiah Dunn, but extracted a short story from it to enter into a We Need Diverse Books short story contest. When, after she won the contest, Yeh asked her, “Is Isaiah done talking, does he have more to say?” Baptist dusted off the manuscript, sent it to Yeh, and the short story returned to being a novel.
Baptist explained that Isaiah is homeless, because she was interested in writing a tale from the POV of such a child, so as to explore it from such a child’s perspective. But Baptist did not want this characteristic to be a defining factor for Isaiah. “I wanted to show his perseverance, his hope,” she said, “And also that he was a well-rounded kid. He had school, he had his friends.”
Asked what she wanted readers to take away from Isaiah Dunn, Baptist responded that she wants readers to understand that “there is always a story behind the story,” that she hopes that people would try to understand what others may be contending with. “We’ll find a lot more common ground, and hopefully extend a lot more compassion and kindness” to one another, she said.
Andrea Davis Pinkney, Scholastic v-p and executive editor, and novelist Aida Salazar discussed Land of the Cranes, an illustrated novel-in-verse about Betita, a nine-year-old Latinx girl housed with her mother in a family detention center for migrants and refugees after her father is deported back to Mexico. Betita believes that she is a crane after her father tells her a myth about cranes returning to their ancestral homeland, now the southwest U.S. A poet, Betita writes picture poems to her father, telling him of her “harrowing experiences while being caged.”
Pinkney compared the author-editor relationship to that of two people taking a long road trip and conversing along the way. To her, a “tremendous” read has three factors: “goosebumps; can’t sleep factor; and flight factor: I’m taken away. I thank you, Aida, for my itchy skin, insomnia, and for lifting me up.”
Salazar disclosed that she writes children’s books from “a political place”; her children’s books address in an age-appropriate manner the impact of such controversial issues as zero tolerance policies, immigration, and racism.
The novel was written in verse, Salazar said, because the “musicality of language” makes it easier to explore such difficult issues in a way that “children can understand and also can play with, feel comfortable with.”
She emphasized that she is committed to representing the characters she writes about “with utmost authenticity, with utmost respect. I take a lot of time and I put a lot of care into how they’re represented, not only on the page, but also visually.” She also said that she did not want to “show a victim,” but rather wanted to “illustrate the magic and the power” that this child employs to rise above the obstacles holding her down.
“We’re living in very dangerous times,” Salazar said. “Black and brown bodies are dehumanized time and again. These are truths I did not want to shy away from. I wanted to represent them in a way that is dignified. I wanted children to find light in their darkest hour. I want children to feel that they can be agents of change, they can make the world a better place.”
Maggie Rosenthal, associate editor of Viking Books for Young Readers, introduced Thirteens by Kate Alice Marshall, a horror story with a “twisted fairy tale” mixed in that she compared to Neil Gaiman’s Coraline; Thirteens, like Coraline, is a tale that “feels timeless, outside of time, but feels so relevant to now.”
When Eleanor moves to a new town shortly after her mother disappears under mysterious circumstances, she realizes that she can see things that other people can’t see. After she meets Pip and Otto, the three children realize, after reading a book of fairy tales, that they are in grave danger, as a mysterious Mr. January struck a deal with the town’s founders. The trio may be the next transactions in fulfillment of that deal.
“It’s up to the kids to save themselves,” Marshall explains, describing Thirteens as a “joyful, spooky, tumble of words, high-energy writing that ultimately is about adventures, puzzles, and triumph.” She said she wanted to write a novel that put children at the center of the action and made them heroes in a battle against an evil cult.
“There’s a lot of resonance to our current moment in the world,” she noted, citing climate change as a “generational crisis created by people who came long before this generation of middle grade readers. “This story is the same thing: there’s a curse because of short- sighted adults. Now it’s the kids who have to pay.”
Asked what she wanted readers to take away from Thirteens, Marshall responded that she wants them to realize that people have to speak up to protect their futures. “Kids have to step up and think beyond themselves. It’s not the easiest or the safest option—but it’s the right thing to do.”
Reka Simonsen, editorial director of Atheneum Books for Young Readers, and Jamie Sumner discussed Sumner’s forthcoming novel, Tune It Out, the tale of Lou, a girl with a sensory processing disorder who must find her own voice after her world turns upside down. Even though Lou is a talented singer, she and her mother live in poverty, sleeping in their truck. After they are separated by child protective services, Lou finds herself living with her aunt and uncle and attending a private school, where her new best friend, Well, has everything he wants except for his parents’ attention.
“It’s a lovely story about music and so much more,” Simonsen said, before asking Sumner why she created a character with sensory processing disorder. Disclosing that her own son has the disorder, Sumner pointed out that “everybody deserves that moment when they’re reading and they think, ‘ha, that’s me, they get me.’ It makes you feel seen. No one can give that to you. You have to discover it for yourself.”
Simonsen agreed, adding that Tune It Out especially resonated for her because she grew up in poverty and the representation of what it was like to grow up poor rang true for her. “It’s an honest portrayal,” she said. “There’s so many kids living in poverty right now, living with insecurity made worse by the pandemic. So few kids who are dealing with poverty see themselves represented.”
It’s also, Sumner pointed out, a novel about mother-daughter relationships in all their complexities. While Lou’s mother makes bad decisions that end up harming Lou, there still is love between them. “The mom wants the best for Lou,” Sumner says. “She just can’t figure out what Lou needs. The mom knows she is different, but she doesn’t know what it means. The two have a complicated relationship, that doesn’t have a clear fix. But there’s so much love there.”
Summing up Tune It Out, Simonsen said, “It’s a wonderful blend of poignant things. There’s humor and there’s heart.”