Bestselling YA author Gayle Forman will make her first foray into middle-grade fiction in October with Frankie & Bug, due from Simon & Schuster’s Aladdin imprint. Announced here for the first time, the book was acquired by editorial director Kristin Gilson from Michael Bourret at Dystel, Goderich, and Bourret. The novel spotlights the friendship between Bug, a feisty 10-year-old girl from Venice Beach, Calif., who feels abandoned when her older brother decides he’d rather hang out with his friends than with her; and Frankie, an 11-year-old trans boy who arrives from Ohio to spend the summer with his gay uncle—and who wants only to have the chance to be who he is.

Frankie & Bug had an instantaneous genesis and a lengthy gestation period, Forman explained. In January 2013, on what she called “an insanely long flight” home to New York from the Philippines, the author re-read To Kill a Mockingbird, which sparked her creative curiosity.

“I began thinking, ‘What would a modern-day equivalent of that story be?’ she said. “Thinking about how certain things have changed since that novel was written, while others have not, spawned the idea of looking backwards, to Venice Beach in the 1980s. I started with the idea of a girl feeling neglected by her brother—that part came from To Kill a Mockingbird. And so did the arrival of a new friend for the summer, Frankie."

The novelist reached into her own past to find a key component of her plot. When they first meet, Bug and Frankie are wary of each other, but bond over their shared preoccupation with learning the identity of an elusive serial killer known as the Midnight Marauder—based on a serial killer who terrorized Southern California, where Forman grew up, in the 1980s. “Everyone was obsessed by this killer and was convinced they saw him everywhere—including me,” the author said.

Forman noted that about halfway through Frankie & Bug, the protagonists’ focus shifts, and “things deepen.” First Frankie reveals to Bug that he is trans, though not in so many words, “because an 11-year-old at that time wouldn’t have the words,” and later, when Frankie’s uncle is beaten up, the kids begin investigating why he was assaulted, and who did it. After Forman finished the book, however, she put it aside. “Gender identity and trans rights had become a big part of the national conversation, and as a cis-gendered woman, I didn't feel as though it was the right time to publish a book with a trans character,” she said.

But later events—like what Forman perceived as the horrific recent treatment of immigrants to this country—reignited the story, which also has a plot element about Bug’s late father coming to the U.S. after he’s forced to leave El Salvador. “I returned to the book, thinking again about how much has changed—and how much hasn’t,” she explained. “That’s when I understood that the novel really should be about allyship and showing up for others in ways they need us to, not in ways we want to.”

A Welcoming Home for Frankie and Bug

Forman knew intuitively who it was she wanted to edit Frankie & Bug. She and Gilson had interacted professionally when the latter worked as editorial director of Puffin, which published paperback editions of Forman’s YA books from Viking. Over the years, they became friends and the author had mentioned her middle-grade novel in progress to Gilson, whose son is trans. After Gilson moved to Aladdin in fall 2019, they began a new conversation.

“When Kristin landed at Aladdin, she commented that she’d like to find some good novels with nonbinary characters, and I thought, ‘This is where Frankie and Bug belong.’ Their story is about finding where you fit in—and I realized they fit in perfectly with Kristin.”

Gilson was eager to acquire Frankie & Bug for multiple reasons. “What pulled me into the book was the voice,” she said. “Gayle does voice so well, and as an author so firmly established in the YA world, she nailed the middle-grade voice, which doesn’t always happen when writers shift directions. There’s a lot of Ramona Quimby—a character I’ve always had a soft spot for—in Bug, and the character of Frankie, finding himself and making his way down a new path, really spoke to me.”

Additionally, Gilson said she was drawn to Frankie & Bug given what she called “the ongoing need for trans representation in books, which I am of course tuned into living with a trans teen who is an avid reader. And this is a book about allyship in general—which is so important.” The editor is also pleased that her professional relationship with Forman has reached a new level, since this is the first time she has “worked with Gayle from the ground up rather than republishing her books. It has been a joy.”

For Forman, breaking into middle grade with Frankie & Bug proved a rewarding challenge. “In my novels, I get into the skin of every one of my characters, and with Frankie and Bug it was a delight,” she said. “The sustaining power of friendship is so important in my life, and it keeps showing up in my novels, as does the importance of the family you create.”

The author weaves additional hopeful messages into her book. “It felt important to show that things that seem intractable can change,” she said. “In the words of Bug’s mother, ‘Life isn’t fair. The most you can hope for is that it’s just.’ It’s incumbent upon us all to strive for that justice.”

Frankie & Bug by Gayle Forman. Aladdin, $17.99 Oct. 12 ISBN 978-1-5344-8253-1