In this second installment of our new series, we asked editors to tell us about a book of theirs, published during the pandemic, that they wish had gotten more love.
Alvina Ling, v-p and editor-in-chief, Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
When I first read an early draft of Agnes at the End of the World by Kelly McWilliams, I knew it was a special book. I’m acquiring very selectively these days, and what helps a book stand out to me and makes me want to champion it is a unique concept, and the voice. The voice in this book felt so beautiful and distinct, and the mashup of pandemic and cult concept pulled me in—I’ve never read anything quite like it. The fact that Agnes at the End of the World was published during the heart of the pandemic (June 2020), when it indeed felt like our world was ending, too, was both a blessing and a curse. While I imagine some people (like me) were consuming fiction and nonfiction narratives about pandemics, I suspect most people were looking for escapism. Kelly is an exceptional writer, and I hope more readers will discover this book, and her future ones, too.
Emily Seife, senior editor, Scholastic Press
During the pandemic, our lives moved online: activities varied from Zoom hangouts on the computer to social media scrolling on our phones, and back. So there was really no better—and no worse—time for Sheila M. Averbuch’s debut novel, Friend Me, to release. Mean Girls meets Black Mirror in this middle grade thriller about a girl whose new online BFF might not be what she seems. I adore this suspenseful, fast-paced read because of Sheila’s brilliant storytelling and empathetic look at bullying. But what makes it a stand-out pick for tweens, now more than ever, is how it takes a deep look at our faith in the technology that we rely on and use every day. It’s just a touch futuristic, but entirely plausible, and will have young readers rethinking exactly who—and what—they trust online.
Stephanie Stein, senior editor, HarperCollins Children’s Books
Ciara Smyth’s debut The Falling in Love Montage is the lesbian YA rom-com of my dreams, and publishing it last year is one of the things that helped me get through the chaos of the pandemic. Two trope-savvy teens embark on a summer of rom-com montage-worthy dates—there’s a checklist!—and do it all with A+ banter and layers upon layers of heart. It’s a rare book that can make me laugh and cry with equal abandon and make one just as fun as the other. Ciara is one of those writers, and she’s a name I want everyone in the YA book world to know! If you liked Netflix’s Derry Girls (but wish it were gayer), I can’t recommend this snarky, lovable debut highly enough.
Greg Hunter, editorial director, Lerner/Graphic Universe
Lizard in a Zoot Suit is an original young adult graphic novel by Marco Finnegan, set during the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943. The book, a work of historical sci-fi, has elements of E.T. and retro creature features, with some touches that make it totally distinct. Marco draws on his family history and the larger history of Mexican Americans in Los Angeles—including discrimination and the creation of a unique youth culture—while telling the story of two sisters trying to save a giant reptile from a corrupt military scientist. It has stylish two-color artwork, explores a fascinating historical moment, and lives up to its title in terms of the fun and humor it has to offer. This book arrived in August 2020, after moving out of its original May 2020 pub month. Even in the later month, I’m not sure Lizard reached everyone it should have, and I continue to hope that, over time, it will. Marco brought mix of inventiveness and social history to the book that readers will find really rewarding.
Anne Schwartz, v-p and publisher, Anne Schwartz Books
Madame Saqui: Revolutionary Rope Dancer by Lisa Robinson, illustrated by Rebecca Green, is a glorious picture book about an exceptional woman who lived during the French Revolution, performing feats on a highwire for an audience that often included Napoleon. It is nonfiction at its best—a fascinating subject, dramatic setting, kid-friendly text, and exquisite illustrations. A perfect handsell for independent bookstores, as well as for classrooms, but it couldn’t reach its audience, alas. Poor Lisa Robinson was doubly unlucky; her second nonfiction picture book—Were I Not a Girl: The Inspiring and True Story of Dr. James Barry—was also published during Covid.
Karen Chaplin, executive editor, Quill Tree Books
One of the books I edited that came out during the pandemic was Cameron Kelly Rosenblum’s poignant YA debut The Stepping Off Place. Published in July 2020, when the pandemic was still raging, I’m sad to say this release was completely eclipsed by daily outbreak numbers and updates on the virus. But it is such a good book that I just want every teen to read! Beautiful, emotionally driven prose tells the story of two best friends—friends who thought they knew absolutely everything about each other. But there are secrets between them, which come to the forefront in an unfortunately tragic way, shining a light on how friends deal with grief, mental illness, and the loss of someone they thought was a totally different person. It’s one of those stories that stays with you for a long time after you read it, and the setting—summertime along the beaches of Maine paired with rural Connecticut—adds so much atmosphere to the tale. And it’s one that I think should have launched Cameron’s career in a bigger way, as I think she has a very bright one ahead of her. With her second book slated for 2022, I’m hoping for all good things for this promising YA author.
Connie Hsu, editorial director, Roaring Brook Press
A Little Space for Me by Jennifer Gray Olson is a book I could see booksellers embracing, a book that I feel would have benefited from shelf talkers, handselling, and people discovering it from browsing in a store. It’s about a young girl who seeks to find a bit of “space” for herself (rendered cleverly as literal cosmic space) to escape from the noisy, smelly, crowded world of her home and school. I’m exceptionally proud of this book because of its evolution and because of author Jennifer Gray Olson’s commitment to hitting its message and themes thoughtfully, respectfully and lovingly.
When Jen and I first started working on this book, the narrative was about a character who shuts herself away from the chaos of her world, and, when she gets lonely, emerges from her bedroom to rejoin the family. As we were working on the book, Jen, a mother of five, realized that there’s nothing wrong with needing a little bit of space and that the impetus to rejoin the world shouldn't be loneliness—it should be when someone is mentally ready. The story changed direction from then on to focus on mindfulness and how having that space can be healing and necessary. I wish the book could’ve found its way to readers during the lockdown, when everyone lost their other “space.” be it school, at work, or at the homes of friends and family, and I hope that people continue to discover this book and make space for it on their shelves.
Kelly Delaney, editor, Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers
Over the course of my years as an editor I’ve honed my pitch to agents, but my one weird, specific ask has always been the same: send me a time-travel novel that is so smart and fun I don’t get distracted by whether time travel is really possible. I finally found that book a few years ago, with Sarah Lariviere’s YA debut, Time Travel for Love and Profit. This story is about Nephele, who is ghosted by her only friend on the first day of freshman year. She responds the only way a math prodigy like herself could: by inventing a time travel app that will allow her to re-do the year, but this time she’ll be too cool to ditch. Of course, things don’t go as planned—she does invent time travel, but she gets stuck in a time loop, reliving freshman year over and over as everyone around her moves on. The read is thought-provoking and earnest and charming and fun; reviews compared it to A Wrinkle in Time and Dr. Who. For those who did find it during this wild year, I hope it provided a balm and an escape. Sarah and Nephele weathered a pandemic, an insurrection, and shipping delays caused by disruption to the international publishing supply chain with optimism and determination, and there is a lot more to look forward to from Sarah in the future, but I hope this YA won’t get lost in its own time loop as the world moves on from the disaster that was 2020.