In this fourth installment of our series, we asked editors to tell us about a book of theirs, published during the pandemic, that they wish had gotten more love.
Cassandra Pelham Fulton, editorial director, Scholastic/Graphix
We couldn’t resist scheduling the publication of Donut the Destroyer by Sarah Graley and Stef Purenins for the week of National Donut Day in June 2020, but that timing turned out to be much more challenging than any of us could have anticipated. We were three months into a pandemic, George Floyd had been killed the previous week, and the country was embroiled in very serious and necessary conversation that couldn’t be further from the topic of donuts. The book didn’t quite find its audience last year, but I hope that readers now discover the charm and humor of Donut the Destroyer. The main character, Donut, has super strength and—despite her name—a heart of gold, and, even though she’s the daughter of supervillains, she wants to go her own way and be a hero. With bright, vivacious cartooning, Graley and Purenins have created a lovable and laugh-out-loud funny middle-grade graphic novel.
Shana Corey, executive editor, Random House Children's Books
I first fell in love with Take Back the Block by Chrystal D. Giles (Jan. 2021) when I saw the pitch as part of #DVpit and was thrilled to win it almost two years later at auction. Take Back the Block is an irresistible, timely, super-readable middle grade debut about gentrification, community, Black Boy Joy, and the power of one kid to make a difference. I love the social justice themes (it touches on not just gentrification, but also race, class, privilege, activism, justice, and so much more), but even more than that, I love the voice, I love how accessible it is, I love the friendships (you will love these kids, and their relationships and crushes and disappointments ring so true!) and I absolutely love the main character Wes—he’s one of the most relatable and endearing 11-year-olds I’ve ever met. I think Chrystal D. Giles is an important new voice and an author to watch. The pandemic debut was of course tricky to navigate. Chrystal is an incredible, insightful speaker. Watching her connect with audiences in virtual panels has been a joy—but it would have been so great to introduce her and Wes to the world with in-person events and panels. Chrystal’s working on her second book now and wow—it is amazing!
Andrea Spooner, v-p, editorial director, Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Democracy for Dinosaurs: A Guide for Young Citizens by Laurie Krasny Brown and Marc Brown is an essential book for every classroom and every child’s bookshelf, especially during a time when our society is finally realizing that democracy in the United States cannot be taken for granted. Particularly after the events of January 6, 2021, when the country witnessed an attack on the very heart of the democratic process, it could not have been more obvious that teaching the basic underlying values of a democratic society needs to begin at the earliest of ages. With the simplest of child-accessible examples and delightful artwork featuring dinosaur characters, Laurie and Marc introduce kids to the concepts of fairness and equal rights, voting and elections, truth and honesty, and free speech and activism. Few creators could tackle a topic this complex while keeping the tone completely nonpolitical and the mood kid-friendly and light. This veteran team has done it again with this unique topic and approach to civic education for elementary schoolers—one that ironically got a bit lost during the messiest, noisiest election in contemporary history.
Taylor Norman, editor, Chronicle Books
There are few things that make me feel luckier than being K.A. Holt’s editor. We’ve worked together for going on six years now, and made as many books. Every one of these is important, innovative, and unique, but both of us have a special soft spot for BenBee and the Teacher Griefer, the first in a four-book cycle each centered on a different kid in a class of divergent learners. Honestly, very few books I’ve ever read, let alone edited, have made me laugh as hard or feel so much—you leave friends behind when you close the pages of this book. (Starting work on Book Four now, I’m beginning to feel the desperation of impending empty nest syndrome.) So it was a particular drag that this explicitly school-based book—a painstakingly authentic portrayal of all the heights and depths and zigzags of middle school, a celebration of the best kind of weird friends you only make when you share a random class together, an homage to that one teacher who won’t give up—came out at a time when there was effectively no school-based reality. What’s more, it’s the start of a series! So when you fall in love with Ben Y and the Ghost in the Machine this September, make sure you go back to BenBee so you can see how all the Kids Under the Stairs met.
Gina Gagliano, publishing director, Random House Graphic
Jessi Zabarsky’s Witchlight was one of the first books I acquired at Random House Graphic. And while I wouldn’t wish a March 2020 pub date on any author, this was a perfect book for me to return to and reread during the pandemic. It’s a queer magical story about a witch finding her magic, and a girl finding her place in the world, and over the course of the book, the two of them travel and dream and make new friends and eat delicious food. Jessi’s fluid, captivating art pulls you into a world where the high-stakes magical drama is surrounded by two girls caring about and for each other, and the life they build for themselves based on that. I’m reassured of the good things in the world every time I pick up this book.
Jenne Abramowitz, executive editor, Scholastic Press
No one can put a smile on your face like a real, true friend. And last summer I was lucky to get to introduce readers to one of the best literary friends you could ever meet in Debbi Michiko Florence’s debut novel Keep It Together, Keiko Carter. Keiko is smart and sweet and loyal—the person her besties Jenna and Audrey trust with their deepest confessions, inside jokes, and secret crushes. But she also struggles with complicated problems that real kids face every day: changing friendships, cultural microaggressions, how girls can be objectified and dismissed, and how sometimes keeping the peace can mean getting lost in the shuffle. And as boys begin to come between the trio, Keiko must decide when to make comprises and when to stand up for what she truly wants. I hope readers will continue to find Keiko’s story and fall in love with her as I have. And luckily, Keiko will be back in Just Be Cool, Jenna Sakai, a companion novel about her BFF Jenna that comes out in August. I can’t wait for readers to get another chance to meet these real, funny, fabulous friends!
Brian Geffen, senior editor, Henry Holt Books for Young Readers
For fans of Jandy Nelson and Jennifer Niven, Rocky Callen’s YA contemporary debut, A Breath Too Late, is about 17-year-old Ellie, who had no hope left. Yet the day after she dies by suicide, she finds herself in the midst of an out-of-body experience. She is a spectator, swaying between reliving past moments in her life and seeing the aftermath of a present where she no longer exists. And Ellie’s determined to find out why a piece of her was left behind. I remember reading Rocky’s stunning novel and feeling as though I’d never seen depression shown with such authenticity, but also with so much hope. Rocky draws on her experiences with depression and her work as a former behavioral therapist to craft a story that delivers the powerful message that hope can live in even the darkest of places.
Breath is a book like Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak—perhaps daunting on pitch alone, but once you read it, you can’t help but want to spread it like wildfire. But since it published right in the midst of statewide lockdowns, there were missed opportunities for booksellers to handsell it and for readers to share dog-eared copies with friends. Plus, it was generally a tough moment to sell a book about mental health struggles. My deep desire is that Breath will continue to find champions and readers, because I really do believe it’s one that changes lives.
Allyn Johnston, v-p and publisher, Beach Lane Books
Looking for Smile began during a weekend in May 2019 when I was teaching a picture book workshop with agent Rubin Pfeffer and author-illustrator Lauren Stringer at the Writing Barn in Austin, Texas. We had to do individual critiques too, and the night before it all started, I asked if either of them had any submissions they thought might be something special. Rubin lit up and said, “Yes, I think I do.” It was this manuscript by Ellen Tarlow, and when Lauren first heard it, she said, “It already feels like a book I want to give to everyone I know.”
Looking for Smile is about feeling blue and sad and not having a clue about what’s going to bring you out of it. It’s touching and genuine and subtle and sweet—and it has a completely satisfying and gentle ending. We had serious high hopes for it. Then the pandemic hit. And despite the fact that the book speaks so honestly and deftly and truly to children about a difficult topic that was unfortunately especially timely during the pandemic, it did not reach the wide audience that we had hoped for.
I hope now it will.
Click here to see our previous Pandemic Missed Connections installments.