Sara Shepard knows a thing or two about friendship. The author of the bestselling YA series Pretty Little Liars and The Lying Game has explored the rivalries, loyalties, and secrets of groups of friends and frenemies in her dozens of novels. She’s taking a new turn on the subject in her first middle-grade novel Penny Draws a Friend, due out from Putnam Books for Young Readers next May. Far from the twisty-turny plots of her previous novels, the series will center on fifth-grader Penny, who struggles with anxiety and finds that she’s not alone in that. In another first, the books will feature Shepard’s illustrations, whimsical line drawings meant to make some of the tough subjects approachable.

Shepard’s YA books have been credited with establishing the YA mystery-thriller category and inspiring similar ensemble storylines in books and in TV series. But Penny is the story she’s been wanting to write since she herself was in fifth grade, she said. The story “found” her while she was at home during the pandemic with her kids, who are now in third and fifth grade. As she watched the issues they struggled with during that difficult time, the story took shape. A bright, anxious child, Penny worries. “She knows she worries,” Shepard said. But, as Penny discovers, there’s no need to pretend or hide what you’re going through. She visits the school counselor (who she calls “the feelings teacher”) and finds that she’s not the only one who feels like she has something to hide. The story was very much a case of “meeting the moment” during the pandemic, Shepard said, addressing something that so many children continue to experience.

“I was an anxious kid growing up,” she said, so anxiety is a subject she cares deeply about and Penny’s story “came naturally” to her. “I found Penny, and she just poured out of me. She’s a blend of myself, my kids, and the voices of lots of kids going through big feelings.”

Despite the weighty subject, Penny is lighthearted, Shepard said. And although her work has a reputation for razor-sharp plot twists and unscrupulous characters, playful is much more her default in real life. “The fun thing about middle grade is that can be silly and ridiculous, but also serious. Kids think deeply. You can talk about really big things, but it can be adventurous without the heaviness.” Ultimately, she said, in middle grade storytelling, anything that can get kids to read is worthwhile.

Creating the illustrations for the book was brand-new territory for Shepard. “I’ve always doodled but have absolutely never done drawings before,” she said. She started out with pencil drawings before switching to working on an iPad. “I’ve had to learn a lot,” she said. Working with Putnam’s art department was a welcome departure for an author used to creating on her own.

The entire process of creating Penny was joyful for Shepard, with her children joining in and contributing to the book. “My kids are my audience. It was a great thing to work on during some dark times.”

Penny Draws a Friend was acquired by Putnam in a multi-house auction. Jen Klonsky, president and publisher of Putnam Books for Young Readers brokered the deal for world English rights for four books with Sara Shandler and Lanie Davis at Alloy Entertainment and Richard Abate at 3Arts. “I’m such a fan of Sara’s YA novels, and now I get to love her voice in middle grade,” Klonsky said. “From the illustrations to the story itself, Sara is in full command of these absorbing, adorable stories. The Penny Draws series is massively entertaining, and I know it will make so many anxious young readers feel comforted, and seen.” Rights have already been sold in 15 foreign languages.

Shepard hasn’t given up on YA books; there’s another one in the works and she also has an adult thriller on the horizon. But writing Penny is “a dream come true,” she said. “I’m so excited about this project.” She’s planning on scheduling school visits when the book releases and looks forward to connecting with young readers, delivering the message that although friendships are hard, no one is alone.