Eighteen books by 18 authors, 18 different protagonists, and one third-grade classroom helmed by one unflappable teacher. The numbers add up to The Kids in Mrs. Z’s Class, an upcoming chapter-book series from Algonquin Young Readers, first announced here.
Set in Curiosity Academy, a new magnet school in the town of Peppermint Falls, the sprawling series featuring a multicultural cast will roll out on June 11, 2024, with Emma McKenna, Full Out by Kate Messner and Rohan Murthy Has a Plan by Rajani LaRocca. Due in January 2025 are Poppy Song Bakes a Way by Karina Yan Glaser and The Ballad of Memo Castillo by William Alexander. Rounding out the series’ inaugural wave of books are two as-yet-untitled novels by Joseph Bruchac and Kekla Magoon, tentatively scheduled for summer 2025. Kat Fajardo will illustrate each title.
Subsequent novels in the series will be written by Tracey Baptiste, Martha Brockenbrough, Lamar Giles, Mike Jung, Hena Khan, Kyle Lukoff, Meg Medina, Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich, Eliot Schrefer, Laurel Snyder, and Linda Urban.
The Kids in Mrs. Z’s Class is spearheaded by Cheryl Klein, who was named editorial director of Algonquin Books for Young Readers in June 2022. “I came to Algonquin with an assignment to think about how we could further expand the list,” Klein said. “Algonquin published its first picture book last fall, and we began talking about starting a chapter book series, a format that [parent company] Hachette hadn’t done in a few years. We saw an open space there.”
To fill that void, Klein reached into her own past and reading tastes to envision a series for readers ages 7–10. “I’ve always loved character-driven stories featuring people coming together to work on a joint endeavor,” she said. “Also, I’m the child of teachers and I was a big school nerd. I love how the school experience brings so many different people together. The setup of this series offers the opportunity to see the same characters and events from different points of view, and to discover the hidden depths or secrets of characters a reader might take for granted on first meeting.”
Assembling a Village
The series’ development was accelerated by a serendipitous encounter at the June 2022 ALA conference, between Stacy Lellos, v-p and publisher of Workman Kids and Algonquin Young Readers, and author Kate Messner, whose myriad children’s works include the Ranger in Time, History Smashers, Fergus and Zeke, and Over and Under series.
“After ALA, Klein recalled, “Stacy and I began talking about what a talented writer and a great person Kate is, and I knew that she had a background in education.” Klein wasted no time reaching out to Messner to ask if she’d be interested in becoming the series’ coordinator. Messner happily accepted, agreeing to write the first and final books in The Kids in Mrs. Z’s Class, and to tackle the daunting process of lining up 16 additional authors.
Messner collaborated with Klein to compile a wish list of potential contributors. “We knew we wanted to select talented writers who were funny, kind people,” Messner said. “They also needed to be team players who’d approach the project with a sense of joy and play—and almost everyone we contacted signed on.”
One of the enthusiastic recruits was LaRocca, author of numerous works for children, among them Red, White, and Whole, a 2022 Newbery Honor Book. LaRocca was thrilled when Messner pulled her aside at a writers’ retreat to ask if she’d like to join Mrs. Z’s Class’s author roster.
“Kate told me to think about it,” LaRocca said. “But I didn’t need to think about it—I said ‘yes’ right then. I loved the idea of a chapter-book series with many authors getting to create their own main character, story, and distinct narrator voice. And the diversity of writers and students included reflects what a classroom in America actually looks like, which I think is fantastic.”
Populating Mrs. Z’s classroom was a meticulous, collective undertaking. Klein and Messner collaborated on a character creation worksheet that guided authors in the development of their characters for the series.
The authors were asked to provide such details as their character’s cultural background, family structure, and favorite color. Some of the questions dug deep, asking authors to reveal one secret that their protagonist has that classmates do not know, and what peers see—and don’t see—when they look at them.
The worksheets were shared with all authors and became the foundation for the series bible, which they used to construct their individual story arcs. Authors were also given maps of the school and the town and were invited to weigh in on the details of the setting, an opportunity that, LaRocca said, “was a special joy, since contributors to a series don’t always get the chance to help create the world itself.”
Communication and information swapping among the series’ contributors has been open and ongoing, Messner said. “Since the main character in one book is a secondary character in the others, authors share drafts and talk to each other about ways our characters will interact. We have this amazing team of creators, all writing in the same sandbox, and I think we’re all rediscovering the role that collaboration, conversation, and play have in our lives as writers and as readers.”
LaRocca encapsulated her participation in the series simply as “a delight. It feels like a big hug.”