Five guest editors spoke at BookExpo’s annual Middle Grade Editors’ Buzz Panel on June 2, an event that gives editors an opportunity to share their noteworthy new middle grade acquisitions. The editors introduced titles that represented a diverse range of genres, tones, and formats. Anne Holman, general manager of The King’s English Bookshop in Salt Lake City, Utah, moderated the event.
Amy Fitzgerald, editor at Carolrhoda Books, spoke about Auma’s Long Run by debut author Eucabeth Odhiambo. Upon learning the premise behind the novel, Fitzgerald prepared herself for an intense reading experience: in the book, Odhiambo writes about 13-year-old Auma, a girl living in 1980s Kenya during the onset of the AIDS crisis. Auma aims to pursue a track scholarship that will enable her to attend high school, but when her parents become sick, she must choose between her own future and taking responsibility for her family. Fitzgerald praised the novel, describing how it “fearlessly tackles unanswerable questions and unfixable problems.” She also believes that while Auma’s experience in the book is an exceptionally difficult one, readers from many backgrounds will be able to empathize with her character. Fitzgerald explained that Auma’s greatest source of struggle is “arguably not the death march of devastating disease, but that her parents can’t help her or themselves.” The realization that “the people we look to for answers can’t always deliver” is one that many readers will have come up against in their own lives. Fitzgerald concluded by emphasizing how Auma’s Run is “unflinchingly realistic, but stubbornly hopeful.”
Next to speak was Amanda Maciel, executive editor at Scholastic’s Graphix imprint. She presented Molly Ostertag’s The Witch Boy, the first graphic novel that Maciel has edited. The story focuses on 13-year-old Aster, a boy who lives in a society that rigidly states that girls must train to become witches and boys must become shapeshifters. Aster, however, “knows he’s a witch, and he knows that’s a problem,” said Maciel. She admires the book for its “natural middle-grade voice,” as well as its combination of both “subtlety and heart-stopping action scenes.” The novel also addresses themes of nonconformity and gender, with particular emphasis on “nontraditional masculinity,” Maciel said. As an editor, Maciel is often concerned and conflicted over gendered messages behind children’s books—for example, in cover art and colors. She sees The Witch Boy as a title that will not only appeal across gender lines, but that will show readers that they need not adhere to stereotypes: “I want my son to know that there are more options; I want everyone to know that there are more options,” she said. Maciel finished by lauding Molly Ostertag as a “rising supernova superstar,” sharing that Fox Animation has just picked up the film rights for The Witch Boy, prior to its publication.
Liz Szabla, associate publisher at Feiwel and Friends, presented Greetings from Witness Protection! by Jake Burt, a book that she described as having “warmth, humor, and a strong heartbeat.” Szabla commented on how overjoyed she was to have the opportunity to do an early “handsell” of the book to the audience. Burt’s novel features protagonist Nicki Demere, a well-meaning orphan with a pickpocketing habit. Her life changes when U.S. Marshals pick her to be paired up with a family that is in hiding through the witness protection program. Szabla, who called Nicki “one of the most compelling characters I’ve ever met,” described the book as being “the love child” of Carl Hiaasen’s Hoot, Katherine Paterson’s The Great Gilly Hopkins, and Louis Sachar’s Holes. She also noted that the novel came to her from author-turned-agent Rebecca Stead, who works with The Book Group, and whose “empathy for resilient kids” Szabla trusts wholeheartedly.
Nancy Siscoe, senior executive editor at Knopf, said that the best part of her job is without a doubt, “finding a brilliant new writer and getting to tell all of you!” She counts David Barclay Moore, author of The Stars Beneath Our Feet, as such a writer, with a “distinctive and vibrant voice.” Twelve-year-old Lolly Rachpaul is a creative boy growing up in Harlem who “has to find his own way forward” following the devastating loss of his brother in a gang-related shooting. A gift from his mother’s girlfriend sets Lolly on a new course: she gives him bags full of mismatched Lego pieces without the building instructions he is used to. The Legos serve as a metaphor for Lolly’s circumstances. Living in a neighborhood where joining a gang has many benefits, Lolly must determine if he will “tear everything up or build something new. It’s a choice that he’ll have to keep making over and over,” Siscoe said.
Finally, Sarah Shumway, senior editor at Bloomsbury, introduced the first title in a series, The Unicorn Quest: The Whisper in the Stone, by Kamilla Benko. One of the greatest strengths of Benko’s novel, Shumway believes, is in the way it brings “the magic of fantasy into the real world.” The story is about two sisters—Claire and Sophie—who move into the labyrinthine Windemere Manor, where they enter a magical new world via a ladder in a fireplace. Shumway credits Benko with a tremendous “gift of visual writing” as well as a “reverence for and knowledge of children’s literature,” which she feels shows in her ability to craft captivating fantasy and convincing characters. Shumway said she was moved by the “tender, hopeful love between the sisters,” one of whom is recovering from a mysterious illness. Benko has the ability to “make readers feel completely sure and secure in this world,” Shumway concluded.