On August 1–2, the first Middle Ground Book Fest took place in the digital sphere, bringing together authors, educators, librarians, and book lovers for a free celebration of middle grade literature.
Partnering with independent bookstore RJ Julia in Madison, Conn., the event was organized by debut authors Shannon Doleski (Mary Underwater, Abrams/Amulet), Tanya Guerrero (How to Make Friends with the Sea, FSG), Lorien Lawrence (The Stitchers, Abrams/Amulet), and Janae Marks (From the Desk of Zoe Washington, HarperCollins/Tegen).
On Saturday evening, the festival presented Balance Beam: Writing Difficult Topics, Maintaining Levity, and Not Falling Off, a panel featuring Donna Barba Higuera (Lupe Wong Won’t Dance, Levine Querido), Chrystal D. Giles (Take Back the Block, Random House), Cathleen Barnhart (That’s What Friends Do, HarperCollins), Lindsay Lackey (All the Impossible Things, Roaring Brook), and Jennie Englund (Taylor Before and After, Macmillan/Imprint).
After introducing their books, the authors answered questions posed by moderator Lisa Moore Ramée (Something to Say, HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray), who kicked off the panel by asking how the authors viewed the use of levity in their works, and its significance.
“[My book] started out as a more humorous work, and then the serious topics came out,” Higuera said. “But as I was writing it, I realized that nobody reading wants to be under stress continuously.” Acknowledging that middle grade readers, especially, want to laugh, Higuera stated that striking a balance between humor and serious subjects can make the latter “more palatable to a reader.”
As for Giles, naturally funny, sarcastic characters who “grew up in the same neighborhood and know each other… really brought an understanding of how important the community was” to a more serious novel. “A little bit of humor makes [a work] more accessible, like Donna said, to a young reader,” Giles continued, saying that humor helps “inject the characters’ voice” when a book has tough or educational facets.
“I am not a funny person,” Barnhart admitted. “My book is not hilarious like Donna’s, but I was really trying to write a character who had a sense of humor.” Levity, Barnhart hoped, would make it easier for readers to sympathize and empathize with one of her protagonists, David, who unintentionally violates his best friend Sammie’s physical boundaries.
“For me, hope is where levity comes from,” Lackey said. There’s almost always an element of joy in middle grade, Lackey observed, and animals added that sense in her book, a fabulist tale tackling foster care and drug addiction.
“My book is about depression, death, and loss,” Englund began. But including pets—her real cat, KitKat, is the one character pulled directly from real life—helped insert levity into the narrative. Englund is also a proponent of including a funny sidekick or villain, and “using different kinds of funny,” such as “snarky funny,” “jealous funny,” or “clumsy funny.”
Next, the authors were asked to expound upon the craft elements necessary to strike that balance.
Exploring exclusivity and racism arose in Higuera’s book naturally as she penned her titular character, who shares her half-Chinese, half-Mexican identity, and researched the common American middle school-mandated tradition of square dancing. For Higuera, tough topics and humor are interwoven and “come hand-in-hand”; “for someone like [herself] who doesn’t handle difficulties very well, humor is a way to cushion the blow of a lot of that.”
Take Back the Block examines gentrification and activism; for Giles, the plot came first and the funny characters came afterward. Pacing became more difficult at the end, so to make sure she wasn’t just “piling on the hard stuff,” Giles added breaks and breaths of humor for the sake of both the characters and the readers.
Centering a “seventh grade girl’s first #MeToo experience” in her novel, Barnhart began writing by attempting to see the incident from both the perspective of the victim, Sammie, and her best friend, David. The lighter, humorous voice and heavier story were “there from the beginning.”
Lackey spotlighted the juxtaposition of humor and pain as being an essential theme of her book—and in life. “You can’t have light without dark,” Lackey said. “It’s almost as if, the more serious a topic you’re exploring, the more opportunity you really do have for little moments of humor.”
Englund agreed, adding that she used risk-taking and subversions of characters’ expectations to help her out in that regard. She also speculated that humor can highlight the negative but also help readers feel less alone.
Each author then answered an individual question about her respective book. Englund discussed the prompt-answering format of Taylor Before and After, and Barnhart spoke on the dual-perspective of That’s What Friends Do and the messages that society conveys to boys about behavior and aggression. Giles talked about the timeliness of Take Back the Block, especially vis-à-vis the current civil discourse and protests, while Lackey recalled the familial inspiration behind the foster care aspect, as well as the titular list in All the Impossible Things. Finally, Higuera closed by sharing how her discovery of the racist origins of ice cream truck and square-dancing songs changed the direction of Lupe Wong Won’t Dance.