This past Saturday, October 3, the Brooklyn Book Festival virtually presented “Facing Your Fears,” a Crowdcast panel moderated by Kate Messner (Chirp, Bloomsbury), featuring middle grade authors Chris Grabenstein (Mr. Lemoncello’s Library series, Random House), Jessica Kim (Stand Up, Yumi Chung!, Kokila), and Janae Marks (From the Desk of Zoe Washington, HarperCollins/Tegen). The panel took place on Virtual Children’s Day, as part of the free literary festival’s foray into the digital space from September 28–October 5, due to ongoing pandemic restrictions.
After author and book introductions—and an inquiry about Marks’s baking habits, since cupcakes feature prominently in her debut—Messner asked the panelists, “Why fear?”
Debut author Kim shared, “When I was writing this book, I was facing my own fears. Like Yumi, I was passionate about something, and really really loved it, but was unable to find that strength and courage within myself to pursue it. And that thing for me was writing.” After a move from New York to San Diego, Kim decided to take the plunge and take writing seriously as a career; just like her 11-year-old protagonist, she enrolled in classes secretly as she pursued her passion under the radar. Ultimately, Kim found those emotions worth exploring and brought her fears of rejection and self-rejection to the character of Yumi.
Messner said she could relate, saying she had also spent years hiding her writing, then asked Marks and Grabenstein if they had ever experienced the same. Marks, who said she earned an MFA in creative writing at the New School, said she had not, but revealed that between her graduation in 2010, the acquisition of her novel in 2018, and the book’s publication in 2020, she had gotten friends and family members accustomed to the idea that writing was not an overnight process.
Grabenstein’s writing pursuits were similarly out in the open, as he was doing improvisational comedy in New York City and lucked into James Patterson’s aptitude test for writing, landing a job at an ad agency. After 20 years of writing commercials, Grabenstein decided to branch out, and felt fearful as he sought what to write next.
“[For] anyone who is involved in the creative process, there is a tremendous amount of fear,” Grabenstein theorized, saying that the fear in his middle grade books is from trying new things and trying to discover who and what you can be.
Marks disclosed she hadn’t set out to write about fear, but it was revealed as an underlying theme, since Zoe feels fear and trepidation upon receiving the first letter from her incarcerated father. “I feel like I ended up exploring a lot about fear, and taking chances,” Marks concluded, adding that solving the mystery took a lot of bravery on Zoe’s part.
“For you, what is the scariest thing about writing right now, like when you face a new project?” Messner next asked the trio.
Grabenstein admitted that anticipating what people think is scary, especially on book reviewing sites. He shared that a detractor of the first Mr. Lemoncello book on Goodreads became a villain in the sequel. “Facing rejection, to me, that’s still the scariest part when you’re sitting down to write,” Grabenstein mused. “Is somebody a year from now going to tell me I wasted my time?”
“I think the thing that’s hardest for me is lack of control,” Kim confessed. “I can only control the story that I create, but everything outside of that…” She shared how her debut released on March 17, and the pandemic caused the cancellation of her tour. “There is a whole lot of uncertainty, and timing, you can’t control.” Yuri, Yumi’s genius older sister in her novel, shares some of Kim’s type-A personality, Kim said.
Marks empathized with Kim, as she had also had a book tour canceled this spring. “For me, honestly, writing the next book was really scary,” Marks said. “I think after you put a book out there, having this follow-up book—which is not a sequel, it’s another standalone—not knowing whether it’s going to land in the same way, that’s been scary. I think they call it second-book syndrome… you feel like people have expectations now.”
Messner asked Marks why she chose to use humor amid the weightier topics—mass incarceration, systemic racism, the school-to-prison pipeline—that she tackles in her novel.
Including levity was important from the beginning for Marks. “There was a period of time where [a lot of books about minority characters] were all sad and depressing, with not as much lightness,” she said. “It was really important for me to show [Zoe] living a pretty happy childhood, even with all the struggles.”
Messner quoted her editor as saying, “Your saddest books also have to be your funniest.” She then asked Kim to comment on the humor in her novel, which also features racism and microaggressions and “a lot to balance.”
“Writing is a lot like cooking,” Kim replied. “You don’t want it to be just salty. You’ve got to have that balance of flavors for it to be an enjoyable meal, not just one note.” She said that once you establish a friendly laughing relationship—between readers and between friends—you can also share more of the real things you struggle with. “I thought humor was a good way to unlock that range of feelings.”
Grabenstein said that he developed his own sense of humor as a defense mechanism while growing up, and that humor is a great way to overcome fears, a belief he instilled in the Mr. Lemoncello’s Library series. He referenced MAD Magazine and Rocky and Bullwinkle as early comedic inspiration, and Shakespeare had provided him with comic relief during college. “Humor is a great way to break some of that tension so you can rebuild it and then break it again,” he concluded.
Messner next brought the conversation around to revision.
Grabenstein revealed that his biggest revision struggle was balancing the push-and-pull between his character’s grandparents, which was inspired by his own parents’ dynamic.
Creating smooth transitions between the lighter baking segments and the heavier mystery was difficult for Marks during her revision process.
While the humor did require some revision, the ending is what challenged Kim the most. She wanted to give Yumi a perfect happily ever after, but her editor instructed her to consider “what Yumi needs versus what she wants.”
The panel closed with reading recommendations. Messner praised the forthcoming nonfiction book All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys’ Soccer Team by Christina Soontornvat. Grabenstein followed with The Last Last-Day-of-Summer by Lamar Giles, as well as Super Puzzletastic Mysteries, which Grabenstein edited and through which he first read Giles’s work. Marks offered Something to Say by Lisa Moore Ramée, whose protagonist shares Marks’s first name. Kim closed by suggesting American as Paneer Pie by Supriya Kelkar, which also features a young Asian American daughter of immigrants.