On Thursday, May 27, PW freelance editor Natasha Gilmore, who also serves as book buyer for Idlewild Books in New York City, moderated a sponsored panel featuring author Sharon Draper (Out of My Heart, Atheneum/Dlouhy); graphic novelist Kim Dwinell (Surfside Girls, IDW/Top Shelf); YA author Gayle Forman making her middle grade debut (Frankie and Bug, Aladdin); and debut comics creator BonHyung Jeong (Kyle’s Little Sister, Yen), in conversation about their forthcoming middle grade books.
After introductions, Gilmore began by asking the authors why they chose middle grade and how they came to write it. Jeong started off by explaining that she met her editor at a school job fair, as she graduated in 2018. For Jeong, the middle grade category encompasses a time of naivety and innocence. “[Kids at that age] have all kinds of troubles,” she said. “Others might see [their issues] as kind of childish, but for them, it’s a really big deal.”
Forman, known for her bestselling YA novels such as If I Stay, agreed; she also remembers “being 10 or 11 and having to grapple with unpleasant feelings, and fairness, and jealousy. Learning to be the person you want to be is hard at any age, and at 10 and 11, you’re just starting out.”
Dwinell revealed that she approached the publishing industry from “sort of the reverse as BonHyung”: she worked in animation on movies such as Hercules and Mulan “back in the drawing 2-D animation days, and I love sequential art for that younger age anyway.” As for middle grade specifically, Dwinell recalled that “everyone was moving at a different speed in middle school; some people were way further along and some people were clinging to childhood, and everyone was thrown into this middle school, and you had to kind of shake it out. There’s something really special about that age to me.”
Reflecting on her path into middle grade writing, Draper said, “I was a teacher. I taught school for like 900 years, everything from fourth grade through high school, and so I spent a lot of time with young people. Plus, I had four children of my own. Because I worked with them and they were always hanging around my house, I have a lot of empathy for people of this age group.”
Other discussion topics included the authors’ personal middle grade experiences; influential books from that age; the “expansion” of how the current landscape of middle grade can now meet each reader; celebratory rituals to get through each project; informative lessons on bravery; and unique things about portraying friendship in middle grade.
“This idea that you have friends, and then you have family, I’m not sure it’s true,” Forman said, discussing the delineations between the two. “You have biological family, but you also have nonbiological family, and friends that become family. And I think this is the age when those friendships start to happen, maybe because you’re beginning that separation from family, or maybe because you’re rethinking the idea of what encompasses family and what encompasses friends, so it was really nice to write this incredibly powerful friendship, like the friendships I have in my life now, with Frankie and Bug.”