There definitely were common elements to the five novels presented during the middle-grade editors buzz panel Friday morning, which was moderated by Holly Weinkauf, the owner of Red Balloon Books in St. Paul, Minn.: all five mixed up fairy-tale themes with real-life issues to produce excellent reads that already have generated pre-pub excitement in the trade media and among booksellers.
Jordan Brown, a senior editor at HarperCollins/Balzer & Bray, talked up The Zoo at the Edge of the World, which, he said, is "entirely different" from Eric Kahn Gale's debut novel, The Bully Book. The Zoo at the Edge of the World is set in a fictional South American country during the late 19th century. "There is an ambitious touch of magical realism," Brown said, of the story of Marlin, a boy with a debilitating stutter who can only overcome his speech impediment when conversing with animals, until a jaguar gives Marlin the ability to converse freely. "The concept of voice and understanding is the foundation of this book," Brown said, adding that, like The Bully Book, The Zoo at the End of the World "is ultimately about the failures of communication, about the refusal to understand one another."
M.A. Larson's novel, Pennyroyal Academy, was originally submitted as Pennyroyal's Princess Boot Camp, said Putnam v-p and publisher Jen Besser, who described the novel as a fresh take on the concept of fairy princesses. These characters aren't "damsels in distress," Besser said, but rather strong young women who are put through their paces at Pennyroyal Academy by fairy drill sergeants. "No one rescues Pennyroyal Academy princesses," Besser explained. "They rescue themselves." This is a novel that touches on issues of identity and gender roles, Besser said, adding, "I guarantee, you are in for the very best in middle-grade fiction."
The Witch's Boy by Kelly Barnhill, said Elise Howard, editor and publisher of Algonquin's Young Readers program, is a "richly textured tale that is both classic and fresh," with feuding kingdoms, a cursed boy, a cunning girl, and an enchanted forest. When Ned's identical twin brother drowns after their raft capsizes, the villagers consider that the wrong boy survived. But when the Bandit King comes to the village and tries to steal its magic, it's Ned who safeguards the community. "The magic in this book is very much a character," Howard said. "And the richness of language is so important." The Witch's Boy, Howard concluded, is "poignant and heartbreaking." And, moderator Weinkauf added, since Barnhill lives in the Twin Cities, her store will be hosting the launch party for the book in September.
The Truth About Twinkie Pie, said Alvina Ling of Little Brown Books for Young Readers, is more of a modern-day fairy tale than the previous offerings, but this "voice-driven book about family, food, and life," written by Kat Yeh during NaNoWriMo, contains just as much magic. After trailer-trash sisters Gigi and DiDi enter a national cooking contest, they win $1 million and their lives change, beginning with a move to the gold coast of Long Island. "This book is more layered than the Twinkie pie on the cover," Ling said. "It will make you smile and break your heart at the same time." Actual recipes are sprinkled throughout the book. Ling disclosed that Little, Brown won the book at auction against four other publishers, including one house that offered Yeh more money after Little, Brown's bid had already been accepted by her agent. "I found this book irresistible," Ling said. "It's everything I love most about middle-grade fiction."
Kate Harrison of Penguin Young Readers Group called Life of Zarf: The Trouble with Weasels her "dream book," admitting that the book about a troll in middle school in a fairy tale world "with modern touches" made her laugh almost nonstop from page one onwards. Harrison decided that she "had to buy" international syndicated comic strip creator Rob Harrell's novel when she came to the page featuring his illustration of the middle school social hierarchy. "The humor in this book is absolutely brilliant," Harrison said, recalling that after she had moved from a small town in Missouri to St. Louis in junior high, she, too, felt like a troll in her new school's social ranking. "I really needed the Life of Zarf then," she said. "This book takes you back, and makes you laugh about school hierarchy." Plus, she said, there's another theme that middle-school readers will relate to: "it's got a great message of friendship" between Zarf and his two buddies: an anxious pig and the unfunny son of the court jester.