A BookExpo panel on May 31 gathered five creators of buzzed-about middle grade novels to discuss their upcoming works. The panelists were Carolyn Crimi, making her middle grade debut with Weird Little Robots (Candlewick, Oct.); Bridget Farr, debut author of Pavi Sharma’s Guide to Going Home (Little, Brown, Sept.); Amy McCulloch, author of Jinxed (Sourcebooks, Jan. 2020); Rex Ogle, debut author of Free Lunch (Norton, Sept.); and Ibi Zoboi, debuting in middle grade with My Life as an Ice Cream Sandwich (Dutton, Aug.). Emily Hall, co-owner of Main Street Books in St. Charles, Mo., moderated.

In response to Hall’s questions, the authors began by discussing their novels’ expository backgrounds, then chatted about what they hope readers will take away from their books. Though their plots and inspirations vary widely, the panelists touched on creating stories to fill representational voids, whether in their own childhood reading, today’s shelves, or the collective unconscious.

Weird Little Robots is an illustrated chapter book, featuring art by Corinna Luyken, about two girls who use found objects to build an “elaborate metropolis” of robots that come alive. Picture book veteran Crimi, who noted that the panel was “my first talk about my first novel,” never thought she would write middle grade. After a birthday passed, though, Crimi decided to take on a longer-form project geared toward the type of kid she once was: the “shy, lonely maker child,” an identity that, she suggested, may not always have sounded so trendy. Trendy or no, she hopes that the book’s science club will persuade readers that science is wonderful: “What’s not cool about it?”

Farr, a teacher, said she hadn’t been able to hand her students a story about “a foster kid who gets to be the hero” when she started Pavi Sharma’s Guide to Going Home. The book follows Pavi, a business-savvy 12-year-old who views herself as a foster care expert and, trading her advice for Hot Cheetos and school supplies, helps children from her former shelter adjust to new homes. When Pavi meets a girl set to be placed with her own neglectful first foster family, she uses her knowledge of the foster care system to prevent the placement. Farr hopes that the book will find its way to “any kid who needs to feel confident—needs to sense that I chose it, and that’s what gives it value.”

Self-described smartphone addict McCulloch, previously an editorial director at Penguin Books UK, combined the “functionality of a smartphone with the companionship of a pet” in Jinxed, her upcoming novel about a young tech whiz, the advanced “baku” (animal/smartphone mashup) that she finds and rehabilitates, and the secrets behind its creation. Interested in the intersection of privacy and control, and aware that “technology is a part of every kid’s life,” McCulloch sought to write “a positive story that centered a smart, STEM-focused girl in a fun, action-packed narrative” for today’s digital natives.

Covering the first six months of his sixth-grade year, Ogle’s memoir Free Lunch is about “being poor and my family being evicted,” and the school lunch program he was enrolled in at that time. Hunger—physical as well as emotional, “for friendship and the love of your parents”—plays a part in the text, as does the tension of parents who “aren’t horrible people, they’re just going through a rough patch.” Ogle hopes his book opens a conversation, and wants “any kid who knows what it’s like to live under the poverty line” to understand that their situation “doesn’t make them less-than.”

Zoboi, in discussing My Life as an Ice Cream Sandwich, her tale of “an outsider kid, black music history, and Harlem,” said she wanted to create an “intergenerational oral tradition... rooted in how black music integrated science fiction concepts.” The novel, which follows space-obsessed Ebony-Grace as she visits her father in Harlem in the 1980s, was inspired by “pioneering sci-fi writer Octavia Butler” and the history of black men being integrated into workforces such as NASA's, as the character’s grandfather is. “Black children were interacting with STEM before the world knew it,” said Zoboi, and she wanted to tell that story, especially for “the oddball kid who is still confident. As nerdy as they are, they hold their heads up no matter what anybody thinks.”