U.S. Book Show Editors’ Picks: Middle Grade Books as Activism

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On Thursday, May 27, PW reviewer Gnesis Villar moderated a conversation between eight editors, spotlighting forthcoming fall middle grade titles selected by PW.

Joining Villar for the virtual event were Rosemary Brosnan, speaking about Yusuf Azeem Is Not a Hero by Saadia Faruqi (Quill Tree); Caitlyn Dlouhy, talking about Stuntboy, in the Meantime by Jason Reynolds, illustrated by Raúl the Third (Atheneum/Dlouhy); David Levithan, discussing Kaleidoscope by Brian Selznick (Scholastic Press); Alvina Ling, representing Amira & Hamza: The War to Save the Worlds by Samira Ahmed (Little, Brown); Andrea Tompa, offering The Beatryce Prophecy by Kate DiCamillo, illustrated by Sophie Blackall (Candlewick); Namrata Tripathi, sharing How to Find What You’re Not Looking For by Veera Hiranandani (Kokila); Weslie Turner, presenting Call and Response: The Story of Black Lives Matter by Veronica Chambers (Versify); and Phoebe Yeh, on Fast Pitch by Nic Stone (Crown).

The panel opened with each editor highlighting noteworthy elements of their titles, starting with Brosnan. “Religion is so often important in the lives of children and teenagers, although it’s not often found in books for kids,” she said. “[Yusuf Azeem Is Not a Hero] is a rich, thought-provoking book” that features religion, among other plotlines.

On Stuntboy, in the Meantime, Dlouhy enthused, “While this book is about divorce, there’s also a lot of levity here, which is the brilliance of Jason Reynolds combined with Raúl the Third. The stunts themselves are so funny, they’re so silly, they’re so perfectly kid.”

Levithan said, “No two people are going to get the same story from [Kaleidoscope]. Brian Selznick is a genius, and the opportunity to see how his mind and his imagination work [since Tracy Mack is Selznick’s usual editor] was catnip for me.”

Introducing Amira & Hamza: The War to Save the Worlds, Ling explained, “We always talk about needing more diverse books, and I think even moreso in genre; here, two brown Muslim kids could be the hero of their own story, and I think Samira, in a way, wrote this for her children, who are huge fantasy fans and rarely saw themselves in books they were reading.”

“Kate DiCamillo and Sophie Blackall are two of the most acclaimed children’s book creators working today,” Tompa said. “They really have shared a vision for [The Beatryce Prophecy] from the very beginning. When Sophie first read the manuscript, she said she felt that the characters were lifelong friends, and that she was drawing something that already existed.”

Tripathi praised Hiranandani as “particularly skilled in taking a big global moment and rendering it deeply personal and intimate. [How to Find What You’re Not Looking For] does this balancing act of focusing on the micro and macro, and I think that’s something all young people are doing today, especially as we sit in an important civil rights movement, a global pandemic, and so much that’s taking place all around the world.”

Turner shared, “[Call and Response: The Story of Black Lives Matter] is an essential read for young people, because especially now, there’s so much debate about what facts are. Here, we’re providing factual information, first-person sources, eye-witness accounts, reporting straight from the New York Times. This book is really about giving people the information as a starting place: to go and find out more, to get involved if they wish to, or just to learn about something they may not have known about beyond the words ‘Black Lives Matter.’ ”

Concluding the editors’ presentations, Yeh said, “Nic is a really gifted author—she understands children and how they think and what they care about, but also she thinks about what they need to know.”

The panel then opened for an audience q&a. Editors spoke on subjects including illustration’s function in middle grade; editing outside of your own identity; what they enjoy most about the editing process; and the importance of reading children’s literature.

On editing beyond her lived experience, Brosnan stated, “Part of your task as an editor is to educate yourself and read widely and be up on the news, but you can’t know everything outside of your own culture and background. So you just ask a lot of questions and get over yourself.”

Tripathi added, “Usually when this question is asked, we’re talking about editing the stories of marginalized voices because the default has been whiteness. As a non-white editor, it’s sort of funny, because when I did books about white people, no one was asking this question.”

Speaking about desired takeaways for their individual titles, Yeh mused, “I think one of the reasons why Nic and I are close is because we want the same things for her books: we want readers to come away as more empathetic people after reading a Nic Stone novel.”

Tompa shared, “I hope that kids will read this and feel like they can be who they are.”

“I would hope that people come away with a desire to know, learn, and do more,” Turner concluded.

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