Past Meets Present in YA and MG Fiction

By Editorial Director Amy Fitzgerald

As a kid, I was obsessed with historical fiction. For me, it was an exciting escape from my generally comfortable but uneventful middle-class white life. Only later did I notice that it’s usually white people who fantasize about living in a different time.

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Middle Grade and YA Summer Reads

It’s been a rough school year, but summer is looming. And if ever there was a summer to keep kids well stocked with fun books to read . . . well, it was the summer of 2020, but 2021 has to be a close second. Here are some suggestions for middle-grade and young adult readers looking for a change of pace.

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In Praise of Untidy Endings

By Amy Fitzgerald, Editorial Director, Carolrhoda

One question I consider when I’m deciding whether I want to publish a book is “Does it have a satisfying resolution?” Satisfying can have many different meanings, but in general I want readers to walk away from a book feeling that they had a complete experience—that they weren’t left hanging or cheated out of the climactic moments they anticipated.

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Q&A with Author Ginger Garrett

We spoke with Ginger Garrett about the inspiration for her new middle-grade novel, Name Tags and Other Sixth-Grade Disasters, which follows twelve-year-old Lizbeth’s quest to make friends, thwart nemeses, and figure out how to express herself through art in time to participate in a mandatory school talent show.

Were you stuck with labels you hated when you were a kid?

I had such a horrible overbite I couldn’t close my mouth all the way. Add that to my freckles and flat reddish hair, and I was a nerd of epic proportions. But that’s not what the kids called me. I would have liked Nerd, actually. They called me Monster. I felt such shame.

As you mentor kids, what have you noticed about the power of labels?

I’ve noticed that in middle school, every kid wants to identify with a group. They want to belong, so it’s natural to accept a label as part of belonging to that group.

I don’t want to discourage the kids I mentor from exploring their identities, but I’ve encouraged them to “leave room on their name tag.” Their whole identity cannot be wrapped up and expressed in one word. For example, they are more than a Jock. Or a Brain.

And most important, no one should ever get to write on their name tag except them. No one gets to decide who we are, except for us.

Art—and a special art teacher—plays such a redemptive role in this story. Are you an artist?

I can’t even draw a straight line. My mom once sent my brother and me to an art camp. He was very talented. We each made clay mice, and his turned out much better than mine. My mom put his mouse on display over her kitchen sink; somehow mine got thrown out. I seethed with jealousy for days until one night, I sneaked out of bed, grabbed his mouse, and snapped its little limbs right off. I only told my mom the truth about it a couple of years ago.

If you were to fill out a name tag right now, what would you write on it?

Goofball. Mom. Dogmom. Yournewbestfriend!! Writer.

Truthfully, there’s a little bit of Lizbeth in me. I really like people and think if we could just get rid of the rotten ones, the planet would be one big party. And then the Universe gently reminds me that on any given day, I might be one of the rotten ones!

How to Live on the Edge of Past, Present, and Future

I’m an anxious person. So are a lot of the teen characters in the novels I’ve edited. It makes sense; the teen years are fertile ground for anxiety. So much is beyond your control, even as you feel a pressure to take on greater responsibility. The present is a mess; the future is a terrifying unknown; and if you’re paying attention to history, the past is distressing too!

This summer, as our present continues its spiral of chaos and the future threatens even more upheavals and the past rears its head with reminders of unhealed wounds, I’ve often thought about my teen self. High school was when I first began to grapple semi-constructively with uncertainty, with the limits of what I could control, with the reality that horrible things happen in the world, and with fears that one of those horrible things was about to happen to me or to a loved one. I continue grappling with all this, much more constructively, as an adult, but my teen experiences are still vivid in my memory.

That’s why I find Sarah Scheerger’s young adult novel How to Live on the Edge so compelling. Cayenne, the eighteen-year-old protagonist, is nothing like Teen Me (and nothing like Teen Sarah, she’ll be quick to tell you). She deals with her fear of dying young—as her mother did—by courting danger and making light of risks. She treats her anxiety like an enemy to be spited, even imagining a personification of death whom she names Lorelei and takes great satisfaction in baiting.

Her younger sister, Saffron, is much more like Sarah and me: eager to pin down her anxiety with plans and information and backup plans and caution and even more backup plans. In one of my favorite moments in the novel, they both drag their father for alluding to the serenity prayer—Cayenne because she hates the idea of taking responsibility for what she can control, and Saffron because she hates the idea of letting go of what she can’t control.

But gradually, each sister is forced to reconsider her outlook. Cayenne realizes that to truly live her life to the fullest, she has to do what she can to protect her life by making safer, healthier choices. Saffron accepts that no matter how carefully she makes her decisions, she can never guarantee a good outcome or eliminate all risk.

And so it goes. Today’s teens are standing on their own precipices, weighing the choices they have, mourning or raging against the ones they don’t. They’re shaped by the past, navigating a complex and often painful present, and bracing for a future full of question marks. I hope some of them will find Cayenne and Saffron to be welcome company.