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All Middle Grade Coverage

A Comb of Wishes by Lisa Stringfellow

In her beguiling debut, Stringfellow shows how fantasy tales can be more true than ordinary life.

Different Kinds of Fruit by Kyle Lukoff

This remarkable novel will be as meaningful to today’s young people as Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret was for earlier generations.

Different Kinds of Fruit by Kyle Lukoff

A Duet for Home by Karina Yan Glaser

Never forgetting the complexities of her characters’ lives, Glaser infuses A Duet for Home with sweetness and optimism.

A Duet for Home by Karina Yan Glaser

Golden Girl by Reem Faruqi

In spare, carefully chosen words, Faruqi builds an absorbing drama that rings with authenticity and emotion.

Golden Girl by Reem Faruqi

Hummingbird by Natalie Lloyd

With exceptional style and empathy, Hummingbird addresses weighty themes in a jubilant yet realistic way.

Hummingbird by Natalie Lloyd book cover

Invisible by Christina Diaz Gonzalez, illustrated by Gabriela Epstein

This cleverly conceived graphic novel celebrates both individuality and community while transcending language barriers.

Invisible by Christina Diaz Gonzalez and Gabriela Epstein book cover

The Last Mapmaker by Christina Soontornvat

The Last Mapmaker brims with adventure, surprises and action that moves faster than a ship under full sail.

The Last Mapmaker by Christina Soontornvat

Lolo’s Light by Liz Garton Scanlon

Liz Garton Scanlon’s compelling middle grade novel glows with empathy and understanding.

Lolo's Light by Liz Garton Scanlon book cover

A Seed in the Sun by Aida Salazar

This historical novel in verse is a skillfully crafted look at the life of a child working in dangerous conditions.

Book jacket image for A Seed in the Sun by Aida Salazar

Tumble by Celia C. Pérez

Tumble movingly reminds readers that sometimes heroes (and villains) are not who they seem—both in life and in a wrestling ring.

Tumble by Celia C. Perez book cover

Discover more of BookPage’s Best Books of 2022.

It’s a complicated, amazing world out there. The year’s best middle grade books find complexity and beauty in the great wide unknown—and within the hearts of their protagonists.
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Marlene dreads Sundays, when she and her mom, Paola, spend most of the day at the salon undergoing the excruciating (and excruciatingly boring) ritual of getting their hair straightened. Marlene, who is Dominican American, has an imagination as vivid and untameable as her naturally curly hair, so she survives each week’s torture session by imagining herself as the star of her favorite show, “Super Amigas,” with her stylist as a supervillain. 

But Marlene’s creativity is no match for the hurtful comments that her relatives make about her cousin Diana’s “good hair,” which is showcased in all its glossy glory at Diana’s quinceañera. And unlike on “Super Amigas,” there’s no way for Marlene to win this battle. After encouragement from her best friend, Camilla, and a little help from a YouTube tutorial, Marlene decides to wear her natural hair to school, but she gets ruthlessly bullied by her classmates and punished by her mom. How can Marlene be proud of who she is if everyone around her constantly makes her feel imperfect?

For her first graphic novel, Claribel A. Ortega, the bestselling author of Ghost Squad and the Witchlings series, is joined by debut artist Rose Bousamra. The result is a spirited story of a girl’s quest to embrace who she is. Bousamra’s artwork skillfully portrays lively city scenes and cozy interiors alike. They use a palette of roses, plums and soft teals to play perfectly off the warm brown and russet tones of Marlene’s skin and hair. Scenes pulled from Marlene’s imagination break through panel outlines, reinforcing her exuberance and growing frustrations.

Frizzy is an intimate mother-daughter drama that sensitively explores the concept of so-called “good hair,” a manifestation of racist beauty standards, as well as how such internalized anti-Blackness gets passed down through generations. Eager to value her unique identity, Marlene eventually learns how to advocate for herself, and her journey to proud self-acceptance is nothing short of joyful. In the end, readers are left to imagine what new weekly adventures Marlene and her mom might discover together, outside the stifling walls of the salon.

In this intimate mother-daughter drama, the journey to proud self-acceptance is utterly joyful.
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The First Cat in Space Ate Pizza

A cat must save the moon from being eaten by intergalactic rats in this graphic novel from author Mac Barnett and Caldecott Honor illustrator Shawn Harris. Its madcap silliness and accessible artwork will appeal to the legions of loyal fans eager for more of the laugh-out-loud humor and deceptively simple cartoon-style art sure to be found in Jeff Kinney’s 17th Diary of a Wimpy Kid book, Diper Overlöde.


It is a truth universally acknowledged that most young readers can’t resist a good animal story. Readers hoping to receive Newbery Medalist Katherine Applegate’s Odder this holiday season are sure to enjoy debut author C.C. Harrington’s touching tale of a girl and a snow leopard who find each other when they are both most in need. 

Endlessly Ever After

This illustrated choose-your-own-adventure journey through fractured fairy tales from Laurel Snyder and Caldecott Medalist Dan Santat is deliciously meta, which is why it’s the perfect choice to pair with the boundary-pushing graphics and nested metanarratives that await young readers in Cat Kid Comic Club: Collaborations, the newest release from Captain Underpants creator Dav Pilkey.

Help your pint-size bibliophile discover new favorites by pairing one of these fun, under-the-radar reads with the popular books at the top of their wish lists!
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Christina lives in Grangeview, Texas, population 12,000, where she’s used to being one of the only Asian American students in her classes. She’s dealt with teachers who struggle to pronounce her last name and classmates who make fun of her lunch. When she explains that her dad is from Thailand, another student corrects her: “I think you mean Taiwan.”

As The Tryout opens, Christina feels ready to take on middle school, but she doesn’t have any classes with her Iranian American best friend, Megan, whose own experiences of standing out in Grangeview uniquely enable her to understand Christina. So when Megan asks Christina to try out for the cheerleading squad, Christina agrees enthusiastically. Beneath the surface of The Tryout’s seemingly simple story of friendship and cheerleading lies a compassionate exploration of identity, what it means to be a good friend and the pull of popularity. 

Two-time 2021 Newbery Honor author Christina Soontornvat has written middle grade fiction and nonfiction as well as picture books. The Tryout is her first graphic novel as well as her first book with autobiographical elements. As a narrator, her fictional self embraces the complexities of life on the cusp of adolescence; she sees through social norms but still longs to be perceived positively by her peers. When Megan explains the Texas homecoming custom of enormous corsages called mums, Christina says that it’s “such a weird tradition,” but a thought bubble reveals that she’s also thinking, “I totally want one.” As she learns from some pretty big mistakes, Christina also reminds readers that raising themselves up isn’t worthwhile if it means putting others down.

Debut illustrator Joanna Cacao thoroughly captures the capricious side of middle school, and her dynamic panels convey Christina’s constantly shifting moods. Darkly colored patterns surround Christina when she is feeling self-conscious, creating an effective contrast to the light, glittery backgrounds of the ethereal cheerleading squad. In an especially impactful touch, similar sparkles appear behind Christina when she’s feeling confident. 

In her author’s note, Soontornvat explains that she never thought she would share the story in The Tryout, until she realized that “talking to one another and sharing our stories is how we make change.” The result is a book that balances loving where you’re from and still wanting to see it improve. The Tryout is a strong addition to the rapidly growing genre of autobiographical graphic novels for middle grade readers that will fit wonderfully on shelves alongside Kathryn Ormsbee and Molly Brooks’ Growing Pangs, Damian Alexander’s Other Boys and Tyler Page’s Button Pusher.

In her first graphic novel, Newbery Honor author Christina Soontornvat offers a compassionate exploration of identity, friendship and the pull of popularity.
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In the royal city of Helston, everyone has a role they’re forced to play. Girls are taught to control their natural magical abilities and restricted from using their powers for anything beyond simple domestic and decorative arts. Boys are trained in combat, expected to take up the sword against monsters and other enemies lurking on Helston’s borders. But when Callie, a nonbinary kid who dreams of becoming a knight like their father, arrives at the palace, they expose all the cracks in Helston’s rigidly gendered society. 

At the palace, Callie meets Prince Willow, who is useless with a sword but secretly blessed with magic, and Elowen, the chancellor’s daughter whose own magic goes far beyond what’s considered proper or safe. As war looms, Helston’s de facto ruler, Lord Peran, views anyone who won’t play by his rules as an enemy. He won’t hesitate to stamp out sparks of individuality wherever he finds them, including those within Callie, his own children and even the crown prince himself. 

Young readers will find a worthy hero in Callie, who displays boundless courage in defending both their convictions and their friends. Although many people in Helston perceive Callie as a girl and try to force them into dresses and magic lessons, Callie asserts their identity with confidence. Determined Callie, gentle Prince Willow and capable Elowen form a supportive trio who balance one another’s weaknesses and demonstrate a variety of ways to be strong. In battles against foes ranging from vicious wolves to familial expectations, Callie and their friends show tremendous heart in the face of every challenge.

At times, Helston’s oppressive culture can be quite heavy, as Callie endures frequent misgendering, navigates a society fraught with sexism and discovers both the emotional and physical abuse that cruel adults have inflicted on their new friends. While threats posed by dragons and witches will keep young readers engaged, Esme Symes-Smith’s debut novel ultimately seeks to confront far more realistic dangers. In clear and simple terms, Sir Callie and the Champions of Helston assures readers that, no matter what anyone else might say, a real fairy-tale ending means finding the space and support to thrive exactly the way you are. 

In this debut fantasy novel, young readers meet a worthy trio of heroes who balance one another’s weaknesses and demonstrate a variety of ways to be strong.
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Twelve-year-old Lula Viramontes longs to be heard. She’s scared to use her raspy voice to stand up to her volatile Papá, who has decided that Lula and her sister will stop attending school so they can work in the grape fields of Delano, California. Lula is also worried about her Mamá, whose sudden illness has likely been caused by pesticides. But she has a seed of hope: Some organizations are leading a strike for better working conditions, and she must find the courage to convince Papá to join them.

A Seed in the Sun is a well-researched glimpse into the 1965 Delano grape strike and the 1960s movement for labor justice. Through Lula’s experiences, author Aida Salazar invites readers into the life of a child working in dangerous conditions. In an author’s note, Salazar is quick to point out that Lula’s reality still exists for many young people today, since “United States child labor laws (which protect children from exploitation) don’t apply to farmwork—the only industry in the nation that does not abide by them.” While the Viramontes are fictional, Lula and her family encounter real activists such as Dolores Huerta, Larry Itliong and Cesar Chavez. 

In two previous novels (The Moon Within and Land of the Cranes), Salazar established herself as an expert writer of middle grade verse narratives filled with beautiful metaphors and similes. Her skill is evident here, as when Lula describes her voice as “an orange-yellow mist / that comes and goes / like clouds.” Salazar also intersperses Spanish throughout all of her novels, which lends authenticity to her verse. Although non-Spanish speakers will easily discern the meaning of most of the book’s Spanish words and phrases from context, fluent Spanish speakers and those who use a dictionary or translator as they read will be rewarded with treasures, like how the book’s six section titles are words that signify aspects of the harvesting season.

Salazar’s text is dynamic, with words that flow across the page. Each poem has its own pattern, and Salazar is creative with indentation, alignment and overall form. For instance, when Lula and her sister go behind their father’s back to get union cards, Salazar relays what happens next in a single block of full-justified text, conveying Lula’s excitement and nervousness about her passionate rebellion. 

Readers gravitate toward middle grade historical fiction because it makes complex history tangible. A Seed in the Sun deserves a space on the shelf alongside Brenda Woods’ When Winter Robeson Came, which portrays another social justice movement in 1965 California, and Pam Muñoz Ryan’s Pura Belpré Award-winning Esperanza Rising, a modern classic of children’s literature that depicts the experiences of migrant workers.

Aida Salazar’s third novel in verse is a well-researched glimpse into the 1965 Delano grape strike as seen through the eyes of 12-year-old Lula Viramontes.
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Twelve-year-old Millie is thrilled to work her first babysitting job, but her world turns upside down the morning after, when she learns that her four-month-old charge, Lola, has died of SIDS. In her second middle grade novel, Liz Garton Scanlon beautifully depicts a middle schooler navigating an unspeakable tragedy.

Let’s start with this book’s striking cover. In the book’s acknowledgments, you write that one of your best friends created the embroidery that serves as the cover image. How did this come about? 
I can’t get over that art, honestly. Jill Turney, Amelia Mack and Angie Kang (the book’s designers and design fellow) conceived of the image—a mashup of stitchery and sorcery. And then—it’s true!—they partnered with my friend Kathie Sever, founder of Fort Lonesome, a chain-stitch embroidery studio in Austin, Texas, where we both live. The art was made on a weighty piece of black linen, and I think it speaks to the heart and soul of this project, piercing darkness straight through with the abiding possibilities of love and light.

How did Lolo’s Light start for you? 
The first scene I imagined was the one in Chapter 3, where Millie finds herself in the gorgeous airiness of the Acostas’ house, babysitting for the very first time and enraptured by the importance of her circumstances. It all seems almost too good to be true, which is a very good place to start a story, on the cusp between the before and after. I teetered there for a while with Millie, and then we fell headlong into the story.

Tell us more about Millie, who she is and where she’s at as the novel opens.
I think Millie is like many of us at 12 years old—happy and also restless. She has friends and smarts and good dogs and confidence, but what she really wants is to be grown up. That yearning to be on the other side of the invisible line between childhood and whatever-happens-next—it’s so palpable and so universal. But, of course, it’s also inevitably more complicated than we think it will be.

“Not every adult can walk alongside kids as they struggle and crack and grow, but I wanted Millie to have some of the good ones—the brave ones.”

After Lolo dies, Millie must confront all kinds of emotions. As you created her journey through grief, what was most important to you to get right about her experience? 
I wanted to look at grief honestly—especially this first, great grief—and to allow all the nuances of it to play out for Millie. I wanted to show, for example, that while it’s unbelievably hard to feel responsible, it’s also heartbreaking when you realize you’re not, that nobody is, that there was nothing anyone could have done to change what happened. 

It was also really important to me to depict grief as a journey, as something shifting over time, as something Millie navigated and grew within and maybe even eventually understood. I just aimed to see her through it, and there were so many layers and facets and stages to illuminate along the way.

Let’s talk about the adults in this novel, because there are a bunch of really great ones. Why was it important to you to surround Millie with so many adults, particularly when children’s literature often goes out of its way to eliminate adults from narratives? 
I wanted to make sure Millie was not alone as she walked through grief. It’s as simple as that. Even when she felt alone, I wanted her surrounded by wisdom and experience and kindness and love. Not every adult in the real world is good at this. Not every adult can walk alongside kids as they struggle and crack and grow, but I wanted Millie to have some of the good ones—the brave ones. She needed them. Every kid does.

Millie’s class’s egg-hatching project works so beautifully within the story. Based on your acknowledgments, it sounds like you have experienced similar activities as both an elementary school student and as a parent. Did you by any chance attempt to re-create this project for research? 
Ha—I did not re-create the project but just you asking makes me wish that I had! I did hatch eggs in science class as a kid and I did win the chance to take one of the resulting chicks home. It wasn’t until I was on the school bus with a big box on my lap that I realized the chick was already becoming a rooster who would not do well with my dogs or upon the top of my dresser. That poor bird was rapidly rehomed!

”When adults suggest that kids shouldn’t read or know or think about those things, kids feel shame and confusion and loneliness and fear. Let’s not do that to them.”

What are some things you think novelists could learn from reading or writing picture books?
Picture books center the child and the child’s perspective in a most remarkable way. There is something about having to consider the very youngest humans—the pre- and early readers— having to witness and reflect what they love and fear and want and need that can help us in the practice of writing through and of kids rather than to or for them.

Although this is not your first novel, you have written many picture books. What do you find challenging about novels? 
I’m a short-form writer at heart, so writing a novel is a very real effort in opening up, in giving each moment and every character a little more breathing room. It’s a matter of trying to evoke meaning and emotions with the same potency I might in a picture book, but holding the reader’s gaze while I do.

You addressed a note that accompanied advance editions of this book to “adult readers.” In it, you wrote, “The grown-up world has not, historically, done a great job of acknowledging or attending to young people’s feelings.” What would you say to an adult who thinks that children’s books shouldn’t include the kinds of subjects and emotions depicted in Lolo’s Light? 
I would say, “I understand your worry and your love, but kids are simply young human beings who wonder about and reckon with things like loss and grief and heartache just like we do! When adults suggest that kids shouldn’t read or know or think about those things, kids feel shame and confusion and loneliness and fear. Let’s not do that to them. Let’s not make things worse. Let’s, instead, keep them company.”

What do you hope a kid who finds themselves in a similar situation to Millie’s might take away from Lolo’s Light? 
Honestly, I hope all kids everywhere grow to know that there’s a light they can count on, a light that can be seen through cracks and curtains, in friendships and in family and in themselves. Even on the darkest days with the sharpest edges there is still a living, humming, human light—a bioluminescent beacon—there to see them through.

Lolo’s Light contains some egg-cellent puns. I’m curious: If you had the opportunity to name a flock of chickens, what do you think would make some egg-ceptional chicken names? 
Oh now THIS is a fun prompt. I’m going to go for a girl group—we’ll call them The Chicks— made up of Eggetha, Yolko and Henifer. They’ll be a power trio.

Read our starred review of ‘Lolo’s Light.’

Author photo of Liz Garton Scanlon courtesy of Elizabeth McGuire.

In Lolo’s Light, Liz Garton Scanlon captures the hard work of healing from an unspeakable tragedy.

When a house appears one day at the end of Juniper Drive, Jacqueline “Jac” Price-Dupree’s reaction isn’t what you’d expect from most 12-year-olds, but Jac isn’t like most 12-year-olds. Five years ago, she was diagnosed with a cancer that should have killed her—but didn’t. Ever since, Jac has been haunted by the fear that it might return, so when she sees the house, she wonders if it’s a hallucination. If it’s a symptom.

Jac confirms that the house is definitely real when she, her friend Hazel and two neighborhood bullies become trapped inside it. As they search for a way out, the house conjures surreal terrors that all seem connected to Jac’s deepest fears, from a library filled with typewriters clacking out sickening missives, to a horrifying creature called the Mourner that stalks them through the house, to a message scrawled on the kitchen wall: “The House You’ve Been Entering Always. Welcome Home, Jac.”

‘This Appearing House’ author Ally Malinenko reveals what keeps her coming back to horror.

Author Ally Malinenko’s second middle grade horror novel, This Appearing House, contains plenty of imaginative frights to creep out even the most fearless young connoisseur of scary stories. But by creating a house that’s haunted by Jac’s fears of her cancer’s recurrence, Malinenko brilliantly transforms her novel into a survival tale of the truest kind. In order to escape the house, Jac must find the answer to a question that every person who has lived through—or continues to live with—the trauma of serious illness must eventually confront: How do you keep living when you have come so close to death? 

Through Jac, Malinenko also offers a vital corrective to narratives of disease and disability still commonplace in children’s literature. “Warriors. That’s what they called kids like her. But Jac didn’t feel like a warrior,” Malinenko writes. As she sensitively evokes Jac’s experience of diagnosis and treatment, Malinenko expertly captures the way stories that encourage people to “be brave” and “never stop fighting,” can become traps, prisons in which no admissions of fear or vulnerability can be admitted. Early in the novel, when Jac breaks a ceramic bowl she’d been working on in art class, her teacher offers a moving new perspective: “Everything breaks. . . . But everything can be remade. There is beauty in the breaking and remaking of a thing.”   

At once an inventive and satisfying haunted house story and a powerful exploration of coming to terms with and beginning to heal from trauma, This Appearing House is a triumph.  

Read our Q&A with ‘This Appearing House’ author Ally Malinenko.

By creating a house haunted by a young girl’s fear of the recurrence of her serious illness, author Ally Malinenko brilliantly transforms This Appearing House into a survival tale of the truest kind.
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Kwame Alexander opens a planned historical fiction trilogy with The Door of No Return, which takes place in 1860, near the end of the transatlantic slave trade. Eleven-year-old Kofi Offin lives in the Asante kingdom, in what is now Ghana. Kofi holds deep respect for his grandfather, the village storyteller, who always begins his stories by saying, “There was even a time . . .” In this time, Kofi has a crush on Ama, a girl in his class. In this time, Kofi and Ama’s teacher forces them to speak English instead of their native language, or face the wrath of his cane. And in this time, Kofi’s older brother, Kwasi, will unintentionally alter the fate of their entire family, and Kofi will have to draw on all of his grandfather’s wisdom to survive.

Alexander has been convincing middle grade readers that poetry is cool since his 2014 book, The Crossover, for which he won the Newbery Medal. Like many of Alexander’s earlier books, The Door of No Return is told mostly in enthralling, action-packed verse. Alexander is an eloquent craftsman with a deep awareness of the power of every word in a verse novel, and that awareness shines on every page of this book. Typographic manipulation, such as changing the size of the text, is used sparingly, which makes those moments particularly impactful.

The book is not entirely written in verse, however. Each of its seven chapters begin with a prose story narrated by Kofi’s grandfather, Nana Mosi. These tales offer context and foreshadowing in equal measure, culminating in a heartbreaking ode to storytellers, “The Story of the Story,” in which Nana Mosi warns that “until the lions tell their side of the story, the tale of the hunt will always celebrate the hunter.” 

Some of Alexander’s most beloved works, including The Crossover, incorporate sports as both subjects and extended metaphors. Alexander continues—and elevates—this approach in The Door of No Return through Kofi’s aptitude for swimming. Kofi receives his second name, Offin, because he was born in the very river where he now finds sanctuary after school.

The story of African Americans did not begin during the middle passage. Every person who was enslaved came from a home with a rich history and unique culture. Their stories have been told in excellent books for young readers, including Sharon Draper’s Copper Sun; Nikole Hannah-Jones, Renée Watson and Nikkolas Smith’s The 1619 Project: Born on the Water; and Ashley Bryan’s Freedom Over Me. But many more are needed, and there’s no one better to add to this vital canon than Alexander.

Kwame Alexander brings his deep awareness of the power of verse to this story of an African boy named Kofi, set near the end of the transatlantic slave trade.
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How would a middle schooler navigate an unspeakable tragedy? That’s the subject Liz Garton Scanlon beautifully explores in Lolo’s Light, her second middle grade novel. 

Twelve-year-old Millie is thrilled when she gets her first babysitting job. Her older sister isn’t available, so Millie gets to watch their neighbors’ 4-month-old baby, Lolo. The Acostas make the job easy, putting Lolo to bed before they leave so Millie just needs to check on her. As Millie revels in her new responsibility, she feels “something shift, like that exact moment [is] the end of her being a kid and the beginning of her being real, full-grown Millie.” The night goes swimmingly and the Acostas return home to find that all is well. But the next morning, the world turns upside down, because overnight, Lolo dies of SIDS. 

Garton Scanlon clearly establishes that no one is to blame for this tragedy while also conveying Millie’s ongoing feelings of shock and anguish. As Millie grieves, she is also haunted—and comforted—by a light that seems to emanate from Lolo’s bedroom window whenever Millie walks past the Acostas’ house, which Millie believes is Lolo’s presence. 

Author Liz Garton Scanlon discusses how she captured the hard work of healing in ‘Lolo’s Light.’

Millie receives support from numerous caring adults, including her parents, her teacher, her school librarian and a therapist, as well as the Acostas. Garton Scanlon makes superb use of Millie’s seventh grade science project, hatching chicken eggs, as a focal point for Millie’s sorrow, depression and growing anxiety. As Millie’s teacher tells her, “You are trying to make sense of something very big and ancient and scary. You’re trying to process how unbelievably fragile life can be.” 

Despite its heavy topic, Lolo’s Light is ultimately a hopeful book about healing that captures how much hard work, along with time, the process can require. Garton Scanlon infuses the story with perfect moments of humor, too, such as the many puns that arise during the science project scenes. (Millie’s science project group’s name, “the Egg-ceptionals,” is only the beginning.) 

In writing Lolo’s Light, Garton Scanlon undertook a monumental challenge. The result is a compelling novel that glows with understanding and empathy.

Read our Q&A with ‘Lolo’s Light’ author Liz Garton Scanlon.

Author Liz Garton Scanlon undertakes a monumental challenge in Lolo's Light. The result is a compelling novel that glows with empathy and understanding.
Interview by

When a house appears at the end of Juniper Drive, Jacqueline “Jac” Price-Dupree’s reaction isn’t what you’d expect from most 12-year-olds, but Jac isn’t like most 12-year-olds. Ever since she was diagnosed with cancer five years ago, Jac has been haunted by the fear that it might return, so when Jac sees the house, she wonders if it’s a hallucination. If it’s a symptom. The house fills Jac with terror even before she and her friends wind up trapped inside it—and before Jac discovers that the house knows her name.

Ally Malinenko’s This Appearing House is a surreal and horror-filled story about a girl who must confront her deepest fears and chart a path toward a new future.

Tell us about Jac and where she’s at when we meet her.
Jac is a pretty anxious kid. She’s been through a lot, and she is nearing her five-year anniversary from her cancer diagnosis. She’s still NED—no evidence of disease. Fun fact: We don’t use cured when talking about cancer, because there is no cure. There is only no evidence of disease.

She’s also pretty angry. She’s tired of her mother worrying and hovering. She’s tired of the elephant of a recurrence in the corner of the room all the time. She’s pretty lonely, and at the start of the book, she’s asking the universe a pretty big question. She wants to know if she’ll get what everyone else gets—a full, long life—or if she’ll die young. It’s a lot for a 12-year-old.

Jac’s story is a pretty clear response to some of the cultural narratives that exist around illnesses such as cancer. For readers who might not be familiar, could you briefly describe those narratives? Why was it important to give Jac a different story?
I was diagnosed with cancer when I was 37, and within the first couple of days I realized that warrior language (“you can fight this/you can beat this”) made me very tired very quickly. Because the truth was I wasn’t a warrior. I wasn’t brave. I was just doing what the doctors told me to do and I was hoping for the best.

Having a major disease like cancer changes you. It fundamentally splits your life into “the before” and “the after,” and while that gets smoother over time, the split is always there, like a scar. I wanted Jac to struggle with learning how to let go, because it was something that I struggled with. Letting go and moving on are not always the same thing. I also wanted to show that Jac was angry, and that anger in the face of an unjust world was a perfectly OK response to have.

Everyone looks to people who have been through trauma as some sort of inspiration. But we’re not. We’re just people that something happened to. We’re people who got unlucky and then very lucky.

“We teach kids how to fight monsters so that when a monster eventually turns up in their life, they’ll know what to do.”

This book isn’t your first foray into writing horror. What keeps you coming back to this genre?
I loved reading horror when I was younger. I started with Stephen King at much too young of an age, when I would sneak a page or two off my oldest sister’s bookshelf, so I’m definitely a horror fan.

I think I keep writing horror because I respect it. Horror trusts that kids can handle it. We adults do so much gatekeeping and shielding with kids and I always wonder why. Kids know the world is scary. Look at the last few years alone! We don’t do them any justice if we pretend otherwise.

Middle grade horror makes one promise: It will take you into the dark but it will always always always bring you back to the light. We teach kids how to fight monsters so that when a monster eventually turns up in their life, they’ll know what to do. Honestly, it’s an honor.

Where did this haunted house originate?
Haunted houses are typically metaphors for diseased minds, but I wanted this to be a metaphor for a diseased body. And I knew early on that the house was going to be there specifically for Jac, in this exact moment of her life.

What are some of your favorite haunted house narratives? Did they influence the house in this book?
Growing up, I was obsessed with The Amityville Horror, but rereading it as an adult just makes me sad to see how awful and abusive the father is. That’s an interesting example, because I feel like it’s the most well known of the economic horror subgenre—the “we bought this house and it’s haunted but we don’t have any money to leave” plot.

I am also a huge Shirley Jackson fan (who isn’t?), so I have always been a fan of The Haunting of Hill House. In fact, the opening paragraph of This Appearing House is an homage to the opening paragraph of The Haunting of Hill House.

Jac experiences a lot of truly terrifying—and incredibly imaginative—horrors when she’s trapped in the House. Which one are you most proud of? Which one was the scariest for you to write?
I’m probably most proud of the teeth scene. I had to fight to keep it in the book because my publisher thought it was too scary. In the original version, Hazel was really choking, so this version is a little softened, but yes, plates full of teeth, mouthfuls of teeth. I loved it.

The scariest one? At one point Jac is home and Hazel comes over to visit and Jac’s mother is acting very, very strange. It’s a scene that starts with a plate of eggs and ends with the kids running for their lives. That one was probably the most unnerving to write because you don’t want to have your mother, of all people, turn monstrous.

“Everyone looks to people who have been through trauma as some sort of inspiration. But we’re not. We’re just people that something happened to. We’re people who got unlucky and then very lucky.”

Tell us about the research that went into this book. Were you able to interview kids whose experiences are similar to Jac’s or talk to medical professionals who work with those kids?
Even though I am NED (no evidence of disease), I still go for monthly treatment. I spoke with some nurses about their experiences with kids. A lot of what they had to say I gave to Jac, like this idea that kids want to talk about it because they’re scared, but their parents, who are also deeply afraid, tend to brush away those conversations. But they need to happen.

Jac’s mom doesn’t get a ton of “screen time,” so to speak, but her interactions with Jac are so impactful. What do you hope kids and grown-ups will take away from her character and her relationship with Jac?
I think that Jac’s mom has a lot of unprocessed trauma, just like her daughter, and her way of dealing with it is to pretend it didn’t happen while simultaneously, consistently, fearing that it’s happening again. She goes through a checklist of symptoms when she sees Jac stumble, and that’s exhausting for her daughter.

I hope that it comes across that Jac’s mom does this out of love and fear, even though it’s probably not the best course of action. I want people to sympathize with her. Like her daughter, Jac’s mom also stood on the edge of that abyss.

I know what it’s like to love someone who is going through a life-threatening illness. Both of my parents had cancer, and I remember my father telling me, when my mother was diagnosed, that it was easier to be the patient than the caretaker. After watching what my husband went through when I was diagnosed, I think my dad was right. I hope that people are kind to Jac’s mom and see that, by the end of the book, she’s really trying.

This was an intense and emotional book to read, so I can only imagine what it must have been like to write. How did you take care of yourself as you worked on this book?
Does crying on the floor count as taking care of yourself? I kid. I think the one saving grace I had was that I had some distance between my diagnosis and writing this. I couldn’t have done it right after I was diagnosed. My whole world felt upside down. But with some distance, I realized that I had some things I wanted to share. A story I wanted to tell. Because, truthfully, even though it’s on the book jacket, the word cancer is only used once in the book. Because I never thought it was a “cancer book.” To me, it’s about trauma. About the elasticity of trauma and the work that goes into healing that trauma. That was the story I wanted to tell.

What do you hope kids who feel trapped in their own Houses take away from Jac’s story?
I hope they feel seen. I hope that they know that everything you experience, even the scary things—and maybe especially the scary things—makes you who you are. I hope they know that they might be different now, but that’s OK. All of it matters. And I hope that they remember that even if all the movies and books always depict the sick kid dying, that sometimes, the characters live. Just like they lived.

Did you trick or treat as a kid? If so, what was your favorite candy to receive? If we were to trick-or-treat at your house this year, what would we find in our buckets?
Halloween has always been my favorite holiday and I definitely went trick-or-treating, probably longer than most kids! Milky Ways are definitely my favorite chocolate, but I do love Starburst. Especially the orange ones. If you went trick-or-treating at my house, it’s M&M’S for everyone!

If you found yourself in the opposite of a haunted House—a house filled with joy and delight and serenity—what would await you inside?
Oh, I love this question. It would be filled with books and comfy nooks for naps and endless cups of tea and bottles of wine and all the best comfort food. It would always be dusk so the light would soften everything and the temperature would be just chilly enough so that you would want to snuggle in a blanket. And the house would know exactly what kind of music I’d want to hear without my even asking.

Read our starred review of ‘This Appearing House.’

Author photo of Ally Malinenko courtesy of Bill Wadman.

Ally Malinenko’s This Appearing House is a surreal and horror-filled story about a girl who must confront her deepest fears and chart a path toward a new future.

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