Reka Simonsen is Executive Editor at Atheneum/Simon & Schuster. She loves to work on books all across the age range, though she has a real soft spot for middle-grade novels, especially those that can turn kids into lifelong readers. She looks for believable, engaging characters whose voices she can’t forget, and stories with that special blend of humor and heart. Find out more about Reka at https://simonandschusterpublishing.com/atheneum/our-team.
Hi Reka, thanks for chatting with us. You’re publishing two new middle-grade novels from my 2019 cohort by Jamie Sumner and J. Kasper Kramer. Can you talk about what originally sparked your interest and made you want to acquire their debut novels?
Well, if a manuscript opens with a reference to The Great British Bake Off, of course I have to read more! Though it was the main character Ellie herself who made me want to acquire Roll with It. Ellie is smart and funny and she refuses to fit into the “sunshine and cuddles” stereotype that the world seems to expect of her as a kid who uses a wheelchair. That combination of grit and humor in the face of daily challenges, especially as she fights to be seen for who she really—that spoke to me, and I think it will speak to many kids who don’t get to see themselves in books very often. Ellie is determined to tell her own story, not the story others expect from her.
Jessica’s novel, The Story That Cannot Be Told, is also about the power of storytelling. It explores the way that stories—and who gets to tell them—shape what people think. From the start, I was intrigued by the setting, and loved that Jessica was weaving folklore and history together into one narrative. But that’s a tricky thing for even an experienced writer to pull off, much less a first-time author, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. Then I got swept up in Ileana’s story as she navigates a dangerous world where any neighbor could be a spy, and any loved one could be disappeared by the government for even thinking something that’s critical of the government. Jessica captured what it felt like to live in those circumstances, and wove in the folklore so beautifully that I thought it must be a very personal novel based on her own life. It’s not!
Both novels seem like they might present specific challenges to edit. Jamie’s book, ROLL WITH IT, is told from the point of view of a 12-year-old girl with cerebral palsy; Jessica (J. Kasper)’s novel, THE STORY THAT CANNOT BE TOLD, is set in Romania during the Communist revolution, told through the eyes of a 10-year-old. Can you talk about your approach to editing middle grade fiction dealing with subject matter that may go well beyond your first-hand experience?
Many of the books I work on go beyond my own first-hand experience. That’s probably true of many editors, and of many readers. For me, the entry point for working on a middle-grade novel is to find the places where I have an emotional connection to the character, so that even if I haven’t personally experienced her exact situation, I have felt what she is feeling. That common ground is what will allow a young reader to connect with a story, and hopefully to empathize with a character whose life is very different from anything the reader herself has experienced.
Middle-grade kids are at an age where most of them probably haven’t encountered many people whose lives are significantly different from their own, so the books we create for them are an opportunity to let them meet people of different abilities, ethnicities, religions, and experiences than their own. I want those first meetings to be ones that allow young readers to see the commonalities among us, as well as the challenges that they themselves may not have had to face, but others do. So I always edit with an eye to helping make the characters as relatable and believable as possible. Then when it comes to the aspects of a story where I don’t have first-hand knowledge, I work with the author to make sure that those aspects are as authentic as possible. Sometimes that involves getting authenticity readers to vet the story. Jamie and Jessica were on top of this from the start, even before the manuscripts came my way.
I know all too well that there are a lot of pitfalls in writing historical fiction. What makes middle grade historical fiction successful— first, artistically, and second, in terms of marketability? What general advice do you most often give middle grade authors who write historical?
Artistry is what makes or breaks historical fiction, as far as I’m concerned. A lot of people who want to be writers but don’t know where to start try their hand at historical fiction. I suspect this is because research is something concrete and familiar; they feel more confident in their ability to find some interesting moment in time and build a story around it than in their ability to make up something brand new from whole cloth. The result is that editors see a lot of historical fiction that is factually accurate but boring as can be (or worse). It has also been one of the most heavily published genres in kids’ books, so there are already thousands of middle-grade historical novels out in the world creating competition for any new one that hopes to make it into print. To be honest, although historical fiction is a mainstay of children’s publishing, it’s not seen as a highly marketable genre, more of a slow and steady.
So to stand out, a book has to have a terrific, fresh voice and point of view, especially if it’s about a time and place that has already been written about a lot, such as World War II. More than that, though, it has to feel relevant in some way to readers today—obscure moments in history might interest some nerdy types (like me), but unless the story includes some themes and issues that we are still dealing with today, it’s not likely that a book will resonate with many contemporary readers.
You’re also editing Joy McCullough’s new middle-grade, A FIELD GUIDE TO GETTING LOST (April 2020). Joy’s Young Adult verse novel, Blood Water Paint was published to a lot of well-deserved acclaim last year. What do you see as the challenges for authors who switch genres/age bands on their second book? Does this present any branding or marketing issues for a relatively new author? Do you ever advise authors you work with to stick to one genre?
We didn’t publish Joy’s YA novel in verse, so there’s no pressure from our marketing team to follow it with something similar. There used to be a concern within the industry that an author’s audience would get confused and not follow her if she switched genres. I think it’s far less of an issue now for writers to change age ranges and genres from one book to the next; the kids’ book world as a whole has gotten more comfortable with the idea that writers might have talent in more than one area. It’s not a bad idea for an author early on in her career to have her second book be something that the audience of the first book would enjoy, since building a readership, especially with middle-grade readers, can take more than one book. But I don’t think it’s a necessity.
What’s the most intensive editorial project you’ve ever worked on?
That’s nearly impossible to say! There have been so many projects that were intensive in some way, and the ways in which they are intensive can vary so much. I’ve worked on some fantasies that took incredible amounts of thought on my part and the part of the author to make the worldbuilding as clear and solid as it could be. Other books are intensive because there’s a lot of factual information to condense and shape into an engaging story—for instance, figuring out how to narrow the amazing and long life of NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson, who just turned 101, into a book for middle-grade readers was a bit of a challenge. And still others are intensive because I signed up the project based on something really special, but other aspects might not be working—structure, age range, whether it’s first person or third, or present or past tense—and an overhaul is called for.
What unique talents or perspectives do you think you bring to the table as an editor for middle-grade?
I like to joke that my bad memory is my great editorial strength. In reality I don’t have a bad memory so much as selective one; I can reread mysteries after a few years because I rarely remember whodunit, since what I love about a good mystery is the mood and the rich characterization. In all seriousness, though,
this does allow me to reread manuscripts with somewhat more of a fresh eye than I might otherwise have had on that third, fourth, or fifth read. And that is a real help, because we editors have to reread manuscripts so many times that the risk is high of familiarity allowing our eyes and minds to auto-correct something, rather than catching that it could use more thought.
What’s the number one thing a new middle-grade author can do, pre- or post-publication, to help boost sales of his or her books?
If we knew the answer to this, every book would be a success! My best advice is for authors to make friends with people at their local indie bookstores and libraries and attend events there, and try to get to know other authors in their area. It’s always helpful to build connections within your local literary community, where you can help support one another and build the word about your own books and those of other writers in your community.
What’s an under-represented middle-grade genre or topic that you’d like to see more of?
I’d love to see more books about kids struggling with financial insecurity. We live in one of the richest countries on earth, yet nearly half of our children are living below or dangerously close to the poverty line. Yet even as we’re entering a time when realistic slice-of-life stories are trending again, so few books deal with the issues of not knowing where your next meal is coming from, or whether your family will be kicked out of their home, or whether you’ll be taken from your parents because they can’t care for you.
Do you have other forthcoming or new middle-grade novels you’d like to introduce us to?
Of course! In a completely different vein but also absolutely wonderful: The Green Children of Woolpit by J. Anderson Coats is a deliciously creepy, spine-tingling fantasy based on a British legend about two children with green skin who mysteriously showed up in a small village. Jillian has brilliantly interpreted this story as a dark fantasy involving a strong-willed young girl and the dangerous fairy folk from English legend.
On the younger end of middle-grade is The Very, Very Far North by Dan Bar-El, an utterly charming novel about a sweet and curious young polar bear named Duane who befriends an array of animals as he discovers where he belongs. It really feels fresh and new, yet it has all of the classic appeal of Winnie the Pooh, or of Tove Jansson’s wonderful Moomintroll books, which are favorites of mine.
And one to look forward to next summer is The Great Pet Heist by Emily Ecton—which is what would happen if you cast Oceans 11 entirely with animals, complete with reconnaissance rats named Marco and Polo, a brains-of-the-operation bird, the coolest of cats, and a decoy dachshund named Butterbean. It is the funniest book I’ve read in ages.