Krista Vitola is a Senior Editor at Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers. Follow her @kav_tepedino.
What books were you reading at 11 or 12? Do you think those books influenced your taste in children’s literature?
As a child, I read anything I could get my hands on. I would go through the stacks of books and pick out title after title. I read so many wonderful stories that would transport me out of my small suburban town on Long Island. I didn’t care where the author took me, so long as I could escape from the world where I currently lived. The Secret Garden, The Little Prince, From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Charlotte’s Web, The Chronicles of Narnia, Number the Stars, novels by Louis Sachar, Judy Blume, Shel Silverstein and Roald Dahl. These books took me under their wing.
My characters didn’t care that I had glasses and braces and frizzy hair. They didn’t care if I had the newest Adidas sneakers or Gap jacket in jolly rancher grape. All that was required of me was that I listen and learn. They taught me many precious nuggets of information on life and love and relationships. It was definitely the age in which I relied on books the most. They were my friends as much as any human sitting next to me in the classroom or playing with me on the field.
Working in publishing now, I hope that every title I acquire will do the same.
When you speak about middle grade books, it sounds like you have a real soft spot for that age level. What is it that appeals to you specifically about middle grade?
There are so many shifts that occur when you’re in the middle-grade age range. You’re not yet an adult but you’re definitely not a child and you relish in these moments of autonomy. Your parents listen more to what you have to say, and yet there’s only so far you can push. The world you live in takes on a different hue and you want to read about characters that feel the same way. Things aren’t as black and white as they were before you turned this age, everything is complicated and feelings are messy; you begin to explore the world of your own accord.
And with all of these balls juggling in the air that is your life, there are, of course, so many questions that arise. This is the meat of a middle-grade novel. Answering these questions that seem essential for you as you age another year older and start to understand how all these factors—friends, family, school and feelings—of loss, shame, need, anxiety, happiness— fit into the life puzzle. You still need help but the answers you find are your own and arise when you’re ready. You’re not too self-aware yet or jaded and it’s chaotic and hard and beautiful.
How have middle grade books changed since you have been editing and publishing?
Middle grade novels have always been a pillar in children’s literature. But I think they’ve recently been receiving more recognition in the marketplace. And rightfully so! Middle grade will always have its audience, but I would say it’s widened in the past five years. More readers are coming to these books and weekly numbers have seen an increase. This may be a slow effect of the Harry Potter novels or the beauty of Wonder. Novels that transcend age.
I also think that the world we live in isn’t always kind or safe. Middle grade books have a way of holding your hand through these dark periods.
What themes or subjects remain constant?
One of the many reasons why I love editing middle grade is that, for the most part, they don’t follow “trends”. At the core of every middle-grade novel are these questions about who we are and how we fit in the fabric of our everyday lives. They touch on the importance of family—and friendship and siblings and teachers and coaches. It’s exploring new places and making your own choices. And above all learning more about yourself and those values, beliefs, and joys that make you tick. Adventure stories, sibling stories, and realistic fiction are additional subjects that will always appeal in this age range.
Is there a disconnect between the MG books that win awards and books most kids are actually buying, requesting, or reading?
I wouldn’t say there’s a disconnect per se, but there are certain titles that appeal to a wider audience of readers. Books that win the Newbery may not be every reader’s cup of tea–the language may be challenging or the subject matter esoteric, so a more straightforward, comedic novel may be more appealing. A novel that wins an award does so for a reason–it stands out in the genre. And to do this, there needs to be a quality present that may not be as highly valued by the target audience.
How much have the recent movements helped bring more diverse writers into children’s publishing?
Each and every day we try to do better, to find those talented voices whose stories must be shared with the world. Organization like We Need Diverse Books and twitter trends like DVpit have provided a forum for diverse authors and content to find a pathway into the publishing sphere, and the more outlets are available to writers, the better able we are as agents and editors to acquire this content and share it widely.
What kinds of books are you looking for now to round out your list?
I would love to acquire more middle grade graphic novels, novels that focus on girls turning their hobbies into grassroots businesses, and novels in verse. But I will always buy more novels that make me cry and question and wonder.
Are there any controversial or dark topics that you try to steer clear of?
There are a few topics that I’m unable to take on as an editor: novels about abuse (whether that’s verbal, physical or substance) and eating disorders.
Is there any one piece of advice you give again and again to the authors you work with?
Stop comparing yourself to other authors!
Write. Enjoy the writing process. Thrive in tapping into your amazing and vast imaginations. The writing process is a long and arduous one, yet it is also one of the most gratifying. No one goes into publishing for the fame and the fortune. You do it because you love it and there’s no other profession that will offer as much joy on a daily basis. Your book will find its way into the hands of a young reader needing it. You’ll receive your first fan letter or be asked to sign your novel. And you’ll remember why you started typing away at your computer. To share your story. Not anyone else’s.
Can you talk about a couple of books you have forthcoming this year and next? What you love about them?
Sure! I’ve been working on a fabulous book about cadaver dogs called What the Dog Knows. It’s brilliant and reads like a dog and his owner adventure. I have a sweet young middle-grade novel called Meena Meets Her Match about a girl who’s dealing with the everyday ups and downs of third grade, all while dealing with epilepsy. I’m working on additional books in a chapter book series, Franny K. Stein Mad Scientist that follows an eccentric and hilarious young lady who loves science and likes to perform experiments in her bedroom (these experiments also have a habit of running rampant in her hometown). I have two middle grade novels coming out in Spring 2020—one that discusses important topics on immigration, the other about the power of kindness and community—both have a dash of magical realism. And finally, I recently bought a beautiful historical fiction novel about The Merci Train (if you don’t know what this is, I highly recommend you look it up!).
Thank you, Gail!
This is a very informative interview. Thanks!
Great interview, Gail!