Perspectives from 2022 Debuts, Middle Grade Edition

By Michael Leali

As a debut author myself, it’s an honor to showcase insights from debut middle grade authors Catherine Arguelles, Emi Wantanabe Cohen, Sally Engelfried, Jacquetta Nammar Feldman, Evan Griffith, Lee Y. Miao, Stacy Nockowitz, and Misty Wilson.


Catherine Arguelles, Flip Turns

Tell us about your debut novel!

Flip Turns (North Star Editions, 2022) is a middle grade mystery featuring Maddie, a 13-year-old with anxiety who is struggling with the unwanted attention of a boy at school. When her family’s community pool is vandalized, threatening Maddie’s swim team, Maddie and her best friend Ez search for the culprit while dealing with friend and family dynamics, competitive swimming, and first crushes.

What advice would you give to pre-published writers?

There’s so much advice out there about writing and revising and querying that I like to offer advice about dealing with the emotional toll of the long publishing process: plant something. Water it. Watch it grow. Time moves strangely when you’re querying and on submission. It’s so hard to know what’s happening and so easy to feel helpless. Planting something that you can nurture helps to acknowledge the passage of time in a real-world way and recognize that growth is happening, things are changing, and you can produce something beautiful.

What appeals to you about writing middle grade? What are the craft challenges of writing for this age group?

I remember how difficult the middle school years can be, and I’ve worked in counseling with middle schoolers. It felt natural to me to write for this age group and try to help kids in these tough years, whether by offering models or making them feel less alone, or just entertaining them. The biggest challenge in writing for middle grade is that the people you write for (kids) aren’t the ones buying the books. So you’ve got to appeal to adults as well, and since kids can often be anti-adult, those audiences are often in conflict. It’s a balancing act.

Emi Wantanabe Cohen, The Last Ryū

Tell us about your debut novel!

My debut novel, The Lost Ryū (Levine Querido, 2022), is a middle grade historical fantasy set in 1960s Japan. It follows ten-year-old Kohei, his new neighbor, Isolde, and their tiny dragon companions as they set out to uncover the truth of the mythical “big dragons” that disappeared in 1945. It’s a book about the role of mythology in national identity, historical revisionism, familial trauma… and dragons.

If you could tell your younger writer-self anything, what would it be?

Take your time. Be methodical. Writing is a craft; inspiration is important, but practice is paramount. Also, do your math homework and get some sleep.

What appeals to you about writing middle grade? What are the craft challenges of writing for this age group?

Childhood is a scary time—kids have no control over where they live or what they do. Middle grade readers in particular bear a growing awareness of that helplessness. I believe this makes middle grade fantasy a true goldmine of a genre, as readers are primed to navigate a world that doesn’t make sense to them. Magic is absurd and arbitrary, but is it more absurd and arbitrary than school?

I’ve found that my younger readers are far more willing to “not get” things. They’re less likely to be put off by words or concepts they can’t immediately grasp, because they face the incomprehensible on a daily basis. It’s adult readers who balk at seeing Japanese words on a page. The biggest challenge of writing middle grade is also the biggest challenge of being a middle grade reader: balancing the known with the unknown. Kids might not understand the historical context of my books, but they can and do understand the emotions lying beneath. How do I help them navigate this new space?

Sally Engelfried, Learning to Fall

Tell us about your debut novel!

Learning to Fall (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2022) is the story of twelve-year-old Daphne, who has to spend the summer with her dad in Oakland after not seeing him for three years. Although her dad is now a recovering alcoholic, she doesn’t trust him and hasn’t since he broke a promise to her when she was ten. Once she’s in Oakland, their shared love of skateboarding draws them together, and Daphne begins to trust her dad again, enough to make plans for the future. And then he breaks another promise. Daphne knows skating is all about accepting failure and moving on. Can she learn how to forgive her dad and move on from his failures?

If you could tell your younger writer-self anything, what would it be?

Just finish the book, already! I don’t know how many novels I started and then discarded because I got bored with the work that came after my initial flush of inspiration. Eventually, I decided I needed to finish a whole novel no matter what, but it took me years. I kept going back to the beginning and starting over, thinking that if I got the first part right it would help me write the rest.

When I finally typed “the end,” I suddenly understood so much! Unfortunately, what I understood wasn’t how great my book was, it was how much work I had left to do! Getting to the end told me so much about the story, and the revisions that followed were much more effective than anything I did to “fix” it before I knew the end. After that, I promised myself to always write a book all the way to the end before I tried to revise it, and I’ve kept that promise.

What appeals to you about writing middle grade? What are the craft challenges of writing for this age group?

What I love about writing middle grade is that those ages between 10 and 13 never change. Sure, trends and language evolve, but a tween’s brain will always be a tween’s brain. The rational prefrontal cortex is far from being fully developed in tweens, so the amygdala ends up doing a lot of the brainwork, and the amygdala specializes in big emotional upheavals. Big emotions make for a good story.

A 1980s tween might have worn different clothes and listened to different music than a 2020s tween, but they will both struggle to understand their parents’ divorce or why their best friend is abandoning them. I think that’s one reason we can explore the same topics over and over in middle grade: it’s always fresh for the kid who’s experiencing it.

The challenge is to capture these emotional upheavals so that today’s young readers feel like the story speaks to them personally. For me, that means digging deep and remembering how things felt at that age without letting my adult perspective creep in, which can sometimes be quite tough! It also means listening to how today’s tweens speak to one another, and I don’t necessarily mean slang—I’ve noticed they have an awareness of what’s going on in the world that I definitely didn’t possess at that age. It’s important not to underestimate them!

Author Jacquetta Nammar Feldman, photo by Kim

Jacquetta Nammar Feldman, Wishing Upon the Same Stars

Tell us about your debut novel!

My debut middle grade novel, Wishing Upon the Same Stars (HarperCollins, 2022), was released last February, and was born from my life experience as part of a Palestinian and Jewish family. While it’s a work of fiction, there is much of my twelve-year-old self sprinkled among the pages. The story follows seventh grader Yasmeen Khoury as she moves away from her large Arab American community in Michigan and starts a new school in Texas.

Yasmeen tries to fit in, but she quickly realizes that there aren’t any kids or families like hers. And some of the girls are way meaner than she expected. Then she meets her neighbor, Ayelet Cohen, and finds that they have more in common than she would have thought–both of their families’ hearts and minds often fly far way to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When Yasmeen’s grandmother’s house is destroyed in Jerusalem, she moves to Texas, too, and suddenly the conflict is not nearly as far away as the girls had thought. Yasmeen and Ayelet must grow their friendship and find a way for peace to begin with them.

What appeals to you about writing middle grade? What are the craft challenges of writing for this age group?

I love writing for middle grade readers! I remember that time in my life well, and it still feels accessible to me; after all of these years, the emotions surrounding the big questions I was beginning to ask are still present. Of course, many of those big questions still aren’t answered, but they have become part of my life-long quest for greater understanding. Writing middle grade stories is a way for me to reflect back on these questions and, I hope, present them to young readers in ways that feel helpful and meaningful.

I strive to write about difficult life topics in an age-appropriate way. To do this, I try to craft stories from a place of hope and possibility. As any writer knows, that’s not easy! The world can be hard, and many of us have endured difficult experiences during childhood. But, I think that writing about small moments where the light shines in can add up and make a difference. Hope and possibility, reflected in stories, can be just the thing a young reader needs during times when the world is hard for them.

What are you working on next?

I’m excited that my next middle grade novel, The Puttermans Are in the House (HarperCollins, 2023), is due out January 17, 2023! The story follows fraternal twins Sammy and Matty Putterman and their first cousin Becky through Hurricane Harvey and the Houston Astros World Series. At the heart of it, it’s a story about strong families and forever friendships and cheering on those we love through their process of self-discovery. I can’t wait for it to be in the hands of middle grade readers!

Evan Griffith, Manatee Summer

Tell us about your debut novel!

Manatee Summer (Quill Tree Books, 2022) is the story of eleven-year-old Peter, who is facing many difficult changes during his last summer vacation before starting middle school. This summer, Peter and his best friend, Tommy, are determined to finally finish their Discovery Journal—a catalog of all the animal species they can find around their town in Central Florida—but Tommy is harboring a secret that puts their friendship and the future of the Discovery Club at risk. Peter is also on Official Caregiver Duty for his grandfather, who has rapidly progressing Alzheimer’s, while his single mom works to support the family. When Peter discovers an injured manatee in the Indigo River and joins the fight to protect Florida manatees, it quickly becomes about more than manatees: It’s a mission to save everything that needs saving and hold together all the parts of his life that seem to be unraveling. Manatee Summer is about that magical, tricky, liminal space between childhood and adolescence. It’s about learning to swim in shifting currents, finding harbor in stormy weather, and trusting in the power of the natural world to anchor us when we need it most.

Tell us about a highlight from your debut year.

A recent special moment was receiving my first letter about the book from a young reader. We know, of course, that we’re writing books for kids—but during the editorial and publication process it’s easy to get swept up in how the book is being perceived by adults, whether that’s your agent, your editor, book reviewers, educators, or parents. Hearing directly from a young reader about what the book meant to her and her own dreams of becoming an author was really moving for me, and reminded me so much of myself at that age. It’s a moment of things coming full circle: The book finding its intended audience, and (hopefully!) resonating with that audience. That’s the ultimate joy.

It’s also been special for me to hear from friends and family about the parts of me they found in the book, and how the book helped them understand me better in some ways. It’s a reminder that storytelling is always a form of deeply personal expression—and a seed for connection.

What are you working on next?

My next middle-grade novel comes out in early 2024. Tentatively titled The Strange Wonder of Roots (Quill Tree Books, 2024), it’s about a twelve-year-old girl named Holly who is unceremoniously shipped off to small-town Vermont to stay with her uncle for part of the summer. Holly has been displaced a lot throughout her life and contends that nothing lasts—not towns, not schools, and certainly not friends—so she has no intention of getting attached to this small town. But as she gets involved in a local fight to save a special grove of trees from being torn down, Holly begins to experience true belonging for the first time in her life. In order to save the grove—and soothe the ache in her heart—Holly will have to learn the strange wonder of roots: How they burrow deep into the earth, how they anchor and nourish trees, and how they tie together to form networks of support, stability, and community.

I also have a new picture book biography under contract for a 2024 release. It hasn’t been officially announced yet, so I’ll keep my lips sealed for now. But I look forward to sharing more about it soon!

Lee Y. Miao, Wei To Go!

Tell us about your debut novel!

My middle-grade novel, Wei To Go! (Clear Fork, 2022), is about a twelve-year-old word nerd, Ellie W. Pettit, who has an unfamiliar middle name and is directionally challenged. She starts her summer in the Los Angeles area by butting heads with her lacrosse-crazed brother who’s got the same middle name but has a built-in GPS. That’s until a family crisis erupts when a mysterious mega-corporation jeopardizes their dad’s firm. They journey to Hong Kong to track down this company in a thoroughly new setting that will test Ellie’s over-analytical tendencies. If you want a fun read featuring a mystery, sports, humor, and multicultural family dynamics, read this!

What are you working on next?

I’m on final edits for a second middle grade novel called It’s a RHAP, Cat (Clear Fork, 2023). Twelve-year-old Cat, Ellie’s bestie from the first novel, discovers her startling look-alike in a portrait by Raphael. As a history nerd, she can’t wait to research this lady from the 16th century. But sparks fly when she signs up for the Renaissance History and Art Project (RHAP) contest with her one-time rival and crush. Cat tries to solve the mystery, partly in Rome, but her biggest challenge is that more than five hundred years stands in her way! The book is sprinkled with tidbits about society and women in art during Renaissance Italy written from Cat’s reports.

What advice would you give to pre-published writers?

As you seek representation, tweak your manuscript to make it a polished submission but don’t overdo it. I aim for progress, not perfection. To help with this, I find it valuable to write a detailed sketch of the story characters, use a scene structure checklist, and ensure that conflict exists around every corner. Most importantly, I set up a spreadsheet laying out chapters with scene blurbs and the characters to view what’s happening at a glance. Please feel free to contact me through my website, if you’d like to see some examples.

Stacy Nockowitz, The Prince of Steel Pier

Tell us about your debut novel!

The Prince of Steel Pier (Kar-Ben, 2022) is the story of 13-year-old Joey Goodman, one of four brothers in a big Jewish family. It’s 1975, and Joey is working as a waiter-in-training at his grandparents’ kosher hotel on the Boardwalk in Atlantic City, New Jersey, for the month of August. Joey is an anxious kid who feels like his voice is always being drowned out by everyone else in his family. One day on the Boardwalk, Joey impresses some local mobsters with his Skee-Ball skills. When the gang’s boss, Artie Bishop, the so-called King of Steel Pier, offers him a job, Joey jumps at the chance to prove himself. But running with Artie’s crew means deceiving the people he loves most and crossing lines he never questioned before. When Artie asks Joey for a very dangerous favor, Joey must decide how far he’s willing to go to be “one of the guys.” The story is fast-paced and suspenseful, but it addresses many important themes: strength, belonging, faith, and identity.

Tell us about a highlight from your debut year.

My highlight is really bittersweet. My parents have always been very supportive of my dreams, whether it was becoming a teacher or a librarian or a writer. They’ve been excitedly awaiting my book’s release date since I signed the contract with my publisher. I knew I wanted to share that day with them and my husband and kids, so I started planning a book launch event at the school where I teach for Sept. 1, and of course, I invited my whole family.

But my father’s health started to deteriorate in the spring of this year. By the latter part of June, it became clear that he wasn’t going to make it to Sept. 1. My mother and I were spending every day with my dad in the hospital as he declined. I was supposed to speak at a conference in Philadelphia on June 28, and I asked my publisher to send my box of ARCs to my parents’ house in South Jersey, where I was staying, so I could have them to hand out at the conference. Of course, I ended up not going to the conference, but I received the box of ARCs on June 27 at my parents’ home. On June 28, I brought a copy into the hospital to show my father. He beamed. He was so proud. “It took a long time,” he said. It had. My dad died that night, and he was buried with a copy of my book. That is something I will never, ever forget. I wish he could have been there for my book launch, but I’m so happy he was able to hold a copy of my book before he passed.

What are you working on next?

I’m currently revising my next manuscript, another middle grade historical novel. This one is set in the Bronx in 1953, during the Communist Red Scare that swept the country at that time. It’s about a 12-year-old boy who gets caught up in a secret plan to help his classmate Allegra and her family. This book explores themes of antisemitism, friendship, and grief, but it also involves a lot of stickball and other hijinks. I’m also working on a middle grade novel-in-verse about a shooting outside a synagogue in the mid-80’s. That’s very loosely based on a real incident that took place in St. Louis.

Misty Wilson playing football.

Misty Wilson, Play Like a Girl

Tell us about your debut novel!

Play Like a Girl (Balzer + Bray, 2022) is a middle grade graphic memoir about my experience playing football on the boys’ team in seventh grade while also trying to fit in with the popular girls. It’s about toxic friendships, first crushes, and facing adversity. Mostly, though, it’s about discovering how happiness comes from following your passions and being true to yourself.

Did the editing process for your debut book offer any insights that you’ll be using in your writing process going forward?

Funny enough, when I first wrote Play Like a Girl, I really knew nothing about storytelling. I only knew I had events in middle school that kids could relate to—events that ultimately shaped me. It wasn’t until I got my first edit letter that I realized just how much I had to learn. Between rounds of revisions (and there were many!), I started reading craft books, learning the ins and outs of story. This was a huge part of my editing process because even before my editor would send me a new round of notes, I knew changes I wanted to make. Then, of course, she’d hit me with her brilliance. Sometimes I’d cry because I had no idea how to fix a problem she pointed out. Sometimes I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought of something she said. Often, she noticed things about my characters that I’d written but hadn’t realized.

The entire editing process for my debut has made me question everything as I write now: What is this character’s motivation? Is this authentic? Does this sound like something a twelve-year-old would say or think? Am I writing with the theme in mind? Are my scenes building off each other? Mostly, though, the editing process for Play Like a Girl made me realize that no matter how good I get at writing, I’ll always have blind spots when I’m close to a story. Someone will always have a better view with fresh eyes. I now know to expect overwhelming feedback, and instead of crying and screaming about how bad my book is, I take a deep breath and read the notes, knowing that in the end, once I figure everything out, the changes will make the book the best version of itself.

What are you doing to get your book(s) noticed?

Promotion is hard. It’s hard to find time for it, especially when you have a day job and kids. It’s hard to know what you as the author can do that will actually make a difference. It’s hard to find the time for it when you have the next book to write. But, alas, it’s part of the job.

My husband, David Wilson (the illustrator of Play Like a Girl), and I have been contacting ARC sharing groups who have been reading and sharing reviews of our book (and we love them for it!), we’ve been agreeing to nearly every video or blog interview, festival presentations, and article-writing opportunity. We’ve designed, printed, and mailed out postcards for our book and sent them to independent bookstores across the country. Our publicity team at HarperCollins has been in contact with some very important people in sports (I’m not sure how much I’m allowed to say as I type this in early September ’22), and we will hopefully be entering into some partnerships that will help get the book noticed. And most recently, David and I made our own book trailer that we’re pretty proud of!

Promotion is so much work, and there are so many books out there. All we can do is hope something helps Play Like a Girl get noticed and that it ends up in the hands of kids!

Cynsational Notes

Catherine Arguelles has worked as a counselor with middle school students, a fundraiser for non-profits, and is the proud parent of two feminist readers and three regal cats. She lives in Northern California. Her first middle grade novel, Flip Turns, comes out on Sept. 13.

Emi Watanabe Cohen grew up on the South Side of Chicago, where she spent most of her time reading, writing, or pretending to do her homework while secretly continuing to read or write. The stories she tells are informed by her mixed Japanese/Ashkenazi Jewish heritage, as well as by her experiences growing up in a multilingual environment. She is a graduate of Brandeis University’s Creative Writing program. The Lost Ryū is her debut novel.

Sally Engelfried is an author and librarian in Oakland, California, where she lives with her family, two cats, and a dog who is fond of stealing slippers. Learning to Fall is her first novel.

Jacquetta Nammar Feldman loves writing poetry and stories of all kinds. When she’s not curled up with a book or typing at her computer, she can be found hiking the beautiful hills of Austin, Texas, with her husband, two labradoodles, and a Havanese.

She earned her Bachelor of Science in Advertising from the University of Texas at Austin, and she’s currently a candidate for a Master of Fine Arts in Writing for Children & Young Adults at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Jacquetta is a member of SCBWI, the Writers’ League of Texas, and the Texas Library Association.

Evan Griffith is the author of the middle-grade novel Manatee Summer (Quill Tree, 2022) and the picture book biography Secrets of the Sea: The Story of Jeanne Power, Revolutionary Marine Scientist (Clarion, 2021). His next novel is The Strange Wonder of Roots, forthcoming from Quill Tree in 2024. He studied creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and received his MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. He worked for several years as an editor at Workman Publishing, where he specialized in non-fiction for children and adults, and he continues to edit books on a freelance basis. Through his role as the youth programming specialist at The Writing Barn, a creative writing education center, he also teaches online writing classes for kids. He lives in Austin, Texas with a mischievous tuxedo cat and several overflowing bookshelves.

Lee Y. Miao loves writing stories about contemporary characters who discover connections to their cultures and families from the past. She grew up in a small Pennsylvania town and had a career in the financial industry. Eventually she wrote ELA and social studies educational material before pivoting to middle-grade fiction. Lee lives in New York with her family and a tireless dog. Sign up for her email newsletter on and follow her on Instagram @leeymiao.writer.

Stacy Nockowitz is a middle school librarian and former language arts teacher with 30+ years of experience in middle grade education. She holds Master’s Degrees from Columbia University and Kent State University, and is an MFA candidate in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Stacy is an unrepentant Jersey girl from Exit 4 on the NJ Turnpike and an outstanding Jewish mother to her two grown children. She lives in Columbus, Ohio, with her husband, Richie, and their perfect cat, Queen Esther. The Prince of Steel Pier (Kar-Ben, 2022) is her debut novel. Find her on Twitter @snockowitz.

Misty Wilson is the author of Play Like a Girl (Balzer + Bray, 2022), her debut middle-grade graphic memoir, which earned a starred review from Booklist and was a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection. Misty teaches by day and writes by night. She’s a voracious reader who also loves binge-watching television shows. She lives in Northeast Ohio with her husband, David Wilson, illustrator of Play Like a Girl, and their two daughters.

Michael Leali is a writer and educator. He received his MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. When he’s not dreaming up stories, he’s probably playing a board game, eating cheese, or grading papers somewhere in the suburbs of Chicago. The Civil War of Amos Abernathy (HarperCollins, 2022) is his debut novel. Michael Leali identifies as white, cisgender, gay, and uses he/him pronouns.