Perspectives from 2022 Debuts, Middle Grade Edition, Part 2

By Michael Leali

These incredible debut middle grade authors share invaluable insights on the writing and publishing process. Featured in this article are Elizabeth Agyemang, Sylvia Liu, Darcy Marks, Shawn Peters, Skyler Schrempp, and Lakita Wilson.

Elizabeth Agyemang, Fibbed

Tell us about your debut novel!

My debut graphic novel Fibbed (Razorbill, 2022) is about twelve-year-old Nana whose true, but far-fetched tales land her in hot water at school. To keep Nana out of anymore trouble, her parents decide it might be best for her to spend her summer reconnecting with her Grandmother and extended family in Ghana. However, during her stay, Nana discovers magic in the village forest and must team up with Ananse, the trickster spider from lore, to save the magic and the village forest from a group of greedy contractors trying to steal and sell the magic for profit.

The story takes inspiration from my experience as a first generation immigrant. It features African folklore, themes of family and environmentalism—all through the lens of a magical tale.


Tell us about a highlight from your debut year.

A highlight of my debut year was seeing young readers finding joy and a piece of themselves through Nana’s story. While there were a lot of themes that were meaningful to me when writing and illustrating Fibbed, at the end of the day I wanted to write a story that would be fun for a kid to pick up. The warm reception my graphic novel has received from parents, educators, booksellers, and librarians has meant the world, but nothing quite beats seeing a kid having fun and feeling seen in a graphic novel about a young Black girl connecting with her African culture and finding herself as a hero. Parents have shared lovely posts about how much fun their kids have had reading the story and learning about Ananse folktales and that has been so wonderful to experience. I feel really honored to see a book that I put so much of my heart into speaking so deeply to so many different readers.

Interior illustration from Fibbed by Elizabeth Agyemang, used with permission.

What advice would you give to pre-published writers?

In terms of giving advice, I think what I’d say to pre-published writers is to first, believe in your story, but what’s more, believe in yourself. That’s often really hard to do as a writer. The amount of rejection inherent in creative endeavors can be demoralizing. Take a break when you need to, and at the end of the day one story isn’t going to be the only story you can tell, or may not even be the first one you are able to share with readers. I know that was the case with me. The first book I queried was a novel that didn’t find an agent. Neither did the second, or the third. The fourth book that did find me an agent, wasn’t the one I sold to a publisher.

Interior illustration from Fibbed by Elizabeth Agyemang, used with permission.

You have many stories inside of you, so if one doesn’t seem to be landing, be open to giving a voice to the other stories that inspire you. The market of what publishers are looking for ebbs and flows, but there will always be readers who need your story, so give your other stories a chance in the meantime. At the same time, as creators we don’t have much power in what is bought and sold, but we can shape that landscape by supporting the work of others creating the stories we would like to see and as consumers ourselves. Instead of seeing a published book that is similar to your pre-published work as competition, see it as being in community with the work you would like to create. Support those authors and their work, get to know your peers, and hold onto the joy that you find in creating and telling stories.

Sylia Liu, Hana Hsu and the Ghost Crab Nation

Tell us about your debut novel!

In a world where teens get their brains meshed to the multiweb at age thirteen, Hana Hsu jumps at the chance to attend an elite school that promises a fast track to becoming neurally-connected like her high-powered mom and sister. But when her passion for tinkering with automatons gets her mixed up with dangerous junkyard rebels, her future in the program is at risk. Even worse, she notices things are not right–some of her new friends are getting sick and her tech never works right. With the help of unlikely allies—hackers, new friends, and a qi gong master—Hana uncovers a corporate conspiracy and must save her classmates and herself, all while navigating new friendships and family secrets.

What advice would you give to pre-published writers?

  1. Find your community—writing can be lonely, but it doesn’t have to be. If you find a trusted group of writers, they’ll be a wonderful source of professional and personal support for years to come (camaraderie, critiques, friendship, and more). Social media, classes, conferences, and contests and challenges are ways I’ve connected with my closest writing pals.
  2. Cultivate a growth mindset: you’re never at a point where you’ve learned all the craft. One of the best ways I’ve done is to read widely in and outside my categories and genres. An exercise I like to do is retype the opening pages of my favorite novels; as painters who copied Old Masters knew, literal imitation is a great tool for learning.
  3. Be willing to receive constructive criticism, as that’s the quickest way to improve.

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, because that’s the magical age when people fall in love with books and become life-long readers. Some of the books that made the most impact on my life were those I read as a pre-teen, and I’d love for my books to have that kind of impact on someone. The biggest challenge for me in writing middle grade books is getting the voice right. Middle grade readers can tell if the voice doesn’t ring true.

Darcy Marks, Grounded for All Eternity

Tell us about your debut novel!

In Grounded for All Eternity (Aladdin, 2022), we follow a group of kids from the residential section of Hell, who’ve had their vacation ruined by a lockdown when a soul escapes from the Pit. Bored out of their minds, and their parents busy hunting for the escapee, Malachi and his friends decide to sneak out on Halloween night and inadvertently fall through the veil into modern day Salem, Massachusetts. Unfortunately for them, the escaped soul was Samuel Parris, reverend during the Salem Witch Trials, and they’ve brought him with them. Now as Samuel Parris grows stronger by shifting the balance on Earth in his old hometown, Malachi and his friends have to recapture the soul, all while avoiding a kidnapping angel, and find their way home before Salem is wiped off the map, or worse yet…before their parents find out!

This story is about growing up, dealing with expectations, seeing through stereotypes, and supporting each other through everything. It’s about finding yourself and doing what’s right, even when it’s hard. It’s snarky and funny and heartfelt, and I’m very proud of it.


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

I absolutely love writing (and reading) middle grade because it’s a time in your life where the entire world is in front of you. You’re starting to figure out who you are and where you fit in, and anything could happen. It’s filled with possibilities! And there’s an enthusiasm and excitement about discovering what’s out there, and an optimistic or even defiant attitude that if the world isn’t what you want, you change it. I love that!

I think one of the challenges when writing for this group is to keep yourself in the frame of mind of kids of today. I see a lot of new writers decide to write for kids and they’re putting themselves back to when they were a kid, and it gets very dated. The lives kids are living now are different than when we were kids and so, unless you’re writing historical fiction, you need to be familiar with what life is like today.

Of course, I try to remember the feelings of when I was a kid, and I think you have to remember what that felt like, but while feelings can be universal, kids today are not using landlines to call friends. So why is your character doing that? I think the other mistake new writers make is that they know they’re writing for kids and so they simplify everything, but that can really come across as condescending. You need the right middle grade voice, but kids deal with hard topics all the time. They can handle strong vocabulary; you can address complicated emotions. Have faith because kids are amazing!

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

Oh my god, yes! It’s already changed my writing as I’ve finished up book two (All that Glamours, Aladdin, 2023) and started on other projects. And honestly, that was surprising because my agent is pretty editorial, so I feel like I shouldn’t have been surprised going through the editing process, but I absolutely was.

First off, I now have a complex about repetition because I tend to get into a vibe and that can mean that I reuse words that I like the feel of in a short period of time. I am very tuned in to that now! I was also surprised by the level of comments at the copy-editing stage. My copyeditor was so detail oriented! They watched video tours of real-world buildings I used and asked about where characters were. They read documents I referenced and even the proofreader checked manufacturer websites for official names (3-Musketeers vs. Three Musketeers) and fact-checked a throw away comment one character made about the population of the planet. I’m keeping all of that in mind as I write.

The other thing is that it’s easy to know your book so well that you assume that it’s clear to everyone, but that’s not the case. You know your world, you’re imagining it over and over again as you write, but unless you’ve actually made it clear on the page, your reader may not be seeing what you want them to see, so when I revise, I try to look at it like someone reading for the first time. I’m keeping everything I received during editing in mind as I move forward on other projects, because it only makes the writing stronger!

Shawn Peters, The Unforgettable Logan Foster

Tell us about your debut novel!

Logan Foster is a twelve-year-old neurodivergent orphan with a one-in-a-billion memory. He can remember everything he’s seen, read or heard since the day he was found, abandoned in Los Angeles International Airport at age three, wearing a “World’s Best Big Brother” t-shirt. With his unique talents and perspectives, Logan has done very well in school and is already a freshman in high school, but he also has no friends and very little hope of being fostered again, let alone adopted. However, when Gil and Margie, a nice, if somewhat boring couple, come into his life, that all changes. He goes to live with them and befriends Elena, the athletic and cool girl next doors (that’s not a typo), all while noticing that his new foster folks are hiding things from him. Why do Margie’s meals taste like they were made by someone who doesn’t know what food is supposed to taste like? Why do all the clothes in Gil’s closet have a layer of dust on them? However, Logan could never have predicted the truth until the entire family is attacked by a super-villain at a movie theater; his foster parents are superheroes and every comic book or Marvel movie he’s ever seen… is based on reality. Superheroes are real.

The story is obviously a super-powered sci-fi adventure, but at the heart of it, The Unforgettable Logan Foster (HarperCollins, 2022) is as much about found family and resetting the idea of what’s “normal” for Logan and the reader too.


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

When I was younger, I wanted to write movies and had a few screenplays that got some development interest, but never quite sold. A decade later, when I was a father reading to my tween daughter, and then later my son who is five years younger, I realized that middle grade stories often have a cinematic structure and feel to them. The way the adventure and fantasy books were paced reminded me of the way screenplays were written to keep the viewer engaged, with bursts of action or comedy or suspense. I loved reading to my kids at that age, and it introduced me to a bunch of new authors and stories, along with reacquainting me with the classics I’d grown up with. So that’s when I got it in my head to write for this age group, and I adore it.

I get to write complex stories, with cinematic elements throughout, but center them on characters who are just starting the process of learning who they want to be and what’s important to them. I’m also acutely aware that writing for this age is a chance to reach readers when they’re deciding things about themselves too, which offers an amazing opportunity to foster empathy, creativity, and a love of storytelling. That’s a big deal.

As for the craft challenges, I think the biggest one revolves around writing a book that is for kids but that can be enjoyed and appreciated by older readers. It’s tricky, because when you see a good middle grade book, but it’s peppered with references no kid will get but that adults might dig, the author is making a lot of demands on the young reader. If they have someone reading to them, it could be an amazing opportunity to discuss the context. But if the writer’s going solo, it’s a risk of losing them, so that balance is a challenge for sure.

When you look back on your writing journey, what are the changes that stand out?

My journey took so long to even get to the point of writing a book because it was never the destination, at least not for a long while. In my twenties, I was set on writing for TV or movies with limited success. In my thirties, the focus switched to writing online and in magazines, but also turning my skills toward the more business-oriented field of copywriting. In fact, I never really thought about writing books until I was nearly 40, at which point I wondered if someone like me – self-taught, no MFA, no membership in a writer’s group– could even do it.


But the act of writing a page a day for a year made it feel achievable, and as soon as I had a draft, I was driven to improve it. Most of all, I wanted feedback. I think that was a big shift in my maturity as a writer. After years of fearing critique as a sign of what I had done wrong, I’d come to see feedback as a gift. So when my wife shared an early draft with her 5th grade students and invited me in for an author talk where I could hear what my actual audience thought, it was invaluable. Their reactions gave me a strength of conviction that I had something worthwhile to share, but also uncovered insights about what wasn’t working as well for young readers. That led to some big changes in how the story was told, and I think that’s one of the reasons the book was finally agented and sold. Now, at the end of each draft, I can enjoy the accomplishment, but be curious about what will change to make it better.

Skyler Schrempp, Three Strike Summer

Tell us about your debut novel!

The best way I’ve heard my book described is The Grapes of Wrath meets The Sandlot. Gloria Mae Willard is an aspiring pitcher with “an arm of a boy twice her size” according to her Pa. She is also a Dust Bowl refugee who migrates with her family to California to find work in the factory farms of the San Joaquin Valley. Despite promises of finding better work and greener pastures, the Willard family finds low wages, unsafe work conditions, and trouble. But the peach orchard also has a secret baseball team that plays the kids at the neighboring apricot orchard when the adults are too busy working or tired to realize they’ve slipped away. Even though the boys on the team aren’t interested in having a “skirt” play for them, Gloria is done taking no for an answer. She’ll play for the peach orchard, whatever it takes, even if it means sneaking out, telling fibs and beating the team’s leader, Terrance, at his own game. With a labor strike brewing and the boss men watching, it will take all of Gloria’s wits and guts to stay in the game and stand up for what she believes in.

Margaret K. McElderry Books

What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?

Ha. I used to read this thing called “Kid News” in the Chicago Tribune. It came out every Tuesday and was basically a double sided page of the newspaper that was just for kids. There were puzzles on it and some sort of kid version of the news. They also had letters to the editor. Anyway, you can probably see where this is going! I started noticing that in the books section then tended to plug books like The Baby-Sitters Club and the Bobsy Twins, and stuff like that. I was a big reader and I remember as a kid being like, “Seriously? This is all you can come up with for your books section?” So I wrote them a letter. Basically I said, “Hey, there are more books out there than this!” And…I may have thrown some shade at the Baby-Sitter’s Club. I may have…implied there were better books.

Well, I wrote the letter and sort of forgot about it. And then one Tuesday there it was. Not only had they published it, but they had highlighted it in a blue box above all the rest. I, of course, was very excited. But there was definitely a strong backlash. The next week there was more than one letter published from the Tribune’s Baby-Sitters Club loving readership. It made me go sort of hot and cold to see people angry at me in print. And then I got over it and kept opening my big mouth. I still have a pretty strong response when I realize that something I’ve written has upset someone, and I’ve learned to be humble (sometimes) when that someone is spot on for calling me out. I stand by my opinion that there are better books to feature in your kids section than Baby-Sitters Club books. Fight me.

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

I’m embarrassed to say it, but there were a couple really cool things that happened in the early drafts that happened to Gloria not because of Gloria. There’s a great scene where the kids have to sneak out of the orchard and originally it was another kid that figured out how to do it while Gloria cheered them on. My editor was like “Um…why doesn’t Gloria figure it out?” So now every time something cool happens in my work in progress I make sure the main character is making it happen.

Lakita Wilson, Be Real, Macy Weaver

Tell us about your debut novel!

Macy is a girl who struggles to be her authentic self. Because of this, she also has a hard time making and keeping friends. When she moves to Maryland from South Carolina, she discovers not only her love for fashion and creating her own clothing line, but also her first real community of friends.

Viking Books for Young Readers

What’s the best piece of advice you received in your debut year?

Here’s my debut year advice: prepare for the uncertainty. There is a lot of it—pre-launch and especially post-launch. Speaking with writing friends, and going through the experience myself, I’ve learned that, so often, what we imagine debut year to be is nothing like it ultimately ends up. We have jumped so many hurdles—finishing the book, landing the agent, partnering with a great editor. We imagine release day to be this magical moment, where the world celebrates our huge accomplishment of finally becoming published authors. For many of us, especially if we don’t have a blockbuster marketing budget, we get the mountain of congratulations and great retweets on release day—maybe even release week—then the world goes quiet. It’s this quiet that personally unsettled me. How well will my book do? Will my book find its way to readers? Will they like it? As newbie authors, we don’t know how to feel in this moment, because we are rarely given the bar our books must reach to be considered a success. I’m lucky enough to be at Penguin Random House, where I get daily updates on books shipped and books sold at retail. But, what do these numbers mean? Is my publisher happy with these numbers? Am I doing well? Should more be happening? What do I do now?

In these times of uncertainty, I embrace what I know for sure. I’m a writer—and I can write stories. Instead of obsessively googling my book online, I refocus this anxious energy into other projects. Thankfully, I’ve been on one deadline or another for close to three years now. Having something to do keeps me from spiraling into the “What ifs?” and the “What nows?”

You don’t necessarily have to be on deadline to build a productive distraction around yourself, though. If you are not on deadline, still create, so you will have more stories to potentially sell later.

Lakita’s YA novel, Last Chance Dance, will be published by Viking in February 2023.

What advice would you give to pre-published writers?

I think every pre-published writer should write widely. It not only keeps you from putting all your hopes and dreams into one project, but it allows you to get to know yourself better as a writer. You figure out which genres and age groups feel like the best space to create. For me, I like picture books and YA—but middle grade will probably always be my first love. This doesn’t mean I only write middle grade. It just feels like coming home to what is most comfortable when I do.

But solely writing middle grade would never work for me because there are certain stories I want to tell that are best told in other age groups. The trick is finding what you are passionate about writing, and figuring out the best way to tell it.

Cynstations Notes

Elizabeth Agyemang is the writer and illustrator of Fibbed, a middle grade graphic novel published by Razorbill. When she isn’t gushing over books or comics as an editor, she spends her time dissecting classic movies and playing Final Fantasy. Find Elizabeth online at and on Twitter, Instagram, and Tiktok @onceaddai.

Sylvia Liu grew up with books and daydreams in Caracas, Venezuela. Once an environmental attorney protecting the oceans, she now spins stories inspired by high tech, ghost crabs, and strong girls. She’s the author of the middle grade books Hana Hsu and the Ghost Crab Nation (Razorbill 2022) and Manatee’s Best Friend (Scholastic 2021) and the picture book A Morning with Grandpa, illustrated by Christina Forshay (Lee & Low Books 2016). Sylvia co-founded the kid lit resource group, Kidlit411. She lives in Virginia with her family and a fluffy cat. Visit her website,

Darcy Marks is a lifelong reader who learned to walk quite well with a book in front of her face, thank you very much. She lives in Vermont with her husband, three genre-defying kids and a very needy cat, where she writes rebellious fantasy books for kids. When she’s not reading or writing she explains math and science to lawyers as a forensic toxicologist and uses her several black belts to help smash the patriarchy with The Safety Team. Her debut middle grade fantasy, Grounded for All Eternity, is out now.

Shawn Peters is the son of a sports writer and a TV writer who wanted nothing more than to be the one on the big stage instead of writing about it. Instead, he has spent the past thirty years at the keyboard, writing TV scripts about car chases and beauty makeovers, penning articles about date nights and fantasy sports, and concepting ads for huge brands like Google and Bank of America. A husband to a superhero public school teacher. And also a father to two grown kids, Shawn is a suburban dad trope-fest: playing golf, jogging slowly and smoking meats on the weekends. His debut middle grade adventure, The Unforgettable Logan Foster, was published by HarperCollins in January of 2022 with the paperback launching on November 8, 2022. Up next is the sequel, The Unforgettable Logan Foster and the Shadow of Doubt, due on January 3, 2023.

Skyler Schrempp writes books and makes theatre in her hometown of Chicago. She lives in an old drafty house with her husband Kyle, her daughter Elowen, and a black cat named Masha. She got her undergrad at Hampshire College and has an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. When she’s not writing, you can find her making jam from the berries that grow in her backyard or building a fire in her fireplace (depending on the season).

Lakita Wilson is the author of several novels and nonfiction projects for children and young adults, including What Is Black Lives Matter? a part of the New York Times bestselling Who HQ Now series, and Be Real, Macy Weaver. A 2017 recipient of SCBWI’s Emerging Voices Award, Lakita received her MFA in writing for children and young adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Lakita lives in Prince George’s County, Maryland, with her two children and shih-tzu. She can be found online at or on Twitter at @LakitaWrites.

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. Learn more about Michael at