8 Middle Grade Authors Share Stories About Fitting In, Losing Friends, and More

KidLit Open Mic

Kidlit Open Mic is a spinoff of the YA Open Mic series that occurs each month over on our Teen blog.

For this series, we ask authors to share stories on topics of their choice. The stories can be as funny or as serious as the authors want. We just want to hear about something that is important to them, so you can get to know on a more personal level the awesome people behind the books you love.

This month, we’re featuring eight middle grade authors. In a few months, we’ll switch things up and share stories from equally amazing picture book authors. 

Check out our previous Kidlit Open Mic posts here

Dee Romito

Dee Romito, author of The BFF Bucket List

I had a happy childhood. My neighborhood was filled with kids and every day we were either outside playing or in someone’s house or putting on a play in a camper in the driveway.

I even endured my middle school and high school years with a smile, lucky to have amazing friends (and still do!)—many I’ve known since kindergarten.

It was in college when my whole understanding of the world changed when one of my best friends was in a car accident.

And she didn’t make it.

I will never forget the call the next morning. I will never forget how I couldn’t stop the tears no matter how hard I tried. And I will never forget having to say goodbye to her.

I looked at life differently after that, knowing that nothing was certain and that every day was a gift. I grew scared of a lot more than I’d ever been, but I also made a promise to myself that’d I’d always make sure the people in my life knew HOW MUCH I loved them.

I was new to grief and how it overtakes you, wondering in the first few weeks what was wrong with me. And that’s when someone said something to me that I’d take with me and remind myself of with every other loss I’d face.

“This is such a new wound for you.”

A new wound. Not something I should be “over.” Not something I could be done with after a good night’s sleep. It would take time to heal.

But here’s something else I’ve learned—even when it becomes an old wound, it’s okay to miss those you love. It’s okay to cry. And it’s okay to let yourself grieve a little more, because that’s the only way to move forward.

Booki Vivat

Booki Vivat, author of Frazzled 

The first time I cheated in school was on an About Me assignment.

You spend your whole life hearing about how cheating is wrong and how awful it makes you feel, but it was the start of 6th grade and I was desperate. My teacher gave a generic speech about wanting to get to know us. I expected her to follow up with a cheesy icebreaker game because that’s the sort of thing we did in elementary school, but middle school was different.

Apparently here, “getting to know you” meant handing out a boring worksheet and giving us until the end of class to fill it out.

It sounded easy. In theory, I already knew the answers—except I wasn’t sure about any of it now. Maybe it was middle school or maybe it was just me, but lately, what I thought I knew about myself didn’t seem like enough. I looked down at the blank spaces and felt this crushing dread at having to fit myself onto those empty lines.

So I cheated.

I pretended to stretch and snuck a peek at the papers around me. For favorite movie, I looked right. I wasn’t allowed to watch Indiana Jones, but I’m sure I would’ve liked it. I picked my favorite band by spying on the girls behind me. Writing Spice Girls seemed like a cooler option than admitting my secret obsession with K-Earth 101: Oldies Radio. Favorite food: pizza. Everyone wrote down pizza.

Finally, what do you want to be? It felt like I was the only one who didn’t know. Around me, I saw teachers and doctors and lawyers. One kid even wrote president. But none of those felt right. At the last minute, I glanced left—vet. I had a horrible track record with animals (RIP goldfish family), but leaving it blank somehow felt worse.

When we got our assignments back, the guilt finally hit me. On that page was someone I didn’t recognize. Even worse, my teacher had written at the very top: Looking forward to getting to know you!

It was the first time I cheated in school, and it felt just as bad as they said it would.

Lindsay Eagar

Lindsay Eagar, author of Hour of the Bees

I always wanted red hair. When I was sixteen, I bought the cheapest box kit I could find and mixed it up on a school trip for state drama competitions. Then someone knocked on my hotel room door.

“I don’t date fake girls.”

How do I describe the boy who said those words to me? In high school I called him the love of my life, yet he was a manipulative weenie who demanded my complete loyalty but slept around. I would cry and somehow he always convinced me it was my fault. He hated when I wore makeup, insisted I never show my bare legs, shoulders, or collarbones. If I did those things, he’d get a girl more worthy of his time, he told me, and I believed.

“If you put that dye on your hair,” he warned, “I’m sitting by Ashley on the bus ride home.” (I don’t remember who Ashley was. There was always an Ashley.)

It worked. I passed the hair dye over to a friend, and every time I looked at those red locks I was reminded of what a coward I was. (He still sat by Ashley.)

When I was 20, I finally did it. “Just a temporary dye,” I said, “to see how it looks.”

I’ll never go back. I won’t go back to being that honey-blond girl who felt drab and forgotten and used. I’ll be the old lady with the wrinkly face and fire engine red hair streaked with gray.

I dye it every couple months a fierce, foxy red and let it fade through the spectrum—penny, copper, orange, strawberry, dangerously close to my natural color…

It’s my rebel act. My reminder that I’m my own master. It sets a perimeter—anyone incapable of handling fire, step back from the redhead. If it’s too bright for your eyes, get some sunglasses.

DanGemeinhart

Dan Gemeinhart, author of Some Kind of Courage

The new kid.

That’s what I was a lot when I was growing up.

As a kid, my family moved around. From house to house. Town to town. School to school. We were always packing all of our stuff up in boxes and heading off to a new place. The word “home” didn’t really mean anything to me except wherever we happened to be at that moment. I was rootless.

It could be tough sometimes. Leaving old friends behind. Walking into a school full of strangers. Saying goodbye to people and places that I loved. It could be lonely. It could be sad. It could be scary.

But I think that is where my love of reading came from. Because you know what? Every new school I went to had a library. A library full of books and stories and characters and authors that I knew and loved. In other words…full of friends. When I walked into a new school, I may not have had any friends sitting in the desks…but I had lots of friends sitting on the bookshelves. While my real-life home was always different and changing, books were something I could come home to no matter where I was.

A reader recently asked me why all the books I’ve written (so far!) are about kids on the move. Kids leaving home, or looking for home, or far from home. Kids trying to figure out where they belong in the world. I had to smile. It’s not something I did on purpose. But those stories, I know, grew out of my own story. My own story of looking for a home. And my own story of finding a home in the power of stories, and in the beauty of books.

Alison Cherry

Alison Cherry, author of The Classy Crooks Club

To say I was derailed by the election of Donald Trump is the understatement of the year. I cried so hard while watching the returns that I gave myself a nosebleed, then woke up the next morning in despair. I didn’t want to be alone, but nothing my friends or family said made me feel any better. The absolute last thing I wanted to do was write. What on earth was the point of creating funny stories for kids when the world was a giant ball of fire?

And then I found the link that said, “Leslie Knope Writes Letter to America Following Donald Trump’s Victory.”

For those of you who have yet to experience true joy, Leslie Knope is the main character from Parks and Recreation, the best comedy ever to grace television. She’s a passionate, tenacious, overprepared, goofy, brilliant, fiercely loyal government employee in Pawnee, Indiana, and if I could be friends with any TV character, I would choose her. In “her” letter, Leslie told America that even though she was depressed and angry, she was also ready to fight the Trump administration’s racism, xenophobia, and misogyny every day for the next four years. Reading her letter, I suddenly felt kind of galvanized, too.

And then I felt ridiculous. Leslie Knope is made up. Why should her words mean more to me than those of the people I actually know and love?

But here’s the thing: those words didn’t come from someone imaginary. They came from a writer on the Parks and Rec team, someone who helped create a character so real that she feels like my friend. That comedy writer probably didn’t want to get up and be creative on November 9th, either. They probably wondered how their words about a fictional person could possibly matter at a time like this.

And yet, those words did matter to me. Maybe words matter more than ever when the world is a giant ball of fire.

I’m ready to get back to work now.

MarcyKate Connolly

MarcyKate Connolly, author of Monstrous 

When I was a kid, I understood all too well that words have weight and power. Words in the books I loved could transport me to new worlds full of magic and hope. And the words tossed around on the playground cut deeper than any of the scars I’d accumulated during my accident-prone childhood.

Fat. Ugly. Weirdo. Freak.

Nearly every day in 4th and 5th grade, a group of popular girls would mock me at recess. The things that made me so inherently me—my curiosity, my imagination, my deep and abiding love of all things fantastical, and no doubt my too-smart-for-my-own-good tendencies—were turned upside down and into something negative. Something to be ashamed of.

It became bad enough that I hatched a plan to run away—and hide out in a tiny hut I was building out of spare bricks in the woods behind my house. It was all of fifty yards away from home, but I’d been inspired by My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George (which we’d recently read in class) and it seemed like a really great idea at the time.

I never went through with that plan, but I sure did daydream about it. Then a magical thing happened. I began reading a series of books together with three close friends: the Redwall series by Brian Jacques. We were obsessed. So much so, that we found the perfect way to evade the bullies who plagued us daily on the playground. We acted out our own stories inspired by the characters in our favorite series, and got very, very good at hiding and going on secret missions.

Every word leaves an imprint. The words of those stories, bullies, and friends have echoed through my life, shaping me into the proud writer, nerd, and lover of weird and wonderful things I am today.

Lauren Magaziner

Lauren Magaziner, author of Pilfer Academy

From the time I was 11, I dreamed of getting pied in the face.

A pie in the face was the biggest honor at Camp Wayne, and there were only two ways to get that elusive face-pie:

  1. Win Sounds of Wayne (a hard thing to do, as the activity was pure luck.)
  1. Become Captain to a summer-long game that divided camp into four teams: Yellow Sun, Red Fire, Blue Water, and Green Earth. (Another challenge, as captains were selected from oldest group of campers, two camper-captains per team.)

Each summer came and went… and no pie, no pie, STILL NO PIE.

I had great summers, even without the pie. Wonderful friends, fun activities, and a safe space to discover myself. But I also had struggles. One in particular, came from a girl who was a writer, friends with my friends, and someone I used to be friends with when I was younger. The two of us were always fighting, always bickering.

By the time I was an oldest camper, she and I were at each other’s throats. My Arch Nemesis, I called her.

The night before captains were picked, we somehow ended up on the Swing. Just the two of us. I dug my toes into the dirt to push off, and as the bench swayed back and forth in the cool summer night, we talked for hours.

At last, she said, “It would be pretty cool to be a captain.”

“I’ve wanted to be one since my first summer,” I admitted.

“Me too. Wouldn’t it be great if we were captains together?”

I looked at her. She was staring out over the lake, and the moon was bright, and I thought to myself, Maybe I misjudged her. Maybe I’ve had a friend here all along.

The next day, as fate would have it, we were both chosen as captains… for the same team. I’d dreamed my whole childhood of getting a pie in the face. But this was better than what I’d imagined! Now I had a friend by my side.

Together, we raced down the slip-and-slide, right into our pie in the face. And I have to say, it tasted GOOD.

JenniferLynnAlvarez

Jennifer Lynn Alvarez, author of The Guardian Herd series

Control.

I wanted it as a kid, but I never had it.

My family moved, a lot.

My body changed, a lot.

My moods swung, a lot.

I became anxious and insecure.

As I grew, my imagination grew with me. This wasn’t a good thing. I began to follow my thoughts to dark places. Shadows became monsters, adventures became opportunities to die, and strangers became murderers. My fears paralyzed me and negative thoughts flattened me.

Then one day I took a positive thinking challenge—and boy was it a challenge! For thirty days I was forced to find silver linings, to think good thoughts about myself, and to trust others. To my surprise, my imagination thrived on the experiment. Thinking positive felt like fantasy, like I was thinking fake thoughts, but my mind likes making things up, so it became an enjoyable game.

The results, however, were real. My life changed for the better. I became less afraid, I made new friends, and I enjoyed adventures rather than dreading them. I realized that my imagination could be my best friend or my worst enemy, depending on how I used it. And when I think positive, I meet challenges with energy, confidence, and belief in myself.

I still can’t control the outside world, but I can control my thoughts, my dreams, and my responses. It’s about as likely that everything will go wrong as everything will go right, right? So why not imagine the best happening? I did and it changed my life.

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