9 Middle Grade Authors Share Stories About Friendship, Study Abroad, and More

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

                                        Jack Cheng, author of See You in the Cosmos

Alex in See You in the Cosmos is stuck between two worlds. There’s the world of his father, who died when he was three, and then the world of his mother who, as we find out, is not always there for Alex when he needs her.

After I finished writing the book, I realized that Alex’s limbo between these two worlds was, in a way, a metaphor for the immigrant experience. Or an immigrant experience—my immigrant experience.

We moved from China when I was five. I have little recollection of my earliest years, and even the times I went back to visit as a teenager, there was something impenetrable about the country, something strange and unknowable. In the novel Alex says, of his dad, “Everything I remember is what other people told me.” This was very much my relationship with China.

America felt more like home. I played baseball and watched Warner Brothers cartoons. Rooted for the Dallas Cowboys. But there were times when, like with Alex’s mother, this country let me down. When it didn’t live up to its promise of freedom and equality. When I’d get made fun of or pushed into lockers at school, simply because I looked different and had an unfamiliar last name. In those moments it was as though this country was telling me, “No, you are not really my son.”

What Alex starts to discover, and what I in my 33rd year am still discovering, is that, in spite of all this, he’s not alone. That we all feel at times like we don’t belong, and that home and family can be more than just a mother and a father, or a motherland or fatherland. We both discover that family is also something that we create for ourselves. That we find along the way, in the people we meet on this long and meandering road trip called life.

                                Linda Jackson, author of Midnight Without a Moon 

Most people count calories to lose weight. But when I was a kid, I counted them to gain weight. Well, I didn’t count calories actually. I counted fat grams. I thought the amount of fat in food equated to the amount of pounds I would gain.

One slice of bread = 2 grams of fat. If I ate two slices of bread, then I expected to gain four pounds. I was pretty good in Math, you see, but obviously not so good in Health.

I’m not sure when I started to obsess over my weight, or lack of it, I should say. Perhaps it was the constant teasing of my cousins about how skinny my sisters and I were. Or maybe it was classmates who teased me. Of course there was that one time on the school bus when an older girl asked to see my wrist. She wrapped her fingers around it, making an O shape. Then she held it up for other girls on the back of the bus to see. They all burst into laughter when she said, “See! I told you she was skin and bones!”

By the time I reached middle school, I had begun to gain weight. By the time I reached high school, I allowed others to convince me that I had gained too much weight. So then I had a new problem. Now I was starving myself trying to lose weight. At five feet, two inches tall, I weighed 120 pounds. I was hardly overweight. But by the time I entered college, I had lost 10 of those pounds. My rollercoaster of gaining and losing weight continued for years—until I learned how to block out the commentary of others and define for myself what it meant to be healthy and strong.

                                     Alexandra Ott, author of Rules for Thieves 

I almost didn’t go to Spain.

Studying abroad for the summer was far outside my comfort zone. I’d always been quiet, cautious, anxious, someone who would much rather read about adventures from the safety of my bedroom than experience them myself. Going to college and living on campus had already been such a big step for me that I wasn’t sure I was ready to take another.

But I was lured in by the glossy brochures, the ones with bright photos of smiling young people in beautiful settings. “It’s the trip of a lifetime,” they promised. “Traveling abroad will change you.”

It didn’t.

I didn’t magically become like the characters I read about in books, who were wild and daring and unafraid. It turned out that I was exactly the same person 5,000 miles away from home as I was in my backyard. I was still cautious, still anxious, still not very good at trying new things.

But then something strange happened. An ocean away from home, I couldn’t retreat to my safe spaces—so I made new ones. I learned to ride the metro across a city by myself, to explore unknown streets, to take classes entirely in a second language. I tried new things, and they were terrifying—until they stopped being new, and then they stopped being terrifying too.

I still needed a comfort zone, but I created one that was wider. I figured out how far I could push myself, and how far I shouldn’t. I didn’t miraculously become a new person, but I learned how to live with the person I already am. And it turns out that person can do more than she ever thought possible.

So maybe that trip did change me after all.

                                           Hena Khan, author of Amina’s Voice 

I’ve always been obsessed by my friends, by the idea of friendship, and by the state of my relationships. As a shy and self-conscious kid, I often wondered why my friends liked me and worried that they would stop. I was devastated when good friends moved away or changed schools. And I could never shake the unsettling feeling that I cared more about others than they cared about me, even if it wasn’t always true.

I don’t think those feelings ever went away as I got older. I might have learned to quiet the voice of doubt, accept imbalances, or just be more practical. I might have gotten better at digging below the surface and looking for the right qualities in people I imagined as the loyal, lifelong friends I always dreamed of. Along the way, I’ve been blessed to have amazing people in my life. And I’ve had my heart broken.

People are often more focused on romantic love and make that life’s primary quest. While that is super important to me too, the love of a friend, that isn’t tied by blood or by a contract or by obligation, is just as precious. It makes life richer and more complete. That’s probably why friendship is a theme I like to explore in writing, and why I miss being a kid, when I had all the time in the world to think, dream, and spend time with my friends. And to all the friends out there who I may have neglected over the years: thank you for sharing your life with me. I still love you, haven’t forgotten you, and never will.

                       John David Anderson, author of Ms. Bixby’s Last Day

I am not afraid of spiders. In fact, I find their woven-web artistry fascinating. I’m not afraid of snakes either. As a child I brought home several as pets from the woods by my house, much to my mother’s chagrin.

I’m not afraid of heights or flying or fire or sharks. I’m not afraid of dogs or tight spaces or darkness. Between the ages of ten and thirteen I was afraid of closed shower curtains; I have Stephen King to thank for that, and a quick peek at the tub convinced me there were no rotting corpses waiting to get me.

I’m not afraid of tub-zombies anymore, but I do have one fear from my childhood that I haven’t escaped.

Failure. The big F. When I was a kid I was afraid to do anything wrong. Afraid to let my parents down. To get bad grades. To break the rules. I approached report card day with cold-sweat dread. I felt sick to my stomach whenever I spilled my milk (though I don’t think I cried over it). I craved praise. I hated to disappoint. It’s a feeling I still can’t shake. Even now, I read reviews of my books through slanted fingers, like I’m watching a slasher flick and waiting for the killer to leap off the screen and gut me.

In a world where you can quantify your “popularity,” measuring success through stars or followers or likes, the fear of failure can be crippling. But over time I’ve come to discover that I am my own toughest critic. I think many writers—and many people—feel the same.

I’m also my biggest fan. I’m the person that I write for first. The audience of one.

I believe that if you can write something that makes you laugh or cry or gasp, if you can write something that you feel is powerful or poetic, that speaks to your hopes and heartaches, then you’ve created something of value.

Not perfect. Never perfect. But something to be proud of. Something worth sharing with the world.

And that’s enough.

                                             Alyson Gerber, author of Braced

When I was eleven, I had to wear a back brace at camp to treat my scoliosis. I wore it for twenty-three hours every day in the summer heat. It was hot and smelly and uncomfortable. Not to mention nearly impossible to fall asleep in a twin bunk bed. I had to play sports and audition for the play and sit out of instructional swim strapped into a thick, plastic shell that kept my spine straight.

Even in the summer, even in my favorite place, where I’d felt safe and happy for so many years, I was still trapped and alone. I couldn’t escape my reality. I thought about how different I looked and felt every time I got dressed or moved around or was asked to sit on the ground and couldn’t, but I never told any of my friends how uncomfortable I felt. I didn’t want to stand out, even more than I already thought I did, or give people a reason to see me as different.

It turns out that a few bunks away another girl my same age was also wearing a back brace for scoliosis. She was going through many of the same things. It wasn’t until we grew up and moved to New York City that we discovered we could have been there for each other. It made me realize that even when your difference is right there on the outside, people around you can’t know what you’re going through unless you tell them, even if they are going through the exact same thing.

                                 Ali Standish, author of The Ethan I Was Before 

In middle school, I was “the tall girl.”

I still am tall—somewhere between 5’9’’ and 5’10’’. But I had my growth spurt early, so in middle school, I was by far the tallest girl in school.

Here are some things that happen to you when you are the tallest girl in middle school:

  1. No one dances with you at school dance.
  2. You develop a slouch to try to make yourself shorter than the boys, so they will dance with you at the next school dance.
  3. In the fall, kids laugh at you because your jeans aren’t long enough to be cool.
  4. In the spring, teachers yell at you because your shorts are too short to be “appropriate.”
  5. People constantly ask you why you are not on the basketball team, and you must politely tell them that you were cut from tryouts after the first round because you lack any hand-eye coordination whatsoever.
  6. You will not even win the “tallest girl” superlative in your eighth grade yearbook, because you have to be popular to win those things, and the tallest girl in school is never popular.

At school, I always felt like my body was just wrong. I constantly wished I could make myself smaller. Maybe even small enough that I could disappear completely, at least until high school.

But when I came home in the afternoons, I would drop my stuff and run out to the little forest behind my house. I would spend hours climbing trees and daydreaming. I would forget about the kids in school. Instead, I wrote stories in my head about a magical wooded kingdom where I was the princess.

That forest is where my writing career really began.

And inside that forest, I was just the right size.

                                   Elise Allen, author of Multiple Mayhem

First of all, I had to call him “Master.” For real. “Master Stewart.” I went to a Quaker school, and that was his title. He was my 7th grade English teacher, and English had always been my strongest subject. I knew all the tricks to do the least work possible, but spin it creatively enough to nail an A.

But Master Stewart bought none of it. “You’re slacking,” he’d write on my essays. “Work harder. I know you can do better.” When I took what I thought was a brilliant shortcut on a poetry-writing assignment and simply changed the lyrics of my favorite songs, he slashed through every page with a bright red pen. He knew exactly what I’d done, and he wasn’t impressed.

“Terse brilliance” was what Master Stewart demanded, and he knew I wasn’t putting in the time to deliver it. Every assignment came back with admonishments to work harder, apply myself, and “live up to my potential.”

I hated Master Stewart. I groused about him constantly, and made it my life’s mission to bring him down. How? I only had one answer: I’d make him eat his words. I’d work so hard he’d have to be impressed. I’d stop whipping things out at the last minute and work at my assignments over time, writing and rewriting until every word glistened.

So I did. And by the end of the year I had an A in Master Stewart’s class. And the truth? That A meant far more to me than any other English grade because I knew I’d busted my butt for it. It’s a work ethic and a high standard I’ve kept with me ever since…and I have Master Stewart to thank for it.

                              Diane Rios, author of Bridge of the Gods

When I was eight years old I lived in a house built on the back of a truck. My parents sold handmade jewelry and clothing at fairs and markets, and we drove our house truck all across the United States, never stopping in one city longer than a month or two. This meant that I went to different schools along the way. Three schools in California, one in Illinois, two in Oregon and homeschooled in between—it seemed that I was always the new girl.

It was hard because being new is hard for everyone. And some years were harder than others—I was often bullied for being new and different. My clothes weren’t very stylish, and my parents looked different. My step dad had a long ponytail and our house truck drew a lot of attention. I remember at one school during the winter a boy would wait for me on the way home and rub snow in my face. That really hurts!

Back then I longed to fit in. I didn’t want to be new, and I didn’t want to be different. But now I see these experiences as a strange kind of gift. Because now I feel confident. I feel strong, and I am strong! Being the new girl so often taught me how to handle all kinds of people and scary situations, and gave me the skills I need today to be a happy, successful adult. I am no longer afraid of being new—anywhere! I know that feeling of nervousness will go away, and I know that everyone feels it, whether they are new or not. I learned at a young age that a room full of strangers is actually a room with new friends in it, as well as difficult people. And the earlier we learn this, the sooner we find out just how strong we can be.

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