The most unflattering photos of me at the BEST event 😭. Also, I’m not sure why I’m looking down as I actually spoke off the cuff — I think the second photo must be from when I was reading a short excerpt from Honey and Me. In any case, I had the most wonderful time speaking to the middle school students at Beit Rabban, a non-denominational Jewish school on the Upper West Side in Manhattan. They asked fabulous, thought-provoking questions and are even going to help me come up with ideas for a narrative arc should I write a sequel to Honey and Me. Thank you Beit Rabban!
Thank you Laura and all the staff at Scattered Books in Chappaqua, NY for supporting Honey and Me in a wonderful pre-holiday book signing. Special treat to see a friend who used to live in London and now lives in New York come in with her daughter 💜
When I think of Rosh Hashanah, the upcoming Jewish New Year, my senses swarm with childhood memories: smooth velvet synagogue dresses, the smell of my mother’s honey cakes baking, our congregation’s voices lifted as one in song and prayer, the delicious anticipation of our big family meal after services, sweet honey drizzled on crisp apples and soft challah.
But growing up, the closest I came to seeing in literature anything vaguely familiar to my Modern Orthodox Jewish life was in the All-of-a-Kind Family series by Sydney Taylor, which takes place in the early 1900s, almost a century before my own childhood! Mostly, the only religious Jews I saw were in the Holocaust books I read over and over again—about hidden children, ghetto children, their way of life decimated, their families murdered. Although I am the granddaughter of four Holocaust survivors, thankfully my life in 1980s Toronto could not have been more different.
I strongly support the need for children’s Holocaust literature, and these books were a personal key to me understanding what my grandparents had gone through but never spoke about. At the same time, looking back, I see how hard it was to read over and over again about my people being victimized. Even today, the vast majority of mainstream books featuring religious Jews show them in the past, or as victims of persecution. And if set in present day, the narratives often focus on conflict—either Jewish people wrestling with their religion and community, or struggling against a dominant culture or religion.
When I first started writing stories for children, the psychological impact of not seeing myself reflected back in literature revealed itself. I copied the way other authors wrote: I sent my characters to regular public schools, not a Jewish day school; I had them dress up for Halloween, not Purim; no one celebrated Rosh Hashanah. I believed the scents, sounds, and sensations of the world I knew best weren’t legitimate enough to write about.
It wasn’t until I began to read to my children some of my own childhood favorites—Ballet Shoes, Anne of Green Gables, tons of Judy Blume, all the Ramona books, and All-of-a-Kind Family—as well as some new ones I was just discovering, like The Penderwicks and The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street, that I felt a shift inside me. I decided to try to do what these writers all do so beautifully—show the importance and magnitude of small dramas in everyday life—but with contemporary Jewish characters. I wanted to write a book about Modern Orthodox characters who have close friendships, difficult mother-daughter relationships, and influential teachers. I wanted them to encounter situations that are funny as well as sad. Above all, I wanted to write a book about a pair of friends who could be your neighbors and whose experience of their Judaism is joyful, and not in conflict with anything.
I have always felt that the biggest mark of success for Honey and Me will be if readers love the particulars of Milla and Honey’s daily lives, friendship, and escapades—and also find in it something universal, in which they see themselves, and their own joy, whether or not they identify as Jewish. Today, with antisemitism frighteningly on the rise, my hope is that Honey and Me can also offer an antidote to othering—the foundation of any racism, even when casual and unintentional—by bringing vividly to life characters whose religious practices may be foreign to many readers, but whose hearts, struggles, and humanity are the same.
Started knitting this sweater July 2021, completed July 2022. It fits perfectly 👌(Which never happens when you’re short, so yay! 😀)
Sometimes it feels like everything takes me a long time to accomplish. Knitting this sweater-jacket took me a year! A story I often tell myself is that things take me longer than other people. But when I’m being more honest I know that often within this are choices that I’ve made. During the year I was knitting this sweater I also crocheted a kippa, knit a cardigan for my daughter, learned how to darn, continued to work on an ongoing not-yet-completed needlepoint project, started knitting a hat and started crocheting a toy giraffe.
Sure it would have gone faster if I’d just concentrated on this one thing. But it suited me to complete several smaller projects while I was working on this larger one. There are several reasons for this:
1. It’s very satisfying to finish something. It makes me feel in control and that I’ve accomplished something.
2. It’s fun to start something new! Choosing colors and patterns for a small project that I know won’t take me too long offers a break from the longer project.
3. Starting and completing a smaller project deliberately prolongs the longer one; it can be bittersweet to say goodbye to something I’ve been working on for a long time.
I wish I could say this is an exact metaphor for the journey of my debut novel, Honey and Me,which I wrote the first draft of 10 summers ago! It has been a long journey with this novel. And unlike knitting a sweater, it hasn’t always been a matter of how much I worked on it or if I put it aside for a little while to work on something else, or that I worked on it alongside other writing projects. Yes, I have been working on other projects which I hope I get to share with readers at some point, but Honey and Me’s journey was mostly not a question of choices of what to focus on, and many aspects of it were far beyond my control.
Which is comforting in the sense of thinking about a writers journey: no matter how much you will it or want it, it is not under your control how long it might take an agent to read your query letter, and if they decide they want to read your whole manuscript, you don’t have control over how long that takes them. When you do get an agent you can do your best to take their suggestions to get it ready for submission to editors, but you have zero control after that in terms of if/when an editor reads your work, sends it to the editorial committee, makes an offer… And even once you get the magic offer, a whole journey begins anew, again with many aspects beyond one’s control.
What you do have control over
But what you do have is control over the quality of your work. Barring life circumstances that might get in your way—health, other jobs (in which I include running a home, raising children, caring for elderly parents…)—when it’s in your lap you have control over when and how long it takes to write, rewrite, revise, incorporate editorial notes. You have control over what you put into it. You also have control over how you try to get it out into the world. No one can see it if it stays as a file on your computer. Sure, you can’t be rejected if you never give anyone the opportunity to reject it. But then of course you can’t have the opportunity for someone to say, ‘wow I love this so much, let’s go on this journey together!’
Belief in your work
Even when I just couldn’t quite get to where I was trying to go in the journey of Honey and Me, even when there were roadblocks, stumbling blocks, dead ends, and scenic routes, I believed wholeheartedly in my story, my setting, and my characters, Milla and Honey. If I hadn’t, I don’t think I would have had the capacity for perseverance and tenacity that finally getting to see my book about to be published required.
What happens when the sweater is finished?
Now I get to wear it! I can’t wait. What happens when my book is published on October 18th and it goes out into the world—into readers hands? I don’t know!
I can’t wait for readers to read it. I can’t wait to talk about it with people. I can’t wait to go into schools and do author visits and presentations (but oh my god am I nervous about that. Excited! But nervous.)
Will they like it?
My sweater is for me. Someone might see it and compliment it. But basically if I like it and get use out of it, I’ll be happy with it. My book is a different beast altogether. Actually, it’s not a beast, and it’s not a garment either. It’s very much itself: a book.
Making art and specifically writing a book is a complicated enterprise: yes, we write for ourselves, because we have a story to tell, because we have art to make. But we write with an audience in mind. We want an audience. We write to tell readers a story. We write to give readers something.
I don’t have the answers. I don’t know if seasoned published authors have the answers either. For me right now there’s this interplay going on between wanting to be seen, and wanting to hide. Wanting to talk to tons of kids and have public speaking opportunities (both of which I LOVE to do), is fighting with the feeling of wanting to pull a hoodie up over my head.
So all I can say is wish me luck and stay tuned! Honey and Me comes out with Scholastic on October 18th 2022 and is available for preorder wherever fine books can be found.
Honey and Me, my debut novel out Oct 18th with Scholastic Press, which follows the highs and lows of 6th grade with best friends Milla and Honey. Cover art by Shamar Knight-Justice.
In honor of my debut novel Honey and Me—a coming-of-age story about the friendship and escapades of two eleven-year-old girls—being available for preorder, I thought I would do a post about the central theme of friendship in middle grade novels. Although main character Milla has her insecurities and must find the courage to step out of her best friend Honey’s shadow, I deliberately wanted to write about a true friendship, supportive rather than undermining, with give and take, each friend filling in in the spaces where the other needs help.
I adore the friendship between Isaac and Marco in Falling Short by Ernesto Cisneros
For this reason, I just absolutely loved Falling Short, the new book by Pura Belpré-award-winning author Ernesto Cisneros. Isaac and Marco go through sixth grade going to all kinds of lengths to try to help each other when one has a strength and the other a weakness. The two boys continuously respect each other despite their differences, and I can’t think of another book where the friendship between two boys appears in quite this way (please add in the comments any that you know of!) Everyone should be blessed with a friend like Isaac to Marco, and Marco to Isaac.
Alexa & Katie on Netflix, my favorite show about a friendship
A special shout-out to the Netflix show Alexa & Katie for one of the most beautiful of female friendships I’ve ever seen depicted. While this is obviously not a middle grade novel, I think it’s noteworthy in this context. I watched it with my seven-year-old (who was watching it a second time), my sixteen-year-old loved it too, and although it’s about two girls starting high school (while one is just finishing a course of chemo for leukemia,) I’d say it’s perfectly pitched toward a middle grade audience. If you haven’t already, I urge you to watch it for its humor, poignancy, spot-on cast, fabulous acting, sharp dialogue, and that perfect combination of every episode making me both laugh out loud as well as surreptitiously wipe tears from my eyes.
The Year of the Dog by Grace Lin, a wonderful book about finding yourself and friendship
Another book that I adore for the core friendship at its heart is The Year of the Dog by Grace Lin, about Pacy, known as Grace at school, who is looking for her talent, her identity and a best friend. The essence of the Chinese Year of the Dog, which Pacy’s mother tells her is a year for friendship, comes true when Melody arrives and the two girls develop an instant bond. Especially moving and illuminating is this joint interview of Newbery Honor-winning author/illustrator Grace Lin and Alvina Ling, VP and Editor-in-Chief at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, about how this book is actually based on their own friendship as children! Or this joint podcast interview with them about the publishing industry, or even better their own podcast Book Friends Forever.
WHAT ARE YOUR FAVORITE FRIENDSHIPS?
I put a call-out to my fellow MUF contributors as well as to the SCBWI-British Isles Facebook group for more suggestions of great, not-so-great, favorite or otherwise memorable friendships in MG literature—whether something that you read as a child and stuck with you, or something you’ve read more recently— and got some great recommendations.
Props to YA author Matt Killeen for immediately suggesting “Anne Shirley and Diana… bosom friends.” Although I used “Judy Blume meets All-of-A-Kind Family” to pitch Honey and Me, I think the friendship between Anne and Diana in Anne of Green Gables was definitely an inspiration for my own characters Milla and Honey. And actually, when I think about it, it really does all come back to Anne and Diana, who are eleven when they first meet, as the prototype for middle grade friendships in modern literature. (Again, please add in the comments if there’s something older I’m not thinking of.)
“When I See Blue by Lily Bailey has a gorgeous friendship in it. Hannah Gold’s books have beautiful animal-human friendships of course! And Phil Earles’s When the Sky Falls has an animal-boy friendship too and themes of being understood my someone/thing. The Super-Miraculous Journey of Freddie Yates has a really authentic friendship trio in it and it’s worth checking out Jenny Pearson’s other books as she really gets child friendships right (being a teacher helps).” Anna Gamble
MUF bloggers write:
“I like Wish by Barbara O’Connor, Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Patterson, and as a kid I loved the loyalty and friendship between Sara Crewe and Ermengarde St. John in A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett.” Laurie J. Edwards
“Soup by Robert Newton Peck was my favorite friendship book growing up. Its about the hilarious adventures during the 1930s of Robert and Soup and it’s based on the author’s own childhood. I also loved All-of-a-Kind Family which explores friendship and sisterhood. Most recently feels almost impossible to choose. So many! But I must include a shout to Simon & Schuster’s MIX imprint (Aladdin Books) which is dedicated to books about tween female friendship. I’ve had the honor of writing three books for the imprint including, Queen of Likes, The Hot List and Things Are Gonna Get Ugly.” Hillary Homzie
The Hot List, by Hillary Homzie, about the “de-intensification of a friendship”
I also want to note that sometimes friendships are unstable, toxic, or unhealthy, and unfortunately this is something that most people encounter at some point in their life, not to mention being the root cause of so much middle school emotional injury. Hillary Homzie’s The Hot List is about what she describes as the “de-intensification of a friendship” which I think is an invaluable topic for an MG book.
Many people suggested New Kid by Jerry Kraft, which was on my list too.
“I was thinking about your Q[uestion] about MG books and friendship, and how essential friendship is at that age and often how complicated those relationships are. One more recent MG book I really enjoyed was the graphic novel NEW KID by Jerry Craft, about a 7th grade boy named Jordan who starts at a new school where he is one of the few kids of color in his grade. Jordan wants to keep his old friends from his neighborhood and make new ones at his school, but he often feels like he doesn’t really fit in anywhere. This is a smart, engaging, funny and moving #middlegradenovel I think kids really relate to.” Andrea Pyros
Agreed! And I particularly love that in its sequel, Class Act, we also get the POV of some of Jordan’s friends.
THE MAGIC INGREDIENT
I think that one could argue that friendship is both essential in MG literature, and also that little bit of magic ingredient that makes it stick with you long after you are a child, becoming a part of the make up of your own coming of age. Here are some great lists of middle grade books about friendship that have already been compiled. Please add your own favorites, from childhood or more recently, in the comments!