The Great (inbe) Tween by Lindsey Leavitt
I was in seventh grade the first time I met an author. Her name was Alicia Appleman-Jurman, and our school read her memoir, ALICIA: My Story. A simple title, but a complicated history chronicling Alicia’s survival in war-torn Poland, her family’s brutal murders, and her quest to save Jewish survivors. Our teacher sobbed reading to us, half of the students tried to cover their own tears. The story ravaged me. I explored my own German ancestry, asking my mom again and again, “But Opa wasn’t a Nazi, right?” (At 90, this is still the first thing he wants you to know).
I’ve long forgotten my locker combination, the classes I took, some of my teachers names, but I vividly remember meeting Alicia. After the assembly, we got to wait in line and hand her our books, which she took home that evening and signed. All 300, with a personalized paragraph. She even taped a ripped corner for me. I remember she wore strong perfume, that her voice was soft, that she had lots of rings on her fingers, and I got to shake her fleshy hand. I remember thinking how glad I was that she could gain weight after the war (this was forty years later. I know. Not all of my thirteen-year-old thoughts were wise).
I also remember thinking how ordinary she looked. Beautiful, dignified, but there was no sign above her head pointing that she was an author. But I’d read her story, she was far from ordinary. I knew I wanted to write just like her, but not about my life, about others. I just didn’t know how she did it.
It took another ten years before I again entertained the idea of being author. I’d spent college working as camp counselors and preschool teaching, and was subbing after two years teaching elementary. I knew I would write for kids. I knew which kid I wanted to write for first—Lindsey at 13. It was the year I grew from a book lover to a book worshipper.
So I wrote a story about princesses, featuring a character in middle school. I didn’t know if the book was YA or MG, I just knew it was for middle school readers. I sold Princess for Hire to Disney, and in the deal announcement, the book was YA.
Okay, YA. I understood the differences between to two genres, so I wrote my main character, a little older, fourteen, almost in high school. But after the book was complete (in ARC form in fact), we learned that Borders really wanted this to be a younger book, a middle grade. I was… less than happy about the news, but I wanted to give the book the best shot that I could. We rewrote a few scenes, and brought Desi’s age down a year. It was difficult, of course, because that one year changed her perspective quite a bit!
And then Princess for Hire came out. And sometimes I found it in the young adult section. Sometimes it was in children’s. People would ask me, WHERE DOES THIS FIT? I didn’t know! It was tween, where do you shelve tween? I got frustrated when an older reviewer said the book was too young, or a second grader told me they tried to read the book, but they didn’t understand it. Were the readers I was trying to write for even finding my story?
A few months later, I did an amazing school visit at a middle school in Las Vegas. The librarian went all out—hosted a princess tea, had readers draw pictures and quote favorite lines. Afterwards, I was discussing books with the librarian. She talked about the challenge of getting the right books to the right kids. Some stories she shelved were great for reluctant six graders. Others were more appropriate for mature eight graders. She said, “That’s what I like about your book. It fits in the great in-between.”
“Yeah, but how do kids even find it?” I asked.
She laughed. “What do you think I’m here for?”
Do you see why I love teachers and librarians so much? They know their genres. They know their students/patrons. They get the right book in the right hands. My seventh grade teacher, Mrs. Mullaly, did that for me, and now teachers and librarians are doing the same thing with my books. I get emails from kids saying things like. “My name is F. I am 13. And I think your book is perfect for me.”
And nothing makes me happier.
Lindsey Leavitt is the author of the Princess for Hire series and Sean Griswold’s Head. Her next book for teens, Going Vintage (out March 26), is about a sixteen-year-old girl who gives up modern technology and lives like it’s 1962. This one she wrote for 15-year-old Lindsey, but she thinks you’ll like it too.
You can find Lindsey online at http://lindseyleavitt.com and on Twitter as @lindsey_leavitt.