I was rushing to make dinner last week, when I had one last look at my email. A thrilling message had just arrived from my editor at Scholastic, Emily Seife: my debut middle-grade novel Friend Me had received a starred review for the audiobook version, from School Library Journal.
A star means that an experienced children’s book professional, such as a librarian or bookseller, had listened to the book and found it be outstanding in its category. You’ll be able to read the full review in the upcoming March / April issue of School Library Journal, but here are a few quotes from the review:
“A suspenseful novel that takes a not-so-distant futuristic approach to online bullying and mean girl behavior.”
“Middle school students will all be able to relate to the characters in this book. The ease of being able to bully someone from the privacy of a screen is a form of bullying many kids today are experiencing or witnessing.”
“Narrator Katy Davis gives Roisin a relatable voice and creates a suspenseful tone through the narrative’s prose. VERDICT A valuable addition to any middle grade audiobook collection.”
Meet the voiceover artist
Actor Katy Davis is a Dublin native like Friend Me’s main character Roisin and is the voice of the audiobook. Katy’s other work includes Motherless Brooklyn (2019), Troopers (2019) and Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015). From the instant I heard Katy’s audition, I knew she was perfect for Roisin.
Katy joined us from Los Angeles for this interview: listen as she describes how she approached the role of Roisin and the challenge of voicing more than a dozen other characters in Friend Me:
My thanks to Friend Me voiceover artist Katy Davis, audio production team Paul and Melanie Gagne at Scholastic Audio, and reviewer Erica Coonelly at School Library Journal for the star!
The Teen Librarian Toolbox at School Library Journal is a professional development website for teen librarians, and as part of the launch for Friend Me they asked me to write a guest blog. Thank you, TLT! If you haven’t read the book, it was sparked partly by a comment one day from my then 13-year-old, who mentioned that it was his best friend’s birthday.
When I urged my son to phone the boy for a chat, he looked at me like I was suggesting something unnatural. That got me thinking : it would be totally possible for a young person to strike up a friendship with someone by phone even if they never met in real life. In Friend Me, those fictional friends are Roisin and Haley.
What has surprised me, however, is how young people’s default preference for screens may be changing completely due to Covid and lockdowns. Our own teens quickly grew tired of their phones and hungered for real-world meet ups as social distancing requirements stretched over weeks and months, and into 2021.
Emily Seife is a Senior Editor with Scholastic Press New York and was the person who brought the middle grade thriller FRIEND ME to acquisitions. Find out what drew her to the manuscript, why children’s books are her passion, and why writers are most likely to win an editor’s heart if they follow their own.
Q1: Thank you for joining me on the blog! Is it okay to kick off by asking a bit about how you became a children’s book editor and when you first knew that’s where your heart lay?
Thanks for having me here, Sheila!
I started my career applying for jobs in both adult and children’s publishing, but I knew almost immediately that children’s books is where my heart lay. The books that I read when I was little are the ones that have stuck with me the most. I still can’t believe that I have the opportunity to help make the books that shape, inspire, and create a new generation of readers. I’m thankful every day, especially now, that I get to work with books that are so hopeful.
Q2: Scholastic is the world’s largest publisher of children’s books and celebrates one hundred years in 2020. Any thoughts about how the editorial team is looking to bring the list into its second century and what you’d like to achieve?
It has long been a goal of Scholastic to publish entertaining books that offer both windows and mirrors to young readers. (Take a look at our Power of Story catalog to find some incredible new reads!) These days, we are working harder than ever to make sure that our list is one that reflects the diversity of our country. There’s still a lot of work to be done, but I’m proud to be publishing brilliant authors like Francisco X. Stork, India Hill Brown, Gail D. Villanueva, and Christina Diaz Gonzalez. I hope to continue to acquire and support own voices stories from creators of diverse backgrounds.
Q3: Thinking back to when FRIEND ME first came into your hands: what about the story made you want to acquire it? Is it true what we hear about an editor having a gut feel from the first page that an acquisition was meant to be?
Yes! With so many submissions coming in, a book absolutely needs to grab an editor’s attention right away, whether with spectacular writing or a great hook.
Kudos to you and your agent, because I was immediately intrigued when I read the pitch for FRIEND ME. A social media thriller for middle grade readers? A story that deals with online bullying? Tell me more!! And then I picked up the manuscript, and your writing completely grabbed me. In fact, I read it in one morning. At my desk at work. I rarely if ever do that; most of my submissions are read during my commute—when I had such a thing!—or at home in the evenings. But once I started this book, I was hooked. The characters were real, flawed, and loveable, and the pacing was absolutely phenomenal. Friend Me is a sensitive picture of a girl’s experience getting bullied, but also a nonstop thriller with unpredictable twists and turns.
There are a lot of submissions that I read that I like, that are well-written, or that I even think are worth publishing, but that just aren’t for me. An editor really needs to connect with a project in addition to believing that it can find its place in the market.
“I love character-driven stories, books with a big hook and a big heart, mysteries that genuinely stump me, and anything that can make me laugh. I hope to see all these things, especially from BIPOC or marginalized creators.” – Emily Seife, Senior Editor, Scholastic Press
Q4: During FRIEND ME edits I hugely valued the way you pushed me to keep working until I’d conveyed the main character Roisin’s predicament in the strongest way. Without your guidance, there’s no way the story would be what it became. How do you go about striking the balance with writers during edits: helping them see where improvements are needed without denting their confidence?
Thank you, Sheila! I only sign up books that I absolutely love, and I try to make sure that love always shines through, no matter how rigorous the editorial process.
When I acquire a book, I have to be willing to bring it to our acquisitions meeting, read it at least four times over the course of edits and copyedits and proofreads, and advocate for it in-house. It’s also entering into a new relationship with the author—always scary and exciting, and a big investment of time and energy! I wouldn’t take on all that work if I didn’t fully believe in a project. I hope that the authors I work with know this and enter into our work together excited for a real partnership.
Of course, everyone still needs encouragement along the way, and I always try to call out the moments that make me laugh or bite my nails! Praise is a strong editorial tool, too. Pointing out what is working can help an author see how to fix the trickier bits.
Q5: A lot of our readers are children’s authors. Can you give them any insights into Scholastic submissions: how many manuscripts you and your colleagues consider each year, how many you choose, and finally, what’s on your own manuscript wishlist at the moment?
I’ve never actually counted how many submissions I get a year, but I only bring a small percentage to the acquisitions table. I love character-driven stories, books with a big hook and a big heart, mysteries that genuinely stump me, and anything that can make me laugh. I hope to see all these things, especially from BIPOC or marginalized creators.
Q6: Any final thoughts on common pitfalls that children’s writers should avoid in their manuscripts, or key things we can do that would most improve our craft?
Read, read, and read! Read recently published books so that you’re familiar with what’s coming out in today’s market. That said, write the story of your heart, rather than feeling like you have to chase a trend.
Sheila’s local independent bookshop near Edinburgh in Scotland is the marvellous Portobello Bookshop, which has signed copies of FRIEND ME while supplies last at bit.ly/SMAbuyindie Or, find FRIEND ME at your own local bookshop here bit.ly/SMAorder
If you use Netflix, you may have been nudged to watch The Social Dilemma, but if you use Twitter or consume any media that takes its lead from it, you may be discouraged from switching on this groundbreaking documentary and deprive yourself of the education of a lifetime. Here’s why you shouldn’t skip it.
I’ve written about technology for 25 years, and my heart fell this week as I witnessed the mixed reaction to The Social Dilemma from tech journalists who, unlike myself, are still deep in the industry. From Jason Howell to Will Oremus to Casey Newton, these tech bros have collectively critiqued, scratched their heads and LOL’d at the documentary and its interwoven dramatisation, which shows the effect of social media-fuelled bullying (the performance by young Sophia Hammons, pictured, is superb) and disinformation on a US family. Outside the drama, the rest of the documentary interviews thinkers, critics and former big-tech engineers who ooze techie’s regret.
What frustrates me most are the tech journalists who bemoan the lack of answers in The Social Dilemma – Oremus calls it “a wake-up call with no answer.” That spectacularly misses the point of this work, which admittedly is not pure documentary but rather a hybrid that, like the most impactful art, creates profound discomfort. The Social Dilemma is not a wake-up call, it’s a call to arms, more akin to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.
As I watched Jason Howell and Will Oremus snigger because The Social Dilemma offers tips on managing social media manipulation and addiction at the same time it rolls credits, I wanted to throw something. Howell and Oremus argue that these tips (such as turning off notifications), come across as an afterthought, and are laughably inadequate – and laugh they did.
What they forget, from decades of drinking the tech journalist’s Kool-Aid, is that most people don’t know these basics of digital self-defense. They seem to miss the point that the role of The Social Dilemma is to stoke us to find answers, not to hand them to us. This is a dilemma, guys, it’s not auto-complete.
Everyone loves a car crash
The Social Dilemma’s central thesis, superbly described by lead interviewee and ex-Googler Tristan Harris, is that social media isn’t just addictive, it feeds us a customised truth. Here’s how it manages that: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other moreish tech like YouTube are powered by content recommendation algorithms which are so highly optimised using artificial intelligence that they feed us increasingly outrageous content to keep us engaged.
As Harris says, an AI that observes our eyes going to a crash at the roadside will conclude that humans love car crashes. And because AI doesn’t inherently understand truth or humanity, it only recognises its own objectives, so feeds us “engaging” content without compunction, up to and including serving us a personalised version of reality.
And users who’ve been duped don’t know they’ve been duped. That means you.
This is the real problem that The Social Dilemma points to: social media is a Trojan horse that hasn’t just allowed Greek soldiers to pour out and overwhelm us, it’s changed our perception of reality so we barely noticed the topless towers of Ilium burning around us.
Check your own symptoms
As fellow interviewee and Surveillance Capitalism author Shoshana Zuboff points out, the technologies behind tools like Facebook are designed to operate outside our perception, so that even if we do think online manipulation exists, we believe it to be an alt-right or ultraleft problem and ignore our own symptoms.
The worst thing about criticism by Oremus and others who blast The Social Dilemma – Silicon Valley insider Casey Newton calls it “ridiculous” — is that they’re stopping people from watching it and making up their own minds. “You’ve saved me an hour and a half.” “I was going to watch this but won’t bother now.” These are typical of the tweets underneath both the considered and the hot-take critiques of The Social Dilemma.
And so the self-blinding continues, because a hot take becomes truth that becomes gospel, and disagreeing with gospel is heresy. Otherwise reasonable humans who might have intended to watch the documentary suddenly become viscerally opposed to it – unaware that they and their viscera are under the influence.
What we have is a kind of societal psychosis in which not only do we profoundly believe things which may not be true, we don’t believe that we are among those being duped, stoked and gamed for profit. Societal psychosis is bad, especially in an election year. You don’t need to be an American like me to be affected by the fallout if the US’s deep fault lines fracture into Civil War.
So, democracy lovers, take action. Because the only answer to the social dilemma is you.
Watch this documentary and make up your own mind. Implement basic digital self-defense (disable all notifications, enable two factor authentication, don’t bring your telephone into the bedroom: use an alarm clock, embrace encrypted and no-trace tools like Signal and Duck Duck Go). Check your outrage before you click, react to or spread any content on social media: ban yourself from hot takes or tweeting while fired-up. Pressure lawmakers for new legislation where needed and regulatory authorities for enforcement where laws exist. Outlaw the big-tech business model – prediction products fed by our data, which use manipulation to keep our attention with lies so they can sell us stuff.
And start listening to people who don’t agree with you, and to people you’d decided to ignore. Before democracy and civil society are just #memories.
Sheila M Averbuch is a children’s author and former technology journalist. Her debut middle grade thriller FRIEND ME (Scholastic Press) publishes 10 November 2020.
With America on fire, and police crime against Black Americans now entering its umpteenth decade, it may seem like reading children’s fiction is as useful as a teardrop on an inferno. But last week, when novelist and poet Jason Reynolds — who’s National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature in the US — spoke as keynote at a conference for school librarians, it became clear to me that reading fiction by modern Black American authors is probably the perfect place to start in fighting racism. Especially for white families like mine. Racism, he says, is a virus: one that’s transmitted in childhood unknowingly and spread invisibly.
During the talk, which came just two days after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Jason gestured to his own hair — dreds — and his tattoos, his black clothing and his tall stature, and said, “Look at me. In any other setting, y’all are afraid of me.” See the keynote here below:
And white fear doesn’t start when Black men are grown men. See this from US reporter Eugene Daniels: “Imagine being in elementary school & your teachers telling your mom how scared they were of you when you walked in class,” he wrote. “As a child.”
Books deliver empathy
Fear. Suspicion. Dislike. Aversion. These emotions can’t thrive in the presence of empathy. That’s what fiction achieves: it’s an empathy delivery device, creating a magical set of conditions where you the reader – or you the listener – experience what’s unfolding for the main character as if you yourself were that person.
By using five-senses detail, the author lures your brain into a sensory state, so it’s as if you’re the one biting into that mouthful of cupcake the main character has in her hand. You’re the one feeling the slap of the track on your shoes as you run laps.
You’re the one who feels sick and angry when you encounter everyday racism: like the teacher who “forgets” to invite you to the school’s Young Captains ceremony, even though you’re Captain of the school’s Step Team.
If you’re white, handing your kids great books by modern Black American authors is a huge step you can take right now to cultivate empathy in your children. Here’s some awesome Black fiction to get you started.
There’s an even more comprehensive list here below, comprising children’s writers of color and other authors from a huge variety of communities, from ProjectLITComm
These books can help you, within your family, to combat the racism that’s in the air, like it or not — like that story about the fish who didn’t know what water was. The invisible privilege that white children enjoy in most environments is water, too. But the real enemy here is racism itself, and it will take a lifelong, proactive effort for you to combat it, especially if you’re white.
That means taking active antiracism steps like calling out your family members, neighbors, friends or taxi driver when they drop a racist comment. Try it. It’s freeing. You may not be able to change minds, but you can try. Are you trying?
Do you know the racial justice organizations near you that work to change minds and fight racial bias?
Have you opened your wallet to them?
Why is there a picture of football trading cards on this blog post?
When my kids were very small, a football (soccer) trading card had somehow made it onto our kitchen table. “I don’t like brown people,” my five year old said casually, looking at the picture of the athlete. I wasn’t sure I’d heard them right. Where had THAT come from? Turns out it had come from school, a racist comment dropped by a classmate.
We immediately had The Chat: about how millions of people have been treated very badly and even killed because they have skin that’s brown. My kid burst into tears, saying, “I didn’t know…I didn’t know!”
I’m not painting myself a hero for doing This Very Basic Thing: intercept racist comments immediately. Talk about racist ideas. Blast them out of the water. This is so basic. The thing is, antiracism is a proactive, tiring fight that needs us to do much more than the basics, although they’re a good start.
That’s because racist ideas — breathtaking, unfounded, cunningly constructed ideas not only of non-white inferiority, but of white supremacy — are the foundation stone of empire, the wealth of nations, and the flaming catastrophe that is modern capitalism. Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s book on this topic is a must-read. There’s even a children’s translation of Dr. Ibram’s book, STAMPED: RACISM, ANTIRACISM AND YOU, for your kids to read, co-authored with Jason Reynolds. It’s in the ProjectLITComm graphic above. Go get it.
Because racist ideas have been force-fed to white Americans in particular, it means I have a lifelong struggle in me, too, to find and fight the racism inside. I used to think, Well, I can’t be a racist, I’m a children’s author. But now I see that, as children’s author, I’d better work harder to find the racism in me and fight it every day.
And I need to do the work, too, of being a genuine ally, not a bystander, to my fellow Americans: they’re fighting for justice, dignity, and policing they don’t have to be afraid of.
That’s a good fight.
Sheila M. Averbuch is a former journalist and author of the thriller FRIEND ME for middle grade readers, publishing November 2020 with Scholastic Press US. Follow on Instagram or Twitter at @sheilamaverbuch
Writers and other creatives can only make their art because they are hypersensitive to the world and the human condition. So it’s no surprise that a global crisis like the pandemic makes such a deep imprint on us, it can choke off our ability to create anything at all. And hearing people say, as they did this week, that William Shakespeare wrote King Lear during a plague lockdown doesn’t help.
I’m writing the first draft of a brand-new middle grade book and am one of the lucky ones. With the exception of a few panicky days where all I can do is watch the news and nurse my cracked knuckles and dream of rubbing my eye again one day, I’ve been able to keep writing. But two years ago exactly, I was at a total standstill, laid low by the flu and by frustration that my writing was going nowhere (it passed, thank God, and I began writing again after a few months).
What I told myself then is what I would tell any writer now: you don’t have to create. You don’t have to stress that other people seem to be creating and you’re the only one who isn’t.
A salve for the writer’s mind
Just trust that the sensitive, creative mind you were born with is taking it all in and maybe, one day, will do something with it. Or not. But it’s okay to crumble. If anxiety, or mortal terror, are pressing in, stop yourself looking at the news any more than twice a day. Treat yourself to anything you find to be a salve. Sketch a daffodil. Watch Patrick Stewart read sonnets. Get a step-by-step guide on how to do that mindfulness breathing thing from the Zen monks who mastered it.
If you’re up to it, try a creativity exercise like this one led by Jason Reynolds, National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature in the US, just to get the free-associations moving in your brain.
Don’t forget the flowers
None of us is Shakespeare. But this tulip is: it’s the very first tulip to flower in the garden, every year, and it raised its face to the sun this week. Wherever you are, this tulip is for you.
Sheila M. Averbuch is a former journalist who’s interviewed billionaires, hackers and would-be Mars colonists. She co-founded the Scotland network of SCBWI and is author of the middle-grade thriller FRIEND ME, publishing in 2020 with Scholastic US. She holds a 2019 New Writers Award from the Scottish Book Trust.
My debut novel FRIEND ME doesn’t come out until November, but I have some sense of the particular heartbreak now hitting my fellow Roaring 20s Debuts who have recent and upcoming launch dates. For these writers, in-person publicity is now impossible, and the effect on school and library sales is still unknown.
Do you or young people you know have reading time on their hands, perhaps an abundance of reading time stretching from sunup to bedtime? Please consider giving some love to these debut authors whose lifelong dreams are coming up hard against the reality of a global pandemic.
I’ve personally read and loved How to Make Friends with the Sea, My Life As A Potato, To Fly Among the Stars and From the Desk of Zoe Washington. I’m in the middle of the wonderful What Stars Are Made Of, and I can’t wait for Efrén Divided and Stand Up, Yumi Chung!
But that’s just a sliver of what’s available! And WordPress won’t let me upload too many more thumbnails into this blog without going all skewy.
See a list of debuts here
All of these books and their fellow 2020 middle-grade debuts can be browsed here. I think they all sound amazing, and I’m thrilled to see there’s a wonderful selection of diverse and #ownvoices stories. These folks are finally changing the face of kidlit publishing. Go have a browse and, above all, enjoy!
These books are going to be worth your time. It’s unimaginably difficult for a manuscript to rise to the top in the competitive children’s literature market. These authors have beaten the odds by attracting a publisher’s attention and getting that elusive book deal.
You can help make that final bit of their dream come true by showing some booklove and sharing one of these stories with a young person.