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!
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
I’m still reeling from the best news I’ve had in my professional career: Scholastic in New York will publish my debut for middle grade readers, FRIEND ME, in autumn 2020. My agent Jennifer Laughran is to thank for this magnificent turn of events, as is my editor Emily Seife at Scholastic. Emily hasn’t just championed the project heartily through the acquisitions process, she’s also been the most profoundly sensitive and ingenious reader I’ve ever encountered, with inspired editorial suggestions that have pushed this story to be so much better. The deal announcement is here:
How can I express what it’s been like to go through this experience? I’d been writing on and off for children for more than a decade when, in 2014, I attempted my first NaNoWriMo. That’s when I wrote the first draft of a middle grade adventure I really thought was going to be a winner: I honed it to what I felt was a bright shine, including writing 35 versions of my cover letter, pitching it at and winning The Hook, SCBWI’s national pitching competition in the UK, and signing with my agent, Jennifer. That manuscript and my next one got fantastic feedback, but neither of those projects was quite The One.
To be honest, life then took over. My health, mental and physical, headed south, and I found myself inside a deeper hole than I thought possible. I stopped writing.
It was months before I could face a keyboard again. Even when I did, I decided that what I wrote was just for therapy: I wouldn’t show it to anyone, I’d just focus on the catharsis of it. So I began, and never have I written from a place of such anguish. I wrote the first words when I was at 30,000 feet, in May 2018, flying home to see my mother and sister in Massachusetts. Miraculously, I looked up and realized a couple hours had passed. Mentally I’d been miles away from the cramped abnormality of the aircraft cabin, absorbed with the opening scene of the book – a scene that would later be rewritten, then rewritten again, then cut altogether. I remember how good it was to experience that sense of wellness again, a feeling that only writing can give me.
I grabbed onto that wellness and followed it, taking baby steps. I wrote slowly, more or less every day, averaging just 250 words a day, I realize, when I look back at my Pomodoro statistics.
I knew where I wanted the story to go, including the accident that would befall my main character’s bully. I also knew the unhealthy turn that I wanted her relationship with her best friend to take; but the rest I left open, writing scene after scene, following only the sincerest motivation of the main character. If it didn’t make sense for her to do a thing, it didn’t happen.
It was around then that I had breakfast in Edinburgh with a friend from Harvard, Maile Meloy, now a celebrated novelist and short story writer. We discussed her book (an excellent thriller for adults called DO NOT BECOME ALARMED) and what her characters did in it, and I told her I felt strange about pantsing rather than plotting my current story.
Maile gave me the confidence not to worry: “Just stand your characters up, make them want something, and don’t let them get it,” she said. Scene after scene, that exact strategy had been working for me, so I carried on. What I ended up with, by that October, was the mostly tightly-woven story I had ever written, with clear and strong motivations throughout.
Jump forward to May 2019, and a Google Hangouts message from my agent at 10pm (“I know it’s late there – I have just sent you some very exciting news”) made me shriek and brought my daughter to the top of the stairs. All I could say was, “Oh my God, oh my God.” Because there it was: I was going to be published. And all it required was that I write not just from the heart, but from the deepest, darkest abyss I’d ever experienced.
It was almost a year to the day since I had written those first words on the flight to Boston.
I may never know why the earlier manuscripts weren’t The One, but I sense that there is a chiming between who I am as a person and the subject matter of FRIEND ME that the other stories didn’t have. I don’t just mean my own experiences of bullying, but also my career as a technology journalist, which has steeped me in the kind of tech that surrounds (and overwhelms) my main character. Roisin’s life is as phone-dependent and social-media-fuelled as the vast majority of young people today; throw classic middle-school bullying into the mix, and it’s an explosive combination.
Writing and your wellness
Even if I had not struck it lucky with the publication deal, I know now, after what I wrote through and out of last year, that I would’ve kept writing no matter what. For me, there’s no salve like a well-written sentence, a sturdy paragraph, a pleasing scene. I find tremendous comfort in re-reading something solid that I’ve written. Its solidity helps me regain my own, when I’m wobbling.
If you’re reading this, and you’re a writer, keep writing. If you can’t write – as I couldn’t, for months – try at least to protect your writing time and do something else satisfying in it, something creative or mentally stimulating (I practiced my old acting monologues, and tried new recipes, and learned Japanese). That way, if and when you feel you can work with words again, your writing time is ready and waiting for you, and it hasn’t been swamped by life.
Even if the world hasn’t yet given you a signal that it needs your writing, you need your writing. And a happier world starts with a happy you.