Long before our present-day preoccupation with invisible germs, Antony van Leeuwenhoek peered into a world of miniature life present in and around us. In 1716, he wrote:
I have thought it my duty to put down my discovery on paper, so that all ingenious people might be informed thereof.
From Delft-china-patterned endpapers to a back matter image of a cabinet of curiosities, Lori Alexander‘s Sibert Honor chapter book is a biography of Leeuwenhoek, a lively combination of voiced, present-tense text and delicately detailed illustrations.
It opens with an introduction to a man peering through an oddly shaped metal bar. He’s on the cusp of a big discovery, and his quoted words on the facing page evoke his wonder at what he’s seeing.
Subsequent chapters lead readers through Antony van Leeuwenhoek’s youth in Holland, where he raises silkworms and lives with his busy, enterprising parents. Through family tragedy, adolescence, an apprenticeship, travel, and more, Alexander reveals the context and background of Leeuwenhoek’s life along with all kinds of marvelous details of his obsession for looking up close at all that he encountered.
The back matter makes visible a whole lot of additional material as well–a timeline of Leeuwenhoek’s life, including related world events in red font, a glossary, source notes, selected biography, and index. Even the author’s note speaks directly to the young reader, providing information and clarifying points of scholarly agreement and doubt. Vivien Mildenberger‘s pastel, colored pencil, and watercolor art invites “all ingenious people,” and curious ones as well, to look up close at “eye of bee” and “leg of lice.”
The best and brightest middle grade novels hit the sweet spot between lightness and the big questions of life. Here’s one from VCFA grad Tziporah Cohen. I asked Tzippy if she’d tell me more about this whimsical, intelligent novel about 11-year-old Miriam who finds herself transplanted from New York City to the failing motel that her parents, most unreasonably, have chosen to run.
[UK] Your Miriam has a fine sense of the dramatic and tragic. She also has a kind of tenderness and vulnerability, a lively imagination, and a touch of that lovely magical thinking that’s so characteristic of middle grade. Can you talk about how this character grew and came to life for you?
[TC] In many ways, Miriam is like me. I grew up with a strong Jewish identity, but it didn’t always feel rooted. We went to synagogue on the major holidays and had wonderful Passover seders, but also ate sausage pizza once a week and went to the mall on Saturday mornings. I craved something more, but didn’t know what. When I became more religiously observant, I realized that something was community. I loved belonging to something bigger than myself.
I knew from the outset that Miriam would be Jewish, like me, and I also had been wanting to explore religion and faith from a middle grade-perspective. Miriam is at that age, just at the beginning of adolescence, where she is searching for something but can’t yet identify what it is, and I channeled some of my own experience into creating her. Other parts of her struggle come from issues I grapple with as an adult: how religion can bring out the worst in people when it leads to judgment or lack of tolerance, but how it can also be a source of kindness and great good, when channeled the right way.
[UK] I was enchanted by the details of your setting—grape pie, the Myrna-Mabel confusion, and of course the old drive-in theater. How did you go about creating a setting that also grows your character and is very much a part of the conflict in the story?
Photos courtesy of Tziporah Cohen
[TC] The motel setting has its own backstory. The summer after I started my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts, my family and I went to Hershey, Pennsylvania for a mini-vacation. We stayed in a somewhat run-down motel (though not nearly as run-down as The Jewel Motor Inn) owned by an East Indian family from Staten Island, NY who had moved in just three days before we got there. There was a young boy hanging around—their nephew, I think—and I started wondering what it would be like for a kid to move from the diverse big city to live in a motel in a very non-diverse small town. I started my first draft in that motel room!
As I wrote, I brought in details from that vacation and from living in upstate New York while in college. The details emerged over many drafts over many years (I started this story in 2013!), in an interactive, reciprocal way. For example, many motels have a restaurant or diner next door, so I created one, and then Myrna Whitley and her husband made their appearance to work in it. In that instance, the characters grew from the setting. But the setting also grew from the characters: Mrs. Whitley’s granddaughter Kate, who is Catholic, befriends Miriam and pushes her to confront some of her feelings about being Jewish and ask questions about the varieties of faith she notices around her. This led me to (spoiler alert!) the idea of the girls creating the Virgin Mary apparition, as well as the scenes at the drive-in and synagogue, all of which worked towards creating the setting of the small town of Greenvale.
[UK] At one level, this is a quirky, sweet book about friendship and family. But we quickly find ourselves entering more complicated terrain and encountering questions of prejudice and bias, truth and lies, means and ends and taking responsibility. Even so, there’s a lightness to the story that allows a reader to engage with its more difficult questions. How do we create that balance in writing for the middle grades? How did you do that here?
[TC] Such a hard question! Hard because so much of writing this book for me felt like it was happening on a subconscious level. In early drafts, the book had a much more comical approach, sometimes even verging on slapstick. My dad was very sick when I started writing it, and I was also working on another novel that was full of grief, and I needed to write something light. But as the book evolved, the questions Miriam struggled with grew more serious. The world around me also seemed to be changing over the years that I wrote the novel—with an increase in incidents of anti-Semitism and other forms of prejudice—and I found myself responding to that as well.
The other thing I’ve learned, from my work as a psychiatrist in palliative care, is that life is a balance of bitter and sweet. We need the sweet to endure the bitter, and the bitter to appreciate the sweet. I hope I was able to convey some of that reality in Miriam’s story.
[UK] Ah yes, the shifting sands of drafts. Thank you, Tziporah Cohen, for this tender middle grade fiction that delivers reality while brushing it with the hope that is so needed by young people (and old ones, really).
One of the challenges of writing across cultures is how to include languages other than English in your text without having to pause the narrative to explain what all those foreign words mean. As a writer, I don’t tend to think of my audience as primarily American or Indian, and I’ve sometimes had to deal with puzzled editorial comments. Of course, it’s the job of editors and copyeditors to aim for clarity, so the default solution in many books (not mine, I hasten to add) has often been the parallel, parenthetic translation. Or the glossary. Or both. Not ideal. Parenthetic translations tend to make even a good text didactic, and they can manage to edit one with potential right into oblivion. It’s enough to give anyone a headache in the espacio between their pigtails.
Juana Medina bursts through this challenge with uncommon entusiasmo. Her irrepressible child character, also named Juana, lives in Bogotá, Colombia with her parents and her canine best friend, Lucas.
The fictional Juana in this cheery chapter book loves fútbol, eating brussels sprouts, drawing, and Astroman. Math is a bit of a challenge, and as for The English, that takes our young hero completely by surprise. She finds the language mind-bendingly difficult—nada de fun! It isn’t until a family trip turns the linguistic tables yet again that Juana applies herself to English, and discovers that she can habla it just fine.
Medina’s lighthearted first person text and lovably wacky illustrations topple the accepted parameters of familiar and foreign and make the reader laugh all the way to understanding. No glossary exists to suggest that reading this book is an academic task, and in fact none is needed. Every single Spanish word is completely comprehensible in the context of the carefully wrought sentences and paragraphs. By the time you take a breath to ask, “Now what did that mean?” the answer breezes into view like a charm.
Winner of the 2017 Pura Belpré Author Award. Published by Candlewick Press. These comments are based on a copy borrowed from my local library.