The epiphany that cracked the plot of my next novel
. . . and the need for books about 14-year-olds, and an incomplete list of books set during/just before/just after 8th grade
My four-and-a-half-year-old son recently put in a request for the dedication of my next novel.
I dedicated my last book, Coming Up Short, to my family—my “team,” Mike, Cora, and Sam—and it turns out Sam was not thrilled that his name was listed last. He says we always put his sister’s name before his just because she’s older, and that isn’t fair. He would like me to dedicate my next book to him and Cora, but this time his name should come first.
I hadn’t thought about the dedication for this new book before Sam made his complaint/request. But ever since he brought it up, I’ve made a concerted effort to say his name first some of the time, and I’ve also been reflecting on what dedications really mean and who I really wrote my new book for.
The true answer is that, more than anything else I’ve ever written, I wrote my next book for myself. The announcement ran last week (woo hoo!), so I can now officially say that the book is called Keeping Pace, and it’s about rival overachievers, distance running, first love, and the summer after eighth grade.
Writing this book has brought me a lot of joy, and I adore Grace and Jonah and can’t wait for readers to meet them next April. But even though I loved writing the novel once I got going with it, I did not love the process of figuring out the plot. That part was a frustrating, confidence-shaking slog.
Back in early 2021, in between rounds of edits for Coming Up Short, I kept circling around and around the idea for the story that would eventually become Keeping Pace. After a while, I knew who the main characters were, and I knew I wanted to tell their story. I just didn’t know what their story was. I had drafted a handful of different novel beginnings that fell apart around page 25. I kept trying and trying to figure out a plot that fit my characters, but every time I felt sure I was on the verge of cracking the story, the whole thing unraveled.
Part of the problem was that I was burned out after all my deadlines and publicity efforts for Saint Ivy and Coming Up Short on top of the pandemic and parenting. And part of the problem was that I was trying to set the story several months too early.
I finally had a breakthrough when I realized that Grace and Jonah’s story needed to begin at the end of eighth grade instead of the beginning. Suddenly, the inciting incident was clear and powerful, and a logical, compelling plot took shape.
I was so relieved to have some direction after spinning around in circles for so long that I went all in on every aspect of the story that gave me energy and joy, not worrying about what was or wasn’t marketable. I didn’t have any other book ideas, so that didn’t feel like much of a risk. It was this story or nothing!
I leaned into the rom-com elements because at that point, all I really wanted to read or watch were rom-coms. I let this story be my most upper-upper middle grade novel yet, still squarely for the 10-14 year-old set, but starring fourteen-year-old characters (Grace turns 14 around halfway through the book) on the brink of the transition to high school. I let it be my most me story yet, because of the themes and the running and the fact that I’ve always wanted to write about a fourteen-year-old girl managing the transition from middle school to high school. That was my hardest year, personally, and I feel most tender toward that version of my past self, but it’s almost impossible to find stories that explore that time because the age doesn’t fit neatly into the market. I’m so glad I’ve finally written one.
I don’t know what exactly I’ll write in the dedication for this book (though I literally just received copyedits so I have to figure that out ASAP). But I do know that Keeping Pace is a story I wrote for burned-out-me from 2021 and now-me and 14-year-old me. It’s for anyone who loves running even though they aren’t super fast. It’s for anyone who needs a reminder that they are worth more than what they achieve. And it’s for Sam and Cora/Cora and Sam, because on some level all my stories are.
Keeping Pace is also for all the readers and parents and teachers and librarians who are looking for books with 14-year-old main characters. Well, probably not all of them, because no book will appeal to every reader, which is why we need many more books geared toward this in-between age. But I hope it appeals to some of them, and I hope the readers and educators who want a book like this one can find it.
It seems like every couple of months or so, somebody laments the lack of books about 13-15-year-old characters in a post on social media, and for good reason, because these books are TOUGH to find. Here’s Angie Thomas commenting on that “in-between” age that isn’t quite MG and isn’t quite YA back in August of 2019.
And here’s an essay that ran in Publishers Weekly in March of 2023 from a middle school librarian, also asking where the 13-15-year-old main characters are. Just last week, I saw a Tweet from another librarian (who is also an author) begging for books about eighth graders. And last fall, a different librarian and author, Brooks Benjamin, Tweeted this impassioned plea:
I’m not very knowledgeable about 15-year-old main characters because that’s farther outside my middle grade wheelhouse, but my sense is that books about 13-year-olds seem to be getting more common in MG (though nowhere near as common as books about 12-year-olds!). And while 14-year-old protagonists are still quite rare, my publisher, Abrams, publishes a few of them (including Shannon Doleski’s books and Sheela Chari’s Karthik Delivers).
So, some of these upper middle grade books with older characters exist, but there aren’t enough of them, and some authors are still encouraged to age characters down to 12/7th grade even if they’re exploring mature topics. And even when these books about 13-14-year-olds are out there, they can be difficult to identify for a bunch of reasons, including:
1.) Some publishers separate age 10-14 MG from age 8-12 MG but others don’t, and even the ones that do don’t usually print those age ranges on the books.
2.) Bookstores often have middle grade (or “young readers”) sections and young adult sections but nothing in between, and there’s no simple way to distinguish between books for the younger end of an age range versus the older end—they’re often shelved side by side.
3.) The jacket copy on books often doesn’t specify the age of the main character.
4.) The covers for upper MGs often look young and indistinguishable from standard MG fare, which can turn off potential readers.
I don’t have real solutions to these challenges, but I plan to keep writing, reading, and recommending books for this age group, and I’ll also be looking for more opportunities for authors and educators to strategize together about how we can increase visibility and discoverability for books that meet this clear need. I was part of a panel of educators and authors discussing this challenge at nErDcampPA last year (you can watch most of the conversation here) and would love to have more problem-solving, interactive discussions like that one.
And here is an incomplete list I’ve compiled of upper middle grade books with older main characters. I included books set during eighth grade, in the summer after eighth grade, and in the summer between 7th and 8th grade as long as the characters are identified as being 13 (my Coming Up Short and Up for Air both fall into that last category, and my Saint Ivy is set during eighth grade). My reading skews heavily toward contemporary, so this list does, too. If you see any mistakes with my list or have other books to suggest, please let me know (please only suggest additions if you are sure about the character age/when the story is set). I’ll update it and get it on my website.
And Brooks Benjamin was right that it will make a difference if we can show publishers that there is a demand for these books about 13-15-year-old main characters, so by all means, please feel free to flock to order tons of copies of Keeping Pace when it’s available for preorder . . . and any of these other titles until then!
If you want to check out another middle grade novel that features half-marathon training before Keeping Pace is available next April, I highly recommend Elaine Vickers’s lovely Half-Moon Summer, which publishes in June. You can read my gushing Instagram review here.
Thanks for reading and for all the excitement about Keeping Pace! It was so much fun to get so many supportive responses when the deal was announced.
I am SO excited for this one, Laurie!
HALF MOON SUMMER was so good! And yes to more upper middle grade.