Publishers' Preview: Books in the Middle: Five Questions for Leah Johnson

This interview originally appeared in the January/February 2023 Horn Book Magazine as part of the Publishers’ Previews: Books in the Middle, an advertising supplement that allows participating publishers a chance to each highlight a book from its current list. They choose the books; we ask the questions.

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In Ellie Engle Saves the World Herself!, our eponymous heroine discovers she has acquired the superpower to…no, you’ll have to read it to find out.

1. What superpower would you most like to have?

One of my favorite episodes of This American Life is about superpowers. A reporter asks people to choose between flight and invisibility — no other options. The idea is that what you choose says a lot about who you are. I’ve settled on invisibility. But I probably wouldn’t do anything cool with it, just sneak into Timothée Chalamet premieres so I could see the movies before everyone else.

2. Could you turn down a million dollars?

Once, the answer would’ve been a resounding “No!” I’d have run a marathon barefoot in summer if I’d get a million dollars at the end — especially when I was a kid with no way to help my mom make ends meet. But the older I get and the less economic anxiety I have, the more I’m able to make decisions based on what feels right rather than how much money is at stake. I’m really grateful to be in that position.

3. This is your first middle-grade novel. What was the biggest difference from YA?

I was able to play a little more in this book — I could be sillier and more adventurous in the story I wanted to tell. There was also a bigger emphasis on voice and humor than in my previous books (and more opportunities for fart jokes). I love it here!

4. What do people most misunderstand about Indiana, where this story takes place?

Indiana is everything people think it is, but also so much more. We have a rich artistic landscape, a beautiful tapestry of diverse cultures, and diligent civil servants dedicated to making the world a better, more equitable place. We also have cornfields. Lots of cornfields.

5. How do we find the friends we need?

By being open to the possibility that who we are isn’t who we’ll always be, and that what we’ve needed from the people we love may not be what we need in the future. We have to open our hearts and invite people in, even when it scares us. Maybe especially when it scares us. That’s where the magic is.

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Photo: Leah Trib Productions.

Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton

Editor Emeritus Roger Sutton was editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc., from 1996-2021. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his MA in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a BA from Pitzer College in 1978.

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