Publishers' Preview: Middle-Grade Fiction: Five Questions for Tae Keller

This interview originally appeared in the May/June 2022 Horn Book Magazine as part of the Publishers’ Previews: Middle-Grade Fiction, 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 Jennifer Chan Is Not Alone, 2021 Newbery Medalist Tae Keller presents two girls for whom the question “Are UFOs real?” is just the beginning of inquiry.

1. Have you ever seen a UFO?

I hadn’t thought much about them before Jennifer Chan, but writing this book has introduced me to a whole lot of questions. The universe is vast and full of mystery.

2. Does winning the Newbery Medal for When You Trap a Tiger make writing the next book easier or more difficult?

There’s a level of pressure I couldn’t have imagined before: Is this a Newbery-level book? What does “Newbery-level” even mean? But I’m trying not to move the goalposts on myself. My measure of success is to write a book that feels honest, that challenges me and raises questions, that I would have wanted in middle school. I think I did that with Jennifer Chan.

3. Which of the characters is most like middle-school you?

There are pieces of me in every character I write. This book’s characters ask the same questions that I have. What does it mean to be a good person? How do we forgive ourselves and others for mistakes and shortcomings? How can we become the best versions of ourselves in a world that sometimes feels uncertain? None of these characters is perfect, because none of us is perfect.

4. Do you have an interest about which your friends say, “Tae’s a little…obsessed”?

Storytelling! I love the creative side, how plots and characters seem to come out of nowhere — or somewhere we don’t fully understand. I’m also fascinated by the analytical side. When I read a book or see a movie I love, I’ll go back and take detailed notes, trying to parse exactly how the narrative was constructed.

5. What is one thing we adults can do to make middle school a kinder place? (Or is it inevitably hell?)

I’ve spoken to students on school visits who say their teachers and classmates have created safe environments. So, thankfully, it’s not inevitably hell! One thing we can do is model empathy and self-reflection, and show that the work of kindness is never done. We’re always navigating big questions about where we fit, and I think — I hope — opening that conversation and exploring those questions with kids can go a long way.

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Photo: Saavedra Photography.

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. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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