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Is There a Place in Publishing for Realistic Fiction About Middle School? A guest post by Hillary Frank

When I sold my first novel in 1999 and my editor told me she wanted to publish it as YA, I was confused. Why would we limit our audience to teens? Better Than Running at Night was about a college freshman; I was a recent college grad. I figured I was writing a book for people my age. 

Once the book was published, though, I discovered how rewarding it is to write for teens. For one thing, you can’t beat their fan mail. I received passionate letters from kids saying that Better Than Running at Night made them feel seen, that it changed their lives. Helped them get out of emotionally abusive relationships. One girl told me the book meant so much to her that she stole it from her library! I loved visiting schools, doing writing workshops, and hearing kids tell their own powerful and surprising stories about growing up. I fully embraced the YA label and published two more novels geared toward older teens. 

But then I hit a roadblock. My fourth book idea was about middle school — which, according to traditional publishing, would classify it as middle grade.

The problem was, I wanted to write about real middle school. The middle school that I remembered. The middle school that I never saw reflected in novels when I was a kid. I wanted to write about cliques and bullying. Slut-shaming and prude-shaming. Intense schoolyard debates about sex acts. I wanted to write about periods and body changes and how those body changes often come with unwanted attention from creepy boys — and, worse, creepy men. I wanted to write about how entering adulthood felt like a sort of death. A sudden permanent goodbye to your childhood self. I wanted to write about all of this stuff using the real language that twelve and thirteen-year-olds use — and let’s be honest, that includes cursing.

Here Lies Me would capture the brutality of middle school. It would help kids who felt isolated — and, perhaps like me, found it difficult to relate to books that softened the edges of adolescence. It would give those kids hope that despite how bleak middle school can feel, it’s still possible to find your voice and to find friends.

When I pitched the book to my agent, 15 years ago now, he said that if I wanted to write a story this dark I would need to age the characters up to high school so that it could be classified as YA. I liked the idea of the book being classified as YA but I didn’t want to age the characters up. The whole point of this project was to talk about the realities of middle school. So I set Here Lies Me aside. In fact, I set book-writing aside entirely.

And I was left wondering: If realistic fiction about middle school can’t be for adults and it can’t be for kids, where does it belong? Is the answer really nowhere?

It took me around twelve years to realize that maybe Here Lies Me did belong somewhere, and that somewhere was podcasting. I had spent the last couple of decades working in audio — first freelancing for public radio shows like This American Life, Studio360, and Marketplace, then launching my own podcast, The Longest Shortest Time. With Longest Shortest, I became one of the first people to make a living in podcasting. The show was about parenthood but made for a general audience. Early on, when I was shopping the show around, gatekeepers in the industry questioned the concept. They saw parenthood as a niche topic that would appeal only to parents of young children. But Longest Shortest grew quickly and developed a diverse and highly engaged audience that included many non-parents. Listeners without kids told me the show helped them to understand their own parents better and to relate to their friends who had kids. Over the nine years that the show ran, I covered everything from transgender pregnancy to discrimination against mothers in the workplace to a grown man asking his mom for the truth about her sex life. People didn’t tune in to Longest Shortest for parenting content; they tuned in for compelling stories.

I was able to make a boundary-breaking show like Longest Shortest because unlike the book world, podcasting has no rules. Sure, a lot of podcasts sound the same. But you really do have the freedom to try anything. And the categories are broad. You want to know how fiction gets divvied up in the podcast charts? It doesn’t! It’s all just housed under “fiction.” As a creator, you can interpret “fiction” any way you’d like. So far, most people have interpreted it to mean “sci-fi” or “horror.” But I decided to interpret it as “weird, dark dramedy about middle school.” In 2019, I got a residency to develop the pilot for Here Lies Me — and in 2021 I partnered with Lemonada Media to bring the show to life.

Lemonada was excited to support me in my mission: to make the first realistic fiction podcast about middle school — and to make that show appeal to both teens and adults. Here Lies Me launched in November and it sounds pretty different from other fiction podcasts. Our main characters are not played by celebrities; they’re teens who missed out on their performance programs due to the pandemic. Our sound design isn’t canned; it’s custom. The entire show is scored with drumming by my eleven-year-old daughter who coincidentally started middle school this year. And yes, there is cursing and an intense schoolyard dispute about sex acts. (The show is marked as explicit in podcast apps and begins with a mature content warning.)

The Here Lies Me cast singing Hava Nagila for the final episode

In retrospect, I’m glad that I waited to write Here Lies Me. Designing the story for audio forced me to innovate in ways that I may not have in print. Waiting also allowed time for TV shows like Big Mouth and PEN15 and the film Eighth Grade to pave the way for mature content about middle school. And then there was #MeToo. From the beginning, Here Lies Me was primarily about a girl trying to get a boy with an unrequited crush to stop bothering her. But the #MeToo movement gave me the word for this flavor of bothering: harassment. Once I had that word, I finally understood that the story I wanted to tell was about what harassment looks like in middle school and what happens when the harasser becomes a victim. I think it’s essential to talk about harassment in middle school because I believe that middle school is where harassment begins in earnest. My intent with this show is to encourage conversations about how we might address harassment in middle school, and to potentially stop future incidents of harassment, assault, and domestic abuse by reaching kids when they’re still young enough to be receptive to grown-ups. In order for a story to have that sort of cross-generational influence, it must appeal to both teens and adults.

I still would love to make a book version of Here Lies Me. A graphic novel is my dream — an experience as immersive for the eyes as the podcast is for the ears. But now, fifteen years after I shelved Here Lies Me, I still encounter people in the publishing industry asking where a book like this could possibly belong. I’m hearing that it’s too dark for kids… but that adults don’t want to read about kids. Well, why not? Why can’t kids read about what’s really happening in their lives? Why can we only expect them to read up and not about characters that are their actual age or slightly younger? Why shouldn’t adults read about stuff that happened in their childhood? Doesn’t reading help us to process past traumas? A few weeks ago, I received an Instagram message from a therapist who told me that she’s using Here Lies Me as a “soul balm” to help her clients process their own middle school experiences before their children enter middle school — and I also got a five-star Apple Podcasts review from an eighth grader praising the show because it “LITERALLY SEEMS SO REAL.”

Is there a place in publishing for literally real-seeming books about middle school? I hope so. Because otherwise the medium is missing out on a new category of powerful storytelling that the entertainment industry and podcasting have welcomed.

Meet the author

Photo credit: Natalie Chitwood

Hillary Frank is the creator of The Longest Shortest Time, an award-winning podcast about the surprises and absurdities of raising other humans — and Here Lies Me, a fiction podcast about harassment in middle school. She is also the author and illustrator of three young adult novels. Her latest book is Weird Parenting Wins: Bathtub Dining, Family Screams, and Other Hacks from the Parenting Trenches. Hillary got her start in radio on This American Life with a story recorded entirely on a shiny red boombox and a microcassette answering machine.

Website: https://www.hillaryfrank.com/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/hillaryfrank

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/thisishillaryfrank/

Listen and subscribe to Here Lies Me: https://link.chtbl.com/HereLiesMe?sid=toolkit

TLT TURNS TEN: Ten Pieces of Media that are NOT Books to Check Out

I’m going to tell you something that may be surprising: I don’t JUST read all the time. It certainly seems, sometimes, like I do. I have always been a voracious reader for a couple of reasons. One, I love books. Period. I love them. And two, I love to use books to pull me out of real life and distract me. So, while I’ve been on leave from work this past year and also coaching my teen through his first year of high school and also just trying to SURVIVE all the everything, I’ve read more than ever.

But I do other things than read. I mean, I obviously do lots of other things than read, but most of it is boring. However, consuming media in other forms is not. I listen to a ton of podcasts (because I like them, I like learning, and also I cannot handle silence because my anxiety brain tries to eat itself in the quiet), and I watch a small handful of shows (usually over and over—another anxiety trick). I figure if I input enough stuff into my brain, I’ll drown out all the noise. That’s how it works, right?

Here are a few of my favorite media things. Check them out, if you’re not already a fan!

Podcasts

Depresh Mode

Conversations about mental health hosted by one of my favorite radio people. I adored John’s previous podcast, The Hilarious World of Depression (and the book, and Wits, and on and on). This drops on Mondays and in my head I always think, “Oooh, Depresh Mode Monday!” which means I get to listen to the new episode at the gym, which helps make me go to the gym.

Terrible, Thanks for Asking

What, am I only going to recommend podcasts made my Minnesotans? Maybe.


Terrible, Thanks for Asking leaves me laughing and crying almost every episode. Tackles all the hard junk in life that happens to so many of us—loss, grief, disappointment, and how to pick yourself up again and plow forward after experiencing such hard things.

It’s Been A Minute with Sam Sanders

Sam Sanders does weekly wrap-ups of newsworthy events, has lots of really smart guests on to talk about topical things, and just brings so much humor and heart to his show.

Code Switch

Essential listening. Conversations about race and racism in all aspects of society. I can’t tell you how many other podcasts or books or songs or documentaries I’ve sought out because of this podcast. Sometimes I even listen to an episode twice to really absorb what I’m learning.

Judge John Hodgman

Low-stakes (as in mostly silly but always interesting) cases are brought before Judge John Hodgman and he decides the outcome. This is a podcast that I also always listen to at the gym (like Depresh Mode Mondays, I have JJHO Wednesdays) and figure I look like a real goofball as I grin to myself over the litigants and their always-entertaining cases.

TV SHOWS

Dark (Netflix)

Literally the best show I have ever watched. This is a German show and if you are able to read subtitles, I recommended you play the show in German and read along. The dubbed version wasn’t working for us. This absolutely brilliant show about time travel is extremely complex. The first time through, Matthew and I had to stop a million times to untangle what we understood to be happening. It is SO well done and perfectly crafted. I marvel at the amazing storytelling. WATCH THIS SHOW.

The Repair Shop (Netflix)

I’ll be honest, the pitch of “people repair some old things” didn’t really grab my interest, but a few of my closest friends were super into this, so I gave it a try. And became obsessed. Do you like cozy things? This is cozy. These charming British artisans, who are absolutely masters in their fields, repair well-loved items. It’s fascinating to watch them work and rather mind-boggling what they can do.

The Baby-Sitters Club (Netflix)

I am a lifelong BSC superfan. This new series is so great. It’s so comforting to watch this stories I know so well and see them given a modern update. I cried multiple times on my first viewing. I’ve now watched the series three times (which my teenage son makes fun of me about, but whatever, he’s watched many of the episodes with me). Love these girls, their friendship, and their lasting appeal.

What We Do in the Shadows (Hulu)

Three vampires who’ve been together hundreds of years, an energy vampire, and a vampire assistant (oh, poor Guillermo) live together in modern-day New York. I am an easy one to make cry (I mean, obviously, I’ve mentioned it like thirty times already) but hard to make laugh. We often have to pause this show because we’re laughing too hard. Super weird and super hilarious.

Living Single (Hulu)

Loved this series when it first ran and recently rewatched the whole thing. Such great actors, great writing, and great humor. Unlike Friends, which I also loved, this actually holds up well all these years later. And did you know that the fabulous Erika Alexander has a podcast, too? It’s called Reparations: The Big Payback. Check it out!

Book Review: Radio Silence by Alice Oseman

Publisher’s description

radioFrom critically acclaimed author Alice Oseman comes a smartly crafted contemporary YA novel, perfect for readers who love Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl. This is an utterly captivating and authentic new teen novel from the author of Solitaire, which VOYA said “could put her among the great young adult fiction authors.”

Frances Janvier spends most of her time studying.

Everyone knows Aled Last as that quiet boy who gets straight As.

You probably think that they are going to fall in love or something. Since he is a boy and she is a girl.

They don’t. They make a podcast.

In a world determined to shut them up, knock them down, and set them on a cookie cutter life path, Frances and Aled struggle to find their voices over the course of one life-changing year. Will they have the courage to show everyone who they really are? Or will they be met with radio silence?

 

Amanda’s thoughts

I’ll be honest: it took me a while to get into this story. I spent a few days picking it up and finding my mind wandering, so putting it down and working on something else instead. BUT, once I got roped in, I got ROPED IN. I wouldn’t necessarily call this a mystery, but it has elements of a mystery, and that’s what propelled me forward.

 

The summary up there doesn’t do the best job of making this sound appealing (although, yes please to more books about main character best friends who seem like they might fall in love but don’t, and yes please to stories about podcasts). It’s not just that Aled and Frances make a podcast together (think Welcome to Night Vale)—it’s that they make a VERY popular podcast, with a large fandom, and, as creators, stay shrouded in mystery for a long time. The premise of their podcast (which Aled starts and Frances joins eventually) is a student is sending out SOS messages from a futuristic university that they’re trapped inside of. The student goes by Radio Silence and is agender. The podcast grows in popularity, but when word gets out who is behind it, things really begin to fall apart quickly. Aled and Frances have an argument and drift apart (or rather, Aled bails on Frances and refuses to answer her calls etc). It becomes clear that something very troublesome is going on with Aled, and while Frances desperately wants to do SOMETHING to help him, she doesn’t know what to do. Until she does.

 

The small ensemble of characters feature a diversity of sexual identities, including gay, bi, lesbian, and demisexual. Frances is white and Ethiopian, Daniel is Korean, and Raine is Indian. There is also a lot of room for choices, or for rethinking choices, regarding what to do after school ends—namely, there are more options than just going to university and more options than just doing the thing you thought you were supposed to work toward. The story is about the podcast, but it’s also not. It’s about people desperately in need of friends. It’s about identities, desires, plans, expectations, and feeling lost. Frances and friends will easily appeal to teen readers who are also grappling with all these same feelings. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss

ISBN-13: 9780062335715

Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers

Publication date: 03/28/2017