When Sheila M Averbuch went looking for inspiration, she found it in the unputdownable, seamless puzzles of Rebecca Stead's fiction.

I’ve always written middle grade stories, driven by the longing to re-create the feeling I had as a young person when reading The Chalet School and Anne of Green Gables. But I discovered, immediately upon joining SCBWI, that the most important thing for my development as a writer wasn’t the past, but the present. Yesterday’s writers were my first influences, but I’d need to re-educate myself with a whole new set of fiction if I was to have a hope of writing a book that young readers now want to read.

So began the search that led me to Rebecca Stead, who won the Newbery Medal in 2010 for her incredible book, When You Reach Me. I remember I’d had a devil of a time trying to find middle grade science fiction, and I kept coming across this book as being highly recommended.
When You Reach Me brilliantly treads the line between a realistic story and sci-fi, the kind of story I love most. The book is set in 1970s New York City and centres on Miranda, a girl who’s been receiving notes from someone who claims to know the future. Things become terrifying when those predictions start to come true, down to the letter, and Miranda learns her best friend’s life is in danger.
The book has become a favourite in our house: my daughter has read it seven times. It predates Robin Stevens’s fantastic Murder Most Unladylike series but cultivates that same sense of exploration in the reader: the urge to puzzle out what’s going on, against true background peril.

The voice of When You Reach Me is honest, spare, and beautifully American, if I can use that term. I was raised in Massachusetts, spent over a decade of early adulthood in Ireland and am now nearly 20 years living in Scotland. Yes, that makes me over 50, which is why seeing the retro sketch of 1970s America was particularly satisfying for me.

But also, Stead gave me the confidence that it’s okay to dig deep into my memories and mine them for the sentiments and fears of my own middle grade years, in order to write fiction that really speaks to readers aged 10, 11 and 12.

If you haven’t explored Stead’s body of work, I also highly recommend Liar and Spy as well as Goodbye, Stranger. The former won the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize 2013 and Goodbye Stranger, a New York Times bestseller, is told, innovatively, in three voices, one of which is an unknown narrator who uses the second-person point of view.

The art and craft of seamless plotting

David Baboulene, in his writer’s craft book The Story Book, explains how the best writers manipulate subtext to deliver a satisfying experience for the reader. Stead is a master of this, concealing important facts and revealing them only when she’s ready – like the identity of that unknown narrator. This has the effect of delivering the perfect aha moment for readers as the story finally reveals its full shape.

Other writers also do this brilliantly – Louis Sachar in Holes, Elizabeth Wein in Code Name Verity, E. Lockhart in We Were Liars. They and Stead all write books that make you want to flip back to page one as soon as you’re done, just to admire the invisible stiches of their seamless stories.

My debut novel, Friend Me, which debuts in the US in November with Scholastic Press, is a middle grade thriller that’s been hugely influenced by this slow-reveal aspect of Stead’s work. Friend Me has unexpected twists, and Stead not only inspired me in this regard, but also in a sense gave me permission to try this in my writing: take readers on a puzzle-solving journey and conceal the solution until the last possible moment.

When a writer can set that atmosphere for the reader -- signalling that there’s a puzzle here to be solved and posing the silent challenge, “can you figure it out?” - then reading becomes intensely active and engaging.

Each chapter of When You Reach Me, for example, is based around a category from the long-running US quiz show, The $20,000 Pyramid. On the show, where Miranda’s mother has applied to take part, contestants pair up: one gives the other clues about a list of things, and the other must correctly guess their category (“grass” “avocados” “Ireland” may be the clues, for example, and the correct category may be “green things.”) Chapter 1 of the story is titled “Things you keep in a box,” and we’re off. The engaged reader switches immediately onto the story as they’re challenged to guess how that category relates to the content of the chapter.

What’s the effect of that active engagement? For me, as a reader, it causes the story to stay swirling in my mind even after I’ve closed the book and switched out the light. It can also create great momentum as the story moves on, making it impossible to switch off until I read just one more chapter.

It’s this – a can’t-put-it-down quality – that I think we need to aim for most of all, to turn our young readers into life-long lovers of books.

Sheila M. Averbuch writes middle grade fiction and was first winner of The Hook, SCBWI’s national live pitching competition in the UK. Her debut novel Friend Me will be published by Scholastic Press in the US in November 2020. Learn more at Goodreads at or on Instagram at @sheilamaverbuch

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