Kate McGovern’s own Cambridge-based Indian-Jewish household and her professional experience in education inform her latest children’s book, a middle-grade novel called “Welcome Back, Maple Mehta-Cohen.” McGovern is also the author of the young adult novels, “Rules for 50/50 Chances” and “Fear of Missing Out”, which received starred reviews.
After two novels for teens, the GrubStreet alumna said writing for middle-grade readers — who are often between 8 and 12 years of age — has been a great pleasure for her. In this book, which debuted Oct. 12 from Candlewick, her protagonist, Maple Mehta-Cohen, is a smart and creative fifth-grader who faces challenges with reading. And her efforts to hide it, even from her nearest and dearest, form the basis of the novel. McGovern, who is a Cambridge native, sat down with the Globe to discuss her newest book and the timeliness of the issues it raises as students return to in-person learning.
It feels like the perfect time to read your novel because so many families are dealing with all kinds of back-to-school concerns. Please tell us about the central issue of Maple’s return to school.
Maple is repeating fifth grade. For years, she’s been hiding her struggles with reading, until an observant teacher recognizes what’s going on. Maple is going to get the intervention she needs, but she isn’t happy about it — she’s upset that her friends are moving on without her, and feels frustrated and embarrassed. I think it’s particularly relevant right now, when we have students returning to school after 18 months of remote or interrupted learning. Many of them are going to be having a tough time, whether the challenges are academic, social, or mental-health related.
How did your background working with kids with reading problems influence your choice of subject matter for this novel?
In my early 20s, I took a job working for the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York City. It changed the trajectory of my work life. I was hired to support middle school students who were struggling with reading. After working with students for several years in New York and London, I came home to the Boston area and shifted into education non-profits. All those experiences came together in this book. My former students helped shape Maple. Having a reading disability doesn’t make Maple any less gifted or smart or deserving of success than her classmates who read easily, but it does present real barriers that need to be addressed.
Maple lives in an artistic family of modest means, while some of her friends live much more privileged lives. This comes with a welcome reminder that money doesn’t always bring happiness. Was that intentional on your part?
I wanted Maple and her friends to reflect the socioeconomic spectrum of a city like Cambridge, where students in the same classroom might live in multimillion-dollar homes or public housing. I wanted those differences to be present, without making them the central “issue” of the book.
I felt the same way about Maple being part of a biracial and bicultural family. I wanted mixed kids like my own to be able to open the book and say, “Oh, here’s a family that looks like ours.” It’s in the background, but it isn’t the whole story.
Maple’s friends react to the discovery of her reading struggles in vastly different ways. Can you say a bit about that?
So often when we see kids behaving “badly,” it’s because they’ve got their own stuff going on under the surface. For some of Maple’s friends, she becomes an easy target; focusing on Maple’s struggles is a way to deflect big feelings about their own lives.
Which middle-grade authors have been particularly inspirational to you?
I love “The Vanderbeekers” series by Karina Yan Glaser. Reading Meg Medina is like taking a masterclass. Erin Entrada Kelly, Kelly Yang, Mariama J. Lockington, and Roshani Chokshi are other favorites, to name a few. I’m inspired by how many different experiences and voices are represented in middle-grade fiction these days. As readers, our children have a very bright future to look forward to.
McGovern will discuss “Welcome Back, Maple Mehta-Cohen” virtually with Porter Square Books on Oct. 27 at 7 p.m. On Nov. 9 at 6 p.m., she will bring Maple to the Cambridge Public Library’s Parent/Child Book Club.
Betsy Groban is a columnist for Publishers Weekly Children’s Bookshelf and has worked in book publishing, public broadcasting, and arts advocacy.