THEY CHANGED THE TITLE OF YOUR BOOK? by Chris Baron

Wherein I get to share the newly changed title of my new MG novel in verse and a whole lot more I learned along the way…

At first, my plan was to simply share the new title for Made of Clay,  my next Middle Grade novel in verse, coming out from Feiwel and Friends in 2021. A story of magic and friendship set against the backdrop of the 1989 San Francisco earthquake in a town of refugees who came to America via Angel Island, the book is about a boy who is selectively mute and a girl who won’t leave her house because of a skin condition, and the magical Jewish clay that allows them to help each other.

I can’t wait to share the new title, but first, I thought it might be fun to explore the process of how and why titles change at all.

Have you ever heard of these Middle Grade books?

  • Rules for Cakes
  • The Wild Side
  • Clivo Wren and the Fall of the Phoenix
  • The Flannels
  • Brilliant Lights
  • Living Pictures
  • Good Girls*
  • Orchard Fruit (technically not MG)

Probably not, and it might surprise you that these are the original titles of some of our favorite Middle Grade books! (Try to guess! I will reveal soon.) Sometimes titles don’t change, but in this case they did–and that’s how it is for so many books!

Last year during many of my school visits talking about ALL OF ME, one of the main questions I got from young readers-almost every time-had to do with titles.  They were so interested and sometimes mind-boggled that the original title of a work could change at all. Usually, when I tell them that the original title for All of Me was Weight, and before that, Heavy Water (a very science-y title), students want to know all the details of how things changed, and was I sad? Mad? Confused? This usually leads to a very engaging, much broader and riskier (in terms of generating one million other questions) conversation about publishing overall. It’s fun to talk about writing as a process rather than just a finished product.  These have been some of the best conversations with readers and educators.  They usually ask if this happens to a lot of books.  I wanted to know more…

I asked my literary agent, Rena Rossner, who has seen this process so many times. She said:

It’s actually pretty rare in my experience that an author keeps their original title. Often, as an agent, I suggest a title change to an author before we even go out on submission, and even that title often doesn’t stick! One of the best things about being published by a traditional publishing house is that you have a whole team working on your book, and together that team knows a lot that we don’t and has a ton of collective experience. They think about the market, about other titles out there, about cover design, about your book’s audience, so many things go into choosing the right title for a book – and very often I’ve seen that the title often comes from an unexpected place! Sometimes authors (and agents) make lists upon lists of possible titles and send them over to their editor, and the title ends up being something completely different! Besides your cover, your title is perhaps one of the most important aspects of your book – so you want to make sure that it hits all the right notes.

I knew that some authors had similar experiences in terms of title changes, and when I asked the amazing author community on Twitter, I was stunned by the response. It turns out that for many authors, title changes are just part of the process as well. Most authors agree that this question of titles was a favorite during class visits. So many authors experience this!

So were you able to guess what these titles eventually became? Here they are again:

  • Rules for Cakes
  • The Wild Side
  • Clivo Wren and the Fall of the Phoenix
  • The Flannels
  • Brilliant Lights
  • Good Girls*
  • Living Pictures
  • Orchard Fruit

Okay, here we go!

Brilliant Lights is the original title of Dusti Bowling’s incomparable Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus! According to Bowling, “All of my book titles have been changed so far except one. It’s tough, but I know sales and marketing are a lot better at sales and marketing than I am :)”

The Wild Side? Is debut author, Tanya Guerreros’s wonderful debut,  How to Make Friends with the Sea!

Clivo Wren and the Fall of the Phoenix eventually became, no, not Star Wars, it’s Lija Fisher’s fantastic tale, The Cryptid Catcher.

Wendy McLeod MacKnight’s book, The Frame-up was originally Living Pictures. According to her, “In the end, I realized that HarperCollins might know a bit more about titles than little old me…”

The Flannels was the original title of Kit Rosewater’s awesome new series Derby Daredevils!

Good Girls is a bit of a trick question since it’s Paula Chase’s next book  due out in September and its new title will be, Turning Point.  I asked Paula what she thought about this. She said, “At the time I was sad because I’d had a successful 7 title streak going. But I love the new title!”

And Orchard Fruit?  That was the one and only Rena Rossner’s captivating book, The Sisters Of the Winter Wood.

Rena says, “When Chris and I were talking about it, I remember telling him how my book got its title – I had sent so many lists of possible titles when I went through the process of having to re-title my book, and when my editor sent me the title THE SISTERS OF THE WINTER WOOD, at first, I didn’t really like it. It was so different from what I had originally called the book, and really evocative, but it took awhile for the title to grow on me. I had wanted to call my book ORCHARD FRUIT – and now I look back at that title like, “What was I thinking?” My book grew into its title and the title grew on me and now I can’t imagine it ever being called anything else (same with my next book! But that’s a story for another day…)”

For the most part, these authors and many others are happy with the title changes.   I really like how Lee Edward Fodi, author of The Secret of Zoone, and many other books, puts it: “I tend to just give my ideas a project name–sometimes that name becomes the official title, but not always.” This is a helpful way to think about titles.

I asked my own wonderful editor, Liz Szabla, Associate Publisher at Feiwel and Friends, her perspective on this, and if she had any thoughts that might be helpful.  I appreciate her generous response:

Editors and the teams we work with — sales, marketing, and publicity — may ask to change a title because it’s too specific or too obtuse or too young/old for the audience, or, dare I say, mundane. If our sales team asks me to come up with a new title, I trust there’s a good reason; they know the market and what’s selling (and what’s not). I want your book to sell, and I want the team selling it to feel confident about the whole package — the cover, the title, and of course, the content. Every new title I’ve ever come up with has a reason for being, and there isn’t one I regret. I’m sure it’s difficult to let go of a title you’ve lived with from the start, but if your editor suggests a change, please keep an open mind.

Liz is such an incredible editor to work with, so when we started talking about changing the title of Made of Clay to something that better captures the spirit of the book for a wider audience, it was an intense and collaborative process—getting help from everyone from my family to my incredible literary agent, Rena Rosner, critique partners, author friends, and finally with the publishing team.

I had to get out the big book of titles…

What kind of title might do this?   Like many books, the original title, Made of Clay was already challenging to find and captured a lot of the spirit of the book. The idea of “what are we made of?” is one of the central themes of the story. But this book is also about magic, earthquakes, immigrants, and the mysterious and healing power of unexpected friendship, so when the title change happened, while it seemed so different from the original, we agreed it is a perfect fit!

Before I get to revealing the new title, I forgot to mention one other favorite Middle Grade book title from my list above, Rules for Cakes?  This was the original title of the one and only Remy Lai’s award winning book, Pie In The Sky! It’s one of our family favorites! And we can’t wait to read Fly On The Wall and everything else from Remy! 

Remy and I became friends in our debut year together, and in the spirit of community, when I reached out to her, she offered to help reveal the new title (NOTE: IT’S NOT THE COVER—but I love it so much) for Made of Clay with an original illustration. I am so excited to reveal the new title of the book—

I loved the original title because for so long it was a thought in my mind, a file on my computer, scrawled on notes everywhere. I like how my literary agent puts it here: “In Chris’ case, while I loved Made Of Clay and really thought it fit the book, I think that the new title The Girl Behind the Door actually appeals to a wider audience and there’s something super mysterious about it – you can almost picture what the cover might be! And in this case, it also really fits the book – just in a completely different way.”

Thanks so much for reading! I am excited to start talking more about The Girl Behind the Door as we steadily move toward Spring 2021! Thank you to all MG Book Village, the incredible Middle Grade Writing Community, and educators and readers everywhere! Everyone stay safe and healthy!

. . .

Addendum!

Thanks MG BOOK VILLAGE everyone for posting and reading this article — and I have a little news to share!

One of things I love most about writing and publishing is that it is a process.  I know that I am going to have lots of fun at school visits and other events talking about the wild and creative journey of titles, writing processes, and everything else!  Even as this article came out, and the new title, The Girl Behind the Door, had been decided, other magic was in the works at my publisher, and together with the amazing team supporting the book, a new title was born:

THE MAGICAL IMPERFECT! 

It is the perfect title for this second book of my heart, and I am so looking forward to sharing it with the world.

Chris Baron is the author of the middle grade novels in verse ALL OF ME (2019) and THE MAGICAL IMPERFECT, (2021) from Feiwel & Friends/Macmillan.  He is a Professor of English at San Diego City College and the director of the Writing Center. Learn more about him at www.chris-baron.com and on Twitter: @baronchrisbaron Instagram: @christhebearbaron.

A DOCTOR, A LAWYER, AND A COLLEGE PROFESSOR…WALK INTO A MIDDLE GRADE DEBUT GROUP: A Conversation with Rajani LaRocca, Josh Levy, and Chris Baron

Josh: I’m so excited about this—for so many reasons, including the reality that this is a conversation the three of us are always having, in one way or another: Why and how three people from such different professional backgrounds now find themselves on this journey together. There’s so much I want to know and share about why and how Rajani and Chris find themselves here. But we should probably begin with the most important thing: Our books. Rajani, wanna start us off?

Rajani: MIDSUMMER’S MAYHEM (out June 4, 2019) is a middle grade mashup of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and competitive baking shows in which eleven-year-old Mimi dreams of winning a celebrity chef-judged baking contest, meets a mysterious boy in the woods, and stirs up all sorts of trouble with her baking. Squabbling sisters, rhyming waitresses, and culinary saboteurs all play a role in the story. In the process of setting things right again, Mimi learns that in life as in baking, not everything can be sweet.

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Chris, what about your upcoming novel? Can you tell us what it’s about?

Chris: Sure, my novel in verse, ALL OF ME (out June 11, 2019), is about middle schooler Ari Rosensweig who just wants to look in the mirror and not see a fat kid. Teased, bullied, and an outsider for most of his life, Ari is a geek who loves cryptozoology and role-playing games. He navigates the confusing worlds of his mother, a self-absorbed artist, and his father, a con man who disappears just as Ari prepares for his already-late Bar Mitzvah.

After a brutal bullying incident before summer break, Ari decides he’s had enough. He’s got to lose the weight before high school starts. With the family in turmoil, Ari’s mother moves the two of them out of San Francisco to fix up and open an old gallery at the beach. With the help of a few unexpected friends, Ari starts his quest to reinvent himself no matter what it takes, and when he begins the perfect Diet Revolution, everything changes.

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Josh: Awesome. And as you both know, SEVENTH GRADE VS. THE GALAXY (out March 5, 2019), is a middle grade sci-fi novel about a “public school spaceship” in the future that gets mysteriously attacked and catapulted across the galaxy. Aliens. Lasers. Spacey shenanigans. (The #MGBookVillage was kind enough to run my cover reveal here.)

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Now to the conversation at hand: Why do we write middle grade? I’m particularly interested in your thoughts, Chris, given how personal your story seems: How did you come to middle grade? And how did you come to this story? Then what about you, Rajani? How “close to home” does your story hit? 

Chris: Josh…it is really personal, and I think that is part of why I care so much about writing middle grade. Stories have always been a source of shelter and inspiration for me. I think I have been writing about this story since I started writing at all. Growing up for me was a combination of 1) a fairy-tale childhood growing up in an artist’s family in New York City and all kinds of other places, and 2) struggling with difficult family dynamics and the identity of being a Jewish kid, an overweight kid, constant diets, negative comments and teasing  from family and friends. Honestly—I thought I was really happy—but people kept telling me I wasn’t.

For ALL OF ME, I needed to tell the story of a kid, Ari, who is told that it is wrong to be who he is—that it’s all his fault somehow—and how he works through that in a difficult but positive way. I think so many middle grade kids relate and even connect to feeling like an outsider because of their weight or their religion, their family dynamics, you name it. There are so many rites of passage happening at this age, and I wanted to tell an honest story about how childhood magic, innocence, identity, family challenges, and religion all mix together and what comes out the other side.

One last thing about how I came to this story: My own family. Seeing my own children grow up—their daily wonders, joys, triumphs and tragedies—they really do inspire.

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Chris Baron’s Middle Grade debut, ALL OF ME, a novel in verse from Feiwel & Friends/Macmillan, is coming June 2019. He is a Professor of English at San Diego City College. Baron has published numerous poems and articles in magazines and journals around the country, performed on radio programs, and participated in many readings, lectures, and panels. He grew up in New York City, but he completed his MFA in Poetry in 1998 at SDSU. Baron’s first book of poetry, Under the Broom Tree, was released in 2012 on CityWorks Press as part of Lantern Tree: Four Books of Poems (which won the San Diego Book Award for best poetry anthology). He is represented by the amazing Rena Rossner, from the Deborah Harris Literary Agency.

Rajani: The spark for MIDSUMMER’S MAYHEM came from one of my own childhood memories. My dad didn’t travel much for work, but when he did, he sometimes went away for a week or two. When he returned, I’d sometimes wonder what it would be like if the person who returned wasn’t really him, but an imposter who looked and spoke exactly like him (creepy, right?). I devised some “tests” to make sure it was my dad, and luckily, it always was. When I was brainstorming novel ideas, I wondered what it would be like if a girl noticed something odd about her dad…and she was right.

My husband had an imaginary friend when he was little. He spoke to him, played with him, read stories with him—everything. I started wondering about imaginary friends, and what might happen if someone “imaginary” turned out to be quite real. Given my love for Shakespeare in general and A Midsummer Night’s Dream in particular, the next step wasn’t that big.

And, like Chris, so much of this story was inspired by my own children, about being a young person in a world filled with “experts” (some of whom are related to you), of dreaming big dreams but not knowing whether you have the talent or the brains or the grit to make it. And my children, like Mimi, have sometimes surprised themselves with their own brilliance, and with their big hearts and hours of work and refusal to give up even when all seems lost. I hope MIDSUMMER’S MAYHEM speaks to kids (and adults) who have set lofty goals for themselves and wonder whether they can ever achieve them. Because the payoff is sweeter when the struggle has been hard.

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Rajani LaRocca was born in India, raised in Kentucky, and now lives in the Boston area with her wonderful family and impossibly cute dog. When she’s not writing middle grade novels or picture books, she practices medicine and bakes way too many sweet treats. MIDSUMMER’S MAYHEM is her first novel. You can find her online at www.rajanilarocca.com and on Twitter and Instagram @rajanilarocca.

Josh: First, you are both amazing. You know I think that already (we’re friends IRL, after all). But I can’t say it enough.

In a sense, mine is a lot less personal than either of your stories. I don’t conceive of SEVENTH GRADE VS. THE GALAXY as much of a reflection of my own life. If I had any guiding light in writing it, it was: Make this fun. Make this the kind of thing you would have wanted to read when you were younger (and still do).

That doesn’t mean that it isn’t “personal.” I wrote a book that middle school Josh would have wanted to read. He knew well that feeling of being a lonely kid, huddled up with a story that took me far away. I found escape in all sorts of fantasy/sci-fi as a kid. I consumed every Star Wars novel they gave me and loved every page. And I’m overjoyed at the possibility that SEVENTH GRADE VS. THE GALAXY might bring a few kids some of the same comfort and enjoyment.

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Joshua S. Levy was born and raised in Florida. After teaching middle school (yes, including seventh grade) for a little while, he went to law school. He lives with his wife and daughter in New Jersey, where he practices as a lawyer. Unfortunately, outer space doesn’t come up in court nearly as often as he’d like. Seventh Grade vs. the Galaxy is his first novel. You can find him online at http://www.joshuasimonlevy.com/ and on Twitter @JoshuaSLevy.

Frankly, this whole endeavor is a bit of an escape for me. Like you, I have a professional life that is separate from publishing. There are links between my “writing life” and my “lawyer life,” sure, but they’re not always obvious. And I’d love to know more about the connections in your lives. How is your “doctor life” (Rajani) and your “professor life” (Chris) threaded into your writing life?

Rajani: I wrote a piece for MGBookVillage about the parallels between writing and “doctoring.”

Put aside the years of training, the long hours, the many frustrations, and the need for support in both professions (although honestly, writing involves MUCH more rejection). Ultimately, both writing and the practice of medicine are about people— wonderful, horrible, pathetic, amazing people in all their imperfect glory. Both medicine and writing involve listening to others’ stories, and writing our own. For me, medicine and writing inform and amplify each other. And when one gets to be too much, I get to delve into the other, and it feels like a treat.

Chris: I have the privilege of working at San Diego City College, an urban, extremely diverse, Community College where I teach Creative Writing and direct the writing center. There are many connections between my job and my writing life—especially writing and publishing poetry. In many ways, it was my students who got me to the point of writing ALL OF ME. Every semester, I find my mostly working class students, veterans, transfer-minded students really drawn into narratives that connected and related to their lives, providing escape, but also giving new language to the more difficult aspects of life. Students always tell me they wished they had read books in High School and MIddle School that dealt with more serious issues head on. Every chance I get I try to connect them with books, graphic novels, poems, any story that might speak to them. Working with my students over the years has given me the courage to explore deeper issues in my own work. Not long ago, wrote what I considered to be a “risky” poem called “Heavy Water,” about an overweight boy feeling awkward and alone at the beach while other kids seemed so carefree. I got asked to read it a spoken word event.  It was after the reading, when so many of them shared with me that they wanted to hear a story about a character dealing with these issues, that I had one of the first sparks for ALL OF ME!

So Josh, to be fair, and no complaints, and the work is hard. There is a lot of grading, committees, and the introvert in me struggles sometimes, but my job gives a lot of flexibility and room for creativity. But what about your profession as a lawyer? We have talked about the fact that you do A LOT of writing, but what connections do you make between your legal writing and your creative writing? And if nothing else, how do you find the time?

Josh: Great questions, Chris. I’ll work backwards: First, time. I tend to assume that all of us “day job” writers (as well as all writers, generally) are playing a zero sum game. It’s not that “something’s gotta give.” It’s that at any given moment, something is always giving. Priorities compete with one another. What helps me keep perspective are the positive implications for which I’m so grateful: That I have a good job. That I have a wonderful family. That I’m publishing a novel!

And yeah, while my legal writing and my creative writing efforts are very different, I’m also grateful that I get to spend so much of my time doing something I really, genuinely enjoy, no matter the context: Writing. Working out puzzles of language and argumentation. “Is that the right word?” “Does an em-dash belong here?” “Does this aside serve the narrative?” These are questions I get to ask myself in both worlds.

And you, Rajani? HOW DO YOU DO IT?! How do you balance the demands of your job and the pull of writing—and everything required to facilitate the success of both?

Rajani: Well, I could ask you both the same, right?

I think the real answer is…we all make choices every day about how we want to spend our time, and our priorities show through. For me, family comes first, but my children are older now and although they don’t need me less, they need less of my time, if that makes sense. They’ve got their own goals and projects, and they spend most of their time working on those. But I still treasure our meals together, and spend time planning trips or taking walks with them and just soaking up their presence. I also get more time alone with my husband, who is my biggest support in every part of my life. I also happen to love taking care of my patients, and even on the worst day at work, I feel like I have at least helped a few people.

But with writing…it’s not really a choice anymore for me. Characters and situations keep popping up in my head, and their voices can be really annoying if I don’t write them down! I can definitely get out of rhythm if I don’t work on a particular project (particularly a novel) for a while, but once I go through the exercise of “making” myself work on it, a little bit each day, I eventually get back in the groove.

All of this to say: How do I do it all? I don’t. I struggle and muddle through everything, just like everyone else. I show up and put in the work and try to enjoy the good times, and put my head down and deal with the difficult times. And through it all, I try to hold on to the incredible fact that in the end, I am writing things that will be read and enjoyed by children. Who wouldn’t be inspired by that?