I am beyond excited to finally announce my first book deal! From the notice in Publishers Marketplace:
Science fiction and fantasy writer and media critic K. Tempest Bradford’s [middle grade] RUBY VS. THE ROBO-BUG1, in which an 11-year-old Black girl passionate about entomology finds an alien bug in her backyard and has to rely on her friends, the scientific method, and her instincts to help the alien get home safely, to Grace Kendall at Farrar, Straus Children’s, in a very nice deal, at auction, in a two-book deal, for publication in fall 2022, by Larissa Melo Pienkowski at Jill Grinberg Literary Management (world English).
I’ve been sitting on this news for months as the slow wheels of publishing turned. I’m glad I can finally be public about it because I am so very excited for this book! I didn’t set out to write a middle grade novel or really any novel that wasn’t the one I’ve been working on for ages. How did we end up here? Settle in and I’ll tell you.
It started in February 2019. I was on my annual sojourn down to Florida for the winter visiting with my friend Alethea Kontis. I’d been having a tough time writing the whole time I was there and either right before or right after the day this happened, my entire novel had fallen apart at the seams and I was a bit upset about it. I suggested that the two of us play The Picture Game to get warmed up, and I chose a picture for us that I’d found several months before and really liked.
We each took 15 minutes to write. Alethea read hers and it was super fun. I read her mine, which I thought might be the start of a short story if I continued with it. When I was done, Alethea looked dead at me and said: That’s the first chapter of a middle grade novel. You’d better write it!
I told her I had no time for that nonsense because I was writing a whole different novel and also this was not a novel, maybe a short story, and also I’d never written middle grade and what did I know about that genre, anyway?
Months went by. The writing on the other novel did not recommence. Structure is, apparently, my major weakness when it comes to longer fiction. I would circle back, in my mind, to the story of this little Black girl named Ruby and the weird red bug she found in her yard. I thought through some possible arcs for the (short, dangit, SHORT) story. The more I thought on it, the more Alethea’s statement about it being a novel stuck with me.
Well, middle grade novels are short, right? I thought. 30,000 words. That’s not so bad…
In May I went to WisCon. By that time I had worked out a sketch of the whole plot that I thought might work. One night while chatting with a group of friends about life, the universe, and everything, I ended up going through the entire story arc out loud for the first time and realizing that, yes, this might actually work. Everyone was enthusiastic, but I still made no promises. After all, I’d been trying to write a novel for how long, now?
Then, a voice from the back of the group: “When I was struggling with writing a novel, a friend of mine offered me $100 for every chapter I finished. So I wrote a chapter a week and got my money.” That was the wise and savvy Nisi Shawl.
“Well of course I’d write it if someone gave me $100 per chapter,” I answered, not thinking anyone would do such a thing.
Later that night my friends Steven and Valya, who has been very enthusiastic about the story, came and told me that, while they could not afford to give me $100, they would pay a different amount per chapter. The next day Nisi made a similar same offer. And though I wasn’t necessarily in need of this money, the fact that these awesome people I trust were willing to motivate me in such a manner got me to sit my butt down and write the book.
With my outline in hand I took myself to a cafe almost every day (often in the company of my writing buddies Christine or David) and most days was able to bang out a complete chapter. That first draft went out to my patrons as well and they offered encouraging comments. The more I wrote, the more excited I got about my character and the story and the world.
Very early on I made two key decisions about my protagonist Ruby: 1. She would be a super smart girl into science and specifically into bug science. 2. She would have a family and an upbringing very much like mine with a large, tight-knit, loving, extended family that existed as part of a true neighborhood community where people knew and looked out for each other. The kind of characters and setting I didn’t see much in popular fiction.
The awesome side-effect for me was that I was able to pour so much of what I love in this book. Family and friends and home and unabashed Black joy.
But don’t go thinking that Ruby is essentially me as a kid. First of all, I have no particular love for bugs. And the amount of stuff I had to look up and go GROSSSSSS about is more than I care to remember. (I do have a greater respect for bees, though.) Second, I was much better at getting away with things than Ruby is ;)
Once the first draft was complete at the end of the summer I let it rest for a few weeks. Then I did revisions, got feedback from a few wonderful beta readers, and started the process of crafting my query letter and researching agents.
Once I’d decided I was going to write a middle grade novel I figured I should read some in order to get a sense of the voice, tone, and pacing expected in the genre. I read quite a few great books, many by BIPOC authors. But during the process of finding those and then when looking for comp titles to include in my pitch and query, I noticed that there were very few adventure stories with BIPOC protagonists in middle grade.
Most of the books with melanin were issue books about race, racism, and/or poverty. While these books are important, I kept despairing at the idea that this was the majority of the representation for brown kids at this age. We need issue books 100%. We also need brown kids in all the other kinds of books that exist.
Seeing that trend I began to worry about my own prospects. If editors were only looking for Black pain and not Black joy, would that be a reason for rejecting my book? If I don’t have the appropriate comps, will publishers feel they can’t market the book?
In the end the comps I chose were Ada Twist, Scientist (a picture book) meets Men in Black (a movie/comic series). I sent out query letters and crossed my fingers.
Obviously, this has a happy ending :) Not only did I find an awesome agent who immediately got what I was doing with the book and why it was important, she sent it to multiple editors who also grokked the same things. None of the editors who bid on this book made me uneasy with how they talked about the characters and the themes and the setting. All through this process I’ve been in good hands, which I know I’m lucky to be able to say.
I also know that so much of what has happened in the year and a half since Ruby’s story initially flowed out of me is due to the fact that I am surrounded by an amazing community of friends and fellow creatives who encourage and support me constantly. My friends made me sit down and write this book. My friends helped me polish it. And I’m with my current agency in part because I asked people I trusted who I should have on my query list and a not insignificant number of them pointed me in Jill Grinberg Literary’s direction. When I got my (wonderful, amazing, best) agent my friends cheered louder than I did. Once I was able to tell a handful of them about the book deal way back when it was first made it was hard to tell which of us were joy sobbing more.
Thank you, thank you, thank you to everyone who cheered me on when this news came out and everyone who was in my corner all throughout this process and my whole life in this community. I have the best friends. And I know how blessed I am because of it.
- A working title and slightly different from the draft title: Ruby vs. the Big, Red Bug. [⇧]