Finding a good book for your middle-grade reader can be difficult, as parents often worry about content and themes that may be too mature for their child. Yet debut author Jake Gerhardt’s Me & Miranda Mullaly may be just the answer to a parent’s literary search. The novel tells the story of three eighth graders and their quest to win the title character’s heart.

Told from the main characters’ different perspectives, Me & Miranda Mullaly is a comedy of errors meets coming-of-age story that will resonate with middle-grade readers who are wending their way through the tricky waters of school plays, basketball games, and first loves. The Los Angeles-based author, a husband and father of two young girls who has worked as a teacher since graduating from West Chester University, talks about his experience and his inspiration for his debut novel, recommended for ages 10 and up.
How did you get into writing?
I started writing fiction late in life, at least compared to writers who started at the tender age of 2 ½ weeks. And most of what I wrote in high school and college were horrible, pretentious short stories, basically me copying the inimitable style of Robert Penn Warren and other greats.

I started writing in this genre more recently. I was writing short pieces reminiscing on my childhood, often based on stories I would occasionally tell to my students. It took a few years to really understand exactly how to write for this age group. The most important thing was getting the old man (yes, me!) out of the stories and have the stories driven by the young protagonists, experiencing life in the moment.
Why did you choose the middle grades to write about?
I really loved middle school. It’s such a wonderful transition for so many kids (not all, of course) where everything is new. I was also teaching girls who were living in a group home in Hollywood. My students had what I referred to as gaps in their education, to no fault of their own. In order to help the girls enjoy reading (an important part of developing a love for reading), I was always on the lookout for humorous books that they could read quickly and enjoy. They were often interested in what I was writing (the short pieces mentioned above) and I decided this was the genre in which I would write. At the time I was writing screenplays, and made the switch [to a novel] about four years ago.
What did you read when you were the characters’ age?
When I was in seventh grade, a classmate, Shari, and I read all of Paula Danziger’s books. Because I was sort of like a jock and a guy’s guy, we used to pass around the books almost like contraband. She knew I probably didn’t want my friends to know what I was reading. We did the same thing with Judy Blume books and other more female-driven books. We had a little informal, underground reading group, which I always look back on fondly.

In the eighth grade, I started reading Stephen King and my days of young adult and middle grade reading were over until I became a teacher after college.
What ages are your kids and what do they read?
My daughters are 4 and 6. Frida, the eldest, wants to read every Nancy Drew book and she loves to have my wife and me read to her. Ada is very into Ivy and Bean, at the moment. Believe it or not, I have read passages from The Remains of the Day to her. I also have read to her Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One when she was younger, and last year read Annie Dillard’s American Childhood. My wife thinks I’m nuts to read those books to her, but sometimes I want to read something beautiful to her. And since I often write at night, reading a chapter from a great writer is certainly inspiring.

 
Did you have specific friends and crushes in mind when you wrote it?
Like many boys, I was falling in love weekly, if not daily or hourly. There were too many to point at an exact instance. I was actually in The Pajama Game in the eighth grade [the author grew up in Cheltenham, PA and attended Elkins Park Middle School], but that was because I was cut from the basketball team.
Was it hard to write from both a boy’s and a girl’s point of view?
I think it was probably a lot harder than I’m willing to admit. At the time I was writing the book, I taught at an all-girls high school. I also have four sisters and my mother, who are very strong women. Add to the mix my fetching wife and two daughters, and I may have a skewed view of the fairer sex.
It seems most male authors in that age range are sci-fi writers: What made you choose a relationship story to write about?
I don’t think of Me and Miranda Mullaly as a relationship story as much as a story about growing up. They all make mistakes along the way, which is the natural course for most young boys. And falling in love is a big part of growing up. The next book, we will find out if [Me and Miranda Mullaly characters] Chollie, Sam, and Duke can keep relationships going.
Is there a message you’re hoping readers take away?
I hope this book helps kids who make mistakes while traveling through middle school. I guess I should say every kid who makes mistakes, because we all do. I hope that another message is that middle school is fun, even when you’re struggling to make sense of it all.

Published by Penguin Random House Penguin Young Readers, Me & Miranda Mullaly is available directly from Penguin and Amazon.com. More about Gerhardt, including pics of him in The Pajama Game and other eighth-grade clubs, can be found on his website, jakegerhardt.com.