A LOCAL AUTHOR CHRONICLES MIDDLE GRADE By Sara Courtney
Melanie Conklin revisits the wonder years
When South Orange author Melanie Conklin sits down to write, she does so surrounded by post-it notes, cut-outs, doodles, project notebooks – and rocks. Yes, that’s right. Rocks. “Everywhere I go I collect rocks,” she says. “I find it so fascinating how there’s just so much to endlessly look at on the earth.”
A southern transplant from North Carolina who has made her roots right here in South Orange, Conklin is a friendly, earthy writer with an appreciation for the world around her and the stories that deserve to be told. In her recently-published third book, A Perfect Mistake, Conklin tells the story of a boy named Max, a tall, self-conscious kid with ADHD who is navigating the mysteries and hardships of middle school, all while suddenly facing up to his role in a troubled situation. A poignant portrayal of that time when one is on the precipice of leaving their childhood and entering young adulthood, A Perfect Mistake is a special story that readers, young and old alike, will cherish.
Conklin’s background, while always creative, did not start out in writing. She studied industrial product design, creating and designing various items such as forks for consumers to use in their homes. It’s a background that has well served her writing. “I spent a lot of time working on kitchen and office products, but basically my job was to understand how people live and what their needs are in their lives,” she explains. “That not only taught me the creative process, which is invaluable, but also really taught me to identify needs in consumers, and I think I still do that when I’m writing.”
Conklin’s history of studying what products are available to consumers, and then suggesting where there are gaps for products to make it to the shelf is a process she employs to this day by identifying which stories are undertold and deserve to be read by an audience. “I tend to be attracted to write in those areas,” says Conklin. “I generally think of myself as a consumer advocate. And now I’m like a human advocate. I’m an advocate for young people now.”
When her own children, now 13 and 16, were little, Conklin balanced a heavy work schedule that included travel every other week to Chicago from their home in Brooklyn, a hectic pace that she ultimately decided to abandon. “It kind of reached a point where either I was going to continue to have a nanny and travel extensively and spend a lot of time in Asia,” she recalls, “or I’d step back and spend time with my kids while they were little. And I really wanted to do that.” With that decision, she and her family moved to New Jersey, after identifying South Orange as the leafy suburb reminiscent of her own childhood home in North Carolina.
Her writing first came about as a way to keep busy during her children’s naptimes, when she often found her creative energy needed an outlet. “I was used to problem solving and using my brain muscles everyday,” she says. So when an idea for a story came about, she set about writing it herself, on a daily schedule, until she had accumulated so many pages that she finally told her husband, “I think I’m writing a book.” And although that first story was never published, it started her on her journey to becoming an author.
Her debut book, Counting Thyme, is a story of an 11-year-old girl and her family struggling with a move to New York for their son’s cancer treatments. Published in 2016, it announced a strong new voice in children’s books, with the captivating story being recognized with several children’s literature awards.
A few years later, in May of 2020, her second book, Every Missing Piece, was published. Coming out at the height of the pandemic, when the world was still wiping down mail and thus sending out advance copies of books was not an option, Conklin got creative with promotion. She and several other authors organized the Everywhere Book Fest, a virtual event that took eight weeks of planning and became a resounding success, not only for the books it promoted, but for the commitment to diversity and inclusion that it was determined to exhibit.
Conklin writes in the middle grade category, which tends to be characterized by a protagonist that is somewhere between the ages of 10 and 13 years old. Readers in upper elementary and middle school flock to these stories. It’s a vivid time in children’s lives, and presents a wide range of themes for adults to revisit and young readers to explore. “The hallmark of middle grade is the specific way that you explore themes,” Conklin explains. “You might be exploring very mature themes but you present them in an age-appropriate way that is accessible for kids that age and allows them to safely explore these themes as they explore the world.”
A common thread in her stories is a focus on families facing difficult circumstances. “I like showing families going through tough times, and how they get through it,” she says. “That’s something we all experience. My family is very ride or die. I tend to write families who really have each others’ backs, or even if they don’t, they find their way back to each other.”
With her most recent book, local readers may sense a familiarity with the tight-knit community in the story. “For A Perfect Mistake, I knew early on that I wanted to set it in a place like these towns, because this area has a very close knit community, and there are both positives and negatives to that.” Conklin explores the way neighbors are there for each other in tough times, as well as the pressure to behave a certain way when everyone knows you. “You have both sides when you have a close community and I really explored that with A Perfect Mistake,” she says, adding, “I’m interested to see what my neighbors think.”
The values of Maplewood and South Orange heavily influenced Conklin’s determination to write and promote stories that reflect the diversity of the world around her. “Definitely these towns have reinforced my desire to write as responsibly and as inclusively as possible,” she says, noting that historically, there has not been much diversity in children’s literature. “It’s a responsibility all children’s authors have – to show the world accurately to children and give them the opportunity to learn about other people. That is definitely something that is influenced by this town.” And it helps that South Orange and Maplewood are havens for literature hounds, with Maplewood’s busy Words bookstore that Conklin partners with for all her local events.
A Perfect Mistake is a particularly personal story for Conklin. Both her husband and her son have ADHD, and she was all too familiar with navigating the school systems and life in general alongside people with ADHD, noting that she grew to really understand “how different their experience is, and how challenging it can be to navigate a world that expects you to all think and act the same one way.”
It’s an unfortunate fact that individuals with ADHD receive more negative feedback than positive feedback at school, which can often manifest itself in working extra hard to avoid messing up or making mistakes. “In this story, that’s kind of the whole root of it,” she says. “Here is a kid who because of the way his brain works, he is very sensitive to the idea of messing up or making a mistake. And then maybe he makes a really big one. And then what happens?” The protagonist, Max, can’t remember what happens the night he was in the woods with his friends, when one of them was injured severely enough to be hospitalized. Forced to reckon with the truth, the mystery of what occurred unfolds as Max becomes determined to take responsibility for his mistake. It is a coming of age story that readers of all ages can relate to – that realization that “none of us are going to make perfect choices our whole lives,” says Conklin, adding “That’s normal. And there are ways to make amends when those moments happen.”
It’s a moving story of an often poignant, confusing time in everyone’s lives. Conklin, who describes herself as having been a shy and anxious kid, loves to revisit those days with her characters. “There is something unique about that time,” she says. “You are starting to grow up. The veil on reality is just starting to be pulled back. You’ve been in this cocoon of childhood where you don’t even have to contemplate things going on in the world, you can just rely on your parents, your view can remain very small and just focused on yourself. But as you get older, that veil gets pulled back… I think that’s what I am fascinated with – that moment of life when your world expands. Because then you have to decide what your place is in it.”
For literature lovers both local and far away, Conklin’s middle grade stories are a heartfelt reminder of those special wonder years, when “there’s a mix of wonder and innocence but then also truth and reality starting to come in,” says Conklin. It’s that magical time in everyone’s childhood when life is both awkward and carefree, and the world is just starting to expand into the great unknown.
Sara Courtney is a writer living in Maplewood. She wore braces all through junior high and high school.