17 Authors, 18 Books: The Ambitious Kid Lit Collaboration That Created 'Mrs. Z's Class'

Author Kate Messner describes the process of getting 17 authors together for the ultimate creative collaboration in the new series, "The Kids in Mrs. Z's Class." There is also a complementary teaching and discussion guide with a character writing workshop so students can follow the same process the authors did.

The Kids in Mrs. Z’s Class began with an invitation to play. In July 2022, I was in the car with my husband and daughter when an email arrived with the subject line “Idea for Kate Messner.” It was from Cheryl Klein, the editorial director at Algonquin Books for Young Readers, sharing a proposal for a new multi-author series about all the kids in one elementary school classroom.

The concept was wildly ambitious. Eighteen kids in the class. Eighteen books published over three years, with a different beloved author writing each book and me taking on the first and last titles. Would I be interested in heading up the series? Beyond writing the two books, I would need to build a team of authors and work collaboratively with them to create the world in which we’d all be writing.

I’d grown quiet on the car ride, so my daughter peeked over my shoulder to see what I was reading. I explained the concept. “That sounds like so much fun!” she said. My husband followed up with, “That sounds like so much work!” (Spoiler: They were both right.)

I was intrigued but had questions, so a couple of weeks later Cheryl and I met for lunch in New York. She noted that our project would be different from multi-author series that had been published in the past and acknowledged that some elements would, indeed, be a logistical nightmare. How would we make sure characters’ personalities and voices were consistent from book to book? Would authors be writing the same scenes from varied points of view, or would they be assigned different months of the school year to explore? There was a lot to figure out. But the more Cheryl and I talked and problem-solved, the more the project took shape, and the more excited we became.

Our next step was brainstorming authors to join the series. We needed talented, funny writers who could capture a third grader’s voice—that was a given. And because of the unprecedented level of collaboration involved, we knew our authors also had to be kind, flexible team players who would honor one another’s visions throughout the process. So we came up with a wish list and started sending out invitations. We expected it might take a while to get our team together, especially since we had our sights set on some of the most popular authors writing for kids today. But we were wrong. Almost everyone we invited said yes. Our final team includes William Alexander, Tracey Baptiste, Martha Brockenbrough, Lamar Giles, Karina Yan Glaser, Mike Jung, Hena Khan, Rajani LaRocca, Christine Day, Kyle Lukoff, Kekla Magoon, Meg Medina, Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich, Eliot Schrefer, Laurel Snyder, and Linda Urban.

Before any of us could begin writing, we needed to create the common world in which our stories would

Peppermint Falls

be set. All of our kids would be in the same third grade class in a fictional town called Peppermint Falls. As series coordinator, I worked with the team to build that community.

Each author was assigned two weeks of the school year and given a calendar of events and curriculum topics that might happen within their time frame. Since Rajani LaRocca and I were writing the first two books, we kicked off the planning with a marathon coffee date in Cambridge, MA, during which we brainstormed everything from overlapping themes in our first two books to the name of the class guinea pig, Honey.

We held Zoom meetings with the full team to build connections among our stories and followed up with countless Slack conversations, phone calls, and emails. It was like playing with friends in the sandbox; we tossed around ideas about everything from the school’s floor plan to the businesses on Main Street. William Alexander and Mike Jung had decided that their characters, Memo and Theo, loved dragons and role-playing games, so they requested a comics and game store called Doomscroll. There’s an old theater supply store for Meg Medina’s Carlota and Laurel Snyder’s Ruthie, both of whom enjoy the spotlight. Peppermint Falls also has places of worship, bike paths, and a park with a small lake. I drew a rough map, and we sketched in all those sites, along with the school and the kids’ neighborhoods. That map became part of our series bible.

The series bible also included a floor plan for our new school, Curiosity Academy; seating charts for the classroom and lunchroom, a school calendar, a staff directory, and the weekly specials schedule for Mrs. Z’s class. We had a “Things We Know for Sure” document that outlined our schedule for deadlines and publication, as well as the common structure for our books—12 short chapters with lively illustrations by Kat Fajardo and “Daily Scribble” writing assignments, in which students respond in their notebooks to a prompt from Mrs. Z. Authors whose books include a plot thread with school personnel helped to develop those characters. The first book of the series, Emma McKenna, Full Out, introduces Mrs. Berry, the music teacher, as the kids have their first cacophonous recorder lesson. Kyle Lukoff, a former elementary school librarian whose story involves a damaged library book, will have the most to say about Mr. Bloom, the Curiosity Academy librarian, while Martha Brockenbrough took the liberty of naming Curiosity Academy’s gym teacher, Mr. Planky.

Our unique characters are at the heart of the series bible. Before writing, each author filled out an extensive character worksheet, sharing everything from their character’s name and cultural background to their favorite animal, prized possession, biggest secret, and greatest fear. These worksheets served as each author’s introduction to the secondary characters who would populate their story.

That’s when the collaborative sparks of the series really began to fly. Authors fell in love with one another’s characters. Emails shot back and forth, planning playdates and constructing conflicts. In book six of the series, Kekla Magoon’s Ayana Ndoum Takes the Stage, Mrs. Z’s class is holding a variety show, so she emailed the team to ask what everyone’s character might like to do on stage. (Those who said they’d rather hide behind the curtain were gently nudged to be brave, by both Kekla and Mrs. Z.)

Urban, who wrote Olive Little Gets Crafty (book #7) appreciates the opportunity to collaborate. “It's been fun to ask Martha [Brockenbrough], What do you think Thunder would do in this situation? and use her answer to build a scene that is even more interesting than the one I had initially imagined.”

The ready-made world and secondary characters created some restraints for authors, but many found those limitations to be a plus. “To already have a built-in group of students with likes and dislikes, quirks and rich family backgrounds, made it a joy to fit my character into all of their stories,” says Glaser, who wrote Poppy Song Bakes a Way (book #3).

“One thing that's enjoyable about the collaboration is that you always have a pool of people to reach out to when you need a little jolt of inspiration,” says Magoon. “Even a quick one-line suggestion from another writer can breathe new life and energy into your draft.”

There were ample opportunities for improvisation. “The collaborative, call-and-response, yes-and-ing of this whole process challenged us to make narrative decisions that were also invitations to play,” says Alexander, author of The Legend of Memo Castillo (book #4).

That sense of playfulness became a centerpiece of the series. As authors set to work on their own books, their research recaptured the essence of being eight years old. Some picked up the recorder again (much to the dismay of their partners, who grew tired of hearing wheezy versions of tunes like “Hot Cross Buns”). Many spent time revisiting childhood worries and fears—the small things that feel enormous to third graders. We fell in love with the things our characters love—dragons and hopscotch and capybaras. And we remembered how to play.

“Who doesn’t want to travel back to elementary school as a grown-up, to have a great and understanding teacher, and to fully explore what it means to be a kid figuring out how to live in the world?” asks Brockenbrough.

As we brainstormed, wrote, and laughed together, we realized what a powerful model the series could be for student writing. The series teaching and discussion guide includes a character-writing workshop, with a reproducible version of the same character worksheet the authors used for the series. Many of us have already begun sharing this model of writing with young readers during school visits. I piloted the Mrs. Z’s Class writing workshop with an auditorium full of third graders at Singapore American School in April and watched as 300 students wrote furiously about their imagined characters’ families, favorites, and fears. Their teacher caught up with me later to let me know that many had insisted on writing through recess.

“Writing alone feels impossible sometimes, but contributing one distinct voice to a bigger classroom story seems much easier,” says Snyder, who’s also been sharing the series concept with young writers. “It's something kids understand in such a natural way—that they are each their own individual person, but also part of a bigger story.”

The first two books will be released Tuesday, April 30, with four more to follow in the 2024-2025 school year. As the stories go out into the world, there’s a sense of excitement among the authors—and just a touch of wistfulness, too. For almost two years the kids in Mrs. Z’s class have been our kids. Now they belong to readers.

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