A Soft Place to Land by Janae Marks will be released on September 14, 2021.
By Nawal Qarooni Casiano
There is no doubt that this book feels like, well, a soft place to land.
It is wholesome but not without conflict; heart-warming but not contrived. The story is about a young girl whose parents are struggling to make ends meet, so they move to an apartment complex, where she befriends several kids her age, copes with her parents’ arguments, and learns how to be a good friend. Along the way, there are secrets and parts to teach towards as she tries to save enough money to take piano again.
Some of it actually stemmed from Janae’s own life.
“What Joy goes through was based partly on personal experience,” she said. “My parents got separated and downsized to sell the house, and that adjustment was very tough.”
Janae was raised in New Rochelle, New York, and moved to another part of town where her new home was in an apartment complex like the protagonist’s. It was stressful, moving away from her friends, and “it felt like a huge change that was out of my control.”
These sorts of stories are important for young readers. She hopes that Joy’s story will help kids feel less alone. What happens when you have to make new friends, experience a new type of relationship with neighbors in close proximity to you, and at the same time, you’re just learning how to navigate being young?
There was the fear, after the success of Janae’s first book, From the Desk of Zoe Washington, that she couldn’t stray away from social justice content, as that story involves an incarcerated parent and Zoe’s relationship with a father she’s never met. But incidental race books are also important, particularly for our young kids of color, to see themselves in texts that run the gamut in conflicts more connected to community and kindness than anything else.
“I wanted a story that is not about race, but a contemporary story that is just about her life,” Janae said. “The community aspect was important to me; that’s why the neighbors in the building are generally pretty nice.” We laughed, and I implored her to write from each of the character’s perspectives throughout the apartment building.
In the novel, Joy learns how to deal with conflicts with her friends. There are secrets and notes being passed back and forth, and a darling dog-walking business, but at the same time, real concerns. She worries that her parents might divorce, but she focuses on protecting her little sister’s feelings and thinks more about responsibility and collective care.
Those important and wholesome themes run throughout the book, and Janae feels them deeply. A lover of Baby-Sitters Club books and the Nancy Drew series, as a young girl, she was always a reader, and always enjoyed creative writing for fun. To hear her tell it, it wasn’t until she was older when she realized that people of color were not represented in the books she read, because her friends were diverse and her parents ensured she appreciated Black culture, arming her with Maya Angelou and Terri McMillian books. She remembers submitting a piece to Seventeen magazine when she was a teen, though her writing wasn’t accepted.
Janae’s message to young readers and writers? Read and write a lot. Write from research on what you’re curious about, like she did with her first novel; write also about personal things.
“You learn so much about storytelling from reading. Write whatever is fun for you. Write fan fiction. Put together books,” she said. “Don’t put a lot of pressure on yourself.”
But perhaps more than anything, what Janae said last rings true: “Be proud of your stories. They matter.”
Janae Marks is the critically acclaimed author of middle grade novels From the Desk of Zoe Washington and A Soft Place to Land. She has an MFA in Writing for Children from The New School, and lives in Connecticut with her husband, daughter and miniature schnauzer, Cookie. Find Janae online at www.janaemarks.com.
Nawal Qarooni Casiano is an educator, literacy coach and writer who supports dozens of schools in a holistic approach to literacy instruction. The proud daughter of immigrants, mothering four young multiethnic kids very much shapes the way she understands education. She is a former newspaper reporter and is a contributing writer for We Need Diverse Books in addition to the teaching blogs Choice Literacy and Two Writing Teachers. You can find her reading aloud to her kids, biking around Chicago’s Logan Square, or on Twitter @NQCLiteracy. Learn more about her work at NQCLiteracy.com.