The Big Idea: Joshua S. Levy
For Eighth Grade Vs. The Machines, middle grade author Joshua Levy decided that there was a certain concept that he wanted to put at the core of his middle-school-in-space tale. Was it action? Adventure? Laser Hamsters? (Also, how cool would laser hamsters be?) No, something even more fundamental than that, from which those other concepts could flow. Here’s Levy to tell you what it is.
JOSHUA S. LEVY:
Is that a “big idea”? Fun? It’s certainly what drove me most as a kid reader. (Still does as a grown-up, here and there.) And, from the beginning, it’s been the guiding light for my wacky middle grade sci-fi series, starting with Seventh Grade Vs. The Galaxy (first published in 2019; paperback out now) and continuing in its sequel, Eighth Grade Vs. The Machines.
When I first got the nugget of the idea that would morph into these books, I was a flailing middle school teacher. (By far the most difficult job I’ve ever had.) I was presiding over a mock social studies debate relating to the “classroom community.” I can’t quite remember the topic. Something like: “For and against hand raising.” Or maybe: “What is the best color of whiteboard marker?” But I do remember how it felt—hilarious. The room was bursting with rowdy, funny, creative, frenetic energy. (This is possibly why I didn’t make the best middle school teacher.) And the aspiring writer in me thought: this. My book needs to feel like this.
So I took a bunch of (fictional) rowdy, funny, creative, frenetic middle school kids and threw them onboard a “public school spaceship” in the future. (The PSS 118. Ganymede District. Unfortunately, not the most well-funded PSS in the solar system.)
Like any school, the PSS 118 has classrooms (head aft from the command bridge, can’t miss ‘em), homework (Language Arts, math, intro to thermonuclear physics), and a gym (zero-g dodgeball is a school favorite, and not only because you can’t always count on the ship’s spotty gravitometric field generators—down the corridor from the teachers’ lounge).
Eighth Grade Vs. The Machines picks up right where the first book left off, galaxy-wide alien conspiracy in full tilt. I don’t want to spoil anything here (not when the stakes are SO HIGH!). Suffice it so say…the stand-up comedian robot (Chucklebot 7) who the kids and teachers meet early in Book 2 is not who you think it is! And while the stowaway pet hamster (Doctor Shrew) has a new semi-autonomous exoskeleton—it’s not just for catching carrots. (Okay, fine. It’s just for catching carrots. But, like, really hard-to-catch carrots. Guy can jump fifteen feet in the air now, so.)
It’s a series about people on a spaceship, having high-stakes adventures across vast distances. So sometimes, I’ll get a review that tags the books as “Space Opera.” But applying that term to Eighth Grade Vs. The Machines (and Seventh Grade Vs. The Galaxy before it) is a pretty good joke in and of itself. (Someone tell Chucklebot 7.) The books are not so much “opera” as they are…the last hour of a middle school talent show? So maybe “Space Recital” is a better label.
Anyway: fun. Action. Adventure. Humor. More all-school assemblies than the kids would prefer, given that THE FATE OF THE GALAXY HANGS IN THE BALANCE. But hey, at least the cafeteria food printers have a pizza option this year.
I’m not sure I’ve got enough (or any) authority to declare this The Golden Age of Middle Grade. But from my perspective, there’s little question that the category is currently producing some incredible books. Inarguably important books. Mirrors and windows for kids across the astronomical spectrum of readers. Eighth Grade Vs. The Machines …is not one of them. It’s a little escapist fiction, which I think there’s still room for (despite the times) and which I’m so delighted to be putting into the world (solar system, galaxy, universe).
A friend of mine gave Eighth Grade Vs. The Machines the following (100% biased, very possibly made up) review: “My kid was reading it after he was supposed to be asleep, laughing the whole time.” That’s about the best a Space Recital author can hope for.