There are some conventions that middle-school fiction follows.
The child protagonist — preteen or young teenager, usually — learns something about him or herself through an unexpected adventure. Those young heroes generally are exposed to lessons about trusting, sharing, developing intuition, exercising courage, overcoming self-doubt and awkwardness, understanding more about their parents, including accepting that parents are people, and generally growing up. Their sidekicks learn many of those same lessons, just a little bit off to the side.
The trick for a writer isn’t setting up these conventions. It’s how well he or she turns stock characters into believable, likeable, or engaging people.
In his first novel, “Seventh Grade vs. the Galaxy,” Joshua S. Levy of Teaneck has created characters who not only are believable, likeable, and engaging, but also funny. (For an adult reader, in fact, they’re actively adorable, but that’s something less likely to appeal to the middle-schoolers at whom this book is aimed.)
The book begins in a poorly funded public school, a middle school, a good-enough school, that also happens to be on a spaceship. It’s Public School Spaceship 118, an old beater that’s orbiting Ganymede, one of Jupiter’s many moons. It’s full of students — regular human students, pretty much like students everywhere — some are smart, some are not so smart, some are bullies, some are geeks, many of them are funny, often but not always on purpose. Each one is different, but it’s hard to tell when you look because you see an undifferentiated mass of kids.
And then the adventure starts, and the three main characters, Jack, Ari, and Becka, have to save the school — and, we’re teased, in a sequel, the world.
“I’ve always wanted to write fiction,” Mr. Levy said. “For my whole life. I wrote my first manuscript in fifth grade.” It was the novelization of a video game, he said, and it is not accidental that like so many first works of literature written by fifth-graders it was not published. But Mr. Levy kept writing.
Mr. Levy, 33, grew up in Florida; he went to Orthodox day schools, graduated from the Weinbaum Yeshiva High School in Boca Raton, and then went to Yeshiva University. He trained as a teacher, and taught in Yeshivat Noam in Paramus, among other places. But then he realized that perhaps he’d be happier as a lawyer, so he went to law school at Seton Hall, clerked for a magistrate judge in New York’s southern district, and now practices commercial litigation at Gibbons PC in Newark. “Which is very different from writing about kids having adventures in space,” he said. But all that background prepared him well.
The characters all are named for the places on earth where their families had lived. Jack, for example, is named after Jacksonville. Ari is for Arizona. And their last names have to do with Supreme Court decisions. (That one is harder for the uninitiated reader to grasp, but there are students named Tinker and Koramatsu.)
“I have an elaborate spreadsheet that explains what the name is and what the connection is,” Mr. Levy said. “That’s really just for me, because I’m a giant nerd.”
While the book isn’t overtly Jewish, there are Jewish bits scattered throughout. Ari might be named for Arizona, but still, his nickname is Ari. More specifically, he has had a bar mitzvah; Jack mentions his party. He had fun. At one point, Jack says that there must be about 1,000 reasons for a plan not to work; he mentions points 1, 18, and 613.
“I don’t want the Jewish connection to be obvious. It’s not about that,” Mr. Levy said. “I just want to mention how hundreds of years from now,” where the book is set, “people are just having bar mitzvahs. There’s nothing remarkable about that.”
The book, he said, “is about average kids who experience extraordinary circumstances that they have to navigate with an ordinary set of tools that they are equipped with by virtue of their ordinary lives. I wanted the kids to begin their adventure in really ordinary circumstances, even if the context is extraordinary for us.
“Their lives are so ordinary. So humdrum. I want a lot of it to be accessible because science fiction often is an inaccessible genre. I as a reader don’t mind if I have to catch up on the world the book has built in order to get into the story, but that’s harder for kids to do.
“A lot of speculative fiction for kids starts this way for a reason. When you start with a place that is familiar, it is easier to identify with the characters.” And although the place where his book starts is in many ways not familiar to us — it is, after all, on a spaceship orbiting Ganymede — it’s a middle school.
“I had a blast writing it,” Mr. Levy said. “In those first chapters, where the book frames the school, with the teachers, the assembly, the student council president, the principal — that is so familiar to me as a former middle-grade student and then teacher. I wanted it to be fun. There’s something about the juxtaposition of the familiar and the extraordinary that I always find compelling as a reader, and I hope that kids find enjoyable.”
And it’s funny. “I did not want to write a serious middle-grade sci-fi space opera,” Mr. Levy said. “Some of the best middle-grade adventures have a wonderful sense of humor about them. Whenever I get feedback from a parent or a teacher or a kid that it is so funny that they laughed out loud, that’s the most gratifying thing I can hear.”
Not only is his book aimed at middle-school readers, but it creates its characters using the traits that middle-school students have, Mr. Levy said. “If adults had been faced with this adventure, they wouldn’t have done it with such good humor. Kids are flexible and resilient at that age. If you flip a kid’s world upside down, they will struggle through it and accept the results in a really natural way, which allows them to keep their sense of humor.
“That’s why fantasy stories about kids’ worlds being turned upside down are best when they are told through kids’ eyes. It’s the best way to look at it, through those kids’ eyes.”
Mr. Levy and his wife, Talia, who like her husband is a southerner — she grew up in the Orthodox community in Memphis, and who teaches at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County — have two children, a 4-year-old and a 7-month old. He looks forward to continuing to tell them stories, at least one more about the kids of Public School Spaceship 118.