In his decadeslong career writing children’s literature, Gary D. Schmidt has covered a lot of ground, from early-20th-century New England in Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy (2004) to junior high in the 1960s in The Wednesday Wars (2007)—both Newbery Honor–winning books—and beyond. In his latest, The Labors of Hercules Beal (Clarion/HarperCollins, May 23), the titular 12-year-old delves into the labors of the mythological Hercules for an assignment at his new school. This task (or, rather, series of 12 tasks) holds more real-life significance for Hercules than he could have imagined as he grieves the loss of his parents; adjusts to having his older brother, Achilles, around the family garden nursery again; and endures many more trials (and joys) of growing up. In a starred review, a critic for Kirkus calls the book “at once an epic journey toward self-discovery and a wonderfully entertaining yarn.” Schmidt spoke to us over Zoom from his home in Michigan, and our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
What inspired you to incorporate mythology and specifically the Hercules mythology into this story?
There’s this great dictionary that I got as a graduate student in this wonderful, old used bookshop that was going out of business. Of course, one of the entries is Hercules, who is one of the most interesting because he’s so incredibly complicated. One of the things that happens with Hercules is that he loses his family, mostly because of his own fault. His family is wiped out, and his grief is just huge. So the gods give him this task of putting together 12 labors, which seems so random. That seemed to be just right for my story, because here’s this kid, and I knew that he was going to be dealing with grief, and he’s going to have to live with his brother, which is itself going to be a trial.
Is the book that you mentioned very similar to the book that Hercules then uses when he’s working through his labors?
That’s exactly it—Anthon’s Classical Dictionary. When he complains about all the dust from the leather coming off in his hands, that’s because it was coming off in my hands. It was such a mess, but it was fun.
You’ve explored grief in other novels, including Just Like That and Pay Attention, Carter Jones. Grief has a relevance for the mythical character of Hercules, but what made you want to explore that path again?
In an earlier book of mine, called Orbiting Jupiter, there’s a story about loss and grief, which really reflected what was happening to me, because I lost my wife in the middle of that book. It was stopped for about a year because of that until I started to work again. It feels in these last three or four or five books that that’s really the large theme. How is it that you survive trauma, particularly as a middle school kid? How is it that you survive loss? How do you go on from that? It feels to me like I’m still working through that and that this book is the last in that series, because Hercules does come at the end to a very, very good place, with this community of quirky characters around him and a brother who is quirky in his own right and who experienced that loss, too. It feels like I’ve finally come to the place when I’m done with that, and I know that the next couple of books are going to be super different.
The notion of community is really strong in this book, from Hercules’ relationship with Achilles to his friends and the other supportive people in his life.
That’s super intentional in this book. I mean, it’s Hillary Clinton, right? “It takes a village.” And she was right, she is right. It feels to me like that’s something that’s important to stress in the arts for a middle-grade kid, that you don’t have to go it alone. You shouldn’t be going it alone, but that there should be this community that rises up around you, just for day to day, if not especially when you’re really in a moment of grief and loss.
Why do you write for children?
I write specifically for middle-grade kids, and it is a fascinating age to write for. As a writer, I want to look for tension—what’s the thing that’s going to spark the rest of this story? Where better can you look for tension than in middle grade, where you get a character who may be acting like a child and then, a few minutes later, seems almost like an adult? It’s not a time that a lot of people think they would love to go back to. People will sometimes say, I’d like to relive college or I’d like to relive high school—but no one ever says, Please let me relive middle school, because it’s such a confusing time for the individual. And yet, in middle grade, that’s when we’re thinking of growing up. We’re discovering new kinds of relationships that are really, really powerful in us. We want a driver’s license, maybe we’re becoming active politically. That’s the time when this is all starting. To go to a middle school is amazing to me, because you just see it at work.
What similarities do you observe between writing for children and writing for adults?
I teach [writing and literature] at the college level, though I’m about to retire from teaching, which has been wicked good—38 years at one school [Calvin University in Grand Rapids]. It is true that there’s a lot of carryover: the creation of a character, the arc of a plot, the use of setting beyond just having it as a stage, trying to make decisions that work in terms of narrators. All the things that go into writing for a younger reader might go into writing for an older reader.
Has the recent rise in book bans and challenges, especially in children’s literature, impacted the way that you write and approach writing?
That we are to the point that we now have people who are often not even readers who are saying to authors, you shall not do this, you shall have this kind of project but not this kind of project. Instead of celebrating the fact that we can enjoy and love and learn from people of all stripes and all persuasions, instead of saying, what a remarkable experience that the arts can bring us together, we’re now using them to divide or to attack or to silence. I haven’t changed in terms of what I’m doing right now, and I celebrate the writers who are doing such amazing work, and I hope I can be participatory in that. Let’s have the pleasure of the big circus. Let’s have the whole tent. Let’s hear everyone with wisdom and grace and understanding. Let’s not condemn, except when it’s clearly obvious you need to condemn. Let’s bring people together and say, I want to hear what you have to say about this. Anything that does that seems to me to be a gain for the arts. Anything that doesn’t do that seems to be a loss.
Nina Palattella is the editorial assistant.