June 17, 2024
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Can Three Seventh Graders Save the Galaxy?

Becka, Ari and Jack are middle school kids with typical problems: finding their place in the social hierarchy, getting along with divorced parents and surviving or thriving in gym class. Except these three are going to school in outer space. And they have to race against time and insurmountable odds to rescue their classmates who have been kidnapped by aliens. Do they succeed? To find out, you’ll have to read “Seventh Grade vs. the Galaxy” by Joshua Levy, a Teaneck lawyer, former teacher at Yeshivat Noam and now a published author.

Levy has been writing fiction since childhood, but this is his first published book. He loves space, action and adventure stories and wanted to try writing in a similar genre. Percy Jackson, Harry Potter and the crew of Star Wars are among his favorite characters.

Levy got the idea for the book when he taught for a year at Yeshivat Noam before switching to law. “I wanted to incorporate in the book the personality types I was encountering as a teacher,” he said. “I thought that reading about the kinds of kids I taught, thrust on a whacky adventure, would be fun and hilarious. So I combined wanting to write a story about regular kids going to school with my love of space stories.” The characters are an amalgamation of the children he knew, distilled into distinct personality types. “I knew I wanted one of the trio to be a strong personality and the other two to be timid in their own ways,” he said. “And I thought about how I felt the kids would react to being catapulted across the galaxy.”

Although there is a reference to Ari’s bar mitzvah, Levy tried to populate the public school in a spaceship with a diverse cast of characters, together on an adventure accessible to all middle school-age children. He created a world that is very familiar but in a sci-fi setting. The book begins with a detailed map of the school’s classrooms, cafeteria, library and gym. The opening scenes follow kids playing dodge-ball—with zero gravity—and going to an assembly. “In writing the story, I thought through the world first,” Levy said. “I wanted to get that aspect of things right: What does this school look like? Why are they going to school in space? Where are all their parents? As a grown-up reading sci-fi and fantasy, I enjoy diving into a totally foreign world or universe. But to help kids get into this story, I wanted the world to be as familiar to ours as it is different.”

Just as you start to feel at home in Hogwarts when you read a Harry Potter book, Levy’s attention to detail and casual dialogue between the characters successfully brings to life the idea of a school in a spaceship that orbits around another planet. You happily suspend disbelief to enjoy the trio’s wild interplanetary adventures, along with a very earthly coming-of-age story about traversing the conflicting demands of identity, jealousy and friendship.

The book is a light-hearted adventure but it touches on thoughtful topics. Jack’s parents are divorced, like Levy’s, and those of many middle school students. “I think that even escapist fiction can also help kids confront what they’re going through,” Levy said. “And today, many novels geared to a middle-school audience purposefully deal with the complicated challenges that kids face in their real lives. ‘Seventh Grade vs. the Galaxy’ is mostly fun and exciting. But in general, publishing is not shying away from hard issues and I think that’s a very good thing.”

Levy wrote the book in fits and starts through law school and clerking. He persevered through many rejections and revisions. “The rejections didn’t faze me,” he said. “Well, OK, they fazed me. But they didn’t deter me. Rejection is part of wanting to do this, and publishing is a subjective industry. I definitely didn’t quit my day job.”

Tali Levy has been her husband’s cheerleader. “After I read the manuscript, I knew this book would be published,” she said. “Even after the 20th rejection, I urged him to keep going.” Levy found an agent who shopped the book around and sold it in 2017 for a spring 2019 release.

The book is making its way to libraries, stores and reviewers. Levy has done a few book signings and recently spoke to students at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County, where Tali taught before going on maternity leave this year. “Engagement with librarians, teachers and other gatekeepers is so crucial. And there’s nothing better than getting to talk books with kids themselves.” Still, while Levy wants to do everything he can to get the book into the hands of his target audience, he has little time left in the day after working as a lawyer in commercial litigation. Tali is acting as an informal marketing liaison to the local Jewish community.

Readers of the book will note that it ends on a cliffhanger. Will there be a sequel? Levy smiles and says, “Stay tuned.”

By Bracha Schwartz

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