The Next Chapter

Basil and Kevin Sylvester's middle-grade novel The Fabulous Zed Watson! is about tween fun and friendship

The parent and child team spoke with Shelagh Rogers about writing a book together that focuses on the adventures of a young non-binary character.
The Fabulous Zed Watson! is a middle-grade novel by Basil Sylvester and Kevin Sylvester. (HarperCollins, Laura Carlin)

If you ever thought about writing a book with your parent or with your child, you can look to the father and child duo of Kevin and Basil Sylvester for inspiration.

The Canadian duo collaborated on the children's book The Fabulous Zed Watson! The middle-grade novel features a non-binary lead character named Zed who discovers a mystery surrounding an unpublished novel and embarks on "the literary scavenger hunt and road trip of a lifetime."

Basil Sylvester is a non-binary writer based in Toronto. Their father, Kevin Sylvester, is a broadcaster and the award-winning illustrator and writer of middle-grade books such as the Neil Flambé Capers series and the MiNRS space adventure series.

They both spoke with Shelagh Rogers about writing The Fabulous Zed Watson!

Writing a book together

Basil: "We have a colleague and dear friend named Suzanne Sutherland, who is the head children's editor at a Canadian publisher. She approached us in 2019 and said, 'What do you think about writing a book about non-binary protagonist?' I'm non-binary and the book would be sort of funny, as I'm funny. 

"It was very serendipitous because we had already been planning on writing a book together — which no one else really knew about. We were planning a completely different book, actually. And then she approached us, and we said 'Absolutely!' — and just hit the ground running on that."

It was funny because we had already tested the idea of writing a book together.- Kevin Sylvester

Kevin: "We had already tested the idea of writing a book together. We'd actually written a synopsis for a ghost story that we might come back to at some point. So when Suzanne talked to us, we'd already worked out some of the kinks of collaboration. It was weirdly serendipitous."

An illustration from The Fabulous Zed Watson! by Basil Sylvester and Kevin Sylvester ©2020. (HarperCollins Canada)

Why Zed is fabulous

Basil: "Very early on, like we were thinking about what a protagonist of this kind of book would be like."

Kevin: "Squishy is a word we used a lot!"

Basil: "Yes! They have to be very driven — they have to be a force of nature to get the plot going. Very early on, we had a lot of conversations about music and the clothes that they would wear."

Very early on, we had a lot of conversations about music and the clothes that they would wear.- Basil Sylvester

Kevin: "Birkenstocks, socks and sandals was a very early Zed characteristic. Part of what happened too was that the book has a lot of illustrations in it. Even though I obviously drew them, it was collaborative as well.

"We drew Zed on day one of sitting down and brainstorming. We had that picture of a kid with messy hair, a little pudgy, squishy and energetic."

An illustration from The Fabulous Zed Watson! by Basil Sylvester and Kevin Sylvester ©2020. (HarperCollins Canada)

Why middle-grade books rock

Basil: "Part of the reason that I like middle-grade books is it's one of my favourite age groups to read, even now. It's because there's so many things that happen in middle-grade books that don't necessarily happen in anything slightly younger or older like YA —  where you have a lot of complex issues about identity that are brought up. Usually, middle-grade books are more plot driven. 

But what I like so much about a middle-grade book is it feels so much more open in terms of the kinds of stories you can tell.- Basil Sylvester

"In The Fabulous Zed Watson!, their non-binaryness comes up in a bunch of different ways throughout the book. When you have something like a YA book, it's more focused on the identity of the character. But middle-grade books feel much more open in terms of the kinds of stories they can tell.

Kevin: "It's to have that conversation."

Basil: "What I love about middle-grade books is just how fun it can be — and how they resonate with kids who are already feeling they're different. I'm speaking as someone who was in middle school, and was not straight and not cis, but didn't have the vocabulary to express it or know why I felt different.

"Getting these kinds of concepts and language to kids at the middle-grade level is important to help steer them in the right direction as they grow up."

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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