The editors at this year’s Middle Grade Buzz Books panel at BookExpo presented five books featuring determined characters as well as genuine voices and relationships—or, as put by moderator Summer Laurie of San Francisco’s Books Inc., “grit and authenticity.”

Little, Brown associate editor Russ Busse admitted that Spiderman “tricked” him into becoming a reader—and began his lifelong appreciation of graphic novels. In that light, Busse presented Mark Tatulli’s Short and Skinny, a graphic memoir about a kid who is “down about his size.” He admires the “authentic and understated” way the book renders both middle school friendship and sibling relationships, and its handling of “boy body issues as well as finding your voice.”

Rotem Moscovich, executive editor at Disney-Hyperion, sped through the first in Molly Brooks’s Sanity Tallulah series (which she called “a dream of a book”) in a hotel lobby during a work trip. She emphasized the way that “body language and expressions work seamlessly together” with the text in this graphic novel about “friendship and kittens,” and she praised its “diverse cast of kick-ass women.”

A cemetery is home to the Philippines’ biggest shantytown in Marie Cruz’s Everlasting Nora. Tor/Starscape editor Diana M. Pho stayed up late reading the book, “where the homeless live in tombs and mausoleums, and… families thrive beside their ancestors.” Pho described the “visceral feelings [she] felt for Nora and the people who live in the cemetery” and how relatable she found Nora’s shame and worry about her situation, in this “universal tale about finding home in the most unlikely of places.”

Patti Kim’s I’m Ok “shows the realities of poverty in this country,” said Reka Simonsen, executive editor at Atheneum. The author and the editor worked through several revisions before the book was signed, Ok’s “honest, funny, smart, hurting voice” resonating with Simonsen all the while. Comforted as a child by books dealing with poverty, Simonsen spoke to the importance of publishing books about the vast number of families who “live at or near the poverty line… kids who really don’t see themselves in books that often.” Moreover, she called the title a “path to empathy for kids not in that position.”

Damien Love’s Monstrous Devices hooked Alex Ulyett, associate editor at Viking, with “the way magic invades the everyday” for a kid “just trying to make it through school and keep a low profile.” He celebrated the novel’s sweetness and its characters’ “heartwarming natural bond” amid a tale of robots and assassins. Between the protagonist and his grandfather, said Ulyett, “There’s always time for a spot of tea and a snack, even in the face of global catastrophe.”