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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Anatomy of a Series: Topps League Books

Kurtis ScalettaWe’re in post-season, when a lot of fans start to look wild-eyed, wondering how they’ll hang on for three months until spring training starts in February. Here in Minnesota, it’s tough for sandlot baseball or Little League games to be played in the snow with an icy baseline. Young fans can keep up the momentum with Kurtis Scaletta’s baseball books, the Topps League series.

Starring Chad Snyder, the new batboy for the Pine City Porcupines, a Single A minor league team, as well as Dylan, the batboy who doesn’t particularly like baseball, and Abby, the secret identity of the team mascot, Spike, these books are fast-paced and attention-holding.

I feel confident recommending you place this series in the hands of every young reader who shows the slightest interest in baseball. I predict they’ll be intrigued about the sport but, even more importantly, they’ll race through these books because they’re that well-written.

Recently, I asked the author, Kurtis Scaletta, if he would answer the burning questions I had after reading all six books.

Q: Do you remember what first captured your attention about baseball … and how old you were? 

A: Ha. Well, I hate to blow my cover, but I actually wasn’t much of a baseball fan (or even a sports fan) as a kid. I did get excited when the ’87 Twins won the World Series—I was a freshman in college and working at the sports desk for a city paper. But I didn’t really become a big fan until I moved to Minneapolis in my mid-20s, and baseball books had a lot to do with it. There is so much great writing about baseball, and so many great writers are baseball fans.

Q: Did you play baseball at any point? 

A: I played a lot of sandlot ball, which I still love—I don’t know if kids play pick-up games anymore, but I celebrate that kind of baseball in Mudville.  I wasn’t much for organized sports after sixth grade.

Q: Do you have your own baseball card collection?

A: Nope, but I do have a Kirby Puckett card a reader sent me. I love it.

Q: How did this writing assignment come to you?

A: I was on Abrams’ radar because of Mudville, so they asked my agent if I was interested in writing a baseball card series. My first thought was “I can’t do this because Dan Gutman OWNS baseball cards” but after noodling on it for a while I came up with a premise that is different enough from his. I wrote up a proposal and they liked it.

Q: Are there elements to be included in every book?

A: Yep, one thing I learned about writing this kind of series, where each book stands alone, is that you need to set expectations for each book. It’s not really a formula so much as a framework. The Topps League books all have three stories: one is Chad’s story, like worrying about being good at his job. One is a ballpark story, a new feature or special occasion that kids can look forward to. And the main story is that a player is trying to accomplish something or overcome a setback and Chad is trying to help. Sometimes the stories intersect really well.

Q: Why did you choose to write this series about a Single A team rather than a Double A or Triple A team? 

A: It’s important in the books that the players are trying to play their way up in the system (or just stay at the single-A level), so it’s more meaningful when this is the first serious ball for some players and a last chance for others. It’s also more likely that a single A team would have really young kids as batboys.

Q: Did you interview players or batboys in order to write this series? Can you tell us how they might have reshaped what you were expecting to write?

Chad the Batboy

Chad the Batboy
illus by Eric Wight

A: Yep, I went and talked to some batboys for the [St. Paul] Saints. The team was really helpful and supportive in letting me snoop around behind the scenes. I talked to a kid named Dylan and named that character for him.  I got some ideas for the stuff Chad would be doing before, during, and after a game and that was really helpful. One thing I learned that was very important to know is that batboys don’t travel with the team, so each ballpark has one or more batboys who help the visiting team. That becomes a regular bit in the books, because Chad always wants to help the home team. It also helps tell the story from the other locker room once in a while, so it proved really useful.

Q: Why did you choose to have Dylan be a character who isn’t particularly interested in baseball but has a tremendous interest in animals?

A: I wanted series-long arcs—even though the books stand alone, kids who read them in order will find three dissimilar kids getting to know one another and the Porcupines climbing out of the cellar and into contention. Dylan and Abby also give kids who don’t connect immediately to sports-mad Chad other characters they might relate to. By the way, as a kid I was a lot more like Dylan than Chad!

Q: You enlighten readers about the “magic” baseball cards you choose to feature in each book. Learning about these players was a highlight of the books for me. Did you primarily use the internet to research their stories? Or do you have books that you find helpful?

A: Yep, I did web research. I also occasionally solicited advice from my point person at Topps. The research was a fun part for me. My favorite book in the series is the fourth one, and a big part of that was learning about Andy Pafko and why his Cubs card is one of the most valuable baseball cards out there.

Q: Writing to specifications doesn’t give you the control you have when writing your novels, but it requires a certain mastery and discipline to write this way and make it interesting, which you do. What do you appreciate about writing a series now that you’ve finished six books?

A: You know, I really did have a lot of creative control over the series, though Topps definitely had a vision for the series it wasn’t that restrictive. And I learned that I love writing chapter books—it’s fun to see recurring characters, to come up with a template and play with it, to see what you can do within the structure you created. I’d really like to launch a new series for the same age level.

Q: Do you have a system for tracking the details in your series of six (so far) books?

A: I had a roster, line up cards, team schedules, and a list of other characters. If it got much longer I’d need to put together a bible that had all of that and recaps of past storylines. One thing I was able to do, planning several books at once, was anticipate future storylines and plant a few things in earlier books so it doesn’t feel as improvised.

Q: When writing a series, what keeps your interest sparked?

A: That was the biggest challenge, coming up with new stories and new angles for each book that would be as strong as the first couple of books.

Q: You’ve worked in enough baseball lingo and tempting-to-learn-more baseball history that even a young child who knows nothing about baseball can’t help, like Dylan, become interested. Was this one of the goals of writing this series?

A: Definitely.

Q: As an adult, the plot of each book is interesting enough to keep me eagerly turning pages to find out what happens next. I appreciate the skill that takes. These books could be read aloud, which would be a great deal of fun for parents and their children, but they’re truly intended to be early chapter books, books that can be read by emerging readers. What were you aware of as defining characteristics of an early reader while you were writing? 

A: I never say the age of Chad or the other kids because we wanted the series to appeal to a range of kids. I found out that older kids—fifth and sixth graders—who are daunted by 300+ page novels—like these books because they’re quick reads but don’t feel like baby books. I get a lot of email from parents of reluctant readers who are pleased their kids have found books like these. It makes me want to write more like them, because really there’s no better feedback you can hear as a children’s book author than that your book turned a kid onto reading.

Q: Who was your editor for the Topps League series? Is that person a baseball fan? 

A: Her name is Sheila Keenan. She was at Abrams, but now she’s left to write full-time. She likes baseball but wasn’t a hardcore fan. One nice surprise was that she’d been to Saints games and knew where I was getting my inspiration. We had readers at Topps who did more of the detail checks—would this really happen at this point in a game, etc.

Q: How did your editor work with you to shape these books? 

A: We talked a lot about the shape of the series before I wrote a word of the text—not just her point of view, but also mediating for Topps and their vision for the series. For example, Topps was concerned that my original line-up didn’t have enough diversity, since the game is very diverse at every level. They wanted to make sure the players had their hang-ups and quirks but were good role models. They had great input. It wasn’t so much changing things later but agreeing in advance to what kind of series it would be.

Q: Are there currently any plans to publish more books in this series? 

A: None are planned right now, but we’ll see! In any case, I definitely want to pursue another series like this, because I like the format and it’s been very rewarding to hear from parents and young readers who’ve enjoyed them.

Topps League BooksTopps League series:

Book 1: Jinxed!

Book 2: Steal That Base!

Book 3: Zip It!

Book 4: The 823rd Hit

Book 5, You’re Out! starts the second year of Chad and Dylan being batboys

Book 6: Batter Up!

Books 1 through 4 were illustrated by Eric Wight of Frankie Pickle fame. Books 5 and 6 were illustrated by Ethen Beavers.

Visit Kurtis Scaletta’s website. I’ll be writing about his most recent book, The Winter of the Robots, in an upcoming article (hint: I really like this book).

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