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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Tag Archives | Mystery

Graphic Storytelling

 

Fish GirlA good graphic novel should pose a mystery.

As it opens (last possible minute), the reader often has no clue what’s going on.

It’s often an unknown world, even if it looks like our world.

This isn’t that different than the opening of a conventional print book but, for some reason, people often react to graphic novels by telling me, “I can’t read them! I never know what’s going on.”

What is there about adding continual visuals that causes some otherwise avid readers to throw a graphic novel aside with such disfavor?

This question is an intriguing one for me. In our Chapter & Verse Book Club, we read at least one graphic novel each year, usually with an undercurrent of grumbling. I know which of our members won’t like the book, which of them won’t open the book, and which of them will do their best to like the book. Some will even love the book.

Why such a wide range of responses based on the visual aspect of the book? And the dialogue nature of the story?

I recently finished David Wiesner and Donna Jo Napoli’s Fish Girl. The opening is bewildering. What is going on? I find this satisfying.

When I finished, I turned immediately to re-read it, to figure out where I first figured it out. What were the clues? Were they visual or verbal or a combination of both? I’m not going to tell you, of course. That’s your reading journey. But I was particularly fond of the way in which Fish Girl (dare I say it?) unwinds.

As a long time fantasy reader, I’m familiar with stories in this segment of the genre. (I’m trying not to reveal too much so I’m purposefully not naming that segment.) 

About the  book, David Wiesner writes, “I tried several times to develop a picture book around these components (drawings of characters, scenes, and settings to go with an image of a house filled with water where fish are swimming) but the house full of fish turned out to be a complex image, suggesting stories too long and involved for the picture book format. The logical next step was to see it as a graphic novel.”

Many of the people who don’t care for graphic novels love picture books. Perhaps understanding graphic novels as a picture book for telling longer, more complex stories will help them appreciate this form more?

In Fish Girl, the watercolor-painted frames are clear and visually beautiful. The characters are well-delineated. The dialogue is involving. The mysteries lead the way. Why does this girl, who lives with fish and an octopus inside of a house filled with water, named Ocean Wonders, seem to be a prisoner? Why can’t she leave? Why does Neptune set so many rules? Are stories the true reason that Fish Girl stays in her prison?

Wiesner’s paintings provide focus in an involving way throughout the book. The ocean is brooding, beautiful, and beckoning. Fish Girl is lonely, a loneliness every reader will recognize. The expressions of loneliness, bewilderment, friendship, and longing are beguiling. When I consider how long it would take me to draw and paint just one of these frames and then look at how many frames are employed to tell this story, I could well imagine that David Wiesner has been working on this book for five years. I wonder what the truth of that is? 

It’s a book that many readers, young and old, will enjoy. I believe it would be a good read-aloud if all listeners can see the book and help turn the pages. Fish Girl is highly recommended. And I will keep looking for graphic novels that will convert even their most reluctant readers!

Fish Girl
David Wiesner and Donna Jo Napoli
Clarion Books, March 7, 2017
(I read an Advanced Reader’s Copy.)
ISBN 978-0-544-81512-4 $25 hardcover
ISBN 978-0-547-48393-1 $18 paperback

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The Delight of Reading Older Books

Who Stole the Wizard of Oz?

One of my favorite types of reading is to go back and read books I’ve missed from years ago. I once spent an entire summer reading books that were published in the 1950s. I had such a strong feeling of the decade after reading those books that I felt more connected to people who lived then. That feeling of connection is very satisfying to me.

Do you do a similar kind of reading?

This last holiday season, I did another dive into books published in decades past. There’s something very comforting about reading these books. I frequently scout out articles where people talk about the books they’ve loved from their childhood. If I haven’t read them, they go on a list and I seek them out. Sometimes I have to scout used book stores but the books are all easily obtainable.

My most recent delight was Who Stole the Wizard of Oz? by Avi. It was first published in 1981. I hadn’t read it before. It holds up well today. In fact, I would readily put this book in the hands of any child, aged 7 and older, who enjoys a mystery. Set in a small town, twin siblings Becky and Toby set out to solve a crime that’s presented on page one and is wrapped up neatly 115 pages later.

The crime takes place in a library and so does much of the action. Becky and Toby solve the crime on their own, without help from grown-ups. They question adults. They apply their brains. They discuss (and bicker) and ultimately end up on a stake-out.

To arrive at the solution, they read five classic books: Through the Looking Glass, The Wind in the Willows, The Wizard of Oz, Winnie-the-Pooh, and Treasure Island. By the time they’re done discussing what they’ve read, I knew I’d have to re-read each of those books myself! (I’ve never read Winnie-the-Pooh. I know. Gasp!)

What do each of those books have in common? That’s the delicious part of the story so I won’t spoil it for you. Read this book!

We focus on new books because people love to guess which books will win awards.  We forget that there are thousands (millions?) of kids who are reading these books for the first time. Drawing books off the shelf from the rich canon of children’s literature is a gift we can keep giving again and again.

Stay tuned. I’ll share more of my reading-of-books-past in upcoming columns.

Who Stole the Wizard of Oz?
Avi
Alfred A. Knopf, 1981
(I read a Yearling paperback.)
ISBN 978-0394849928, $6.99

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End Cap: Turn Left at the Cow

Turn Left at the CowWe hope you enjoyed reading Turn Left at the Cow, solving the mystery. Did you figure out whodunit before the climactic scene? If you love puzzles and games, we hope you have a good time solving this Word Search. 

Simply use your mouse or touch pad to draw a line over your found words and the program will mark them off for you. Words can be found forwards, backwards, horizontally, vertically, and diagonally. As you find a word, it will be highlighted on the board and it will disappear from the word list.

Have fun!

Hidden Words

Puzzle by mypuzzle.org
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Lisa Bullard

Lisa BullardIn this interview with Lisa Bullard, author of Turn Left at the Cow, our Bookstorm™ this monthwe asked nine questions to which she gave heartfelt answers. 

Lisa, thank you for your willingness to share your writing process and your thoughts about mysteries with us. Mysteries have rabid fans and you’ve written a book that’s not only smart and funny and sassy, but it’s a taut thriller. We appreciate having such a good book to read and to share with other fans.

Turn Left at the CowAt what point in writing your novel, Turn Left at the Cow, did you know it was going to be about an unsolved bank robbery?

That’s a great question—it makes me think back to the whole exciting process of how this story evolved over time! When I first set out to write this book, I actually imagined it as a murder mystery for adult readers. And then one day, when I had about 5 or 6 chapters written, I was revising the opening to the story, and a completely different voice marched in and took over the first-person narration—and it was the voice of a young teenage boy. He had so much energy, and I could “hear” him so clearly, that I knew this was truly his story to tell. And of course he wanted to talk to other kids more than he wanted to talk to adults! But that meant I had to rethink many other elements of the novel to instead make it a story for young readers.

I thought it seemed unlikely that a 13-year-old would be able to get involved in a murder investigation in a way that felt realistic, so I brainstormed other possible mysteries. At about the same time, I read a newspaper article about a man who was convinced that infamous hijacker D.B. Cooper was actually his brother. I used one of my greatest writing tools—the question “What if?”—and started thinking along the lines of “What if my character discovers that one of his relatives was involved in a notorious robbery?”

You’ve set Turn Left at the Cow in a small, rural town. Trav’s grandma lives in a cabin on a nearby lake. Why did you decide that the “place” for this story should be in this locale?

This location was at the heart of this story from the very beginning; it stayed the same no matter what other details changed, and to me, this setting speaks so loudly that it’s like another character in the book. It’s based primarily on the location of my family’s lake cabin, which is on Green Lake (near two very small Minnesota towns, Spicer and New London), in west central Minnesota. Since my family moved around when I was a kid, it’s the one place that I’ve consistently returned to since I was a very small child, and it’s a place that has sunk deep into my bones. Our lake cabin originally belonged to my grandparents, and I’ve spent some of the most important times in my life there with family and friends. It’s even where my parents had their honeymoon, so I’ve truly been visiting there my entire life! But of course, my story is fiction, so I did take some liberties with the setting—for example, I gave the town in the book a (nonexistent in real life) giant statue of a bullhead (fish), because many of my other favorite Minnesota towns feature giant statuary.

Parade in Spicer

Travis, your protagonist, is a 13-year-old boy whose dad died before he was born. This serves as a strong motivation for him running away from his mother in California to his grandmother in Minnesota. Does your sure-footed knowledge of Trav’s motivation come from your own experience?

I have been so lucky to have a dad who has always been very active in my life. To this day, we still talk and laugh and argue with each other like we did when I was a little kid and a teenager. But many of the people I’ve been closest to throughout my life are not so lucky. I’ve been close friends with several people who lost their father when they were quite young, and my closest uncle died the summer I turned nine—so my cousins no longer had a father of their own. As my mom explained to me, that meant I needed to “share” my dad with them.

As I mentioned earlier, one of my greatest writing tools is the question “What if?” It challenges me to expand my stories beyond my own personal experiences and to live inside the experiences of a character who is very different from me. One of the biggest “What if” questions in my own life has always been: “What if I didn’t happen to have the dad that I was lucky enough to have?” I decided that this story was the place for me to try to imagine what it might be like for someone to desperately crave a relationship with a lost father.

Readers are fascinated by the “red herrings” in a whodunit, the clues that could, but don’t, solve the mystery. At what point in writing the story did you consciously work with (plant your) red herrings?

walking catfishI love quirky details, and I built a lot of them into the story: for example, there’s a human head carved out of butter, a walking catfish, and a game where the winner is chosen by a pooping chicken. But I don’t want to give away any clues to readers who haven’t yet had a chance to read my story, so I’m hesitant to tell you here which details are red herrings and which details are key clues! I’ll just say that some of the red herrings were in place before I wrote a single word of the story, some of them wandered in out of the mysterious depths of my subconscious as I was writing the first few drafts, and others were things I created quite deliberately when I was revising and reached a point where I felt I needed to mislead readers from figuring out the solution too easily.

Since that’s a really vague answer, how about this? After you’ve read the story, feel free to visit the contact page on my website (lisabullard.com) and send me an email with any questions you have about the specific red herrings in my story—I’d be delighted to send you an answer!

Your story is very tense as it approaches its climax. Did you have to re-work your manuscript to achieve this?

Yes, absolutely! The entire story required many rounds of revision, but I received some key advice that really helped me make this section more dramatic and suspenseful. The novel took me about 3 years total to write, but one year in particular was very productive. During that year I took a series of classes from mystery writer Ellen Hart, and got great advice and feedback from her and the other students in the class. One of the things I learned was that you should write in short, choppy sentences when you want to create a scene that feels chaotic and quick-moving. Those short sentences push the reader forward through the story more quickly because they read more quickly. In my first draft, I had included lots of long and meandering sentences, and those had to be broken up or deleted altogether.

No time to think!I had also written a lot of reflective passages in those tense scenes—paragraphs where my character was doing a lot of thinking along the lines of “How did this even happen?” But in real life, when something really high-action and stressful is happening, a person usually doesn’t have time to stop and think too hard—they only have time to react and keep moving. Stopping to figure out exactly where things went wrong comes afterwards. So I went back and took out all of those places where my character was “over-thinking,” and just had him responding to the danger of the moment as best he could.

When you write a mystery, how do you know that it’s mysterious enough?

Wow, that’s another great question. I’m not sure that I know how to answer it exactly, but I’ll do my best! To me, mystery stories are puzzles: as the writer, your job is to hand the reader all the pieces of the puzzle, but to do it in such a way that the puzzle isn’t overly easy to solve. So for example, I’ve never liked mysteries where the answer is something the reader couldn’t possibly have figured out—when there’s some important clue that the author has held back, and then on the last page, the detective says something like, “This letter that was locked in a bank vault until 5 minutes ago proves that the thief was Mr. Villain!” As a reader, I want a fair chance to put together all the puzzle pieces for myself—and if the writer still fools me after playing fair, then good for them!

Clue MapSo when I was writing this mystery, I knew I had to play fair—I had to give the reader all of the important clues. It was okay if I spread out the clues over the whole book. And it was totally okay if I mislead the reader into thinking that some of those clues weren’t as important as they turned out to be in the end! After all, it’s the reader’s job to put the puzzle pieces together to get the right answer—I trust my readers to be smart, so I don’t have to make it TOO easy for them!

As far as the actual writing process, I made a long list of all the clues I knew in advance, and I thought about how I could work them into the story at intervals so there would be clues all throughout. I also built in things that seemed like fake clues to heighten the suspense and to make the puzzle more exciting. Finally, as I was writing, at any point where I felt like the story was slowing down too much, I would ask myself, “What is something really unexpected or surprising that could happen to my character next?”—and that approach provided some additional clues.

I also worked to think of metaphors and setting details that would add a spooky atmosphere to the whole story, and I tried to put my character into situations that seemed dangerous. After all, another big part of mysteries is that they’re more fun if they’re kind of scary!

Do you read mysteries? How old were you when you began reading them? Can you remember some of the first mysteries you read?

Three InvestigatorsI love mysteries! They’re still some of my absolute favorite books, and they’re some of the first books I remember reading. When I was in elementary school, I was lucky enough to be given a huge box full of books that had belonged to either my mom or my older girl cousins when they were younger. The box held a lot of mystery series, some of them pretty old-fashioned but still wonderful. The different series included Judy Bolton, Trixie Belden, Nancy Drew, and the Three Investigators. And some of the first “grown-up” books I ever read were Agatha Christie mysteries and suspense stories by Mary Stewart. As a kid, I loved mystery stories so much that I made up my own mysteries and forced my brother and friends to “play” Three Investigators in our basement—we even wrote secret messages in invisible ink (lemon juice) and then decoded them by holding them over the toaster.

What is there about a mystery that you think appeals to kids?

puzzleIt’s fun to get that little spine-tingly feeling that comes when something is a little bit scary, so that’s part of it. Many mysteries are action-packed and fast-moving (rarely boring), so that’s another part of it. But I think a big reason is that working to put together the puzzle of the story is kind of like a game—and if, as a reader, you manage to figure out the mystery before the story’s detective does, then you also feel pretty darn proud of yourself, and smart!

Can you share with us what you’re working on now? Is it another mystery? (We hope so.)

I’ve written several nonfiction books since Turn Left at the Cow was published, and now I’m wrestling with another mystery. My writing process is pretty slow when it comes to novels (and my life in the last few years has been really complicated)—plus I write a lot of my first draft in my head before any of it actually hits paper—so there isn’t a whole lot actually written down yet. But I can tell you that this story is set in the north woods of Minnesota, and like Turn Left the mystery has to do with a complicated family story and a lot of quirky small-town characters. Including Bigfoot, by the way—now there’s a mystery for you!

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Gennifer Choldenko

Bookology is proud to feature Gennifer Choldenko’s Chasing Secrets as its Bookstorm™ this month, sharing themes, ideas, and complementary book recommendations for your classroom, literature circle, or book group discussions.

Gennifer CholdenkoWere you a curious child? How did this manifest itself?

I was an eccentric child. I was curious to the extent that I could find out new facts to feed my imaginary world. I adored school and loved my teachers. I used to come home from school with an aching arm from raising my hand with such unbridled enthusiasm.

When you grew up, where did your curiosity lead you?

You know the classic I Love Lucy episode with the candy conveyor belt? I once had a job squishing individual servings of tomato ketchup and mustard with a big mallet. The goal, believe it or not, was quality control. You had to bang them hard. If they didn’t open, they were considered secure enough to send out. Boy was it a messy job.

Chasing SecretsLizzie Kennedy, the heroine of Chasing Secrets, is a curious child of thirteen. She’s interested in science and mathematics, in finding out the truth. What do you admire most about her?

I admire how certain she is about the rightness of the world. I’ve had people tell me that Lizzie reveals her naivete because she’s so sure she can make everything work out. That gave me pause. In Lizzie’s worldview, the truth prevails. I believe that to my very core. Maybe, that’s why I write for ten-, eleven- and twelve-year-olds.

Jing and Noah are Chinese immigrants. Only part of their family has traveled to San Francisco. Jing has aspirations for his son. What drew you to writing these characters into the book?

I’m interested in the Chinese, in part, because my daughter is Chinese. We adopted her from China when she was eight months old. She was a very small immigrant. And not surprisingly, I adore her. Because of her I’ve become more aware of the anti-Chinese sentiment in today’s world and that in turn made me more interested in the history of the Chinese in America.

You introduce the key players in the story in the early chapters. We even get a glimpse of Billy on the docks, long before he interacts with Lizzie. The rats have Chapter 3 named after them. Is this something that happens as you’re writing the first drafts, or do you go back to set up the story during revisions?

Every book seems to evolve in a different way. Chasing Secrets was built almost entirely in revision. The only part of the book that was there from the get-go involved the rats. Billy evolved with each draft. It took me a long time to persuade him to come onto the page.

The number “6” figures prominently in Chasing Secrets. There are Six Companies, Six Leaders, and Six Boys. What is the significance of the number 6 for you?

The Six Companies actually existed. They held considerable power within the Chinese community. The Six Companies reminded me of my brother’s group of friends who all lived in a house in Marblehead and called themselves “Six of Six.” That gave me the idea it would be fun to have Noah be a part of a group of six kids who were leaders in the kids Chinatown community.

There’s an exchange between Lizzie and Noah where we discover that each of them has prejudices. Lizzie has her notions about servants and the Chinese, but Noah has his ideas about girls not being as smart as boys. He believes girls lie because one girl did. This feels like an important passage in the book. Why did you include it?

If you are writing about San Francisco 1900 and every character has the sensibility and mindset of San Francisco 2016, then really what you’re doing is putting your twenty-first century characters into historic dress. A costume ball is fun but it isn’t historic fiction. On the other hand, there is no such thing as a generic 1900s sensibility anymore than there is a generic 2016 sensibility. (Does Pope Francis view our world in the same way as Lady Gaga? I don’t think so.) There always have been, and there always will be, people who are “ahead of their time,” people who are “behind the times,” and people who are wholly original thinkers. But everyone is formed to some degree from the time in which they exist.

Lizzie was more open-minded than most of her peers. But the prejudice against the Chinese was deeply embedded in San Francisco culture. Lizzie had to have absorbed some of it. And, of course, Noah’s world was sexist. Almost no one questioned either of these prejudices in 1900.

Did you have trouble deciding which of the main characters would get sick with the plague?

RatsHow did you know? I felt strongly that the person who got sick was not going to be Chinese only because many people believed that the plague only affected Asians, which was and is false. But whom should I choose? It was a ghoulish question.

 It seemed logical that someone like Maggy would get sick because she spent a lot of time cleaning and there were an inordinate amount of dead rats around in 1900, many of whom died of the plague. But I really loved Maggy and I didn’t want her to suffer much less die. So initially I gave her a light dusting of the plague, from which she recovered pretty easily.

 Then I got a letter from my editor. She did not believe this was realistic. I happened to be on tour when I got the letter. I remember waking up one morning in Nashville with the realization that one character who I had making the “right” decision would not have made that decision at all. And from then on the book wrote itself.

There are many interesting real-life characters in your book (Dr. Kinyoun, Donaldina Cameron). Did you visit museums and libraries to do your research?

I spend half my life at the library. And of course I went to museums in San Francisco and in New York in addition to every historical tour I could find in San Francisco and Sacramento and in New York. Historical tours rarely give me a picture of the exact time, place, and social status I’m looking for, but they are a leaping-off place. I pepper the tour guides with questions and source materials and begin to develop a picture of what the homes of my characters might have looked like.

Chinatown

The Gateway Arch today, San Francisco’s Chinatown, chensiyuan, GFDL

Another thing I love to do is walk the neighborhoods I’m writing about. Of course, San Francisco now looks nothing like San Francisco in 1900 and yet some things are the same. Weather, proximity to the bay, seafood, wildlife, birds, natural geography are all largely the same. I spent a lot of time in Chinatown. Chinatown now is almost nothing like it was, except for one thing: it still feels like its own city in the middle of San Francisco. By walking the city now and studying old maps and old photos, I was able to conjure up Chinatown in 1900.

Chinatown today

The Street of Gamblers (Ross Alley), Arnold Genthe, 1898. The population was predominantly male because U.S. policies at the time made it difficult for Chinese women to enter the country. Photo by Arnold Genthe, Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco. Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.

Research is an ongoing detective game. A synergy between what I can find out and what I can imagine. I research before I begin writing, while I’m writing, and while I’m revising. My husband says when I’m in the middle of a book I am possessed. I can’t get enough information. But I find the entire process thrilling. There is nothing like discovering a juicy source that tells me exactly what I need to know.

Gus Trotter and his sister, Gemma, are intriguing friends who embrace Lizzie and her escapades. Were they in the story from the very beginning?

Al Capone Does My ShirtsNo! Gemma and Gus Trotter came later. In the beginning, Aunt Hortense and Uncle Karl had a daughter who was very close to Lizzie. But somewhere around the third draft I realized she got in the way of the story. So I kicked her out of the book and as soon as I did Gemma and Gus appeared. The same thing happened with Al Capone Does My Shirts. Initially, I had a different group of kids on the island. I liked them, but they didn’t work very well with Moose, so I fired them. And when I did up popped Jimmy, Theresa, and Annie.

Writing a book is a bit like having a dinner party. I’ve had dinner parties where I invited guests I know and love but the dinner party didn’t quite work because the dynamic between the guests fell flat. And then there have been other parties where the guests bounced off each other and the cumulative effect was incredible. This is, of course, what I’m looking for when I audition characters for my novels.

Do you find it sad to say goodbye to your characters when you’ve finished writing the book?

Yes! I really loved the world of Chasing Secrets. I found it utterly fascinating. It takes a long time to develop a historical setting to the point that it becomes quite that believable to me. At first the details sit on the surface and then gradually, draft by draft, they sink into the core of the book. And when that happens I become so invested in that world that it is quite challenging to let go.

____________________________________________

Thank you, Gennifer, for sharing your thoughts and writing journey with us. 

For use with your students, Gennifer’s website includes A Writing Timeline, a series of videos and podcasts about Chasing Secrets.

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A Conversation Between Avi and Gary D. Schmidt

Avi and Gary D. SchmidtWhen Avi published his 1950s’ era novel, Catch You Later, Traitor, he dedicated the book to Gary D. Schmidt, fellow author, fellow reader, fellow connoisseur of noir detective novels and history. The Bookologist is privileged to listen in on this conversation between two authors who are so greatly admired for the depth and texture within their books. Enjoy!

Gary D. Schmidt:
Ray Bradbury once wrote a short article entitled “Memories Shape the Voice” in which he talked about the powerful ways that his childhood memories affected the making of his Greentown, Illinois. It wasn’t just the details that would come back to him as he created the world of his short stories—it was how he felt about those details: the beauty (to him) of the town’s factories, the terror (to him) of the gullies. It seems to me that this is true also of your evocation of 1951 Brooklyn. Is that fair to say?

Avi:
It is fair. It’s been many years since I’ve lived in NYC, but I confess I still think of myself as a New Yorker. I’ve written more about the city than any other place, from City of Light, City of Darka dystopian graphic novel—to Sophia’s Wara tale of the American Revolution. It’s not just “home” in a physical sense, it’s my emotional home. And yet, I now live in the Rocky Mountains, nine thousand feet up, in a community of thirteen, the nearest neighbor a mile away.

When writing Catch You Later, Traitor, which is set, for the most part, in my boyhood neighborhood, it was easy for me to walk home from school, play stoopball, go to the local movie theater. I easily recall sitting on the front stoop reading comic books with my friends—even which comic books.

Gary D. Schmidt:
One part of that world is the physical setting: Pete’s apartment, the streets, the nursing home, the school. Though I suspect that being in these settings brought a great deal of nostalgic pleasure, how did these settings play a part in the plotting of the book?

Avi:
I think all writers depend on sensory memory. Consider Ritman’s Books where, in the book, Pete hangs out. There was such a bookstore in my neighborhood, which I loved to go to. The same for that movie theater where I would go for the Saturday morning kids’ shows. My Brooklyn was very much a small town. There was everything I needed, and all I needed to construct the book. Even when I had to go beyond, by subway—I love the city subways—it gave me great pleasure to write about them.

Brooklyn Heights SchoolGary D. Schmidt:
The school is particularly intriguing to me, since it seems to me to be acting in interesting thematic ways. School, for Pete, is a place of monolithic power: the teacher. There is one point of view, one way of responding to America, one way of sitting and responding and behaving. Toward the end of the book, Pete calls his teacher, Mr. Donavan, a bully—and it seems at that point that Mr. Donavan represents all of the school. But does it seem to you as well that the school, with its insistent power, also represents the way the country was acting toward dissent at this time?

Avi:
Mr. Donavan is based on a teacher I did have. I describe him as I remember him. But don’t forget Mr. Malakowski, who is also real, and a nice guy. He was, in fact, my favorite teacher. Parents think they know about their children’s schools, but I think in some way schools constitute a parallel universe to home life. They don’t always intersect. Pete’s parents don’t really know what’s going on there, and Pete doesn’t want them to get involved. That, I think, is typical. In today’s world, the older a kid gets the less he/she wants parents to be involved in school. Yes, the school does represent the country at that time, but it’s important to remember that it was not the whole country.

Gary D. Schmidt:
And of course, there are the characters that are so vivid—an Avi trademark. I think especially of Mr. Ordson, the blind man to whom Peter reads. He reads the newspaper, because Mr. Ordson wants to keep up with current events. And he is a wise and good friend to Pete. You’ve written that Mr. Ordson is based on a real person to whom you, as a young adolescent, read. Are there other characters based on folks from your past? Perhaps Pete’s father, a noble character? Have you, as William Faulkner once advised, cut up your relatives to use them in your plot?

Avi:
How can I say this? Pete’s father is based on what my father was not. My father was not a nice man. Very hard on me. Abusive. Don’t get me going. Anyway, I think Pete’s father is what I would have liked my father to be. I bet you’ve worked from that kind of opposite, too. Cathartic, perhaps. On the other hand, Pete’s older brother is somewhat based on my own older brother who, like many older brothers, can be patronizing to younger brothers. That said, a major part of the story is not about families that pull apart—there is some of that—but how families stay together. And Kat—a key fictional character in the book—is drawn to Pete’s family as much as she is to Pete.

Gary D. Schmidt:
One other element from the past: the noir voices, the sounds of the hard-boiled detective fiction that you read, that I read, that we both still read. At times, Pete leaves the first-person narrative to go into that hard-boiled voice. I think you probably had a lot of fun with that, right?

Avi:
I adored writing those sections. I think there is something uniquely American in that noir voice. The tough love. The sarcasm. The wit. The truth-telling. The very careful literary construction, all of which masks a deep-rooted sentimentality, an embarrassed, if you will, searching for love. Very complex. The thought that I can share that—introduce it—to my readers gives me great pleasure.

Gary D. Schmidt:
In this McCarthy–era novel, Pete is thrown into a world in which fear inspires hatred. As news spreads that his father does not accept an easy vision of a perfect America but believes that the stories of workers and African Americans also need full play in tales of the development of the country, Pete is ostracized, since it is assumed that his father must be a Commie! Since all historical fiction is written both about a time in the past and for readers in the present, it seems to me that your novel is a powerful warning against assuming that any narrative about our country is simple and uncomplicated.

bk_go-between_160Avi:
One of my favorite notions about historical fiction is expressed in the opening lines of L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between. “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” I find that a fascinating idea because I don’t entirely agree with it. What I mean is, yes, the past is a different country, but they do not always do things differently there. I know, from what I’ve read of what you’ve written, you understand this. Our goal is to make the past meaningful to the present, right? To give it life. America has such a complex and fascinating history. But how little people know of it! How many great stories there are yet to tell!

Gary D. Schmidt:
Pete must deal with some hard truths: in the novel, he develops strong anger toward both his brother and his great-uncle, anger which does not get resolved in the narrative. At the same time, he comes to understand that his father lives a life that is larger and perhaps more noble and honorable than he had imagined. Is it fair to say that in one way, this novel is about the limits of knowledge—that we cannot truly know someone else completely?

Avi:
Pete’s father tells Pete: “Nothing is simple. Know that and you know half the world’s wisdom.” Oh, how I believe that! Bet you do, too. Somewhere I read, “Poor writing makes what you know simple. Good writing makes it complex.” Right?

Gary D. Schmidt:
Perhaps this is the hubris of the McCarthy era as well—the assumption that I have the right to know everything about someone else. I note this in the context of a world in which it seems to be the growing assumption that we do have the right to know what we want to know about another person—something that Pete’s father insists is not true at all.

Avi:
Hey! Privacy, the last frontier! It’s one of the most important things about book reading. It’s truly private. Far more so than even digital reading! The other day—in San Francisco—I passed a used book store. Out front was a box labeled “Free Books.” Think of it! No one would know if I picked up a book. Or read it. Or thought about it. Or what I thought. No one. And yet, and yet—and I know you believe this, too—nothing is more intimate than sharing thoughts. That said, one of the most powerful things a person can have—for good or ill—is a secret. As a kid I recall playing a game we called Secrets. The idea being that you and your friend each shared a real secret. A dangerous game, when you think about it.

You Never Heard of Willie Mays?Gary D. Schmidt:
Pete decides that he will be a Giants fan, going against Brooklyn’s fanatic loyalty to the Dodgers—who, we know, will one day betray that loyalty. I know this is, on one level, simply Pete’s desire to get back at the others around him for their hatred. But it also seems to me that Pete is asserting his right to be different—exactly what McCarthyists feared and prosecuted, and, perhaps, exactly what our own culture seems to fear: the person who does not buy into the current vision of the American dream: to acquire. This is not a message novel; it first does what E. M. Forster claims the writer must do: make the reader turn the page. But at the same time, you are making some powerful suggestions that warn against a too easy acceptance of the culture’s claims upon us.

Avi:
Being loyal to a false ideal can be very destructive. Being loyal to high ideal can be very dangerous. Pete’s shift from being a Brooklyn Dodger fan to a New York Giants fan is something that came right out of my life—and, yes, in 1951 when the Giants won the National Pennant just as I recount it in the book. It was my first step in becoming independent from my family. But when you become independent of your family—or your culture—you pay a price. More often than not you are rejected, told that you have abandoned them, whoever or whatever them might be. But being different, being independent, is liberating. In Catch You Later, Traitor, the word traitor becomes a code word for “being different.” In the story being different enriches Pete’s life. The story begins by his no longer being a kid. It ends by his becoming a kid again—but far deeper in experience. Hey, that’s why I dedicated the book to you. You’ve lived your life that way. Right?

Bookologist:
Thank you both for this interview. It opens many paths to explore and ideas to consider, but we expected no less from the two of you.

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Give me a good mystery

Summertime is synonymous with reading for me.

My grandmother kept a light blue blanket by the back door so I could spread it out under the elm tree and dissolve into stories. Sometimes a lemonade, sometimes a piece of watermelon … but always a book. Sometimes a friend would sit next to me absorbed in a story of their own but most often it was just me, the birds, the sounds of summer, and a hardcover book.

I was reminded of that blanket under the tree this weekend when we were in Somerset, Wisconsin. We had to be somewhere at 11 am but we were early. We had brought books with us—of course—and we sat under a tree reading.

Eddie Red UndercoverFor me, it was Eddie Red Undercover: Mystery on Museum Mile. Reading mysteries is a passion and a comfort for me. This book by Marcia Wells, with integral illustrations by Marcos Calo, swept me in and connected me to the girl who read during her summers, as many books as they’d let her check out of the library.

Eddie Red lives in New York City with a dad who’s been downsized from the library and a mother who’s a real estate agent. Although he’s been attending Senate Academy, a school for gifted students, his family’s financial duress puts him in a state of anxiety over not being able to afford tuition next year. He likes his school but he realizes he won’t see his best friend, Jonah, anymore. Jonah is brilliant but he’s challenged by hyperactivity and a number of medical conditions … all of which make him a perfect sidekick.

You see, Edmund Lonnrot, our hero, is a 12-year-old with a photographic memory and a startling ability to draw detailed, lifelike portraits of people he has seen recently. When Edmund and his dad are drawn into a dangerous situation in an alley, Edmund is later able to draw the criminals for the police. It turns out these particular bad guys are part of the Picasso Gang, internationally-wanted art thieves. The police hire Edmund as a police sketch artist, code name Eddie Red, to observe the comings and goings of people on Museum Mile in NYC, any of whom could be a disguised art thief.

Plausibility? Well, let’s just say that the phrase “willing suspension of disbelief” is apropos. I was willing to overlook the NYPD hiring a twelve-year-old for a stakeout as farfetched  and get completely involved in Edmund’s and Jonah’s story, a chess game of a plot, and Edmund’s likeable sense of humor. The author does a good job of making Eddie’s talents feel universally adoptable—if only we had a Jonah to give us that extra oomph in the mystery-solving arena.

Eddie Red Undercover - Marcos Calo illustratorCalo’s portraits are a part of the plot, essential to the story. They’re as full of character as the author’s story. At the end of the book Eddie Red offers advice on how to draw a portrait. That’s perfection because I found myself itching to pick up a pencil and draw the people around me while I was solving the mystery alongside Edmund.

It’s an engaging story, perfect for reading any time, but especially satisfying on a summer afternoon.

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That’s Some Egg

by Vicki Palmquist

Under the EggIn Under the Egg, Theodora Tenpenny begins her story when her beloved grandfather, Jack, is hit by a taxi … and dies. Outside their 200-year-old Manhattan townhome, Jack whispers to Theo to “look under the egg.” Dealing with her grief, but desperate because she and her head-in-the-clouds mother have no income, Theo tries to figure out what her grandfather meant. She’s fairly certain he’s trying to provide for them, but did he have to be so mysterious?

What unravels is a tense mystery of art “theft,” Jack’s soldiering in World War II, suspicious adults who become altogether too interested, and a new best friend, Bodhi, who aids and abets Theo’s harebrained, but ultimately brilliant, schemes.

Under the Egg is a fast-paced, intelligent, learning-about-art-history while saving the world sort of book, not unlike Indiana Jones or Mr. Lemoncello’s Library. I stayed up all night to read it, unable to rest until the mystery was solved.

On Laura Marx Fitzgerald’s website, there are wonderful resources. When I finished Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code, the first thing I did was find a painting of The Lord’s Supper to see if he was right. Fitzgerald saves us the hunt. There’s a map of all the places Theo visits in New York City. There’s more about Raphael, with thoughtfully provided paintings that link to fascinating stories from the painter’s life. There’s a page devoted to separating fact from fiction. And more.

Readers who love adventurous romps, who like to puzzle through a mystery, or enjoy visiting art museums will adore this book.

 

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The Magic Valentine's Potato

Big Bob and The Magic Valentine’s Day Potato

Several years ago, a mysterious package arrived at our house on Valentine’s Day: a plain brown box addressed to our entire family with a return address “TMVDP.” The package weighed almost nothing. It weighed almost nothing because the box contained four lunchbox serving-size bags of potato chips. Nothing else. Or at least I thought there […]

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Gifted: Up All Night

My mother had the knack of giving me a book every Christmas that kept me up all night … after I had opened it on Christmas Eve. I particularly remember the “oh-boy-it’s-dark-outside” year that I received The Lord of the Rings and accompanied the hobbits into Woody End where they first meet the Nazgul, the […]

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