Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Tag Archives | Mystery

Capers and Cons

When you (or your stu­dents) want a book that keeps you turn­ing the pages for your week­night and week­end read­ing, here are some sug­ges­tions for books with that nim­ble pac­ing and what-are-they-up-to plots. Many of them are just right for mid­dle grade or avid younger-than-that read­ers, with a cou­ple of teen titles added. (And, of course, all are suit­able for read­ing by adults.)

Adam Canfield of the Slash  

Adam Can­field of the Slash
writ­ten by Michael Winer­ip
Can­dlewick Press, 2005

This book is by turns fun­ny and seri­ous, but Adam Can­field is always inter­est­ed in dis­cov­er­ing the truth. Writ­ten by a New York Times colum­nist (on edu­ca­tion) who won a Pulitzer Prize, Winer­ip knows what his read­ers will find inter­est­ing. Adam reluc­tant­ly accepts the posi­tion of co-edi­tor of their school paper. He’s skep­ti­cal when a third-grad­er uncov­ers a pos­si­ble scan­dal. Adam and his co-edi­tor, Jen­nifer, take the sto­ry to the prin­ci­pal, who for­bids them to inves­ti­gate. Adam and Jen­nifer can’t help them­selves and they’re soon uncov­er­ing secrets.  Even though school papers are most­ly dig­i­tal now, this book will moti­vate read­ers to be truth seek­ers.

Con Academy  

Con Acad­e­my
writ­ten by Joe Schreiber
HMH Books for Young Read­ers, 2015

For teen read­ers: Senior Michael Shea has conned his way into one of the country’s élite prep schools. He’s an old hand at cons, but he’s unpre­pared to meet Andrea, his com­pe­ti­tion. When the two of them set up a com­pe­ti­tion to con the school’s Big Man on Cam­pus out of $50,000, the stakes are high. One twist after anoth­er, a full crew of grifters brought in to effect the con … this book reads cin­e­mat­i­cal­ly and moves along quick­ly.

Eddie Red Undercover: Doom at Grant's Tomb  

Eddie Red Under­cov­er: Doom at Grant’s Tomb
writ­ten by Mar­cia Wells, illus­trat­ed by Mar­cos Calo
HMH Books for Young Read­ers, 2016

Hav­ing just fin­ished the third book in the series, I’m a fan of the youngest inves­ti­ga­tor work­ing for the NYPD. There’s a back sto­ry for that, of course, but Eddie has an eidet­ic mem­o­ry and a quick­sil­ver mind … he’s good at solv­ing crimes. The police are always reluc­tant to involve Eddie because he’s only 12 years old, but the kid’s good at what he does. In this install­ment, it appears that Eddie is being tar­get­ed for seri­ous con­se­quences by inter­na­tion­al art thieves whom he’s foiled before. The thieves are steal­ing valu­able items from well-known land­marks. Can Eddie psych them out before they catch up with him?

 

Framed!

 

Framed!
writ­ten by James Pon­ti
Aladdin, 2016

Jess Aarons has been prac­tic­ing all sum­mer so he can be the fastest run­ner in the fifth grade. And he almost is, until the new girl in school, Leslie Burke, out­paces him. The two become fast friends and spend most days in the woods behind Leslie’s house, where they invent an enchant­ed land called Ter­abithia. One morn­ing, Leslie goes to Ter­abithia with­out Jess and a tragedy occurs. It will take the love of his fam­i­ly and the strength that Leslie has giv­en him for Jess to be able to deal with his grief.

Illyrian Adventure  

Illyr­i­an Adven­tures
writ­ten by Lloyd Alexan­der
Dut­ton Books, 1987

This is the first of six books about 16-year-old Ves­per Hol­ly who, in 1872, in the com­pa­ny of her guardian, Bin­nie, trav­els to Illyr­ia on the Adri­at­ic Sea to prove one of her late father’s the­o­ries. She’s a girl with mod­ern sen­si­bil­i­ties set against Binnie’s con­ser­v­a­tive con­cerns. Ves­per gets caught up in fast-paced intrigue with a rebel­lion against the king, all the while man­ag­ing to search for the leg­endary trea­sure. With Mr. Alexander’s char­ac­ter­is­tic humor, and a touch of romance, this series is fun to read and def­i­nite­ly qual­i­fies as a turn-the-page adven­ture.

Jack London and the Klondike Gold Rush  

Jack Lon­don and the Klondike Gold Rush
writ­ten by Peter Lourie, illus­trat­ed by Wen­dell Minor
Hen­ry Holt, 2017

Teens will enjoy this one. When Jack Lon­don turns 21, the Gold Rush of 1897 com­pels trea­sure seek­ers from around the world to trek through life-threat­en­ing con­di­tions to get to the gold fields in the Yukon Ter­ri­to­ry of Cana­da. Jack is swept up in the excite­ment, assem­bling a team of adven­tur­ers and sup­plies to with­stand the cru­el jour­ney. That some­one this young could com­mand respect and cama­raderie speaks loud­ly about his char­ac­ter. This true sto­ry serves as an excel­lent com­pan­ion books for Call of the Wild and White Fang, Jack London’s Klondike sto­ries. A real page-turn­er.

Magic Misfits  

Mag­ic Mis­fits
writ­ten by Neill Patrick Har­ris, illus by Lis­sy Mar­lin
Lit­tle, Brown Books, 2017

This thor­ough­ly enjoy­able book fol­lows Carter when he runs away from his crooked, thiev­ing uncle to the New Eng­land town of Min­er­al Wells, a sur­pris­ing­ly wel­com­ing place. Con­vinced that mag­ic isn’t real, and yet a tal­ent­ed street magi­cian, Carter is soon befriend­ed by a group of Mag­ic Mis­fits who set out to expose a cir­cus that’s a front for a well-orches­trat­ed, and dan­ger­ous, team of grifters. Adven­tur­ous, fun­ny, heart­warm­ing, this will cap­ture read­ers’ imag­i­na­tions. 

Mighty Jack  

Mighty Jack
writ­ten and illus­trat­ed by Ben Hatke
First Sec­ond, 2016

Mighty Jack and the Gob­lin King
writ­ten and illus­trat­ed by Ben Hatke
First Sec­ond, 2017

In the first book, Jack’s sis­ter Mad­dy per­suades him to trade their Mom’s car for a box of mys­te­ri­ous seeds … and the adven­ture begins. These are not, of course, ordi­nary seeds. They grow strange, oth­er­world­ly crea­tures and the kids, includ­ing next-door-neigh­bor Lil­ly, are chal­lenged to deal with crea­tures run amok.

In the sec­ond book, an ogre snatch­es Mad­dy into anoth­er world with Jack and Lil­ly deter­mined to res­cue her. Along the way, we meet gob­lins (good) and ogres (bad) and Lil­ly ful­fills a prophe­cy. It’s all very excit­ing and well-told with vibrant, engross­ing illus­tra­tions.

Parker Inheritance  

Park­er Inher­i­tance
writ­ten by Var­i­an John­son
Arthur A. Levine Books / Scholas­tic, 2018

In mod­ern-day Lam­bert, Can­dice dis­cov­ers a mys­tery in her grandmother’s let­ters. In the 1950s, her grand­moth­er left Lam­bert in shame, but it’s soon appar­ent to Can­dice and her friend Bran­don that racism was behind those events … and they reflect that things haven’t changed that much. Read­ing this book will bring your cre­ative prob­lem-solv­ing skills into play. There’s intrigue, humor, and a lot to think about in this sto­ry. 

Player King  

Play­er King
writ­ten by Avi
Atheneum, 2017

In 1846, young Lam­bert Sim­nel slaves away in a Lon­don tav­ern, com­plete­ly unaware of the pol­i­tics of the land.  When he’s pur­chased in the mid­dle of the night by a fri­ar, he’s astound­ed when the man reveals, “You, Lam­bert, are actu­al­ly Prince Edward, the true King of Eng­land!” King Hen­ry VII has just claimed the throne of Eng­land, but only after Prince Edward, who has a truer claim, dis­ap­pears. Could Lam­bert be the real prince? How could he not remem­ber this? Based on a blip in his­to­ry, this is a fas­ci­nat­ing look at a con­fi­dence job planned by politi­cians whose lives are at stake.

Riddle in Ruby  

Rid­dle in Ruby
writ­ten by Kent Davis
Green­wil­low Books, 2015

In an alter­nate his­to­ry colo­nial Philadel­phia, Ruby Teach is train­ing to be a thief and a guardian of secrets. It isn’t until she meets young Lord Athen that she begins to under­stand that her entire life has been kept secret from the pow­ers that be. In this world, those pow­ers use alche­my to fuel the Indus­tri­al Rev­o­lu­tion. It’s a fast-paced, fun­ny, and com­pelling book, the first of a tril­o­gy, with The Changer’s Key and The Great Unrav­el pro­vid­ing the rest of the sto­ry.

Supernatural Sleuthing Service  

Super­nor­mal Sleuthing Ser­vice
writ­ten by Gwen­da Bond and Christo­pher Rowe,
illus­trat­ed by Glenn Thomas
Green­wil­low Books, 2017

Stephen and his dad are mov­ing cross-coun­try so Dad can be the new exec­u­tive chef at the New Har­mo­nia, a New York City hotel for super­nor­mals (read: mon­sters!) It isn’t long before Stephen dis­cov­ers he’s part super­nor­mal him­self! When Stephen is framed for steal­ing a valu­able heir­loom, he teams up with two new friends to prove his inno­cence. It’s a spooky sto­ry, filled with humor and hijinks, and there’s a sec­ond book, The Sphinx’s Secret. You know the right read­er for these books!

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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 naïveté 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.

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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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