KBKL Middle Grade Mysteries with: Natasha Tarpley!

Kick-butt Kidlit Presents_

Our new feature series (Kick-butt Kidlit Spotlight On:) continues this month with a focus on MYSTERY NOVELS! Specifically middle grade mystery because MG is our jam!

Let’s give a big Kick-butt welcome to our guest author for today, Natasha Tarpley!

The Harlem Charade.png

We Are Here: Place as a Character in The Harlem Charade

It’s easy to overlook a place. Walking the same sidewalks, or passing by the same buildings, houses, and stores every day, we tend to take the communities and neighborhoods where we live or spend time for granted. But sometimes a place isn’t content fading into the background; sometimes a place wants to be noticed, and it finds ways of getting our attention. The Harlem neighborhood in New York City, famously known as a mecca of African American arts and culture, definitely captured my attention and plays an essential role in the plot of my middle grade mystery, The Harlem Charade.

I lived in Harlem during the late 1990s and early 2000s, at a time when Harlem was undergoing major transformation as a result of a wave of gentrification (still happening today). Every week it seemed like more old businesses, structures, and long-time neighbors had disappeared and been replaced by new residents, new luxury apartment buildings, and corporate stores. One day, while walking up Malcolm X Boulevard, I felt compelled to look up at the scaffolding around a nearby construction site. Hanging there was a portrait by the street artist Brett Dizney, painted on a piece of scrap wood, of a Harlem resident and a quote about that person’s recollections of the neighborhood. I started seeing the portraits everywhere, popping up in surprising places, telling often overlooked stories, whispering, “we are here. We are here.”

Like many of the remnants of Harlem’s past, Brett Dizney’s portraits also eventually vanished, but they stayed in my memory for years afterwards, and became the inspiration for The Harlem Charade. In The Harlem Charade, Alex, Jin, and Elvin, the book’s three 12 year-old protagonists, must learn about Harlem’s history in order to save the neighborhood from a greedy politician who wants to turn it into a themed amusement park called, Harlem World. As I watched so much of Harlem’s past disappear, I started to think about all the stories of a community that get lost in the wake of new development—like Dizney’s portraits. What is worth preserving about a place, and who gets to decide?

In the book, I wanted my characters to not only wrestle with these questions, but also to create a scenario in which they were forced to look at, experience, and participate in their community in new ways. My hope was that The Harlem Charade would encourage readers, too, to explore their own neighborhoods, to identify the things that were valuable and worth preserving, and to play an active role in making their communities better.

After leaving Harlem in the 2000s, I returned to the South Side of Chicago, where I was born and raised, and now reside. This is an underserved area of the city that is much maligned (as Harlem once was)—reports of violence and poverty are staples on the nightly news. But it is also a place where thousands of African Americans settled after migrating from the South in search of a better life during the Great Migration. It is a place of parks, community gardens, people greeting you when you pass on the street, backyard barbeques, and families still striving to make a good life. In The Harlem Charade, I especially wanted to encourage kids who might live in neighborhoods that are considered unappealing by others, to learn about the history, the complexities, and, yes, the magic that exists in their communities.

Natasha Tarpley

Natasha Tarpley is the author of the best-selling picture book, I Love My Hair!, as well as other acclaimed titles for children and adults. She is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship among other awards. When she is not writing books, Ms. Tarpley can usually be found reading them. She has also taken up the cruel and unusual hobby of running marathons. Ms. Tarpley is the co-founder of Voonderbar! Media, a multicultural children’s book media company. She lives with her husband and the ghosts of two cats on the south side of Chicago.

Add THE HARLEM CHARADE on Goodreads!

Connect with Natasha on Twitter or through her website!

Click here to enter to win a copy of THE HARLEM CHARADE!

The final giveaway will be for EVERY SINGLE book featured in the Kick-butt Kidlit Spotlight On: MYSTERY blog series so make sure you check it out on every post! (New options to enter will be added with each post.) Draw closes on Friday, October 5th at the end of our series.

Thank you for checking out our Kick-butt Kidlit Spotlight On: MYSTERY series! Missed a post? Check out the links below!

Kick-butt Kidlit Spotlight on: MYSTERY Previous Posts

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Kara LaReau

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Sheila Turnage

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Henry Lien

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Jill Diamond

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Beth McMullen

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Casey Lyall

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Kat Zhang

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: C.M. Surrisi

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Dora M. Mitchell

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Natasha Deen

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Jennifer Chambliss Bertman

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Wendy McLeod MacKnight

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Lauren Magaziner

 

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KBKL Middle Grade Mysteries with: Kara LaReau!

Kick-butt Kidlit Presents_

Our new feature series (Kick-butt Kidlit Spotlight On:) continues this month with a focus on MYSTERY NOVELS! Specifically middle grade mystery because MG is our jam!

Let’s give a big Kick-butt welcome to our guest author for today, Kara LaReau! 

Bland Sisters

Unintentional Mystery, Intentional Humor: Writing The Uncanny Express

The Uncanny Express was the first mystery I ever wrote, and my decision to write a whodunit was fairly arbitrary: The Jolly Regina, the first story in the Unintentional Adventures of the Bland Sisters, took place on a ship and played with all the tropes of pirate and seafaring stories. It felt right that the second story should take place on a train, and what better tropes to celebrate than all things Agatha Christie, particularly in her masterpiece Murder on the Orient Express?

I already knew this book was going to be hard to write, especially as the second book in a trilogy, but I had no idea just how hard: the twisty plotting, the suspects and their alibis and motivations, getting the homage to Agatha Christie just right. And on top of all of that? It had to be funny. Thankfully, I just needed to follow Agatha Christie’s lead. The premise of her mysteries lends itself to a comic setup: the earnest detective set among eccentric characters is pretty much the straight man-funny man archetype, and I already use that archetype quite a bit throughout the series. Jaundice and Kale are the ultimate straight men — or would that be straight sisters?

But I don’t go “straight” to comedy when I write. My first (and second, and third) drafts are completely devoid of humor, or any detail, really. They’re all business, usually just the dialogue and direction that moves the plot forward. As I flesh things out and the characters come to life and the natural rhythms of the story become clear, the humor manifests, and it’s almost as if the jokes start telling themselves.

Some of the humor is in the naming of the characters, one of my great joys as a writer. I love finding just the right name to fit a character, and I especially love names that are fun to read and read aloud. For instance, my stand-in for Christie’s Hercule Poirot is the great detective Hugo Fromage, which is French for big cheese. A tweedy, put-upon maid is named Vera Dreary. Another character on the Uncanny Express is Countess Ima Goudenoff, which inspired this exchange:

“What is your first name, if I might ask?” inquired the great detective.

“It is Ima,” said the countess.

Ima Goudenoff?” Jaundice said.

“You are,” said Kale, patting her sister’s hand.

I love a good joke (obviously), but I also love using literary and cultural references to enhance my humor. Sometimes, my references are meant for kids, and other times, they can be a bit more sophisticated and adult. For instance, here’s a little joke that cheekily references Murder on the Orient Express:

“Everyone looks guilty,” Jaundice whispered.

“Well, they can’t all have done it,” said Kale. “How silly would that be?”

I hope that kids of all ages will enjoy The Unintentional Adventures of the Bland Sisters, so I’ve included all kinds of humor — physical comedy, wordplay, even a bit of scatological humor (despite those who might pooh-pooh it) — for maximum entertainment. Also, I think the best stories are the ones you can come back to again and again, and discover something new and different and funny each time. I especially love going back to stories I loved as a kid and discovering whole new meanings with my (semi-)adult sensibility. It’s like a gift that keeps on giving.

I don’t know if I’ll ever write another mystery — though I’ve learned to never say never when it comes to writing stories. I’m glad I can say I wrote one, and I like to think that it works as a funny, punny read and a solid whodunit. I hope you agree.

Kara LaReau

Kara LaReau was born and raised in Connecticut. She received her Masters in Fine Arts in Writing, Literature, and Publishing from Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts and later worked as an editor at Candlewick Press and at Scholastic Press. She is the author of picture books such as UGLY FISH, illustrated by Scott Magoon, and Good Night Little Monsters, illustrated by Brian Won; an award-winning chapter book series called The Infamous Ratsos, illustrated by Matt Myers; and a middle-grade trilogy called The Unintentional Adventures of the Bland Sisters, illustrated by Jen Hill. Kara lives in Providence, Rhode Island with her husband and son and their cat.

Add THE UNCANNY EXPRESS (THE UNINTENTIONAL ADVENTURES OF THE BLAND SISTERS #2) on Goodreads!

Connect with Kara on Twitter or through her website!

Click here to win a copy of THE UNCANNY EXPRESS (THE UNINTENTIONAL ADVENTURES OF THE BLAND SISTERS #2)!

The final giveaway will be for EVERY SINGLE book featured in the Kick-butt Kidlit Spotlight On: MYSTERY blog series so make sure you check it out on every post! (New options to enter will be added with each post.) Draw closes on Friday, October 5th at the end of our series.

Stay tuned for our final Spotlight on MYSTERY series post from Natasha Tarpley!

Kick-butt Kidlit Spotlight on: MYSTERY Previous Posts

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Sheila Turnage

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Henry Lien

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Jill Diamond

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Beth McMullen

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Casey Lyall

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Kat Zhang

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: C.M. Surrisi

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Dora M. Mitchell

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Natasha Deen

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Jennifer Chambliss Bertman

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Wendy McLeod MacKnight

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Lauren Magaziner

KBKL Middle Grade Mysteries with: Henry Lien!

Kick-butt Kidlit Presents_

Our new feature series (Kick-butt Kidlit Spotlight On:) continues this month with a focus on MYSTERY NOVELS! Specifically middle grade mystery because MG is our jam!

Let’s give a big Kick-butt welcome to our guest author for today, Henry Lien! 

Peasprout Chen

Let’s talk about mystery mashups.

Mystery + Fantasy + Boarding School Story = Harry Potter

I think books one through four of the Harry Potter series were so beloved because they were in fact masterfully constructed mysteries mashed up with other genres. The first four books were, at heart, clockwork whodunnits dressed up in fantasy cosplay, all of it masquerading as a boarding school picaresque like Tom Brown’s Schooldays.

Mashups Hide Clues

The effect of mashing these genres together was ingenious: Rowling made the clues that she hid in plain view harder to spot because you were distracted by all the worldbuilding, tropes, and story components from those other genres. And I believe that one mark of a good mystery is that a single plot element is doing double, triple, quadruple, even quintuple duty to distract you from its true function as a clue in plain view regarding the central mystery.

Exhibit 1

In Prisoner of Azkaban, you thought that Hermione’s constant appearances in just about every class offered at Hogwarts served to 1) demonstrate her over-committed class schedule as a running joke; 2) illustrate the ambitiousness that we’d come to love in her; 3) give her opportunity to serve as a Greek chorus by expressing doubts about theories that professors raised in class regarding Sirius Black, etc.; and 4) develop the questioning nature of her character. So you thought you fully understood the plot reasons for Hermione’s constant appearances in every class. What you didn’t realize until you got to the big surprise was that the appearances were serving a fifth purpose, which was the real purpose, which involved a stunning plot twist in service of a mystery plot, and which turned everything that preceded upside down. And the whole time this was happening, there was an equally complex set of plot layers happening around Lupin.

This was breathtakingly masterful plotting and it was possible in part because we were distracted from the clues that Rowling strewed about in plain view by the riot of fantasy elements and the boarding school story tropes. The result was one of the greatest puzzle mysteries of all time.

Mystery + Kung Fu + Figure Skating + Fantasy + 10,000 Other Things = Peasprout Chen

I was inspired to become a writer by Prisoner of Azkaban. I wanted to achieve a puzzle story as brilliantly choreographed as that book. That was a tall request of a first novel but I had the same secret weapon Rowling had: I had a mashup mystery story.

Peasprout Chen, Future Legend of Skate and Sword is an Asian-lore middle grade fantasy about a girl who comes to an academy to study an invented sport that combines figure skating with kung fu. When someone starts vandalizing the buildings on the campus, everyone suspects immigrant Peasprout, who is thrust into a mission to clear her name on top of becoming a champion at her sport. The New York Times’ description of it emphasizes the deeply mashup nature: “It’s Hermione Granger meets Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon meets the Ice Capades meets Mean Girls. For all its disparate ingredients, though, Peasprout Chen, Future Legend of Skate and Sword speaks in a single, strong voice, thanks to its spirited heroine.” What they left out is that it is also an action/adventure tale, a sports book, a boarding school story, a voicey faux memoir from a very unusual character POV, a sensitive LGBTQ coming of age story, and an Own Voices immigration tale. Oh, and a musical, sorta. There’s even a theme song that I wrote and Idina Menzel (“Frozen”, “Wicked”) sang the song at my book launch (check out www.henrylien.com for the video).

The effect of all these wildly diverse elements is that you’re distracted from the fact that what you’re reading is first and foremost a mystery story with clues scattered throughout that reward a second reading. To say more than that would risk spoilers. I’ll just say that almost no one has guessed the solution to the puzzle before the big reveal. I owe a lot of that to J.K. Rowling. Her work taught me that mashups allow for tricks and sleight of hand that achieve some wondrous things: true surprise and real storytelling magic.

Henry Lien.png

Henry Lien is a 2012 graduate of Clarion West, and his short fiction has appeared in publications like Asimov’s, earning several Nebula Award nominations. Born in Taiwan, Henry currently lives in Hollywood, California. He is the author of PEASPROUT CHEN, FUTURE LEGEND OF SKATE AND SWORD and the upcoming PEASPROUT CHEN: BATTLE OF CHAMPIONS.

Add PEASPROUT CHEN, FUTURE LEGEND OF SKATE AND SWORD on Goodreads!

Connect with Henry on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or through his website!

Click here to win a copy of PEASPROUT CHEN, FUTURE LEGEND OF SKATE AND SWORD!

The final giveaway will be for EVERY SINGLE book featured in the Kick-butt Kidlit Spotlight On: MYSTERY blog series so make sure you check it out on every post! (New options to enter will be added with each post.) Draw closes on Friday, October 5th at the end of our series.

Tune in on Friday for a guest post from Sheila Turnage!

Kick-butt Kidlit Spotlight on: MYSTERY Previous Posts

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Jill Diamond

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Beth McMullen

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Casey Lyall

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Kat Zhang

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: C.M. Surrisi

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Dora M. Mitchell

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Natasha Deen

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Jennifer Chambliss Bertman

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Wendy McLeod MacKnight

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Lauren Magaziner

KBKL Middle Grade Mysteries with: Jill Diamond!

Kick-butt Kidlit Presents_

Our new feature series (Kick-butt Kidlit Spotlight On:) is kicking off this month with a focus on MYSTERY NOVELS! Specifically middle grade mystery because MG is our jam!

Let’s give a big Kick-butt welcome to our guest author for today, Jill Diamond! 

Lou Lou and Pea.png

Come, Watson, come! The game is afoot. Not a word! Into your clothes and come!”

 This call to mystery action was spoken by one of the most famous literary characters of all time, Sherlock Holmes, to his crime-solving partner Dr. John Watson in Sir Arthur Conan Doyles’ The Abbey Grange. While Sherlock Holmes is unquestionably a master detective in his own right, it’s the team of Holmes and Watson that ultimately gets the mystery-solving job done. And it’s the dynamic friendship between the two characters that really keeps readers hooked. Holmes and Watson have a number of things in common – they are both intelligent, interested in sleuthing, and, depending on the specific depiction, fond of wearing hats. However, it’s the two best friends’ differences that add richness and depth to their adventures and their relationship. Alone, they are well-crafted characters but as a duo, they are mystery detective magic.

Mystery-solving friend duos or teams like Holmes and Watson are common in literature generally, but definitely have a special place in middle grade novels. Not only is the mystery genre particularly beloved in middle grade, the exploration of friendships is a common middle grade theme. Middle grade novels often address how friendships form, what makes them work well and endure or fall apart, and the benefits and challenges of friendship. And, what better way to examine friendship than against the backdrop of an exciting story that requires teamwork to resolve.

In my middle grade novels, LOU LOU AND PEA AND THE MURAL MYSTERY and LOU LOU AND PEA AND THE BICENTENNIAL BONANZA, the main characters, Lou Lou Bombay and Peacock Pearl are two best friends with much in common but, like Holmes and Watson, very different personalities and strengths. I thought it would be fun to interview them and have them tell you a bit about themselves, what makes their friendship special, and how they use it to solve mysteries in their neighborhood of El Corazón!

INTERVIEW WITH LOU LOU AND PEA

Q: How did you become friends?

Peacock Pearl: We were in the first grade and had a chart-making assignment. My chart showed my cleaning chores and Lou Lou’s showed the days that she watered her cactus. When a boy in our class, Kyle Longfellow spilled his chocolate milk on my chart, Lou Lou helped me make a new one, and we’ve been best friends ever since!

Q: What is the best thing about your friendship?

Lou Lou Bombay: We like a lot of the same things, which is really fun! We both love tea and scones and we’ve made them a part of our Friday friend tradition. We like going to see performances at the Heliotrope, the theater in our neighborhood. And we’re both really into solving problems and mysteries!

PP: We’re really different, too. I like art and fashion and Lou Lou is an excellent horticulturist. I speak Spanish and Lou Lou doesn’t. My favorite color is blue and Lou Lou likes red. Our differences keep things interesting!

Q: What is the most challenging thing about your friendship?

PP: Our differences are great – I wouldn’t change them – but they can make things challenging sometimes. Messes drive me crazy. I’m neat and clean and Lou Lou is not so neat and—

LL: Messy! You can say it. I’m messy!

PP: Lou Lou also interrupts me sometimes and I’m—

LL: You’re very polite and never interrupt. Oops! Sorry, I did it again! Pea likes to think things through and I like to charge into the action. I get bored with too much thinking.

Q: How does teamwork help you solve mysteries and problems?

LL: We both have different things we’re good at. For example, Pea’s love of art helped us with the mural mystery and my passion for horticulture came in useful with our city’s bicentennial bonanza celebration. When we combine our awesomeness, we’re unstoppable. (Mostly, at least. We did both get grounded recently for borrowing a diary while trying to solve a mystery).

PP: Yes, that was some unfortunate sleuthing-related business. We had good intentions but went about things a bit wrong, I suppose. But, like Lou Lou said, we have different talents, but we also have different ways of approaching things. I am cautious and logical, but Lou Lou is…spontaneous. Sometimes, you need to think things through when you’re solving a mystery and sometimes­—

LL: You just have to have guts and go for it!

PP: Exactly!

Q: What are some other examples of great mystery-solving teams

PP: The team of kids in THE MYSTERIOUS BENEDICT SOCIETY is one of my favorites. They’re like Pea and me because they use their differences to their advantage!

LL: I love the duo of Howard Wallace and Ivy Mason in the HOWARD WALLACE books. I like to think I’m a little like Ivy because she’s smart, kinda sassy, and gets the job done when it comes to mysteries!

Thank you for sharing, Lou Lou and Pea! It’s clear that, when it comes to mystery solving, teams are the bee’s knees. And, with so many wonderful and fun duos, trios, and groups looking for clues together in the pages of books, the reading possibilities are endless!

Jill Diamond.png

Jill Diamond has loved children’s literature for as long as she can remember, thanks to her school librarian mother and long, cold winters in Maine. She presently lives in San Francisco, where, when she’s not writing, she hangs out with her husband and their son.

Jill is the author of the Lou Lou and Pea series. The second book in the series, Lou Lou and Pea and the Bicentennial Bonanza is available now!

Add LOU LOU AND PEA AND THE BICENTENNIAL BONANZA to Goodreads!

Connect with Jill on Twitter, Facebook, or through her website!

Click here to win a copy of LOU LOU AND PEA AND THE BICENTENNIAL BONANZA!

The final giveaway will be for EVERY SINGLE book featured in the Kick-butt Kidlit Spotlight On: MYSTERY blog series so make sure you check it out on every post! (New options to enter will be added with each post.) Draw closes on Friday, October 5th at the end of our series.

Tune in next Wednesday for a guest post from Henry Lien!

Kick-butt Kidlit Spotlight on: MYSTERY Previous Posts

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Beth McMullen

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Casey Lyall

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Kat Zhang

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: C.M. Surrisi

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Dora M. Mitchell

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Natasha Deen

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Jennifer Chambliss Bertman

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Wendy McLeod MacKnight

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Lauren Magaziner

 

 

 

KBKL Middle Grade Mysteries with: Beth McMullen!

Kick-butt Kidlit Presents_

Our new feature series (Kick-butt Kidlit Spotlight On:) is kicking off this month with a focus on MYSTERY NOVELS! Specifically middle grade mystery because MG is our jam!

Let’s give a big Kick-butt welcome to our guest author for today, Beth McMullen! 

Power Play.png

As summer fades away, I like to look back and gauge if it was time well spent. Did we swim and camp and hike and sail and eat ice cream and read and go to the movies?

Did someone say movies?

Sure, we did the other stuff but, in my family, we are excellent and dedicated movie goers. Popcorn and Junior Mints, air conditioning and a dark theater. Perfection! And of course, being summer, we sat through a lot of sequels: Avengers: Infinity War, Incredibles 2, Hotel Transylvania 3, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Deadpool 2, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, Ant-Man and The Wasp, and Mission: Impossible – Fallout. (There were a bunch of horror film sequels, too, but I am just too chicken to see those.)

Now I have nothing against sequels – I had my own come out on July 3rd actually – but they tend to adhere to the formula of more of the same but, you know, more. Bigger, louder, crazier, wilder. No matter what, crank up the thrills and chills.

And this got me thinking (you can do a lot of thinking during the obligatory thirty minutes of previews shown in theaters nowadays) about the potential problems of adding action/adventure elements to a story. Because here’s the thing – if those elements are gratuitous, your readers will know. They will fall out of your story and you will lose them.

Your thrills must be relevant to the plot. They must move the story forward and not exist simply because you thought it would be cool to send your main character off a fifty-foot cliff into a raging river while being chased by an irritated mama grizzly bear with extra-long claws and razor-sharp teeth. Do not compromise your story for the sake of a short-lived adrenaline rush.

I had an editor once who was ruthless on this point of relevant action or adventure elements. My manuscripts would return to me tattooed with Does this drive the plot forward? As in, is it necessary or are you indulging yourself at the expense of your story? Boy, how I bristled at this! I hated stripping out bits of dialog and prose that felt precious and necessary. But you know what? She was right. This unnecessary material slowed my pacing, muddled the story and lost the reader. It had to go.

Kill your darlings, as they say.

But done well, action/adventure is fun! And it can add some heart pounding, page turning excitement to a mystery, or any genre. So how do you do it well? Start by asking yourself these three questions:

  1. Does the action or adventure sequence contribute to the forward momentum of your story? If it is a tangent or unnecessary side trip, cut it out.
  2. Could the action happen in the world in which you are writing? If you work in fantasy or sci-fi, you will have more leeway than if you write contemporary realistic fiction. But world builders must be careful not to stretch the boundaries of what is possible in the environment they have created. Stay true to your own rules.
  3. Can you visualize the action? I call this the ‘movie rule’. As I work through a scene with lots of movement, I have to see it clearly in my head. If I can’t, I might need to rework the sequence of events or add details to bring it to life. This is where you need to be picky about what you include. Too much description slows down the momentum the action is meant to create. Choose wisely.

Writing action is some of the best fun you can have at a keyboard. I encourage you to write it with abandon and see what happens.

After all, it’s not you being chased off a cliff by grizzly bear.

bethmcmullen2

Beth McMullen is best known for the Mrs. Smith’s Spy School for Girls trilogy, middle grade spy thrillers, packed with action and adventure.  She also writes the Sally Sin series for adult readers. Beth lives in Northern California with her husband, kids, cats and a very tolerant parakeet named Zeus.

Add MRS. SMITH’S SPY SCHOOL FOR GIRLS: POWER PLAY on Goodreads!

Connect with Beth on Twitter, Facebook, or through her website!

Click here to win a copy of MRS. SMITH’S SPY SCHOOL FOR GIRLS: POWER PLAY!

The final giveaway will be for EVERY SINGLE book featured in the Kick-butt Kidlit Spotlight On: MYSTERY blog series so make sure you check it out on every post! (New options to enter will be added with each post.) Draw closes on Friday, October 5th at the end of our series.

Tune in Friday for a guest post from Jill Diamond!

Kick-butt Kidlit Spotlight on: MYSTERY Previous Posts

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Casey Lyall

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Kat Zhang

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: C.M. Surrisi

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Dora M. Mitchell

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Natasha Deen

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Jennifer Chambliss Bertman

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Wendy McLeod MacKnight

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Lauren Magaziner

KBKL Middle Grade Mysteries with: Casey Lyall!

Kick-butt Kidlit Presents_

Our new feature series (Kick-butt Kidlit Spotlight On:) is kicking off this month with a focus on MYSTERY NOVELS! Specifically middle grade mystery because MG is our jam!

Let’s give a big Kick-butt welcome to our guest author for today, Casey Lyall! 

SSL Cover

Here’s Looking at You, Cultural Evolution

            When I was younger, I loved noir mysteries. The haggard detective working his case with a smart-aleck dame by his side. The witty banter. The smoky atmosphere. The shadowy figures lurking around every corner.

As I grew older, I realized…most of those dudes were pretty serious jerks.

And smoking is super bad for you.

These realizations held true while I was working on my first novel – the book that would become Howard Wallace, P.I. When I sat down to write, I knew I wanted to tackle a mystery with a kid detective and the voice that popped out for Howard was firmly noir in flavour. As fun as that was to play with, I had to take a moment to think things through because I didn’t want my main character to be a serious jerk. ESPECIALLY in a middle grade novel.

I had a conundrum. How do you repackage a problematic genre and improve it for readers?

I took it apart.

What were the elements that I loved? What were the elements I loathed?

I loved the action and the suspense.

I loved the rapid-fire dialogue and the witty one-liners.

I loved the push-pull between the detective and the perp.

While I loved the brusque exterior the detective often showed the world, especially when I knew he had a squishy centre, I didn’t love the sexism that came with it. I didn’t want the girl characters to be brushed aside. I didn’t want my detective to be an irredeemable…individual.

So I kept the parts I loved: sketchy settings (meetings in bathrooms and custodial closets left, right, and centre), piles of banter (I always picture Howard and Ivy’s chats as a tennis match), and a great Girl Friday who’s brave, smart, vulnerable, and an equal partner when all is said and done (Ivy not only holds her own on every page, but makes every page her own.)

And then I took my detective who was brusque and haggard and let him also be brave, smart, and vulnerable. And let him learn to be open and emotional. It took three books, but Howard became pretty awesome in the end.

Howard and Ivy are the team that I wish had been in the books I’d read when I was younger. Friends with hard-earned trust between them. Equals in their partnership and the better for it. And not an inch of noir atmosphere sacrificed in the end result.

Every genre has its inherited issues – mysteries are most definitely not the exception. But hallmarks become hallmarks through use. As writers, we can uphold damaging tropes or we can change them. Readers hold this power as well. What we choose to pick up and read and share with friends has an impact. It’s important to be aware of what we promote.

It’s a continuous learning curve and mistakes will be made, but it’s in the learning that you evolve.

Casey Lyall

Casey Lyall (5’4”, brown hair, blue eyes, no known aliases) is a middle grade writer from Southwestern Ontario. She works at her local library where she runs a number of teen groups and waits for management to discover they’re actually paying her to have fun.

Casey is the author of the middle grade mystery series, HOWARD WALLACE, P.I. and the picture book, INKY’S GREAT ESCAPE. The third book in the HOWARD series, SABOTAGE STAGE LEFT hits shelves on September 4th!

Add SABOTAGE STAGE LEFT on Goodreads!

Connect with Casey on Twitter, Facebook, or through her website!

Click here to win a copy of SABOTAGE STAGE LEFT!

The final giveaway will be for EVERY SINGLE book featured in the Kick-butt Kidlit Spotlight On: MYSTERY blog series so make sure you check it out on every post! (New options to enter will be added with each post.) Draw closes on Friday, October 5th at the end of our series.

Tune in next Wednesday for a guest post from Beth McMullen!

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Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Wendy McLeod MacKnight

Kick-butt Kidlit Middle Grade Mysteries with: Lauren Magaziner

KBKL Middle Grade Mysteries with: Kat Zhang!

Kick-butt Kidlit Presents_

Our new feature series (Kick-butt Kidlit Spotlight On:) is kicking off this month with a focus on MYSTERY NOVELS! Specifically middle grade mystery because MG is our jam!

Let’s give a big Kick-butt welcome to our guest author for today, Kat Zhang! We sat down* with Kat to chat about her new novel, THE MEMORY OF FORGOTTEN THINGS. (*emailed because geography and technology)

MEMORY of Forgotten Things
Hello, Kat! For our readers who haven’t had a chance to check it out yet, would you mind giving a brief overview of THE MEMORY OF FORGOTTEN THINGS?

Of course! The Memory of Forgotten Things is about Sophia, a twelve-year-old girl with some very strange memories–memories of things that never happened. Her mother passed away when Sophia was only six years old, yet she remembers celebrating her tenth birthday with her, or making a nativity with her the year she turned seven. For years, she’s lived with these confusing memories as she and her father struggle to cope in the aftermath of her mother’s death.

Then she discovers that another boy in her class has similar memories–only his are about a step-father whom he’s never met. When the two of them realize they were born on the same day, the day a partial eclipse shadowed their little town, they and a third classmate team up to figure out what these strange memories really mean–and if they have the opportunity to reclaim the people who are lost to them.

The concept of this story is amazing. What sparked the idea behind it?

Thank you! There were a lot of little things that went into this book, so it’s hard to pick out the one initial “spark.” I wanted to tell a story about grief, and how hard it is to move on from grief–and the ways, both big and small, that it can affect people. I also wanted to tell a story about the things in life, good and bad, that make us who we are. And how, even if presented with an opportunity to change our pasts–it might not be as easy a choice as it seems.

One of my favourite things about middle grade is the friendships. What was your favourite friendship moment between Sophia, D.J., and Luke. (That you can give in a spoiler free way. :D)

It’s probably the scene where the trio confront a bunch of older kids at Donway Shallows, an old mill at the edge of town. They’ve arrived there near the start of their acquaintance, trying to solve this mystery but still not entirely sure of their feelings toward one another. Sophia and Luke, especially, are still somewhat antagonistic. But when push comes to shove, they band together and look out for each other, and by the end of the scene, they’re much more a team than they were before.

When you sit down to write a book with alternate realities, what kind of planning goes into it? How do you keep everything straight?  

I did a good bit of research into various theories about parallel universes while I was writing the book. Most of that research didn’t make it directly onto the page, but I think it’s useful information to have floating around your head as you’re writing. I won’t go too much into the “alternative” world (for fear of spoilers!) but it wasn’t too hard to keep things straight. It was really interesting to imagine how things might be different in an alternative version of Sophia’s life!

This is not like your traditional mystery story where the reader can follow along with a detective as they sort out the clues. How did you figure out how to pepper in clues in a way that would keep your reader guessing, but still create a path that makes sense when they look back? 

For me, this is always the hardest part of writing a mystery, and the most satisfying part of reading one! It’s hard to know as a writer which of your clues are too vague and subtle, and which make the answer too obvious. I think having critique partners and other early readers weigh in is really important for this sort of thing. Often, I’ll think: “Wow, that line of dialogue was probably way too obvious and gave everything away!” but my readers won’t think so at all!

THE MEMORY OF FORGOTTEN THINGS is a mix of a few different genres. As a writer, what’s the most appealing part of a genre mash-up for you?

The freedom! While it can be really fun to write a book that sits squarely in one genre, I think there’s even more room to surprise your readers when your book mixes different genres. It adds a touch of something new and exciting, and hopefully the end-result is the best of all worlds!

You started out writing young adult novels. What made you want to dive into middle grade?

Writing for YA and MG audiences is equally wonderful, but different in many ways. On the whole, MG novels tend to be more family/friends-based, while YA novels often have a romantic storyline (or at least subplot). I also feel like MG novels allow a little more room for whimsy, and for telling stories that are very much contained in the main characters’ own immediate lives, rather than stories that are more about the larger world.

These aspects of MG were really important to me as I wrote my first MG novel, The Emperor’s Riddle, and The Memory of Forgotten Things. Certain stories make sense at certain ages, I think, and these books just wouldn’t have been the same if they’d involved older characters, or were directed at an older audience.

I appreciate middle grade books that help kids tackle heavy topics. Grief is an especially hard issue for people at any age. What was it like for you to create a world that dealt with such an emotional topic.

I think it can be really hard to try to tackle a big topic like “grief” or “love” if you try to write a story that encompasses all aspects of that topic. While writing Memory, I tried to keep larger themes in mind (and “grief” was definitely one of them!), but the main focus was always on Sophia’s personal story. Everyone deals with grief in different ways, and I knew I couldn’t cover each and every one of them–I just needed to write what was true and meaningful for Sophia and her father.

I think books are a wonderful way to introduce kids to heavy topics, or to help facilitate a conversation. And I think that kids usually have much greater understanding about these sorts of topics than adults give them credit for. I never felt like I had to hold back or “soften” anything in Memory because it was “for kids,” and I hope that young readers will see themselves in Sophia and her friends.

Our readers love discovering new books so tell us about one of your favourite recent reads?

This is a Young Adult book, but I recently finished Strange the Dreamer, and I can’t wait for the sequel! As for Middle Grade, I’m about to start Beyond the Bright Sea, which I’ve heard great things about.

And lastly, what’s your favourite piece of kick-butt advice?

Work hard, be brave, and be kind 🙂

Truly excellent advice! Thank you so much for joining us, Kat!

Kick-butt Kidlit friends, keep scrolling to enter our giveaway so you can win a copy of THE MEMORY OF FORGOTTEN THINGS for YOUR book shelf!
KatZhang

Kat Zhang spent most of her childhood tramping through a world weaved from her favorite stories and games. When she and her best friend weren’t riding magic horses or talking to trees, they were writing adaptations of plays for their stuffed animals (what would The Wizard of Oz have been like if the Cowardly Lion were replaced by a Loquacious Lamb?). This may or may not explain many of Kat’s quirks today.

By the age of twelve, Kat had started her first novel and begun plans for her life as a Real Live Author (she was rather more confident at twelve than she is even now). Said plans didn’t come into fruition until seven years later, when her agent sold her Young Adult trilogy, The Hybrid Chronicles, to HarperCollins. The series, about a parallel universe where everyone is born with two souls, concluded in 2014.

She is also the author of the middle grade novels THE EMPEROR’S RIDDLE and THE MEMORY OF FORGOTTEN THINGS and the upcoming picture book, AMY WU & THE PERFECT BAO.

 

Add THE MEMORY OF FORGOTTEN THINGS on Goodreads!

 

Connect with Kat on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or through her website!

 

Click here to win a copy of THE MEMORY OF FORGOTTEN THINGS!

 

The final giveaway will be for EVERY SINGLE book featured in the Kick-butt Kidlit Spotlight On: MYSTERY blog series so make sure you check it out on every post! (New options to enter will be added with each post.) Draw closes on Friday, October 5th at the end of our series.

Tune in next Monday for a guest post from Casey Lyall!

 

Kick-butt Kidlit Spotlight On: MYSTERY Previous Posts