Today is a big day for one of our contributing members! Kurtis Scaletta‘s second book, Mamba Point, is released today by Knopf Books for Young Readers. Here’s the jacket copy.
When his dad gets a job at the U.S. embassy in Liberia, twelve-year-old Linus Tuttle knows it’s his chance for a fresh start. Instead of being his typical anxious self, from now on he’ll be cooler and bolder: the new Linus. But as soon as his family gets off the plane, they see a black mamba — one of the deadliest snakes in Africa. Linus’s parents insist mambas are rare, but the neighborhood is called Mamba Point, and Linus is sure the venomous serpents are drawn to him — he can barely go outside without tripping over one. Then he hears about kasengs and the belief that some people have a deep, mysterious connection to certain animals. Unless Linus wants to hide in his apartment forever (drawing or playing games with the strange kid downstairs while his older brother meets girls and hangs out at the pool), he has to get over his fear of his kaseng animal. Soon he’s not only keeping a black mamba in his laundry hamper; he’s also feeling braver than ever before. Is it his resolution to become the new Linus, or does his sudden confidence have something to do with his scaly new friend? From Kurtis Scaletta comes a humorous and compelling story of a boy learning about himself through unexpected friends, a fascinating place, and an extraordinary animal
Mamba Point is getting great reviews, including a starred review from Kirkus. Kurtis will send a personalized copy of Mamba Point to one of our readers, so leave your comment below to win.
Since we’re all about middle-grade, we would love to hear why you write for middle-grade readers.
For me the middle grade years, fourth through sixth or seventh grade, were really magical when it came to reading. I was mature enough to grasp some really big ideas, but young enough to still have a sense of wonder about the world and discover a lot of new things for the first time. I wanted to re-experience some of that magic and re-create it for young readers.
Which middle-grade authors inspired you the most?
Two authors really inspired me to be a writer. One is Daniel Pinkwater, one of the funniest and most inventive authors for children. The other is Betsy Byars, who is a genius at creating realistic and sympathetic characters. As I wrote Mamba Point I realized just how much of an effect Byars has had on me as a writer, particularly in developing my characters. When I’m planning a book it’s all about plot and story, but when I’m actually writing, the pleasure comes from those little moments where the characters become real to me.
You blog here on Mixed Up Files about boys and books. What kinds of books appeal to boys in the middle grades?
There are all kinds of boys and they like all kinds of books. Obviously a lot of them like action-packed books like Rick Riordian’s series or funny books like the Wimpy Kid books, which I think are great. But there’s a lot more possibilities than action-packed adventures and humor. I’ve seen boys really respond to books with important topical content, historical themes, or big moral questions at the center. So you can really write anything and be ‘writing for boys,’ as long as its age appropriate. I don’t even try to appeal to all boys; I just write for the boy I used to be and hope there are enough boys and girls with the same taste that I can keep on doing it.
Are there any other boys you might be writing for?
Ha. Yes, I have a son on the way. I’ve thought a lot about how that’ll change my approach to writing; I’ll stop thinking about my own inner child and start thinking about my, er, outer child.
Your second book is set in Liberia, and the back says you lived there as a child. Is it autobiographical?
More than I intended, probably. I mean, I created a fictional kid, but I drew on my memories and experiences and ended up with a kid who was an awful lot like me… except I never had a snake. I hope I captured the experience of living in a developing country so that anyone who’s been through it will feel that connection, or that any kid who hasn’t will feel like they know what it’s like. And I hope even more that I captured the experience of living in Monrovia in the early 1980s.
How much research did you do while writing your novel?
I learned a lot more about Liberia than I did when I was there, especially the folklore of native Liberians. I lived in Monrovia, where the American influence was quite strong — The Liberia nation was founded by former Americans — but I only left the city once. I wanted to draw on folklore to introduce some magic to Linus’s world, and that’s where a lot of the research came in. I read a book called Tribes of the Liberian Hinterlands, which is where I learned about kasengs, the belief that a human can have a deep connection to an animal. I love animals so it really rang true for me. I also steeped myself in 1980s Monrovia as best I could, finding maps and dictionaries of Liberian English from the era that helped me immerse myself in the setting. I hope I did it justice. And of course I had to learn a lot about mambas.
Did you return to Liberia to research the book?
Um… no. It’s a very long and expensive trip, and direct air travel to Monrovia from the states has only recently been resumed. I would like to return, but Liberia has changed so much since I lived there, I don’t know it would have helped the book to go back. I would just go for me. I’d like to share it with my wife and son some day. But the Liberia I knew as a child is long gone. I had to draw on memories as best I could.
You lived in a lot of places, including Africa, England, and Brazil. Where will your next book take place?
I decided on Maine, where I also lived for a couple of years. I love the Maine woods and wanted to put them at the heart of a book. I think the one after that will take place in Minneapolis, where I live now. I’ve lived here longer than I’ve lived anywhere and still haven’t set a story here. I think it’s overdue!
Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Kurtis. Remember that you can leave a comment to be eligible to win a copy of Mamba Point. You can find out more about Kurtis’s books and events at http://www.kurtisscaletta.com, or read his blog at http://mudmambas.wordpress.com.