Kurtis Scaletta, one of the founders of From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle-Grade Authors, is the author of the middle-grade novels Mudville, Mamba Point, The Tanglewood Terror and, most recently, The Winter of the Robots. The Minneapolis Star Tribune called his latest book a “ripping yarn with a big heart and a lot of wit and invention,” and Kirkus Reviews called it “a deft mix of middle school drama and edgy techno thrills.” He lives in Minneapolis with his wife and three-year-old son and a bunch of cats.
Welcome back to the blog, Kurtis. How does it feel to be a guest at your own party?
Ha, thanks. I miss being a part of this blog.
Can you tell us a little about how From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle-Grade Authors began?
Several middle-grade authors came together from the Verla Kay boards after a discussion about how middle-grade books just didn’t have the web presence of young adult books. We wanted to champion middle grade with a heavy focus on recommendations to teachers and parents. We’re still struggling to get visibility, for people to even know that middle grade is a thing, a unique and important genre of children’s book.
What’s your favorite thing about middle-grade fiction (as a reader or a writer)?
It was my favorite age as a reader, a real golden age, and writing middle grade allows me to keep delving back into that moment when I began to truly love literature and the idea of writing.
The Winter of the Robots is such a fun read. How long did it take from first spark of an idea to finished book in your hands?
Thanks! This book took me quite a bit longer than my other books. It took about two years from starting it to putting the final dots and dashes on the I’s and T’s. A lot of that had to do with being a dad.
You do a great job of balancing the level of scientific detail so that it’s engaging and enlightening, without being overwhelming to the point of taking away from the human story. I especially enjoyed the concept of autonomous vs. remote controlled robots. What kind of research did you do? How did you decide how much detail to include?
I spent a lot of time reading up on kids robot competitions, watching videos of their battles, and so forth. I had two readers in the manuscript phase, one who built robots as a kid and one who coaches robot leagues.
How plausible are the robots in the book?
If anything the robots kids are really building are more complicated and imaginative. Of course the big robot requires a bit of suspended disbelief, but there’s nothing there that isn’t possible. It was really important to me that it’s clear to readers how the kids build the robots, where they get the parts and the machines and the mechanical expertise.
Your Minnesota winter setting makes me want to put on a sweater. Can you design a robot to shovel my sidewalk for me?
As soon as I finish ours! And the robots that was dishes, scoop cat boxes, change diapers – for that matter, the robot that potty trains reluctant little boys. Sadly, that’ll take a while since the only robot I’ve made doesn’t do anything but take a few steps and fall apart.
If there was one single thing that you wanted readers to get from The Winter of the Robots, what would it be?
You know, I want kids to finish this book and think, “I could do this.” If I find a kid read this book and is tinkering in the garage I’ll consider the book a success.
What other books do you recommend to readers who enjoyed The Winter of the Robots?
There are great books about realistic kids learning and exploring the worlds around them, like The Higher Power of Lucky and Every Soul a Star and The Reinvention of Edison Thomas. I really like books that infuse realistic science into a book.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to write middle-grade fiction?
Write up, not down, as Mr. White said. You can have big ideas in books for middle-grade readers, moral ambiguity and complex language, hard-hitting topics and challenging questions. Don’t hold back. The kids can handle it.
Kurtis is giving away a signed copy of The Winter of the Robots. Enter here:
Jacqueline Houtman is a big fan of science in novels (and in real life).