Author Archives: Dorian Cirrone

An Interview with Alan Gratz, Author of BAN THIS BOOK

Today, I have the pleasure of introducing Alan Gratz and his latest middle-grade novel, Ban This Book. Gratz is the bestselling author of a number of novels for young readers, including Samurai Shortstop, The Brooklyn Nine, Prisoner B-3087, Code of Honor, Projekt 1065, The League of Seven series, and his latest two novels Refugee, the story of three different refugee families struggling for freedom and safety in three different eras and different parts of the world, and Ban This Book, which he’ll be discussing here. A Knoxville, Tennessee native, Alan is now a full-time writer living in Asheville, North Carolina with his wife and daughter.

Before we start the interview, here’s a little bit about Ban This Book, a timely and important novel I know will be close to the hearts of everyone who reads this blog.

It all started the day Amy Anne Ollinger tried to check out her favorite book in the whole world, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, from the school library. That’s when Mrs. Jones, the librarian, told her the bad news: her favorite book was banned! All because a classmate’s mom thought the book wasn’t appropriate for kids to read.

Amy Anne decides to fight back by starting a secret banned book library out of her locker. But soon things get out of hand, and Amy Anne finds herself on the front line of an unexpected battle over book banning, censorship, and who has the right to decide what she and her fellow students can read. In the end, her only recourse might be to try to beat the book banners at their own game. Because after all, once you ban one book, you can ban them all …

First let me say how much I adored this book. Aside from it being a love letter to children’s book aficionados, it deals with such a topical subject these days: the First Amendment. Was there a particular incident that inspired you to write this book?

Thanks! There wasn’t one particular event that prompted this book, no. I’ve never had a book I’ve written  banned or challenged–at least, not that I know of. And I’m not being cute here–the ALA thinks that 85-95% of books challenged or banned each year go unreported. 85-95%! That’s a huge number! In 2016, there were something like 325 reported challenges and bans. That means that THOUSANDS more books just disappear from shelves every year, and no one hears about them because no one makes a stink about them. So it’s entirely possible that one of my books has been banned, and I don’t know it!

We here at The Mixed-Up Files obviously have an affinity for E.L. Konigsburg’s book. Was there a particular reason you chose From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler as the book to kickstart Amy Anne’s crusade? Had you ever considered a different book?

I love From the Mixed-Up Files, so that was one of the reasons I chose it. But I also wanted a book about a kid who had a crazy home life and decided to run away. I already knew that’s the kind of life I wanted Amy Anne to lead, so I was looking for a book with a main character she empathizes with. I could have used one of her other favorite books, I suppose: Julie of the Wolves, Island of the Blue Dolphins, Indian Captive, and more. But From the Mixed-Up Files had the running away and is so much fun in other ways, it was perfect. All that remained was confirming that it had been challenged–which it was, in 1994, in Minnesota, for being “anti-family” and encouraging kids to “lie, cheat, and steal”!

I love the boldness of the title as if it’s challenging the real-life Mrs. Spencers of the world who want to ban books. Was that the title from the start or did it change?

Yes, Ban This Book was always my first choice for the title, and there was never any discussion of changing it, thank goodness! I was definitely inspired by Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book, a book which, when I worked in a bookstore, we had to keep on a shelf in the back room until someone asked for it because, of course, people took Hoffman’s challenge seriously! We’ll see if anyone dares take my book’s title challenge seriously… 🙂

You began your career as a novelist writing young adult books, but switched over to middle-grade. What do you see as the main difference between the two categories, and why did you make the switch?

Ah, that’s a great question. Yes, the first three books I wrote were YA–Samurai Shortstop, Something Rotten, and Something Wicked. YA was hot at the time (as it still is!) and I was excited to be a part of this renaissance in YA lit. And those books found an audience, for sure. But then I got the idea for The Brooklyn Nine, which was my first proper middle grade novel, and that’s when–BOOM–it hit me like lightning. THIS was what I REALLY wanted to be writing. I LOVE middle school. I know that sounds weird–most people want to forget middle school ever happened. But I loved middle school when I was a kid, and I taught middle school before I was a novelist. I was like, “Why am I writing for high school when my heart is in middle school?” B9 was the book that opened the floodgates for me, and I haven’t gone back! Code of Honor has an 18-year-old protagonist, so TECHNICALLY it’s YA, but even then I wrote it “clean” so it could be shared with middle schoolers, and that’s really where it has found its audience too. Everything since Something Wicked in 2008 has been for middle grade, and I made it my goal to be the King of Middle Grade Books! I’m not quite the king yet–maybe a duke? 🙂 But I’m working on it.

As to the difference between the two, YA, to me, is about a young adult finding his or her place in the larger world. Middle grade is about a kid finding his or her place in the family or school. The smaller world. Sometimes that smaller world spills out into the larger world–see Refugee or Ban This Book. But at its heart, I think middle grade has a smaller scope. I’ve always put it like this: let’s say you write a book about a kid whose parents are getting divorced. If it’s YA, the teenager is thinking, “Did my parents ever love each other? What is love? Is love an illusion? Will I ever find it?” Big questions. If you write that same story with a middle grade protagonist, your kid is asking, “Which parent’s house am I going to keep my toys at? Which school do I go to? Whose house am I going to have my birthday party at?” That to me, in a nutshell, is the difference between YA and MG. And I much prefer to write (and read!) the latter kind of story.

You mention in the acknowledgements that this was a very different kind of book for you to write. After writing in several genres–historical, fantasy, thriller–were there any challenges in switching to contemporary realism, particularly from a girl’s point of view?

I’ve written about girl protagonists before–in The Brooklyn Nine, The League of Seven, and Refugee–but I needed to give a girl the entire book and not share with anyone else! 🙂 This story just always felt like it was a girl’s to tell, for me. Not sure why. Part of it is that my wife was very much like Amy Anne when she was a young girl–escaping the chaos of daily life in books–and that was definitely an inspiration. But were there any challenges? Not really. Contemporary realism is the world I live in, so I was finally able to write what I was seeing and feeling. And as an empathetic person, I try to see and understand the world from many points of view, not just my own, and not just as a writer. So I’m not afraid to write from the point of view of someone who ISN’T a white, middle-class, cisgendered man.

One last question, and I’m sure you get it a lot. You’re extremely prolific–fourteen novels and eight short stories in about eleven years. Where do you get your ideas?

Ha! Well, I get them from all over the place. I’m always listening for ideas on the radio, in podcasts, watching for them in movies and other books, trying to catch them in conversations with other people. Anything and everything is fodder for a story!

And okay, I lied. I have another question: Can you tell us a little about what you’re working on now?

Sure. I just turned in the first draft of a new book which, if everything goes as it should, will be out in Fall of 2018. It’s called Grenade. It’s about the Battle of Okinawa. I got to visit Japan a few years back, and while I was there I met an old Okinawan man who was a boy on Okinawa during World War II. He told me that the day the Americans invaded, the Japanese Army took all the Okinawan middle school boys out of school, lined them up, and gave each of them a grenade. Then they told the boys to go off into the forest and not come back until they had used their grenade to kill an American soldier. That’s the first chapter of the book! (How’s that for a hook?)

A great hook! Looking forward to it. Thanks so much, Alan, for taking the time to share your thoughts with us.

For more about Alan and his books, visit his website. And connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.

Winner of James Ponti’s FRAMED!

Thanks to everyone for reading the interview with James Ponti and commenting.

The winner of a signed copy of FRAMED! is:

 Sally J. Pla

Congrats, Sally! We’ll contact you soon so we can get the book to you.

An Interview with James Ponti (+ Giveaway)

I’m so excited to welcome author James Ponti to the blog. I had the good fortune to sit next to him at a luncheon once, and by the time I finished the meal, he had not only encouraged me with my next project, but also graciously contributed some ideas about possible themes. So if you ever find yourself in the same room with him, grab that nearby seat! In the meantime, read all about his background, his books, and his writing process below.

James began his career as a writer for television and film before turning his talents toward writing books for kids. He is the author of many young adult and middle-grade novels, including the Dead City trilogy and his new FRAMED! series, which began with Framed!, an Edgar nominee for Best Juvenile Novel, a Parents’ Choice Award Winner, and a Florida Book Award winner. The book is also on the Sunshine State Young Readers Award list in two categories: Grades 3-5 and 6-8. He recently published Vanished!, the second book in the series.

First, congratulations on the success of the series. Framed! and Vanished! are complete page-turners, which are funny and suspenseful at the same time. How did you come up with the characters of Florian Bates and his friend Margaret?

Thank you and thank you so much for having me on From the Mixed-Up Files!

When we think of mysteries, the first elements that come to mind are plots, crimes, clues, suspects, etc… That’s all good, but when we think about the mysteries we love, we almost always think about the characters, so I knew from the beginning that the most important element of the books would be Florian and Margaret.

I wanted two kids working together and I wanted the basis of the books to be their friendship. It was important that they be realistic with relatable middle school problems and while I knew they were going to be exceptionally clever, I wanted that cleverness to be fair to the reader. I hate it in a mystery when a detective just happens to know some arcane piece of trivia that solves the case or when coincidence and happenstance are the linchpins to the solution.

I wanted Florian and Margaret to solve the cases based only what was on the written page so that the reader could play along. To do that, I came up with TOAST, the Theory of All Small Things. It’s the method of observation and deduction that they use and it’s a skill that any kid could develop.

TOAST led me to Florian. I asked myself what type of kid would come up with this and it dawned on me that it could be a survival technique developed by someone who moves all the time and is constantly trying to read changing social landscapes. Florian’s parents work in museums and he’s grown up in Boston, London, Paris, and Rome. Each time, he has to solve the mystery of being in a new place, avoiding the bullies, and looking for safe harbor in a social setting. Now he’s moved to Washington and must do it all again, but luckily this time the first one he meets is his neighbor Margaret.

 I wanted them to have a yin and yang quality in that he’s more European while she’s very American. He’s socially awkward and she’s confident and athletic. But the most important part of the dynamic is that she’s the first kid who’s ever realized that he’s amazing. She sees greatness in him that he doesn’t and she brings it out.

Speaking of TOAST (Theory of All Small Things). Tell us about how you developed that concept–and the great acronym.

I developed TOAST during endless airport layovers. To pass time, I got in the habit of trying to see what I could figure out about the other people waiting at the gate with me. It’s really amazing how much we broadcast about ourselves without saying a word. I would come up with backstories based on everything from clothes, to luggage, to hairstyles. I actually got kind of good at it, and when I decided I wanted to a middle grade mystery series I knew where I wanted to begin.

I thought the technique needed a name that readers could hold onto so I decided to come up with an acronym. I wish I had a great story like I was eating breakfast and looked at a piece of toast, but the truth is, I came up with it in about thirty seconds as a lucky fluke. I said to myself, “TOAST, the Theory of All Small Things.” I liked it because it felt like an acronym that a kid would devise.

A funny side note has been translating it into other languages because the acronym only works in English. I asked that they be food related like the one that’s used in the French translation which is GRATIN, which stands for the le Guide de Recherche et Analyse de Tout Indice Negligeable. (I always knew I was a cheesy writer.)

I get the idea from reading about you and talking to you in person that you never have a shortage of stories to write about. Where do you get your ideas?

My mother was a great storyteller and from an early age I learned that the key to finding ideas was in small details. (No wonder I came up with the Theory of All Small Things.) I’ve always been attracted to the little unnoticed development that turns into something more important or the small action that is a microcosm of something much larger. As a result, I’m always looking for them.

I’ve also learned that it’s important to be empathetic and look at situations from other perspectives and to not take yourself too seriously. I have stumbled and bumbled my way through fifty-one years of life and more often than not I’ve been the punch line. If I couldn’t laugh at myself, I don’t know that I’d have many stories to tell.

Can you tell us a little bit about the process of how you get from the kernel of an idea to a complete story? Do you think about theme at all in the beginning or is it something that develops as you write?

I don’t consciously think about theme, but I think a theme of outsiders trying to find their place in the world is at the heart of everything I write. (I also think it’s at the heart of virtually all MG fiction because that’s what our readers are trying to figure out.)

If I think of a potential story, I usually start asking questions to try to tease it out. Hopefully these questions lead to ever more interesting questions and when I feel like I have something workable, I’ll run it by my wife Denise to see if she thinks there’s something to it. If it makes it past the Denise test, I’ll try to write three to five chapters. If at that point I still think it’s interesting the real fun begins.

How did you get into writing for kids, and how has writing for television influenced you as a novelist?

I knew I wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t think I would ever write novels because I was always a slow reader as a kid. My first love was movies, so when it was time for college I majored in screenwriting at the University of Southern California.

I ended up writing kids television for Nickelodeon, Disney Channel, and PBS.  I loved it and I loved writing for that age so when I finally decided to try my hand at novel writing it seemed only natural to stay with that same audience.

My television career has dramatically impacted my writing style in many ways, most notably pace, structure, and dialogue. My first two series have been told in first person and I think that’s an extension of scripting dialogue.

You were born in Italy and so was Florian. How did that influence his character?

I wanted Florian to have an outsider’s viewpoint because I think that really helps give a detective a fresh perspective. At first I imagined that he was British and when I told my brother Terry he said that detectives are always British, and said I should make him Italian like me. The second he said that, I knew that’s what it should be. So I gave him my background only I flipped it. I had an American mother and Italian father and was born in Italy but grew up in the United States, so I gave Florian the opposites – an Italian mother and American father, but he was born in the states and grew up in Europe, most recently Italy.

The mystery in Framed! involves the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. and in Vanished! it’s the Kennedy Center. Could you give us a tease about the location or premise of Book Three without it being a spoiler?

I love famous locations as settings and from the beginning knew that I wanted to tap into the cultural institutions of Washington, D.C. as backdrops for these mysteries. I like them for a number of reasons including the fact that they give you colorful settings populated by a broad range of characters. I also love that readers can look up the places and if they’re in Washington they can visit them. I think that makes the story feel that much more real.

I wanted the third book to be a bit of a love letter to all the librarians who’ve been so supportive of my books so I decided to make the mystery library based. All of the suspects are librarians who are named after actual librarians I know. This led me to picking the primary setting as the Library of Congress and additional settings at the Folger Shakespeare Library and DC Public Library. I went and visited them all for research just as I had for the National Gallery and the Kennedy Center.

One last question that I know the answer to but would be remiss in not asking, given the name of this blog: What was your favorite book when you were growing up and how did it influence you?

I was an incredibly reluctant reader as a kid, but one book managed to slip through the cracks and that was From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. I loved it and it imprinted on me in a significant way. I have always loved museums and the thought of exploring one on my own at night was the greatest fantasy I could think of. I think that the influence can be found in the fact that Florian’s parents work in museums and that realistic big city settings are part of both book series I’ve written.

When I decided to take a crack at writing kids books, the first one I picked up to read was The View from Saturday, also by E.L. Konigsburg. And when I wrote Dead City, I wanted to send her a copy with a note saying that I couldn’t have written it if it weren’t for her. To my amazement, throughout my life we’d been living in the same Florida beach community where I grew up.

Thanks so much, James, for taking the time to give us such great answers.

Readers can learn more about James at his website, Facebook, and Twitter.

Teachers and librarians interested in curriculum guides, as well as an interactive mystery game, which students can play in their school library, click here:

Read all about the books below and enter a raffle to win an autographed paperback of Framed! by leaving a note in the comments section before midnight on Oct. 1. I’ll pick a winner at random and let you all know who the lucky reader is on Tues., Oct. 3.

So you’re only halfway through your homework and the Director of the FBI keeps texting you for help …What do you do? Save your grade? Or save the country? If you’re Florian Bates, you figure out a way to do both.

Florian is twelve years old and has just moved to Washington. He’s learning his way around using TOAST, which stands for the Theory of All Small Things. It’s a technique he invented to solve life’s little mysteries such as: where to sit on the on the first day of school, or which Chinese restaurant has the best eggrolls. But when he teaches it to his new friend Margaret, they uncover a mystery that isn’t little. In fact, it’s HUGE, and it involves the National Gallery, the FBI, and a notorious crime syndicate known as EEL.

Can Florian decipher the clues and finish his homework in time to help the FBI solve the case?

 

Middle school is hard. Solving cases for the FBI is even harder. Doing both at the same time—well that’s just crazy. But that doesn’t stop Florian Bates!

After helping the FBI solve an art theft at the National Gallery and uncovering a DC spy ring, Florian’s finding life at Alice Deal Middle School a little boring. But that’s all about to change! His FBI handler, Marcus, has a job for him! Is it a bank robbery? Counterfeit ring? International espionage? Actually it’s middle school pranks…

Sounds pretty ordinary except that the pranks are happening at a prestigious private school attended by the President’s daughter who may—or may not—be involved. So Florian and Margaret are going undercover to see if they can use their TOAST skills to figure out what’s going on before the media gets hold of the story. However, once the crime-solving pair arrive at the school, they discover that there’s a lot more than a few pranks going on and the conspiracy of silence reaches all the way to the top. Then a student vanishes in the middle of a concert at the Kennedy Center and things take a sinister turn!

Can Florian and Margaret save the day? Or are they about to get toasted?