Tag Archives: From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler

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.

Meet Catherine Newman, author of One Mixed-Up Night

As y’all know, here at MUF, we are ALL ABOUT From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (c’mon, it’s obvious!), so when we heard that Catherine Newman wrote a middle grade novel, One Mixed-Up Night, about two kids who run away and spend the night in IKEA, we knew we had to feature her and her new book. The Massachusetts-based Newman, who is also the author of the kids’ craft book Stitch Camp and writes the blog Ben and Birdy, talked to us about her inspiration for One Mixed-Up Night, what makes middle grade the golden years of reading, and where she dreams of spending the night.

One Mixed-Up Night by Catherine Newman

One Mixed-Up Night by Catherine Newman

From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle-Grade Authors: What does the novel, Mrs. Basil… mean to you? Did you fantasize about running away to the Met?
Catherine Newman: I was probably ten when I read that book, and yes, yes, yes! I completely fantasized about running away to the Metropolitan Museum of Art! (I grew up in New York City, so I maybe kind of extra-fantasized about it.) I loved the idea of sleeping in that antique bed, pulling coins from the fountain to buy hotdogs… everything. My book’s plot, set in Ikea, is of course what I was going for. It’s my main characters’ favorite book, and it’s what inspired them (and me). Although someone pointed out to me recently that my book also has a little of the picture book Corduroy in it, which is totally true!

MUF: What is it about your novel that speaks to kids so successfully, do you think? Did your own children read it and enjoy it?
CN: Oh, well, gosh. I really do hope it speaks to kids successfully! My daughter Birdy, who is really the person I wrote it for, did love it. I think there’s an undercurrent of nerd-positivity in the book that really speaks to kids who are on the cusp of teenagerhood. (I mean except for, I guess, kids that don’t identify at all with geeky awkwardness. Are there kids like that? Those kids probably don’t need the imaginary friends that a book can offer.) Frankie (short for Francesca) and Walter, the main characters, are bookish kids who decide to do something crazy. I think that’s a combination that lots of kids can relate to, or at least aspire to. Also, they’re really, really good friends, and they take excellent care of each other. I know that my own kids were always craving books where the main characters treated each other kindly.

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg

MUF: What gave you the idea of doing an homage to Mrs. Basil? 
CN: I got the idea from the way my son Ben and his long-time best friend Ava used to sit on the couch with the Ikea catalogue for hours on end. (They still do, actually.) They always got so dreamy about it—“If you could live in any of these Ikea rooms, which would it be?”—and maybe that’s what triggered the Mrs. Basil plot overlap. At first I was worried that not that many kids would related to the Ikea obsession, but I can’t tell you how many parents have said to me, “Oh my god! My kids are obsessed with Ikea!” So now I’m not so worried about that.

MUF: What do you hope readers will experience by reading your novel?
CN: Okay, please skip this next part if you’re worried about spoilers: There’s a subplot in the book that’s about grief and healing, and I think that—beyond the fun, fantasy Ikea adventure plot—kids might really enjoy seeing these friends work through something hard together and grow so much, with so much decency. So, I hope they’re entertained, but there’s also something deeper here too, maybe.

Author Catherine Newman. Photo credit: Ben Newman

MUF: What made you want to write a middle grade novel?
CN: Ah. Two things, mainly. First, my daughter Birdy was middle-grade age when I wrote this book, and I knew so much about the books she loved. Harry Potter, of course, but also books like When You Reach Me by (my idol) Rebecca Stead or The Dragonfly Pool by Eva Ibbotson or Framed (and everything else by Frank Cottrell Boyce). Also books that challenged and inspired her in different ways, like Wonder and Out of My Mind and Counting by Sevens. But the second reason is that, for me, those were the golden years of reading—the years when I was scolded for showing up at the dinner table with Black Hearts in Battersea, or for burying my nose in Harriet the Spy when I was supposed to be doing cartwheels for my grandmother. I have loved books all my life, but there was something special about those middle grades.

MUF: So if you could run off and spend the night anywhere in the world, where would you go? And who would you bring?
CN: Not Ikea! I’m like Frankie and Walter’s parents, who all kind of love-hate Ikea, rather than just loving it like the kids do. Maybe I’d spend the night in Zabar’s, that enormous deli in New York City (I’d eat all the whitefish salad and French cheese). Or at a place with hundreds of cats and kittens, though I don’t know what kind of place that would be! So I would probably pick our campsite at Nickerson Campground, on Cape Cod. Because, besides home (with our cats), that spot, in our tent, is my family’s happiest place.

It’s a Mystery To Me

illustration by olart.ollie

Every book has a mystery in it.

Don’t believe me?  Pick up the nearest title.  I grabbed a fantasy: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.   It may be about a boy going to a school for wizards, but Harry and his friends spend a good deal of the book figuring out the mystery of what is on the third floor of Hogwarts.

“Hey, that’s not fair,” you say.  “That book really is mainly about the mystery of the Sorcerer’s Stone.”  Fair enough.  Let’s try a classic instead: Charlotte’s Web.  It’s a book about friendship, right?  But—aha!—that friendship starts with a little mystery.   Wilbur hears a tiny voice promising to be his friend, but because it’s dark he can’t see who’s talking.  Though he searches for clues the next morning, he can’t solve the mystery until Charlotte introduces herself.

Some books, like Charlotte’s Web, have only a small mysterious element to them, but there are plenty that are mainly about the whodunit.  These books are clumped together into what we call the mystery genre.

But what books fall under this genre?  Actually, that’s a hard question to answer.  Every person has a different definition of what books are considered part of the mystery genre.  This is probably because, as I mentioned before, every book has a mystery hiding in its pages. Under the mystery umbrella you can find puzzlers, crime and detective fiction, suspense and thrillers, even humor or horror.  Most have contemporary settings, but there are historical mysteries, too.  There are also fantasy mysteries, sci-fi mysteries and paranormal mysteries.  There is just about any type of mystery you can think of because—say it with me—every book has a mystery somewhere in it.

I’ve done my own sleuthing and compiled a list of ten must-read middle-grade mysteries.  They are:


CHASING VERMEER

by Blue Balliett

Calder and Petra become friends and then set off to solve the mystery of a stolen piece of Vermeer’s artwork.  Calder’s fascination with pentominoes (math puzzle pieces) is one of the most interesting and clever things about this mystery. Other books in this series…


THE NAME OF THIS BOOK IS SECRET

by Pseudonymous Bosch

I wish I could tell you about Cass and Max-Earnest, who find the journal of a missing magician, or about how they learn what the mysterious Symphony of Smells is.  I really wish I could.  But I can’t.  It’s a secret.  Other books in this series…


THE LADY GRACE MYSTERIES: ASSASSIN

by Patricia Finney writing as Grace Cavendish

Grace Cavendish is a lady-in-waiting at the court of Queen Elizabeth I, but she solves mysteries while no one is looking. In this book, one of Grace’s suitors is killed, and she must find a way to prove that the man she gives her hand to is not the killer. Other books in this series…


FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER

by E.L. Konigsburg

Claudia decides to run away from home, but she needs somewhere to run away to.  So she and her brother, Jamie, decide to hide out in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  While living there, they come across a mystery surrounding an angel statue purchased by the museum.


THEODOSIA AND THE SERPENTS OF CHAOS

by R.L. LeFevers

Theodosia spends most of her time at the Museum of Legends and Antiquities where her parents work.  And it’s a good thing, too, because only she can see the ancient curses still attached to the Egyptian artifacts.  When her mom brings home a cursed amulet, Theodosia is thrust in the middle of a battle between secret societies.  Other books in this series…


THE WESTING GAME

by Ellen Raskin

Sam Westing has sixteen heirs, and after his death all of them are summoned for the reading of his will.  There they are divided into eight pairs, each pair is given a different clue, and all are challenged to solve the mystery of who killed Sam Westing.  Whomever solves the mystery inherits his millions.


THE 39 CLUES: THE MAZE OF BONES

by Rick Riordan

At their grandmother’s funeral, Amy and Dan Cahill learn they are members of the most powerful family in the world.  Their grandmother’s will offers a challenge to all family members: find the 39 Clues to secure the family’s power.  But only one team can win the challenge (and the power), so Amy and Dan find themselves in an international race against the rest of the family.  Other books in this series…


TWO MINUTE MYSTERIES

by Donald Sobol

Each mystery is short but contains all the clues needed to solve the puzzle.  Can you figure it out without checking the solution in the back? This book is a great way for budding detectives to stretch their minds and see if they have what it takes to be great sleuths.  See more and still more…


WHEN YOU REACH ME

by Rebecca Stead

Miranda’s life revolves around Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time.  But when she discovers mysterious notes from someone who seems to know the future and claims to want to save her life, she spends large amounts of time watching the homeless lunatic her mom calls the laughing man as she tries to find the connection between her life and the notes.


THE MYSTERIOUS BENEDICT SOCIETY

by Trenton Lee Stewart

Reynie, Sticky, Kate and Constance are the four clever children who make up the Mysterious Benedict Society.  Their first mission: infiltrate the Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened and find out what the evil Mr. Curtain is up to.  And once they do, they must use their special skills together to stop him.  Other books in this series…


Search out your own favorite middle-grade mysteries and share with me what you find.   And make sure you investigate our Fifth Summer Giveaway, where three awesome MG books are up for grabs.

But while you’re sleuthing, do me a favor.  If you happen to come across a book with no mystery anywhere in it, don’t tell me.  I don’t want to know.

*****

Elissa Cruz’s life is full of toys and papers and books and kids, and because of it she solves mysteries on a daily basis.  Important ones, too, like where the missing car keys are, or who ate the last piece of cake.  Her first book, a light and fun middle-grade mystery, is currently on submission.