Clever Books for Good Readers – an interview with Marie Rutkoski and Elise Broach

In our previous post, Sydney Salter wrote about books that appeal to reluctant readers. Today we’re switching gears and talking about what might draw the eager reader into a story. With us here to help are authors Elise Broach (Shakespeare’s Secret, Masterpiece) and Marie Rutkoski (The Cabinet of Wonders, The Celestial Globe), who were the stars of a signing event I recently attended titled, “Clever Books for Good Readers.”

Join us for a joint interview with Elise and Marie as they share their take on mystery novels, history, middle-graders, and good readers.  

AND AS A SPECIAL BONUS, I WILL HOST A GOOD READER GIVEAWAY! See the end of the interview for details.

   Marie Rutkoski
        Elise Broach                        Marie Rutkoski

(photos courtesy of Words Are Wonderful and Macmillan respectively) 

Hi Marie! Hi Elise! We’re so happy to host you both at From The Mixed Up Files. What’s the special appeal that mysteries hold for middle-grade readers that’s different from a young adult audience? What drew you both to the genre? 

Marie: My friend, the writer Neel Mukherjee, says that all novels are mysteries, and I think that’s true. Maybe young readers are more attuned to the natural mystery of the process of reading books, because it is a newer experience to them than to adults, and so actual mystery novels seem like the perfect thing. Also, all of us are trying to untangle the mysteries of our worlds (relationships, how things work, etc.), but the younger you are, perhaps the more aware you are that this is an important aspect of life. Children learn so many amazing things every day that we take for granted, like what makes the moon shine.   

Take E.L. Konigsberg’s From the Mixed-up Files (great blog title, by the way). There are two mysteries in that book: who sculpted Angel, and who is Saxonberg? The Angel mystery is one that readers can’t ultimately figure out before Claudia and Jamie do, but readers can guess at Saxonberg’s identity.  

 This is a really clever move on Konigsberg’s part, because it creates a symmetry between the reader’s experience and Claudia and Jamie’s; they’re all trying to solve a mystery. And the different mysteries tap into children’s growing awareness that there are different paths to discovering the truth to secrets, in books and in the world.  

As for what drew me to the genre of mystery, I don’t have a particularly interesting answer. I knew that I wanted Petra to go to London in The Celestial Globe but I wasn’t quite sure, for a while, what she would do there beyond learning from John Dee. At some point I thought, “Hey. What if she had to solve a murder mystery? That’d give her something to do.” Then I thought, “Uh oh. Can I actually write a murder mystery? I don’t know!” I figured it would be good for me, as a writer, to find out.   

Elise: I think middle-grade readers love puzzles and games and anything they can play an active role in solving, so this genre is perfect for them.  As Marie says, they like the idea of an answer or solution that they can figure out alongside the characters in the book, and the best middle-grade mysteries leave plenty of room for the reader… to assess the evidence, hunt for clues, and make deductions alongside the detective character(s) in the story.  Mysteries are a good fit for this audience because the story usually points to a solid, specific conclusion–the missing thing is found; the culprit is apprehended; the disappearance is explained, etc.  Young adult fiction tends to be more open-ended and ambiguous.  If I can make a gross generalization, I think teenagers are less interested in ‘the one right answer’ than they are in exploring the question.  

As to how I came to write mysteries: the simplest answer is that my children loved reading them, and I remember loving them when I was that age.  When I started to write my first novel (Shakespeare’s Secret), I wanted it to have that kind of natural appeal to kids that would keep them turning the pages.  A good mystery by its very nature has suspense, twists, surprises, revelations–all things I love in fiction.  

Both of your books are cleverly crafted mystery/adventures with references to history. What were some of the considerations you made when keeping in mind your audience’s age?  

Marie: I didn’t know that middle-grade existed as a category before writing The Cabinet of Wonders. I knew it was for children, and I thought it would be for somewhat older children, but I wasn’t aware, at the time, of the different age categories there are for young readers.   

I didn’t think too hard about my reader’s age when writing my first two books. The historical elements spring from my own interest in the Renaissance, which I’ve studied and researched for, oh, about fifteen years now. Sometimes things appear in the book only because I read or saw something and thought, “That’s awesome! Everyone will think so! I have to share it!” So when I read an original book from the 1600s about how to make fireworks, or build a water fountains with fake birds that sing, I decided I had to work that in. I did a lot of research on ships in the Renaissance for The Celestial Globe, and when, for example, I learned the names of the various sails, and what a drogue is and how Sir Francis Drake actually used one to capture a Spanish galleon, I thought, “Would young readers be interested in that? Sure! I am!” You can probably guess that I have a laughable confidence that what is interesting to me will also be interesting to my readers.  

Elise: Like Marie, I didn’t consciously shape my plot according to the age of my audience.  The age of the book’s central character tends to determine the age of your readers, so both Shakespeare’s Secret and Masterpiece were by definition middle-grade.  The challenge when you have a historical basis to the plot is not to overload the book with details.    

I try to only include the most interesting, relevant historical facts, and to weave them into dialogue or dramatic scenes so they’d engage the readers.  I also try to build the story in a logical way so that the historical tidbits seem important when they appear; the reader is primed to pay attention to them, and to know that they will matter to the solution of the mystery.    

And finally, what’s your idea of a good reader?

Marie: I think there are different ways of being a good reader. You can be an enthusiastic reader, and tear through books. You can go slowly, and notice the details. You can dislike what you read, and argue against it, and decide exactly what it is you don’t like. I think being a good reader is making a promise to give a book your best effort.   

Elise: My idea of a good reader is a reader who brings an open mind and heart to the book… not even a reader who loves the book; just a reader who engages with it fully, on its own terms.  I have three children who are very different readers.  The one who devours books and reads non-stop never tested well on reading comprehension exams; the one who tests very well would pretty much do anything to avoid reading, though he will spend hours with a chess book or other nonfiction; the third is an exceptionally fussy reader and it’s hard for her to find a book she likes, but once she does, you can’t pry it out of her hands and she will make sure all of her friends read it too.  My point is, they are all good readers for the right kind of book. 

MARIE RUTKOSKI is a professor of English literature at Brooklyn College. She specializes in Renaissance drama, children’s literature, and creative writing. Her books, The Cabinet of Wonders and The Celestial Globe are the first two books in the Kronos Chronicles. Marie lives in New York City, where she is hard at work on the third book of her series.

ELISE BROACH holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in history from Yale University and lives with her family in Easton, Connecticut. Shakespeare’s Secret, named an Edgar Award Finalist, an ALA Notable Book, and an IRA Teacher’s Choice. She is currently working on a mystery series set in Arizona at a place called Superstition Mountain, which has been the site of many historical disappearances and unexplained deaths.  The first book comes out next year.

Many thanks to Marie and Elise for speaking with us! And now the good reader giveaway!

For today I will be giving away a brand-new copy of Elises’s Masterpiece OR Marie’s The Cabinet of Wonders. You choose! To enter, leave a comment and share with us some of the middle grade books that have been favorites with the good readers in your life. And yes, that good reader can be YOU!

Sheela Chari hearts mysteries and good readers of all kinds. Her middle-grade mystery novel, VANISHED, will be published by Disney-Hyperion, July 2011.

  1. I love Rules, A Crooked Kind of Perfect, Love, Aubrey, and When You Reach Me–all solid recommendations in the past.

  2. My 5th Graders are devouring the Fablehaven series, Percy Jackson, and anything by Shannon Hale. I think my all time favorite is Holes, but I love so many 🙂

  3. I personally LOVE LOVE LOVE From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Loved it as a child, love it now. But kids these days (including my oldest and CapabilityMom’s youngest) could not get into it. It was “too confusing” for them. Maybe this generation is used to instant gratification; I am just not sure. Totally bums me out.

    Pragmatic Mom
    Type A Parenting for the Modern World
    I blog on children’s lit, education and parenting.

  4. My 6th graders love The Last Apprentice series by Joseph Delaney. The series contains just enough spook and suspense to keep those avid readers turning the pages and enough of a creepy tingle to entice those reluctant readers.

  5. There are so many books here I’m eager to try. Thanks for sharing your favorites with us.

    Yat-Yee – Mathilda is one of my all-time favorite books!

    Melina – The Red Blazer Girls is on my to-read list.

    And of course I really love Elise Broach’s and Marie Rutkoski’s books. They made such a great pair for a signing.

  6. Middle grade…..

    Mysteries are great. I just read The Red Blazer Girls and loved it.

    I also read a lot of historical fiction and recently read The Snipesville Chronicle series.

    Of course, girlie books are a favorite too – and Karma Bites was a recent one that I just loved.

  7. “The Watsons Go to Birmingham” hooked all our fifth graders when the first chapter was read aloud, especially when the reader mimics the sound of the panicked character who gets his lips stuck on the frozen mirror of a car!

  8. I loved mysteries as a middle-schooler…and now I know why! I’m printing out Elise & Marie’s response to the question about good readers for my husband, a teacher of English Ed.

  9. The kids at my school LOVE Masterpiece and Shakespeare’s Secret. I can’t wait to share the interview with them. I haven’t read Marie’s books but will put them on my list for sure.

    Some of the books that my avid readers love are the Gregor the Overlander series, Theodosia series, Mysterious Benedict Society, Children of the Lamp, Sharon Creech, Percy Jacson series, Fever and Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson.

  10. I’m not eligible, but I enjoyed Barrie Summy’s ‘I So Don’t Do…’ books. They’re great mysteries with lots of humor.

  11. My all-time favourite book as a kid was Anne of Green Gables – followed by Encyclopedia Brown, Nancy D & the Hardy Boys, Little Women.

    In my classroom, the eager readers devour Gary Paulsen, Lois Lowry, Gordon Korman, Roald Dahl, Stephanie Meyer, Scott Westerfield… tons of authors! 🙂

  12. I really appreciated Marie and Elise’s definitions for “good readers.” It’s important to remember that books mean different things to different readers, which is why it’s vital we have variety on the bookshelves.

    Thanks for a great interview.

  13. I loved both Masterpiece and The Cabinet of Wonders! Thanks for bringing the wise and thoughtful people behind these two wonderful books. (If you’re interested, I’ve written reviews of both of them on my blog.)

    My 9-year old’s favorite is Matilda, which she’s read at least once a year since first grade. My 7-year old, who is not as fluent a reader and who hasn’t wanted to finish any of the early chapter books from the popular series, willingly handles words he’s never seen in How To Train A Dragon.

  14. My favorite middle grade novel ever: Sharon Creech’s “Walk Two Moons.” What a beautifully written book. 🙂

  15. Fav MG novels for me: A Crooked Kind of Perfect, Rules, and the Theodosia series.