We’re celebrating the book birthday of our own Dori Hillestad Butler and her newest title in the Haunted Library series, A GHOST AT THE FIRE STATION. Dori is the award winning author of 12 picture books, 7 middle grade novels, and 2 chapter book mystery series, The Buddy Files and the Haunted Library. I struggle to get a book published every 2 or 3 years so I’m completely dazzled by Dori’s productivity. We had a brief opportunity to meet at the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association trade show this fall and I was so charmed by A Ghost at the Fire Station, that I immediately gave it to my local school library. Here is our conversation about her books.
- This is a charming twist on the usual chapter book kid detective. Was this a packaged deal that a publisher approached you with or did you come up with the concept entirely on your own? What was your initial spark for the idea?
Thank you. No, I came up with the concept on my own. I got the idea when I was writing book 6 in my Buddy Files series. That book is called The Case of the School Ghost, so of course there’s a plot thread involving a ghost. But when I was talking through my outline with my husband, he thought I was getting a little too carried away with the ghosts. The Buddy Files is about a school therapy dog who solves mysteries. My husband said, “If you want to write a ghost series, write a ghost series. But this is your dog series. You can’t introduce a whole world of ghosts into this series now.” He was right. And that was the beginning of the Haunted Library.
- Oh I’ve had that happen too. A character showed up in a story and completely derailed the whole thing. I had to take her out and write an entirely different book for that girl. I was a huge Encyclopedia Brown fan as a kid. Did you have an inspiration for your main character Claire?
Not so much for Claire, but there is someone who inspired Claire’s “Grandma Karen,” the librarian in the series. And that’s my friend, Karen Stierler. Karen works with the teens at the Coralville Public Library in Coralville, Iowa. She’s interesting, fun, and always up for trying something new. She genuinely likes and respects teenagers and knows how to talk to them, inspire them, and make them feel welcome at the library, when they may not feel welcome anywhere else. Every library needs a Grandma Karen! Last I knew, Karen Stierler did not have a pink stripe in her hair. And when I returned to Iowa for my Haunted Library series launch party last year, she was off biking in the Himalayas. But if she could have been there, I have a feeling she would’ve put a pink stripe in her hair for the party.
- The Himalayas? That’s one intrepid librarian. Lucky Coralville to have such a treasure running their library. How do you strike the balance of thrilling enough but not too scary for young MG readers?
It is a balancing act. Young readers like scary stories, but they don’t want them to be too scary. For me, the key to writing a ghost series with the just right amount of “scare” is to think of my ghosts as “transparent with people with superpowers” rather than to think of them as dead people. That was my editor’s phrase…and it really helped! Transparent people with superpowers is FUN. It’s not scary.
- I love that description too. I have a lot of conversations in the bookstore about finding the book that’s exciting enough without provoking nightmares. Did you plan out the entire series from the start with an overall plot arc or are you working more loosely making the plot of each one fit with what’s gone before as you write?
Funny you should ask me this. Yes, I had a series arc. From the very beginning, I had a general idea of how the series was going to move forward with each book and a very definite idea for what was going to happen in the last book. The final book would truly end the series. I thought book 8 (which I just turned in a couple weeks ago) was going to be the last one, so I wrote the story that I had saved for the end. Two days after I turned in the final revision, the publisher asked for two more books! It took me a couple days to wrap my head around the idea of continuing a series that in my mind was complete. Of course, there’s always a way! I rewrote the last couple chapters of book 8 and now I’m ready to keep going. I’m thrilled that my publisher wanted to continue it after all and I’m excited about spending more time with Kaz and Claire. But from here on out, I’m not really thinking “series arc” anymore. Now I’m really just building on everything that’s come before.
- This series is not your first work in mystery writing. In fact you won a very prestigious Edgar Award in 2011. I’m just going to point out that the Edgar Award is the most adorable book prize ever! And I’ve heard that the Edgar banquet is a really fun event, very warm and collegial. What makes mystery so appealing to write?
I’ve always loved mysteries, and I think writers should write what they love. I love the adventure. You know your main character is going to be doing things. They have to if they’re going to solve the case. I love creating a puzzle, which again, is another balancing act. You want the reader to be able to follow the clues and solve the case along with your main character, so you need to create a trail that’s clear and logical, but you don’t want the reader to figure out what’s going on as soon as you drop the first clue. There’s a predictable structure to a mystery. And rules to follow. The reader knows that in the end the mystery will be solved and justice will prevail.
But I think what I like best about writing mysteries for kids is the fact that reluctant readers are often drawn to them. There’s nothing more satisfying to me than to hear, “I didn’t like reading until I read your [insert title here].” If something I’ve written leads a reluctant reader to try another book, then I’ve done my job. And I’ve made a difference in someone’s world. No award is worth more than that.
Wonderful! Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Dori, and happy book birthday!
Dori will be giving away one of these books to a commenter next week, so leave your questions or comments below.