Robin Yardi lives in the California foothills, where—every once in a while, in the dark of night—a skunk or two will sneak by. She loves good stories, animals of all sorts, homemade cakes, and kids. She blogs about books, teaches at her local Natural History Museum, and is the author of the nonfiction picture book, They Just Know: Animal Instincts, and the absolutely-not-nonfiction middle grade novel, The Midnight War of Mateo Martinez, scheduled for release on March 1.
Life is confusing for Mateo Martinez. He and Johnny Ramirez don’t hang out anymore, even though they used to be best friends. He and his new friend Ashwin try to act like brave, old-time knights, but it only gets them in trouble. His parents keep telling him to hold his sister’s hand when crossing busy streets, even though she’s the one who always runs ahead.
And last night, two skunks stole Mateo’s old trike.
Wait—two skunks stole his trike?
Mateo is too big for that rusty kid toy. He has a cool, shiny new bike anyway. But Mateo also has a neighborhood to protect. And he’s about to begin a big, stinky quest to catch the thieves. A quest that starts in the middle of the night!
Kirkus called The Midnight War of Mateo Martinez, “A magnificent novel that defines what it is to be an older brother, a friend, and, yes, even a knight.” Come visit her on the web to ask a question, schedule a Skype visit, or peek into her books: www.RobinYardi.com!
Your first book They Just Know: Animal Instincts (Arbordale Publishing 2015) features anthropomorphized animals and humor to teach about instinctive animal behavior. How does that compare to your approach to The Midnight War of Mateo Martinez?
I’ve never thought about it before, but both books feature animals doing things kids usually do! In the picture book those funny images of animals playing board games, hugging teddy bears, and getting coached, are contrasted by spreads that show the real deal. Frogs don’t get coached—they just know how to hop! Snakes don’t need stuffed animals—they already are stuffed with animals!
The Midnight War of Mateo Martinez begins with two skunks creaking away on Mateo’s rusty old trike, again an animal doing something a kid would, but the real deal in the novel is all about being a boy, not a skunk, about being a big brother, and a good friend, and an honorable knight… even when you are nine.
So, I guess, my books leave room for real life and imagination. I believe kids need both!
You are obviously an animal lover. What can you tell us about your work with the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History? In a typical week, what animals do you interact with in real life? Any close encounters with skunks?
I teach in a special, very kid centered, section of the Museum that we call the Backyard. We have a clubhouse with specimens and live animals, an outdoor waterway with wooden boats and pumps, tins, spoons, pots, and pans for making mud pies, and a dig pile for finding worms and pill bugs and millipedes. All that is surrounded by a riparian woodland of oaks and sycamores! When a child comes into the clubhouse I become a librarian of creepy crawly animals.
- Which snake should we bring out (we have three)?
- Have you ever held a beetle?
- Would you like to hold a frog?
- Do you know what a stick insect is?
I try to keep to the facts when I’m teaching at the museum, but I am the only naturalist, so far as I know, who has insisted on naming all of our tree frogs.
And don’t get me started on my animals at home… sometimes we name our spiders.
Where did the idea for skunks on a trike come from?
Well, the idea for that book started in my backyard. One night, through the backdoor, my daughter and I watched skunks, raccoons, and stray cats battling it out for some leftover dog food. I said, “I wonder if the skunks and raccoons play on the playground at night when you’re asleep?”
“How would they even get there?” my daughter asked.
“On your creaky old trike!” I told her. She laughed pretty hard, so I knew I had a good beginning.
Mateo, his little sister, Mila, and his best friend, Ashwin, were inspired by kids I know and teach in Santa Barbara. In fact I overheard one of my favorite Mila lines while working in the Museum Backyard. Someone asked a little girl, “How do you think snakes get clean?”
“They lick themselves like kitties,” was her answer, which I thought was brilliantly funny and completely plausible, so I stole it and snuck it into the book!
If there was one single thing that you wanted readers to get from The Midnight War of Mateo Martinez, what would it be?
Mateo is struggling to understand the world around him and how he fits into it. He’s dealing with changing friendships, his Mexican-American identity, his need to be a good big brother and an honorable knight. That’s a lot. Any kid who reads my book is going to have their own worries, things they don’t quite understand, maybe some things they never will. I want kids who read the book to deal with those worries bravely and with honor, without leaving behind the fantastical thinking of childhood, because sometimes that’s the only way to find understanding, by following the trike-riding skunks that are creaking down your driveway, up your street, and through your dreams.
What other books do you recommend to readers who enjoyed The Midnight War of Mateo Martinez?
I love The Hoboken Chicken Emergency, the Dyamonde Daniel books, the Cold Cereal Saga, and the whole Clementine series. And this one is a bit of a throwback, but The Mouse and the Motorcycle has a tidy kinship to two skunks on a trike, don’t you think?
How long did it take from first spark of an idea to finished book in your hands?
SIX years. My daughter was three when we watched those skunks through the backdoor—she’s nine now.
Why do you write middle-grade?
First, middle grade kids don’t question how real life worries and trike riding skunks end up in the same book. They just know. They get it! I guess part of my brain never grew out of that kind of thinking.
Second, as a kid middle grade novels were a huge part of my life. Sometimes books were my best friends. Sometimes books were my only friends. They kept me company and taught me about the world. I hope my books can do the same!
What advice do you have for someone who wants to write middle-grade fiction?
Don’t underestimate your audience. Middle grade readers can be deep thinkers… deep thinkers who like fart jokes and talking animals. Respect what they can understand and respect what they like and want to read! Be funny, be adventurous, and be honest. Pretend you are still nine, or ten, or eleven—in short, be AWESOME!
Robin has kindly offered a signed hardcover copy of The Midnight War of Mateo Martinez and a bookmark for a giveaway. Leave a comment by midnight on Friday, February 12. The winner will be announced on Saturday, February 13.
Jacqueline Houtman is the author of the middle-grade novel The Reinvention of Edison Thomas (Front Street/Boyds Mills Press 2010) and coauthor, with Walter Naegle and Michael G. Long, of the biography for young (and not-so-young) readers Bayard Rustin: The Invisible Activist (Quaker Press 2014).