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.
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?