I had the good fortune to interview James Ponti, author of the CITY SPIES series, this week. James’s fourth book in the series, CITY SPIES: CITY OF THE DEAD comes out February 7.
I’m ashamed to admit that I am a little late to the CITY SPIES game, but I can’t wait to jump in and read them all.
Please tell us a little bit about your latest book, CITY SPIES: CITY OF THE DEAD.
It starts with a heist, which is so much fun to write. The City Spies have to break into the British Museum and steal something for the government. (Which means I had to figure out how to break into the British Museum.) In the process, they get swept up in a massive cyber-assault on venerated London institutions like Parliament and the Underground. To thwart the attack, they have to journey to Egypt and look for answers in the tombs among the Valley of the Kings. I wanted a story with elements that were up-to-the-minute modern alongside those that were ancient and mysterious. And mummies. I wanted mummies.
And, not for nothing, the fact that it involves breaking into a museum late at night can be traced directly back to the one book that found its way into my heart when I was a young reader. A certain book that shares its name with this website!
This series is incredibly popular. Colby Sharp of Nerdy Book Club said, “Books like this are why kids love to read,” which is high praise. What inspired you to write these stories and/or these characters?
First of all, I nearly fainted when I heard Colby say that on his video. My goal was to write a series that young me would’ve wanted to read. I was an extremely reluctant reader, so I keep that in mind when I work on the books. I tried to include the elements that grab me most as a reader – mystery, humor, adventure, and family. The actual idea was spurred by a trip my wife and I took to visit our son when he was studying in England for a year abroad. We went to London and Paris and had an amazing time. That trip and those elements came together to make City Spies.
Everyone says writing is a process. Could you share a little about your writing and/or research process?
I wish I had a process, but it seems to change all the time. Sometimes a story starts with characters and other times a plot. City Spies started with a setting. But for me, I really need those three ingredients before I can start cooking.
Right now, I’m finishing the first draft of City Spies 5, which comes out in 2024. Five books into this series, I still have to find all of those elements, but I also have to make sure they don’t seem too similar to what happened in the previous books. The main character changes from book to book, so with City Spies I start with who’s going to be the lead. Then I figure out what amazing location I want to write about. Then I try to work out a mystery/mission that feels organic to the combination of the two.
As for research, it’s extensive. For recent books, I’ve had long interviews with the former deputy director of the CIA, a leading Egyptologist, and a praying mantis expert who works for National Geographic in the Amazon. (My job is really fun that way.) I try to visit the locations when that is feasible. (I.e., when there isn’t a worldwide pandemic.) And the best part is when I get special tours. My wife, editor, and I got to look around the behind-the-scenes area of the New York Public Library to research a big action scene in book 5. It was FANTASTIC!
We know no writer is created in a vacuum. Could you tell our readers about teacher or a librarian who had an effect on your writing life?
I was blessed with great teachers from elementary school through college. My Mount Rushmore includes Herman Prothro (elementary), Dale Tyree (jr. high), Judith White (high school), and Abraham Polonsky (college). Judy White was my eleventh grade English teacher and she was amazing. She saw potential in me and pushed me as a writer. She encouraged me. She wrote notes to me in the margins of my work. She circled the opening paragraph of a paper I wrote about Robert Frost and next to it wrote “WOW!” That singular wow helped get me through self-doubt for years. She was also the hardest grader of any teach I’ve ever had and that was just what I needed.
I kept in touch with her after school and as I began my writing career. Unfortunately, she passed away before this success came along. She would’ve been over the moon about it. I love her so much, that I’ve used her name as the name of a teacher in virtually every book I’ve ever written. I just want her to be part of it.
What makes your books a good pick for use in a classroom? Is there any particular way you’d like to see teachers or parents use it with young readers/teens?
I come from a family of teachers and always write with them in mind. My wife teaches high school and told me that I had to do things for teachers that are free and require little set-up time. I try to live up to that challenge. My website is very educator-friendly and Simon & Schuster is setting up a Digital Classroom Dossier that has anything and everything teachers could use in a single location. I asked a bunch of educators what would be useful and we’ve got curriculum guides, videos, worksheets, downloads, links, interviews, graphics, you name it. They’re all just a single click away.
As for using City Spies in the classroom, in addition to the dossier, it’s important to know that virtually everything in the books is real. I research inside and out so that if you’re reading about an Egyptian tomb, the Great Wall of China, or Muir Woods in California, your students can go online and explore further. I put in tons of facts that I find interesting hoping it sparks interest for readers and educators. I also try to incorporate core subjects in each book. Math classes can look at codes and patterns. A science teacher can talk about the different technologies, old and new that the team uses. I always connect historic events and true to life people with the adventures they’re on. And, in addition to the reading in the books, I try to include literature. There’s an entire throughline about poetry and Robert Burns in two of the books.
All of us at Mixed-Up Files are huge fans of independent bookstores. I see that you are going on a 10-stop tour of independent bookstores across the country. Do you have a favorite Indie that you’d like to give a shout out to?
I could never pick a favorite Indie. I visit them all the time. My wife and I did a vacation to Boston last summer and managed to squeeze in fourteen indies while we were there. Overall, in the last few years, I think I’ve been to nearly one hundred of them. They are the lifeblood of our industry and I love how each one has its own distinct flavor with different quirks and qualities that make them what they are.
Can you give us a hint about what we can look forward to next from you?
I’m going to write City Spies at least to book 6 (and hopefully more), so that’s exciting. Book five has a jet-setting mission that takes the team to Venice, Washington, and New York. I’m also writing the first book in a new series. It’s called the Sherlock Society and it’s a mystery series featuring multi-generational family in South Florida. The first one comes out next year and I am so excited about it! (I hope readers will be too.)
James Ponti is the New York Times bestselling author of three middle grade book series: City Spies, about an unlikely squad of five kids from around the world who form an elite MI6 Spy Team; the Edgar Award–winning Framed! series, about a pair of tweens who solve mysteries in Washington, DC; and the Dead City trilogy, about a secret society that polices the undead living beneath Manhattan. His books have appeared on more than fifteen different state award lists and he is the founder of a writers group known as the Renegades of Middle Grade. James is also an Emmy–nominated television writer and producer who has worked for many networks including Nickelodeon, Disney Channel, PBS, History, and Spike TV, as well as NBC Sports. He lives with his family in Orlando, Florida. Find out more at JamesPonti.com.
Thanks so much to James for taking the time to talk with us.
CITY SPIES: CITY OF THE DEAD releases February 7 and is available at bookstores everywhere.
You can see more purchase options at: Simon & Schuster.
Are you a CITY SPIES fan? Are you about to be? Let us know in the comments below.