Interview with New York Times bestselling author, Liz Kessler

Today, I’m thrilled to welcome MG superstar Liz Kessler to the Mixed-Up Files! In addition to being the author of the wildly popular Emily Windsnap series—which has been translated into 25 languages, appeared on the New York Times bestsellers list, and has sold millions of copiesLiz has penned the Phillipa Fisher series, several MG stand-alones, two YA novels, and books for early readers. Liz’s latest MG novel, Code Name Kingfisher, hailed by School Library Journal as “overpoweringly emotional; an intense story, gorgeously told,” is out from Aladdin on May 7.

But before we chat with Liz…

Code Name Kingfisher: A Summary

When Liv finds a box hidden in her grandmother’s attic, saved from her childhood in Nazi-occupied Holland, circa 1943, she unearths a trove of family secrets—including the extraordinary story of her great-aunt Hannie, a Jewish undercover agent in the Dutch resistance. It’s a tale of bravery, betrayal, and daring defiance, and Liv wants to know more—starting with why her grandmother has kept Hannie a secret for so many years…

Interview with Liz Kessler

Melissa: Hi, Liz! It’s a pleasure to have you join us today. Before we begin, I must tell you how much I adored Code Name Kingfisher. I stayed up until the wee hours reading it and was sobbing by the end. It’s such a powerful book!

Liz: Thank you!

Melissa: Also, I also have a confession to make. My daughter, Chloe—who’s now 24—loved the Emily Windsnapseries so much, she went through a period of writing her homework assignments in British English! Her teachers were very confused. 🙂 

Liz: I have found it fascinating over the years of working with both UK and US editors to discover all the ways in which our languages both align and vary!

Pulled from the Headlines

Melissa: Your latest novel, Code Name Kingfisher, is inspired by true-life events: the story of two sisters, Truus and Freddie Oversteegen, and their friend Hannie Schaft. Can you give us some historical background? Also, what was your impetus to tell this particular story?

Liz: I was working on the research for my novel, When The World Was Ours, and in the course of my research I went to Amsterdam and discovered a lot about people in Holland who joined the Resistance movement during the war. Then I heard a program about these three girls and was keen to find out more. I read all about them and was so drawn to their story. I have always written about strong young women (as your daughter will tell you, because Emily Windsnap was the first of them!) and felt very inspired by these three.

Melissa: Your novel alternates between present-day England and Nazi-occupied Holland, circa 1942. It’s also told from four different perspectives: thirteen-year-old Liv, who’s getting bullied at school; Mila, 12, and Hannie, 15—two Jewish sisters who have assumed new identities and are living with a non-Jewish family in Amsterdam; and Willem, a neighbor boy with secrets of his own. How were you able to get inside each character’s head in such a genuine, authentic way? It’s not an easy feat to pull off!

Liz: Thank you for saying this. I’m glad that I pulled it off in a way that you found genuine and authentic. I think for me, the important thing is to know my characters as well as I possibly can. I spend a lot of time imagining what they are like, picturing them, planning and plotting their stories, and when I am writing, I just find that I naturally get inside their heads and try to experience the story from their point of view. It’s how I’ve always done it, and I think being someone who is quite a high-level over empathizer helps!

Lessons in Drafting

Melissa: As above, your novel is told from four different perspectives, past and present. What was your drafting technique like? Did you write each character’s narrative arc from start to finish and then weave the stories together? Or did you start with one character and then move on to the next one… and the next one?

Liz: I actually didn’t do either of these! I am quite an extreme planner. I plan and plan and plan and don’t start writing a word of the book until I have a chapter by chapter breakdown that works. So it was in the planning stage that I worked out how I wanted the story to unfold, who was the person to tell each part of the story, how the present and past narratives would work together, reflecting on each other and interweaving around each other. The planning was a lot of work with this book, particularly given the different viewpoints AND past and present settings. But once the groundwork of planning is done, it makes the writing easier!

It’s All in the Research

Melissa: Since a good portion of the novel takes place during World War II, in Nazi-occupied Holland, what sort of research did you do in order to ensure authenticity?

Liz: I spent several days in Amsterdam, visiting museums: in particular, the Anne Frank House and the Dutch Resistance Museum. I bought as many books as I could find on the subject, I scoured websites. And then when I’d completed a first draft, I found a couple of experts on Holland during the war who helped me to ensure I had gotten my facts right.

Writing about WWII

Melissa: As a follow-up, this is not your first middle-grade novel to be set in Nazi-occupied Europe. When the World Was Ours (Aladdin, 2022), which was also inspired by a true story, takes place in Vienna, in 1936. What impels you to write about this period in history? What makes it meaningful to you?

Liz: When The World Was Ours was inspired by an incident in my dad’s childhood that led to him being able to get away from the Nazis in 1939. I had wanted to write a book inspired by his experiences for many years. I am not a history fan normally, but these books have been about exploring issues that are always close to my heart: social justice, love, family and the power of kindness.

The Complexity of Secret Keeping

Melissa: An important theme in Code Name Kingfisher is secret keeping. Liv doesn’t tell her parents that she’s being bullied at school, and Liv’s grandmother never talks about her beloved sister, Hannie. She also had to keep her Jewish identity a secret when she was hiding from the Nazis. What is it about secret keeping that’s so complex and emotionally draining?

Liz: I’m actually not sure how to answer this one as I am not a big secret keeper myself. I am much more of an open book than any of these characters! But I think that when we allow ourselves to live freely and authentically, we are likely to be much happier in our lives. Living with secrets is the opposite of that, and will undoubtedly lead to living with an element of weight and stress.

Bullying and Human Persecution

Melissa: In Code Name Kingfisher, Liv is bullied by her classmates for no particular reason; the Jews were persecuted during WWII, just for being Jewish. What were you trying to say about the nature of bullying and human persecution in general?

Liz: With both of these books, I hope to show how easily people can be led into bullying or cruel behavior. How sometimes it’s about our own self-preservation – hoping that if we side with the persecutor we won’t be seen as weak and run the risk of being the bully’s next victim. I want young people to read these books and make links for themselves between current times and the fascism of World War Two. I hope to start conversations about kindness and strength and standing up for others. Beyond that, it’s up to the readers to draw their own conclusions and figure out for themselves where they choose to stand.

Liz’s Writing Routine

Melissa: Switching gears, let’s talk about your writing routine. Do you have a specific time of the day when you like to write? Any particular writing rituals?

Liz: I don’t really have rituals. I usually prefer to work in the mornings. I set targets with my work, rather than setting particular timings. I also love to be flexible so I can sometimes write all day and sometimes take the day off if the sun’s shining and the outside world is calling!

Melissa: What are you working on now, Liz? Also, are there any more Emily Windsnap books on the horizon?

Liz: Funny you should ask. I have just completed the final edit of a tenth Emily Windsnap book!

Lightning Round!

And finally, no MUF interview is complete without a lightning round, so…

Preferred writing snack? Used to be chocolate, but I went cold turkey a month ago so I guess it will have to be fruit.

Plotter or Pantser? Major plotter!

Superpower? The superpower I have is empathy. The one I’d like to have is the ability to time travel.

Favorite place on earth? My home. I’m never happier than when I’m with my wife and my dog.

If you were stranded on a desert island with only three things, what would they be?Notebook, pen and some form of music.

Melissa: Thank you for chatting with us, Liz. It was a pleasure to learn more about you and your book, and I’m sure MUF readers will agree!

Liz: Thank you for having me. It’s been fun chatting with you!

About Liz

Liz Kessler has written over twenty books for children and young adults. Most of these are middle- grade books featuring mermaids, fairies, time travel, and superpowers. She also writes Early Readers about Poppy the Pirate Dog and Jenny the Pony, as well as two YA books about teenagers coming of age, falling in love, and discovering their identity. Learn more about Liz on her website.

Melissa Roske is a writer of middle-grade fiction. Before spending her days with imaginary people, she interviewed real ones as a journalist in Europe. In London she landed a job as an advice columnist for Just Seventeen magazine. Upon returning to her native New York, Melissa contributed to several books and magazines, selected jokes for Reader’s Digest (just the funny ones), and received certification as a life coach. In addition to her debut novel Kat Greene Comes Clean (Charlesbridge), Melissa’s short story “Grandma Merle’s Last Wish” appears in the Jewish middle-grade anthology, Coming of Age: 13 B’Nai Mitzvah Stories (Albert Whitman). Learn more about Melissa on her Website and follow her on  TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

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Melissa Roske
Melissa Roske is a writer of middle-grade fiction. Before spending her days with imaginary people, she interviewed real ones as a journalist in Europe. In London she landed a job as an advice columnist for J17 magazine, where she answered hundreds of letters from readers each week. Upon returning to her native New York, Melissa contributed to several books and magazines, selected jokes for Reader’s Digest (just the funny ones), and received certification as a life coach from NYU. In addition to her debut novel Kat Greene Comes Clean (Charlesbridge), Melissa’s short story “Grandma Merle’s Last Wish” appears in the Jewish middle-grade anthology, Coming of Age: 13 B’Nai Mitzvah Stories (Albert Whitman & Company). Melissa lives in Manhattan with her husband, daughter, and the occasional dust bunny. Learn more about Melissa on her Website and follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

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