I’m so excited to chat with Wendy McLeod MacKnight about her latest middle grade mystery, THE FRAME-UP.
When Sargent Singer discovers that the paintings in his father’s gallery are alive, he is pulled into a captivating world behind the frame that he never knew existed.
Filled with shady characters, devious plots, and a grand art heist, this inventive mystery-adventure celebrates art and artists and is perfect for fans of Night at the Museum and Blue Balliett’s Chasing Vermeer.
There’s one important rule at the Beaverbrook Gallery—don’t let anyone know the paintings are alive. Mona Dunn, forever frozen at thirteen when her portrait was painted by William Orpen, has just broken that rule. Luckily twelve-year-old Sargent Singer, an aspiring artist himself, is more interested in learning about the vast and intriguing world behind the frame than he is in sharing her secret.
And when Mona and Sargent suspect shady dealings are happening behind the scenes at the gallery, they set out to find the culprit. They must find a way to save the gallery—and each other—before they are lost forever.
With an imaginative setting, lots of intrigue, and a thoroughly engaging cast of characters, The Frame-Up will captivate readers of Jacqueline West’s The Books of Elsewhere.
What inspired this art gallery mystery?
I have always loved art — and wished I painted or drew better! — and I always wanted to figure out a way to make the world of art come alive to kids and adults. Certainly, the book has nods to Harry Potter and Night at the Museum, but I wanted to do something different; I wanted to show two worlds co-existing and not intersecting and how the hidden world would organize itself to protect itself, and I wanted to have readers think about how creativity brings things to life. Theoretically, a painting is simply a flat image on a wall. But depending upon the person viewing it, it can be so much more than that. I wanted to give kids (and the adults in their lives) ways to think and look at art that made it fun and thought-provoking and I hope I succeeded!
Please, tell us about the paintings featured in the book and/or about the real-life Beaverbrook Art Gallery.
Oh gosh, where to begin? The Beaverbrook Art Gallery is a magical place, set on the banks of the St. John River in Fredericton, New Brunswick. It was a gift to the province by Lord Beaverbrook, a native New Brunswicker who found fame in fortune in the U.K. during the first half of the twentieth century and is a towering figure in World War II history and the history of the London press. He filled the gallery with priceless masterpieces, as fine as any collection, in my opinion.
The hardest thing for me was choosing which paintings would be characters. I knew I had to include at least one Dalì, plus the massive Gainsborough, and the portrait of Mona Dunn. I chose paintings I’ve always loved and which included great characters for my story, like the portrait of Helena Rubinstein, Madame Juliette dans le Jardin, and Lucian Freud’s Hotel Bedroom.
But really, the star is Mona Dunn. I have been besotted with her portrait since I first laid eyes on it, and my affection for her has never waned. There was never any doubt that this would be the girl who would live her life behind the frame, and yet long to still be connected to the outer world. It’s as if her artist, William Orpen, knew she was destined to be in a book, the way he captured her. In the novel, I describe her as #TheOtherMona, but really, I think she is a more glorious portrait than the Mona Lisa!!!
What I didn’t realize was that it was MY responsibility to procure the rights to reproduce the images in the book, though I had no idea at the time I procured them that the book would actually be published! But Greenwillow Books has made a gorgeous book, and the fact that they’ve included a sixteen-page full-color insert of all of the paintings who are characters in the book is amazing to me! I can just imagine kids flipping back and forth as they read!
I loved your first novel, It’s a Mystery, Pig Face! And, as a little sister, really resonated with the sibling relationship. So, tell me, who is your favorite character – either from Pig Face or The Frame-Up – and why do you love them more than anyone else?
Oh my! I adore Lester (AKA Pig Face), because he is loosely based on my younger brother, although with my quirks, but if I had to pick one character that I absolutely adore, I’m going with Sir Charles Cotterell in The Frame-Up, because he just makes me sooo happy. He has a small role, but good one!
Will you tell us a little bit about your writing process? In particular how do you go about tackling a mystery story?
First of all, I do a VERY ROUGH outline, and then I write. I’m trying to do a better job of pre-plotting, but I think I may be the writer who really needs to get to know their character through writing, and however much I think I know but doing character sketches, it’s only when I put them in the scenarios that their true colors come out! And the mystery, went through several iterations, and honestly, the mad scramble at the end required LOTS of re-writing so it actually made sense. In The Frame-Up, there are several mysteries: what’s going to happen now that someone from outside the frame knows about the world behind the frame; will Sargent and his father actually come together; and is someone up to something nefarious at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, and if so, who? I have to map it all out and try to find a way to weave it all together in a logical, straight forward way. But I’ll be honest: sometimes I trap myself in my own maze and have to ask for help to get myself out!
What would you like readers to take away from this book?
My greatest wish is that kids (and adults!) are inspired to go to their local art gallery or museum and “visit” the paintings. So often, we shuffle from one painting to the next, not knowing how we should be approaching it. Many galleries do an amazing job of talking about the creation of the art, but for some of us, the only way we can connect is by imagining the day it was painted, thinking about what the artist saw and was thinking, and depending on the kind of art, what the subject was also experiencing. My greatest compliment was when, after he’d finished the book, my husband said he’d never look at art the same way again!
In your book, Mona is eternally 13 years old. Is there a certain age that most feels like you? If so, what about being that age sticks with you?
Truthfully, I think I will always be fourteen years old. I’ll be on my deathbed at a hundred and five (!) and still be as excited and hopeful and curious to see how it all turns out as I was when I was that age. I was fourteen when I had to move away from my hometown, which was absolutely heartbreaking, but it was also the year I had an amazing English teacher, had my first date, and tramped about in the woods with my best friends, just like Tracy and Pig Face do. You know things, but you don’t know things, which I think is a delicious way to live your life!
Thank you so much for chatting with us, Wendy. I can’t wait to grab a copy of THE FRAME- UP for myself. I’m sure our readers feel the same way.
Wendy lives in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada, and wrote her first novel at age nine. During her first career, she worked for the Government of New Brunswick, ending her career as the Deputy Minister of Education. She has been know to wander art galleries and have spirited conversations with the paintings – mostly in her head, though sometimes not. Her debut middle grade novel, It’s a Mystery, Pig Face! was published by Sky Pony Press in 2017. She can’t wait for The Frame-Up to come out so she can share her love of art and her love for the world-class Beaverbrook Art Gallery. She hopes readers will be inspired to create their own masterpieces and visit their own local art gallery. And even better, she hopes they’ll come to Fredericton and visit the Beaverbrook Art Gallery and meet Mona and the rest of the characters in the book (and maybe Wendy, too!)
THE FRAME-UP comes out June 5, 2018. You can pick up a copy at your favorite independent bookstore or anywhere else books are sold.
In the meantime, feel free to keep the conversation going by commenting below. I’d love to talk more about Wendy’s books, art, mystery novels, or even your eternal age. 🙂