October 15, 2017

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Monsters, Mysteries, and Middle Grade: A Chat with Bruce Hale

Bruce Hale is the author of over 40 books for children—everything from picture books, chapter books, and graphic novels to funny stories and fantastical middle grade. SLJ caught up with the prolific author to talk about his own evolution as a reader and how he crafts books that tap into the unique middle grade psyche.

Who were you as a middle grade reader? What kind of books did you like to read?

bruce-hale_4th-grade

A young Bruce Hale.

Up until third grade, I was basically a nonreader. I could read, but didn’t much see the point of it. Then, tragedy struck our house: the TV died, and money was too tight to buy a new one. My parents began reading to me, and what really caught my attention was adult pulp fiction in the form of Tarzan of the Apes. I couldn’t wait to find out what happened next, so I began reading it with a dictionary in one hand to look up all those unknown words. That experience turned me into an avid reader.

From there, I went on to devour the rest of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s oeuvre, but I also began reading books better suited to my age group. Some favorites in those middle grade years included A Wrinkle in Time, My Side of the Mountain, The Hobbit, anything by Roald Dahl, Jack London’s adventure tales, and Alfred Hitchcock’s “Three Investigators” series.

You’ve written a number of picture books but seem to have a firm grasp of the middle grade psyche. What intrigues you about writing for this age group?

Middle grade is such a fun age. Kids in those middle grade years have a burning curiosity about the world and a terrific imagination, yet they’re still pretty sweet and untroubled by the hormonal distractions that strike after sixth grade. You can explore new ideas with them, particularly fantastical ideas, as these readers are ready to go anywhere with you. Also, kids this age are big fans of series. As a series writer and reader myself, I particularly like that.

Your books are often humorous and filled with adventure, two things that middle grade readers love. Do you think you are treated less seriously as an author because your books are not introspective and sad?

It’s an old tale in publishing and in Hollywood—funny stories get no respect. Audiences and readers may love them, but critics and those who pass out awards somehow see these humorous or action tales as being less-than. I try to be philosophical about it, since those are the stories that come to me to write. Sure, it’d be great to win awards. But what matters most to me is whether the reader likes my stories. If I can bring joy by bringing laughter, it feels like I’ve done my job well.

Do you think that your experience as an actor and storyteller has changed your writing? What are some elements of performance that you like to add to your books?

It’s absolutely affected my writing. When I write, I usually picture the story action in my head, as if I were watching a movie, and I strive for a cinematic flavor in my storytelling. Coming from that performing background, I know what grabs an audience—dramatic openings, cliffhanger chapter endings, etc.—and I try to incorporate all those tricks into my tales.

As an actor and storyteller, I’ve always loved doing different character voices, and when I write, I do the same thing. In my head, I’m playing that character—I actually hear his or her voice in the accent I’d use if I were telling a story. A touch schizophrenic? Perhaps. But it works for me.

Mysteries must be hard to write, with all of the plot twists and surprise endings. Do you have a method for keeping all of the plot elements straight when you write?

When I wrote my first “Chet Gecko” mystery, I had no clue (pardon the pun) how to plot a mystery. All the clues Chet received were riddles someone gave him to solve. But book by book, I learned more about how to craft a mystery tale. It’s a tricky beast, and I’ve found the method that works best for me is to plot backward. I start by figuring out what the crime is and whodunit, then I try to make it as hard to guess as possible by coming up with red herrings, ambiguity, and lots of misdirection. Generally, I’ll do a rough outline to keep track of which clues crop up when and how the action flows.

Your recent The Curse of the Were-Hyena (Disney-Hyperion, 2016) included several multiculturalcurse-of-the-were-hyena-hi-res characters. Was this a conscious decision to include more diversity in your books?

Yes, I’d wanted to do this for awhile. Since my earlier books were all about talking animals, the subject of diversity didn’t come up (except in terms of using diverse species). However, after having spent much of my adult life in Hawaii, I’m used to being surrounded by people of many different ethnicities, and I wanted to reflect that in my books.

Kid readers need a balance of the known and the unknown in their stories. It’s not only important for young readers to see themselves in books, but also to see kids who are different from themselves. To achieve that in Were-Hyena, since I’m not Latino like the main character, I talked with a focus group of kids who fit that demographic. I also checked my cultural references and occasional Spanish terms with Latino beta readers. I felt I owed that to the kids reading my book.

You seem to have a real predilection for including talking animals as characters in your books. What motivates you to do this, and more importantly, why do you think so few books for adults feature talking animals as characters? 

I wish I had a deep, profound reason for doing this, but the truth is, I just love animals. I love drawing them, and I really like trying to see the world from their point of view. One of my most prized possessions as a budding middle-grade cartoonist was The Larousse Encyclopedia of Animal Life (which I still have), full of photos of all sorts of animals.

Why don’t adult books feature talking animals? I wish I knew, but I feel we’re missing out. Maybe we can’t suspend our disbelief long enough to believe that animals can talk? I’m not sure why this would be, given all the outrageous things we accept in adult fantasy novels. But in thinking about it, only two adult talking-animal books come to mind: Watership Down, and William Kotzwinkle’s satirical The Bear Went Over the Mountain. (A really fun read, by the way.)

I guess we adults get our talking animals vicariously, by watching animated movies with our kids. Perhaps it’s more acceptable that way.

Could you please tell us a little more about the “Monstertown Mysteries” and what we can expect to see from you in the future?

The “Monstertown Mysteries” is a trilogy (so far), based on a book I wrote in second grade called The Two Brothers at Monstertown. Since it’s been 50-something years in the making, I may hold the record for longest-gestating book idea! The series springs from my childhood love of monsters — particularly those Universal Pictures classics like Frankenstein and The Wolf-Man — and the two main characters roughly resemble me and my childhood pal Billy.

It was not an easy book for me to conceptualize. For years, I tried to turn my second grade book idea into a picture book, but it never worked. Finally, at an author visit, a kid suggested making it a novel, with two boys solving monster-related mysteries. Smart kid. I took his advice. In these books, however, Carlos and Benny encounter a very different set of monsters from those in the Universal pantheon. Besides the were-hyenas, they face off against mutant mantis lunch ladies and scorp-lions, a hybrid of scorpion and lion. It was great fun coming up with my own monsters, and I hope my readers enjoy them as much as I have.

As for what’s next, I’m now working on a new series for middle grade readers about the secret life of classroom pets, focusing on what they do when the kids and teachers have gone home for the day. It’s—yes—another talking animal series, and I’m having a fine time with it. Look for the first two books to debut in January 2017.

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Karen Yingling About Karen Yingling

Karen Yingling is a middle school librarian from the Midwest. She blogs about and reviews children’s literature at msyinglingreads.blogspot.com.

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