Counting the stars? Easy. Writing a mystery? Hard. I’ve known that ever since I wrote the saddest, most pitiful excuse for a mystery story imaginable back in eighth-grade English. So I was thrilled to have an opportunity to meet a successful children’s mystery writer and pick her brain about how she works.
Kristen Kittscher is the delightful, articulate author of two funny and exciting mystery stories for tweens: “The Wig in the Window” and “The Tiara on the Terrace.” We chatted by phone in advance of her Club Read meeting at 2 p.m. Saturday, March 5 at Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe.
Kittscher explained that she writes for pre-teens because, as a former middle school teacher, she loves kids in that age group and their contradictory big kid/little kid natures. She also understands the emotional and social pressures they experience in school and the ever-expanding, unstable minefield of the online world.
The author wants kids to know that fun and excitement are not limited to glamorous, faraway places and that adventures can take place anywhere—even in their own neighborhoods. This desire inspired her to create stories that use popular culture, technology and social media as a backdrop—but with friends, family and close-to-home surroundings center stage.
Kittscher acknowledged the difficulty in “keeping it real” for kids marinated in the violence, exaggerated language and “anything goes” behavior they observe on TV and the Internet while providing challenging, thoughtful, positive and age-appropriate entertainment.
She addresses the problem by keeping the harsher elements—weapons and types of crimes, for example—at a bit of a distance by using large dollops of middle-grade humor and by turning characters’ sometimes over-the-top perceptions of events into self-aware “gotcha” moments. But she does allow her characters to get into scary situations; otherwise, the stories wouldn’t be believable.
When I asked Kittscher the magic question—how she comes up with the plots for her mysteries—she admitted that her first book, “The Wig in the Window,” didn’t start out as a mystery but as a story about friendship problems. But it became a mystery (an homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window,” no less), as it grew organically out of the actions of her protagonists, Grace Yang and Sophie Young. The seventh-graders want to be FBI agents and decide to learn their trade by spying on their neighbors. Kittscher followed their lead; she ended up working backwards through her story, planting clues and red herrings, tightening alibis, tying up loose ends and creating a highly praised mystery.
Her well-reviewed new mystery, “The Tiara on the Terrace,” was pretty much planned out before she began writing. Her hometown of Pasadena, Calif., is the model for Luna Vista, the setting of her two books. It is also the home of the famous Rose Parade, so it was natural for her to use the event—disguised in the book as the Winter Sun Festival and Parade—as the focal point for Sophie and Grace’s latest foray into crime fighting.
A parade-related death under mysterious circumstances sets the girls on the trail of several suspects with motives for murder. What follows is almost 400 pages of crisp writing and tightly plotted mayhem leavened with goofy humor that will keep readers breathless. The young undercover agents must deal with secret codes, jealous classmates, suspicious accidents, hurtful misunderstandings, murderous machines, and, worst of all, snobby high school beauty queens.
Kittscher makes writing mysteries look easy. In fact, her stories are so good, they have been optioned for television. Sophie and Grace may soon be stars, in addition to Luna Vista town heroes.
To learn more about Kittscher and her new book, learn some secret codes and watch two really funny book-trailer videos, visit her wacky website, kristenkittscher.com. Then come meet the author this Saturday at Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe.