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August 2016 BOOKLIST
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Suspected terrorists, recovering meth addicts, bumbling psychos—Booklist Online Editor Keir Graff has written about them all in his four adult crime novels. So what’s next? A delightful children’s book, of course.
The Other Felix, which is published by Roaring Brook this month, may seem to be far afield for Graff, but the inspiration for the story was pretty close to home. As he recalls, “My son Felix was having nightmares about monsters until one night he dreamed about a boy who looked just like him, had the same name, and knew how to fight the monsters.”
That sparked the idea for a book, but what made Graff think that he could write for children after all the blood and gore he’d been dispensing in his adult books? Well, at first he didn’t. “I had read a lot of books to my kids, and that made me think it would be fun to write a children’s book,” he remembers, “but I assumed I didn’t have the right set of skills to do it. Fortunately, it turns out that writing for children isn’t as different as I once thought. I approached characters and plotting the same way I approach those issues in an adult book. Characters want something and have obstacles to overcome, and it all flows from there. Of course, the challenges must be appropriate to the characters: in The Price of Liberty, Jack McEnroe wants to rescue his kids from a bad guy; in The Other Felix, Felix wants to stop having scary dreams about monsters.”
One thing that made writing in an entirely new genre easier for Graff was that when he began, he thought he was simply writing a short story for an audience of two, Felix and his younger brother, Cosmo. After the story turned into a novel and Graff had received encouragement from his first readers, he began to work on the project in earnest. There were a few bumps on the learning curve. “At first,” he says, “I had a lot to learn about how kids perceive characters and how to make the age of a character seem consistent and convincing. The biggest revelation was how little I had to dumb it down. In the early drafts—and there were many—I tended to add these little sentences explaining what characters were thinking, or spelling out ideas, which I would never do in my adult fiction. But once I started working with my wonderful editor, Kate Jacobs, she told me I didn’t need to do that, that I could trust my readers even though they’re younger than I’m used to. She was right.”
With the critical success of The Other Felix (Kirkus has already called it “a thoughtful, whimsical story”), Graff sees more children’s books in his future. He’s almost finished with a zany, action-packed adventure novel, The Matchstick Castle. That doesn’t mean he wants to give up adult books though. He points to Russell Hoban as a career model. Readers of children’s books know him as the author of the beloved Frances books, but he’s also written a diverse array of adult books, including the groundbreaking dystopian novel Riddley Walker (1980).
“I don’t find it odd to go back and forth between the two,” Graff explains. “I’ve always had a number of different projects clanging around in my brain, and it’s nice to have something else to think about when I’m tired of what I’m working on at the moment.”
Once Graff knew that The Other Felix was going to be published, he did wonder whether he should change the title character’s name. Would it freak out his own Felix? Would it give him a big head? “I tried a bunch of different names—Alex, Eric—but none of them felt right. Eventually, I decided I was overthinking it, and, besides, it was partly Felix’s book, too.”
As for Felix, he loves the novel. The boy who is obsessed with chemistry ranks it right up there with his favorite book: Theodore Gray’s The Elements.
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