Scholastic’s book series The 39 Clues may represent the future of children’s series books. Developed by Percy Jackson and the Olympians creator Rick Riordan, the series combines books written by a collaborative team of authors with trading cards and an online component that lets kids delve into the history and backstory of the series, winning prizes for completing specific “missions.” The books have proven hugely successful, appearing on multiple bestseller lists and spawning a feature film to produced by Steven Spielberg for a projected for a 2011 release.
Author Peter Legranis wrote Book 3 and the just-released Book 7 of the series. We had a chance to exchange a few quick emails about what to expect in this book, and his thoughts on the series in general.
Tell us about what happens in this book of the series.
In The 39 Clues, 14-year-old Amy Cahill and her 11-year-old brother Dan are charged, via the will of their mysterious grandmother, with finding 39 Clues leading to the greatest power ever known to humankind.
They find they are part of a secret family that extends back 500 years and includes some of the greatest movers and shakers in history — Mozart, Ben Franklin, Amelia Earhart, Madame Curie, Einstein, Napoleon (to name a few) — and they must figure out a way to travel the world to find hints left by these ancestors.
Take what we’ve experienced already — danger, action, double-crossings, mystery steeped in history, exotic locales, deadly secrets, code-breaking, jokes — and ratchet everything up a notch.
In The Viper’s Nest, Dan and Amy face their biggest challenges yet — a volcano, a car chase through South Africa from a Hummer full of Holts, a threat on the life of Uncle Alistair, a secret carving that must be found in a collapsing mine, messages left by Winston Churchill, a sinister Tomas stronghold, a killer Kabra poison, and an attack by an entire army of warriors. Oh. And one other thing.
For the first time, Dan and Amy discover the answer to the biggest mystery in their young lives — which branch of the Cahill family they belong to. It’s one of the biggest mysteries of the series so far.
What was different about working on this installment than Book 3? Given your background in doing historical fiction, what’s been fun about working on these books?
For Book 3, I had the unenviable task of matching the work of two children’s-book heavyweights: Rick Riordan (author of the Percy Jackson series) and Gordon Korman (king of humor, action, adventure, and storytelling since his first book at age 14). I worked hard to bring my own style and personality to the series.
By Book 7, Pat Carman and Jude Watson (twice!) had deepened the characters, added complex twists, and set a level of writing that would hobble any subsequent sane writer. Fortunately, sanity has never been my strong point. My task was to explore South African history, with all its painful legacy, and introduce a clue left by one of the greatest military minds of all time, Shaka Zulu. For a historical-research nut like myself, it was a dream come true.
How does the overall collaborative process of the series work?
First of all, we 39 Clues authors are good friends. But we prefer to keep our conversations to things like war stories, food, gadgets, and bad jokes. Early on, we all realized a collaboration among seven different writers would be way too complicated. Because we’re all writing basically one long story, every detail has to be exactly right and any misunderstanding would be disastrous. So individually, we work through our genius editorial team at Scholastic who absorb all the new details and shadings, clear all the changes and requests, and keep the entire thing in their heads!
What are the advantages and disadvantages of this format?
I think we were all a little nervous before the series began, because this kind of collaborative work hadn’t been done before. It’s been a challenge to pick up a series whose plot has been expanded and whose tone and depth have been changed by other voices. Especially when those voices are as creative and surprising as those in this all-star team! Okay, I’ll admit, we’re all constantly thinking of ways to top the other. (Competitive? Nahhh!)
The end result is that we all keep each other at the top of our games — and it’s been great fun for us. We get to dip in and out of this incredible saga, and none of us has the pressure of entire series on our backs. I’ve talked to thousands of readers over the past year, and I’m finding empirically that they enjoy the multiple-author aspect. For them, the series is a big delicious literary stew, full of different spices and textures.
How do you incorporate the online component of the storytelling into the book?
The 39 Clues saga is, at its most basic level, a mammoth search through history and across the world. We authors have been charged with the story — to use our skills to create a unique, compelling journey that stands on its own. But we have only ten chances to do this. The beauty of the interactive component is that it adds interesting tributaries to the story’s roaring river.
Readers can join Dan and Amy’s search in a substantive way — in fact, 29 of the Clues are available to uncover online (www.the39clues.com) and through the collectible cards. Imagine reading, say, a sprawling Dickens novel but being able to dig into the characters’ lives and investigate side-plots and secrets. You wouldn’t have to — and you wouldn’t lose anything if you didn’t — but if you were so inclined, what fun it would be to have the opportunity. Our readers do.
Do you see the collaborative process as the future of children’s/YA series, and what is your take on writing toward a multimedia approach? Also, as someone who has written many series, what are some of the challenges and advantages of doing stories/characters spread across multiple books?
At a time when people worry about the future of publishing, I see an exciting future that’s expanding in imaginative ways, some of which were unimaginable just a few years ago.
Everyone wants kids to read more, not less. Everyone believes in the future of stories and storytelling. Children experience the world in terms of narratives, characters, archetypes. Twenty-first-century technology has made connectivity almost illimitable. It’s easy to throw up our hands at the potential for constant distraction. But that clouds an obvious opportunity to reach kids where they are, to bring the art of storytelling to new formats.
The ancient Greeks warned that written literacy would degrade the skill of listening. The invention of movable type was seen by some as a corrupting, evil force. The task is to move where the culture moves, to take our story-telling quest to new places, to embrace rather than deny the future.
I don’t think the collaborative process or the multiplatform aspect are the future of publishing — but they are new possibilities to add to the rest. If success in children’s publishing is defined as increasing the love of reading in any way, then I’m all for jumping in with two feet.
What’s been your reaction to the response to the books?
In a word, flabbergasted. From the beginning, we’ve all had an inkling that the series would be popular. But I wouldn’t have anticipated a teacher saying to with astonishment, “I can’t believe it. My kids are obsessed with Mozart!”
I wouldn’t have expected to approach a school in a car through a lane of traffic-cones, with another barrier of cones to keep back a screaming throng of hundreds of kids — an entire elementary school — all dressed as characters from the series, all treating the presence of a balding middle-aged author with the kind of excitement you’d expect for a Jonas brother. Not for a movie, not for a music group. For a book.
Some schools have adapted The 39 Clues as an educational tool for their entire curriculum — its stories enlivening history, its secret codes and strategies illuminating mathematics, its peregrinations bringing geography to life. For someone who has dedicated his life to setting fire to kids’ imaginations, it’s a dream come true.
What are you working on outside of this series?
I’m co-writing a YA novel with a friend and mentor, Harry Mazer, about a young Iraq war veteran who must recreate his life from scratch after injuries from a bomb blast cause him to lose his memory. After that I begin work on a trilogy called Perfect, set in a future where genetic perfection had become the ultimate nightmare.
What do you feel is particularly rewarding about writing for all ages?
At one level, I feel like I was arrested at an age somewhere between ten and eighteen. It was a time of great creative freedom, of hours spent with Jack London, Madeline L’Engle, Dr. Seuss, Edgar Allen Poe, Walter R. Brooks, and Ray Bradbury. Life was all about ideas and growth and change. I’ve always been drawn to literature that reaches out to that time of life.
But for me, it’s more than the act of writing itself. When I was a book-obsessed kid, I had no access to role models, no one to show me what the life of a creative person would be like. It’s indescribably rewarding to be in a profession where I can visit schools, connect with my readers so directly, and give them what I never had. I feel blessed to have skills honed over years as a professional actor. At the most elemental level, I entertain them with stories. But I’m always aware of the ones who are really soaking it in, really needing someone to say Yes, it’s possible — and here’s how it’s done.
Anything else you’d like to talk about that we haven’t discussed yet?
I’m happy to be alive at a time of such uncertainty and exciting possibility — and to be able to travel across to the country to see it unfold.