Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

Under Cover Research, a guest post by Daphne Benedis-Grab

According to Matt,* a fourth grader at my school who often pops into the library to chat, I am a spy. I am also being spied on. This is because my future self knows what my past self has done and is doing right this minute. I love Matt because he says magnificent things that get me thinking in new ways, and also because in this case he explained in a nutshell how I research my books: I spy on my past self.

I decided to write a thriller because I have adored a good thriller my whole life. I discovered Lois Duncan when I was ten and devoured everything she wrote. I reread ‘Stranger with my Face’ so many times the cover fell off. But to actually create plot and characters, I needed to do some serious spying on Past Me.

The premise for ‘I Know Your Secret’ is that four seventh graders receive a series of texts ordering them to follow instructions or else their deepest secrets will be revealed. I came up with the heart of the premise by spying on Tween Me and recalling my love of the movie THE BREAKFAST CLUB. I have some issues with the movie now but at that time in my life it was a revelation: a group of disparate teens in trouble who slowly build trust as they sneak around their school and attempt to outwit the person who is attempting to control their actions. I also stole the timeline: ‘I Know Your Secret’ takes place entirely within in a single school day.

Ally, Todd, Gemma and Owen are also born of Past Me. Ally is adopted from Kazakhstan like both my children, and like them she has had to confront microaggressions about “real” family. She’s also a huge animal lover like both Past and Present Me. Todd is based on a friend I had back in middle school. I grew up in a white, working class town where my family stuck out a bit because we were middle class. Todd* came from an underprivileged family and often arrived at school messy and unkempt. He had acted out early on, and all of these things quickly earned the him the label of a “bad” kid. But Todd not a “bad” kid- he was an insightful, whip smart, fun kid who had some struggles going on that no one chose to help him figure out. I was too young and self-involved to ever find out his real story so in ‘I Know Your Secret’ I imagined my own version of his life, pulling from another part of my past: depression suffered by people in my family. And in ‘Secret’ Todd gets something I hope the real Todd found one day: people to understand and support him in his struggles.

Gemma is who Past Me wanted to be: confident and comfortable in her own skin, able to speak up for herself and others, and a very sleek dresser. To be honest I still aspire to fully embody these traits. And Owen is based on characteristics I’ve had all my life: the inability to say the right thing at the right time, excitement at adventure (even when that excitement irritates others) and profound desire for people to get along.

With premise and characters in place, the next step was figuring out how they built upon and impacted each other. The plot required unexpected turns, a confounding mystery and a clock ticking down to the moment where it either all comes together or all falls apart. But none of that would matter if the characters weren’t growing and changing as each event took place. For that essential piece I spied on a more recent version of me: my librarian self.

I work at a K-5th grade public school in Brooklyn with an incredibly diverse population of kids. During library lessons and during book selection I am both witness to and participant in their dynamics. I hear banter that turns into genuine baring of the soul, and arguments and struggles that injure. I meet kids who start off the school year cursing at me, only to share their secrets with me four weeks later. I wanted ‘I Know Your Secret’ to have all of that : banter, arguments, hard problems, soul baring and the incredible trust that can be born between surprising people in surprising ways.

When I spy on Past Me, the one who sat down with these ideas and story elements with hopes of writing a book, I am happy for her, for the fun and discovery that will come with  writing ‘I Know Your Secret.’ Yes, she will get frustrated and struggle and have to do an awful lot of editing. But like my characters, she gets to grow in the hard moments and have people around her to support the journey. And of course I also wonder what Future Me sees when she spies on current me as I begin work on my next middle grade thriller, what surprises and challenges lie ahead. Perhaps there is a way to ask her- I’ll have to ask Matt the next time he pops into the library for a chat!

*names changed

Meet the author

Photo credit: Greg Benedis-Grab

Daphne Benedis-Grab is the author of the middle grade novel The Angel Tree and the young adult novel Alive and Well in Prague, New York. Her short stories have appeared in American Girl Magazine. She earned an MFA at The New School and is an adjunct professor at McDaniel College. She lives in Brooklyn, New York with her husband, two kids, and a cat who has been known to keep her computer warm while she is away from her desk.

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/daphne.grab

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/daphne_bg/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/DaphneBG

Official website: https://daphnebg.com/

About I Know Your Secret

One of Us is Lying meets Pretty Little Liars for middle-grade readers.

The email arrives Sunday night: Do exactly what I say, when I say it, or I will reveal your secret.

On Monday morning, seventh graders Owen, Gemma, Ally, and Todd, who have nothing in common and barely know each other, must work together and follow the instructions of an anonymous blackmailer. None of them want to go along with the blackmailer’s instructions, but each of them have a secret they must protect at all costs.

Set during a single day of school, the students race against the clock to complete a disquieting set of tasks, with fast-paced chapters detailing each moment of the day interspersed with a later interview-style recording made by the quartet.

I Know Your Secret is an exploration of why we conceal the truth, how far we’ll go to keep it hidden, and the power of being honest.

ISBN-13: 9781338746334
Publisher: Scholastic, Inc.
Publication date: 12/07/2021
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years

Making the Impossible Possible, a guest post by Ruth Freeman

A story about Superheroes? Really? I have to confess I know almost nothing about superheroes, or at least I didn’t before starting to write HOW TO SAVE A SUPERHERO. But this is how it happened.

A story idea for me begins with a little seed blowing in and getting stuck. Then another seed blows in, and another, and sometimes, if I’m lucky, they start growing together into a story. The first seed was this: after I finished writing my earlier middle-grade novel, ONE GOOD THING ABOUT AMERICA, about a Congolese girl’s first year in an American elementary school, I wondered what was something all kids know about no matter where they’re from? I was teaching English Language Learners who came from all over the world, but one thing they had in common was superheroes! They might have lived in the U.S. their entire lives or have just arrived from another country, but everyone seemed to know about Superman, Spiderman and Batman. In fact, they knew way more than I did.

The second little seed came from the trips I made to visit my parents at their retirement home in Pennsylvania. It was like a fancy hotel or maybe a cruise ship, one with restaurants, a hair salon, gift shop, pool, library, even a bank. There was a studio for those who liked to paint, a woodworking shop for those who worked with wood, and a room of miniature trains for those who loved trains.  Residents never needed to leave the place if they didn’t want to. It was an amazing, complete world for older people and, as you might imagine, there were all kinds of interesting people who lived there. So…

“What if”…that’s the question that starts a story idea moving for me. What if a resident of a retirement home was actually a real…no, I mean, a REAL superhero? Impossible? Ah, that’s the great thing about writing a story: anything is possible! Maybe an old guy (Mr. Norris) doesn’t want anyone to know he’s a superhero. Maybe he wants to keep his identity hidden. On the other hand, of course he could just have dementia and not be a superhero at all. We don’t find out until the very end which it is.

The last little seed came as I made up Mr. Norris, the newest and grumpiest resident of the Happy Valley Village retirement community. The more I described him and wrote down what he said, the more I could hear my uncle Mickey’s voice. Mickey was charming, funny and smart. He was also prickly, opinionated and complained a lot. He wore old clothes, smoked a pipe, never threw anything away, and lived by himself on an island in Maine for more than 50 years. He’s gone now but he would surely roll his eyes and laugh if he knew he was the inspiration for Mr. Norris.

Addie, the eleven-year old main character, knows without a doubt that it would be impossible for Mr. Norris to be a real superhero, even though her friends Dickson and Marwa try to convince her otherwise. It was fun to write about the possibility of a real superhero, because after all, superheroes have their human sides too, right? Wouldn’t they get tired of helping people? Of being good all the time? Wouldn’t they be afraid of making a mistake while everyone was watching?

As fun as the superhero part was to write, the real story in my mind is the transformation of Mr. Norris and Addie. Even though he is old and she is young, they’ve both suffered pain and loss in their lives. They don’t trust other people. They expect the worst. But as their friendship grows, they begin to open up again. The impossible becomes possible again. They make friends at the retirement community who end up helping them when some crazy scientists come to kidnap Mr. Norris. By the end of the story, at a wild Halloween party, Addie and Mr. Norris have become true friends who are willing to risk everything to save each other. 

I’ve always been drawn to stories where characters find themselves in impossible situations (as they are in so many stories). Think of being lost in the woods with only a hatchet (Gary Paulsen) or the impossible situations Harry Potter finds himself in, or being homeless in THE WAR THAT SAVED MY LIFE (Kimberly Brubaker Bradley). It’s in those dark and impossible situations that stories miraculously twist and turn until a pathway appears through to the possible.

Exciting? Heart-stopping? Emotional? Yes, absolutely. The stories that plunge us into impossible situations are all of these things, that’s why we love them. They also show us the way in our own lives. When things seem impossible in real life, it’s usually not superpowers that save the day, it’s human kindness, a brave stranger going out of their way, or something as simple as a caring, friendly smile that begin to make things possible again.

Meet the author

Ruth Freeman is the author of One Good Thing About America, which received a Golden Kite Honor Award and was called a “touching novel” by School Library Journal. Ruth grew up in rural Pennsylvania but now lives in Maine where she teaches English language learners in an elementary school.

About How to Save a Superhero

Ten-year-old Addie knows that Superheroes aren’t real, and that they certainly don’t hide out in retirement communities, but she may just have to change her mind.

Addie and her mom never stay in one place too long. They’ve been up and down and all around the country. When her mom, Tish, gets a new job at Happy Valley Village Retirement Community in Pennsylvania, Addie believes they’ll be on the road again in a month. But this time, something is different—make that, someone. Mr. Norris, a grumpy resident of Happy Valley and. . .a former superhero? 

Well, that’s what Marwa, whose mom also works at Happy Valley, would try and have Addie believe. Addie and her friend Dickson know better even if there are things they can’t explain. Like the time Mr. Norris was about to get hit by a car and was suddenly on the other side of the road or the way his stare seems to take root in Addie’s stomach. 

When a man starts prowling the Happy Valley grounds, claiming to be the great-nephew of a resident, Addie, Marwa, and Dickson soon stumble into a grand conspiracy involving the Manhattan Project, a shady weapons company, and the fate of the human race, in this smart, funny middle grade novel.

ISBN-13: 9780823447626
Publisher: Holiday House
Publication date: 10/19/2021
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years