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Capture the Flag
Kate Messner


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Check out the Sweet on Books Interview with

Chris Grabenstein

Author of The Riley Mack series

Are any of the Riley Mack characters based on real people? Is the story drawn from any of your own experiences?
Not really. I started with the archetypes from the old MISSION IMPOSSIBLE TV Show, which I used to watch when I was in middle school. I wanted Riley to be like the classic "Fox" or Robin Hood character in stories -- someone who stands up for what's right, even when the "authorities" say it is wrong. The theatrical "actress-y" character of Briana is based on the daughter of some friends who reminds me of all the characters I knew back when I did plays in high school and college.

Some of the feeling about rescuing dogs comes from my own experiences. Like Briana says, "adoption is the best option." When you rescue a dog, they never forget!

You have a good representation of both likable and unlikable characters in Riley Mack, but do you prefer writing about one or the other? Why?
I like writing both but it's probably more fun writing the nasty, cheating, skeevy characters. You get to tap into your darker instincts. However, I had a blast writing Riley Mack. I think he is the kid I always wish I could've been.

Readers encounter quite a few adults in Riley Mack. What message did you intend for readers to take away from those characters versus from the kids in the book?
Well, in the book, there are good kids and a couple bad kids. Great adults (like Riley's mom and the pet store owner and the FBI agent at the very end) and terrible adults. There are some bumblers in-between. What I hope kids will take away from the book is the need to develop their own sense of right and wrong, based on what they learn from respected adults. Because even though the adults get to write all the rules, that doesn't mean they all play by them.

How is your process different when writing for kids versus adults?
It's really the same process. The only difference, really, is length of the book, subject matter, and language choices. When I write books for middle grade readers, I try to introduce them to new words but take pains to clarify the meaning of those words in a follow up sentence.

And, as I learned from Jim Henson when I wrote for the Muppets, I have to know what lessons my books for younger readers are teaching. The kids will learn something from whatever I do, whether I intend to send a message or I better know what it is I am teaching.

What’s next for Riley Mack?
Riley and the other known troublemakers will be back next Spring with a new adventure: RILEY MACK STIRS UP MORE TROUBLE. When schools out for the summer, they find that their favorite swimming hole is terribly polluted. Plus, someone is trying to stop Briana from winning the scholarship she desperately needs if she wants to go to college.

What made you want to be a writer?
It was something I discovered, early on, that I had a talent for. So, with the encouragement of some great teachers (the second Riley Mack book is dedicated to my Freshman English teacher from high school), I tried to learn all I could about writing.

How do you get your ideas? Do you do any research?
I get most of my ideas by seeing something and saying "What if?" For instance, one afternoon, right after the schools had let out for the day, I was walking down the sidewalks of the Upper West Side behind a group of kids walking four abreast, all of them with backpacks that were so heavy they looked like they were filled with bricks. I said to myself, "What if, instead of books, those kids all have secret spy gear in their backpacks and, every day, after school, they go off on a mission to right wrongs?" That was the start for Riley Mack.

Where do you prefer to do your writing? What time of day?
I do most of my writing in the second bedroom of our two bedroom apartment. Our two cats and Fred the dog keep me company all day long. I write best in the morning when my logical brain isn't awake enough to shush my subconscious. I try to write 2,000 new words every day.

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
It's very simple: Read, read, read. Write, write, write. Also, find a book you love and diagram it. See where the author makes major twists or takes unexpected turns. There is an underlying structure to all story telling. What you put in that structure is what will make your story stand out.

What would you be if you weren't a writer?
Probably a teacher. I have a blast visiting about fifty schools every year, all over the country, talking about writing. I think teaching is a performance art like acting!

If you could have lunch with any writer whom would you choose? Why?
Stephen King. He is the Charles Dickens of the Rock n' Roll, baby boom generation.


Read or write?    Write

Call or text?    Call

Fly or drive?    Take the train.

Beach or ski?    Beach

Time travel back or time travel forward?    Hmmm. Forward. I'd probably come back with some good stock tips.

E-book or traditional book?    E-book. We live in Manhattan. We have so room for bookshelves.


Children's book:    The first Harry Potter

Song:    Bruce Springsteen's -- "Land of Hope and Dreams"

Sports Team:    The fake college football team I coach on my Playstation 3.

Travel destination:    Italy

Superhero:    Captain Klutz by Don Martin from Mad Magazine

Magic power:    Losing weight by drinking milk shakes

We are Sweet on Books, so we have to ask – what is your favorite sweet treat?

Chocolate layer cake with fudge frosting. Or an Oreo.

Chris Grabenstein did improvisational comedy in New York City with Bruce Willis and Robin Williams until James Patterson hired him to write advertising copy at the J. Walter Thompson agency.

He spent seventeen years writing and producing television and radio commercials for clients such as Kentucky Fried Chicken, Seven Up, Dr Pepper, Certs, Dentyne, Prudential, and others.

During those years, he also wrote for Jim Henson's Muppets and co-authored a movie of the week, THE CHRISTMAS GIFT, starring John Denver, for CBS-TV.

In 2005, Carroll & Graf published his first John Ceepak/Jersey Shore mystery TILT A WHIRL, which went on to win an Anthony Award for Best First Mystery. The Ceepak series continued with MAD MOUSE, WHACK A MOLE, HELL HOLE, MIND SCRAMBLER, ROLLING THUNDER, and FUN HOUSE. The series has been optioned to become a TV show.

Chris also wrote two holiday thrillers for Carroll & Graf: SLAY RIDE and HELL FOR THE HOLIDAYS.

He became a New York Times best-selling author thanks to Charlaine Harris and Toni L.P. Kelner who selected his short story “The Demon Of The Dunes” for their anthology DEATH’S EXCELLENT VACATION.

In 2008, Random House Children’s Books published Chris’ first ghost story/mystery for middle grades (ages 8-13) readers, THE CROSSROADS. It went on to win both an Anthony and Agatha Award. The second book in that series, THE HANGING HILL, also won an Agatha Award and inspired Chris’ play CURIOSITY CAT, which is published by Samuel French and available for production everywhere. The third book in the Haunted Mystery series, THE SMOKY CORRIDOR, was a finalist for the Black Eyed Susan young readers’ award in Maryland. The fourth book, THE BLACK HEART CRYPT, won the Agatha Award in 2012.

Chris has a new middle grade series published by HarperCollins: RILEY MACK AND THE OTHER KNOWN TROUBLEMAKERS. He calls it a “comic crime caper” for kids or “an Ocean’s Eleven for eleven-year-olds.”

Chris is currently working on a new middle grades book for Random House called ESCAPE FROM MR. LEMONCELLO’S LIBRARY.

He is also co-authoring several books with his first boss and mentor James Patterson: DANIEL X: ARMAGGEDON and I FUNNY, A MIDDLE SCHOOL STORY.

Chris lives in New York City with his beautiful and beloved wife, J.J. They share their tiny apartment with two cats (Parker and Tiger Lilly) and 60-pound dog named Fred who has the best credits in the family: Fred starred on Broadway in the musical version of CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG.