The Matchstick Castle
by Keir Graff
January 10, 2017
G.P. Putnam’s BFYR
A wild and whimsical adventure story, perfect for fans of Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library
Brian can think of a few places he’d rather spend his summer than with his aunt and uncle in Boring, Illinois. Jail, for example. Or an earplug factory. Anything would be better than doing summer school on a computer while his scientist dad is stationed at the South Pole.
Boring lives up to its name until Brian and his cousin Nora have a fight, get lost, and discover a huge, wooden house in the forest. With balconies, turrets, and windows seemingly stuck on at random, it looks ready to fall over in the next stiff breeze. To the madcap, eccentric family that lives inside, it’s not just a home—it’s a castle.
Suddenly, summer gets a lot more exciting. With their new friends, Brian and Nora tangle with giant wasps, sharp-tusked wild boars, and a crazed bureaucrat intent on bringing the dangerously dilapidated old house down with a wrecking ball.
This funny, fantastical story will resonate with any reader who’s ever wished a little adventure would find them.
“Fast-paced, anarchic fun for reluctant and avid readers alike.”—Kirkus Reviews
“This quirky novel is reminiscent of a Wes Anderson movie for the tweenage set. . . . For those who enjoy a bit of absurdist humor with their realism.”—School Library Journal
“A zippy, adventurous romp in the woods complete with fierce animals and buried treasure.”
—Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books
“A whimsical adventure with a large dose of humor? Yes, please! This story spoke to my inner child, who suffered too many boring summer vacations and longed to discover something magical and exciting in my own backyard.”—Jennifer Chambliss Bertman, New York Times bestselling author of Book Scavenger and The Unbreakable Code
“For boys and girls alike, this story sings.”—Blue Balliett, award-winning author of Chasing Vermeer
“A towering tale filled with astonishing action, amazing characters, and two very daring adventurers.”—David Lubar, author of the Monsterrific Tales series, the Weenies series, and Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie
Writing for Kids Isn’t Child’s Play
By Keir Graff
By Keir Graff
When I finished my first draft of my first middle-grade novel, I gave it to a friend who identified a fatal flaw before she even started reading.
“How old is your protagonist?” she asked.
I didn’t know—not exactly.
That friend, Ilene Cooper, the author of some 20 or 30-odd children’s books, gave me a warm but knowing smile and told me that was the first thing I needed to know about my character. After reading the book, she told me she thought it was good enough to be published, but only after I chose an age and addressed some other pressing issues.
I did the work and published the book, The Other Felix, to good reviews. Last week, my second middle-grade novel, The Matchstick Castle, came out, and I’m busy working on a third. To say I’ve learned a lot since that first draft would be an understatement of epic proportion.
In my defense, I was an accidental children’s author. Before Felix, I had written four books for adults and, while I loved reading to my kids, it hadn’t occurred to me to write for that age group. But when my older son (actually named Felix) had a recurring nightmare (in which he was chased through the forest by monsters) with a surprising ending (he had a twin who showed him how to fight the monsters), I was struck by the brilliance of the scenario and started writing.
I planned a short story just for Felix but the writing was just so much fun I couldn’t stop until I had a whole book. Then, when I actually got to visit schools and read the published book to thousands of enthusiastic students—well, I was hooked. But how did I get better at writing for kids?
In some ways, the difference between writing for older and younger readers isn’t as great as it seems. Yes, when I write for the latter my sentences, chapters, and books are shorter. And while I’ve always prided myself on choosing words with great care, I am even more precise when writing middle-grade. But the biggest difference stems from Ilene’s first correction: the age of the characters. Everything flows from there. If your protagonist is 11 years old, then the things they care about—their emotions and aspirations—must be authentic to an 11-year-old.
Seems like child’s play, right? Well, I had another handicap: when I started writing middle-grade, both my sons were much younger than my protagonist. So I was relying on my own dim memories, observation of random kids, rereadings of classic middle-grade books, and guesswork.
Time passed between The Other Felix and The Matchstick Castle. The first book was dedicated to the real Felix, so the second book would be written in his little brother Cosmo’s honor. The editor who acquired Matchstick made a suggestion that resulted in my next big leap forward: try first person. I had always favored limited third-person for my narrative voice, but as I rewrote a few chapters where “he” became “I,” suddenly my book came fully to life and it was that much easier to get inside narrator Brian Brown’s head.
It helped that by now Felix had passed through the ages I was writing about, and Cosmo was nearly there, so now I had first-hand examples of how middle-graders thought and what they cared about. In fact, as the book comes out, Cosmo is 10 years old, pushing 11, which I think might just be the sweet spot for reading the book—it’s certainly the age I was trying to capture when I cast Cosmo van Dash as an 11-year-old, his cousin Nora as 12, and did my best to tell the story through their eyes.
There’s always more to learn, so for the book I’m writing now, I’m taking things one step further: Cosmo’s entire class will read the first draft before my editor even sees it. They’ll tell me what they like, what they don’t like as much, and what they think the characters would do at crucial junctures.
After all, if you want to know how a fifth-grader thinks, why not go to the source?
Keir Graff is the author of two middle-grade novels, including the The Matchstick Castle, published in January by G. P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers and Listening Library. Since 2011, he has been cohost of Publishing Cocktails, an occasional literary gathering in Chicago. By day, he is the executive editor of Booklist. You can find him on Twitter (@KeirGraff), Facebook (Keir.Graff.Author), and at www.keirgraff.com.