by Ben Zackheim | Aug 19, 2015 | Shirley Link & The Party Poopers |
Here’s Chapter One of the middle grade mystery book, Shirley Link & The Party Poopers! It’s available now on Amazon.
Everyone loves my mom. She’s fair, stern but kind, and she makes brownies that sell out at every bake sale. But I have to say, she’s never been good with large groups of people. Don’t get me wrong. In her job as a police officer she could charm a room full of crooks before arresting them. But when it comes to things like speeches, well, she’s not in her element. The crowd is especially big today as the town enjoys the Iron Bridge Dinner. It’s an annual party where most of Shelburne Falls shows up at our bridge to eat a meal together.
“So, uh, YEAH! Okay!” my mom says. “Thank you, councilman. Thanks to uh, to uh…” She wants to thank her sister, my Aunt Patty, but it looks like she’s forgotten her name.
“Patty,” Patty mutters. She’s shaking her head and smiling, teeth clenched like she just sat on a cold toilet seat.
Poor Aunt Patty.
Poor Mom! The town is recognizing her for her service to the community. She raised $25,000 for a fund to restore the Mohawk Trail, which is this beautiful path that runs around our town. She came up with the idea of a music fair fundraiser last summer. No one thought it would come to much. But when she asked a really popular band called The Nields to play, they said yes.
(Which freaked out my friend Wiley, because he has a huge crush on the Nields sisters. He started testing out colognes which was disturbing on several levels.)
So after they said yes, that opened the floodgates and before we knew it we had a free venue and five bands performing for the cause.
My Aunt Patty nominated Mom to get the annual Community Service award. Everyone is surprised she won, though. The last few years’ awards have been given to my friend Jacob’s dad, J.L. Graham who, apparently, has as much charm as his son. Meaning not much at all. I mean, the man has never shown up to receive the award. He’s a billionaire. I guess he likes his privacy.
I’m fascinated by J.L. Graham. His family has lived in the area for two hundred years. They’ve always enjoyed a lot of support from the community, even when the Graham family hit hard times. If I remember right, J.L.’s mom died young and his dad had a reputation for hating everyone. J.L. had to stay with friends for months at a time while his dad got carted off to jail. Just a bunch of small crimes. But they added up to a life that doesn’t sound like much of a life. J.L. worked hard to put that behind him. He built up his empire from nothing.
Speak of the devil! Well, speak of the devil’s son, I see my friend Jacob on the other side of the crowd. He’s what many people would call handsome, but I would call dastardly. What can I say? I just know him too well. I guess the fact we met because he kidnapped me makes it hard to be objective. I gesture for him to come over, but he just slouches his shoulders and walks away.
Weird. I probably did something to offend him. Like getting an A to his A-. Or maybe I beat him to school one day this week. He’s competitive that way. Hey, I said he’s a friend. I didn’t say I like him all the time.
Mom’s finished her speech, Thank Thor. That was painful.
“Hi sweety,” she says to me, coming off the stage.
“That was a disaster,” she says, the smile not breaking from her face. She doesn’t really have a problem messing up. She usually thinks it’s funny.
“It was your worst yet,” I say, giving her a hug. She laughs even more. Before I know it, she and I are taking Aunt Patty to Moe’s for something sweet.
“I still feel bad for forgetting your name, Patty.” Mom is sipping a lemonade while her two favorite girls enjoy ice cream.
“Stop it,” Aunt Patty says.
“It could happen to anyone,” I add.
“Sure. Anyone who drops 127 IQ points when she speaks in front of more than three people,” Aunt Patty finishes, with a smile and a wink.
“Congratulations, Mrs. Link,” a voice says from the table behind me. It’s Jacob. He has his moping face on.
“Why, thank you Jacob!” Mom says. “We finally broke your father’s impressive run. Actually, I think the bridge repairs he paid for were more worthy of the honor.”
“No, not at all, Mrs. Link. My dad could use a few more losses in his life.”
Uh-oh. He’s in a mood and a half.
“Excuse me,” I say, getting up from the table. I’m going to get to the bottom of this. “Jacob, would you walk with me for a minute?” Mom and Aunt Patty look at each other and use some kind of weird silent language that only siblings understand. I think Mom thought, “Wonder what’s going on here!” and Aunt Patty thought back, “Best to stay out of this one, Mrs. Link!”
Jacob follows me outside. We stroll toward the bridge.
“What?” he asks. Or whines. Depending on how you look at it. He has his hands in his pocket and his whole body screams leave me alone.
“Did someone steal your Cheerios this morning?” I ask.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” He darts out from between his slouched shoulders like an angry rooster.
“You look like your spoiling for a fight with the whole world,” I say. “And you congratulated my mom back there. No way would Jacob ever do that. Jacob does not congratulate anyone, anytime, ever, never.”
“Maybe Jacob is changing,” Jacob says. “Did Shirley ever think of that?”
“Shirley has not thought of that,” I say, running with the fun new game ofRefer to Yourself in the Third Person.
“Maybe she should. Maybe after all these months of nagging Jacob to be normal have finally paid off for Shirley.”
“Shirley hasn’t been trying to make Jacob normal,” I say. “Shirley has been trying to make Jacob not a felon.”
“Maybe Jacob wants Shirley to mind her own business!”
We glare at each other.
“Maybe Marie and Wylie should capture this Instagram moment,” Wylie says from a bench on the sidewalk. Marie is sitting next to him. They both grin like they just won a million dollars on a game show. I didn’t see them there.
“Jacob is acting weird,” I say, jerking my thumb at him.
“Shirley is acting normal, which is to say she’s irritating and making a perfectly nice gesture on my part into a crime.”
“You were nice to someone?” Wylie and Marie ask at the same time. They laugh. I try not to. I don’t want to pile on Jacob. I just want him to tell me why he’s so mopey!
“Very funny. Nice talking to you three,” he says as he walks off.
“I’m here to help if you need it, Jacob,” I call out after him. He stops walking, doesn’t quite turn around and then starts walking again.
“Boy, he’s crabby,” Wylie says.
Suddenly, Mom pops out of Moe’s. She’s on her cell phone and has that urgent walk I know so well. It looks like the police have a new problem on their hands.
I’m about to stick my nose in her business when I hear a honk up the street.
“Who’s that?” Marie asks. She points up the hill. A shiny red Chevy pickup truck that I don’t recognize has stopped next to Jacob.
New Hampshire license plates.
Fresh from the car wash. Maybe even just off the sales floor.
Jacob’s body language screams discomfort. Whoever is in that truck is not a friend. So I’m surprised when the driver leans over and pushes the passenger door open. Jacob climbs in.
“Jacob,” I say, not loud enough. He doesn’t hear me. Or he ignores me. “Jacob!” I yell. He slams the door shut.
The truck peels off and roars up the hill, out of sight.
by Ben Zackheim | Oct 21, 2014 | Writing |
I’ve talked a lot about the softcover collection of The Camelot Kids coming out in December, 2014. Why am I so excited? Well, besides seeing the story all together in one volume, there’s the spectacular artwork of Ian Greenlee. Ian has been body slamming every single piece for The Camelot Kids eBooks (yes, in a good, loving way). His art is getting a lot of buzz in the illustration world. And readers LOVE what they’ve seen so far.
Here’s one review:
“I love love love this series!!
The illustrations are really really wonderful. I wish I had some to frame for my office.”
“This is the first in an exciting new middle grade series, by Ben Zackheim, with stunning illustrations peppered throughout, this one is sure to be a hit.”
I want to give you a peek at how we’ll be using the artwork in the softcover edition. From the start, Nathan Fox (Art Director and cover artist) has wanted the illustrations to emerge from the story. His meticulous sense of theme and intent are woven into every visual decision he makes. For instance the theme of The Camelot Kids: Part One was “Emergence” which translated into wonderful illustrations of our characters stepping into a new world. But the softcover will give us a whole new way to play with the theme.
Well, when Simon Sharp finds the vambrace in the grass in Part One, it’s his first step into Merlin’s domain. Simon doesn’t know it at the time, but Ian did a fantastic job of showing the confusing, dramatic moment. In the book, you’ll be able to see the drawing in all of its detail, and you’ll notice how some art appears to embrace the text of the story. In the two-page spread below, notice how the leaves flow from one page to the next, like ivy growing through the prose.
This is just one example of the beauty and attention to detail that you’ll find in The Camelot Kids: Book One, coming in December. Yes, THIS December ;-)
by Ben Zackheim | Oct 13, 2014 | The Camelot Kids |
Here’s a beautiful illustration of The Ball scene in The Camelot Kids: Part Two. Ian Greenlee went all out on that dress! The scene captures a moment where the heir to King Arthur’s throne shows up. I won’t give anything away, but it’s someone Simon knows (as you can see on the expression his face is wearing).
And, um, why is the guy charging Simon like that?
The Ball by Ian Greenlee for The Camelot Kids
by Ben Zackheim | Mar 14, 2014 | Writing |
If you haven’t picked up the latest Shirley Link book, Shirley Link & The Black Cat, then now’s a good time. The Kindle ebook is a buck, today only.
I’m trying out the new Amazon Countdown Deal thingy. It lets me put a book on sale for a limited amount of time. I’ll be sure to post about my experience when all’s said and done.
Want to know more about the fourth volume of the Shirley Link series (for middle school readers)?
Shirley Link, girl detective, is back in the critically-acclaimed Middle Grade mystery series! And this time, there’s a black cat involved…uh-oh…
In her fourth adventure, Shirley Link takes a walk on the dark side of her hometown. When a young man, known for making trouble, is targeted as suspect #1 in a string of robberies, Shirley works hard to find the truth.
But even if the young detective proves his innocence, can she save him from himself?
Join Shirley on her most daring case yet!
Emily Neuburger, Everyday Fun blog, Parents.com
“Shirley Link is a new girl detective series that my daughter is crazy about. This is an amazing series, my friends! Your kids will be hooked and you’ll feel really good about it.”
Edward Hemingway, Author/Illustrator, Bad Apple
“This Veronica Mars for the tween-set is funny, smart, and full of preternatural wisdom.”
PopBop (Top 1000 Amazon reviewer)
“There are early middle grade mysteries out there, but most of them have sketchy characters, and a lot of them plod along fairly predictable arcs. This series has an engaging heroine, a lot of attitude, and a much snappier overall feel.”
A great middle school read for girls and boys from 8-12 years of age (and their parents, of course)!
by Ben Zackheim | Dec 6, 2013 | Writing |
The Ninja Librarian came out of nowhere. I don’t mean Ninja Librarian the man, I mean Ninja Librarian the book. As we set up the Middle Grade Elves book tour I was assigned Rebecca’s series. It certainly sounded interesting. As I read it I had a feeling I was enjoying something special. The pages turned and turned as I met some fascinating characters and twists and turns that delighted me. While this is a Middle Grade book tour, I highly recommend this series to anyone, of any age.
I had a chance to interview Rebecca about The Ninja Librarian. It’s a good primer for her book series, but should also be fun for those of you who have read the book.
Can you tell us how you came up with the idea of a ninja librarian?
The Ninja Librarian has a real-life model. Admittedly, Tom the Librarian from my work may lack some NInja skills. But he shares his looks with the Ninja Librarian–and was responsible for the line that started the idea bubbling in my fertile imagination: “I don’t get mugged; I’m trained to kill.” He really did say that one night at work, and the whole idea pretty much exploded into my head at once. Fortunately it was a slow night at work, because I had to grab pen and paper and start writing. Originally, I wrote the stories just for my co-workers, but I eventually realized I had a book others would enjoy, and began putting it together in earnest. The stories fell into a pattern of problem-solving and thinking outside the box that I liked, so I went with that.
Al reminds me of Deadwood’s Calamity Jane. What appealed to you about a “Wild West” setting for the stories?
I’m not really sure. The setting (Skunk Corners) was part of what entered my mind ready-made. The opening lines of the first chapter established the setting, and they have remained essentially unchanged since that memorable night at the library. Once I had Crazy Jake and Wild Harry Colson, the unspecified Wild West setting was inevitable. But you’ll not find Skunk Corners on any map, and attempts to nail it down to a time and place are doomed to disappointment.
There are so many little delights and surprises within each story. Were these originally short stories that you strung together? Or did you always want to tell a serialized story?
These started life very much as individual short stories. I had written several before I realized I was writing an episodic novel. Because the short-story format works well for kids (and others) who don’t want to commit to too much reading at once, I have stuck with that format in the sequel, Return to Skunk Corners, though I allowed myself more extended plot threads in that one. The self-contained short stories were also easier for me to write while working and raising the kids, because I could let more time go by between chapters without losing the thread of the story. As long as I finished each chapter fairly quickly, the rest could wait.
While you have a very strong and unique voice, the structure of your stories has a bit of a Sherlock Holmes feel. What are your influences as a writer?
Boy, those are probably too many to name! As a kid I read everything from Tom Sawyer to The Wind in the Willows to Homer Price, and the adventure stories of Robb White and (I’ll confess it) Louis L’Amour. More recent influences are Richard Peck, Gary Paulson, Karen Cushman, and an awful lot of books on the settlement of the West, especially through the eyes of the women and children. My fascination with that period in our history probably influenced the setting quite a bit. And using a first-person narrator for the first time worked wonderfully to help me find my voice–my tendency to dry humor worked better that way!
Where did the name of the town come from, Skunk Corners?
I’m pretty sure it was just lying around when I started writing. Well, almost. When I wrote the very first story, it was Skunk Springs. When I wrote the second story, it had become Skunk Corners, and it was actually a long time before I realized I’d changed the name. But the skunks were always there.
Several times, you mention the pain of hunger that some kids in town suffer. Do you have a personal connection to this problem? It’s certainly a big part of our lives in America.
Happily, though we were poor growing up, we gardened, and my parents were creative, so we never went hungry. My Dad did, though, during the Depression, and some of his stories have stuck with me, as have accounts of kids crossing the prairies or settling in less-than-ideal places. I should probably add Laura Ingalls Wilder to the list of influences, and she wrote very feelingly of hunger at times, especially in The Long Winter.
If your story got the Disney treatment, what animals would Big Al, Tom, Tommy, Neb Jones and Tess be?
I like this twist on the standard “who would play your characters” question (which I can never answer anyway)! I’m pretty sure Al would be a bear. The Librarian is a tough one. He has elements of the big cats, but also of the fox, or even Coyote. On reflection, I think he might be the border collie–a smart dog, but not wild as the others–he’s the strange outsider with a little extra knowledge. Tommy and the other kids I could imagine as a troupe of squirrels (to keep it in the right set of animals) or maybe prairie dogs. Neb Jones is a sheep. Not a mountain sheep. A pretty dumb domestic sheep. And Tess. . . she’s a deer, but a wise one.
I understand that you also enjoy backpacking. How are backpacking and writing similar?
Well, both are better if once you begin you keep going to the end! And both go more smoothly with some planning, though they can be done by the seat of the pants. For many, backpacking is as solitary as writing, but I travel and hike with my family, so our trips are actually often more social than my life at home. For me, it’s more that backpacking helps refuel my mind and spirit. I get pretty weird if too much times goes by without getting into the wilderness.
When’s the third book out? ;-)
The next kid’s book isn’t a NInja Librarian story, but a somewhat tongue-in-cheek fantasy called Halitor the Hero. That will be out sometime in 2014. But I’m not abandoning Skunk Corners. At this point, I’m seeing a collection of stories by and about different people around town, not all in Big Al’s voice. I specified “kid’s book” above because my next release will be for the grown-up fans, a humorous cozy mystery (i.e., no blood, gore, bad language or much in the way of violence) called Death By Ice Cream, due out early in 2014.
Thanks so much Rebecca. I’m delighted to have found your wonderful work.
Thank you! I’m always so happy when people enjoy my work! I have Shirley Link on my Nook, queued up after a couple of library books (always have to read those first, before they expired and leave me mid-page!).