The DMS was lucky enough to interview David A. Kelly, author of the Ballpark Mysteries books. Lizzy reviewed The Philly Fake: Book 9 in the series this week, and it was great to share our thoughts about it and hear yours! So, without further ado... take it away, David!
I became inspired to write a children’s book about ten years ago, when I was spending a lot of time reading early chapter books to my sons, who were in elementary school. It certainly helped that I’d always loved reading and was looking for an alternative to the business, technology and travel writing that I did for my job. I hadn’t ever really thought about trying to write a book until I came up with what I thought was a great idea—a series of chapter book mystery stories set in baseball stadiums! That’s what eventually (after many, many revisions) became the Ballpark Mysteries.
Originally, Mike and Kate (the main characters) weren’t in the series. I had started off with three different characters: Steven, Scott, and Juliet. However, when my editor at Random House read my first draft, one thing was clear: I didn’t have a clue how to write interesting or compelling characters. My three characters were all basically interchangeable and uninteresting—generic kids with no distinguishing characteristics. Over the course of many revisions, my editor showed me that readers need to connect with the characters in a book. As readers, we need to care about what happens to them. My characters needed to have specific characteristics to make them stand out and help drive the plot forward.
Needless to say, I had to “kill” off my three main characters and come up with new ones. I spent a lot of time creating Mike and Kate and trying to make them distinctive and interesting in ways that would help me (and them!) solve future mysteries. For example, in the books, Kate is learning Spanish because her father (who’s a major league scout) speaks it. So when Mike and Kate are trying to spy on some baseball fans at a Miami Marlins game, it’s Kate who’s able to understand what they’re saying (because they’re speaking in Spanish!) and get an important clue that helps them solve the mystery.
The Ballpark Mysteries are early reader chapter books, each telling about a different mystery that happens at a baseball event. Which mystery was the most fun to write?
Wow, that’s a hard question. So far, I’ve written about twelve different baseball teams and stadiums. Each time, I’ve tried hard to write a mystery that pulls in something special about the team, the stadium, or the city (or all three!). It’s challenging, but fun.
I think that one of the mysteries that I had the most fun with is book #9: The Philly Fake. The Philly Fake is set in Philadelphia, where Mike and Kate are visiting over the Fourth of July weekend to see a series of Philadelphia Phillies games. One of the reasons that I had a lot of fun writing the book was because I got to incorporate two important Philadelphia characters into the mystery: Ben Franklin and the Phillie Phanatic! We all know who Ben Franklin was, but the Phillie Phanatic is the Phillies’ fun-loving mascot. He’s aggressively funny, and loves to taunt the other team, make fun of people, and generally cause trouble. It was great to include him as a character in the mystery, and have some direction connections between Ben Franklin and the Phillie Phanatic.
What are some of your favorite books from childhood? Were there any specific authors who inspired you?
When I was younger, I used to love mystery stories—from the Hardy Boys to Encyclopedia Brown, and even to the Partridge Family mystery stories (try to find those now!).
There a few that made really strong impressions. One of them was Harriet the Spy. The mixture of investigation, sneaking around, and the thoughts that Harriet has was right up my alley. I loved the idea of spying on other people and keeping a log of what I saw. I even went as far as to go down to the Woolworths store in the village to look for the right types of miniature pens and small notebooks that I could carry with me to write notes and observations. Another book that made a strong impression on me was one called The Mad Scientists Club (and its follow-on book, The New Adventures of the Mad Scientist Club, both still available today). These books were excerpted in Boys Life and detailed the adventures of a club of boys who used science and smarts to play tricks on the people in their town and do cool things like win a hot air balloon race and build a miniature submarine. Of course I also liked mysteries, like Encyclopedia Brown and the Hardy Boys (I think I got up to number 57 before I stopped….)
If you could befriend a character from any of your books, who would you befriend? Why?
There are plenty of interesting characters (and criminals!) that I’d like to meet from the Ballpark Mysteries, but if I could meet only one person from my books, I might pick Big D, a character from my first book, The Fenway Foul-Up.
In the book, Big D is the Boston Red Sox’s star slugger. He’s reminds me of the Red Sox current designated hitter, David Ortiz, and he just seems like a fun and happy person to get to know. I would also hope that he’d give me some batting tips!
If you could sit down for a chat with any baseball player, past or present, who would you choose? What would you want to talk about?
If I could talk with any baseball player, I’d probably pick Lena Blackburne. I spent a lot of time researching and writing about Lena for my picture book Miracle Mud: Lena Blackburne and the Secret Mud that Changed Baseball.
Back in the early days of baseball, many teams used the same baseball throughout the game, and even over multiple games. While players would have liked to use new baseballs, there was a problem. The leather on new baseballs was shiny and a bit glossy—they were too slippery for pitchers and they could be hard for batters to see in the bright sunlight. So teams just keep using the old balls rather than taking a chance on a new one. That’s where Lena Blackburne came in.
Russell Aubrery “Lena” Blackburne played major league baseball for eight years, mostly for the Chicago White Sox. He also played short periods for the Cincinnati Reds, the Boston Braves, and the Philadelphia Phillies. Blackburne was a rather ordinary infielder. But he was good enough to become a coach.
The Philadelphia Athletics hired Lena to be their third base coach in 1933. It was during this time that an umpire complained about the messy, soggy balls they had to use for games, and it set Lena off on a quest to discover something that would enable baseball teams to use brand new baseballs instead of mushy, old ones.
Lena discovered some special mud near his home in New Jersey, along the banks of the Delaware River. He would cover a brand-new baseball with mud, wipe it off, and the ball was perfect—the shine was gone and players loved it!
He started selling it in 1938. At first, Lena only sold the mud to American League teams because he was an American League fan. By the 1950s, he was selling it to National League teams as well. It’s the only substance allowed on major league baseballs, and all the teams continue to use Lena Blackburne Rubbing Mud to this day!
If I could meet him, I’d love to learn more about his discovery and how he thought of using the special mud on the baseballs. I’d also like to know if he did anything “special” to the mud to get it to work!
The path to publication varies from author to author. Every author has a unique story and one that other authors can learn from. Can you tell us a little bit about your path to publication or do you have any advice for new authors?
Once I came up with the idea for the Ballpark Mysteries, I needed to figure out how to write them. To get started, I spent a lot of time analyzing successful children's books—looking at how the chapters were put together, how the sentences were written, and the mechanics of the chapters. I worked on a draft of my first mystery and then found a book group to help me with the editing and critiquing. Getting other people to read your work and provide feedback is really, really valuable.
Once I had a draft that I felt was good, I worked to get an agent or find a publisher. After many months of trying, I got lucky and connected directly with an editor at Random House, who agreed to take a look at the manuscript. Unfortunately, the response was quick and unequivocal: my work was awful! However, the editor did provide some great feedback and suggestions of things to work on. It took me a year, but eventually I sent in a revision. That one didn’t make it either, but again they were willing to take another look. Luckily, the third time was a charm: the editor liked my writing and asked me to work on a book for them!
Overall, it’s been a fair amount of work, but it’s really fun to be working on something creative. In one sense, writing a children's book turned out to be the easy part. Getting a children’s book published is a bit harder. It takes dedication, some good writing, and lots of patience and persistence. It’s not something that happened quickly for me, but with luck and persistence, it did.
My advice to aspiring authors is to always continue to look for ways to learn. Learn about the market, learn how to understand different levels and reading requirements, learn how to develop a creative social network that can help nurture you, learn how to revise, revise, revise, and learn how adjust your goals and expectations to what's possible.
If you could have been at one baseball game in history, which game would you choose? Why?
That’s easy. Game 3 of the 1932 World Series. Yankees vs. the Chicago Cubs, at Wrigley. It’s the game where Babe Ruth made his famous “called shot” play, where he supposedly made a pointing gesture to indicate where he was going to hit a home run, which he promptly did on the next pitch. Although people still argue over whether or not Ruth was actually pointing out the location of his home run, it’s a topic that baseball fans still love to discuss.
Are you currently working on a book? If so, can you tell us a little bit about it?
I’m currently working on five books! I’m finishing Ballpark Mysteries #13, which is going to be a World Series super edition, so it’s longer and a bit more complicated than the other Ballpark Mysteries that I’ve written. But I’m also working on a brand-new series of chapter books for Random House. They’re going to be similar to the Ballpark Mysteries books, but focused on other sports: Olympics, soccer, football, etc. the new series will follow a group of elementary school boys and girls who play different sports and get involved in mysteries, problems, and adventures. As a writer, it’s fun for me to stretch out beyond baseball. It’s also interesting to work with a bigger group of main characters. I decided to go with a larger cast (compared to just Kate and Mike in the Ballpark Mysteries) for this series so I could have different characters interact with different sports.
Friday, May 22, 2015
Author Interview with David A. Kelly
Posted by DMS at 5:00:00 AM