We asked Linda Urban, author of The Center of Everything and A Crooked Kind of Perfect to answer a few questions about her hilarious new book for middle graders, Milo Speck, Accidental Agent. Below is what she had to say about writing humor, her favorite snacks, and where missing socks end up:
Q: Milo Speck, Accidental Agent is your first middle-grade fantasy. What drew you to the genre?
A: Having kids and reading aloud rekindled my love of funny fantasy adventures. For several years, we were seriously obsessed with listening to recordings of the Full Cast Audio version of Edward Eager’s Half Magic and many of Roald Dahl’s classics, especially the Eric Idle reading of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. When my son told me he wanted me to write a funny adventure for him, those books became the touchstones for Milo Speck, Accidental Agent.
Q: Well the book certainly had us laughing out loud. Can you talk a little more about the role of humor in your story?
A: I’m so glad it made you laugh! There’s always a risk in writing humor. It can be so personal and often it misses the mark. But when humor hits direct it can be powerful—it can bust open conventions and challenge expectations. The best humor pops the buttons off of things. It exposes the heart.
Great humor writers carve up hypocrisy and convention and unfairness, too. All my favorite funny writers do this. Walt Kelly, Christopher Paul Curtis, Barbara Robinson, Richard Russo, Jane Austen, P.G. Wodehouse, E. Lockhart, Beverly Cleary, Arnold Lobel, Lisa Yee, Tom Angleberger, Maria Semple, Tina Fey, Maira Kalman, Gary D. Schmidt, Sarah Pennypacker. I love reading their books. They make me think and, yeah, they make me laugh.
The humor in Milo Speck, Accidental Agent is there to make kids laugh, for sure. It’s also there to temper and make manageable some serious stuff, like feeling abandoned by a parent and being in danger in a world you can’t understand.
Q: Milo Speck is transported to Ogregon while doing laundry (Thanks for solving the mystery of where our socks go in the dryer, by the way!). If your dryer could magically transport you anywhere in this world or beyond, where would you go?
A: I’m not the adventuring type. I might imagine heading back in time or out into space, but really when it came down to it, I’d probably choose a quiet place by a lake or a bench in some Parisian park. Oh yes, let’s make it Paris, shall we? I’ll have just been to the Pompidou Center and picked up some pastries and a café au lait and I’d be writing about it all in my notebook . . . Ha! Did you notice how my little fantasy actually begins AFTER the buzzing about town doing things is over? Like I said, I’m not an adventurer.
Q: Is Milo Speck an adventurer?
A: Milo begins the book small and scrawny and a little bit defeated. Despite his love of magic and adventure, he is certain that his life will contain none of it. More importantly, I think, he feels powerless to change the difficult things in his life: a missing mom, a dad forced to work long hours, and a caregiver who—to borrow a phrase from Edward Eager—couldn’t seem to care for him very much. When he is thrown into a land of enormous ogres, however, Milo begins to come into his own, recognizing the advantages of his size, his mechanical skills, his creative mind, and most importantly, his big heart.
Q: The ogres in this book love snacking on children. What’s your favorite treat?
A: It is terribly unfair of you to ask this question as I have just vowed (yet again) to cut out all those wonderful baked treasures like soft pretzels and scones and baguettes with butter and currant jam. I should say something like sun-warmed blueberries or tomatoes fresh from the vine, right? Carrots! I adore carrots! . . .bah.
Q: You used to be a bookseller. Does that experience inform your writing in any way?
A: How could it not? Ten years of reading and trying to convince other people to read the books that I loved? I learned what gets people excited about a story, what characters they adore, what settings intrigue, how language can matter—not in a detached academic way—but in a true, in-the-gut sort of way. I try not to think about any of that when I am writing, but it has seeped into me and on my best days, it shapes the stories I tell and the way I tell them.
Q: Your previous middle-grade novels, A Crooked Kind of Perfect, Hound Dog True, and The Center of Everything, have met with critical and popular acclaim. What’s the most rewarding feedback you’ve received from a young reader?
A: Every once in a while I will get an email from a kid who tells me “I am just like Mattie!” or “Zoe is me!” and then they will tell me about something in their own life that worries them or makes them proud or has them struggling. That is when I know that my books are successful. When a reader finds him or herself in the pages.
Q: What do you hope young readers take away from this book?
A: First and foremost, I hope they laugh. Sometimes, we forget how vital that is. Sometimes, we think that a book has to be serious in order to get at important things. Or that laughter is somehow less valuable than other expressions of emotion and understanding. Pffft.
Second, I think that adults sometimes forget how hard it is to be a kid. We forget how limited their life experience is and how often they are tossed into new situations that seem larger than they are prepared for. I hope that kids who feel that way will connect with Milo’s growing confidence, his ability to apply the things he knows well to challenges that feel crazily new, and his ultimate determination to do all that can be done to make things better.
Q: What can we look forward to next from you?
A: I’m so glad you asked! My first chapter book, Weekends with Max and His Dad, is coming out in April 2016 and I’m really excited about it. The book is about a nine year old boy, Max, whose parents have recently divorced and it takes place over the first three weekends that Max and his Dad spend together in Dad’s new apartment. They have a lot of adventures, Max and Dad, and a lot of fun, even as they learn what it means to live together in this new way. I think you’ll like it.
Thanks so much, Linda! Milo Speck, Accidental Agent will pub on September 1.
For a sneak peek, you can read the excerpt below:
Be sure to check out more great Middle Grade reads on our Middle Grade Mania website!