I read Framed! in one sitting. Then I immediately leaped from my chair and ran to the library where I insisted the children’s librarian put the book on the shelves right away. She, being a genius in all things books, was way ahead of me. I sighed with relief. I did not want to be the only one having so much fun.
Using the theory of all small things (TOAST) to unravel mysteries, 12 year old Florian and new friend Margaret are exceptionally good company as they attempt to unravel a mystery that has the FBI stumped. Snappy dialog, compelling mystery and realistic middle grade problems make this series hard to put down. I’m patiently awaiting the third entry, Trapped! coming September 25th.
Oh and did I mention that James Ponti is an Edgar Award Winner? AND he’s here to answer questions? Well, yes…to all of those things
Vanished! won the 2018 Edgar Award for Juvenile Fiction! What was that moment like? Did it impact the way you think of yourself as an author?
I am embarrassed by how much I enjoyed winning. It was great. The year before I’d been nominated and didn’t win and still had a fantastic time. I expected the same result this year and was a bit stunned when my name was announced. I don’t think I believed it until I actually read the envelope when I went on stage.
What made the moment so special was that everyone important to me was in the room. My wife and son were there and so was the “book family” of my editor, publisher, and agent. The five of them had all worked so hard for me to succeed that it was nice to be able to thank them in front of people. The next day, I took the trophy back to Simon and Schuster and had everyone who worked on the book pose with it because I wanted them to share in the fun.
I don’t know if it changed the way that I think of myself as an author, but it probably boosted my confidence a few notches.
Framed! and Vanished! star Florian Bates, typical middle school student except for the fact that the FBI relies on him to solve their toughest cases. Who or what is the inspiration for Florian?
I have always loved mysteries in every format – books, movies, television. And I wanted to try my hand at a Sherlockian type detective, but I wanted him to be fair. I think Sherlock cheats. He does it in a way that is wonderful and engrossing, but he solves mysteries based on a level of knowledge that the reader/viewer can’t possibly match.
Florian is smart, but he doesn’t solve cases with encyclopedic knowledge of trivia. He looks for details and he pays close attention. He certainly has a knack and skill for it, but it’s a learnable skill. This is why it was important for me that Margaret develop it and become nearly as good at it as Florian. I want the kids who are reading it to feel like they could do the same.
As for his mix of awkwardness and heart, he’s at least somewhat based on traits that my son and I both exhibited during our time in middle school.
I love seeing how Florian and his sidekick Margaret use TOAST (the theory of all small things) to unravel mysteries. I swear I have become more observant since finishing the books! Where did this idea originate? Did you love puzzles and ciphers as a kid?
THAT IS FANTASTIC! This is actually something I hear from parents a lot about their kids. “My kids use TOAST all the time. They talk about TOAST.” I have kids come up to me and ask me to “TOAST them” at book signings. It’s all really fun and going back to the previous answer, what I was hoping for. I think we’re all detectives in some way, so let’s work on those skills.
The key to it, though, is the name. That makes it a thing that kids can grasp and I wish that I had a great story about how I came up with the name, but it just sort of happened. As for the skill itself, I came up for the idea of TOAST in various airports.
I travel a lot for my day job. (I’m a producer for NBC Sports/Golf Channel.) And I spend a ton of time in airports. To pass the time waiting in gates, I would sometimes play a game in which I tried to come up with backstories about my fellow passengers just by looking at them and seeing what they wore and carried. I was amazed at how much we truly show about ourselves without realizing it.
I’ve always played games like this. I love puzzles and riddles. I also think I used these skills like Florian initially developed them, not as a crime-solving technique, but as a way to counter social awkwardness.
There are moments in these books where I laughed out loud. What are some of the challenges of writing humor?
Humor writing is where I got my start. In college I was Davy Crockett at Disney World and would tell jokes in a canoe as people paddled around Tom Sawyer Island. Going through variations of the same routine more than a thousand times helped me figure out how to rework and tweak jokes to get the best reaction.
My first career was writing kids television for Disney Channel, Nickelodeon, and PBS, so again humor writing was the key. It is always my hope that there are laugh out loud moments in the books, but it’s important to me that they not be “jokes.” I don’t really think jokes are funny, I like the laughs to be based in the situations and characters that have developed. That’s actually why I think it’s easier to write humor in a book, because you get to develop the characters enough to actually earn the laughs.
Trapped!, the third entry in the series, hits shelves on September 25th. (YAY!!) What can you tell us about it? Are there plans for a book four?
Trapped! is my love letter to librarians. Librarians have been so helpful and supportive to my books and I thought it would be fun to make them the focus of one. Trapped! is a mystery based around the concept that a spy is using library books to pass secrets and all of the suspects are library employees named after actual librarians. The mystery is set around the Library of Congress, the Folger Shakespeare Library, and the DC Public Library. I went and did a lot of research at them and am hoping to have some events at the actual locations this October to help celebrate the release.
As for a fourth book in the series, I hope so, but I’m under contract for a couple others first, so fingers crossed there will be more adventures with Florian and Margaret in the not too distant future.
Who are your favorite authors?
I struggled as a reader growing up and have a giant vacuum where there should be lifetime favorite authors. The key book for me was and always will be From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. I didn’t realize this growing up, but it turned out that E.L. Konigsburg lived in the same town where I grew up, which I find hilarious. This year I did a school visit to the school where she’d been a teacher and there was a painting on the wall of the original headmaster of the school. The librarian told me that this woman in the painting was the inspiration for Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. For me it was practically a religious moment.
My favorite current authors are Michael Connelly, who is a great mystery writer and was kind enough to congratulate me at the Edgars, and Suzanne Collins, who is a long-time friend. We wrote together for years in television and she’s the one who encouraged me to try my hand at books.
Where did your love of books/storytelling/reading/writing/etc. come from?
My mother was a great storyteller and she really ingrained the value of that in us growing up. We were a family that did not have much (any) money, so rather than things, we had stories. She was an artist, and wanted to write and illustrate children’s books so I’m sure that’s where it all began.
But, because I struggled as a reader, my first love was going to the movies. My family loved going to the movies and I thought that’s where I would work as a storyteller. For college I went to film school and got a degree in screenwriting, which is why most of my career has been spent working in television.
What is your favorite thing to do when not writing?
I’m pretty boring. My absolute favorite thing to do is binge-watch British mystery shows with my wife Denise. We love to travel and try to mix it up with family trips to new places and visits back to the beach town where I grew up. I’m also a huge fan of visiting independent bookstores.
What are you working on right now?
I just submitted the manuscript of the first book in a new spy series that I’m writing. It’s called City Spies and it’s about a British spy with MI6 who more or less adopts kids in need from around the world and turns them into an elite spy team. It has many of the mystery elements that I’ve enjoyed writing in the Framed! books, but a whole new level of action and intrigue that’s really fun. I’m very excited at how it’s turning out. It will be published in September 2019.
How do you prefer readers get in touch with you?
It is always great when they show up at bookstore events because I love to actually get a chance to talk to them about the characters and other books that they’re reading. Mostly, though, it’s great if they email me through my website (www.jamesponti.com) or write me at firstname.lastname@example.org.