Hi there, Liesl! Thank you so much for stopping by the MG Book Village to talk about your new book and reveal its cover. But before we get to that, since this is your first time at the Village, would you care to tell our readers a bit about yourself and your work?
Hi! Thanks so much for having me here. I’m a middle-grade author from Chicago. I have a series of humorous fairytale retellings called the Fairly True Tales series and then the Time Castaways series, which is a family time travel adventure. My writing style usually includes quirky characters, fast-paced plots, fantastic world building, and lots of magic. I love my house plants, fuzzy socks, and afternoon tea with friends.
All right — onto the new book, THE FORBIDDEN LOCK, the third book in your Time Castaways series! Can you tell us what this installment of the series is all about?
The third and final book of the Time Castaways trilogy! Without giving away too much about Books 1 and 2, The Forbidden Lock continues the saga of the Hudson family and their feud with Captain Vincent and his crew of time pirates. The Hudsons are in a race for time itself. Captain Vincent has gained the power to change events in time, and with the help of famous chemist Alfred Nobel, he can even erase a person’s entire existence. Captain Vincent plans to make his perfect world, and it doesn’t include the Hudsons. The world literally starts to fall apart. People start to disappear. Time periods are crashing into each other, dinosaurs have taken over Central Park, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art is overtaken by the very historical figures it features. Our hero Matt finds himself increasingly alone, wondering if he’ll be able to hold on to his family, his friends, or even himself.
Have you always been interested in history?
Yes! For as long as I can remember I have been fascinated by the past, especially when it’s presented as a great story. I want to know about people and places from long ago, how they lived, what they wanted and felt, how they’re different for me, how they’re the same. I also love to learn the unusual, lesser-known details of their lives. For instance, most people know Alfred Nobel as the famous chemist who invented dynamite who then left most of his fortune to found the Nobel prizes, but a lot of people don’t know that his first love was literature. He wanted to be a poet, and actually wrote some pretty darn good poetry, but his father convinced him it wasn’t a practical profession. (I mean, he’s not totally off base, is he?) I include that tidbit in The Forbidden Lock, and even use one of his poems called A Riddle as the epigraph of this book, as well as in the story.
Is time travel something you fantasized about as a kid, or something you do fantasize as an adult? What influences did you have in developing your time travel world?
What kid doesn’t fantasize about time travel? Every time I even mention it to a group of kids they always go “Ooooooh!” I think it’s a very natural thing to think about. We wish we could go back and change things. We wish we could see what’s coming. I did fantasize about time travel as a kid, and still do. I thought about how it might be possible, what you could do or not do, the consequences, the way it would feel. I once attended a lecture by a mathematician who described in detail how time travel was indeed possible in theory, but no one was quite sure how to do it without dire consequences, like your head exploding. It really sparked my interest, and though this series is more fantasy than science-y, I did draw upon some of the concepts in his lecture to build my own logic around time travel and how it works. Time sickness is a thing, and some get it worse than others.
The line between fiction and non-fiction can, of course, be a fuzzy one – but things get especially fuzzy when you, say, feature actual people from the past in your fictional stories. Can you speak to that fuzzy line, and what you find so fascinating, beneficial, and fun about blending fact and fiction?
Fuzzy is definitely the right word for it. I include a lot of historical character in the Time Castaways trilogy, including Queen Elizabeth I, Annie Oakley, and Alfred Nobel. I did a lot of research, digging through multiple sources to try to get as clear a picture as possible of the time and people that I want to include in my book. I try to stay true to history as much as possible, but the thing about history is we can’t always know what’s true or false. There’s a lot of blank space, so many questions we can’t possibly answer with 100% certainty, and historians are constantly making new discoveries that shift our view of the past. That’s where history can be really fun in fiction. We can take liberties in filling in those blank spaces. Some might say this can be problematic with young readers, that they might be confused about what’s true and what’s not, but that hasn’t been my experience. Quite the opposite. Often, I hear readers ask, “Did that really happen?” Sometimes true facts are stranger than fiction, and kids want to know more. Historical fiction can be a great springboard into deeper historical research and interest for students.
You’ve mentioned that these books are uniquely challenging to write – I can’t even begin to imagine! Can you share with us some of those challenges, and perhaps how you dealt with them?
I think one of the biggest challenges with writing time-travel is that the possibilities are endless! I know that might seem like a good thing, but when we’re storytelling, it helps to have some constraints. When you have the possibility of time travel, you open up infinity possibilities and it can easily overwhelm you. Where do I decide to take my characters? Who will they meet? What will they do? How will their actions affect various timelines? How will time travel affect them? It’s a lot to wrap the brain around, and I had to spend some time developing a framework. I’m not typically an outliner, I generally find it too confining. But in this case, I needed confinement! It’s a good example of how every book is different. We can’t approach every story in the same way.
The other big challenge for me was simply keeping track of everyone’s timelines. This is a multi-generational family saga with characters coming from all different centuries and countries. Some people get lost in time for years and then come back where they started. They could be decades older while everyone else hasn’t aged a minute. I had to make some spreadsheets to manage it all. And oh boy, do those spreadsheets come in handy when it’s time for copy edits! Poor copy editors. These books have to be their worst nightmare.
What do you hope your readers — especially the young ones — take away from this book, and the Time Castaways series in general?
Mostly I hope readers simply enjoy the ride. That’s always my goal as a writer. I want to create stories that make reading a joy and not a task. Beyond that, I do hope these stories help readers think and wonder and stretch their imaginations about what’s possible. Just like time travel, the possibilities are infinite.
Many of our site’s readers are teachers of Middle Grade-aged kids. Is there anything you’d like to say to them – in particular those planning to share THE FORBIDDEN LOCK, and the Time Castaways series in general, with their students?
This series is full of potential for further discussion, learning, and research, so I do hope many classrooms will benefit from those opportunities. I do have a great educator guide on my website for this series, with several Common Core-aligned activities. I’d say it’s best suited for middle-schoolers, grades 5-8, though not out of bounds for grades 3-4.
Okay – let’s get to the cover! Were you at all involved in the creative process?
I was! Of course, we wanted the books to match the other covers in style and tone, so we knew there would be a vehicle at the center, and two location silhouettes on the top and bottom. My publisher asked me which vehicle and locations I thought should be featured on this particular cover. As we’d done a train transforming into a ship, and then a bus, I thought it was time for flight! As for the locations, The Forbidden City of China and the Lost City of Colombia are two key locations in this book, so I knew I wanted those featured.
What was it like for you to see the cover art for the first time?
I was beyond thrilled! It’s perfect. The design is by Katie Fitch, and the art by Alexandria Neonakis. I love her style. It’s perfect for these books. I love how the cover captures the adventure and magic (with a dash of humor) that readers will find within the pages.
Okay — let’s take a look for ourselves!
Wow! It’s fabulous! And the three covers look wonderful together!
Now, when can readers get their hands on THE FORBIDDEN LOCK?
October 15, 2020!
Where can readers find you online, and how can they learn more about you and your work?
You can learn more about me and my books on my website, Lieslshurtliff.com. I’m also active on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook as @LieslShurtliff. There you can see more personal tidbits on my work and family, plus super cute photos of my new kitty!
Liesl Shurtliff is the New York Times bestselling author of the (Fairly) True Tales series and the Time Castaways series. Her books have been named several state award lists and have won many awards including a Children’s Book Award from the International Literacy Association. A native of Salt Lake City, Utah, Liesl has called Chicago home for fifteen years. She and her husband have four children who have inspired many characters in Liesl’s books, both hero and villain.