Interview: Kara LaReau

9781536200058 - 300kb.jpg

Today I’m excited to welcome Kara LaReau to the MG Book Village! She’s here to discuss her latest book, Project Fluffy, which just hit shelves yesterday. Project Fluffy is the third installment of her The Infamous Ratsos series — one of my personal favorites.

One of the things that regularly amazes me about Kara’s work is her ability to simultaneously write on multiple levels. The Ratsos books are always interesting and entertaining — if not flat-out hilarious — but they also deftly tackle all kinds of thorny topics and big ideas. (Her other chapter book series, The Unintentional Adventures of the Bland Sisters, is similar in all of these ways.)

The Ratsos books occupy that murky territory between picture books and solidly Middle Grade novels. But these books are wonderful for Middle Grade readers. Hooked by the excellent storytelling and intrigued by the cleverly broached themes, striving readers won’t be able to put the books down until the very end — at which point they will have gained a great deal of reading confidence. And these books would be excellent choices for read-alouds in any grade. They wouldn’t take up a tremendous amount of class time, yet could be used to kickstart some seriously productive discussions, and could also be used to teach craft.

I hope you enjoy the interview below — and then hurry out to get your hands on Project Fluffy!

~ Jarrett

. . .

First of all, Kara, thanks for stopping by the MG Book Village to celebrate the release of the latest book in the Infamous Ratsos series! Before we get to the book, do you care to tell our readers what you’ve been up to since you last visited us?  

Thank you so much for having me! I’ve had quite a bit going on over the past few months. I’ve written the fourth and fifth Infamous Ratsos adventures, the third and final (??) Bland Sisters adventure, and the first story in a new (secret, for now!) chapter book series. I’m working on the second story in that series right now, and I have a new picture book in the works, illustrated by this year’s Caldecott winner, Matthew Cordell!

Wow! You’ve been busy! Okay, onto the new book. Can you tell us a little about Project Fluffy?

Project Fluffy is basically Cyrano de Bergerac for the elementary school set. It turns out that the most popular kid in school, Chuck Wood, has a bit of a crush on Louie and Ralphie’s friend, Fluffy. Chuck wants Louie to help him get Fluffy’s attention; unfortunately, Louie has some pretty flawed ideas about how to do that. At the same time, Ralphie’s jealous that Louie is spending all his time with Chuck.

The Infamous Ratsos books are entertaining, funny, and relatable, but in them, you also very deftly address some “bigger” topics and ideas, in particular ones about boys, men, and “masculinity.” Can you talk at all about this element of the books?

Of course. While the main goal in my writing is always to entertain, I’m hoping these stories also encourage further thought and discussion. Each of the Infamous Ratsos books portrays and subverts a different aspect of toxic masculinity: the first is about the façade of male toughness; the second, The Infamous Ratsos Are Not Afraid, is about admitting fears and different definitions of bravery; Project Fluffy is about personal connection and empathy, and female objectification.

Here at the Village, we’ve been trying to give our readers more behind-the-scenes peeks at the book-making process. The Infamous Ratsos is thoroughly (and wonderfully!) illustrated by Matt Myers. Could you tell us a bit about working with Matt?

Matt and I are friends, but we actually don’t work closely together on the Infamous Ratsos; I work with my editor at Candlewick and he works with his designer there, and that editor and designer work together, but Matt and I don’t usually connect until after the book is finished. However, since I now know Matt (and his sense of humor!) pretty well, I find myself writing to his sensibility. In the manuscript I sent to my editor for Project Fluffy, I put in several art notes where I specifically said, “I bet Matt will have a field day illustrating this!” And he absolutely did.

What do you hope your readers will take away from Project Fluffy, and the Infamous Ratsos series in general?

Louie and Ralphie make a lot of mistakes, but they’re always willing to learn from them. I think that’s the most any of us can do in life. I hope my readers feel encouraged to keep trying to be their best, most authentic selves. And of course, I hope they have as much fun reading these books as I have writing them!

Many of our site’s readers are educators. Is there anything you’d like to say to them about the Ratsos – in particular those planning to add Project Fluffy to their classroom libraries?

First off, I’d like to say THANK YOU FOR DOING WHAT YOU DO!!! Knowing that you’re all out there sharing your love of books and reading and learning gives me hope for the world.

With regard to The Infamous Ratsos, I hope these books find their way to kids who might be ready to try reading something a bit more challenging than picture books, but who aren’t quite ready for middle grade. And as I’ve mentioned, I hope these are fun, entertaining reads, but I hope they might encourage further discussion. Candlewick has put together some terrific reading guides that might help to get the conversation started; here are links to those guides for The Infamous Ratsos, The Infamous Ratsos Are Not Afraid, and Project Fluffy.

Now, please tell me this isn’t the last we’ll be seeing of Louie and Ralphie…

Not by a long shot! As I’ve mentioned, I just finished the fourth and fifth books in the series, and a sixth is on the way!


IMG_1531.JPGKara LaReau was born and raised in Connecticut. She received her Masters in Fine Arts in Writing, Literature, and Publishing from Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts and later worked as an editor at Candlewick Press and at Scholastic Press. She is the author of picture books such as UGLY FISH, illustrated by Scott Magoon, and GOOD NIGHT LITTLE MONSTERS, illustrated by Brian Won; an award-winning chapter book series called The Infamous Ratsos, illustrated by Matt Myers; and a middle-grade trilogy called The Unintentional Adventures of the Bland Sisters, illustrated by Jen Hill. Kara lives in Providence, Rhode Island with her husband and son and their cat.

A Touch of Salt: Not-So-Bland Issues in Funny Books


As I write The Unintentional Adventures of the Bland Sisters and The Infamous Ratsos series, I try to make each story as funny and surprising and engaging as possible. But I have another, less overt goal in mind: I’m hoping to start a conversation about gender roles.

I always try to present the unexpected in my writing. A greedy fish who eats his friends, and eventually falls prey to an even bigger, toothier bully. A boy who’s so obsessed with cars, he turns into one. A parent with terrible table manners, who learns a thing or two from his children. When it came to creating the Unintentional Adventures of the Bland Sisters, I imagined two protagonists who were not the usual intrepid, precocious kids, but were instead boring, feckless homebodies.

Jaundice and Kale
Image copyright Jen Hill.

And when I had to decide just what unintentional adventure Jaundice and Kale would face in that first story, my mind immediately went to pirates. But pirates had (and have) been done to death. What would be an unexpected way to present them? That’s when my feminist spirit took over, as it so often does. Of course, they would have to be female pirates — a crew of truly nasty women who, as it turns out, are even more ruthless than their male counterparts.

Jolly Regina crew
Image copyright Jen Hill.

As I developed that first Bland Sisters book into a series, I decided that the subsequent stories would continue to subvert adventure tropes and traditional gender roles. In THE UNCANNY EXPRESS, Jaundice and Kale encounter Magique, a female magician who strives for greatness, despite being raised to believe that women aren’t suited for magic. I’ve already finished the third and final (??) story, and while I don’t want to give anything away, I will say the sky’s the limit — or is it? — for the Bland Sisters and the formidable heroine they encounter.

Shortly after I wrote THE JOLLY REGINA, I created THE INFAMOUS RATSOS. Again, I wanted to do something unexpected, so I decided to write about two boys who think they need to be tough all the time, but who are actually kind and helpful and generous at heart (inspired by my own grandfather and his brother and their childhood shenanigans). In the subsequent stories in the series, I’m including other characteristics of toxic masculinity: the compulsion to mask one’s fears, to deny emotion, affection, and personal connection, to refuse help. Now that I have a son, I’m more aware of the constraints society places on both genders (and the strict views of gender we employ in general), and I hope to do all I can to upend those traditions.

Image copyright Matt Myers.

Of course, the challenge — and I do love a challenge — of blending humor with more serious issues is to employ a light enough hand, to give the story an extra layer of interest and meaning without compromising what makes it a fun read. In culinary terms, it’s like adding just the right touch of salt to something sweet, and thereby enriching the overall flavor. It’s my hope that readers will enjoy the Bland Sisters and the Infamous Ratsos (and my other books!) for the entertainments they are, but find themselves savoring them — and ideally, wanting to talk about them — long after they reach the final pages.

IMG_0258-1Kara LaReau was born and raised in Connecticut. She received her Masters in Fine Arts in Writing, Literature, and Publishing from Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts and later worked as an editor at Candlewick Press and at Scholastic Press. She is the author of picture books such as UGLY FISH, illustrated by Scott Magoon, and NO SLURPING, NO BURPING! A Tale of Table Manners, illustrated by Lorelay Bové; an award-winning chapter book series called The Infamous Ratsos, illustrated by Matt Myers; and a middle-grade trilogy called The Unintentional Adventures of the Bland Sisters, illustrated by Jen Hill.  Kara lives in Providence, Rhode Island with her husband and son and their cat.