Kevin Sylvester &The Neil Flambé Capers


2012 is set to be a very exciting year for Toronto author and illustrator Kevin Sylvester and his middle grade series The Neil Flambé Capers.  Not only is the second book in the series, Neil Flambé and the Aztec Abduction nominated for the 2011 Silver Birch Award (Book #1 won last year!), but book #3, Neil Flambé and the Crusader’s Curse is set to hit stores in May!

We caught up with Kevin to talk about the inspiration for Neil Flambé, writing for kids, and what it’s like to be nominated (AGAIN!) for the Silver Birch Award.

1)   Your character Neil Flambé  originally made his debut on CBC in Neil Flambé and the Case of the Caustic Cumin as part of an ongoing summer morning broadcast.  How long had you been thinking of this character or story or was it almost more of a choose your own adventure where the story and character took on a life of their own?

In some ways Neil is a character I’d been playing around with for years, and in some ways he was a completely new creation. He’s a smart young man with attitude… kind of like a Bugs Bunny or Spiderman in the kitchen. I love the cockiness and the ability of those types of characters. Neil is less self-aware than these guys, but he is confident and good at what he does.

I also like making up stories where kids have to deal with adults on their level and be better than they are. I think a lot of kids see themselves this way anyway. Adults keep messing up their plans and then lecturing them. If kids could just be left alone the world would be great! (That’s what they think, anyway).

          Once I set Neil in the very adult world of haute cuisine he started to take specific shape. His backstory (watching Julia Child instead of the teletubbies, reading cookbooks instead of Robert Munsch) started to pop into my brain.

          I love to cook myself and chefs have become rock stars, or celebrity artists. Neil wants that so badly he can (pun intended) taste it and that’s something we all have to deal with. How far will any of us go to be great at the thing we care about most?

          Having said all that, the radio play was really an adult story, and Neil had to become younger, less mature, less “in control” of himself.

2)  How did you develop the look of Neil Flambé?

Neil sort of popped into my head when I was thinking up the original story, even before I’d written a word. He was a gangly kid in a chef’s hat and chef’s coat. After I wrote the first installment of the work I sat down at my cousin Shauna’s kitchen table, where I was staying, and started drawing a picture for the website we set up.

          Essentially I drew an oval and a triangle. The triangle is his big nose, and the oval is his head. I originally wanted to make his hair blue, like the flame in an actual Flambé, but my cousin’s daughter Rowan was sitting next to me and said I had to make it red. Good call.

          I’ve made Neil a little younger looking since that original picture (which is still on the web in some places) but that also fits with the rewriting of the story.

3)  What made you want to write for this age group (Grades 3-6)?  How do you have such a good understanding of not only what kids want to read, but how they interact with the material of a story, from the characters to the illustrations?

I don’t set out to write for a specific age group. I write the kinds of stories I like to read and liked to read when I was a kid. I have always loved fast-paced narratives that have humour mixed in to keep things light. (See earlier reference to Spiderman!)

          Having said that, if I were only writing for an older audience I might dabble in more experimental plot lines and would certainly have more obscure food references. That was how the Caustic Cumin developed and I had to streamline it for a younger audience.

          I have to say that I have had amazing editors along the way who helped me hone and shape the books for this age group. My wife Laura and Charis Wahl were the first to see that the Neil stories needed to be less food-heavy, for example.

          Neil needed a foil for the non-foodie kids to have a way to connect to the cooking without knowing the terminology. Voila, Larry! (Larry wasn’t in the radio play.) Larry has become much more than that, of course, but that was his reason for being “born” into Neil’s life.

          Linda Pruessen and now Ariel Coletti constantly challenge me to defend the plotting, dialogue and references.

          But I’ve also been very edified to see that many adults, and adult bloggers who don’t even have kids, have enjoyed the books as well.

4)                  Kids obviously love not just your books, but your whole “multi-media” presentations, with you drawing illustrations, reading the books, and wearing the chef’s jacket and hat. Do they ever give you input for the next book or how they think Neil should be developing as a character (though maybe not in so many words!)?

I sometimes tell the kids that I set the series in a kitchen because there are so many possible murder plots involving food (just wait until you see the deadly duels in Book #4!). Then I ask them if they can think of some possibilities themselves. Let’s just say that kids have very active imaginations… think blenders and meat tenderizers.

          That shows me that they can make the connection to the danger of the stories without taking it too seriously and that gives me some leeway to explore some of the darker areas of life.

          I’m also a big believer in matching words and images. Everything from comic books, to The Hardy Boys and even Charles Dickens is a combo of words and pictures. I don’t understand people who think that pictures “dumb down” real literature.

Those are the books that made me love reading. I think they give a lot more people a chance to enjoy the book. I’m not saying all books have to have pictures, but don’t criticize books that do.

As for wearing my chef’s outfit, I like authors who demystify the process and don’t take themselves too seriously. It’s fun to write and I hope people have fun reading my books.

5)                  I know you have daughters, do they influence your stories? Do they ever read them or give any suggestions?

My daughters are two of the most voracious readers that I have ever known, and they are very critical. They read my stories long before I ever gain the confidence to send them to an editor. Once they sign off I also know that the books don’t stink….

          They introduced me to many of my heroes – Ken Oppel, Eoin Colfer, Jean Little, Eva Ibbotson… so many others.

          I’d already many of those authors, but seeing what my girls enjoyed allowed me to be more conscious of the elements that I wanted to include in my stories.

          Reading to them when they were younger – everything from Goodnight Gorilla to The Hobbit – gave me a sense of the rhythms and cadence of good writing.

6)                  How has your career as a radio broadcaster influenced you as a writer?

It’s been huge, for so many reasons. For one thing, I think the approach I take to telling a story on the air is perfectly suited for the way I write my books. Simplicity is a key value of both mediums.

          I use simple language and tell my stories in a straightforward way. On the radio you have to do that because you can’t rewind live story-telling. My books are laid out in the same way. I always imagine my books being read out loud by someone next to a fireplace, in an old rocking chair… sort of a mixture of the Friendly Giant and Jim Henson’s Storyteller.

          The other advantage of my radio work is that I’ve been able to visit and experience the flavours of some amazing places – Torino, Mexico City, Athens, Sydney, Moscow… and all those elements sneak into my books one way or another.

7)                  The Silver Birch Awards are really neat because they are like a combination of the Librarians’ and the Kids’ Choice Awards. How did it feel to win for Neil Flambé and the Marco Polo Murders last year?

It was amazing. Authors know that just being nominated for the award is the real prize – and that’s totally true. Just seeing all those young readers holding onto your book like some magic talisman is overwhelming. To be on stage with so many amazing authors was great. I read the other nominated titles and let’s just say the kids had a tough choice to make. Canadian writers are the best in the world right now… let’s put it that way.

          Winning was like the whipped cream on a banana split. It means more to have kids pick your book than to have critics pick the book. After all, we all write for those kids.

          It had a special resonance for me last year because the books were in serious danger of dying. The original publisher had gone bankrupt, so it was very emotional for me. And a huge thanks to S&S for riding in and saving Neil!

7a) You are nominated again, this time for Neil Flambé and the Aztec Abductions. Is it as exciting as the first time?

Hecks ya! It’s an honour and the ceremony itself is a blast – win or lose (and I’ve been on both sides of that and still had a great time).

And one of the great side benefits of the nomination is that I get asked to visit a lot of schools. Kids love to read, if they are excited about the books. The Silver Birch committees pick titles that do this. To have a chance to meet the readers and to get them interested in the books is amazing. If they already know the books it’s a different thrill. Kids have made me some amazing artwork based on Neil and it’s all up in my attic studio.

8)                  What are your plans for Neil Flambé? Will you continue with the series, especially now that you have such a great following, or do you want to move onto something new? And either way, will you continue to write for the same age group or will your characters get older as your readers get older?

Neil and Larry are very real to me. I hear them talking together at night – not even stuff for the books but just the minutiae of their lives. So they will be with me for a long time.

          I don’t have an “end” in mind for the series. I could write a hundred books (a la The Hardy Boys) or stop at six or seven. I think I’ll stop once the stories themselves feel thin or tired to me. Nothing is as disappointing as reading a series that’s gone on too long.

          Of course I also have a number of other books in the works. I have a couple of non-fiction books due in 2012 on show business and the economy. I have also started at least four other books that I’m just waiting for the right time to finish. Look for Medieval Mark, Mr. Green, Cicatrice and MINrS sometime in the future. 

Coming May 2012:

Find out more about The Neil Flambé Capers.

Alan Silberberg & Milo: Sticky Notes and Brain Freeze

Montreal author/illustrator Alan Silberberg and his book MILO: Sticky Notes and Brain Freeze have had a stellar year. From being nominated for the 2011 Silver Birch Award to winning the Quebec Writer’s Federation award for Children’s and Young Adult Literature, Silberberg’s indelible character Milo has captured the hearts of critics and young readers alike.

We got a chance to talk to Silberberg about the inspiration for Milo, his very own Summer Goodman, and what it was like to win the QWF award!

1.       Where did the idea for Milo’s character come from?

When I began writing MILO I wasn’t so sure who the character was. The first sentence popped into my brain “Summer Goodman never knew what hit her….” and I saw this kid in my head who had just knocked over the prettiest girl he knew. As I wrote more I started to really draw on what it felt like for me to be Milo’s age and the more I thought about my own past – the more I realized that the character was forming into a version of my thirteen year old self. And that’s when the book took shape as being the story of a boy learning how to live with the loss of his mother.

2.       Everyone has a Summer Goodman when you are young – the unattainable, smart and beautiful girl you just can’t get the nerve to talk to.  Do you remember your own personal Summer Goodman?

I totally remember my own Summer Goodman! And I was the kid who wrote poems to her and thought I was in love (you know, the 7th grade kind of love) and she was pretty much too cool for me, which only fanned the flames. (I’m really glad I don’t remember those poems!!)

3.       The book is kept almost in journal format.  Did you keep a journal when you were young?  If so, did you doodle in it?

I didn’t keep a journal when I was Milo’s age but was always doodling in the margins of my schoolwork. I started to write in journals later, in high school, and yes, those also had doodles in them. From about that time I also started carrying a blank sketchbook with me all the time that I filled up with thoughts, cartoons and doodles. I still fill sketchbooks all the time.

4.       Did you always draw to accompany your writing?

My first book, POND SCUM does not have any of my cartoons in it. Looking back I think it would’ve been an interesting addition, but would’ve changed the book. MILO is filled with my cartoons and my next book, which I’m just finishing now is also filled with cartoons. I hope to continue finding ways to tell stories with words and cartoons because I think it’s a fun way to tell stories…and when I get stuck writing I can always doodle and vice versa!

5.       On your website, you say you once wrote a science paper on photosynthesis from the P.O.V of a leaf.  Did you do well?

Ah, yes, the photosynthesis report. I remember that I did very well with that paper. I think the teacher must’ve been kind of surprised to read a science report that was a first person narrative of a talking oak leaf.

6.       Sometimes the best friendships are those not based on commonality, but on differences that work well together.  Milo, Marshall and Hillary are all very different but are absolutely hilarious together.  During your writing process, when did you know that these three were destined to be best friends?

I always knew that Milo and Marshall were going to be best friends. Milo is a very introspective character and he pairs up so nicely with weird Marshall, who is extroverted. At first Hillary was just the annoying next door neighbor but as I continued to write about her she made a connection with Milo when she shows him her busted doll collection and from that moment I knew she had her own quirky side and could fit in with the boys and balance them out.

7.       Milo has an extremely entertaining imagination!  While you were writing him, did you just let your mind wander into these thoughts?

Writing the book required me to do a ton of wandering in my mind. A lot of that came out in Milo’s silly thoughts and in the cartoons. But because the book is loosely based on my own story – my mother died when I was nine – there was also a lot of emotional stuff that came up for me. Ultimately, writing the book was very healing for me and it feels so good to be able to share this story with any children and families dealing with loss.

8.       How do you feel about being nominated for the Silver Birch Award and winning the QWF award?!

Winning the Quebec Writer’s Federation award for Children’s and Young Adult Literature was a wonderful acknowledgment. Writing is such a solitary job that it’s so nice when the work you do gets a little attention. The Silver Birch nomination is amazing too and I just love that it’s an award that the kids get to pick. Being nominated is such a great honor.

9.   Will there be more coming from Milo in the future?

I am busy writing a few different things right now. Milo probably has more of a story to tell but he’s just busy making stuff up inside my mind….for now.

Check out these fun downloadable activities and watch the trailer below.

Cottage reading at its best

Everyone knows the type of book I’m about to describe. The kind that propels you forward, the kind that you skip lunch to continue reading, the kind that once you’ve finished it in the wee hours of the morning you’re a little wary to turn out all the lights.

If you haven’t already heard of award-winning author William Kent Krueger and his Cork O’Connor novels then read on. 

William Kent Krueger

Krueger’s critically acclaimed mystery series featuring private detective Cork O’Connor is nail-biting suspense at its best. Set in the a natural landscape, Krueger has a gift for transporting the reader directly into the wilderness he describes. The suspense he creates builds slowly and propels you forward, while the emotional qualities of the characters lend credibility to the story. In fact many of the locations he describes sound so much like cottage country you’d think he was talking about Muskoka!

I just finished reading an advance copy of Krueger’s upcoming novel  Northwest Angle. The Northwest Angle is a geographic anomaly. A small triangle of American territory completely isolated from the rest of Minnesota, cut off from the United States by sixty miles of Canadian wilderness and the vast, mysterious waters of Lake of the Woods. This remote area is the location Cork O’Connor has chosen for a houseboat vacation with his family. When a violent gale sweeps unexpectedly across the lake, stranding him and his daughter Jenny on a devastated island, Cork discovers that the wind has ushered in a force far darker and more deadly than any storm.


We gave some of our loyal readers the chance to review Northwest Angle and here’s what they had to say:

“I thoroughly enjoyed reading Northwest Angle by William Kent Krueger.  I found the book to be easy to read and hard to put down.  Each time I picked up the book I didn’t want to put it down because I wanted to see what would happen next.” –Paula, Winnipeg, MB

“I had not read any of this author’s works before and I must say that I am very happy to have been introduced to his work.  Not only did I thoroughly enjoy this novel, I was impressed with his inclusion of language and Native American culture.  Being Native American myself, I felt that I learned a lot from Mr. Krueger. I have read novels in the past of Native American fiction, but as a reader, I was able to insert myself into the feeling of the storyline and looked forward each evening to relaxing with Northwest Angle.  Mr. Krueger is excellent at keeping the reader’s full attention!”
–Sandra, Beaconsfield, QC

“I just finished reading the advance reader’s copy of Northwest Angle by William Kent Krueger. It is the first of his novels that I have read and it definitely will not be the last. This book was filled with suspense from the beginning and did not let up until the end. It had everything that I like in a book – suspense, drama, mystery, love. It was a great read and hard for me to put it down.” –Audrey, Halifax, N.S.

So pick up a copy, stretch out on a dock chair and dive in….just don’t forget to lock the cottage door at night!

William Kent Krueger discusses the inspiration behind Northwest Angle

Check out Krueger’s website for more info about his other novels

Northwest Angle is available in stores August 30th.

More titles available in the Cork O’Connor series, click for info

We’re excited for….

Darkside, the second novel from Belinda Bauer, author of the 2010 Crime Writer’s Association Gold Dagger Award winning novel Blacklands.

Darkside is a literary thriller about the hunt for a serial killer in a small town in the English countryside.

A little more about the book….

Shipcott in bleak mid-winter: a close-knit community where no stranger goes unnoticed. So when an elderly woman is murdered in her bed, village policeman Jonas Holly is doubly shocked. How could someone have killed and left no trace?

Jonas finds himself sidelined as the investigation is snatched away from him by an abrasive senior detective. Is his first murder investigation over before it’s begun?

But this isn’t the end of it for Jonas, because someone in the village is taunting him, blaming him for the tragedy, and watching every move he makes…

Read an excerpt on the author’s website.

See what the critics are saying:

“Genteel and suspenseful … a most promising career.” — Kirkus Reviews, full review here

“Another riveting psychological thriller … Claustrophobic and suffused with pitch-black atmosphere, Bauer’s novel keeps readers guessing until the deliciously unsettling conclusion. No sophomore slump here—fans of Ruth Rendell and Minette Walters would do well to make room on their shelves for Bauer.” — Library Journal, full review here

“Bauer joins such contemporary masters of psychological suspense as Ruth Rendell and Minette Walters with her twisted and tricky second novel … The shattering conclusion pulls no punches and will leave many readers stunned.” — Publishers Weekly, full review here

Darkside is in stores May 3rd.

Are you on the EDGE?

“[A] brain teaser of a thriller . . . Following the moves of Deaver’s ingenious plot is hard enough. The real trick is keeping up with his brilliant mind.” — The New York Times Book Review

Jeffery Deaver is the international number-one bestselling author of  Roadside Crosses, The Bodies Left BehindThe Broken Window, The Sleeping Doll, The Bone Collector and twenty-one other suspense and thriller novels.
In Edge, Deaver delves us into the hidden, anonymous government agency behind both the FBI and CIA dedicated to intelligence surveillance and to a highly specialized brand of citizen protection.
“[A] twist-filled thriller . . . In Mr. Deaver’s kaleidoscope world, the odds seem to change with each turn of the page.”
— The Wall Street Journal

Edge is out NOW!

In 2011,  Project X will be Jeffery Deaver’s first James Bond Novel as chosen by Ian Fleming Publications Ltd.
Deaver was born in Chicago, attended the University of Missouri and received his law degree from Fordham University in New York. In 1990, he quit practicing law to write full-time. His novel The Bone Collector was made into a feature release from Universal Pictures, starring Denzel Washington.  His books have been translated into twenty-five languages.  Readers can visit his website at