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1) Your character Neil Flambé originally made his debut on CBC in Neil Flambé and the Case of the Caustic Cumin as part of an ongoing summer morning broadcast.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.