Allison's Book Bag

Interview with Elizabeth Singer Hunt

Posted on: December 11, 2011

Allison: One parent made this statement: “Though there are some mystery series available for young kids, there are no secret agent or spy series.” How did you come up with idea of a secret agent story?

Elizabeth: When I was younger, I was a ‘reluctant reader’. I couldn’t find any books that I liked to read! The language was either too intimidating, too flowery or both. As I grew older, I realized that it wasn’t me with the problem. Publishers just didn’t offer the kinds of books that I wanted to read. I longed for books filled with suspense, travel and adventure. As I approached 30 (that time of life when many folks decide to make a career change), I thought back to that reluctant reader in me and decided to write a children’s series that answered those needs. Having Jack be a ‘secret agent’ working for the Global Protection Force seemed an obvious way to have my main character travel the world.

Allison: The Jack Stalwart books are set in different countries and are about different missing treasures. How do you decide on what places to feature? How do you decide on what treasures to feature as the stolen item? How much time do you take on research?

Elizabeth: Whenever I decide to write another book, I crack open the World Atlas and think about where I would personally like to go. I also think about the important people, places or possessions in those locations that might need protecting or saving. Once I have an inspiring locale and a plausible mission, I know I have another Jack Stalwart adventure. For many of the books, I have travelled to these locations and can draw upon my experiences. For others, it takes some research (from a couple of days to weeks) to make sure that I really have a sense of what it’s like to be there.

Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?

Image via Wikipedia

Allison: Including factual and gadgetry information makes the series different from the norm. How did you decide on this format? In this sense, the books made me think of Carmen Sandiego. Did you ever play this computer game?

Elizabeth: The upfront sections serve three purposes: 1) To provide background information on Jack’s family, 2) To get children excited about some of the gadgets Jack might use in the story and 3) To give children a mini travel guide about the destination. I not only want to give them a cracking adventure, I want to educate them about the cultures and landscapes of the place Jack is going to.

Funny that you mention Carmen Sandiego. I absolutely love those games, particularly Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego because there are two ‘spies’ travelling the world as they collect clues. It’s another excellent way to teach kids about geography.

Allison: The series has been named a ‘must read’ for boys by the British Education Secretary and was selected for inclusion in the Richard and Judy Children’s Book Club. Recently, it was serialized by the BBC Radio 4’s Big Toe Books program. How did you establish a British connection? How is the series doing in America?

Elizabeth: I was living in England (with my English husband and children) when the series was first published. For the first two years of the series’ life, it gained momentum and notice almost exclusively in England, thus the interest by the BBC and the Richard and Judy Book Club. (As well as the most recent interest by Virgin Atlantic Airways to give the books out on their long haul flights).

In 2007, it was launched in America and I moved back to Northern California at the same time. The series has done well in both the UK and the USA (as well as other places around the world) selling more than 1.5 million copies.

Allison: Different parents have talked about how your books were the turning points in their children’s reading experiences. How does it feel to have written a series that is inspiring reluctant readers to enjoy books? Did you set out with this goal?

Elizabeth: It absolutely thrills me, and as I mentioned above, that was definitely part of my goal. I really wanted to create a book that appealed to children who, like me, longed for adventure. To know that there are children and parents everywhere that are pleased with Jack’s adventures gives me goosebumps!

Allison:  The series has been named a ‘must read’ for boys by the British Education Secretary and was selected for inclusion in the Richard and Judy Children’s Book Club.” How does it feel to win an award for a book?

Elizabeth: Honestly, I was absolutely thrilled–and frankly more than a bit shocked! The series started out as a hobby for me (I self-published it initially) and to see that blossom into a series that has achieved recognition is beyond exciting.

Allison: How does someone who started out in marketing become a writer? Has your marketing background helped in selling your books?

Elizabeth:Very good question! Honestly, I don’t think the marketing end of things helped me become a writer at all. I just wrote what appealed to that 9-year old reluctant reader in me. The marketing, however, helped me in the early days as I did qualitative research with children on the early drafts (basically, I asked them what they thought) and in ‘promoting’ the books to booksellers in England.

Allison: You self-published your first few Jack Stalwart books. What have been the differences between self-publishing and working with a commercial publisher?

Elizabeth: Self-publishing was very exciting and something that I would recommend to anyone who wants to try it. I got to be ‘the boss’ in terms of how the character looked, what artwork was on and in the book, and how the books were marketed and sold. With a commercial publisher, many of these decisions do not lie with the author. This can be frustrating at times especially if you have a strong opinion about something. However, that has to be balanced with the fact that commercial publishers are, by their network of sales reps and distributors, able to sell many more books that a lone individual would.

Allison: You recently wrote a screenplay. How has that experience differed from writing a chapter book?

Elizabeth: Writing a screenplay was a lot of fun and something I always dreamed about doing. In some ways it’s similar (you need to plan the story progression and think about the development of each character) but in others it’s different (characters have very little dialogue and the story relies on action rather than talk).

Allison: Have you ever met any secret agents or spies?

Elizabeth:Not in real life, although it was rumoured that my grandfather worked as a spy at one point in his life.

Allison: What are your favorite spy gadgets?

Elizabeth: I love a lot of the gadgets that I created in the Jack Stalwart series including the Neutralizing Spray (to rid you of human scent), the Sno Speed (a snowmobile that could be telepathically called), the Mine Alert feature on Jack’s boots (which swipes the ground for bombs) and Jack’s Magic Key Maker (which slots into any key hole to form a key).

Allison: Have you been to any of the places you feature? What has been your favorite place to travel? If you could live anywhere in the world where would you pick?

Elizabeth: Yes, I have been to NYC (Book 1), Australia (2), France (3), England (4), Cambodia (5), Kenya (6), Italy (8), Mexico (10), Japan (11). My favorite place in the world to travel is Southeast Asia, specifically Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. I got a Master’s degree in Southeast Asian studies while living in England and have been learning how to speak Thai off and on for many years. Ultimately, I wish I could have houses in three places: San Francisco, Thailand, and England. Of course, these are only dreams….

Allison:What is one thing I haven’t asked that you would like readers to know about you?

Elizabeth: That I’m also a Mom with two children. My hope is that I can introduce my children to SE Asia sometime within the next year or two. Hopefully, like me they’ll get the bug to learn more about that region of the world.

Allison:What’s next?

Elizabeth: I am hoping to create a another action-adventure book about survival in an SE Asian jungle. It would combine a lot of what I love and hopefully still appeal to those reluctant readers out there.

Have a reluctant young reader on your holiday list? Post a comment to my review or interview to have a chance to win one of the final two Jack Stalwart books. You must live in the continental United States to enter. See the right column for more details.

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