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February 15, 2018 BOOKLIST
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In the Nocturnals, a series for middle-grade readers, Tracey Hecht weaves facts about nocturnal animals into engaging fictional plots filled with humor, adventure, and mystery. The three main characters are part of a brigade that rescues other animals in the valley. Along the way, other nocturnal animals are introduced as secondary characters—sometimes as victims, other times as villains. In the end, there is always a lesson learned.
In this interview, Hecht talks about the creation of the Nocturnals series and her plans for future titles.
Readers learn so much about nocturnal animals in your books. How did you become interested in these animals?
HECHT: It all started with the challenge of putting my kids to bed! I thought it would be fun to do a series for kids based on characters that woke up right when kids were just going to sleep. The Nocturnals animals came from that basic idea, and that’s when the series started to take shape.
You have clearly done a lot of research in writing this series. Take us through your research process.
HECHT: The research is one of the most important parts of the creative inspiration. I learn about nocturnal animals and the nighttime realm through YouTube videos, science journals, and zoological resources. These resources all inform the story lines and characters. When you watch a sugar glider in a video, you can immediately relate to the character of Bismark. When you study pangolins, Tobin’s personality becomes very apparent. One of the best things for kids reading the series is the fun in deconstructing the creative elements to see their scientific inspirations.
How do you know when the research is done and the writing must begin?
HECHT: The research and writing process aren’t linear; they happen simultaneously. As the research evolves, so does the story line. By the time the outline is “finished,” I have dialogue, narrative prose, framework, subplots, and most of the key elements of the story. Then when I am writing, I often go back and do additional research to help fill in ideas. I definitely take creative liberties (if you have read the third book, The Fallen Star, you know what I mean), but the research and the creative writing work together throughout the process.
Was there anything in your research that led you to define the specific personality of each animal, or was it strictly your creativity? For example, how did you decide to make Dawn, a fox, the animal with leadership skills?
HECHT: I used a combination of research and creative license. I wanted a female leader of the group, and I love foxes. Foxes also happen to possess good leadership qualities. They are clever, quick, resourceful, and strong. Dawn’s character grew from that. The same for Tobin and Bismark, and the secondary characters as well. The physiology of each animal is key to informing the character in the story.
The animals’ personalities are expressed so well throughout the series. How difficult is it to maintain consistency in the behavior of the animals as you write new books in the series?
HECHT: It’s not hard at all! They are my friends at this point, and friends of the most dependable and predictable sort. Dawn, Tobin, and Bismark have distinct personalities and clear roles, both on their own and as members of the brigade. It might be more convenient for, perhaps, Tobin to do something for the story line, but I know immediately if it is something Tobin would do or if the behavior is more suited to Dawn or Bismark. My readers know it, too, and can predict how each of the protagonists will interpret things. It’s fun to push the characters outside their comfort zones, but I always know the behavior and dialogue that would naturally originate from each of them.
The dialogue in the novels is spot-on and very funny. I’m curious about what goes on in your head when you are creating the dialogue between the animals.
HECHT: I workshop the material aloud all the time. I read it out loud while I’m writing, have it read out loud to me, and share it with my writing partners. This keeps it fresh and engaging. I have fun with it because, in some ways, it’s easier for me to communicate through dialogue, especially given these adventures are character-driven. I also like the books to “read” like you’re watching them as if they are movies or a TV show. So making sure the dialogue is engaging is key to the series.
I never knew there were so many nocturnal animals. How did you decide which ones would become members of the brigade and which would be secondary characters?
HECHT: I knew I wanted one very familiar animal and two less-familiar animals. I decided to use a fox, and then, during research, fell in love with the pangolin. Watch a few YouTube videos of pangolins and you will see what I mean. They are irresistible! Once I had the strong fox and the gentle pangolin, I knew I needed a comic-relief animal. And so, voilà, Bismark the sugar glider was born! I also love finding new animals to add to the series as secondary characters. At this point, I have a long list of nocturnal characters I’m excited to use in future books.
Do you have a favorite character?
HECHT: My characters are like my children; I love them all the same! But, yes, there are times when I am more in sync with one, and other times, more in sync with another. I can crack up at Bismark and have a great day writing him, and then, the next day, be more connected to Dawn and really enjoy writing for her. Same goes for Tobin and new characters as they enter into the story lines.
Each book has an intriguing plot. Do you plan each plot before writing, or do you allow it to develop as you write?
HECHT: I plan it out. There are always happy accidents (and unexpected pitfalls!), but I know the story and how I will deliver it before it begins. I usually start with a few key elements as I build the outline—a motivation for the villain, a landscape concept, and a few great new animal characters. Then I workshop the ideas with my writing partners and continue researching to build the story arc. The more time I spend doing development, research, and outlining, the stronger my story.
SCALES: Which comes first, the conflict of the story, or the moral of the story at the end of the novel?
HECHT: I think they go hand in hand. The conflict usually originates from the villain’s motivation, and the need to stop the villain and understand his or her motivation is, of course, what leads to the moral of the story. In the fourth book, I focus on the experience of not being recognized, what it’s like to not feel acknowledged or respected for your ideas. I like to start my outlines thinking about themes I remember from my childhood and witness in kids today. I then use those conflicts to help pay off the conclusions in the books. I think that helps make the story lines more authentic and relatable.
What is the next book in the series?
HECHT: The next book, the one I just referenced, is called The Hidden Kingdom, where an army of “hidden” creatures comes to life in the valley. It’s bizarre and silly, and the climax employs some very wacky battle tactics!
How many books do you have planned for this series? Will you eventually create another series?
HECHT: There will be 10 middle-grade books, and I also just started writing a Nocturnals series for early readers, under the Grow & Read imprint at Fabled Films Press, for ages 5 to 7. The early readers are fun, short, and meant for volume consumption! We will probably do about 20 early readers.
What do you hear from young readers about the Nocturnals? Do they have a favorite character?
HECHT: My readers have incredible ideas and insights into the series. I visit a lot of schools, and the kids have a lot to say. They are engaged in the villains’ predicaments, the science embedded in the storytelling, and, of course, with Dawn, Tobin, and Bismark! Surprisingly, there doesn’t seem to be a favorite character among them. Kids seem to connect with the character who most resonates with them, and that can be one of the brigade—Tobin, Dawn, or Bismark—or even an auxiliary character. I had one reader tell me his favorite character was Boris, the villain from the first book. The student related to Boris because he had also lost a family member. It was a deeply heartwarming moment for me.
The Mysterious Abductions. 2016. Fabled Films, $15.99 (9781944020019). Gr. 3–6.
This first book of the series introduces three unlikely nocturnal friends: Dawn, a fox; Tobin, a pangolin; and Bismark, a sugar glider. The three form a brigade, and Dawn, the most clear-headed and sensible of the three, becomes the leader as they set out to solve the mystery behind the disappearance of so many animals in the valley.
The Ominous Eye. 2016. Fabled Films, $15.99 (9781944020033). Gr. 3–6.
In the second book of the series, the brigade encounters a three-eyed tuatara, a nocturnal reptile who is sending terror throughout the valley. It is up to Dawn, Tobin, and Bismark to uncover the truth about the tuatara’s motive, and to put the tuatara in her place so the animals in the valley can live their lives in peace.
The Fallen Star. 2017. Fabled Films, $15.99 (9781944020057). Gr. 3–6.
The latest book in the series sends the brigade searching for answers about why so many animals are falling ill from poisoned pomelo fruit. An aye-aye assures them that the moon is to blame, but the brigade is a bit skeptical of this explanation. When Tobin becomes ill, they must hasten their attempt to solve the mystery before it’s too late.
Out of Sight till Tonight! All about Nocturnal Animals. By Tish Rabe. 2015. Random, $9.99 (9780375870767). Gr. 1–3.
In this entry in the Cat in the Hat’s Learning Library, the titular cat wakes Sally and Dick and invites them on a journey aboard his hovercraft to discover which animals “come out at night.” The rhyming text and Seussian illustrations make the information accessible to beginning readers.
Nocturnal Animals series. ABDO. Gr. 2–4.In this easy-to-read series, Petrie provides basic information about six obscure nocturnal animals from various geographic locations, detailing the characteristics that distinguish them from other animals. Included are maps, color photographs, and a diagram that shows how each animal sees in the dark.
Nocturnal Animals series. Capstone. K–Gr. 2.In this series for the very young reader, full-page color photos and the simple text reveal the habitats, feeding habits, average lifespan, and other interesting facts about six nocturnal animals.
After more than 35 years as a school librarian, Pat Scales is a freelance writer, children’s literature advocate, and the author of the revised edition of Books under Fire: A Hit List of Banned and Challenged Children’s Books (2014).
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