Interview with Ellen Potter, author of The Kneebone Boy

In honor of the release of The Kneebone Boy, I would like to welcome author Ellen Potter to Kid Lit Frenzy.  Ellen is an amazing person and author and I have enjoyed getting to know her over the past year.  She was gracious to answer some questions about her new book.

The Kneebone Boy seems so different from your previous books. How did the idea for the book and the "voice" come to you?

With every new book that I write, I start out setting a challenge for myself. With SLOB, for instance, I wanted to write a book for boys that would have the right pacing to keep boys’ interest, but would also tell a moving story.

I set several challenges for The Kneebone Boy: to write an old fashioned “siblings-on-the-loose” adventure tale; and to write a book that would appeal to both girls and boys, hence the unidentified narrator. The narrator might be a boy or a girl, you have to guess. That way if a boy is put off by a female narrator or vice versa, they will, I hope, be so involved with the story that by the time that they figure out who’s narrating, they won’t care about the gender.

What writing rituals do you have? (i.e., Certain place that you write in, snacks that you like to munch on, music? no music, etc.)

I used to have all sorts of rituals. I had to write in a certain café. I had a fountain pen that I used to start off every story, writing by hand and, after I was a few pages in, I switched to a computer. Then I had a child. Now I write anywhere, any which way, any time. Fountain pen? Ha! I’ve written with my son’s giant Curious George pencil on a Walgreens’ receipt while he’s napping in the back of the car. Motherhood has made me astonishingly unfussy.

Though I have never been to England, when I read The Kneebone Boy, I had a very distinct impression that this was a British setting. What did you have to do in terms of research and writing to give readers that sense that they were in England?!

I had to do a lot of research! I went to college in England for a while and that also helped. But my secret weapon was a teenage friend of mine and her novelist mother who live in London. They vetted the manuscript for me, gently pointing out some of the more embarrassing mistakes I had made, and bringing me up to speed on the slang.

Did you have a favorite character in The Kneebone Boy? I couldn't imagine choosing between the three Hardscrabble children, but there are also other amazing characters.

I really grew to love and admire all three Hardscrabble siblings. Otto, the brother who doesn’t talk, was the difficult child, though. From the beginning he baffled me. When I first started writing about him, he was able to speak, but his dialogue was always so stiff compared with his siblings. I knew something wasn’t right. When I realized, “Aha! He doesn’t speak!” his character opened up to me. That is until I had to figure out why on earth he was wearing that darn scarf.

One of the things that hit me while I was reading The Kneebone Boy is that I wasn't frustrated in how much information you as a writer was providing me as the reader. Sometimes there is so much revealed that it takes out all the surprise and other times not enough so the reader gets confused. What was your secret? I imagine this would be hard to do?

Oh, that’s good to hear! I think this may come from the fact that I don’t know where the story is going as I’m writing it. Well, maybe I have a vague idea, but for the most part I’m writing blind. The story is gradually revealed to me, so I suppose that’s the way readers would experience it as well.

I have been impressed with all of your book covers but I think The Kneebone Boy is my favorite. I realize that authors often have little say in book covers. Did you get to chose your illustrator? What was the process like with this book?

I’ve never been able to choose my own illustrator, but I count myself extremely lucky in terms of covers. This cover was pretty special though. I remember the day my editor e-mailed it to me. I read the e-mail’s subject line and my heart started pounding. The cover is so important and I wanted this book to have something wonderful. When I downloaded the cover image I literally gasped. It was so outrageously perfect. Better than anything I could have imagined. The artist, Jason Chan, is my hero!

When I was reading The Kneebone Boy, I had to stop several times and just admire your writing and use of words. (Don't worry...children won't be doing that as they read...I'm just strange.) As a reader familiar with many of your books, I felt that you had moved to a new level of writing. Was this something that you were conscious of while writing the book?

No, but I did feel a little bolder while writing this book. I tried some things stylistically that I knew were a little quirky. I think I “played” more in this book, and hoped my readers would have as good a time with it as I did.

Any sneak peeks into your work-in-progress that you can share with fans?

My book-in-progress is set in the Thousand Islands, so the research has been heavenly. I’ve helped deliver mail to the islands, seen nesting shoals with an ecologist, and roamed through castles. Hmm, I’m thinking of setting my next book in Hawaii.

 For more information about Ellen Potter and her books, you can check out the following links:

Ellen Potter

Spilling Ink: Young Writer's Handbook

To purchase The Kneebone Boy, check out this link to Powell's Books.

To read my review of The Kneebone Boy, click here.

Book Review - The Kneebone Boy

Author:  Ellen Potter

Publisher: Feiwel & Friends (September 14, 2010)

Reading Level: Grades 4th to 8th

Source: ARC for review

Rating:  5 Stars - Highly recommend

Description from GoodReads:

The book's set in a small English town and follows the Hardscrabble kids who are relocated to live with their aunt in London, where they discover they might be living next door to “a horribly misshapen boy who has figured in local legend.” It’s the story of the three Hardscrabble siblings and their search for the legendary Kneebone Boy.

There are books that are fun to read.  There are other books that are amazingly well written.  Sometimes, though, it is a struggle to find "fun to read" and "amazingly well written" between the same covers of a book.  However, as I read through Ellen Potter's newest book The Kneebone Boy, I found myself repeating in this awestruck manner "This book is brilliant".  Both fun and well written and bound behind a spectacular cover. (Click here to read a post from Potter about the cover of the book illustrated by Jason Chan.)

The Kneebone Boy is a tale of 3 children, siblings, living in an odd home with a somewhat eccentric father in England.  There is a mystery surrounding the disappearance of their mother which permeates their lives and influences their actions.  When they find themselves on their own in London, rather than return home, they set out to find their great-aunt.  Their journey turns out to be an adventure of a lifetime.  One that will challenge and test them on many levels, but will ultimately provide them with new understanding.

I am determined not to spoil this story so if some of the details seem vague it is for exactly this reason.  Potter is a master storyteller and has crafted this novel in a manner that reveals just what needs to be at each step of the journey.  As I read each page, I never felt that I wanted more or less than what was given to me.  Even as I arrived at the end of the book, I was pleased with the manner in which she pulled together all of the aspects of the story and provided the reader with a deeply satisfying ending.

It should be noted that The Kneebone Boy is written in a style that fans of Lemony Snickets' Series of Unfortunate Events or Pseudonymous Bosch's Secret Series will be familiar with. Yet, the story begins in a very different voice and style from other novels by Potter. If you are not familiar with Snickets' or Bosch's stories, and more accustomed with Potter's traditional writing style, then I would suggest that you give the story a couple of chapters to acclimate yourself to the narrator's manner. Once in the rhythm of the story you will find yourself, enjoying the interjections and information provided by the book's narrator. I will make the argument that I truly felt as if Potter has taken her writing to a whole new level with this story. There is a richness and complexity with the story that will appeal to older Middle Grade readers and even adults who are reading along with their children.

Kudos to Ellen Potter for an amazing new book and for continuing to write outstanding literature for middle grade readers.

For more information about Ellen Potter and her books, you can check out her website here: