Friday, July 19, 2013

Interview with Bruce Hale, author of Playing with Fire (ages 9 - 12)

Today we have something a little different - what I'm hoping is a new regular feature: a chance for some of my favorite kid-testers to interview one of their favorite authors. Natchez and Isla are both avid readers, entering 6th and 7th grade. They love a wide range of books, and one of their new favorites is Bruce Hale's Playing with Fire.

Bruce Hale is a go-to author in my library for kids who love action blended with humor and mystery. My students love his Chet Gecko mystery series and his graphic novel-hybrid Underwhere series. This summer he's kicking off the new School for S.P.I.E.S. series with Playing with Fire.
Playing with Fire
by Bruce Hale
illustrated by Brandon Dorman
Disney / Hyperion, 2013
find it at Amazon
your public library
ages 10 - 13
Natchez wonders what inspired you to write Playing with Fire. What made you want to write a book about an orphanage that taught kids how to become spies?

Bruce Hale: PLAYING WITH FIRE represents the coming-together of several ideas and loves. First, ever since I was a kid, I've loved spy stories. James Bond, Get Smart, The Bourne Identity, Mission Impossible -- all these and more inspired me to want to write a spy story myself. Second, I had a yoga teacher in Hawaii who was like the ultimate drill sergeant -- crusty on the outside, but big-hearted underneath. She spoke in a kind of hybrid of Japanese and broken English, and she was such a character, I wanted to put her in a book someday. And third, I had an odd what-if thought: What if an orphanage was actually a covert school for spies? When all these influences came together, I hit upon the title "Shanghai Annie's School for Spies (and Merry Sunshine Orphanage)." For a long time, all I had was the title, but eventually I developed that germ of an idea into the book it is today, with my old yoga teacher in the Hantai Annie role.

Isla is interested in why you made Max such a stubborn kid. She noticed that the book had lots of different emotions running through it and lots of different characters. Tell us about creating Max's character.

Bruce Hale: It was difficult to find Max's character at first -- until I interviewed some people who work with foster kids, along with a former foster child. Then I started to understand some of the challenges these kids face and how it might affect their personality. For Max, I decided that the foster-family experience made him tough, stubborn, and sarcastic. The stubbornness would help him survive this strange situation he'd been thrust into, and the sarcasm would let me add some humor, which I always love to do. Writing this character was a fun challenge for me, as I'd mostly been doing light, funny books like Chet Gecko, without much emotional development in the characters.

I'm curious whether you draw on any of your own childhood experiences when you are writing - whether things you went through, books you read or pop culture from when you were a kid.

Bruce Hale: Most of my stories come from my imagination and some light research. But in this case, I based Max's relationship with his dad upon the one I had with my dad. We loved each other (he's passed on now), but we had a challenging relationship. Although I didn't use our exact situation, I did draw from the emotions of it. Also, as I've mentioned, I put my old yoga teacher into a supporting role as Hantai Annie. And of course, all my exposure to spy stories over the years helped shape the plot and give me ideas, like the villains' shark tank (from an old James Bond movie) and the kids crawling through the ducts (from every other spy and thriller movie).

What books drew you to reading when you were a kid? How do you try to put elements of those in your writing today?

Bruce Hale: I was a reluctant reader at first -- more interested in running around causing trouble than sitting still and reading. That all changed when I was in third grade, on a day my family still calls The Day The TV Died. My parents resisted getting a new TV for months, and instead, they read to my brother and me. The first series that really captured my imagination was Tarzan of the Apes, and I burned through that series and everything else by Edgar Rice Burroughs. From there I moved on to adventure books -- mostly classics like Ivanhoe, Robin Hood, and The Call of the Wild. And after that, I read voraciously in a wide range of genres.

I think those adventure books helped define what I like (most of the time) in a good read: breathless action, tons of suspense, and situations that really challenge the main character. Today, I try to put some of those elements in nearly everything I write -- even the funny stuff.

Isla is curious why you chose to set Playing with Fire in London.

Bruce Hale: Even though I deliberately didn't mention any names of cities (to preserve that mysterious feeling), I felt from the beginning that the story would be set in London. Maybe it's because of all the British spy movies and TV shows I saw growing up. Somehow, with all the fog, the history, and so forth, London just feels more spy-like than, say, Pittsburgh.

Finally, Natchez really wants to know if there's going to be a sequel to Playing with Fire!

Bruce Hale: I just finished writing the sequel to PLAYING WITH FIRE. It's called THICKER THAN WATER, and it'll be out in Spring 2014. The third book, untitled as of yet, is just getting underway. I'll be working out the plot over the summer.

Check out this video and a feel for Playing with Fire. Bruce Hale introduces is and then reading a sneak peak from the story.

The review copy was kindly sent by the publishers, Disney / Hyperion. If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site, a small portion goes to Great Kid Books (at no cost to you!). Thank you for your support.

©2013 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books


  1. Why is it that most kids seem to be reluctant readers? Can you suggest anything that would help to motivate them to read? Thanks.

    1. I actually haven't found that "most kids seem to be reluctant readers." If a kid is hesitant to try something, it's often because they've experienced a lot of frustration with an activity before. I've found that giving kids choices about what they read is key. Figure out what they like - whether it's gross facts in the Ripley's Believe It or Not books, or exciting comic books, or funny joke books, or exciting adventures. Start with something they like, and gradually ease into other experiences. Don't insist they read something too hard. Start easy, if anything, to build up stamina and enjoyment. Good luck!