Jordan Stratford is the author of The Wollstonecraft Detective Agency, The Case of the Missing Moonstone, a “Snicketesque girl-power adventure featuring a young Ada Lovelace and Mary Shelley as young detectives in 1826 London.” This new series for middle-grade readers has it all: History and science, adventure and mystery, as well as two smart, strong leading ladies that kids of ALL ages (including this 38 year old kid) will love getting to know. The Wollstonecraft Detective Agency, The Case of the Missing Moonstone is available NOW from Knopf Random House Children’s Books. I am very pleased to share this interview with Mr. Stratford, who was as much fun to talk to as his book was to read! Keep reading below to get to know Mr. Stratford, then go out and find The Wollstonecraft Detective Agency and get to know the amazing and unruly Mary and Ada. –Jenni
Mr. Stratford, you have quite a varied history! You’ve been a producer and screenwriter, a convention organizer and an ordained priest among other things… What led you to this path & writing a story about the historical figures Mary Shelley and Ada Lovelace forming a detective agency?!
I’ve written nonfiction books about the history of ideas, and I wrote a book about alchemy; Alchemy was basically the medieval and renaissance language for what makes the universe tick, which evolved over centuries into the modern language of chemistry. I’ve always been interested in how ideas turn into other ideas by asking questions, and in the history of science & in history generally. Throughout all this I kept coming back to the influential & under-appreciated Mary Shelley and Ada Lovelace.
Here we have the world’s first Science Fiction author and the world’s first computer programmer, and I kept coming back to these two extraordinary young women who really changed the world AS young women. If that happened today—if a teenage girl created a new genre of writing, or a new branch of science we would think it was very cool, but 200 years ago, when women’s lives were so circumscribed, the fact that these girls managed to do what they did is not only a testament to their own characters but also tells us something about their families.
So these characters got into my head. They kept coming back and talking to me, and it struck me as the right sort of trouble to get into.
The books are being published through Knopf Random House Children’s Books, but initially you had a Kickstarter to get it funded—a Kickstarter that did VERY well, you raised over $91k of an initial goal of $4k. Tell us a little about the Kickstarter: how you made that decision, how you felt about the process, and why you think it ended up doing so well?
I think it was just that I’d found a community of people with common interests. I found people who cared deeply about the portrayal of women in media, about the cultural deficit of women in STEM roles. We have a lot of problems to solve on this planet and we can’t do it using the brains of only half the population.
The Kickstarter proved the market for the idea, [which is how Knopf eventually got involved], but it also connected me with this community of people. There were nearly 3000 people who read a draft of the book [as I was writing it], so it was a very collaborative process. I had thousands of literature and science nerds giving me feedback. What a great community to have around you! Who else would you want to hang out with?!
One of my favorite experiences was getting e-mail from a young woman studying engineering who said “I want two things: A copy of this book and a time machine to go back in time and give it to my 10 year old self.” Kids who are readers often don’t think of themselves as “numbers people” or don’t identify as analytical or scientific. I want to tell them that it’s all a different flavor of the same thing—they’re curious about the world, that’s what science is!
The Kickstarter allowed us to have four books in the series, (I’ve written three thus far, plus a screenplay and treatments for apps and games, and I’m hard at work on book four). It also showed that there was a desire for more. So on the website, http://www.wollstonecraftagency.com, there are plenty of resources: Activities, an educator’s guide, I’m working on a short story to go up there, this just keeps going.
In your Kickstarter video you mention that you’re writing this partially for your daughter (and girls her age), what does your daughter think of the finished book? Did you ask her for feedback during the writing/editing process?
Absolutely. The book is dedicated to my daughter and a number of her friends and cohort. I’m constantly inspired by their natural scientific nature; always curious, constantly asking how things work.
We live on this little artist’s colony island, and the kids get together and go off into nature and explore until they come back hungry. There is no helicopter parenting here. The kids get to self-identify as semi-feral forest creatures, which is very a powerful childhood. So I have this pool to draw from of young girl, tween energy and reaction; how they think, how they express themselves, how they question things. It’s a constant tinkering, communication, back and forth, and it’s very interesting.
I write a chapter and then have my daughter read it back to me, so it serves as a kind of voice check, a comprehension check. The vocabulary, because of the Regency era setting, is a bit of a push, but kids use context clues, or skip over it, or look things up. I challenged them instead of pandering and the response has been fantastic. These kids all know what a TARDIS is, or Gallifrey. I figure if you can remember that you can remember Wollstonecraft. Harnessing that interest and connecting them to something in their history—in literary or science history—that’s very compelling for me.
Tell us a little bit about what you were like as a kid. Were you a reader or writer? Science lover? Shy or outgoing?
All those things (though never shy). I’ve always had a rich interior world, and I was always very curious. Always had my nose in a book. I grew up in house full of sisters; the youngest sibling and the only boy. I read a lot, and when I ran out of science fiction I would read my sisters’ books: Anne of Green Gables, My Friend Flicka, Enid Blyton, etc. There was no line between boys’ books and girls’ books. I really don’t think I’ve changed much. The things that interested me then interest me now: Space and science, history and ideas. Anything old and weird.
What were your major influences when you were a child, and how did these stay with you over the years?
In my teen years my girlfriend’s father was a professor of writing at the local university. They were a very artistic family, and every week they would fly in an author or playwright or artist, and that person would give a presentation and after there’d be a party. It was fantastic, a life of arts and letters, and I thought, that’s for me.
Last night I was giving a reading in my local library, and I saw it filled with all these creative parents and their amazing kids. It’s a fantastic community where I am. I feel that I’ve cultivated my own tribe of parents and kids, all of whom I admire so much, and who are ferociously curious and unapologetically creative.
Funding aside, what has been the biggest challenge in writing this series?
I think that as a writer you walk into a project with preconceptions, and those certainly changed as far as the arc of the series and the scope of the books. You find a dominant metaphor for the series arc, and that certainly changed in working with Nancy Siscoe, my wonderful editor at Knopf. The arc of the series is longer than I anticipated, which changes the pacing. Anton Chekhov said, “If in the first act of a play you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.” It’s the same in a book series. If you have an umbrella stand the characters pass one or two or three times but nothing happens with it by the end of the book then the editor wants to take it out. But… maybe something happens with the umbrella stand in the third book. That changes everything. So in architecting a series, you plant these little seeds in the earlier books, knowing they’ll bloom later on.
What are you most proud of?
One thing is that as a result of the Kickstarter success I saw a lot of people try things they wouldn’t ordinarily try. People in that community were inspired by my success to try things of their own. Some succeeded and some failed, but people were still making art and trying things because I managed to get away with this. A number of my backers decided to make their own projects. I am very proud that there is more art and more stuff to read as a result.
A second thing is that I know I’ve inspired young readers to read more, read more about the time period, to have conversations in classrooms and in communities about girls in media, and young women in history. Seeing those conversations take place, getting questions in the mail from 12 year old girls saying that they talked about this at school is extraordinarily rewarding.
Thank you so much for talking to us! Just one last question… If you could have unlimited quantities of one book to give away to strangers on the street, which book would you want everyone to have a chance to read?
I think picking one would probably induce some sort of brain hemorrhage. There’s so much great stuff. And who is the stranger I’m giving it to? That makes a difference.
Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept is so moving, but it will destroy you. It’s a kind of an emotional weapon about the depth of human feeling. Anaïs Nin’s diaries are lovely in her appreciation of language and perception as sensory writer. Hermann Hesse’s Demian is one of my favorite coming of age novels. In terms of humor I’d say Tom Robbins’ Still Life With Woodpecker. But just one? It changes constantly. Last year I read Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane and loved it. If I had to hand out one book last year that would probably have been it.
Jordan Stratford’s new book The Wollstonecraft Detective Agency, The Case of the Missing Moonstone is now available wherever books are sold. Don’t miss this excellent book! We can’t wait for the next three!
Jordan Stratford is a producer, author and screenwriter. He was once pronounced clinically dead, was briefly (but mistakenly!) wanted by Interpol for espionage, and has won numerous sword fights! Stratford launched the idea for the Wollstonecraft Detective Agency series on Kickstarter, where the response was overwhelming enthusiasm. Jordan’s passions for history, science, math, and literature come together perfectly in these books!
As the Reading Rainbow Mom, Jenni Buchanan enjoys encouraging readers of ALL ages to believe that they can “go anywhere, be anything.” See more of Jenni’s blogs and tips for parents about children’s reading by subscribing to the Reading Rainbow Blog, or follow her on Twitter.