Lee is the author of two super fun middle grade books, THE LAST BOY AT ST. EDITH’S and CAMP SHADY CROOK ( Aladdin/Simon & Schuster, 2019).
I was fortunate to get to know Lee back in 2015 through the debut group The Sweet Sixteens. Not only does she write middle grade novels, but she is a freelance journalist who has covered some fascinating topics. I've always been impressed with her strong sense of self as an author, and her encouragement to other authors to be an advocate for their own books.
Today, we'll be talking about her latest book, CAMP SHADY CROOK. You can find my review of it HERE on Goodreads (but spoiler alert, I loved it!).
All right!! Let's get this party started! (I'll be in green bold)
Welcome, Lee! Please tell us about your book.
It’s called Camp Shady Crook and it’s about two kids, Archie and Vivian, who both come to a very run down camp in Vermont with the same idea — of conning the other kids. They end up competing with each other for dominance but things spiral out of control and they have to figure out how to make them right again.
Such a fun concept! What inspired you to write Camp Shady Crook and your awesomely devious characters, Archie and Vivian?
I’ve always been intrigued by smart criminals like con artists — even though I’m an extremely law abiding person myself. But it’s fun to put yourself inside the head of someone doing bad things. Archie came to me first. The first chapter, which is written from his perspective, is almost exactly like very first pages I wrote to get them down, since I was supposed to working on something else at the time (isn’t that always the way.) But I had this image of this boy getting on a bus to camp pretending to be rich.
Vivian came later, in part because her motivations for the cons are murkier, tied up less with the need for money and more with her how her self-esteem took a hit at school thanks to a false friend.
But they both are having that unique summer camp experience where you get to be someone different than you are at home, which is what intrigued me the most about the setting. Where else, as a kid, do you get to try on new personalities for size? Especially if you live in the same town and go to the same school with the same people year after year.
Summer camp is SUCH a fun setting. I never got to experience this, but I love the idea of trying on a new personality. How about you? Did you ever attend a summer camp?
Well, I never attended a traditional summer camp. I actually went to nerd camp — a summer program on a college campus (in my case, Franklin and Marshall in Lancaster, Pa) where you could take college level courses. I went the summers I was 14, 15, and 16, and took Archaeology, Geology, and Psychology. Studied hard, made wonderful lifelong friends and got my first kiss. And I wouldn’t change a thing.
I wouldn’t have really liked the “cabin in the woods” kind of camp when I was a kid, though I remember being jealous when I was 10 or 11 about kids who got to go away for weeks. Not about the camp part as much as the idea of being away and on your own in a different place. I had major fantasies of skipping town. That’s why my favorite book was From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. I literally had full daydreams of getting on the train to Manhattan and going to live in a museum, though I think I would have picked Natural History instead of the Met.
I loved that book, too! While I thought it would be way cool to live in a museum, I knew I didn't have the guts to pull something like that off. And same with all the cons that Archie and Vivian pull off in Camp Shady Crook! They are so clever! How did you come up with them?
Well, believe or not, there’s actually a science to cons. Why they work, and what kind of people take the bait. And many cons — including some in the book — have been around for years. Archie’s whole persona is based on a con called “The Spanish Prisoner” (though most of us might think of it as “the Nigerian Prince” nowadays) and there’s another con in the book called “the Melon Drop.” For many of them I took the kinds of cons Archie would have read about in his research and put a kid spin on them. I’d like to think that anyone who actually knew anything about cons would recognize quite a few of the techniques Archie and Vivian use.
Fascinating! And so creative. So I'm imagining that you did a bit or research when writing this book. What is the most surprising thing you had to research?
I love research so I always do a ton — sometimes I have to make myself stop researching just so I get actual writing done!
Haha! I may know something about such delay tactics. 😬 But I digress. Do continue.
Researching cons was an obvious part of the book, but one perhaps surprising one was researching summer camp itself. As I mentioned, I never went to a traditional summer camp like Camp Shady Brook so I had to research almost everything, including how cabins are organized, what kinds of activities kids do, the stuff you would assume I knew already!
As for fun/weird research, a little joke in the book is that all the cabins are named after fish native to Vermont, where the camp is located. So I went hunting around in books and online for strangely named Vermont fish — Rainbow Smelt, Longnose Gar, Walleye. Even in copyedits the names still made me laugh.
I was dying at those cabin names! So funny!
Okay, I'm taking a little detour, and this is not about your book, but speaking of research . . . I've been following you on Facebook for a while now, and I'm always fascinated at the various articles you are working on for your day job as a journalist. (I seriously LOVE that you did one on the hiccups!) Given all that you've researched, what has been the most interesting subject you've written about?
This is a very difficult question because I’ve gotten to write about so many interesting things, including hiccups. But a recent interesting piece was on what happens when people get sick in space. This is not an idle question because astronauts are going into space for longer periods of time thanks to the International Space Station and society is always imagining we’ll be send civilians into space soon to colonize other planets. So what happens when someone gets the flu? Or has a heart attack? Do you pack an MRI machine for the mission to Mars? (Those things are heavy). In particular, your readers should know, always cover your mouth and nose when you sneeze in zero gravity because the particles will float around until they hit something. Hopefully a filter, but it could also be your buddy — or his lunch!
Wow. I've never thought about that! And I am maybe a bit grossed out at the idea of puking in space. I'm guessing that Astronauts need strong stomachs!
Finally, I love middle grade for so many reasons. I'd love to hear why you choose to write middle grade.
A lot of my favorite books, the ones I remember and have held dear since I was a kid, are middle grade books. But the reason why I personally write middle grade is actually very boring. I had been writing YA novels and was even agented and went on sub, but nothing sold. Then I wrote a book about a 15 year old boy and a literary agent who read it said “this should be a middle grade book, not YA.” Nine months of revisions later, and voila! I had a middle grade book. And I’ve just kept writing them because they’re so much fun.
It IS so much fun! And I am glad you came over to the middle grade side because your books are so good, and so different than a lot of what we see. Thank you so much for stopping by my blog, Lee!
And for the rest of you, you can find all the links for following Lee on social media below, as well as links for where you can get your own copy of CAMP SHADY CROOK!
Lee Gjertsen Malone is a Massachusetts transplant via Long Island, Brooklyn, and Ithaca, New York. As a journalist she’s written about everything from wedding planning to the banking crisis to how to build your own homemade camera satellite. Her interests include amateur cheese making, traveling, associating with animals, shushing people in movie theaters, kickboxing and blinking very rapidly for no reason. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her husband, daughter and a rotating cast of pets.
CAMP SHADY CROOK is available now at Lee's local indie, Porter Square Books, and can also be purchased through Amazon, B&N, and wherever books are sold.