The nocturnals of Tracey Hecht’s new series, which begins with The Mysterious Abductions, are a band of animals from Australia—Tobin, a sincere and dependable pangolin, Bismark, a flamboyant sugar glider, and Dawn, a smart and savvy fox. After the three form an unlikely friendship based on their shared preference for the night, they become anxious about a rash of mysterious abductions of fellow nocturnal critters. Night after night, more animals are disappearing, and so the Nocturnal Brigade, as they style themselves, set off to investigate. Their adventures bring them to the cavernous den of a gang of crocodiles, who are obsessed with a strange tournament (a hockey-like game, with kiwis used for the sticks and a spider as the puck) in which the abducted animals are forced to take part.
Though the situation at times seems grim, The Mysterious Abductions is not a dark or heavy story. The friendship between the animals and their concern for each other keeps things feeling safe. Even the final confrontation with the villain is resolved through understanding and compassion…although the kiwis and the spider really deserve some compensation for their rough treatment!
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For young readers of around nine or ten who enjoy the adventures of interesting animals, this should hit the spot very nicely indeed! (Young hockey fans will also find the tournament lots of fun). Little water color illustrations at the start of each chapter add lots of charm, and help readers unfamiliar with Australian fauna to visualize the unfamiliar critters. (Warning—your kid might ask for a family of sugar gliders as pets!)
And now it’s a pleasure to welcome Tracey Hecht, author of The Nocturnals: The Mysterious Abductions, who has graciously answered some questions about her exciting new series!
You have worked as a film director, producer, and writer. How did your journey from the world of movies to the world of middle grade fantasy happen? Was being a writer of children’s books always in the back of your mind?
My path from writing screenplays to children’s literature was more accidental than systematic. I spent years writing adult dramas and I enjoyed it, but the ones I wrote were very reality based, both the characters and the story lines. I loved the idea of writing more abstract realities, both in terms of the characters I created and the situations they encountered. In The Mysterious Abductions I’ve got jerboas, wombats, pangolins and “Noc-Hoc”! Though the one thing that is the same in both genres is the “human” connections between characters and the emotions they experience. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing stories based in fantasy, reality, science-fiction, whatever, your readers care about how your characters feel and how those characters experience their worlds. If you deliver that in an interesting and honest way, then you can feel good about the stories you’re writing.
Do you have favorite animal fantasies from your own childhood, or from reading with your kids, that inspired you/that you’d like to recommend?
I’m not sure I have favorite animal fantasies as much as I have favorite books. Some of those favorites have animal protagonists, Charlotte’s Web (Of course! Who doesn’t love Charlotte’s Web?!), Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, Fantastic Mr. Fox. Actually, Fantastic Mr. Fox and the rest of Roald Dahl’s books were inspirational to me in writing The Nocturnals. I love how well Dahl’s books read aloud. In fact I believe Dahl wrote them to entertain his children at bedtime. A goal in writing The Nocturnals was to create a narrative that read well silently, but even better out loud. That’s why the series has the conversational banter that is does.
How much did you know about the animals of down under before you started? Did you have to do a lot of research? (I myself had very little knowledge of pangolins before reading your book!)
We do research constantly! It’s one of the most fun things about the series, to learn about unusual animals and let their physical traits and physiologies inform their characters. We use their physical attributes to inspire action and plot lines as well. The pangolin tongue is so unusual it comes up again and again in the series. Actually, pangolins in general are completely irresistible! Spend 10 minutes watching YouTube videos or reading about pangolins and you’ll understand why I had to have a pangolin as one of the brigade.
Were your kids helpful first readers?
I have one middle grade aged child who is a huge influence on the material. He is the reason there is a hockey game in the first book of the series, The Mysterious Abductions. My older kids read the material and help me with ideas as well. My middle daughter plays the voice of Dawn in all of the animated shorts we are making for the series. I would say that all of the kids in my life, my nieces, friends, neighbors etc., influence how I tell these stories and what I choose to tell them about. You learn a lot about conversational dynamics and issues of middle graders when you spend time with them.
What’s next for the Nocturnal Brigade?
We have some fun characters and stories coming up! Book two (The Creeping Dark, coming September 13) has a tuatara, a really cool prehistoric lizard with a third eye on the top of her head. There is a sort of “broken” owl named Otto who makes me laugh every time he opens his mouth. We have a creepy eye-eye with the signature long middle finger. And then there some old favorites too, look for jerboas and kiwis and of course a wombat.
What’s your loftiest dream for The Nocturnals?
I wrote The Nocturnals with the hope that books, and strong literature, could play a larger role in the way kids share entertainment. So many of us, kids included, are getting our entertainment from screens—YouTube videos, apps, shows, etc. I would love for books to come back as a more integral type of shared entertainment. The staccato of the series and the things the characters say are meant to be sound-bitey and irresistible. They’re written in an almost cinematic vernacular to appeal to that notion that books can be shared entertainment with kids and their friends. It’s amazing to watch kids pick up a book and quote something to make their friends laugh, or to watch them thumb through pages (rather than scroll!) to get to a funny scene. I think it can work, and I love writing the series with that intention.
Thanks Tracey! for one will be looking forward to The Creeping Dark.