age range: 8-12
genre: gothic monster; historical fiction
Refe Tuma’s website
Praise for the Frances series
A rollicking adventure.
⭐️ Bursting with wry humor and references to Frankenstein, Tuma’s idiosyncratic, utterly original tale moves at breakneck speed through a richly imagined landscape, accumulating vividly rendered characters and settings…while injecting considered discussions of modern themes such as gender roles and privilege.
— Publisher’s Weekly (STARRED REVIEW)
Frances is both a terror and a delight. The author clearly had a rollicking good time, and readers will, too.
— The Horn Book
Please tell us about your book.
In book one, readers saw Frances’s life upended by the discovery of a secret experiment left unfinished by her late great-grandfather, the eccentric and reclusive scientist Albrecht Grimme. Frances wanted so desperately to prove to her parents she was no longer the sickly child that barely survived a traumatic automobile accident when she was three, and that she was ready to join them on their trip to the latest scientific symposium. Instead, she awakened a monster that nearly destroyed her home and a nearby city.
Frances and the Werewolves of the Black Forest picks up a few months later, when Frances is finally invited to travel with her parents to a special meeting of the prestigious European Society of Science and Invention—the very thing she has wanted for as long as she could remember. Only now, she has a secret she must keep from them at all costs. A secret that, if discovered, could mean her first trip is also her last.
Keeping this secret is further complicated when her train is hijacked by men with unknown motives. She is forced to flee with her friend Luca into the Black Forest, a vast and wild expanse of trees and shadows and beasts. She quickly learns there are forces at work more terrifying than she ever imagined…and that the key to defeating them might lie in her own scientific discoveries.
What inspired you to write this story?
Frances and the Monster was my love letter to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the classic movies it inspired, along with another tale some believe may have influenced Shelley: The Magician’s Apprentice. Both stories deal with hubris, ambition, and impatience with established processes and systems. I’ll admit these topics may not seem all that appropriate for young readers. At least, until you remember what it feels like to be in such a hurry to skip past all the inconveniences of youth—the waiting, the learning, the reliance on older, more experiences members of the community—and just grow up already. This was a big theme of my childhood, and one of the things that has made Frances such a compelling character to write.
Frances and the Werewolves of the Black Forest, on the other hand, is a celebration the monster genre in all its forms, from Frankenstein’s original creation to the Wolf Man, to zombies and the living dead. Many believe monster stories to be less “literary” than other genres, sacrificing thematic depth for cheap pulp or jump scares. I couldn’t disagree more. In fact, I’d argue there is no genre better equipped for deep examinations of grief, fear, anxiety, acceptance and inclusion, and morality.
This sequel is also a natural expansion on the themes of friendship, family, and ethics explored in Frances and the Monster. Frances sees her world continue to expand exponentially, in terms of both geography and relationships. She’s must process the shocking revelations about her parents uncovered during her climactic showdown with Constable Montovan at the end of the first book and decide what ‘family’ means to her. At the same time, a new cast of colorful characters challenges Frances to learn to let people in rather than going it alone, to trust them rather than protecting herself by keeping them at arm’s length.
Could you share with readers how you conducted your research and / or share a few interesting tidbits about your writing process with this book?
Historical fiction comes alive when readers are given a glimpse of a specific time and place that feels authentic and lived in.
Frances and the Werewolves of the Black Forest is set in May of 1940, during the early days of WWII. While the story is not about the war per se, the plot is tightly connected to a very specific and very real historical event (to say more would be to spoil the fun!) It was important to me to be as accurate as possible in my portrayal of both this event, and anything else related to the conflict. That meant juggling a lot of dates, locations, and logistical concerns.
That devotion to authenticity is also why the train Frances rides in is based on an actual train, the Edelweiss Pullman (which is still in operation today!) and follows the line’s actual route. And why the landmarks Frances encounters in the Black Forest are based on actual sites as she would have found them in 1940. Even the more fantastical elements are designed to reflect the ideas of the day. In this case, terrifying ideas that explored the darker corners of science and warfare and destruction. Most of these ideas were never realized, of course—but what if they had been?
Another aspect of the story I’m particularly proud of is its representation of a deaf character named Otto, and of a wheelchair user named Rudy. I consulted with several sensitivity and authenticity readers to ensure these characters were represented accurately and respectfully, and that both contributed to the story in ways that would invite deaf and disabled readers to see themselves as heroes in the text. If you’ve read Frances and the Monster, you know sign language has always been a part of Frances’s world, and it was exciting to dive deeper into signing and the unique challenges and opportunities it affords.
What were some special challenges associated with writing Frances?
I first outlined the Frances series nearly ten years ago. At the time, I envisioned book two as a kind of classic WWII swashbuckler in the vein of The Adventures of Tintin or Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. Plucky heroes using their wits to outsmart the evil Nazis. This didn’t seem unusual or insensitive at the time. (In fact, I remember querying the first book and having an agent reject the manuscript with the note that she wanted “more Nazi hijinks!”)
Unfortunately, it’s become clear that Nazis are no longer a relic of the past; a distant villain to be defeated and humiliated again and again by new and different heroes. If they ever were. My editor and I agreed that this book wasn’t the right context for what could very well be some young readers’ first introduction to historical Nazi Germany, and I rethought my outline with new, fictional villains created specifically for Frances’s journey.
It was a difficult decision, but in the end, I think it was the right one. The story’s fictional villains ended up providing so many great opportunities for more nuanced motivations and worldbuilding, without the risk of unintentionally minimizing or misrepresenting the very real evils of the day. In my humble opinion, the story is better for it.
Another, completely different kind of challenge had to do with the setting. Forest settings in literature always run the risk of feeling somewhat generic. Anyone who has spent time wandering wooded areas can tell you that if you’re not paying attention, the landscape can really start to blend together. Trees here, trees there. One ravine looks like the next. This is even more true when attempting to describe the woods.
It was important that every scene feels distinctive, and that the reader is always given something to anchor them to where exactly one scene takes place versus the next.
Careful readers may notice that the descriptions of the forest change as Frances becomes more familiar with her new environment. At first, she can’t tell one tree from the next. As the story goes on, however, she becomes more attuned to the landscape. She notices specific foliage, terrain, and landmarks, and thus so does the reader.
What topics does your book touch upon that would make it a perfect fit for the classroom?
Frances’s adventures are full of fantastical technology, strange and visceral science experiments, and clever acts of creativity and ingenuity. These elements pair perfectly with STEAM programs because they inspire readers to think outside the box and get messy. What middle schooler could read about a pig’s heart being accidentally vaporized and not want to rush to the science lab themselves?
In addition to the STEAM connections, Frances and the Werewolves is a book about choices and their implications. Challenge after challenge forces Frances to choose between what is easy and hard, safe and risky. She must choose who to trust, who to rely on, who to believe—even, more than once, who will live and who will die. These moral and ethical dilemmas are ripe for classroom discussion and personal essays, giving students a safe, fictional environment in which to explore complex issues and consider how they might respond, and why.
After all, isn’t that what good stories are all about?