genre: contemporary fiction
age range: 8-12 years
setting: New York City
Lisa Schroeder’s website
Please tell us about your book.
Keys to the City is about a twelve-year-old named Lindy who lives in New York City and is given an assignment to complete over the summer before she enters eighth grade – the HAT project. She and her classmates are told to follow their hearts to discover their abilities and talents so they come back to school with material for their high school applications (a New York City thing). Lindy is a bookworm and doesn’t think she’s particularly good at anything. She was adopted from China as a baby and wishes she knew more about her parents, so she might have hints as to things she might be good at. She ends up going around NYC with a helpful neighbor and her grandson so that she might unlock her talents and abilities through some fun adventures.
What inspired you to write this story?
When I was a kid, I envied the kids who knew what they loved and that’s all they wanted to do and were exceptional at it. I had to try lots of different things – music, sports, art – and when I did, I’d often become frustrated because I didn’t feel like I was really very good at anything, even with lots and lots of practice. I never made varsity softball even though I played in middle school and high school. I sang in a singing competition but my choir teacher didn’t really encourage me after that when I didn’t place. I think I wanted to write a story for those kids who feel lost in a world where we highly praise exceptional talent and abilities. Please understand – I think it’s important to try things, the way Lindy does. It’s not easy, as the book shows, to put yourself out there and try new things. But I also think it’s important to remember that not all talents and abilities are flashy, so to speak. And that’s okay. In the end, what matters most is finding healthy activities that make you happy.
Could you share with readers how you conducted your research or share a few interesting tidbits you learned while researching?
This book is part of a companion trilogy that features girls having fun adventures around big cities. First came Paris in My Secret Guide to Paris, then London in Sealed with a Secret and now NYC in Keys to the City. The first two books were more difficult than the third because while I have been to New York City, I have not been to Paris or London. Google Earth was an amazing tool for all three books. I virtually walked the streets of each city and determined which places I wanted to put into the books. I read books set in the cities, bought travel guides with maps, because it’s important to know how close things actually are to each other, and read travel blogs. I also did lots of Internet searches trying to unearth things kids would find interesting. Because, after all, kids are the ones having the adventures and kids are the ones reading about the adventures. When I searched best hot chocolate in Paris, for example, something a child would certainly enjoy, a number of places came up, but I chose the one with a location that worked in relation to where my character would be along with one that had lots of photos I could describe easily.
What are some special challenges associated with introducing a setting your audience might be unfamiliar with?
I think the hardest part was getting the “feel” of a city, especially because I have not been to two of them. All I could do was read other books and watch movies that seemed to get it right and use my imagination. Describing smells and sounds along with sights was certainly important. Also, I’m very visual when I write – I love to look up photos of places as much as possible. Descriptions of surroundings is not one of my strong suits as a writer, so I actually think it’s been good for me to write these books and work on that. I’ve received many letters from kids who tell me it feels like they are going around the city while they read, so I’m glad my efforts paid off.
What topics does your book touch upon that would make it a perfect fit for the classroom?
It touches on both poetry and short story writing, as every other chapter is a poem or story Lindy writes. I also think the book could be used to show kids that a setting can be like another character. It can become a part of the story that the reader looks forward to just as much as the characters themselves. A fun assignment would be to have students choose a place they’d like to visit and have them research the place using Google Earth, travel blogs, books, etc. and then write a story set in that place.
Lisa has kindly offered a copy of KEYS TO THE CITY for one reader. To enter, simply leave a comment below. US residents only, please. The contest closes Monday, May 22.