age range: 10-14 years
topics: metalwork, master craftsmen, puzzles and mysteries, family
A truly memorable setting for a terrific tale.
Eden is a resourceful, brave, sympathetic character in an intricately crafted and original setting.
Eden has been looking for something that feels like home ever since her parents died years ago… The sprawling mansion where her grandpa lives, however, is not what she expected…. It is a dangerous and wonderful place that Eden realizes she has always longed for, and readers will likely agree.
—The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books
Please tell us about The Five Impossible Tasks of Eden Smith.
First of all, I love this book and loved writing it. It tells the story of young Eden Smith, who moves into the Guildhall of Smiths—a beautiful and bizarre old mansion housing her grandfather—who she has never met. Inside the guildhall, Eden discovers a strange society of elderly metalworkers whose mastery of their crafts verges on the magical. Eden must face deadly mechanical birds, a cavernous chamber full of dirty dishes, and a highly dangerous game of Machinist BINGO. Life inside the guildhall is not only strange—it’s deadly.
Eden’s grandfather, Vulcan Smith, the most gifted of all the metalsmiths in the mansion, has just been sentenced to live out the rest of his days locked in a tiny basement room for rebelling against the guild. To save him, Eden will have to complete The Five Impossible Tasks, a series of deadly feats that have already killed off many of Eden and Vulcan’s ancestors. Eden enlists the help of her new friend Nathaniel, and with a cast of eccentric old silversmiths, blacksmiths, and inventive machinists, Eden sets out to do the impossible before her newfound grandfather is lost to her forever.
Not bad, eh?
What inspired you to write this story?
This book is a collision of many inspirations. First, I wanted to fill a book full of characters based on my own ancestors. I was lucky enough to grow up surrounded by lots of aunties and uncles and great aunts and great uncles, but nearly all of them have passed on. I wanted to spend more time with them. So I used many of them as the inspiration for characters in this story. Every minute I spent writing about them felt a bit like a family reunion to me.
Second, the structure of this book comes from Greek mythology. One of the main characters is Vulcan’s grandfather, and his story arc is closely related to the story arc of Vulcan—the Roman name for the Greek god, Hephaestus—the blacksmith of the gods. Vulcan gets tossed out of Mount Olympus and has to regain his glory. Additionally, the story of Eden taking on the Impossible Tasks is inspired directly from the story of Hercules and his twelve labors.
Then, the beginning of the book has this moment when Eden goes from hopelessness to hope, then has the rug pulled out from under her, and then has to find a way to rebuild her hope on her own. Eden spends years in foster care, then, on the day she finally finds her grandfather, he is imprisoned. Instead of being saved by her grandfather, she has to save him.
The inspiration for that comes from an early-American short story called, My Kinsman, Major Molineux, by Nathaniel Hawthorne. In that story, a young man goes to a town, hoping his wealthy relative will help establish him on a path to success. But on his arrival, his kinsman is captured, tarred and feathered. The hero’s hopes are dashed and he is on his own. By the way, I love ninetheenth-century writers, like Hawthorne, Washington Irving, and Robert Louis Stevenson. My last novel, The Bottle Imp of Bright House, was based on a Stevenson short story.
And then, the final part of the inspiration collision comes from the crazy idea of placing a hero in an intentionally unappealing setting. Some of my favorite stories, like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Harry Potter, and The Lord of the Rings, have the most magical, lovely settings—chocolate factories, wizarding worlds, and Middle Earth. As a young reader, I wanted to return to those settings again and again. But in this story, the setting is basically a home for the elderly. An old folks’ home is not anything a kid dreams of living in. I imagined the setting as a sort of anti-Hogwarts. So then the job—my job—was to take on the challenge of making that setting—the Guildhall of Smiths Number 292—into a magical world where the reader wants to, well, return again and again. I hope I succeeded.
This book contains a lot of science, especially metallurgy. Could you share with readers how you conducted your research and share a few interesting tidbits about your writing process with this book?
I’m a learner. I love studying new topics. To learn about smithing and metallurgy, I interviewed the director of a foundry in Tacoma, I visited with a man who spins pewter, I visited a blacksmith shop, and then, of course, I spent probably hundreds of hours doing internet research, double and triple-checking facts. I love the analog aspect of smithing and machining. It’s not digital. It’s not screentime. It’s old-school, hands-on craft, with sweat, sore muscles, fire, and smoke.
My writing process? Oh, it is incredibly inefficient. This is my fifth book published in the U.S. and my process is always the same. First, I grind out a rough draft that gets the bones of the story in place—that part is sort of torture for me. And then I edit and edit and edit and edit and edit and edit and edit. I began this book at the beginning of 2018 and finished a draft that year. Then, I did heavy editing all the way through the end of 2022—five full years of writing and rewriting for this one story. Editing, of course, is not a solo process. I had the help of my amazing agent, Abigail Samoun of Red Fox Literary, and my incredible editor at Holiday House, Kelly Loughman.
I’ve learned to love editing. Editing is when the author gets to play god. In the editing process, the author gets to step out of linear time and move back and forth through time and space. The story is unavoidably linear, but as the author, I can go back and forward in time as much as I want, adding in foreshadowing, changing characters, eliminating and adding plot points as I see fit. And, like a good smith, I try to polish and polish and polish. Hopefully, the story shows this and gives off a high shine, like a lovely silver teapot.
You set this story among forges and smithing workshops, and many of the characters—other than Eden and Nathaniel—are elderly. What are some special challenges associated with introducing a setting your audience might be unfamiliar with?
I’ve always loved handcrafts, like blacksmithing. One of my main passions in life is letterpress printing, which is also an ancient craft. (You can see that work at beautifulangle.com) So my love for craft makes it easy for me to want to spend a lot of time in this craft-heavy world. Another thing that helps is that I live in a city called Tacoma, in Washington State. Tacoma has a very industrial past, and that vibe resonates deep in the bones of us locals. So yes, I did introduce my audience to metalworking and smithing, but it never felt like a burden. It’s always easy to talk about things that you love.
And, as I mentioned earlier, I had the joy of having many sort of pseudo-grandparents when I was a kid—a lot of elderly relatives who really poured into the lives of my siblings, cousins, and me. I really, really wanted to make my own elderly characters equally lovable, because elderly people have so much to offer. And the best ones, like my relatives, also tended to lose their filters. They stop acting polite and become very straightforward—charming, egotistical, opinionated, and rude. Their real selves show through, and that makes them wonderful characters to write.
What topics does your book touch upon that would make it a perfect fit for the classroom?
This book covers a great deal of STEM topics, such as chemistry, magnetics, audio frequencies, and more. It also brings in many references to classic mythology, such as the stories of Hercules and Hephaestus. Characters also come from Guatemala, India, Scotland, Poland, Japan. The main character, Eden, is a person of color.
The story is also inter-generational and takes on the topic of the elderly—a topic not often covered in middle-grade writing.
The story’s main theme is family, but the family referenced is very non-traditional. The main character spends the first few chapters in foster care, then finds her grandfather, but realizes that her most meaningful family is the one that she builds around her with the people she loves and that love her back. My own father died when I was very young, so I was raised by a single mom, with the help of many relatives. That theme of non-traditional family is so important to me.
But honestly, the main reason I think that Eden and her adventures would be a perfect fit for the classroom is that it is written for young readers—not for their parents. It’s a fast-moving, funny, suspenseful adventure story, with plenty of cliffhangers and death-defying moments. I write what I love, and I love nothing more than a great hero in a thrilling adventure, with thrills, chills, a few laughs and a few tears along the way.
By the way, I love doing author talks for classrooms that read my books. I’ve done many, both in-person and via Zoom. One of my favorite things to discuss with young writers is learning to love editing and rewriting. When I share how many times I rewrite a manuscript, I usually hear a few gasps from the students. Teachers seem to appreciate that.