Interview with Kate Hannigan, Author of The Detective’s Assistant

Kate Hannigan PhotoKate Hannigan grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She worked on school newspapers through high school before going on to study journalism in college and working for newspapers in different parts of the country. She lives in Chicago with her husband and three kids. Hannigan is the author of the Cupcake Cousins books and The Detective’s Assistant (see my review). Here, she share with readers what prompted her to be a writer, why she likes writing for young readers, and more.

How did you know you wanted to be a writer?

KH: As a little girl, I would tell people I was going to be a writer. Books seemed so important, and I liked the sound of it all – though my 10-year-old self had no idea what it meant. I spent a lot of time world building during imaginary play, and I wrote down favorite names in my journal all the time. I think I’ve always like the power to name people and places!

All my life, I have been drawn to family stories, and I loved hearing my parents, grandparent, aunts, and uncles telling great tales of living in Ireland and Philadelphia. So maybe that’s where the love of historical fiction comes from. I remember sitting under the table at a very young age and just listening to their voices, their laughter, and imagining my grandparents as young people.

When I got into middle and high school, I really loved when we studied grammar and the mechanics of writing. So it all started to come together when I began working on school newspapers, then journalism classes in college. I went on to work in newspapers before turning to creative writing.

What is your favorite thing about writing for young readers?

KH: They’re so open! Young readers aren’t jaded or cynical about life. They’re earnest, and they look for truths – how we treat each other, what it means to be a good friend, how we can make things better. I love being around people and characters who embrace that!

What do you find the most challenging?

KH: It’s challenging to hit the right spot that is not condescending or speaking down to readers, but at the same time doesn’t treat them as adults. Somewhere in between there is the voice that resonates with young readers. I think it’s a balance, of respecting young readers – that they know a lot and are very savvy about things – but also recognizing that they are still kids!

Nell in The Detective’s Assistant has such a strong voice. What inspired you to create a character like her?

KH: I had a lot churning in my head as I created Nell. But first and foremost was making it clear that Nell is a GIRL! Of course she would be brave and clever, but I was not going to make her a girl who wants to be a boy or feature stereotypically boyish traits like refusing to wear a dress or loathing anything feminine. I wanted to make it clear that a character can be girlish AND smart and clever, that those are not mutually exclusive things.

And I wanted to put Nell and her aunt at the center of the action, not tsk-tsking on the sidelines. Often in books and films, the boys get to have all the fun. The girls are portrayed as more reserved or delicate or tangential, and they get shunted off to the side. But with this story, I thought it was important to show Nell and Kate Warne as dynamic, the problem solvers, the clever thinkers, the capable actors. THEY are the ones having all the fun!

And as to her voice, in the sense of expressions and speech, well, I think my upbringing in Oklahoma might have come through in a few turns of phrase.

Nell’s Aunt Kitty is based on a real person in history, why were you interested in including Kate Warne in your fictional story?

KH: I had never heard of Kate Warne when I first came across her name. The first woman detective in America? How cool is that? Right away, I wanted to learn more about her. But also, I wanted kids to know about her too. Often we hear stories only about the amazing men of American history. There were loads and loads of women and people of color who were doing remarkable things too, but their stories were often overlooked or simply discounted. So I felt like it was important to present Kate Warne and the cases she was involved in, to intrigue young readers to look for other fascinating women to learn about too.

How long did you spend researching the real events that went into The Detective’s Assistant?

KH: Years! I began by reading tons of adult non-fiction about the Pinkertons, the Baltimore Plot to assassinate Lincoln, and life in mid-19th century America. I also immersed myself in fiction from the era, like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and other books that could give me a sense of the way people spoke and dressed and ate. I read books about the history of underclothes, life in a boardinghouse, photography from the 1800s. I think I began all this in late 2010, contacted the Library of Congress for Pinkerton’s records in spring 2011, had a working draft of the book (still researching!) in spring 2012, landed an editor in spring 2013, and turned in the final version of the book in spring 2014. Now it’s publishing in spring 2015. Phew!

What do you hope readers remember after reading your book?

KH: I hope readers remember the fun. There’s lots of American history in this book, so I hope it gives kids some interesting context to wrap around important dates. But I wanted to write the type of book that I love to read: accounts of women doing remarkable things, told with humor and suspense! And I hope that readers remember Kate Warne and realize there were lots of other women forgotten by history, and that they might be the ones to discover them and share their stories too!

Is there anything else you’d like to add for readers at Mother Daughter Book Club. com?

KH: Read everything! Seed catalogs, graphic novels, cookbooks, musty old biographies, as well as great fiction and non-fiction! I’ve been enjoying books side-by-side on the pillow with my three kids since they were born, and it’s one of my favorite things to do. Sometimes, we get six of us in the bed at night – all five humans and one happy dog – to read the bedtime book and talk about what’s happening. It’s a special experience to share a book with someone you love.

I hope readers will stop by my website at and say hello. There is lots more information about The Detective’s Assistant and Kate Warne, and there are discussion guides as well. Thanks for your interest!

Book Review: The Detective’s Assistant by Kate Hannigan

The Detective's Assistant cover imageEleven-year-old Cornelia Warne is destitute when she shows up on her aunt’s doorway in Chicago one day in 1859. Her parents and siblings have all died, and Aunt Kitty is the only relation she has left in the world. But her aunt isn’t exactly thrilled to see her. As the first female working for the Pinkerton Detective Agency, she often has to go in disguise or slip away to other cities. She thinks Nell, as Kitty decides to call her, would only be a burden and probably better off in the Home for the Friendless.

Nell decides to prove her value and win a place in Kitty’s home as well as her heart. She makes herself useful around the boarding house, and she even gets to help out with some detective work. But before she can feel truly accepted, she’ll have to unravel the mystery of what happened the night Kitty’s husband died, splitting the family apart.

The Detective’s Assistant by Kate Hannigan is funny and touching while also shedding light on such historical happenings as the Underground Railroad, boarding house life, the tensions leading up to the Civil War, and Abraham Lincoln’s election and first inauguration. Nell is a wholly delightful character who can be both perceptive and clueless as to what’s going on around her. She likes to read newspapers, has to work hard at learning correct grammar, and thinks the fashions of the day are silly even if she does want to wear them. She’ll clomp her way to your heart while wearing her daddy’s boots and have you cheering for her every step of the way.

I highly recommend The Detective’s Assistant for mother-daughter book clubs with girls aged 8 to 12.

The publisher provided me with a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Book Review: Sophomore Year is Greek to Me by Meredith Zeitlin

Sophomore Year is Greek to Me cover image Most 15 year olds might be happy to discover they were going to spend six months living in Greece. But Zona is not one of them. When she finds out her dad plans to uproot her normal life so he can conduct research for a book on the Greek economy, she is determined to stay in Manhattan while he goes to Athens. But Zona’s dad has an ulterior motive: Greece is where Zona’s mom was born and where her large family still lives.

Zona’s mom died the day she was born, and there has been no contact with the family since then. She would prefer to leave it that way. Her trip to Greece will show her that family ties may stretch, but they are hard to break forever.

Sophomore Year is Greek to Me by Meredith Zeitlin looks at how family betrayals and misunderstandings can lead to unnecessary pain through the years. Zona and her dad have led a quiet life together, and she has close friends that she relies on to help her navigate life. But as she gets to know her distant family, she learns about the power of family bonds, to both hurt and comfort.

Athens and the island of Crete both play supporting roles in the book as life in the big city and on a small, quiet island also come to life. I recommend Sophomore Year is Greek to Me for readers aged 12 and up.

Book Review: The Turnip Princess by Franz Xaver Von Schönwerth

The Turnip Princess cover imageThe Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, Charles Perrault—all were well known collectors of fairy tales, those magical, lesson-infused stories spread centuries ago in the oral tradition. A lesser known collector, Franz Xaver Von Schönwerth, was also at work recording old stories he heard in northern Bavaria during the same time as the Grimms. Until recently, his work remained lost. But with the discovery of manuscripts resting in a German archive, Schönwerth’s tales have now been published for all to read.

The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales is a collection of more than 70 of Schönwerth’s stories, selected from a cache of 500 by the woman who discovered them, Erika Eichenseer. Many of the tales sound similar to ones already known, such as Cinderella and Seven at One Blow, but many are less familiar.

Most of the tales are dark and cautionary, often with one wise brother or sister who outsmarts siblings, or a magical being who brings aid to those who are destitute. Sometimes animals play the role of enchanted humans waiting to be set free. All provide a glimpse into the lives of the people who told these stories and passed them along to others. The Turnip Princess should appeal to anyone who enjoys reading fairy tales, both as a comparison to what has come before them and as something to be appreciated on its own.

The publisher provided me with a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Book Review: Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller

Our Endless Numbered Days cover imageEight-year-old Peggy’s father is obsessed with being able to survive in a disaster. She has to practice packing a rucksack and being ready to flee in minutes in case the need arises. Peggy’s mother is a renowned pianist from Germany who tolerates her husband and her friends. But when Peggy’s father tells her to pack her bags one day and they set off from their home in London, she doesn’t know that home will become a remote cottage in the German wilderness and that she won’t see her mother or civilization again for another nine years.

Together, Peggy and her father survive by trapping forest animals, growing vegetables and making do with the few things they found in the cabin and they brought with them. Peggy believes the world outside has ended, and they are the only two people left alive. Her father’s deteriorating mental condition forces a series of events that eventually conclude with her return from the woods.

Told from Peggy’s point of view as a 17 year old recovering from her ordeal and an eight year old experiencing it, Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller is lyrical and heartbreaking and complicated. Peggy’s point of view as a child is superbly captured. Believing her mother and everyone else in the world dead, she trusts her father completely and depends upon him for survival. Yet readers know Peggy leaves the woods for some reason, and the mystery compels the story forward.

Fuller’s descriptions of the forest are vivid and she lets her characters show themselves through small and big actions that bring them fully to life. Despite my skepticism that anywhere in Germany is remote enough (or was in the 1970s and 80s when the story takes place) for there to be no evidence of life outside the clearing (not even an airplane overhead?), I found the story compelling. And while I would have liked to know more about how Peggy reacted to and dealt with her growing body and the changes that puberty brought, I found it a poignant and thought-provoking tale exposing the vulnerability and trust children must place in their parents for their own survival and what happens when that trust is breached.

The publisher provided me with a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Book Review: Debunk It! How to Stay Sane in a World of Misinformation by John Grant

Say you’re at a party and someone is talking to you and a few others about their beliefs on vaccinations. Or maybe climate change is their topic, or evolution, or alternative medicine. What they have to say sounds like it could be wrong, but how do you know? If you’re not an expert on a subject yourself, how can you spot the signs that the speaker is no expert either?

John Grant, the author of more than 70 books and an expert on conspiracy theories, has a few ideas for you. In Debunk It: How to Stay Sane in a World of Misinformation, Grant starts off by talking about critical thinking, and how learning to analyze a few key points can help you recognize when someone is trying to pass off information as accurate when they’re either just repeating something they’ve heard or purposefully trying to mislead. There’s a lot of conflicting information coming our way these days, so learning to think critically is an important skill to have.

Grant is an equal opportunity debunker, taking on issues dear to those who lean politically left and right. He also delves into issues from the past, to show how conspiracy theories and misinformation have been around about as long as people have been keeping records of what others have said. All the more reason to realize that someone with an agenda will always work to confuse issues of the day. Debunk It! offers tips on how to recognize when we are being misled and ways to find information that is considered accurate. Grant backs up his words with footnotes and an extensive bibliography for readers who want to check his sources. I recommend it for teens and others who want to be more informed consumers of information.

Read my interview with author John Grant to learn more.

The publisher provided me with a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Author Interview: John Grant, Author of Debunk It!

John Grant photoJohn Grant is the author of more than 70 books and an expert on conspiracy theories. In Debunk It! How to Stay Sane in a World of Misinformation he helps readers learn to identify misinformation that comes their ways from many sources—politicians, talk show hosts, high-traffic bloggers, and others. Here, he answers questions about why thinking critically and carefully before accepting information at face value is so important.

In your introduction to Debunk It! and later in one of the chapters you talk about the importance of critical thinking. I know it’s a big subject, but can you briefly talk about why critical thinking is so important, especially for teens?

JG: The short answer is that, unless we apply critical thinking to our understanding of the world, we end up doing stupid things. And that inevitably works out badly for us, both individually and on the wider scale. All through history, for example, we’ve seen the horrendous consequences of people uncritically accepting evil and nonsensical propositions such as that some groups aren’t really human because of their ethnicity or the color of their skins – propositions that can easily be shown to be false in a dozen different ways. Yet people go along with them on the grounds that it’s easier to do that than think.

Later on, of course, they discover what a lousy bargain they made. The effort put into thinking critically about important issues is always worth it. And the odd thing is, it’s actually fun.

Besides, think what your life would be like without the application of critical thinking. You’d end up believing in all kinds of wild conspiracy theories – “It was the Bush administration that organized 9/11!” or “NASA faked the moon landings!” – or wasting all your money on quack doctors, perhaps even at the cost of your life.

The world that the older generations have created is the one that today’s teens are going to inherit. It’s a world that’s full of problems many of which – like climate change – might have been avoided or at least ameliorated had more people of the older generations engaged in critical thinking. The sooner today’s young adults start understanding how to grapple with that world, the better it’s likely to be for them.

In Debunk It! you include many examples where people, governments, industries, or corporations purposefully misled others. Do you think those instances are more widespread today than they have been in the past?

JG: Politicians have lied to people since, I’d guess, the dawn of history – it’s part of the job description. I do think, though, that we’re going through a particularly obnoxious spate of it in this country at the moment. Just in recent weeks we’ve seen several politicians trying to distort the science of vaccination, and of course the political falsehood that “the science isn’t settled” on issues like climate change is a sort of ever-present background chorus. There’s just about nothing that modern US politicians won’t lie about. There was one the other day claiming that gynecological examinations weren’t really an intrusion: couldn’t women just swallow little cameras?

As for businesses, that’s a more recent phenomenon, but even so it goes back a long time. Just offhand I can think of how people were lied to about the ill effects of leaded gasoline, about the hole in the ozone layer, about the dangers of smoking, about the dangers of passive smoking, about climate change. Very often it was the same people doing the lying. And those lies can survive far beyond the time when they’re “officially” abandoned by the liars. Just two minutes on the intertubes will turn up dozens of websites still claiming that there’s no evidence that smoking can do you any harm.

Is it easier or more difficult now, when information can be searched for quickly on the Internet, for someone to debunk claims on their own?

JG: It’s both easier and more difficult. There are plenty of great informational sites on the Web. The trouble is, finding them. If you do a search for vaccination and autism, for example, chances are that most of the sites you turn up are antivaxer ones. It’s a matter of learning to assess which sites are genuine and which are garbage. To you and me that might seem simple enough – Scientific American is more likely to be telling the truth about biology than Answers in Genesis, and so on – but to young adults it can be not nearly so easy. What I think I’m trying to say is that the difficulty with using the Internet as a debunking tool is that the information it presents you with is unsorted.

Once you learn how to pick your way through the baloney, though, then the Internet becomes an immensely powerful tool. A politician’s telling you something that doesn’t seem right? Within minutes you can find out which industries are funding that politician. Someone’s offering a radically different version of American history? Often just as little as a quick check in Wikipedia will reveal that this person isn’t actually a qualified historian. A TV personality is telling you something that flies in the teeth of known science? Most of the established science magazines have free websites where you can quickly learn the truth. Besides, most of the major scientific organizations – like the American Medical Association – have websites of their own where, again, it’s easy enough to find real rather than bogus information. And many scientists run their own very active blogs where they explain their specialty to the interested public.

How powerful can this tool be? Just over the past week or two there’s been a lot in the news media about how a particular scientist who’s spoken out against the consensus of climate science has been receiving funding from the fossil-fuels industry. Thanks to research on the intertubes I knew about this some years ago – and indeed was writing about it (far from the first to do so!) as long ago as 2010/2011. The information was there for all to see on various well accredited investigative websites; too many people in the mainstream media just chose never to look.


How can someone researching claims know they are getting information from a trustworthy source?

JG: If something goes wrong with my toilet, I call a plumber to get it fixed, not a heart surgeon. If I need a triple bypass, there’s no way I’m going to let my plumber open me up with his wrench and spanner – I go to a heart surgeon. The point is to rely for your information on the people who actually know what they’re talking about.

The way that modern society works is that we all rely upon each other for specialist knowledge. It’s also true that there are plenty of important fields of knowledge that outsiders aren’t going to be able to understand unless they spend years of study at university level. We have to accept the fact that most of us are in no position to offer critiques of quantum mechanics or the Big Bang theory or the mating practices of squid; we have to accept what the experts tell us. Are those experts ever wrong? Yes, sometimes . . . but it’s going to be other experts in their own field who correct them, not someone who thinks they’ve educated themselves at the “University of Google”!

What I’m saying, then, is: If in doubt, consult the specialist rather than the amateur. And really, really, really don’t let your plumber do that heart operation.

In your book you talk about misinformation surrounding topics like evolution, climate change, childhood vaccinations and more. Was it difficult for you to narrow down which issues you would focus on in the book?

JG: Yes. Ideally I’d have had a chapter on the prevalent falsehoods about food, for example, such as some of the myths (both for and against) surrounding the issue of GMOs, and of course the fact that Big Ag is “persuading” our politicians to minimize the risks of the overuse of antibiotics in the food industry. I was very tempted to have a chapter on the nonsense people come out with about sex and about gender identity. I actually wrote a longish chapter countering the simplistic falsehoods (“You can’t get something from nothing!”) that get hurled at the Big Bang theory, and about how some people think it’s a flaw in the theory of evolution by natural selection that it can’t explain that same Big Bang. And so on. But there’s only so much you can get into a single book.

Is there anything else you’d like to add to readers at Mother Daughter Book

JG: First of all, thank you very much for extending your hospitality to me – it’s very much appreciated. And thank you, too, for some very perceptive questions: I’ve had to think pretty hard while answering them, which is good for me!

I imagine that anyone who’s read as far as this is interested in the idea of opening up their kids’ lives as much as possible to the world we live in through the application of critical thinking and education in general. For that, my very great thanks. By and large, the kids are better than us and smarter than us (however much they can sometimes be a PITA). Let’s help them be even more so.




Book Review: Famous Phonies by Brianna DuMont

Famous Phonies cover imageFamous Phonies: Legends, Fakes and Frauds Who Changed History by Brianna DuMont should put to rest any notion that history is boring. In twelve chapters focusing on historic figures, DuMont sets about answering questions such as: Did a female pope ever sit on the throne in Rome? Did Homer really write The Iliad and The Odyssey? How did Confucius become a legend? Was George Washington a good general?

The people DuMont highlights include those above as well as Shakespeare, Hiawatha, Pythagoras, Gilgamesh and more. In each case she looks in depth into the tales surrounding the person, in some cases even showing that the person of legend never existed. But DuMont also points out how the stories about the famous people often inspired others to go to war, change the rules, or even create new inventions. For instance, The Turk, a famous chess-playing automaton from the 1700s, helped inspire inventors who started the Industrial Revolution. And a planted dead body helped the Allies win World War II.

Famous Phonies is full of interesting tidbits that will have you thinking critically about other legends you take for granted. It’s fun to read, with several pull-out facts and supporting sidebars included with each chapter. The result is a fascinating read for those who love history as well as those who think they don’t. I highly recommend it for readers aged 9 to 12 and their parents.

The author provided me with a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

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