The two kids and their unlikely allies (most notably two howler monkeys inhabited by an ancient Mayan king and his mom) set out (via submarine) to try once again to gain control of the Jaguar Stones. It's a journey that takes them to a haunted New Orleans (deadly in that special Mayan Death Lord way) and up the river to the city of Cahokia (the center of the Death Lord's social media campaign).
But the final showdown comes in a truly unexpected place--Fenway Park. And Red Sox fans
Don't read this one if you haven't read the first three! But if you did enjoy the first books, you'll enjoy this one too. And if you are looking for a series of that mixes mythological madness with ordinary life in a wild and crazy way, The Jaguar Stones is a good choice. Facile though it is, "Mayan Percy Jackson"is not inaccurate. (Caveat: a tolerance for the absurd and the gross is required for true enjoyment! There are maggots, farts, and icky death-ness galore! More so than I myself really enjoy, but I'm not the target audience....)
If you'd like to win the entire series of four books, just leave a comment by midnight on Feb. 24! (US and Canada). One winner will receive soft-covers of Middleworld, The End of the World Club, and The River of No Return (the links go to my reviews), and a hardcover of The Lost City.
And now, the interview, with Pamela Voelkel! (thanks so much, Pamela, for your thoughtful answers!)
When you started writing Middleworld, did you have a map for whole series, or did it grow and develop as you went? When you were writing The Lost City, was there anything you wish you'd done differently back at the beginning?
We always imagined the story as a trilogy, and we had all three books roughly mapped out. We wrote the final paragraph of the last book early on, so we were always working to that end point. One thing I'd change about MIDDLEWORLD is that I'd make us work out the characters and subplots before we started writing the story. I know it sounds like common sense, but for some reason we really made things difficult for ourselves back then.
Everyone told us that writing the second book in a trilogy is the hardest. "It can't just be a bridge," our local children's librarian sternly warned us. "It has to be a book in its own right, with a proper beginning, middle and end. Don't disappoint me." So when THE END OF THE WORLD CLUB - possibly the only book ever to take a rock 'n' roll angle on the Spanish Conquest - was completed, I thought we were home and dry.
Book Three had originally been set in New Orleans, but then Katrina had happened, so we'd scratched that plot. Instead we invented an underground hotel deep in the jungle, run by the ancient Maya Death Lords. There was so much ground to cover for this last volume of the trilogy, so many loose ends to tie up, that the first draft was thick as a doorstep. Our editor gave us two choices: either cut it right down or start again and make it two books. She encouraged us to make it two books because there was so much story left to tell. Characters had acquired lives and opinions of their own, even the bad guys had been run through the wringer. And we'd barely scratched the surface of the fun to be had in an underground hotel run by the Death Lords.
So the publication of Book Three was delayed while we started again from the very beginning. The result was THE RIVER OF NO RETURN, which is the most "Indiana Jones" type adventure of the series. Then there was an unexpected gap between Book Three and Book Four while I had cancer treatment. When I got my mojo back and started writing again, it felt right to include New Orleans in Book Four because we were both survivors!
On the subject of regrets, it's hard to say. I find it hard to stop editing until the very last moment, so I always ALWAYS feel that anything I write - including this piece - could be a million times better. But on the other hand, I'm just so grateful that the Jaguar Stones series exists and that we were able to put across so much Maya history and have so much fun with it. If I was writing the first book, MIDDLEWORLD, again now, I'd try to relax a little and let Lord 6-Dog and Lady Coco reminisce more about the old days in the Maya court. But at the time, we were overawed by the task. I could see all these kids, our readers, in my head and I kept thinking that if we didn't move the action along quickly enough, they'd lose interest and stop reading. That was always my goal: keep 'em reading for one more page, one more page, one more page...
There isn't much fantasy for kids in the states that's based in Latin America or draws on Mayan mythology. Did the fact that you were venturing into new territory for middle grade fantasy affect the researching and writing of these books? Do you have any book recommendations for kids who've loved the Jaguar stones and want more?
There are a few Maya-themed picture books and some good factual books, but not much for middle-grade - and nothing that goes where we go. All too often the Maya are presented as bloodthirsty tyrants or noble savages. In reality, they were more like the ancient Greeks - cultured, creative, political, and not averse to waging terrible war on a neighbouring city-state.
Some reviewers have described the Jaguar Stones as the Maya equivalent of the Percy Jackson books and we love that idea! Our books set the adventures of two moody modern-day teens against the zany world of Maya mythology. Of course, the mythology used to be even zanier, but most of it has been lost. And that's the problem with writing about the Maya. It's really hard to find the facts. It's only relatively recently that archaeologists have been able to decipher Maya glyphs, so most of what you read on the internet is inaccurate.
We didn't set out to break new ground with the Jaguar Stones. In the beginning, the pyramids were just a cool background to our adventure story. But there came a point where we had to make a decision: are we going to do this properly or not? And doing it properly meant spending family vacations in Central America, befriending Maya people, attending archaeological conferences, even learning to read and write Maya glyphs. It's been a huge undertaking and I wouldn't blame anyone for balking at it. But we try to share our research through free lesson plan CDs and downloads on our website. Maybe other authors can take advantage of that!
Assuming they've read everything by Rick Riordan, I'd advise a Jaguar Stones fan to discover the work of Alan Garner. His book THE OWL SERVICE, set in the world of Welsh mythology, is one of my all-time favourites. I might also direct them to Beowulf, and collections of Icelandic mythology. And I'd definitely whisper that Rick Riordan has a Norse-inspired series coming out soon...
Back in 2010, you wrote (for a guest post at this blog) that "My dream is that one day, when our books have been translated into Spanish, we’ll make school visits in Guatemala" Has this come to fruition yet?
No. And it kills us, but We haven't given up hope. We're still in touch with Jesus Antonio, the education advocate who inspired us in Guatemala. We have been fortunate enough to make school visits in Chiapas in Southern Mexico - but without the books in Spanish. Luckily, Jon is bilingual and I have high school Spanish, so we manage quite well. We were thrilled to speak at an English language library in Yucatan, where the patrons are learning English - so that was the best of both worlds. We often do bilingual presentations in schools in North America too.
But if I can be honest, Charlotte, this whole issue confounds me. I feel guilty to be writing about the Maya, maybe even being part of the #weneeddiversebooks movement, but not being remotely Maya myself. Our connection is that Jon grew up in South and Central America. On our travels, I've talked to many Maya girls and women, and I try to channel their voices. But I have no doubt that any one of them, given my resources, could write a better book than I. Through Max, a kid from Boston and one of our main characters, I try to express this angst. If, like Rick Riordan, we were just concerned with ancient mythology, I wouldn't feel this way. But, as far as I know, no one else is writing about Maya kids right now. I hope that we're helping to bridge the gap between North and Central America. Teachers have told us that students of Maya descent take a new pride in their identity after reading our books - and that makes me proud.
Now that the story of the Jaguar stones has come to an end, what's next for you?
Short-term we have the Tucson Festival of Books in mid-March, followed by a book tour in California, plus trips to New Orleans, Iowa and Texas. Longer term, another book is simmering, but I don't like to talk about new projects because somehow the talking negates the writing. It makes me feel like I've already written it and the hard work is done - which it isn't, at all!
And finally, in as much as the great final confrontation is a baseball game at Fenway Park--are you Red Sox fans?
YOU BETCHA! But, as I I hope you gathered from the game in the book, it's not the sport that hooks us. It's the atmosphere of Fenway Park and the roller-coaster emotion of being a Red Sox fan.
And now, the bonus (short) list of Speculative Fiction rooted in/based on/inspired by Mayan mythology and culture:
Summer of the Mariposas, by Guadalupe Garcia McCall
Sea of the Dead, by Julia Durango
Starfields, by Carolyn Marsden
Anyone know of any other books to add?