An interview in partnership with author Chris Wieland
The Children’s Book Review
In this episode, I talk with award-winning writer and filmmaker Chris Wieland. He’s here to talk about his first book in the Kat Dylan Mysteries, The Crabtree Monsters, a novel that grips readers from the very first page.
Chris is the father of two fierce children, including a tough, smart tween who helped him find the voice of his protagonist, Kat Dylan. He lives in Southern California with his family.
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Chris Wieland: Hi, Bianca. Thanks so much for having me. I’m so excited to be here.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah, you’re welcome. So, I’m pretty excited, too, because this is an exciting event for you. We’re going to be talking about The Crab Tree Monsters, which is the very first book in a very exciting series for tweens and young teens as well—the Kat Dylan Mysteries. And I have to say that it grips readers from the very first page and does not let down with all the action and excitement. So, do you want to begin by talking us through the premise of this first book and what readers can expect?
Chris Wieland: Sure, I’d be happy to.
So, The Crab Tree Monsters is a story of Kat Dylan and very much her little brother, Alec Dylan. Kat is 13. She is very much sort of a free-range Los Angeles kid. Tough, very smart. And she comes from a broken home. Dad is an LAPD homicide detective. Mom is a nurse in the US Army who’s been sent to Afghanistan. And so, because of the split and because of the family dynamic, Kat, and her younger brother—Alec, a ten-year-old skater boy—are sent to live with their grandfather.
Grandpa Nick lives in a tiny town in Michigan called Crabtree, which is a down-on-its-luck resort town. You know, many people may not know this, but in Michigan, on Lake Michigan, there’s a lot of families from Chicago who come for the summer to enjoy the beaches and whatnot. And they come to live with their grandfather, the chief of police, in this little town. Before long, after upsetting the local cheerleader captain and upsetting the locals, they find themselves in the middle of a bank robbery taken on by four very flamboyant monster mask-wearing bank robbers.
They try to fight back against these bank robbers, and they come within an inch of losing their lives. And before they know it, their grandfather is accused of being one of them. And so, Kat and Alec are in a really precarious position, they have to prove that their grandfather is innocent if they ever have a hope of returning home in a sort of normal capacity. And so that leads them into a mystery with both bank robberies and murders where they have to seek the truth and they have to learn about what really are the secrets of this town. And that is something that the adults in town don’t want them to know.
And they have to be brave and strong and solve the mysteries of this small town of Crabtree and decide whether the truth is really worth putting themselves in danger and worth getting to. So, this is the first mystery in the series. And I think you’ll see that what happens is Kat and Alec are determined and they’re tough and they’re smart and they’re not afraid to get into trouble if it means getting at what’s really right in the world.
Bianca Schulze: Yes. I’m so glad I asked you to describe the story because one of my biggest fears with a mystery book is that I’ll give a spoiler away. I’ve read the book. And your summary, it was the perfect amount of not giving anything away, but enough to get everybody all excited.
Chris Wieland: Thank you. Thank you so much.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah, you’re welcome.
Well, I’m looking forward to taking a deep dive into protagonist Kat Dylan. But before we do, I think it’s really important to talk about the sibling relationship between Kat and her brother Alec, because every detective needs a sidekick and Alec is certainly Kat’s. And as you mentioned, the parents are a bit absent in their lives and, you know, they really need each other. So, will you take us through their relationship and what collectively the pair bring to the story?
Chris Wieland: Well, one of the things that I think we’re going to investigate over time is how these two are growing up together and how they grow up in an interrelated way. But Kat is 13 and brings with it all the things that 13-year-old girls bring to the table. She is tough. She is smart. She is ready to lead. She is not afraid of her own voice. And Alec has been in her shadow to a degree and kind of gets to be her superego in a way. She is full steam ahead and he gets to go along for the ride because there’s no way that he’d be left behind for the ride. He’ll tell on her if he’s left behind for one thing and for another thing, he knows that she needs an extra set of hands.
But he gets to sort of make jokes about her behavior over time. He gets to critique who she is and what she’s doing and be that sort of Dr. Watson. This is not to say that he’s not a capable young detective himself. So, a lot of their relationship is butting heads and bickering like an old married couple or honestly like two tweens who are unsupervised for too long and to fight through.
But then to ask each other the hard questions and to really hit at each other’s soft spots and the places where they might make a mistake, or they might overlook something because they don’t want to look at the truth directly. So, it’s a real collaboration. I don’t think Kat realizes how much of a collaboration it is early on. That’s something I think we’re going to explore as this series goes along.
But also, to your point, these are two characters who deeply love each other, who deeply respect each other, who know that they are the only people in the world who have their backs. Right? Every grown-up in their lives is in some way kind of disappointing. Which I feel like everybody who’s been the ages 10 to 13 certainly feels like—even in the most supportive and welcoming and wonderful families—there’s this feeling when you’re that age, that tween age, that all the adults are disappointing. None of the adults understand me or what my people are going through. I’m in this alone. And maybe I have a friend or a sibling that’s with me in this. But that’s about it. It’s us against the world.
And I think we all wish that we could have a sibling like that—or a friend like that. And that’s what these two bring to the table.
Bianca Schulze: I feel like you played that dynamic so well that the reader can see that Kat really needs Alec and you know, maybe deep-down Kat knows it, but she never lets on that she does. And I think that’s sort of such a reality and so relatable for the reader.
I would love to dive even deeper into the genesis of Kat now.
So, something fun to note is that you’re an award-winning writer and filmmaker, and this story went from being an optioned screenplay with two male teen detectives to a novel about a tough tween girl detective. So, I have kind of a two-part question here. I want to know how did the story transition from screenplay to a book and why did it feel important to you for the hero to be a girl?
Chris Wieland: Okay. So, the first part of that question is the genesis of the movie version of what was then called The Dylan Boys and how we moved into the novelization. And then changing the main character from a boy to girl.
I moved out to California about 15 years ago to pursue filmmaking. I had made a feature film that had won some awards, gone through the festival route, and I was writing screenplays, and I was going to these meetings here in California with producers. And I was getting more and more interested in what I would call the family adventure genre of movies, which are basically the movies that I grew up with in the 1980s. You know, your ETs and your movies with young people as protagonists that were relatable to young people but also exciting for adults.
And I was kind of moving away from what I’d done with my first film, which was very much of a sort of like Swingers, Wedding Crashers, kind of 20-something guys comedy into this new genre. And as I would have these meetings, producers would say to me, you know, we’re looking for the person who’s going to write this generation’s Goonies. And Goonies, of course, is right in the middle of that genre from when I grew up.
Bianca Schulze: I love that movie.
Chris Wieland: And so, what I started to do was I spun an idea around of like, what if we took the model of the Hardy Boys novels, which I grew up with? I think so many people our age grew up with and sort of modernized them and made the kids a little bit more tough and smart-alecky but created that sort of adventure story that could make it to screen. And so, I wrote the script, and it was Tom Dylan and Alec Dylan. Alec’s name has been in there from the beginning. And Tom is a character in The Crabtree Monsters, but not a brother at this point.
And I wrote it, and it got some notice and then finally got optioned. It was optioned multiple times by a production company out here in Los Angeles. And, you know, we talked about what we were going to do with it, and it got kind of into the pre-production stage until ultimately because of lack of funding and other issues—after about four years—the rights to the screenplay reverted to me. And at that point, you know, I had split from my previous manager, and I was thinking about what I wanted to do. And I said to myself, you know, I really believe in this story. I really had fun writing this. I want to write about these characters, but I don’t want to go out and try to pitch a four-year-old screenplay and try to explain to everybody why it’s it should be made now. So, I’m going to try to write this as a book.
And, you know, I have all the action, I have the characters, I have all the pieces. And writing a novel was something I’d always wanted to do anyway. And so, I started to work on it. But at the same time, in the four years that I’d been waiting and hoping, my oldest kid was growing up—I have girls. So, I was starting to be aware of chapter books for middle grade readers. I was reading at night to my older kid as her reading skills were growing and developing. And I started to think, you know, first, I’m a mystery nut. And I didn’t feel like there were tons and tons of mysteries for that audience that weren’t like gentle mysteries of, you know, who misplaced whatever gardening instrument or whatever. I wanted something that had some oomph to it where the stakes were really high, where you could legitimately be worried for your heroes.
But I also was thinking about the girls in these books, and there are exceptions, of course. Turtle Wexler in The Western Game certainly comes to mind and Ingrid in Behind the Curtain in the Echo Fall series certainly comes to mind. But I found that so many of the girls in these books were really sweet and nice in a kind of unidentifiable way. Like, my kid was tough and, you know, acerbic sometimes. And I thought, you know, I need a voice like that in these books because I don’t want that fierce, tough, acerbic voice to go away in my kid. I want her to be somebody who’s tough enough to take on any obstacle and feels empowered to be both a leader, but also an advocate for herself and for friends.
And so, I started writing it. I struggled for a long time over what the name of this character was going to be, since I shifted away from Tom Dylan. She was Olivia Dylan for a while and I went through a bunch of different names, and then I finally got to Kat Dylan. At that point, my oldest was in, I think sixth grade. And I said, hey, do you want to read this? I’ve been working on this forever.
And they started reading it and they basically said, like, this is great. I really like this plot, but she’s got to be tougher, and she’s got to be smarter. And at that point, my oldest became—whose name is Grace—Grace became my number one editor and my number one person to bounce ideas off and really became the alter ego of Kat Dylan. Right? Where we would sit down and we would go through a chapter and we would talk about the plot and she would say to me, no, you know, Dad, like, I wouldn’t say that. I wouldn’t fold like that. I would fight back, or I want her to fight back.
It really became sort of the sharpening piece for this whole character and for this whole story. Alec was always very jokey, but his jokes got funnier because she got because Kat got tougher. That’s been such an exciting piece. Like, there’s a great personal, warm feeling I have about doing this work because I get to sit next to my kid when I’m writing and say, like, hey, would Kat say it this way? What would Kat be thinking? And so, there’s a really great father-child connection that I’m able to get. But also, I think I’ve made Kat a stronger person.
Bianca Schulze: I love that your daughter has been able to play a role in this because, you know, they say we write what we know. And even though you’re not a teenage girl, you know teenage girls. You’re raising them. And the fact that your daughter was able to help bring some authenticity to Kat’s voice, I think that’s wonderful for you, but it’s wonderful for the reader to be able to get that authenticity. And it really does come through.
Have you watched Ozark on Netflix?
Chris Wieland: Absolutely. I love Ozark.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah. So, for me, when I was reading, Kat’s toughness and determination, and grit really reminded me of Ruth Langmore. Yeah, I was reading her, and I was like, oh, I can really visualize her as a Ruth Langmore. Anyway, that’s who she came across to me.
Chris Wieland: No, I think that’s right on. I think Kate Dylan and Ruth Langmore wouldn’t be sure whether they should hang out together or whether Kat should be busting her for something. That’s absolutely the kind of dynamic that I was going for. I love that character.
Bianca Schulze: Absolutely. And just in case we have any listeners that haven’t seen Ozark, I just need to say it is not a kids show. It’s definitely for adults. But I bet there’s plenty of you listening, nodding, knowing that you love Ruth Langmore. Well, Kat is absolutely just like Ruth Langmore.
All right. So as a writer and a filmmaker, do you feel that reading the work of others plays an important role in either inspiring or informing or encouraging you?
Chris Wieland: Oh, heck, yeah. I mean, I always have two or three books going at any one time. I suppose I’m looking to copy things that I really love, too. But what I really am looking for is what are the ideas that are inspiring other authors and that can inspire me along the way. And also, just my perspective is not the only perspective in the world, right? I want to be thinking about what’s important to other people and think about the landscape in which I’m writing.
You know, it’s interesting, when I was creating Kat, the sole exception I felt like to the sort of two nice girl characters that I was seeing in chapter books where the girl characters who were in sort of the post-apocalyptic future stories, right? Like it was almost like if the apocalypse came, then the girls could get going. Hunger Games and Divergent—those were girl characters that I really learned a lot from. And certainly, they were important to my daughter, too.
But yeah, I have been reading and rereading stories that have been meaningful to me forever. I have told a lot of people that when I was 12 years old, I was already a mystery nut and I had a family friend say, well, you’re really a mystery nut and you seem like you’re sort of mature, which was wildly wrong, you should really be reading Robert Parker’s Spenser series, which was huge in the 1980s. And I started devouring that series, which now I look back on and I cringe because there’s a lot of sex in there and there’s a lot of violence in there. But, you know, that was mind-blowing. And that’s what led me to Ross Macdonald and Chandler and Hammett and Robert Cray and Michael Connelly and so many other authors.
Yeah, but I try to look at nonfiction all the time. I try to look at other mystery authors. I feel like you can’t be just in your zone, right? You can’t be a literary hermit. You have to be sort of absorbing at all times.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah, I agree.
I have noticed something even from my own childhood. I didn’t actually read a ton of mystery books as a kid, but I had friends that did. And I see it even now with my kids and their friends. But any child that loves the mystery genre devours books in insane amounts. So, I’m just curious, why do you think kids love binging on mystery books?
Chris Wieland: You know, look, I think the best thing about mysteries for me and this was true when I was a kid, and it continues to be is there’s two things. One is that they exist in a world that is very similar to ours, right? Crabtree, where Kat Dylan lives is not a real place, but it’s based on several real places. And it seems to exist in the world that we live in. So, it’s very relatable in that regard. It feels like a world that you inhabit. But the other piece of it is that solving the puzzles of a mystery, dealing with the different personalities, figuring out what motivates somebody, this is as pure a metaphor for what it’s like to grow up and then as an adult, to sort of navigate your life. As you’re never going to get through without it being something that’s going to make you sob uncontrollably for hours and hours. Right?
It’s easy for me to pick up a murder mystery for adults or for middle grade or young adults and imagine, okay, I know exactly what that world looks like. And I also know exactly what it’s like to feel like the odds are against you. That there are very powerful forces at work that are trying to do what they want to do, which probably isn’t right. And it’s up to you—and maybe if you’re lucky, a few of your friends—to solve this and decide what kind of person you want to be.
And that’s the thing my oldest and I talk about all the time when we’re writing Kat is the thing that’s hardest for Kat. But it’s got to be present in every story that we tell about her is that solving the mystery isn’t just fixing the puzzle—isn’t putting all the pieces into place. It’s about making the moral decision to do what’s right, even when it’s hard. And that’s, I think, what’s so important about mystery fiction.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah, I love that., I think of mystery is you’re always just trying to find that answer to the puzzle. But the way you phrased it—I think that’s beautiful. I’m going to have to replay back and listen to that answer again.
Well, so the good news for mystery book lovers is that The Crabtree Monsters is the first in the Kat Dylan mysteries. So, I want to know what’s next for Kat and Alec and how many more books do you think we can expect to see in the series?
Chris Wieland: Well, so we’ve plotted out through book six at this point, and that’s not to say that six is the end. But we’ve plotted out through book six. For those who buy the book, there is an excerpt from the second book, which I’m deep in revisions on right now. The second book will be called The Body on the Beach, and it takes place about three or four months after The Crabtree Monsters.
So, it’s deep in the winter in Crabtree, Michigan, which is not what kids from California are used to. But I think what we have to look forward to is this growing relationship between Kat and her brother, which is sometimes fraught and sometimes difficult. But we’re going to continue to put these two through their actions.
I’ve been thinking a lot, and Grace and I were talking just last night about the fact that this is really a series where we don’t want there to be a true status quo, where Kat and Alex solve a mystery. And that mystery is over. And at the beginning of the next book, they’re sort of back to where they started, or life is back to normal. There’s always repercussions for the things that they do and the decisions they make, the mysteries that they solve.
So, through these first six books, we’re going to put them through their paces and we’re going to continue to really challenge them and press them and make their lives hard to sort of establish who they are as teenagers, you know, and or in Alex case tweens.
So, we’ve got The Body on the Beach which is about Kat and Alex solving a real-life—for them—murder mystery. And we’ll also delve into the sort of double whammy of villainy that happens in Crabtree by people who are very wealthy and the interests of that group vs true criminal activity and the push and pull of that that will continue to happen after six.
I don’t know. We’ll see. But the key thing—and this is something that my daughter is really, really pressed on—is after the sixth book, if we’ve done our job and we’ve really changed the status quo for these characters and we’ve really put them through their legs and their obstacles, then it’s not even really going to be the same series at the end of book six. It’s going to be a different series with the same characters who’ve grown and developed from the first book to the sixth book.
Bianca Schulze: That’s awesome. So much to look forward to and I love that you just kind of have this loose plan. It’s clear, but there’s room for growth and it’s so exciting.
Chris Wieland: Thank you.
Bianca Schulze: While we’re waiting for the next books to come out and we’re reading The Crabtree Monsters, I’m curious, what impact do you hope that this first book will have on readers?
Chris Wieland: You know, I obviously want this to be a fun, entertaining read for anybody in this age group and their parents. I’d love for it to be a great beach read. I’d love for it to be a great summer read. It would inspire me almost as much as anybody if this is something that makes kids want to sit up and start reading, right? Like—I want to know what’s in the next chapter. I want to know what’s happening next. So, I’m hopeful that we can have that kind of impact.
But the secondary—or maybe not even secondary, probably equal—is I just hope this can be really empowering to tween girls. I think it’s really important that we have these tough, strong, smart female voices out there and that they can feel that. Tween readers who are girls—or tween readers who are boys willing to read about girls—can hear these voices and really be inspired to take responsibility for the world that they live in and to fight for who they want to be. That’s certainly what I think about all the heroes I used to read about when I was that age. That’s what inspired me to be my best self and be the person that I wanted to be. Whether that was a realistic goal or not, I want that for my readers. You know, let Kat show you how to be tough and smart.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah, absolutely. I think it’s so important to have characters that empower girls. But not only that, I think it’s important for our boys to read books that see girls taking the lead. So not just to empower the girls, but to have the boys see the girls in those roles is so important. I know that we didn’t have a lot of that as kids ourselves. So, yeah.
You know, I want to say that I really think that this is such an exciting read, Chris. And you’ve included the good, the bad, and the Ugly. You know, I think readers are really going to want to rally behind Kat. So, thanks for writing such an exciting character and I can’t wait to see Alec’s character develop too, because I loved his character just as much. You know, Kat’s obviously the star, but I think Alec was such a fun character as well.
Chris Wieland: Oh, thank you so much. And I think when you write characters like this, they kind of become your children, too. And I kind of can’t wait to see what they grow into. You get the added benefit as the author to sort of know where they’re going as opposed to being surprised from time to time. But I can’t wait to see that.
One of the things I’m having a lot of fun with now is, you know, in this second book, watching how they’re bickering takes them in different directions. And how Alec has a sense of how things should be done right. And Kat has a sense of how things are done right. And they really don’t have to come together on this as long as they sort of know that they’ve got each other’s backs.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah, that’s awesome. Well, before we go, is there anything else you think that we need to know about The Crabtree Monsters or anything else exciting that you want to share with us?
Chris Wieland: I don’t think so. I mean, I hope that people enjoy the book. Please take an opportunity to read about these characters and experience Crabtree, Michigan for the first time. And I hope that once they’ve gotten a chance to be with Kat and Alec, they’ll be back for the next outing and the next adventure.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah, I bet they will. And on that note, Chris, you better get back to writing so that you can feed the readers with more of your stories.
Chris Wieland: Yeah, I do need to get to it. Yeah.
Bianca Schulze: Well, thanks so much for being here today, Chris. Everyone’s going to love this. I know it.
Chris Wieland: Thank you so much. Thank you for having me. And I love this podcast. This has been so great.
Bianca Schulze: Oh, thank you.
About the Book
Written by Chris Wieland
Ages 10+ | 384 Pages
Publisher: The Smart Aleck Press | ISBN-13: 9798985701302
Publisher’s Synopsis: Moving from Los Angeles to tiny Crabtree, Michigan, is the last thing thirteen-year-old Kat Dylan wants to do. Crabtree’s seen better days and isn’t what you call welcoming. Worse, the move means living with her gruff Grandpa Nick, the town’s police chief, and having to look after her little brother, Alec.
And that’s before Kat and Alec find themselves in the middle of a bank holdup by the Monster Gang—four robbers in monster masks. Before the heist is over, the kids lose their cash and Alec comes within a hair of losing his life. When it is all over, Grandpa Nick goes to jail, accused of being one of the robbers himself.
Suddenly, this boring little town isn’t so boring anymore. Kat’s determined to find out who the men are behind the masks, and she’s going to need help. But exposing the robbers could have big consequences. The deeper Kat goes, the more she learns life is about making choices, including some that are a matter of life and death.
Buy the Book
For more information, visit https://www.thesmartaleckpress.com/.
- About The Crabtree Monsters
- A look at the character development of siblings Kat and Alec Dylan
- A talk through the funny moments in the book from pre-baby to parent
- The importance of having strong female characters for kids to identify with
- Rewriting a screenplay to become a middle-grade novel
- Inspiration from the family-adventure movies of the 80s
- Kat’s resemblance to Ruth Langmore from Ozark
- How reading inspires and influences Chris Wieland’s writing
- Great mystery writers
- Why kids love reading mystery books
- What’s next for the Kat Dylan Mysteries
Thank you for listening to the Growing Readers Podcast episode: Chris Wieland Discusses The Crabtree Monsters: A Kat Dylan Mystery. For the latest episodes from The Growing Readers Podcast, Follow Now on Spotify. For similar books and articles, you can check out all of our content tagged with Bob Shea, New Baby Books, and Picture Book.