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Adrienne Kress

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Kidlit Spotlight Profile: Raising the stakes

Adrienne Kress brings dramatic flair and humour to her newest book for middle-graders.

Kidlit-Spotlight_March_AdrienneKress_HiResAdrienne Kress doesn’t talk so much as perform. When speaking, she uses her whole body, punctuating sentences with her hands. Occasionally, when she is being humble, she falls into something resembling a Katharine Hepburn impression. She laughs generously, and is mannered in the way of people who have studied drama their whole lives.

Encouraged by her parents, both English teachers, Kress began attending art school with a focus on drama when she was only 11. Her website lists the myriad careers she is currently pursuing: actor, playwright, director, teacher. She never seriously considered writing a novel until prompted by a theatre professor. But click on the “author” section of her website and you will find 11 titles, including essays in anthologies like the highly praised The Secret Loves of Geek Girls. Author is undoubtedly her most prolific role to date.

Most of Kress’s writing floats in the realm of magical realism, a genre she fell into unintentionally. After publishing her first book, 2007’s Alex and the Ironic Gentleman (Scholastic Canada), Kress was invited to appear at Ad Astra, a science-fiction, fantasy, and horror convention. She was taken aback. “I told them, I don’t write fantasy. Then they pointed out the book featured a talking octopus. Right. I guess that qualifies.”

Kress’s newest novel continues along the same path. The Explorers: The Door in the Alley, publishing in April with Random House imprint Delacorte Books for Young Readers, is the first in a planned series. The story revolves around Sebastian, a boy who discovers – via a pig wearing a little hat – a clandestine society of explorers. Before he knows it, a girl named Evie drags him on a mission to rescue her estranged grandfather, during which they are chased by a melting-faced man looking for a secret map to the mythical fountain of youth.

It’s a rollicking middle-grade escapade, one Kress took delight in writing after a recent focus on young adult. “I like the absurdity of middle grade, the humour,” she says. “You can go to dark places, satirize the adult world, explore big, important themes – but in the end the stories have an inherent sense of optimism.”

Kress plans to continue writing for the pre-teen crowd, with an eye to reluctant readers, a group with which she identifies. As a child, she struggled to find books in which the stakes were dire enough to hold her attention, preferring to create her own stories. “My imaginary set-ups were life or death,” Kress says. “This dragon will eat you; you will fall off this cliff and die. When everyone started growing up it made me nervous. I was sort of a Wendy; I just wanted to play make-believe. When I write, I want to make that make-believe real.” Kress laughs. “I think maybe a part of me is still stuck at 10 years old.”