Archive for the ‘Danger at the Zoo’ Category

Danger At The Zoo

June 15, 2013


Danger at the Zoo Cover

I was working at my computer one day when my editor from American Girl called to ask if I’d like to try writing a mystery about Kit.  I was excited about the idea, but a little nervous too. Lots of readers already knew and loved the character created by Valerie Tripp. I wanted to do a good job.

The mystery plot was up to me to develop—as long as I stayed faithful to what readers already knew about Kit and her life. Before I could even think about writing the story, I needed to do a lot of research. I wanted to build on what readers already knew, but also explore a topic that hadn’t been covered in one of the earlier Kit books.

The first thing I did was head to Cincinnati, Kit’s hometown. I spent several days in the big library downtown, reading old newspapers from the 1930s.  I was looking for real events that might suggest a good fictionalized mystery story.

I quickly learned how important the zoo was to Cincinnati citizens during the Great Depression. The newspapers were full of articles about the animals, events at the zoo—even details like when fences got painted. I decided the Cincinnati Zoo would make a great setting for Kit’s mystery!

Here’s a good example of the kind of article I found so helpful. Can you find the details that made their way into Danger at the Zoo?


The article above is from the July 28, 1938 issue of The Enquirer. While doing research, I’m always looking for details that can help build suspense in a mystery story. When I read  the article and learned that the Guinea baboon threw things from his cage whenever he saw a child being mistreated, I knew I could use that in the climax scene of the book.

The article below is from the July 4, 1935 issue  of The Enquirer. The zoo’s Fourth of July celebration gave me the perfect setting for the big confrontation scene in the Monkey House.


And here’s one of the articles I found about a strike at the zoo. It is from the May 16, 1935 issue of The Enquirer. Knowing that there was tension between some of the zoo workers and the zoo managers helped create a mood for the story, and gave Kit some possibilities to think about as she considered her suspects.


Newspapers don’t last forever, so many libraries and museums actually photograph local newspapers. The result is a roll of microfilm, which can be read on a special machine. When I find an interesting old newspaper article, I’m usually able to print a copy of it. As you see, sometimes the print quality isn’t always the best. The articles I’ve included here have actually been enhanced a bit in Photoshop, so they’re a little easier to read than my original photocopies were.

Next stop, the Cincinnati Zoo!

cincy zoo sign

The Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden is one of the oldest zoos in the whole country. I learned that the building used as the Monkey House in the 1930s was still standing. In fact, it is said to be the oldest zoo building still in existence in the United States.

Though it was fun to visit the Monkey House building, I discovered that it looks very different today than it did during Kit’s time. I needed to see old photographs of the zoo   so I could describe it accurately in Danger at the Zoo.

I found some old photos in books and museums, and some great old postcards on eBay.  The one below is postmarked 1905.  The building in the center with the domed top was used as the Monkey House in the 1930s.  (Today it is the Reptile House.)


The postcard below is postmarked 1918, and I imagine this is similar to the zoo landscape that Kit, Stirling, and Will would have known in the 1930s.  The view of the Monkey House shows some of the outdoor cages attached to the building, where animals were kept during warm weather.


Notice anything different about the caption at the bottom of the postcard above? During Kit’s time, the zoo was known as the Zoological Garden. Today, its full name is the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden. A century ago the grounds were much more open and park-like than they are now. But the grounds have always been beautifully tended, and an observant visitor can learn a lot about animals and plants during a visit.

The pictures below are also from postcards. This one shows Susie the gorilla in her cage. During the 1930s, visitors to the Cincinnati Zoo loved watching her eat.


Here’s another old photo from the zoo. I didn’t end up including Billy and Janie in the mystery, but in Kit’s time people enjoyed performances by trained chimpanzees.


During the 1930s, people’s attitudes towards animals and their lives in zoos were changing. Workers at the Cincinnati Zoo were replacing cement-and-bar cages with more natural enclosures for animals. Do you think Susie, Billy, and Janie should have been left to roam about a natural area of the zoo, or do you think it was OK for keepers to dress them up and train them to perform?

I hope you have enjoyed this glimpse into the process that I used to research and write  my fourth book for American Girl:  Danger at the Zoo: A Kit Mystery. Have you ever sent a postcard while on vacation? If so, then perhaps one day in the future one of your postcards will be used by a researcher or an author to help imagine the past! (By the way, the stamp above reveals what it cost back then to mail a postcard. What does it cost to send one now?)

American Girl and Me

May 17, 2012

I know lots of American Girl fans are eager to learn more about the new Historical Character coming this fall. Since I created the character, I am too! Her name was announced this week:

I had a marvelous time writing six books about Caroline. While I can’t tell you anything more about her yet, I can answer one of the most common questions I hear from readers:  “How did you get started writing for American Girl?”

Actually, I first connected with American Girl long before anyone at the company knew that I was a writer! When the first books and dolls were introduced in 1986, I was working as a curator at Old World Wisconsin, a large outdoor museum. During the day I got all kinds of hands-on experience with historical activities, from gardening to cooking to crafts. I also had the fun of conducting research to support new events and programs at the museum.

That’s me working at one of the Norwegian farms at Old World Wisconsin.

In the evenings, I wrote historical novels. During those early years I was practicing, learning the skills I needed to be a successful writer. And I had big dreams about that!

While American Girl was developing its first Historical Characters, I got a few telephone calls from researchers at the company. They called me because I was a curator, not knowing that I was very interested in writing historical stories. Sometimes the researcher was looking for a particular antique to use as a model for an object in one of the stories. In each case, I would check the antiques in Old World Wisconsin’s collection to see if we had something that might be helpful. If so, I’d take a photograph and send it to American Girl.

Some of old objects are on display at Old World Wisconsin.  Many more are kept in storage.

Once or twice someone from American Girl read me a short paragraph from one of the stories being developed. They wanted to see if the specific details about some process or activity were accurate. I could tell that everyone involved with American Girl cared a lot about getting the details right.

Whenever I got one of those calls, I was happy to help. And each time I hung up the phone I’d think, I’d love to write American Girl stories one day!

After working at Old World Wisconsin for twelve years, I moved on and took a job developing programs for public television. I was still writing in my spare time, and in 1996, my first historical novel was published.

Soon after that, editors at American Girl decided to develop a new line of books called History Mysteries. Someone who worked at the company knew of my interest in historical fiction, and she recommended me. The editor in charge of the History Mysteries called and asked if I’d like to try writing one. That call was a huge surprise.

Of course I said yes!

That was the first time I tried writing a mystery.  It took me a couple of attempts to get the story put together well, but in time American Girl accepted my manuscript.

This was my first book written for American Girl. The main character, Suzette, lives in northern Wisconsin

Later I wrote two more History Mysteries, Whistler in the Dark and Betrayal at Cross Creek.  After Betrayal at Cross Creek was published, the company ended the History Mystery series.

The editors knew how much readers were enjoying the historical mysteries, though. They decided to publish mysteries about the main Historical Characters. My editor invited me to write a mystery about Kit.

It was a real privilege to write a story about such a beloved character! I worked hard to develop a story that fit well with the first six Kit books. I traveled to Cincinnati to learn as much as I could about Kit’s time and setting.

Danger at the Zoo was the first book I wrote about one of American Girl’s Historical Characters.

In time I also wrote a second Kit mystery, as well as mysteries about Josefina, Kirsten, and Molly. (You can find stories and pictures about all these books on my website:

This is my most recent American Girl book. It was fun to write a story about Molly!

I was having a fine time writing these books.  Then, one day, I got another telephone call from American Girl.  Editors were ready to plan a new Historical Character.  Would I be interested in writing the books?

Of course I said yes!

Next month, I’ll share a bit about how that project developed.  Stay tuned….