'Meg Mackintosh' author speaks to Portsmouth students

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PORTSMOUTH — When she was in third grade, Lucinda Landon said there weren't any mystery books for kids other than the "Nancy Drew" series and a few others.

"I worked in a library and a lot of kids were asking for mysteries," she told second- and third-graders at Hathaway School Friday morning. "I thought maybe I could write a mystery."

So she did.

Twenty-seven years after debuting her first children's mystery, her main character, Meg Mackintosh, is still looking for clues and matching wits with young readers who gobble the books up. The Newport author's 10th book in the series, "The Mystery of Red Herring Beach," comes out this summer.

Hathaway students got a rare glimpse into the creative process Friday when Ms. Landon visited as part of the annual "March into Reading" program, an Aquidneck Collaborative for Education initiative.

"March into Reading has been going on for 10 years and the schools do different things to celebrate during the month of March," said Suzanne Madden, Hathaway principal.

The program supplies schools with quality children’s books and brings authors into more than 25 preschools, elementary and middle schools. Hathaway second-grade teacher Laura Backman, a friend of Ms. Landon, arranged for Friday's visit.

Ms. Backman is also one of the March Into Reading authors, although she was presenting at a different school Friday. She wrote "Lemon the Duck," about an adventurous Pekin duck that was hatched in her kindergarten classroom in 2006. The duck cannot walk or stand on her own due to a neurological condition, but with the help of a scooter made from PVC, she "leads a high-flying life as a celebrity duck," according to Ms. Backman's website.

Among the other authors participating were David Macaulay, Ann Hood, Marc Tyler Nobleman, Laura Gates Galvin, Mark Peter Hughes and David Biedrzycki. The program will culminate with a festival at Salve Regina University on Saturday.

Mysteries are unique from other types of book and demand more from readers, Ms. Landon told the children.

"A mystery is a jigsaw puzzle in your brain," she said. "You really have to pay attention when you're reading a mystery. You can't skip any pages."

When writing a mystery story, anything can be a clue, she said. "What about a piece of pizza with three bites missing? Maybe someone was in a hurry to leave."

Started as an illustrator

Ms. Landon said she loved reading books with black and white illustrations when growing up. "I like the 'Little House' books, 'The Borrowers,' 'Wind and the Willows,'" she said.

She started out as an illustrator, attending the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). "In order to get into school we had to draw boots, a bicycle and a cabbage," she said as she showed students a slide of some of her early drawings.

She loved drawing people most of all, however, telling the students that it's OK for an artist to take liberties with their interpretation. "If you do a drawing of a person and people tell you it looks funny, just tell them it's abstract," she said.

It's also important to have a good imagination, Ms. Landon said as she showed illustrations she did at RISD for a story about a girl who refused to take a bath. "Would you take a bath in a hot fudge sundae?" she asked the students, who laughed and roared their approval.

She got her first publishing job in 1981, when she drew about 50 illustrations for "The Young Detectives Handbook," a William Vivian Butler book that received a Edgar Allan Poe award from the Mystery Writers of America. Meg Mackintosh, which she named after her best friend in third grade, was originally a character in an earlier book that she illustrated but did not write.

Meg Mackintosh was re-introduced to the public when Ms. Landon published the first book of her own, "The Case of the Missing Babe Ruth Baseball."

Creative process

"I'm embarrassed to say it takes me a couple of years to write one book," said Ms. Landon, adding that she's busy with many other things, such as school appearances.

She showed slide after slide of early sketches and ideas that went into many of her books. "I start writing mysteries on story boards, like a cartoon," she said, showing an example of proposal that didn't make the cut. "This book was never published because the mystery wasn't hard enough."

She showed the students thumbnail sketches of another book. "When I write the book I first draw 48 little pages that help me decide where the book is going."

And wherever a story goes, she said, a well-written mystery will be a fun read — even if it's hard to solve the puzzle.

"I like it if it's a challenge," she said. "You win either way."

For more about Hathaway teacher Laura Backman's book, visit http://lemontheduck.com.

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