Tournament of Roses inspires a middle-school mystery filled with suspense and danger

"Tiara on the Terrace" launch party. Photo by Joe Alvarez for Russell Gearhart Photography Author Kristen Kittscher's book launch for her middle-grade novel The Tiara on the Terrace, at the Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena, CA on Jan. 3, 2016.

Launch party for Tiara on the Terrace at the Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena in January. Photo by Joe Alvarez for Russell Gearhart Photography.

 

by Laura Berthold Monteros

Last year, just about Rose Parade time, author Kristen Kittscher came out with the second book in a series about two middle-school girls, Sophie Young and Grace Yang, who with their friend Trista Bottoms solve mysteries in their town of Luna Vista. In this case, the Rose Parade and all the hoopla that surrounds it was the inspiration for The Tiara on the Terrace. The book captures the spirit and the quirks of the Tournament of Roses in Luna Vista’s Winter Sun Festival as the heroines investigate a series of murders.

Kittscher is a Pasadenan who taught middle-school English at Westridge School for Girls for several years, so she not only loves the Rose Parade, some of her students tried out for the Court. Earlier this year, we corresponded by email and Kittscher responded to questions about her book and her experiences. Being an English teacher and a writer, her responses were so well crafted that I am presenting them as a simple Q&A.

Q. The Tiara on the Terrace is very close to the Tournament of Roses, captures its fun and intensity, but you had to reimagine some things and create others.  What was your process in doing this?

A. My process was fairly simple: I knew that the elements of the Tournament I included had to serve the story. Credibility is always a hurdle when 12-year old sleuths are investigating a potential crime: I constantly have to find believable ways to put intrepid Young & Yang at the center of the action and the adults in the background. As a result, I decided to make the “Winter Sun Festival” a smaller town parade that was a shadow of its former self: With national media crawling all over town, it’d be hard to believe they wouldn’t be investigating along with my sleuths! I also decided it would be much more fun to have the mystery play out not only in the float barns, but also the “Ridley” mansion. It also helped me separate the kids from their families—and from pesky technology/cell phones, which are mystery-killers! I also needed to centralize the action to help keep the story tighter, so the float barns are part of the “Ridley Mansion” grounds.

Q. In researching this book, did you go to Tournament of Roses events, such as the tryouts, announcement of the Royal Court, tour of the Tournament House, or talk to folks in the Association?

A. I sure did! My time volunteering on the Trader Joe’s float one year directly inspired the book, in fact. Because I taught English at Westridge School for several years, too, I had a front-row seat to the build-up of excitement around the Royal Court tryouts, and many of my students and their families were long-time volunteers. I’ve been to the parade many times, of course—and one of my favorite New Year’s traditions is wandering down Orange Grove to see the floats the night before. I also interviewed several former students, including Bridget MacDonald, a princess in the 2010 Royal Court. They gave me some behind-the-scenes details about auditions that helped me add some authenticity, even though the “Winter Sun Festival” Court is different.

Kristen Kittscher and Romy Griepp at the book table for The Tiara on the Terrace at Live on Green last December. Photo by Laura Berthold Monteros
Kristen Kittscher and Romy Griepp at the book table for The Tiara on the Terrace at Live on Green last December. Photo by Laura Berthold Monteros

Q. I think you’ve tried to surreptitiously bring in some elements that folks outside of Pasadena might not be familiar with, sort of like Easter eggs in games.  For example, “Ridley” is not too far removed from “Wrigley,” decorating chair Barbara Lund likes chewing gum, and the festival was started by a hunting club.  I’m even wondering if root beer harks back to the Busch estate that sat along the Arroyo!

A. I definitely had fun planting parallel details that would be fun for locals. Root Beer magnate Willard Ridley is indeed a sort of stand-in for Wrigley, and my hunting theme was indeed inspired by the Tournament’s beginnings at the Valley Hunt Club. The “Brown Suiters” (in honor of the root beer) are of course an homage to our White Suiters. The lessons my  Royal Court have are parallel to many Pasadena’s real Royal Court have as well, such as scarf-tying and etiquette. Hilariously, my editor found some of the elements I took directly from the Tournament not believable!

You should keep an eye out for the parade route Pooper Scoopers, which I call the “Parade Route Integrity” team. The “Voices of the Festival” announcers in the final parade sequences were inspired by my favorites, KTLA’s Bob Eubanks and Stephanie Edwards. I’m still sad about their retirement! I had a great time incorporating real Pasadena elements—and poking some gentle fun at our tradition, too, of course.

Q. You taught middle school for some time. I recall junior high as being the most awkward socially and personally, and I suspect it’s the same for middle-schoolers today.  You seem to love this age.  Tell me a little bit about that.

A. I do love this age! It’s a time of questioning, curiosity, and freshness: they may jump to odd conclusions and be susceptible to melodrama, but that’s part of the fun—especially when one is trying to write a high-stakes mystery. I enjoy their irreverent view toward the adult world: they can uncover truths we miss, for sure. I love encouraging this age group to take themselves and their ideas seriously: we often dismiss them too much.

Q. Do you get comments from your former students about your books?

A. One of the great joys of writing these books has been experiencing a tremendous outpouring of support from my former students and colleagues. In almost every town I do an event, all over the US, my former students show up to say hello. (They’re all in their twenties now!) It’s especially meaningful to me because, really, they spurred me to start writing originally. The Wig in the Window was the first thing I ever wrote, and I began it because I was inspired to write something I thought they would enjoy. Their support for it and The Tiara on the Terrace helped make both books bestsellers.

Q. As a child, you moved 15 times in 18 years. Did that play into your creating a trio of girls whose families have lived in the same place for years and have the deep, long-lasting friendship that Grace, Sophie, and Trista do?

A. You know, I’ve never thought about it, but I think you’re right! There’s some wish-fulfillment going on for me in creating this tight friendship in a small town, I think. One of my favorite places I lived growing up was the South Bay [in Los Angeles County], so the “Luna Vista” in the book is inspired both by the Palos Verdes Peninsula and Pasadena. I have such vibrant memories of living near the beach and having the run of what felt like a small town then, so I wanted to try to capture that in these books.
 
Q. Are there more Luna Vista mysteries or other books in the works?

A. I’m at work on another mysterious book for the same age group (not quite a traditional mystery) and I have oodles of ideas for Young & Yang mysteries. We’re waiting to see if there’ll be demand!

Q. You’re working on developing a television series. What’s it like to write a script rather than prose?  When can we expect to see it?

A. It’s been a blast! A producer optioned both books, with additional Young & Yang mysteries falling under the series purview. I’m attached to co-write the first season with a veteran writer, and we’re working on the first draft of the pilot now. It’s so much fun to re-imagine my own work and collaborate! Because I was limited to a first-person point of view in the books, I now have a lot of leeway to add depth to the story and see things from both girls’ point of view, as well as give more insight into the adults in the story. The goal is to have family-friendly entertainment that adults would gladly watch with their kids.

I’m not privy to the production details, just the writing! There are many more hoops they’ll have to jump through, but fingers crossed you’ll see Young & Yang on the small screen in the not too distant future.

 

Kittscher makes personal appearances throughout the US and around Pasadena, as well as visiting schools. To see her schedule, order books, find discussion guides and lesson plans, or have fun playing the onsite scavenger hunt, visit her website.  “I really enjoy getting out to meet readers—especially local ones,” she says.