It’s no mystery why a slew of children’s book authors and illustrators would rally in support of kids’ education. Mac Barnett, Libba Bray, Adam Gidwitz, John Green, Dave Eggers, David Levithan, Lauren Myracle, Lauren Oliver, Lemony Snicket, and Mo Willems are among the 83 contributors to Who Done It?: Investigation of Murder Most Foul, an anthology released this month by Soho Press’s recently launched Soho Teen imprint. Edited by Jon Scieszka, the book rounds up alibis from a list of literary “suspects” in the death of Herman Mildew, their odious fictitious editor. All proceeds from the book will benefit 826NYC, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting students’ creative and expository writing skills and helping teachers inspire children to write.
Who Done It? was spearheaded by Scieszka and Daniel Ehrenhaft, Soho Teen’s editorial director, who contributes his own alibi to the anthology. “I’ve always wanted to publish a book whose proceeds benefit 826NYC,” says Ehrenhaft. “I’ve volunteered for them since 2005, running workshops and tutoring, and I’m on their advisory board. I am also fortunate enough to know lots of generous and talented YA authors, many of whom have devoted their time to 826NYC in my workshops. So I figured I might as well squeeze them for their creative genius a little more. For a good cause, of course.”
Scieszka was the ideal partner in crime for the book, Ehrenhaft says. “Jon is vice-president of the 826NYC board, in addition to all of his other tireless efforts and accolades on behalf of children’s education. But honestly, he was perfect because he has a wicked sense of humor. It was his idea to make Herman Mildew the victim and use the alibi format, which is based on a writing exercise used at 826NYC. Plus, he’s been one of my heroes for 20 years.”
Obviously devoted to the 826NYC cause, Scieszka was keen on getting fellow authors involved in the organization – and raising money for it. “We realized that we could imitate the writing projects that kids do at 826NYC and that contributors would have fun doing it,” he says. “We toyed around with the idea of assigning writers different kinds of alibis, mostly to be sure we had a good variety. But we started getting all kinds of crazy good stuff in, and knew we could trust our contributors to do what they do best. And we ended up with everything from single-panel illustration to rap to tweets to crisscrossed finger pointing. I’m still finding funny, clever, mad bits in the alibis.”
Both Scieszka and Ehrenhaft say they were gratified by the response from authors and illustrators they contacted. “We wanted to get the greatest range of people, from popular YA writers to illustrators to up-and-coming writers, to introduce readers to all kinds of creators,” Scieszka explains. “We started thinking it would be fun to have 20 or 30 contributors, but then Dan and I kept thinking of other people we wanted to invite. As soon as we explained that all profits would go to helping 826NYC, most everyone replied, ‘Just tell me when you need it.’ We didn’t count the contributors until we were done – and man, were we surprised!”
To pique readers’ interest in the book and to promote the launch of Soho Teen, the publisher held an online alibi-writing contest for teens last fall, in partnership with 826NYC, the online writing community Figment, and e-newsletter I Heart Daily. The contest drew 700 entrants (via Figment) within a week. The winner, a 14-year-old girl from California, won a $1,000 prize, an editorial letter from Suzie Townsend at New Leaf Literary & Media evaluating a piece of her writing, and a trip to New York for Soho Teen’s launch party last November.
Scieszka, who judged the contest with YA authors – and Who Done It? contributors – Adele Griffin and Melissa Walker, was very impressed with the winning entry. “We all thought she had the sharpest, funniest, best voice,” he says. “I also liked that her alibi blamed John Green – who blamed me in his alibi. It was so cool that Soho Teen and Figment brought her to New York. She came with her mom, and we got to hang out in the afternoon before the launch party and talk books and writing. I was amazed [by] how calm and very cool she was. Later she wrote to say she was freaking out the whole time to be meeting some of her favorite authors.”
Soho Teen and 826NYC will host a party in Brooklyn on March 14 to celebrate the release of Who Done It? and raise funds for the organization. Further information about the event, which is open to the public, is available from Soho Press marketing and publicity manager Meredith Barnes. Among the anthology contributors slated to attend are Bray, Oliver, Griffin, Elizabeth Eulberg, and Rebecca Stead. Scieszka will be on hand to assume the role of chief investigator into Mildew’s alleged demise. “I understand that over 20 of the suspects will be there for me to grill,” he says. “And everyone is invited to help figure out who done it.”
Who Done It?: Investigation of Murder Most Foul, conducted by Jon Scieszka. Soho Teen, $17.99 Feb. ISBN 978-1-61695-152-8