In author Kevin Sands’s estimation, “Apothecaries are really cool—they work with potions, poisons, secret codes.” That flash of an idea first popped into his mind several years back, when Sands was teaching high school math and physics and was also searching for something to write about. He decided to craft a story about “an apothecary’s apprentice and a secret that people were willing to kill for,” he says. The result is his debut, a middle-grade adventure, The Blackthorn Key (S&S/Aladdin, Sept.).
The tale follows 14-year-old apprentice Christopher, who is under the tutelage of an apothecary known as Master Benedict in 17th-century London. As he solves puzzles and codes (that readers can try, too) and learns the tools of the trade, Christopher and his best friend, Tom, get caught up in the mystery surrounding a string of violent apothecary murders.
Though The Blackthorn Key is Sands’s first published book, it’s not his first foray into professional writing. “I started with screenplays,” he said, “but that didn’t go anywhere.” Next, he moved into writing for television and cocreated a children’s program about time-traveling kids that was signed by a local production company in his hometown of Toronto. The project didn’t move forward due to a lack of funds. But the producers encouraged him to “do something else, in another platform,” as a strategy to potentially drum up some money for the fledgling TV show. Sands took their advice and turned his hand to novels, immediately realizing, “I love this better than anything I’ve ever done.”
Sands admits he’s had an unusual journey to this point, especially as someone who “never in the slightest” entertained ideas about being an author and was one of those students “who couldn’t wait to get out of English class.” But stories have always had a sway over him. “I was an avid reader since literally before I can remember, and I was the kid at bedtime with the flashlight and a book in bed,” he recalls. He cites Tintin, Robin Hood, and King Arthur as some of his earliest favorites, before moving on, at age eight or nine, to what he calls “meatier and more involved stories” by David Eddings, Raymond Feist, Orson Scott Card, and Dick Francis.
Once he started writing The Blackthorn Key in earnest, “research got me about 70%–80% of the book,” Sands says, “and then I plotted it out. I wanted it to have the fun and adventure of a middle-grade novel but the plotting and pacing of an adult thriller.” Restoration London proved to be an exceptionally fertile backdrop. “The plots and conspiracies in the monarchy, and the technologies and beliefs of the era are fascinating,” Sands says. “And we have a record—via books like Samuel Pepys’s diary—of what life was like then.”
Sands had tentatively queried agents with the manuscript for a previous novel, sending it out in small batches, but he had no luck. When The Blackthorn Key was finished, he “carpet-bombed agents, 70 or so, all one Monday morning in May ,” he says. “I wasn’t going to wait around.” Several weeks later he had a few offers of representation, and he decided to sign with Daniel Lazar of Writers House, who lined up a seven-publisher auction mere days after sending it out. Liesa Abrams at S&S/Aladdin offered the winning two-book deal for Blackthorn and a sequel, and she asked Sands for only minimal work on the manuscript.
Recent months have brought more heady attention for Sands after the book’s release, including a U.S. tour with a group of fellow middle-grade authors in September, appearances at the Tweens Read Book Festival in Houston, bookstore visits in the U.S. and Canada, and landing on several year-end best-books lists. But for Sands, the warm reception has also brought new stresses. “With all of the attention and all of the wonderful stuff that’s been happening, I am putting more pressure on myself,” he says. “You want to do well for yourself, your publisher, and your readers. I feel a real responsibility to readers; if they loved The Blackthorn Key, I want them to love the sequel just as much.” He’s currently putting the finishing touches on that story, which picks up the action a few months later, during the Great Plague of London. “There’s a new villain, and Christopher and Tom are caught in a new mystery,” Sands says. Plans are to publish it in fall 2016.