Sometimes, developing a winning children’s book series begins with listening to the target readers themselves. For Trudi Trueit, author of the Explorer Academy series, about an elite school for kid scientists, feedback from fans is a source of constant inspiration. Book six in the series, The Dragon’s Blood, delivers just what middle grade readers are eager for, including high-stakes danger, believable villains, and—a trademark of the series—expeditions, gadgets, and inventions drawn from real life. Trueit chatted with PW about the latest adventure and what’s in store for the vibrant cast of young characters aboard their seafaring classroom, Orion.

Tell me about book six, The Dragon’s Blood. What are Cruz Coronado and the other Explorer Academy students up against this time?

I can tell you that in this book the explorers travel to far-off places on an expedition that has to do with an animal that’s thought to be extinct. And that Cruz’s search for the seventh piece of his mother’s cipher leads him to an ancient city where danger—and the nefarious Nebula--await. This is the next-to-last book of the series, so a lot of pieces of the story come together. Yet there are still plenty of surprises on the way!

What have you learned as you talk to kids about the kinds of books and stories that interest them?

As the series has progressed, I’ve received mail from readers around the world. They aren’t shy about telling me what they want to see more of. Specifically, codes and puzzles, fiendish villains, and storylines with lots of twists and turns. I try to incorporate their input whenever I can because this series is for them. What have I learned along the way? That kids in the U.S. aren’t so different from kids in the Netherlands or Brazil or Vietnam or Estonia. And we all love a great adventure!

How do you and the rest of the Under the Stars/Nat Geo team decide where the characters are headed next?

The expedition missions drive where the school’s flagship, Orion, takes them. It could be to Petra to study ancient ruins or to Svalbard to learn about the Global Seed Vault or to the Bay of Fundy to rescue whales. In book six, the explorers travel from the jungles of Borneo to the forests of Tasmania on one of their most exciting expeditions yet. And of course, Cruz’s search for the cipher pieces often leads them to fascinating and unexpected places.

There are so many cool gadgets that appear throughout the series. How close to becoming reality are some of them?

The Explorer Academy world is fictional, and in creating it, I wanted to push the boundaries of technology. My goal was to come up with some unique, helpful tools that don’t exist yet but could---and then take them up a notch. Like Mell, Cruz’s tiny honeybee drone, which has a personality and some thinking skills. Cruz gets to test another cool device: a small compass that can tell if people are telling the truth. One of my favorites is the Universal Cetacean Communicator, which goes beyond current research on understanding whale-speak to perform human/whale translation and communication! The work of real National Geographic Explorers was a big source of inspiration, and a window into their projects can be found in the Truth Behind the Fiction section in every book.

As Cruz and friends travel the world, they come face-to-face with tough truths about the planet---climate change, endangered animals, etc. How do the books go about balancing the lighter elements of storytelling with these very real concerns?

I want to inspire kids to be good stewards of the planet by opening their eyes to the wonders of nature as well as to the harsher situations taking place, without scaring or force-feeding them. I weave real-life scenarios such as animal poaching into the narrative with the idea that the more we understand, the more we can participate, the more we can help. And that’s really the key---we can all participate. Kids seem to be comfortable with that approach and get the message.

I love great villains, and there definitely are some in the Explorer Academy series. What can well-crafted antagonists teach readers about life?

To me, villains are as important as the main characters---maybe more. They supply that vital element of conflict that gives the protagonist the opportunity to shine. Villains are diabolical, but they are also human and should be created the same way you craft any character, with feelings, thoughts, and experiences. I did something in Explorer Academy that I have never done in a novel before: I wrote some chapters from the villain’s point of view. Not every hero is all good and not every villain is all bad. We all have choices to make, lessons to learn, and consequences to live with, no matter who we are.

What feedback do you hear from readers about the codes and puzzles in the books, and how do you think they enhance the reading experience?

Kids love the codes hidden on the pages, but they’re more of a bonus to show readers what Cruz and his friends are up against as they try to solve their own puzzles and complete the mission Cruz’s mom left for him. A secret message might tell readers what to watch for or give a hint about what is going to happen in the story. Readers will even find subtle messages embedded in some illustrations. All the codes point toward the truth, but they’re not easy to find, so you have to look carefully!

Can you give any hints about future destinations for Explorer Academy?

Hmmm. Let’s just say that by the end of the series, Cruz comes full circle and Orion will have traveled to every continent.