Two major players in their respective fields have teamed up to create a fantasy series for HarperCollins’s Balzer + Bray imprint. Acclaimed film screenplay author, director, and producer Chris Columbus and bestselling YA novelist Ned Vizzini are the coauthors of the new middle-grade series, which debuts with House of Secrets on April 23. The novel centers on three siblings who move with their parents into a San Francisco house once owned by a Victorian novelist. After their parents disappear, the kids find themselves banished to a primeval forest, where they uncover a secret family legacy steeped in dark magic.

The premise for the novel was the brainchild of Columbus, whose Hollywood credits include writing the scripts for Spielberg productions Gremlins and The Goonies; directing Home Alone, Mrs. Doubtfire, and the first two Harry Potter films; and producing Night at the Museum and The Help. “It all began on one of my morning jogs years ago,” he says. “Running along the water, I had extended views of the Golden Gate Bridge. One day, I looked out and saw an image of a Victorian house floating on the bay – I was completely sober! And I thought it would be cool if that house moved, not magically, but because of tangible things that happen to it. That concept stayed with me, and continued with the idea that kids move into a house owned by a Ray Bradbury-type author, whose books came with the house, and the kids can disappear into the worlds of the books. That gave me so much to play with.”

Not surprisingly, Columbus did not initially conceive of House of Secrets as a novel. “It started out as a screenplay,” he says. “I wrote 90 pages and then realized it was going to cost $500 million to turn it into a movie, so I put it in a drawer and forgot about it. Then after I spent four years doing the Potter movies, I pulled it out again and thought maybe if I did it as a TV series instead, it might save money. But I just couldn’t figure it out as either a film or TV series, so it languished in the drawer again, until it occurred to me that maybe it should be a novel.”

Given his film projects and commitment to his own production company, 1492 Pictures, Columbus decided he’d like to work with a co-writer to turn his idea into a novel. In early 2011, he asked his agent, Dorian Karchmar, to send him samples of some authors’ work. After Karchmar (who works at William Morris Endeavor, as does Jay Mandel, Vizzini’s agent) sent him Vizzini’s YA novels Be More Chill and It’s Kind of a Funny Story, Columbus felt he’d found his coauthor.

“I really responded to Ned’s writing,” Columbus says. “I loved his voice and his strong ear for teenage dialogue, and thought he really connected to the emotions of adolescence. We met in L.A. and immediately hit it off. I gave him the 90 pages I’d written and asked him to tell me what he thought, and if he thought we could work together. A week later, he e-mailed me a roughed-out first chapter of the novel, and I liked it very much.”

Columbus then edited that first chapter and returned it to Vizzini, launching what Vizzini describes as a process of e-mailing chapters back and forth, with each making changes. “It was a true collaboration from the start,” Vizzini says, “and it quickly became apparent we had something. It did take us a while to get the voice right. It was initially in the first person, and it was Chris’s idea to change it to third person, to give all the siblings equal weight, and it was his initiative to end every chapter as a cliffhanger. We spent the summer of 2011 coming up with 100 pages, an outline of the first book, and a summary for the series.”

Sealing a Quick Deal

That package is what Karchmar submitted to Alessandra Balzer, co-publisher of Balzer + Bray, on October 18, the day before the editor was leaving on a trip to Italy. She had edited Vizzini’s Be More Chill and It’s Kind of a Funny Story while at Disney, as well as his more recent The Other Normals at her new imprint, and had high hopes for the collaboration. “Ned’s dialogue and characters are so authentic, and he has such a talent for world building,” she says. “When I heard he had paired up with Chris, who is a master of creating indelible stories that really speak to childhood, I was thrilled.”

Balzer was not disappointed. “It was so clear right away that they had such a vision about this project,” she says. “The sibling relationships were so true and the world was so richly imagined, and the voice was seamless. I could see this was an epic series.” Balzer wasted no time, acquiring the novel in a preemptive, three-book deal with Karchmar the following day. “I was on the way to the airport, and was on the phone up to the minute I was told to turn it off at takeoff,” she says. “That’s when I found out I had gotten the book. It was a very happy plane ride.”

The publisher is launching House of Secrets with a 250,000-copy announced first printing and a six-figure marketing plan featuring a pre-pub buzz campaign; national consumer, trade, institutional, and social media advertising; librarian and educator outreach; a social media marketing campaign; and a nine-copy retailer floor display. “Everyone from Barnes & Noble to the indies is getting on board with this book, and virtually every single mass account is taking it,” says Balzer. Columbus and Vizzini will make an appearance on April 20 at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books and will attend events at several bookstores across the country.

The duo, who are currently collaborating on the second, still-untitled installment of their series, due in spring 2014, began writing a screenplay for a film adaptation of House of Secrets, but decided to stop. “We wanted the novel to live on its own,” Columbus says. “The great thing about the Harry Potter novels and certain other books is that they weren’t made into movies immediately, so kids had a chance to discover them as books. If books feel like they should be movies, then they should be made. If not, leave them as books. I’m happy with that.”

Calling his collaboration with Vizzini “one of the great creative experiences of my life,” Columbus is pleased to add “children’s book author” to his roster of credits. “We are a family of readers and love books, and for me one of the most exciting days I’ve had in the last couple of years happened this week,” he says. “A finished copy of House of Secrets arrived on my desk, and I can’t describe the feeling I had. It is different from making a film. If a film works, that’s a wonderful situation. But there’s something truly magical about holding your book, a tangible book, in your hand.”

House of Secrets by Chris Columbus and Ned Vizzini. HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray, $17.99 May ISBN 978-0-06-219248-6