A former castle turned prison is now a boarding school for an elite band of crime-fighting underdogs in Misfit Mysteries, a forthcoming middle-grade series from Random House Books for Young Readers.

Written by Lisa Yee, a 2023 Newbery Honor winner, and 2022 National Book Award finalist, and illustrated by 2015 Caldecott Medalist Dan Santat, the series will debut in January 2024 with The Royal Heist, with a second installment to follow in spring 2025.

Misfit Mysteries marks a collaborative reunion for Yee and Santat, who teamed up to create the Bobby vs. Girls series for Scholastic’s Arthur A. Levine imprint in 2009. The author and illustrator have, in fact, followed similar career paths from the start: both first published with Scholastic/Levine individually before their initial collaboration, and they share an agent, Jodi Reamer at Writers House.

For years, Yee and Santat lived near each other in the Los Angeles area, and they became close friends and mutually self-described “frequent lunch buddies” until Yee moved to western Massachusetts in 2015 (though she continues to split her time between the two coasts).

The Misfits Materialize

“Misfit Mysteries began with two words,” Yee explained, though not the two one might presume. “I was at Disneyland with Jodi [Reamer], and I told her that I had an idea for a book, because two words had popped up for me—‘ballerina battalion,’ ” the author said, adding that the original premise of crime-fighting ballerinas morphed into “kids with specific talents who are trained in both ballet and martial arts.”

Yee avoided writing Misfit Mysteries as “traditional genre fiction,” opting instead “to mix and match.” As for the setting, the inspiration dated back to a childhood visit to Alcatraz. “I vividly remember thinking, ‘I want to live here, but I don’t want to be a prisoner,’ ” the author said. “So when I began creating the series, I envisioned a foggy island made of stone and a castle-like mansion with secret passageways and lots of cells, since it had once been a prison. As it turned out, the setting became a character in the series, too.”

Sending her young protagonists to an eerie and secretive locale, where students and trainers alike are clueless about what is going on, gave Yee a sense of freedom as she shaped Misfit Mysteries. “I loved that there were no boundaries here and anything was possible,” she said. “I felt that I was free to write what I wanted—the wackier the better.”

Welcoming Santat on Board

Yee, who is in constant phone contact with Santat, via calls and texts, can’t recall exactly how he became the illustrator of Misfit Mysteries. “It just made so much sense, since we’ve known each other for so long and he has such amazing skills.” Once Santat joined the project, Yee said, “It helped with the writing. As I created scenes, I’d think, ‘Oh, I can’t wait to see what Dan can do with this one!’ ”

Santat goodnaturedly recalled being introduced to Misfit Mysteries a bit more belatedly than he would have liked. “I remember Jodi telling me that Lisa was working on a new project, but she wouldn’t tell me any details, and Lisa didn’t mention anything about it either.”

The illustrator’s curiosity was sated at last when he received the manuscript for The Royal Heist—and signed on as illustrator. He was drawn to the novelty of the series’ premise. “There have been plenty of series about boarding schools for gifted children, and for years they tended to be magic- or fantasy- based,” he said. “This one is a bit more rooted in reality, in that these are ordinary kids who have learned to focus on their individual skills. They are layered characters whom I found easy to relate to.”

And the artist soon discovered that the Misfits are entertaining characters to draw and dress. “They are good at what they do and can afford to be a little cocky,” Santat said. “Oh, to be 12 years old and have that self-confidence! I feel that these characters are almost giving me permission to dress them up and push them to the edge of cool fashion—and I always love to flex that muscle.”

And it is something he does well, according to Yee, who was delighted with Santat’s interpretation of the eccentric cast of Misfits. “Dan and I didn’t do much back-and-forth while he illustrated the text,” she explained. “I just wanted to let him do his thing. It’s amazing that he can do so much with a few brush strokes. The way he can raise an eyebrow—those little details that are so subtle and yet mean so much. Dan’s art has such remarkable energy to it and appeals to both adults and kids, which is not true of all illustrators.”

Random House Books for Young Readers editor Tricia Lin was thrilled to have a chance to work with Yee and Santat—both for the first time—on a project she said “combines a couple of things that are both evergreen and fresh in the market. The core appeal is that this is a commercial spy-centric, crime-fighting series. And this cool concept is combined with a charming awkwardness on the characters’ parts, as well as Lisa’s middle-grade voice, which is so real, accessible, and funny.”

Lin added that Misfit Mysteries “has a humor reminiscent of the Mysterious Benedict Society,” a humor that is reinforced by Santat’s illustrations. “Dan’s art brings the story’s wackiness, energy, and charm to the next level,” she said. “Together, Lisa and Dan bring a spark and cleverness to this series that makes it so special, and it is my pleasure and honor to be a part of it.”