As he explains the genesis of his latest novel, Code of Honor, Burnsville-based novelist Alan Gratz — who will mark the book’s release with an appearance at Malaprop’s on Saturday, Aug. 29 — says that Scholastic Press originally approached him about writing this YA thriller along the lines of the television series “Homeland.” Gratz jumped at the chance, he says, but he wanted to come at the plot from a new angle.
“I have been trying hard to get my main characters to be as diverse as possible,” the writer says. “So right from the start the idea was, ‘What if the kid was Persian-American, meaning Iranian?’”
Gratz began reading up on experiences of Middle Easterners in the U.S. “The key with these books is to do enough research to make it real and right, but not to make it a textbook,” he says. Several of Gratz’s books (including Samurai Shortstop, a 2007 ALA Best Book for Young Adults, and Prisoner B-3087, named on YALSA’s Best Fiction for Young Adults list in 2014) deal with historical subjects. “My No. 1 goal when writing for kids is to entertain,” Gratz says. “But most of my books have, you could say, educational content. There are things to learn.”
Coincidentally, shortly after he started work, Gratz heard from a Persian-American teen named Nick Toosi, who said he identified with a character from Gratz’s 2010 novel, The Brooklyn Nine. Toosi wrote that as a Persian-American, he faced similar challenges to that character, a Jewish boy who encounters prejudice in 1920s-era New York. Gratz seized the chance to interview Toosi, and their exchanges helped the writer define Code of Honor’s main character, Kamran Smith.
Still, Gratz wanted to take the cross-cultural theme further. “I didn’t want it to be that they were American kids who had been homogenized,” he says. The intrigue of Code of Honor includes Kamran’s brother, a suspected terrorist, communicating by means of a code drawn from stories he and Kamran told each other as boys. These stories feature Western icons like Darth Vader, but also the hero Rostam and other figures from Persian mythology.
As a result, Code of Honor is about more than a teen’s struggle to be seen as American post-9/11. A reader also comes away with a deeper understanding of the ways diverse cultures prize virtues like honor and loyalty.
Code of Honor is Gratz’s second release this summer. June saw the launch of The Dragon Lantern, the next book in his steampunk League of Seven series.
The League books borrow from folklore as well. Set in an alternate-universe North America, they draw many details from Native American legends and myths. Gratz adopted other sources as well. “I was able to pull in worldwide mythology by saying there had been other leagues in other parts of the world in other eras,” he says.
While the legends Gratz assembles give these books historical depth (and provide some educational content on world folklore), the books were still written to entertain. The League of Seven, the first book in the series, won the 2015 SIBA Young Adult Book Award, and Gratz has been particularly gratified by readers’ responses.
“This was the first time I really built my own world,” he says. “This one I wrote for [the kid in] me, and it’s really gratifying to find that there are other kids out there who would have been my best friend in school — because we would have loved the same stuff.”
WHAT: YA Thriller Hour with Alan Gratz and Megan Miranda
WHERE: Malaprop’s, malaprops.com
WHEN: Saturday, Aug. 29, 7 p.m. Free.