One of our favorite new children's books is Three Times Lucky, a middle grade mystery from first-time author Sheila Turnage. With a lead character who reminds us more than a little of Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird, a rollicking cast of Southern eccentrics and plenty of strange goings-on in the tiny town of Tupelo Landing, this beautifully told story is guaranteed to make kids smile, think—and keep turning the pages to see what happens next.
We caught up with Turnage between stops on her book tour to find out more about the spunky young heroine of Three Times Lucky and how the book came to be.
Mo LoBeau is such a wonderful character. How did she first spring up in your imagination?
I know it might sound odd, but one day this 11-year-old girl in plaid sneakers just started kicking at the door of my imagination and saying things like, “Hey, I’m Mo LoBeau. You got a minute? I got a story to tell.”
And there she was, Miss Moses LoBeau. Rising sixth-grader, part-time detective, yellow-belt karate student. I liked her immediately. I listened to her. I started writing and didn’t stop until she’d told her story and solved her mysteries.
What do you like best about Mo? What do you think young readers will admire or identify with when they read about her?
I love Mo’s smarts. Also her humor and toughness—and the vulnerability those qualities hide. I think kids will identify with those traits. And I think they’ll identify with her search for her missing “Upstream Mother” and her place in the world. Oh yeah, and there’s a murder to solve. . . . Everybody loves a mystery!
Author Sheila Turnage near her home in eastern North Carolina.
Why do kids make such good detectives? Would you have been a good detective as a child?
Kids make great detectives because they ARE great detectives. Kids have to figure out everything! How things work, what things mean, how our lives all fit together. I think kids are naturally curious, creative thinkers—two qualities detectives need to ferret out clues and put them together in a way that makes sense. If I’d gone into the detective business as a kid, I like to think I would have been a great one. Maybe not as great as Mo and Dale, but darned good.
The novel includes a very full cast of eccentric characters! Did your friends, family and neighbors in North Carolina inspire many of these characters or are they purely fictional creations?
Good question! All the characters in Three Times Lucky are fiction. As I wrote this book, bits and pieces of my own life morphed into Tupelo Landing, where Three Times Lucky takes place. But no particular person inspired any specific character.
What kind of books did you enjoy as a child and how did that influence your work in Three Times Lucky?
I loved books with vivid characters, and with a sense of place strong enough to make me think I could live there if I wanted to, no matter how unlikely the scenario. That’s what makes a book exciting to me. I loved Tom Sawyer, Peter Pan and Winnie the Pooh for those reasons. I also loved mysteries, like the Hardy Boys—exciting books with a puzzle to solve. I guess I like to write what I like to read: exciting books with vivid, heart-felt characters and a strong sense of place.
When you wrote Three Times Lucky, did you set out to create a children's book?
No! I didn’t know it was a novel for kids until it was almost finished, and my agent told me. I wasn’t thinking about who would read it, I was just doing my best to write Mo’s story. I am delighted that it turned out to be for kids!
Can you give us a brief description of the place where you do most of your writing?
At this moment I’m writing in a high-ceilinged room at 9 a.m., with lots of sunlight flowing through the east-facing windows. A ceiling fan swipes overhead. The room’s a little messy: stacks of spiral notebooks, a box of paper for the printer, manuscripts lolling about. I see a half-consumed cup of coffee in my Harry Potter cup, a winter scarf tossed over a chair back, though it’s now May. My computers sit on a large oak teacher’s desk I got at a second hand store years ago. (I consider getting a new desk from time to time, but this one is too heavy to carry downstairs so I will probably use it forever.)
The farmhouse near Greenville, North Carolina, where Sheila Turnage lives and works once belonged to her great-grandparents.
You’ve attended the same writing class for 30 years. What kind of help and support did the class provide while you were writing this novel?
I wrote the first draft of this book at home, and the first time I wrote Three Times Lucky it was three times too long! So I rewrote it to shorten it, and took it to Pat O’Leary’s writing seminar at Pitt Community College in Winterville, North Carolina, for other writers to critique.
There are great writers in that ongoing class—which is for new writers and more experienced writers. We offer each other encouragement, feedback and friendship. The class gives me the chance to develop new skills. Reading about writing is one thing, but for me it’s important to practice the same way a musician practices.
I love that class because it gives me a chance to get good at what I love doing, and it gives me a chance to be part of a creative community.
If you could name yourself something outrageous and a little famous, what would it be?
Wow, I don’t know. How about Tupelo Turnage? It doesn’t have the snap of Sheila Warrior Princess, but I think it works. Don’t you?
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Read a review of Three Times Lucky.