Having already gone South, and evil, and skiing, the kids at the center of Stuart Gibbs’ Spy School series of middle grade espionage novels are now going North in, what else, Spy School Goes North (hardcover, Kindle, audiobook). Though as Gibbs explains in the following email interview, it’s not the first time he’s gone in that direction.
Photo Credit: Dashiell Gibbs
You previously explained what this series is all about when you, I, and illustrator Anjan Sarkar did the interview about the graphic novel adaptation of the first book, Spy School. So, let’s just jump right in: What is Spy School Goes North about, and when and where does it take place in relation to the previous installment, Spy School Project X?
Spy School Goes North takes place about a month after Project X. Because the original Spy School campus has been compromised, a small group of students (Ben, Erica, Mike, and Zoe) have been selected to covertly train at a remote facility in Alaska. While there, an old enemy from Cyrus Hale’s past resurfaces (Cyrus being Erica’s grandfather and a veteran CIA agent). Our heroes find themselves in a race against time to discover what this guy’s fiendish plot is — and thwart it.
Where did you get the idea for Spy School Goes North?
I was on a trip with my father to a remote camp in Kenai Fjords National Park and I was struck by the idea that it was a fantastic location for a remote training facility. After that, everywhere I looked, I imagined action sequences. So, I started working on an idea that could take place there.
I’m guessing the answer has to do with the fact that Kenai Fjords National Park is in Alaska, but why did you decide to have Spy School Goes North in Alaska as opposed to some other super cold place like Antarctica or Siberia or somewhere in Northern Canada?
Alaska has some very unusual history in that it was owned by Russia before it was owned by the United States. Given the long-standing rivalry between those countries, it seemed like the perfect place to set a spy story that would tap into that history. Plus, there is an amazing array of spectacular places to set scenes in Alaska. It’s surprising to me that there haven’t been more spy movies and novels set there.
The Spy School novels have all been middle grade espionage stories. But are there any other genres at work in Spy School Goes North?
I’d like to think that there is always a bit of a mystery element to these stories. In this one (as in many of the other Spy School books) our heroes first have to figure out what their enemy is plotting, and then they have to figure out how to defeat it. But there are also lots of interpersonal issues at play here. There’s a bit of romance and some family drama as well.
Spy School Goes North is the eleventh novel in this series. And you’ve written a lot of other books as well: 8 in the FunJungle series, 3 in the Moon Base Alpha series, and so on. Are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on Spy School Goes North but not on anything else you’ve written, and especially not the previous Spy School novels?
I first went to Alaska 27 years ago, and back then, everyone told me that the quintessential book about Alaska was Going To Extremes by Joe McGinniss. I found a copy at a used bookstore there, and read it, and it had a huge impact on me. I still remember so many amazing stories from that book.
John Krakauer’s Into The Wild is also a seminal work about Alaska for me — particularly Krakauer’s own account of his exploration in the state.
How about non-literary influences; was Spy School Goes North influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
If anything, it’s influenced by nature documentaries. So much of Alaska is wilderness, and so much of it is remote that just about the only way you can see it is in nature docs.
As I mentioned, the first book, Spy School, was adapted into a graphic novel. So, has the second book, Spy Camp. What’s interesting, and somewhat unique, is that you wrote the scripts for these graphic novels, as opposed to asking someone else to do it. Do you think writing the scripts for Spy School and Spy Camp graphic novels had any influence on how you wrote Spy School Goes North?
I suspect that the Spy School series has been getting more and more cinematic as it has gone on. The early books were somewhat limited in scope, because that made sense for the stories I wanted to tell. But as Ben and his friends have become better spies, they have been called on more and more — for bigger and bigger missions. The reason I can keep coming up with ideas for this series is because there is really an endless number of fascinating places I can send my heroes, and the action in the books has ramped up as well.
And while we’re on the subject of the graphic novels, is an adaptation of the third book, Evil Spy School, in the works?
Oh yes, the Evil Spy School will be out on March 5, 2024. Anjan Sarkar has done his usual amazing work for that one. We’ll be doing Spy Ski School after that — and hopefully all the other Spy School books as well.
So, is there anything else people need to know about Spy School Goes North?
I’m not sure that anyone needs to know this, but… While I couldn’t get to all of the places I set the action in this book (because some of them are really difficult to get to), I still tried to get to some, because I wanted to know what it was like, and there are still some places on earth that are still hard to learn about, even with the Internet. I brought my kids along for one trip to a spot so remote and barely-explored that if you try to look at the satellite version of it on Google Maps, it’s just a blur. We had to fly in and we were forty-five miles from the closest human settlement. When I asked the people who had brought us there if they could show me where we were on a map, they said they didn’t have one. So, to be completely honest, I’m still not 100% sure exactly where we were, which is a very rare experience to have these days. Being out there was incredible, though. There were more grizzly bears than people. (And more walruses, too.) Hopefully, the influence of that place comes through in the book.
Finally, if someone enjoys Spy School Goes North, and they’ve already read the previous books in this series, which of your other novels would you suggest they check out?
Oh gosh, I can never tell people that they ought to look at one of my books rather than any other. North will be my 34th published work and I always hope that, if anyone likes one of my books, then they’ll like all the rest of them as well. So I’d suggest that if a person wanted to start another series of mine, they would simply read whichever one appeals to them the most.