Martha Brockenbrough and Writing with Hope into an Uncertain Future


Writer Martha Brockenbrough, the author of over 20 books for young people, is smart, funny, and kind. She has two new books out in 2023, and I caught up with her this month for an interview.

Martha Brockenbrough

Martha is the former editor of and the founder of National Grammar Day. She writes award-winning and acclaimed books for young people (including YA novels THE GAME OF LOVE AND DEATH and INTO THE BLOODED WOODS) and teaches at the Writing for Children and Young Adults MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She also provides mentorship and consulting services and writing retreats to other writers at

Dean: Two of your other recent books, the critical nonfiction UNPRESIDENTED and your blood-soaked amazing YA fairy tale retelling INTO THE BLOODRED WOODS, are seriously dark, grappling, in their different ways, with narcissistic sociopaths, violent misogyny, and the patriarchy. But in your latest, TO CATCH A THIEF, you wrote a really springy middle grade with a quirky, fun cast that’s a delight-filled sunny read. How did you make this middle grade so different? Did you set out to do that?

Martha: I would say that UNPRESIDENTED and INTO THE BLOODRED WOODS are creative bookends for me. Not meaning, of course, heavy objects that you could throw at an intruder—but rather, a factual and fictional account of the same phenomenon. The presidential biography is about a powerful sociopathic liar who managed to mesmerize a good portion of the nation and cause incredible harm with lies. The incredible difficulty we’ve had talking about that experience using facts and resisting the urge to construct a truth somewhere between factual reality and falsehood had a profound effect on me as a human being. I’d long had the idea to stitch a bunch of fairytales together while subverting their power dynamics (by turning villains into heroes), and this was my response as a human being and an artist to this strange and horrible time. I wanted a book with an unambiguous villain—not someone who came to his monstrous ways because of a particular misfortune, but rather someone who took his privilege and used it to divide, demean, and destroy. 

It was a hard book to write, and I worried about my readers. And yet, what better way to prepare for reality than to encounter it first in fiction, in a space where we can walk away for a time, a space where we can think, and a space where the stakes are imaginary even as the emotions of experiencing them are real. In short: the world has true villains in it and it is our job to see them for what they are and not for what we wish them to be.

TO CATCH A THIEF was a completely different project, but one I jumped into right afterward. I have always loved mysteries and after listening to Sheela Chari lecture on how they can be written, I wanted to give a new form a try. I also knew who the villain was from the outset after reading a real-life mystery account of missing toys at a police station, and I hoped other people would find it as funny as I did (Kirkus called it “obvious and unexpected,” and I also find that to be hilarious.)

Praise from Kirkus

Dean: There’s a wonderful early moment in TO CATCH A THIEF where the protagonist-narrator says that she’s afraid of Dr. Agatha who writes murder mysteries, because anyone who spends that much time doing that is probably a murderer herself. That seemed like a really funny inside joke and a reference to writing a dark fairy tale to grapple with Post-Trump Stress Disorder.

Martha: It absolutely was! My protagonist Amelia MacGuffin is also an anxious sort (like I and so many writers are). So it was very funny to me to have her mind go there.

Mike Jung, fictionally suspected of being a realtor

Dean: TO CATCH A THIEF has a character named after a wonderful guy and writer we both know, (Mike Jung—THE BOYS IN THE BACK ROW, UNIDENTIFIED SUBURBAN OBJECT) who shows up as a realtor, and the town mayor is named after his wife. What else did you borrow from reality? Or—like Dr. Agatha and the McGuffin family—to play with the genre?

Martha: OK. So the crime truly is ripped from the headlines. And then there is an extremely obscure reference to an Elana K. Arnold Book, THE HOUSE THAT WASN’T THERE. We were writing side by side as she was drafting that, and she wanted to include a bit about feline teleportation in it. I can’t remember exactly how it came up, but we laughed about a book written by one Edith Phipps, PhD. When I was 17, I was an assistant to the author Robert Fulghum, who wrote All I Really Needed to Know, I Learned in Kindergarten. I went by the name Edith Phipps as I did stuff for him. Why? Because he’d created a character for himself before he hired me. Her name was Emily Phipps. So, Dr. Agatha and Edith Phipps are sisters, and in this way, Elana and I made our books family to each other. They really could exist in the same universe, because both have light touches of magic. (Well, hers is heavier than mine!) ALSO … a MacGuffin in a mystery is an unimportant object, and I liked having the protagonist have that name. Protagonists are important. ALSO? The stolen staff in the book is a MacGuffin. There’s also a devastatingly obscure reference to The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, an Agatha Christie book that is unusual because (spoiler) it is narrated by the murderer, a doctor. There are viewpoint chapters from the thief’s perspective and his name is, well, doc. Can you tell I was pretty much writing in a fever dream made of puns, inside jokes, and stuff about wanting to have a dog?

Yes, it’s a middle grade. But no dogs were harmed in the plotting of this book

Dean: You’ve written nonfiction, YA, picture books, chapter books, and middle grade. What’s the hardest to write, and why? Or are they difficult in different ways?

Martha: The book I’m drafting is the hardest. Always. No matter what I’m drafting. But I would say that my forthcoming book FUTURE TENSE: How We Made Artificial Intelligence and How It Will Change Everything was hard because I wanted it to be accessible for young readers, nuanced (neither doom and gloom nor naïve glee), and current without being too perishable. It’s a very complex subject that will affect all of us in many ways, and getting it right took years.

Dean: In a wonderful interview you gave to Gail Vannelli over on the Cynsations blog, you talked about respecting and analyzing the craft in books you love, including Megan Whelan Turner’s THE THIEF (Greenwillow 1996). Besides your latest, what are some wonderful MG mysteries (or other mysteries) that are especially great for writers to read closely if they want to write in that genre?

Martha: Sheela Chari is an author everyone should read. 

Robin Stevens (based in the UK) is excellent. Varian Johnson is brilliant. And of course there are many classics like the Westing Game that inspired me from an ensemble point of view, not to mention Encyclopedia Brown and The Three Investigators series that launched me when I was young.

Dean: You’ve got a wonderful series of chapter books out now, Frank and the Puppy, about a dog and cat (FRANK AND THE BAD SURPRISE, and FRANK AND THE MASKED CAT—about which I ask: who, frankly, hasn’t at least once fallen in love with a metaphorical raccoon?)  How many of the books in the series did you have outlined or written before your agent pitched the series to an editor? What gave you the starting point for the series or the characters?

Martha: My starting point for the series was this cat photo:

I mean, just look at that guy. He is obviously meant to be the star of a chapter book series. I encountered Frank on twitter when I was away from my pile of Trump research for a weekend—my daughter had an athletic competition in Canada. Because I couldn’t work on the Trump book and needed a way to occupy my time, I wrote a draft. And I had so much fun that I wrote two more RIGHT AWAY. My friends Laurel Snyder and Elana K. Arnold, both of whom have books in this category, liked them. So I sent the first one to my agent. Then I pretended I hadn’t written two more and made a list of “ideas” for additional books in the series. Some of those ideas (because I sent more than two), I actually liked more than the ones I’d drafted. And then I came up with the idea for what became the third book in the series as I was reading the first one and realized I’d missed an opportunity for humor. So, this project was all about making myself laugh and trying to write something that would feel rewarding to kids just learning to read.

As far as raccoon love goes, both my husband and I were raccoons for Halloween in 1974. We did not know each other then, obviously. But I absolutely have been in love with a raccoon for about 30 years now. (This one doesn’t eat out of the trash, thank goodness!)

Dean: In 2024, you have a much-anticipated book on AI coming out, FUTURE TENSE: HOW WE MADE ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE AND HOW IT WILL CHANGE EVERYTHING. It is, no doubt, meticulously researched (like other Martha Brockenbrough books) so as a teaser for us until we can get our hands on it, what do you see as some of the most exciting or promising possibilities with the widespread rise of AI? And what are some of the most alarming things to manage? (Or, you know, not.)

Martha: Really promising possibilities involve the use of AI to predict structures for proteins and other complex molecules. I think we’re at the beginning of an age of incredible medical advances (insert disclaimer about the brokenness of our healthcare system here). The most alarming things are, I think, three-fold: 1) We humans have an extraordinary propensity to bond with AI and ascribe it sentience that it does not have; 2) This will make us easier to be manipulated and misinformed; 3) there aren’t adequate safeguards nor are there plans to manage the widespread job loss that will come.

Risk-taking and responding to challenges: in our DNA

Dean: (*Eyes wide open. Blinks repeatedly.*) So. Exciting times ahead!


Martha Brockenbrough is the former editor of and the author of over 20 books for young people, including YA fiction and nonfiction, a middle grade mystery, picture books, and a chapter book series. Her latest, TO CATCH A THIEF and FRANK AND THE MASKED CAT, are out now. Her next book, FUTURE TENSE: HOW WE MADE ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE AND HOW IT WILL CHANGE EVERTHING, comes out on March 19, 2024. Martha lives in Seattle with her family, and besides writing she likes dogs, cats, cooking, weightlifting, and laughing. You can find out more about her at and

Dean Gloster is a former stand-up comedian and a former law clerk at the U.S. Supreme Court. His debut YA novel DESSERT FIRST is out from Merit Press/Simon Pulse. School Library Journal called it “a sweet, sorrowful, and simply divine debut novel that teens will be sinking their teeth into. This wonderful story…will be a hit with fans of John Green's The Fault in Our Stars and Jesse Andrews's Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.” His YA short story “Death’s Adopted Daughter” is in the anthology Spoon Knife 6: Rest Stop from Autonomous Press, and his YA short story, “Proof of the Existence of Dog” is now out in the anthology Spoon Knife 7: Transitions. He is at work on two more YA novels, one in draft and the other in revision, and makes periodic anti-authoritarian limericks and other ramblings on the prince of fools app formerly known as Twtter, at @deangloster.


  1. What a fantastic conversation. Thanks for visiting YAOTL, Martha.

  2. A great interview! I love her YouTube videos and it was great to read an interview with Martha on the blog.


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