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Sister Act

For Margo Rabb, college in Indiana brought on culture shock. Now the young adult novelist strikes back with two teen detectives from Queens.

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In M.E. Rabb‘s young adult mysteries, everyone and everything is likely to disappear; parents die, childhood friends can’t be found, adolescence recedes. Even heroines Sophie Shattenberg, 15, and her older sister, Sam, find their calling as detectives only after running away from their evil stepmother and Sunnyside, Queens, to Venice, Indiana. With The Rose Queen and The Chocolate Lover, the first two installment in the series, on shelves, Rabb talks about writing in the voice of Jewish teenagers and how her own life inspired the Missing Persons series.

Where did you get the idea for the series?

I had given a reading for adults of a story with a teenage voice, and my future editor was in the audience. Afterwards he approached me and he said, “You do a teenage voice really well. Do you have any ideas for a teen novel?”

Had you read many teen novels?

As a girl I used to read the Sweet Valley High books, about twin sisters in California. Most of these kinds of books don’t have Jewish characters. They’re all Waspy and rich. I remember thinking that I wished our name was Anderson and we were blonde and we lived in California. As a kid, you’re so impressionable and you want to be what you see in the magazines and in books. If you see all these blondes from California, you feel like an oddball. So I wanted to write something mainstream that had Jewish characters.

Then I had the idea of a book about two Jewish sisters from Queens who run away to the Midwest. A lot of that was based on growing up in New York City and then going to college in Indiana. It was major culture shock because I had never left New York.

You make relentless fun of Midwestern cuisine, small-town parades, and the jocks whom Sophie keeps falling for. What attracted you to Indiana in the first place?

When I was a kid I always wanted to go to the Midwest. I thought it would be like Little House on the Prairie. We didn’t travel much as a family, so I really had an idyllic idea of it as a happy prairie land. I didn’t realize how Christian America was until I went to college. I mean, you’re driving on the highway and there’s this huge lit-up cross. My college was a liberal Quaker school, but it was very Christian. At the grocery store around Passover, I was looking for matzo meal and the guy had never heard of it.

You take it for granted, but then you realize the rest of the country isn’t like New York. People would find it interesting: “Oh, you’re Jewish.” In Indiana, that was very interesting.

And yet you created a pair of characters who hide their background from their new friends.

That arose from the plot of taking their dad’s money and running away from their stepmother. Because obviously they would stand out being Jewish in a small town in Indiana, so they had to hide their real identity. By pretending to be someone else, the girls find out that being Jewish and being who they are is more important than they realize. And that’s what I realized too: My family wasn’t religious, but we had strong cultural traditions and I think it wasn’t until I went to the Midwest that I started to appreciate being Jewish and how the culture was different from the larger American culture.

There is a lot of darkness and sadness in these novels.

In most kids’ books, there are a lot of dark things lurking under the surface. That’s what I’ve always loved about the Anne of Green Gables books—she was an orphan who grew up in a horrible foster home and was basically abused. That’s something that, as a kid, you don’t notice consciously. I think young readers like that dark undertone.

The Shattenberg sisters are orphans, like Anne or Harry Potter. Couldn’t that feel like a cliché?

A lot of kids’ books have orphans as characters. In those other books, the parents are dead, but the character doesn’t think about it that much. I wanted the girls to actually deal with it a little more. The two sisters are based on my experiences with my sister. Our mom died when my sister and I were in our teens, and that found its way into the details. We weren’t that close growing up, but after our mom died and our dad died when we were in our twenties we became very close. So I wanted to show that relationship.

Where do the brooding parts come from?

It’s unconscious. I can’t write completely light, fluffy stuff. There are parts of my books that are sad, and I like that. The editors didn’t always like it so much. They wanted me to really lighten it up.

In the second book, The Chocolate Lover, the girls search for a woman whose family had a painting stolen during the Holocaust. They also think they may have discovered a long lost relative.

The book was hard, because my editors kept wanting me to make it lighter and funnier. So it ended up being a darker book. I guess it came out that way because I think about that stuff: my mom was born in Germany and she came over in 1938, they lost a lot of relatives. I didn’t really think about it that much until my mom died, that’s when I realized how we really had no relatives on that side. There was actually more dark depressing stuff that I cut out, more about the post-Holocaust relative stuff. The next two books are lighter.

So was it fun to write these books?

Three years ago, the publisher signed me up to write four books. In hindsight, that was a lot more work than I thought. Because they are short and simple, I figured they would be easier to write than literary stuff which I had done before. But then the rewriting and the plotting and the drafts take a long time. At one point I thought of just taking the advance and fleeing to Mexico! I guess selling four books sounds good in theory, but it definitely took a long time. Writing mystery is a lot harder than it looks.

How so?

You have to be so plot-oriented, it has to have so much action, you can’t describe people drinking a glass of water for four pages. Literary writing can be very internal, but with these kinds of books you can’t get away with tons of description, you have to keep the action going. I learned a lot. Going back to my literary novel now after these books I have a much better sense of plot and story. I had never written a novel, so it was a good crash course.

You play with stereotypes from the big-city Jewish girl to the Midwestern cheerleader. Do you worry about offending people?

One person was upset because there was an affair in the first book. I thought that was strange—there are so many dark things in the book, and that’s what she focused on. A lot of people think New York City is all rich kids going to private school. When I was growing up, we didn’t know any of those kids. Our little neighbourhood of Sunnyside, Queens was like a small town. It’s the same with the Midwest. There are so many misconceptions. I poke fun, but there was a lot I really liked. Even though the food there sucks!

So in a way your success hinges on getting people to rethink their assumptions?

When some blonde girl out there in the Midwest thinks to herself, “I wish my name was Sophie Shattenberg,” then I’ll know I’ve succeeded.

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Sister Act

For Margo Rabb, college in Indiana brought on culture shock. Now the young adult novelist strikes back with two teen detectives from Queens.

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