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Professor tells history behind her YA mysteries

Professor and young adult novelist, Kathryn Reiss, at her desk. (Anna Corson)

Think the shelves of the Young Adult fiction section are limited to books about sexy vampires? Think again. Mills has been home to Professor Kathryn Reiss, who has published seventeen books under the category of “Young Adult Fiction” and middle grade readers, for the past twenty years. As one fan wrote on her website, “Twilight would have been better if it had been written by Kathryn Reiss!”

On March 1, books sixteen and seventeen were released — two novels entitled The Silver Guitar: A Julie Mystery and A Bundle of Trouble: A Rebecca Mystery. Both were written for the American Girl History Mysteries series, historical fiction novels for readers age 9-12 and “about brave young people who find themselves faced with a mysterious set of circumstances,” according to the website description. The Silver Guitar and A Bundle of Trouble are Reiss’ third and fourth contributions to History Mysteries, which she has been writing for since 2009.

When American Girl agents called Reiss back in 2008 and told her they were hiring mystery writers, she accepted and began writing about Julie, a character that lives in the 1970s.

“My first thought was, ‘The 1970s?  That’s not historical!’” Reiss exclaimed laughing. “American Girl has a good mission: to teach history and to have girls be the ones that solves the mysteries. They really kicked off YA historical fiction.”

Reiss grew up during the ‘70s near Cleveland Heights, Ohio.  Typically, she does not write novels in a “series” format, a format usually associated with YA writing, but for American Girl, she follows their guidelines. When Reiss writes for American Girl, the company assigns her the character and the time period, but Reiss creates the mystery herself.

“It’s a very different kind of writing because the characters aren’t mine,” she said.

Reiss didn’t always know she wanted to write YA fiction.  She wrote her first novel Time Windows while on a Fulbright scholarship in Germany.

“I wanted something to read.  I was studying Goethe, and I was tired of only reading German.  I longed to read English — and this was in the days before,” Reiss said.  “I wrote it really to entertain myself.  I didn’t intend that it was something for children at the time.  Originally, the story was about an adult woman who was concerned about her young daughter seeing ghosts and a haunted dollhouse.  Eventually I changed the point of view from the older woman to the daughter, and my agent decided to market it as YA, a teen novel.”

Now between teaching half-time, being a parent and constantly working on a new novel, Reiss is a very busy lady.

“My sense of her is just as an unbelievably organized and productive individual.  She can’t waste a moment of her day,” said Cynthia Scheinberg, the Chair of the English Department.  “In my mind she’s the queen of the way that women in the 21st century can juggle everything — and she makes it look easy.”

Reiss, who is often asked how she does it all, has an answer already prepared:  “I compartmentalize,” she said.

Indeed, her schedule is compartmentalized: She teaches Mondays and Wednesdays, and always takes 5 afternoon hours on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays to write.

That writing Reiss does every week is somewhat marginalized in the literary world. Historically, Masters-level writing programs have frowned upon writing for Young Adults and middle grade readers.  While receiving her own Masters from the University of Michigan (her BA was from Duke), Reiss was discouraged from using what would later become The Glass House People for her thesis.  At Mills, Reiss has helped many students embrace YA literature and writing, as she teaches a class on the topic.  This semester she also teaches a graduate level fiction workshop and a thesis class for MFA students.

Former graduate student Carly Anne West will now have what was once her thesis published in 2013  thanks, in part, to Reiss’ guidance.

“The Young Adult and middle grade reader is such a special group,” West said.  “Too often overlooked in their everyday lives, adolescents have extraordinary insights to offer, and they desperately need to be heard.  It’s incredible when a work of literature offers them the sort of peer understanding they need at that age. I really admire teens and am constantly learning from them, as I believe Kathryn encouraged us to do,” she said.

Reiss’ talent has not gone unnoticed by the literary world. Her work has been praised as “shivery entertainment” by the Kirkus Reviews, “entertaining and inventive” by Publisher’s Weekly and a “wonderful addition to anyone’s library” by In addition, Reiss has received many awards over the years, including the prestigious “Best Book for Young Adults” by the American Library Association.

“For many years, MFA programs seemed to make huge distinctions between writing fiction for adults and writing fiction for young adults — a bit similar to the false distinction between teachers of literature and teachers of composition, as if one must, for some strange reason, be inferior to the other,” said Professor Ruth Saxton, who has been Reiss’ colleague in the English department for over 20 years.  “I am proud to celebrate the growing YA program under Kathryn’s able leadership. She is a gifted teacher and a super colleague.”

Saxton isn’t Reiss’ only admirer in the English department. Just across the hall from her office is her husband of twenty-eight years Professor Tom Strychacz. Strychacz and Reiss live with their two teenage daughters Isabel and Alexandra in a large historical home in Benecia.  What was an officer’s quarters from the middle of the nineteenth century to the 1960’s is now decorated with Strychacz’s paintings and paper cut-out artwork by Reiss.  The couple has parented five children together and are now thinking of adopting a sixth.

“I think the way Kathryn puts it is that she still has parenting energy right now.  I think she feels she’s not finished,” Stryzchacz said.  “She feels she’s got more to offer a younger child, although it won’t be a toddler anymore. It’ll be someone more like nine or ten years old.”

In her office, Reiss’ family is featured alongside her book posters. A large quilt sewn with pictures of each family member covers a chair in one corner. Her five children made it for her.

Eighteen-year-old daughter Alexandra Strychacz — who quickly affirmed that she has read each of Reiss’ books — enjoys having a writer for a mother, even though she describes herself
as more of a “science andmath person.”

“My friends never knew my mom was Kathryn Reiss because I have a different last name,” Alexandra Strychacz explained.  Once, when a classmate didn’t believe her, she flipped the book to the dedication page to show that the book was, in fact, dedicated
to her.

Reading Reiss’ writing helped Alexandra Strychacz overcome a learning disability.  One of the couple’s adopted children, she struggled with reading when she first arrived to the family around
age eight.

“My favorite book — Miss Honeywell’s Revenge — she read it to me out loud,” Alexandra Strychacz said.  “It was the first book she ever read to me; we read out loud a lot.  It helped me become a better reader.”

Reiss’ children and family life often inspire her writing, although she does not feel her characters are based on her children.

“I know that she likes to write about things that are close to her heart,” Stryzchacz said.

As she has published seventeen books over the last twenty years, Reiss is definitely doing a lot of writing—she is in a constant state of creating new worlds for her readers.

“She’s probably the most generally creative person I’ve ever met — in all areas of her life,” Stryzchacz said.  “Creative in terms of storytelling, but also in terms of being a mother. For instance, as well, she’s revered by her children — and for good reason.  She always has new plans afoot for the future, which I think is remarkable.”

Right now, Reiss is working on a new YA suspense novel.

“That’s all I can say about it.  I never talk about something until I have a full draft,” she declared superstitiously.

Over the summer, Reiss will be holding a two-week seminar in publishing children’s and young adult fiction.  The intensive seminar will feature guest speakers and will be open to the public.  The seminar will be a valuable resource for those interested in writing for YA or middle grade readers and those eager to learn from the award-winning Kathryn Reiss.