Welcome to the Spotlight – Greg Leitich Smith!


I’m thrilled to welcome author Greg Leitich Smith to the spotlight! I became a fan of his when I read his first middle grade novel, Ninjas, Piranhas, & Galileo (Little, Brown/2003). Greg is quite a genius at mixing science and humor! It’s a true pleasure to introduce to you his newest novel for middle graders, Chronal Engine, with illustrations by Blake Henry (Clarion Books/2012). Stayed tuned below for a chance to win a copy!

Chronal Engine by Greg Leitich Smith

Eighth grader, Max, and his twin older brother and sister are sent to spend the summer with their eccentric grandfather on his secluded ranch. Max, who has a passion for dinosaurs, like his mother, is excited to get a glimpse of the famous dinosaur footprints on the ranch.  All three scoff at the idea that there is a time machine on the premises, but when the grandfather makes an amazing and accurate prediction, gives them a set of mysterious instructions, and Emma is kidnapped out of thin air, they end up believing. Max, Kyle, and new friend Petra use the chronal engine to blast to the past to the time of the dinosaurs in the Late Cretaceous to try to save Emma. They battle deadly elements including carnivorous dinosaurs and Emma’s mysterious kidnapper. Readers who love adventure, time-travel, and dinosaurs are sure to love this book!

Spotlight on Greg Leitich Smith:

What was the initial spark for Chronal Engine?

Probably the first glimmering was during writing my second novel, Tofu & T.rex, a comedy in which the protagonist Hans-Peter was a dinosaur enthusiast, and had built a papier-mache T.red head in his basement. I remember thinking it would be kind of fun to write a middle grade/tween novel, with “realistic” dinosaurs in them, that is, dinosaurs as presently understood and reflecting up-to-date and mostly accurate science (more than just a “scream and run” sort of thing). In other words, the kind of book I’d’ve eaten up as a young reader myself. I also thought that to do it right would take an enormous amount of research which I did not want to do at the time.

A couple years later, though, I came back to the idea. But I also thought that that sort of thing had to have been done before. After looking into it, I realized that while there are a lot of anthropomorphized dinosaur picture books, a lot of nonfiction, a handful of classics, and a couple of series books, there didn’t seem to be the sort of realistic, literary science fiction I had in mind. So I dived into the research.

How difficult was it to come up with the concept for the Chronal Engine? It boggles my mind to think about how to make up something that needed to at least seem scientifically sound.

Thank you.  As I said, I went into the project wanting to be kind of hard-core about the dinosaurs, so I figured I had to be at least somewhat hard-core about the time travel.  I also wanted it to be on the science fiction side of things (insofar as time travel can be) which meant something more than a magic portal or some such.  It had to matter to the story.  So it had to be a machine.  Other than that, I didn’t have any real idea about the time travel specifically, except of course that the theoretical underpinnings of time travel are (would be) based on Einstein’s relativity.

So, by this point, I had launched into the dinosaur research and a lot of the history of dinosaur discoveries I’d already known somewhat, but got to learn again: Othniel Marsh, Edward Drinker Cope, Barnum Brown, the Sternbergs, Roy Chapman Andrews, etc., some of the big names from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Now in terms of speculative fiction, to me, that era meant Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, which meant that the mechanism to get the teens back to the Cretaceous had to be, well, a mechanism from that era.  I came up with the name “Chronal Engine” because it sounded appropriate and vaguely steampunkish.  Also, at that time, Einstein and relativity were pretty new, so an engineer applying his theories to building a machine seemed to have that Verne/Wells flavor.  Of course, Wells has his own time machine, but that’s something completely different.

Making it “work” was a little more difficult.  The problem with a time machine, of course, is that it’s a machine.  Which means that it has to have some means of operation and there should be some kind of theoretical underpinning.  So I ended up dusting off my math and physics and doing quite a bit of research on the science of time travel – my background is in electrical engineering so I’ve taken more courses than I care to remember on calculus and differential equations and relativity and quantum mechanics, but I’ll admit I’m a little rusty.

Anyway, almost none of that research ended up in the book, other than a few notes by the inventor, Professor Pierson, to put everything in context.  Although what he says does relatively fairly synopsize some of the theories behind time travel.  Using Edwardian technobabble and hand-waving, of course.

As to the way the Chronal Engine and its Recall Devices are actually shown being used, that’s based on a simple client-server model.

(Note: DEBtastic Reads is at this point just smiling and nodding like she understands what Greg is talking about. 😉 )

You obviously have a great love of and interest in dinosaurs. If you were to time travel to the same time period as your characters, what would be the first thing you’d do? And why?

Make sure I had a way back.  And food, water, and shelter.  Beyond that, I would want to explore and try to find answers to some of the questions about the Late Cretaceous that have been vexing paleontologists lately (and some of which I took sides on in the book).  For example, did sauropods like Alamosaurus typically hold their heads horizontally or vertically?  What did theropods like Albertonykus and Tyrannosaurus rex use their goofy little arms for?  Was Nanotyrannus really a separate species or was it merely a juvenile of Tyrannosaurus rex?  Going back further in time, I’d want to see if I could find a bird earlier than Archaeopteryx.

What’s your favorite dinosaur and why?

So hard to pick just one.  I think, though, it would have to a sauropod, like Alamosaurus or Brachiosaurus or Apatosaurus.

I remember reading a book my parents gave me in first grade, talking about “Brontosaurus,” that was so huge it was given the name “thunder lizard.”  (Which, let’s face it, is far more awesome than “Apatosaurus”).  The book had pictures of it living in a swamp because it needed water to support its great bulk and eating swamp plants because its teeth were too weak to eat, say, ferns or pine needles.  Of course, our ideas of its behavior have come a long way since then, but the idea that there was this animal so much bigger than an elephant that was fascinating and got me hooked on dinosaurs.

And growing up in Chicago, we’d go to the Field Museum, which had sauropod skeletons in the same vicinity as its elephants in the main hall, so you got a true sense of their size.

In addition to Chronal Engine, Greg Leitich Smith is the author of Ninjas, Piranhas, and Galileo, a Parents Choice Gold Medal winner, and its companion, Tofu and T.rex.  He is also the co-author, with his wife, New York Times best-selling author Cynthia Leitich Smith, of the picture book Santa Knows, and the short story “The Wrath of Dawn,” which appeared in the anthology Geektastic.

Born and raised in Chicago, he holds degrees in electrical engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of Texas at Austin, as well as a degree in law from the University of Michigan. He now lives in Austin, Texas, with his wife Cynthia and four cats.

For more about Greg, check out his site and read his blog.

Win a copy of Greg’s book! To enter the drawing, follow the rules below. If you’re reading this via a feed, click here to comment.

1. Comment on this post – and for fun, tell me the name of your favorite dinosaur. Mine is triceratops. Please include your email address so I can notify you if you win.

2. Leave your comment by midnight EST, Tuesday, March 27th. Winner will be announced on this blog and will be contacted by email.

3. Winner must have a US or Canada mailing address.

Good luck and thanks for stopping by!

11 responses »

  1. Hey, you stole my dinosaur! I was going to pick ole Trixie. I’ll choose another – Pterodactyl. How cool is a dinosaur that flies? Thanks for the chance to win Greg’s just -released book.
    When I’m at home, I’m: carlscott(at)prodigy(dot)net(dot)mx
    Thanks again!

  2. Fun hearing about Greg’s new book. I learned a lot just reading his answers, so I imagine reading the book will be totally amazing. How does he know all this stuff? 🙂 Time travel is fascinating, for sure.

    My favorite is apatosaurus. I like my dinos BIG.

    And I agree with Eric about Barney.

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