What’s new in this second book of the Max Williams Adventure Series?
Oh, there’s tons of new stuff. For one thing, Max has changed a little. Of course, he’s a year older. But most importantly, sixth grade has been a big year for him. After the big football game at the end of My Neighbor, the Spy, when Max defeated the Reedster with the Heaven and Earth Aikido technique, Max became popular. Instead of being teased and called names as school, Max and his team became the guys everyone wanted as friends. Mrs. W founded an Aikido dojo and Max is now one of the senior kids there. He even helps Sensei W with a beginner kids’ class. Unfortunately, Max’s ego has gotten a little too big. He likes being the one everyone comes to for help, and he likes being a star at the dojo. So, when Axel, Mrs. W’s nephew, comes to town for the summer, Max doesn’t react very well.
Axel is a totally new character. He wasn’t in the first book. He’s from Germany, a senior in high-school, and has trained in Aikido for about nine years. To Max, it seems like Axel can do anything. Axel is a great character, and one of my favorite parts is when he tells his family’s story of their escape from East Berlin after World War II.
Something else that is new about this book is that there is a ramped-up danger level. Max and the guys are a little older, a little more mature, and it seemed only natural that the situations they find themselves in are a little more serious. Max and the gang face some life-and-death situations in this book.
What role does Mrs. W play in My Sister, the Traitor?
Mrs. W is definitely back in a big way. Max’s rival, Axel, is her nephew. This puts Max in an awkward position. He loves Mrs. W. He would never do anything to hurt her. But his feelings of jealousy for Axel kind of overwhelm his better judgment. Max faces some very real risks, including losing Mrs. W’s friendship.
Why is the title My Sister, the Traitor?
Well, the last straw for Max is when Axel shows an interest in dating his sister, Belinda. Max feels like this is the ultimate betrayal. Axel is interfering with Max’s status at the dojo, with Mrs. W, with his own parents, and then with Belinda. Plus, because his friend Bump has a major crush on Belinda, he’s willing to help Max with a plan to ruin Axel’s reputation.
Why does Max try to ruin Axel’s reputation?
Max is so jealous of Axel, he just wants him out of his life. He figures if he can make Axel look bad to his sister, she’ll stop dating him. If he can make Axel look bad to parents of students at the dojo, Mrs. W will stop letting Axel teach classes. Max just wants Axel out-of-the-way, and making him look bad is a convenient way to do it. I’ve recently had a personal experience where I learned what feels like when people tell lies about you. Rumors have a way of taking on a life of their own. And, with social media as popular as it is, it’s extremely easy for rumors to go viral. Rumors are a form of bullying, and the damage they can do to a person’s life is as great as physical damage. Max didn’t feel like he was doing anything harmful when he began, but he wasn’t thinking clearly. It’s an important lesson for him to learn, and I don’t think he’s going to make that mistake again.
Is Mrs. W’s sensei back in this story?
Absolutely – at least in a small way. Sensei taught Max the Heaven and Earth technique and how to eat sushi in My Neighbor, the Spy. To me, Sensei represents the Aikido community at large. I’ve met so many awesome people through Aikido. It’s a martial art that seems to attract super bright, ethical, caring people. I want readers to get a sense of how the Aikido community supports one another. Sensei is a wise teacher, but also has a sense of humor and is accessible to even the youngest learners like Max. Max makes some terrible mistakes, but Sensei uses the mistakes as a learning opportunity and not an excuse to scold or make Max feel worse than he already does. I love Sensei. He’s one of my favorite characters to write, besides Max, of course.
Your son’s experience with Aikido inspired you to start writing the Max Williams Adventure series. Now that he’s in college, is he still pursuing his training?
He sure is. It’s a little harder with the demands of college studies, but his Aikido training is an important part of who he is. He also finds that training is a great way to relieve some of the stress of college life. He’s taken many of his friends with him, and some of them want to learn Aikido now. He’s also exploring the idea of teaching an Aikido class on his college campus. Teaching is an important aspect of training in a martial art. I think he’ll be a great sensei, and I’m excited that he’ll be spreading Aikido to a new generation of students.
Did you enjoy writing this book as much as you enjoyed writing My Neighbor, the Spy?
Of course. The best part of writing this book was that the idea for the story came from a fan of My Neighbor, the Spy who contacted me through e-mail. Collin was a senior in high-school when the first book came out, and heard about the book through his sensei. He was so excited about having a book about aikido for kids that he e-mailed me. I’ve enjoyed corresponding with him ever since. It was his idea to give Mrs. W a nephew who would be Max’s rival. Collin is now in college and is a wonderful writer in his own right. He taught me how to do zazen.
Why does Axel tell the story about his family’s escape from East Berlin?
There are several answers to this question. In My Neighbor, the Spy, Max uses stories about real, famous spies to motivate his team with their morale flags. Max is a smart kid. He sees history as a relevant way of learning how to deal with the present and the future. This is a quality that my father passed on to me, and I’ve tried to pass on to my son. My son has a wonderful ability of finding older people who have developed wisdom in their field and learning everything he can from them. It was important for me to have Max have this same characteristic.
Another part of the answer is that the inspiration for Mrs. W’s character is a woman my son met through his training. We had the privilege of sharing gumbo and cornbread last Christmas Eve with her and she shared her family’s story of their harrowing escape from East Berlin just as the wall went up between East and West. I took some liberties with the details and added some characters, but Axel’s story is based on her story. I think, for me, it just confirmed the depth and breadth of resources within the Aikido community. This is an amazing woman, really.
So, I included the story because it’s a fascinating story and because I wanted Max to continue to use stories from history to shape himself, his beliefs, and and view of the world.
Is this part of the reason you introduce some Zen into My Sister, the Traitor?
Kind of. It really just fit. Axel needed to introduce something that seemed strange to Max and the other kids. And, Zen principles are often taught along with Aikido principles. The ideas of balance and harmony are common in both, and this is something that Max is learning in this story. Max lets his ego get in the way of his Aikido practice and his interactions with his old and new friends. This creates the problems that lead to danger for Max and Axel. In order to get out of danger, Max has to learn to work with Axel and earn back the trust of his friends and family. Just like in Aikido, where you have to sense your partner’s movements, Max has to learn how to tune in to how his actions affect others. It’s what we all have to learn: how to live in harmony with others.