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Cayuga Island Kids: Children’s book series is based on mysteries surrounding Cayuga island

Judy Bradbury

Judy Bradbury and I met in a writers’ group a few decades ago. The group changed but we stayed connected and have always enjoyed getting together, to talk about writing among other things. These days, we stay in touch remotely…

When I heard about Judy’s latest book, The Mystery of the Barking Branches and the Sunken Ship, I was not only curious to read the story but excited to let other people know about it.  It’s the first in a series of mystery chapter books for young readers called the Cayuga Island Kids. The series has a local setting (Cayuga Island in the Niagara River) and a local publisher (City of Light). I imagine how intriguing it is for children to read about a familiar place. That adds an element of interest for sure!

Since time at home is good for solitary activities, reading fits right in the pandemic program. Nothing like a good mystery, a comfy chair, and time to read. It reminds me of how much I loved the Nancy Drew mystery books when I was a child. Even while spending a lot of time at home, we enjoyed adventures in reading. It’s a great way to travel!

JF: Tell us about your latest book, the publishing company and book signing. How does that event look during a pandemic?

JB: The seed of the idea for The Mystery of the Barking Branches and the Sunken Ship resulted from a feature article in the Niagara Gazette in 2015 about the discovery of a cannonball in the backyard of a resident of Griffon Avenue on Cayuga Island. The Griffon—a treasure ship built in the 1600s in the area where the cannonball was discovered—is at the center of one of the most intriguing mysteries of the Great Lakes. The ship sank in 1679 and was never recovered. Was the unearthed cannonball from the Griffon?

I contacted the owner of the cannonball who was gracious enough to meet with me, show me the cannonball, and detail the discovery. The Mystery of the Barking Branches and the Sunken Ship is the result of that visit stirring my imagination. The story is set in present time on Cayuga Island and features five diverse, resourceful, and lively friends who love a good mystery and are always up for adventure.

The Cayuga Island Kids series grew from conversations I had with my terrific publisher Marti Gorman of City of Light Publishing, a distinctive local publishing company with a national (and international) presence. After I completed the manuscript for the first book, I knew she was the first person I wanted to send it to.

Book signing is a challenge during the pandemic, but authors and publishers are creative folk undaunted by challenges! I have created bookplates that I will happily sign for pre-orders for all three titles in the series, and I will continue to offer signed bookplates for all copies of the books ordered directly from the publisher. (City of Light Publishing ships free. Shop local!) We are also exploring possibilities for an outdoor event to celebrate the launch of the series. Stay tuned…

JF: Writing is a solitary activity. The pandemic has reduced the distractions that take writers away from their work. Has your writing schedule changed during the pandemic? What does a day in your life look like?

JB: This is a great question, Judy. What you’ve said is absolutely correct. Obviously, you are a writer yourself! The funny thing is I signed the contract for this series the week before everything shut down due to the pandemic! Yes, the first book was written and pretty much set to go to the series’ talented illustrator, Gabriella Vagnoli, for the art. But I still had two books to write and a rigorous deadline schedule.

Judy’s writing desk

I am a slow writer: I write, rewrite, write, rewrite all the way through the creation of a story. Near the end of the process, I step away for a bit in order to give the final revision a fresh eye. I have spent many, many more hours writing (and revising!) than I would have in normal times when my days would have included other activities beyond writing. It was a blessing of sorts to have that time; it also made me realize the need to respect my personal writing process, and to be mindful of protecting my writing time when life picks up again.

JF: Can you tell us about your own relationship to Cayuga Island?

JB: I am a Cayuga Island kid. I grew up on the island, which is located a few miles upstream from the mighty Niagara Falls. In the summers, I rode the bicycle my father built across the island, searching for mysteries to solve.

JF: Is this your first chapter book? How do you adapt a story for your audience’s reading level?

JB: The Cayuga Island Kids is my debut chapter book series. I am excited about that for many reasons. As a former reading teacher, I have always found joy in helping children learn to read—or learn to read better—and witnessing their growing independence in reading. Chapter books intended for ages 7-9, Grades 1-3, such as the Cayuga Island Kids series, meet children at that exciting juncture when they can pick up a book and read it on their own. They are ready for a story with a solid plot, a story arc, dynamic characters, and developing action. Humor is a big draw. Young independent readers deserve stories written at their level. Stories that respect their interests and meet their needs as burgeoning readers will keep them reading. In chapter books, the story line involves a central plot revolving around a small cast of main characters. Chapters are short. Sentences vary in length, but tend to be simply structured. Vocabulary is at level; new words are often defined in context to enable the growing reader. Illustrations support the text to aid the reader with comprehension.

JF: When you write a series, do you create the characters first or the story lines? Do you have a way to keep the characters alive while you are writing a series? 

JB: Such great questions! In the Cayuga Island Kids series, because of the circumstances leading to writing The Mystery of the Barking Branches and the Sunken Ship, the story came first. I developed the characters next. I wanted to create a diverse cast of kids with divergent interests and personalities, but with a common interest in kindness, friendship, and curiosity. To keep characters alive and true to their characteristics, I resort to character sketches. I strive to describe actions in ways that are fresh but also reinforce who they are, what their interests are, and how they would respond in any given situation. This helps me keep my characters authentic. I ask myself, Would Mac say that? Would Julian be interested in this? The characters become quite real to me.

JF: Did you do any research for this book or did the story come out of your imagination entirely?

JB: My illustrator jokes that she never realized how much research goes into a fiction story. I send her pages and pages of background notes when she is getting ready to illustrate each book. Of course I researched the Griffon at length for The Mystery of the Barking Branches and the Sunken Ship. But I also researched dogwood trees, cannonballs, griffons, archaeology, aphids, Davy Crockett, and more! In Books 2 and 3, I researched quite a bit as well, which you can learn when you read the stories!

JF: What would you recommend to parents to get their children interested in reading?

JB: In addition to writing for children, I have written a number of resources on the subject of reading aloud. It is a passion of mine. My advice to parents is simple: read to your kids. Read widely. Enjoy the experience with them daily. 15-20 minutes is all you need. Have reading materials available everywhere—from bedrooms to bathrooms, to seat pockets in your car. Visit the library. Buy books as gifts. Encourage your children to explore books on their interests, and widen their horizons by suggesting books they might not have thought to pick up but that you feel certain they will enjoy. Oh, and I’d tell parents this: reading with your children goes beyond picture books when they’re young. I read to my daughter until she left for college. Reading together was a treasured time. We still talk about books with one another. It’s a lifelong bond we formed before she could talk that has carried on through her life.

JF: This first book is coming out at the end of this month, what is your timeframe for the rest of the series? 

JB: The Mystery of the Barking Branches and the Sunken Ship does come out this month! The Adventure of the Big Fish by the Small Creek comes out in September 2021 and is available now for pre-order on the City of Light website. Book 3 comes out in Spring 2022.

JF: Where can people purchase the book? Is there anything else you want people to know?

JB: The Cayuga Island Kids series is available anywhere books are sold. I recommend buying local. City of Light, the publisher, ships for free.

To meet the illustrator of my series, the talented and smart Gabriella Vagnoli, visit my Children’s Book Corner blog at You will find my interview with her, interior illustrations of The Mystery of the Barking Branches and the Sunken Ship, and find ideas and resources for using the book with kids.

JF: I love the story of this story! Basically, a cannonball got things rolling, brought back childhood memories, and with persistence, an authentic story emerged. When the pandemic presented time and space, along with a supportive publisher, that story turned into a series. What a great combination of serendipity and work as well as fact and fiction. If it is this fun to hear about your book, I can only imagine how much fun it is to read it!

Written by Judith Frizlen

Judith Frizlen

Judith Frizlen is the founder of the Rose Garden Early Childhood Center and author of Words for Parents, Words for Teachers and Caregivers and Unpacking Guilt, a Mother's Journey to Freedom. Books and blogposts are on her website at She is a fan of early childhood, urban architecture and the revitalization of Buffalo.

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