LEO Inventor Extraordinaire
by Luke Cunningham
Published by Zonderkidz
Releasing on April 6, 2021
MIDDLE GRADE FICTION
In this middle-school adventure mystery perfect for puzzle solvers, a young orphan named Leo discovers clues to his past when he finds a series of tunnels below his school. But to unlock the answers, he’ll need every skill and invention he has—even if his inventions don’t always work.
A “lifer” at the secluded Academy of Florence, Leo has never met his parents … or anyone in his family for that matter. His current “family” is his mechanical monkey and robot lion, who along with his charming best friend and fellow lifer, Savvy, only get him into trouble. But after Leo’s latest experiment goes catastrophically wrong, he finds a mysterious clue that opens an underground maze—one that seems to have been created for him to solve.
Leo hopes the tunnels will help him discover the identities of his parents and the reason he’s an orphan in the first place. Instead, he finds that his past and possibly even his future is somehow linked to the innovative Wynn Toys company, whose genius president mysteriously disappeared years before.
Leo must use his creativity and scientific know-how to revive the toy company, oust its dastardly leader, and discover the fate of his real family.
Luke X. Cunningham is an Emmy-nominated writer from Philadelphia. Previously, he spent three years as a writer for The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. He developed a passion for the Renaissance while earning a history degree from Brown University. He currently lives in Los Angeles, CA, with his wife and their son, Finn. LEO: Inventor Extraordinaire is his first novel.
Congratulations on your debut! What was your inspiration for LEO Inventor Extraordinaire?
Ten years ago, I walked through an exhibition of Leonardo Da Vinci’s work and at the end was a model of giant robot lion. Leonardo Da Vinci had made it out of wood for the King of France 500 years ago. That blew my mind. I imagined what would happen if that same wonderful brain was born today. A guy who would build a 500 pound wooden robot as a gift is my hero. And in our book, Leo’s defender is Gemini, a huge robot lion he builds in his room.
What has been your favorite part of being a debut author so far?
Finally getting to share a story that I’ve been building in my head for so many years. Every time someone reads it and shares how they feel about it, I am thrilled.
What are you hoping readers take away from your story?
This is such a cool question! The best case scenario for Leo is that a kid reads this book and synthesizes the ideas about design, science, and art with their own cool, new ideas. Obviously, I don’t think Leo’s design for cold fusion reactor will work right now, but I’d love it if a kid absorbs my idea, realizes where it doesn’t work, and comes up with something more practical.
Also, I try to convey the process of building ideas. Leo come up with ideas and tests them. I hope readers realize that process is how to make things better: incorporate what you learn to adapt your ideas into something better.
What was your favorite part of writing LEO Inventor Extraordinaire?
Matching real art and people from the Renaissance with illustrations and characters in the book. E.g, The cover of the book is Leo in a mech suit in the same pose as Leonardo Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man is one of the iconic images of the Renaissance and it’s also a self-portrait. Younger Leonardo Da Vinci was jacked and a wrestling champion.
Did you have to do any research for LEO Inventor Extraordinaire? If so, what was your favorite piece of research you came across?
I had to do so much research! My favorite tidbit was that Leonardo Da Vinci really did not meet his father until he was 13. The man who he lived with until then was known as “Attaccabriga.” That translates from the Italian as “Troublemaker.” Leonardo Da Vinci’s stepdad was a guy you would not want to mess with, and he likely helped his stepson become a wrestling champion. When Leonardo Da Vinci’s father came back for him, his plan was to help Leonardo become a notary, just like he was. But then Leonardo painted a shield for a local duke. Leonardo’s depiction of a dragon was so vivid that his father was like, “All right, I guess I’m paying for art school.” And he sent him to Verrocchio’s academy. That’s why Leo’s teacher in Leo: Inventor Extraordinaire is named Rocky. (From Verrocchio.)
What advice would you give to aspiring authors?
Do the work. I wrote this book 25 minutes at a time. Writing is hard. Especially because the inertia of not writing feels great. In order to overcome that, I’d set a timer on my phone and throw it across the room, focusing only on writing until the timer went off. The most important thing is to finish a first draft. It will be mostly terrible. But there will be things in that draft that you’re proud of. Build off of those things and chip away at that block of marble until you sculpt a statue. I made mine 25 minutes at a time.