A Mixed Up Files Book Birthday for Jennifer Swanson

Jennifer Swanson Author Photo We love book launches here at the Mixed Up Files and especially when it is one of our own bloggers. It was my great pleasure to read Jen Swanson’s new book Brain Games this weekend. It’s colorful and packed with great information in an accessible format. I have a confession to make, I’m a total brain anatomy nerd. So right off the bat I have to know which is your favorite lobe? Mine is the temporal lobe, always has been. I’m a musician.
HumanBrainI have to say that mine is probably the frontal lobe. I’m a scientist which makes me think and approach life logically all the time — sometimes whether I want to or not! Ha.
This book is so visually dynamic. National Geographic does a great job of making books that really jump off the shelf and into kids hearts. We sell lots of them at the bookstore because they are so vivid. So which comes first in the book making process, words? Images? A little bit of both?Brain Games_Cvr_FINAL (1)-small
Let me start by saying that this book was a huge undertaking. I was tasked with taking a very popular, heavily video-enhanced TV show and turning it into a 2-dimensional book, but without losing any of the excitement and interactiveness of the show. My first task was to watch all of the episodes of the TV show, Brain Games. Yep, all about 24 hours of them. Then, I had to figure out which challenges from the show would translate easily into a book. I did that by searching for images on the internet. When I submitted my first draft, it was full of images of the brain, images of challenges, and of course, all of the words to explain everything. I guess you could say that I worked with images and words simultaneously. That is not always how it happens with an NGKids book, but in this case, it was the only way to handle this one. 
One of the things I really appreciated about the book is that it wasn’t just an ad for the tv show. Which is great because lots of kids who will love this book may not have access to the show.
How did you got into the field of writing science for kids. Were you a total science nerd as a kid? Did you study science in college?
I have been a science geek since birth, I think. I started a science club in my garage when I was about 7. My mom gave me a microscope which was my prized possesion. We used to look at flowers, grass, trees, even water samples from our creek under it. I have carried my love of science with me ever since. I studied chemistry in college at the U.S. Naval Academy, and went on to earn my M.S. Ed in K-8 science from Walden University. My “day” job is as a middle school science instructor for John’s Hopkins University’s Center for Talented Youth, where I get to work with gifted students from all around the world. Yep, I’m a science geek extraordinare!!  
Did you have a science teacher that really inspired you?
UnknownAs for a teacher that inspired me, the one that comes to mind is my 7th grade science teacher, Mrs. Roth. You see, back when I was in school there weren’t many female science teachers. And she was the BEST!  It showed me that women could do science, too. Couple that with very supportive parents and I was destined to love science my whole life. After all, SCIENCE ROCKS! 
Speaking of science nerds, Hank Green did the forward for this book. How did that come about? Did you get a chance to talk to him? 
No, I actually didn’t get to meet Hank Green. My NGKids editor knows him. Although I do love the Crash Course videos. My daughter who is in high school has to watch some of them for her classes, which is very cool.
What’s up next for you?
SUPER GEAR FC_finalI have a book coming out with Charlesbridge in June 2016 titled SUPER GEAR: Nanotechnology and Sports Team Up!  It is an exciting look into the world of sports and how the microscopic of science is helping athletes to perform better than ever before. Want to hit a golf ball farther, swing a tennis racket with more oomph, or even swim faster? Nanotechnology can help with that!
51DbfLkvsRL._SX398_BO1,204,203,200_Plus, I have two more books releasing next year. NGKids Everything Robotics takes the reader on a peek inside the world of robotics and how it is changing our world as we know it. Forces and Motion by Nomad Press comes out in 2016 as well. It’s an interactive book full of experiments and activities to help kids learn more about the basics of physics.
Robotics book
Sounds like you’ve got no end of fascinating projects to work on. Blog readers if you’d like to win a copy of Jennifer’s newest title Brain Games, please leave us a comment below and we’ll pick a winner in one week. Jennifer will be glad to answer your questions in the comments section all day today. Thanks Jennifer for sharing this really fun book.

Debut Author Adam Shaughnessy Tells the Truth about The Entirely True Story of the Unbelievable Fib

UnknownDebut author Adam Shaughnessy shares his writing journey in penning The Entirely True Story of the Unbelievable Fib, a mystery full of plot twists and plenty of mythology. Despite the title of his novel, Adam appears to have told the entire truth and is not a fibber. Although this cannot be verified.

1) Norse gods and other mythic beings and creatures populate your very exciting mystery adventure. How did you decide to focus in on chiefly Norse mythology for this book?

For years, I’ve had an enrichment business where I visit schools, after-schools, and other organizations with story-based enrichment programs. Many of the stories I work with involve mythology. So I’ve been thoughtful for some time about how many amazing mythologies exist around the world and how few of those mythologies get presented to kids, either through school or through popular culture. When I started my programs about fifteen years ago, kids were basically introduced to Greek and Roman myths (that’s changed a little since then, but not too much). I focused on other world myths, including Norse mythology, in my programs to help diversify kids’ exposure. So Norse myths have been on my radar for a while.

When I decided to novelize my storytelling and write the book that eventually became The Entirely True Story of the Unbelievable FIB, I looked at all the different mythologies I’d worked with over the years in order to decide which set of myths to focus on. In the end, I couldn’t resist the Norse myths. Part of the reason for that decision was thematic—I knew that the book’s plot would revolve around something called The Unbelievable FIB and Norse mythology boasts one of the best liars out there, Loki. But, really, I focused on Norse mythology for the simple reason it’s awesome. The settings are fantastic. The cosmology of the myths is based on the premise that there’s a giant tree so large that it holds the worlds of the gods, of people, and of the dead in its branches. And the characters that populate those worlds are both wicked and wonderful—often at the same time. Plus they have Ratatosk, the talking insult squirrel, and I don’t think characters get any better than that! So Norse mythology was too tempting of a playground not to go there and play.

2) Mr. Fox is a very intriguing character who lives in a magical henhouse. How did you come up with this idea for the henhouse?

Mister Fox introduces himself as a detective who investigates mysteries that involve myth and magic. I wanted his house, the headquarters of his detective agency, to be memorable. Since I knew I was dealing with mythology in the book, I thought about the most magical structures I remembered from the myths I had read. Baba Yaga’s house sprang immediately to mind.

It’s funny, though—I wasn’t immediately sold on the idea. I knew I wanted to focus on Norse mythology for the book’s main plot. I was worried about trying to add Russian mythology into the mix, too.

At the time I was thinking about all this and working out the book’s plot, I was also still doing my enrichment programs. Those programs utilized the character Mister Fox (though in a slightly different form). I built a lot of props for my programs, and I remember standing in a craft store one day with the idea of building a detective’s briefcase for Mister Fox. I had an old black leather case at home. But while I was at the store I came across a wooden briefcase. I got the idea that Mister Fox’s briefcase should be magical… maybe made from wood from a witch’s house. I saw the image of the briefcase in my head immediately—mysterious lights seeping through the cracks between splintered planks of wood. And that briefcase would copy the design of Mister Fox’s house.

Just like that I was back to Baba Yaga and the idea of the Henhouse, which gets its name from Baba Yaga’s odd ideas about mobile home construction (her house travels by chicken foot). It may sound like an odd process, but one of the things I’ve learned about myself as a writer is that I do well when I approach a story as more than just words on a page. Plotting takes on a whole new dimension if I build something related to the story—it gets my brain working in different ways!

3) Without giving anything away, The Entirely True Story of the Unbelievable Fib, involves some red herrings, buried clues, puzzles and other classical mystery elements. What did you learn about mystery writing from this experience?

First of all, I gained a whole new appreciation for mysteries. We all know that reading is an interactive experience. It starts with the writer, but it doesn’t end there. The reader creates the story, too. Through interpretation and imagination, the reader adds things of her or his own. That interactivity is one of the things I like best about sharing stories. Mysteries, I found, really enhance that dynamic. This is especially true of fair play stories, where the clues to solving the mystery are there for the reader to find. Suddenly the book becomes a game that the author and reader play together. I LOVE that! Until I wrote the book, I hadn’t thought about mysteries in that way.

Also, I like how mystery writing forces the author to think very carefully about how much information she or he gives out, and how soon. All writers have to do that, really, but I think it’s especially important in writing a mystery. You can’t be too vague or too obvious with your clues.

4) The main character, Pru, is grieving for her deceased father; we learn about him slowly and Pru’s grieving is handled deftly. Did it take you a while to figure out how to deal with this sort of backstory, in a way that wouldn’t interrupt the tone of your novel?

Yes! I’m someone who works out a plot by writing. I don’t start with an outline. I go right into the first draft. And in my very first draft of FIB (which had a very different narrative voice) I explicitly state that though Pru’s father is dead, this story is not about that. And I honestly believed that statement when I wrote the first draft! Then I finished the draft, got my first glimpse of the true shape of the story, and realized I was an idiot. That, in fact, the story was very much about Pru’s dad’s death and how Pru feels about the loss. And, yes, it was a long process to figure out how to incorporate that plot line, how much weight to give it, and when. It was trial and error. I don’t think I was at all happy with it until around the third or fourth draft.

5) A certain talking squirrel is one of my favorite characters. He has some great and creative insults later in the book. Did his personality evolve over time or did his wisecracking ways come to you right away?
Ratatosk, the talking insult squirrel, is one of my favorites, too! He’s a character in Norse myths, though he gets very little mention in the stories and nothing is said about his personality. That seemed like a huge oversight to me. He’s a talking insult squirrel. That’s star material, as far as I’m concerned. So I always knew Ratatosk would have a role in my book and because of that, I figured out his personality pretty early on in the process.

It did take a little work. Because the myths don’t develop the character, I had to figure out who he was, what he was like, and how he communicated. All we get in the myths is a passing reference to the fact that he carries insults from a dragon at the base of Yggdrasil (the world tree) to an eagle at the top. I imagined that it would be frustrating for poor Ratatosk to have the unique status as the world’s only talking squirrel but to be forced to only carry messages for others—to never get to speak his own thoughts, or really be heard. So he’s a bit of a show off when he talks—always using as many words as he can and always picking the fanciest words he can think of. Of course, I also had to account for the fact that Ratatosk has spent eons carrying insults. That kind of thing is bound to rub off on a squirrel. So he’s a little abrasive at first. Really, though, he has a heart of gold!

6) ABE, Pru’s new friend and sidekick is gifted with puzzles. Is this something you are personally good at as well?

Good at? Um… yes? Okay, that’s a fib. But I like puzzles—a lot. As with the mystery element, I think the inclusion of puzzles in the book adds another opportunity for interactivity. Riddles and puzzles give the reader something to play with. I hinted at this earlier, but I suppose it deserves a greater emphasis because it’s really important to me: I love any opportunity to blend story and play. I think both those things are hugely important for children (and adults, but we’re talking about children’s literature here). I’ve carried that belief with me through two decades of working with and now writing for children, and I suspect (and hope!) that I will continue to carry it with me for many years to come.

7) The Entirely True Story of the Unbelievable Fib wraps up to a satisfying conclusion, and yet the reader is left with the feeling that the 11 year-old protagonist Prudence Potts will tackle many more mythic mysteries and adventures in the future. In fact, a sequel is planned. When you wrote this novel did you have a series in mind for it?
I did. And this brings us back to your first question, which is a nice bit of symmetry. There are so many wonderful collections of myths out there from all around the world. I think a detective agency that investigates the actions of mythological beings could be a neat vehicle through which to explore those mythological realms. I am, of course, biased.

8) Is there anything else you’d like us to know about your book?
Writers like to play with conventions, I think. We like to turn them inside-out and see what makes them tick. One of the things I like the most about The Entirely True Story of the Unbelievable FIB is that it plays with a very popular convention we see in stories for children—the idea that you have to believe in magic to experience it. In FIB, it’s the people who aren’t sure what they believe who can experience magic. It’s the uncertain people, the people with an open mind. It works in the context of the book (I hope!) as a magical system. But it also speaks to something I’m very thoughtful about these days as I go through life—the need to not be so certain about our own ideas and beliefs that we lose the ability to listen to the ideas of others or to see things from their perspective. I hope that also resonates with my readers. Unknown-1

Hillary Homzie is the author of the forthcoming Queen of Likes (Simon & Schuster MIX 2016), The Hot List (Simon & Schuster MIX 2011) and Things Are Gonna Be Ugly (Simon & Schuster, 2009). She can be found at hillaryhomzie.com and on her Facebook page.

The best way to hear about a book

Flashback to high school. My best friend slid into the seat next to me on the bus and placed a well-worn paperback into my hands. “YOU HAVE TO READ THIS,” she said. “You just HAVE to.”

The cover was enough to draw me in — a forlorn-looking woman in a white dress, standing in a forest, a mysterious black-robed figure approaching her. But more than the cover, it was my friend’s recommendation that held all the weight in my fifteen-year old world. I started the book right there on the bus.

greendarkIt was, by the way, Green Darkness by Anya Seton, a historical romance novel with themes of reincarnation and witchcraft. You may not have heard of it, but believe me, it was the teen equivalent of Eleanor & Park back in the day. At least in my high school. We were all reading it and passing it along to a friend.

Fast forward umpteen years later, and I’m now an author myself. On a recent school visit, I saw a girl hand another girl a paperback and whisper, “You have to read this. It’s so good. It’s the best book I ever read.”

My heart leaped. In this age of online everything, a time so different than when I grew up, the same personal reader-to-reader moment was still happening?

Witnessing the exchange between the two girls made me think about the question many authors have been known to obsess over — exactly how do young readers find books today? Most authors I know promote their books in every avenue possible — trailers, blog tours, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, marketing campaigns, bookstore visits, Goodreads.

It can be quite exhausting, to be honest.

I asked an agent at a recent writer’s conference what really sells books these days, and her answer made everyone in the room laugh. “If we knew the answer to that,” she said, “we’d all be millionaires.”

So with kids and teachers and librarians on the receiving end of all this virtual publicity today, I’ve often wondered, do kids even recommend books to each other anymore? Is word of mouth still relevant?

Secrets_Greeting_Cards_Signature_Cards-500x500I want to share part of an email I received recently from a 12-year old reader:

“So I don’t like to read but my friend told me I should read this book so I went to the library and checked it out. It was amazing! This makes me want to read more books. All I want to say is thank you for writing this book. And by the way, it was published on my birthday!”

Every author loves fan mail, but this one in particular touched my heart because the reader found my book through a friend’s suggestion. And I have to admit, I’m always thrilled when I visit schools and libraries that reinforce the personal aspect of finding books.

I’ve seen book trees in school libraries where kids write mini reviews, a favorite paperback swap event, and a lobby bulletin board where kids post book recommendations for their peers. Several public libraries post reviews on their site written by teens, or have a teen reader’s board in place.

2815a0451194418bbb1e9bdbe8a893ecI truly hope that these type of word of mouth recommendations will always continue to be part of our reading world, no matter how technologically connected future generations become. Nothing can replace that well-worn paperback passed from friend to friend with the ultimate stamp of approval: “You HAVE to read this.”


Michele Weber Hurwitz is the author of The Summer I Saved the World in 65 Days and Calli Be Gold, both from Wendy Lamb Books. She still has a copy of Green Darkness in case you want to borrow it. Find her at micheleweberhurwitz.com.