Category Archives: Authors

Interview with Award-winning Author Sarah Albee and a Giveaway!

Please welcome award-winning author Sarah Albee!

Sarah Albsarah-albee1ee is the author of more than 100 children’s books. She has had three of her books appear on the New York Times children’s bestseller list.  She currently has an upper-middle-grade, nonfiction book published in May, 2010 about the history of toilets and sanitation entitled POOP HAPPENED! A History of the World from the Bottom Up, and a follow-up title under contract due out in 2013 about how insects have affected human history. She blogs daily on a variety of science and social history topics geared toward middle-grade readers ( She spent nine years as an editor at Children’s Television Workshop, working primarily for Sesame Street and attending both the Bologna and Frankfurt Book Fairs.


Here’s her new release!

Why’d They Wear That?  from National Geographic Kids (Feb 2015)
Move over Project Runway. Get ready to chuckle your way through centuries of fashion dos and don’ts! In this humorous and approachable narrative, kids will learn about outrageous, politically-perilous, funky, disgusting, regrettable, and life-threatening creations people have worn throughout the course of human history, all the way up to the present day. From spats and togas to hoop skirts and hair shirts, why people wore what they did is an illuminating way to look at the social, economic, political, and moral climates throughout history.

Fanatastic reviews for her new book:

“Now see, the reason I like National Geographic Kids is that they’re reliable.  Take Why’d They Wear That?, for example.  You know what you’re getting here, even if you don’t know the details.  Mind you, the details are where all the good stuff is.” - School Library Journal

“Full of period images that show off every bustle, frill, and rivet, this wide-ranging guide to clothing throughout time will fascinate history and fashion buffs alike.”Publisher’s Weekly 


Thanks for joining us Sarah! Here are some questions we have for you: 

You write both fiction and nonfiction- Do you like one genre better?

I love that I get to do both. And I do think writing for different genres is a great opportunity. My fiction editors appreciate that I like to do research. And my nonfiction editors appreciate that I know how to tell a story. At present, though, my passion is nonfiction.

  What was it like working at Sesame Street?

It was a fantastic place to work. I landed a job there soon after I graduated from college. I loved the humor, the music, the travel, the creativity—and just being surrounded by so many talented people. It was a dream job.


Your nonfiction books are so much fun! How did you get interested in writing nonfiction?

Thanks for that! I’ve always been interested in nonfiction. As a kid, I read the World Book Encyclopedia for fun. It’s only been in the last 6-7 years, though, that I’ve been able to devote larger chunks of time to researching and writing longer, middle-grade books. For years, when my kids were young, I wrote a lot of work-for-hire and younger fiction and nonfiction. It was fun, and rewarding, and I learned how to meet tight deadlines and never get writer’s block. But now that my kids are older and don’t need me around as much, I feel like I’m in a new phase and I’m loving the flexibility to choose a topic I’m passionate about and plunge into it.

 Three of your nonfiction books, including your newest, take a specific topic from the beginning of civilization to the present time. Why so broad a category?

I often ask myself that very question—why do I keep writing the same book over and over–the history of the whole world from ancient times to the present? But what I love to do is to trace one theme chronologically through human history, ideally a theme that kids will find interesting. First sanitation (okay, poop), then insects, and now, with my new book, crazy fashions. Chronology is really important to me. Some might call a broad sweep through history superficial, but often kids don’t get enough context when they study historical units in school. They might study ancient Egypt, or the American Revolution, but they may not have a good sense where and when these events fall on the historical continuum. And the beauty of tracing a theme through history is that I am not limited to one time or place—I can take a snapshot of the world from multiple places and perspectives, as long as I can relate them all to my theme. For instance, in Why’d They Wear That? in the chapter on the seventeenth century, I was able to include the Pilgrims in America, Oliver Cromwell in England, Louis XIV in France, sedan chairs, tanning leather, and the weird trend of wearing face patches—because I could tie everything together with fashion.

 How much time does it take you to research one of these books? Where do you start?


I spend about a year doing research—but it’s not all I’m doing, of course. I usually have various book projects in different phases at the same time. For instance, I just finished two new book proposals, and am working on a first draft for my 2017 book, but am beginning research on a new idea. And my new book, Why’d They Wear That? (National Geographic), launched on February 10th so I’ve been super busy with publicity for that.

For research, I have the greatest library nearby—my husband is a high school teacher, and we live close to his school. His school’s library has fantastic subscriptions to various academic search engines, and the librarians are awesome and helpful. I make frequent trips to DC to research at the Library of Congress and the National Archives, and then, depending on my topic, to more specialized academic libraries. I also interview experts, in person if possible, but also via Skype.

  Do you travel to places to research your books or do it from your house?

A little of both. Every place I go—whether it’s a school visit in another state, a family vacation, or a museum trip—I see as a research opportunity. And whenever I can, I visit a place I want to write about, to get a feel for the sights, sounds, and smells. I’ve been to the Paris sewers, and Lyon, France where they still make silk, and a cotton mill museum in Lowell, Massachusetts so I could hear for myself how deafening the sound of the looms are. And last fall, I visited the poison plants garden at Cornell University to research a future book project.

 Can you tell us three fun and unexpected facts you discovered when researching your latest book?

Early versions of men’s athletic trunks—the kinds acrobats and boxers wore in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century—were the same in front and back, which must have resulted in a terrible wedgie.

Shoes, even for the wealthy, who could afford custom-made shoes, did not come in right and left until the latter part of the nineteenth century.


As late as the nineteenth and even early twentieth century, most young boys in Europe and America from well-to-do families wore petticoats up until the age of six or seven, when they’d be “breeched,” and dressed in pants. Once you start looking for them in portrait paintings, you start to see boys in dresses everywhere.

Okay, one more: 4. In seventeenth century Venice, most men, women, and children wore masks for a huge part of the year, and not just during Carnival season. It made it hard to tell the identity, or social class—or even the gender, sometimes—of most people, and allowed them to participate in some serious debauchery incognito. It was quite a bizarre phenomenon.

 What tips can you give people if they want to write nonfiction? 

Find a topic you feel passionate about, and don’t worry about whether it will “sell.” It’s a really exciting time for nonfiction right now—there’s so much great nonfiction being published, and writers can really develop their own voice and style, more than ever before.

Thanks for joining us Sarah!!


Sarah has generously donated an autographed copy of her new book,

Why’d They Wear That?  

To win this prize, tell us the craziest outfit you ever wore below.  


Jennifer Swanson is the author of over 20 nonfiction books for kids.  Like any good scientist and author, Jennifer is rarely without a notebook and she writes down her observations throughout the day. It is a practice she encourages many young readers and writers. You can visit Jennifer at,  her special place to explore the world.

An Interview with author Wendy McClure

We’re pleased to host author Wendy McClure today on the Mixed-Up Files. Wendy is the author of the three Wanderville books, an historical fiction series about three children who dare to jump off a Kansas-bound orphan train at the turn of the century. After hearing rumors about the terrible lives that await them, Jack, Frances, and Harold leave the train behind and hide in the woods. There, they meet a mysterious boy who will transform their lives forever. Books 1 and 2 are already out, and book 3 publishes in June.

Q: Welcome to the Mixed-Up Files, Wendy! Tell us how you came up with the idea for the series.

A: When I was growing up, I always loved reading about kids on their own. And wendymcclureas an editor of children’s books, I think the idea of kids being independent and having their own world is just one of those essential things that you need for a great story. I started trying to figure out where that notion came from — some of it is just human nature, I guess, but history also is full of times where kids had to work, leave home, fend for themselves. Which led me to the orphan trains, which seemed full of potential for historical adventure.

Q: What were the orphan trains?

A: The orphan trains were one of the first large-scale social programs in the U.S. From the 1850s to 1929, various charities in New York, Boston, Chicago, and other big, mostly eastern cities sent groups of poor and homeless city children on trains out west to be placed in homes — or as it sometimes turned out, work situations. Many of the orphan train riders weren’t orphans at all, but were given 9781595147004Mup by their families; often they were encouraged to forget their old lives. There were both good and bad things about the orphan trains. Thousands of kids escaped urban poverty, but siblings were separated and families broken apart.

Q: You’re a big fan of The Boxcar Children series. Did that influence you as you were writing?

A: It did! I didn’t actually read the books when I was young, but I came to know them VERY well when I started editing the series (at Albert Whitman). It definitely made me think about the ways kids can build their own worlds with just a few objects and some imagination. The trick is getting readers to look at an old cup, or a suitcase, or a fallen tree, and see all the possibilities.

indexQ: Can you share a favorite quote from one of the books?

A: It’s when the kids are taken in by a family involved in the temperance movement, and the youngest kid, Harold, is taught some of their songs:

“They [the songs] were all about how cold water was better than liquor, but everyone knew that, Harold thought. He’d never tasted liquor, of course, but he knew it smelled exactly like shoes on fire. Couldn’t folks tell the difference between that stuff and cold water? Why did they need so many songs to explain?”

Q: What do you hope readers learn or take away from the books?

A: That a lot of things in history were good and bad at the same time. Oh, but that sounds heavy…I really want them to just have a great reading experience.

Q: As a middle grade author, what do you love best about writing for this audience?

A: The school visits! The kids are great — their enthusiasm is fantastic, and they ask great questions.

2Q: Describe the series in three words.


Q: What are you working on now?

A: Nothing! I’m enjoying having some time in the evenings right now.

Q: You’re also a children’s book editor at Albert Whitman, as you mentioned. Was it difficult or easy to be both a writer and editor?

A: It was hard in terms of having time and energy to write. But at the same time, knowing the editorial process can make writing easier — I have more perspective on my drafts, and I worry less about certain things (because I know it’s a copy editor’s or proofreader’s job to worry about them). Really, I’ve learned so much about both professions by spending time in the other!

Q: What’s in your to-read pile at the moment?

A: A lot of manuscripts! Also I just tracked down some out-of-print middle grade books I remember reading as a kid, like A Candle in Her Room by Ruth Arthur and What the Neighbours Did by Phillipa Pearce. Very British stuff, and I can’t wait to read.

Q: And finally, what do you like to do in your spare time, when you’re not writing or editing?

A: Read read read!

Thanks so much, Wendy, for joining us! Find Wendy on Twitter @Wendy_Mc.

Michele Weber Hurwitz is the author of The Summer I Saved the World…in 65 Days and Calli Be Gold. Find her at


THE JAGUAR STONES–a giveaway x 4

Jon Voelkel grew up in Peru, Costa Rica, and Colombia, all the while dreaming of a boring life in suburbia. Eventually, having survived monkey stew, an attack by giant rats, and a plane crash in the jungle, he rolled up his hammock and decamped to Europe. Meanwhile, growing up in a sedate seaside town in northern England, Pamela Craik Voelkel was dreaming of travel and adventure.  The authors’ first book in the Jaguar Stones series, Middleworld, was an Al Roker Book Club pick. The rest is history!jaguar 1

Jon and Pam dropped by the MUF to talk about what it’s like to finish the last book, The Lost City,  in their Jaguar Stones  series. As it turns out, their book coincides with the end of something else as well.


When we first started writing the Jaguar Stones books, our son was about the same age as our main character. Max. Before I go further, I am honor-bound to tell you that our son, wary of exactly this type of article, has forbidden us to ever say that Max’s angry outbursts in the first book, MIDDLEWORLD, were modelled on his own. But I can tell you that there were times when I deliberately riled up our son to watch (and record) his reaction. We even plunked all three of our children down in the jungle to see how they (and Max) would cope in the wild. In many ways, Max became our imaginary fourth child. Then we got to know some modern Maya kids better and Lola, Max’s feisty Maya sidekick in the books, became our imaginary fifth child. Whenever something happened at home, I’d be thinking: “What would Max and Lola do in this situation?”

Our son is now a charming, even-tempered senior at college. And Max has grown-up too. Only one year has passed in the story, where seven years have passed in real life, but Max has learned a lot about connecting with other people. Lola was always more self-assured, but even she’s been tested to her limits. And we hope that, in trying to present the story of her people, particularly the true story of the Spanish Conquest in Book Two, THE END OF THE WORLD CLUB, we might persuade readers to rethink what they know about the Maya.

Jon and I have grown too. When we started, we were unsure that we could pull this off. In between reading books on the Maya, we read books on how to write books. For Jon, it was sometimes uncomfortable because plotting the story involved revisiting episodes in his childhood in Latin America that he’d rather forget, such as a terrifying plane crash in the jungle that’s recreated in Book Three, THE RIVER OF NO RETURN. He’s also learned to read and write Maya glyphs. It was this obsession with authenticity that led him to become an illustrator. He was determined that the illustrations in our books would help children to understand the Maya world. If glyphs were involved, as they often are, he wanted to be sure that they said what they were supposed to say.

For me, the experience of researching the books was life-changing. I used to travel with heavy suitcases, a hairdryer and an adaptor plug. Now I’ve learned to survive with a small bag and no electricity. But more than that, like Max in the books, I’ve shed some other baggage – such as my preconceptions about the Maya.

Our children, who’ve accompanied us on almost all our trips to Central America, are weary of climbing pyramids and glad the books are done. Our youngest campaigns almost daily for her dream vacation in Hawaii. But like it or not, along the way, she’s learned enough to singlehandedly man a table at Archaeology Day in the Boston Museum of Science, while her dad and I were speaking in the theater.

If I’m honest, it’s astonishing to me that we’ve been lucky enough to have four books published. Book by book, I grew in confidence, and felt more like an author and less like a charlatan. I’m hugely proud that the finished series is as funny and action-packed and sneakily educational as we hoped it would be – thanks in no small part, of course, to our editors at Egmont USA. They even allowed us to expand our trilogy into a quadrilogy (is that a thing?) when the story overran.

But now it’s really done. In fact, we wrote the last paragraph years ago when we were working on the first book. But if there’s one thing we’ve learned since then, it’s that real life cannot be planned as easily. Just this week, for example, Egmont USA announced they were closing their doors. So for us, the release of THE LOST CITY and the end of the Jaguar Stones series is about sadness and happiness and gratitude and uncertainty and hope for the future. Just like real life, really.

(Publisher’s note: The books will still be available from your favorite retailer.)

Congrats, Jon and Pam, and best wishes on your next ventures! To win paperbacks of the first three books AND a hardcover of the new one, please leave a comment below.