Tag Archives: friendship

STEM Tuesday: Science in Fiction Books – Author Interview with Mary Knight and Giveaway

Welcome to STEM Tuesday: Author Interview & Book Giveaway, a repeating feature for the fourth Tuesday of every month. Go Science-Tech-Engineering-Math! 

Your host this week is Dr. Amber J. Keyser, evolutionary biologist and author of many books for young readers. Today, she’s interviewing Mary Knight, the author of Saving Wonder.

About the book: Having lost most of his family to coal mining accidents as a little boy, Curley Hines lives with his grandfather in the Appalachian Mountains of Wonder Gap, Kentucky. Ever since Curley can remember, Papaw has been giving him a word each week to learn and live. Papaw says words are Curley’s way out of the holler, even though Curley has no intention of ever leaving.

When a new coal boss takes over the local mining company, life as Curley knows it is turned upside down. Suddenly, his best friend, Jules, has a crush on the coal boss’s son, and worse, the mining company threatens to destroy Curley and Papaw’s mountain. Now Curley faces a difficult choice. Does he use his words to speak out against Big Coal and save his mountain, or does he remain silent and save his way of life? With everything changing, Curley doesn’t even know if there will be anything left to save.

About the author: Mary’s debut novel, SAVING WONDER (Scholastic), won the 2017 Green Earth Book Award, a Parents’ Choice award, a Sigurd Olsen honorable mention for nature writing from Northland University, and was named a Notable Book for Social Studies by the Children’s Book Council. In addition to author visits and working on her next novel, Mary is a mentor for the Carnegie Center’s Author Academy in Lexington, Kentucky. She is also co-authoring a professional development book for teachers called CoreEmpathy: Transforming the Literacy Classroom. More about Mary and her work at www.maryknightbooks.com

Praise for SAVING WONDER from School Library Journal: Descriptions of the setting’s fragile beauty are so subtly interwoven with dialogue and action, they’re not only powerful visual images but ever-present reminders of what’s at stake in Curley’s fight…Characters are fully developed and endearing, their dialogue direct and sincere…Curley and Pawpaw’s word-a-week ritual crystallizes their relationship for the readers and gives Curley the confidence to take on an adversary that seems more powerful than he is. VERDICT A remarkable debut novel from an author to watch.

Also check out great reviews from Bookpage and Publisher’s Weekly.

Mary’s ideas for how to use SAVING WONDER to introduce STEM topics in the classroom: Generally, teachers who want to use the story of Saving Wonder as a “jumping off point” for further exploration of STEM topics have found it to be very versatile. Fiction has a unique function in engaging student interest in STEM topics by showing how an individual life is being personally affected by that topic or issue.

For instance, my novel offers a very personal, heartfelt betrayal of how one family (and community) is affected by a coal company’s decision to mine a mountain. A fictional story can show readers WHY we study and explore these topics, WHY they matter to people in their everyday lives. The story inspires interest and then, the student has their own personal stake in what they are researching and exploring…because they’ve “walked in a character’s shoes” and seen that topic from that character’s point of view. In short, a story can inspire them to care…and that caring makes all the difference in their learning.

Math topics:

First paragraph of the book, Curley says that learning a word a week from his grandfather and going through the alphabet twice a year is “a perfect system.” I love asking readers “why” this is. What’s the math? A teacher could ask: What are some examples of perfect systems? “Is an equation a ‘perfect system.’ What makes a system “perfect?’

Researching statistics / surveys on the effects of mountaintop removal on the Appalachian region. Exploring the economics involved in the issue, i.e. jobs versus effects on environment and public health.

Science topics:

Extinct species in the Appalachian Mountains: What made the Appalachians a perfect habitat for animals during the ice age? What made species go extinct? The considerations / consequences of introducing a new species into a region. (The introduction of western elk into the Appalachian region is explored in the novel.)

The long-term effects of extractive mining processes, specifically mountaintop removal mining, on environment and health. 

(Science and engineering) Designing experiments on run-off and water quality on nearby streams. One fifth-grade teacher in South Charleston, West Virginia created a classroom experiment showing how toxic minerals leech into the soil and then, streams and rivers. Contact Knight through her website for a copy of this lesson. 

How mountains are formed. If the Appalachians are among the oldest mountains in the world, why are they so short? 

How coal and other energy materials are formed. How and why they burn (chemistry).

Sustainable vs non-sustainable energy systems. (Cost analysis / diagrams could also be a math topic.)

One of Curley’s words is “tipping point.” What does “tipping point” mean in science? What are some examples of a tipping point? Scientific demonstrations of “tipping point,” say when water becomes a solid and/or a gas. Relating the scientific to social or cultural tipping points may enhance understanding of both.

Curley and his friends use the power of technology to spread the news about the mining threat to their mountain and to inspire other people to care through the power of their words. Where are all the places where technology comes into play in the novel–for good or ill? How does their use of technology have to do with “tipping point?” What is the definition of “going viral” these days and how may it differ from the past?

How might you use technology to spread the word regarding something you care about? Projects could revolve around this. One middle school teacher, after reading Saving Wonder with her class, invited her students to answer the question: “What makes something worth fighting for?” And then they created projects in which they took action to make a difference in their community. This same invitation could be made, inviting students to incorporate technology in their design / response.

On a more social note . . . 

In Saving Wonder, my protagonist Curley Hines has a conversation with the new coal boss, Mr. Tiverton, concerning the mountaintop removal mining planned for Curley’s mountain. Both characters have their say, offering what the mountain and the proposed mining means to them. I think this scene offers a great example of how to have a civil conversation where both parties are able to speak and be heard–something I believe we need more of in today’s divisive culture. I created the following lesson based on this scene to help students create and practice civil conversation. This is not STEM oriented, specifically, but anyone in a STEM field will one day need this skill! This was a guest blog for Jacqueline Jules’ blog, “Pencil Tips Writing Workshop.”

These are just a few ideas for integrating the “A” of language arts into “S-T-E-M” to increase the vibrancy of learning! 

A Q & A with Amber J. Keyser and Mary Knight:

When you began to work on Saving Wonder, which came first, the environmental issues or the characters?  

Chronologically speaking, my experience and impassioned response to the environmental destruction of mountaintop removal coal mining came first, but it wasn’t until I was “introduced” to my main character, Curley Hines, that the story began to unfold.

When my husband and I moved to Kentucky from the Pacific Northwest eight years ago, we were missing our mountains, so when we heard that a state park was offering elk tours in eastern Kentucky, we jumped at the chance to explore our new landscape. Little did we know that that tour would land us on an active mountaintop removal (MTR) site. We were absolutely flabbergasted at the sight of so much devastation—hundreds of acres absolutely stripped of all life. The experience led me to conduct research on the mining practice for the next two years, while also participating in some environmental activism.

Two years after that initial experience, I was researching the setting of another novel I was writing when I came upon a historic gazebo in a public park in Cincinnati. People through the decades had carved their initials on its stone wall. As I was running my hands over the engravings, I came upon one that read: “I love Curley Hines” and in that moment, I knew that boy. I tell my readers that “he came to me whole.” I knew that he was tall and thin with curly hair, of course, that he was really smart and lived in the Appalachian Mountains of eastern Kentucky with his grandfather. And I began hearing his voice. He wanted to tell me his story! It was then that I knew MTR would provide the central conflict. I had finally found a story big enough to explore the topic.

What was the most interesting thing you learned while working on this book?

As part of my research, my assistant interviewed a contact she had in the mining permit field to answer my story-specific questions. When he was asked, “What stops mountaintop removal?” he answered, “Very little.”

Although I knew how challenged environmentalists are regarding MTR in Kentucky where many say, “Coal is King,” this answer was still very sobering. We followed up later by asking, “We’re not looking for what is probable, but rather, what might be possible to stop MTR.” He said, “Well, I suppose if an ancient Native American burial site were found, maybe some petroglyphs…” and then he said, “But none of that would matter UNLESS (caps, mine) there was also a large public outcry.” This was when I understood the power of numbers in getting what you want…or stopping what you don’t want. These answers figured prominently in the choices I made with my plot. Specifically, this was when the Native American element entered my story—an element I love. As I talked with Cherokee elders now living in the commonwealth, I discovered that the state government doesn’t even recognize that they exist nor that they ever lived here. Historians claim Native Americans were just passing through!

Can you tell us a fascinating research tidbit that you weren’t able to work into the book?

There is a very important tree that is a central element to the story—a tree that my young characters call “Ol’ Charley.” It was initially a Native American marker tree, a tree that some theorize was bent as a sapling to indicate the direction of trails or to sacred sites. An anthropologist who was a member of the Cherokee tribe and who vetted the Native American elements in the book strongly disagreed with this theory, however. To include his name in the credits, we decided to change the tree to a sycamore. The sycamore plays an important role in the Cherokee creation story and sometimes Native Americans hid in its hollowed trunks to escape “removal,” otherwise known as The Trail of Tears. I felt good about making Ol’ Charley a sycamore…but I still miss the marker tree!

Why are STEM topics important to you? 

Honestly, the most important mission I have as a fiction writer is to engage my readers in a really good story. STEM topics offer great material that can capture a reader’s attention and inspire their curiosity—which in turn keeps them turning those pages! But I have a confession to make—I didn’t really set out to introduce STEM topics in my novel. That just happened. Now, however, I’m the one who’s hooked! My next novel intentionally explores issues around endangered species and global warming on the beautiful of island of Hawaii…and yes, I had to go there to conduct my research!

I hope all you STEM folks check out SAVING WONDER and find lots of ways to use it in your classrooms! As you do, I hope you will also send me your lesson ideas. I love sharing these with other teachers. Feel free to contact me at maryknight314 (at) gmail (dot) com.

Happy STE(A)Ming! Don’t forget the wonder of ‘A’!

Buy a copy of SAVING WONDER! 

Win a copy of Saving Wonder! 

Enter the giveaway by leaving a comment below. The randomly-chosen winner will be contacted via email and asked to provide a mailing address (within the U.S. only) to receive the book.

About Amber J. Keyser: Evolutionary biologist Amber J. Keyser has an MS in zoology and a PhD in genetics. She writes both fiction and non-fiction for tweens and teens. More information at www.amberjkeyser.com.

An Interview with Tony Abbott

Today we’re pleased to talk with Tony Abbott, the author of more than 95 books for middle-grade readers, including the Golden Kite Award winner, Firegirl. Tony’s newest book, The Summer of Owen Todd (Ferrar Straus Giroux, 2017), is the subject of our discussion. (Giveaway Alert! Read all the way through for details.)

The Summer of Owen Todd could be the story of just about any 11-year-old. Summer has arrived, school is over, and for Owen, the days stretch long with the possibility of beach trips, go-kart races, and baseball games with his best friend, Sean. Sean’s own summer plans, however, are derailed by his mother’s new job and the presence of a babysitter, a young man Sean’s mom believes she can trust to keep Sean, who has diabetes,  safe and help monitor his blood sugar levels.  When Sean becomes the victim of sexual abuse at the hands of his new babysitter, Owen is the only person Sean can talk to.  Told entirely from Owen’s point of view, The Summer of Owen Todd addresses a difficult topic as it explores issues of trust, friendship, and bravery.

MH: It wasn’t too long ago that a topic such as childhood sexual assault would have been taboo in middle-grade fiction. When did you know you wanted to write this story?

TA:  The “when” of this story is critical to me. To step back a few years, my wife knew a work colleague, and one day she told my wife a truly horrible story about her son. He was very young, molested, filmed, later told a friend about it, then swore that friend to keep it a secret, which he did. The boy eventually committed suicide. Some years later, his mother approached my wife, knowing I was a writer, saying she was ready to get her son’s story out and wondered if there was a book that could help other children and families. My wife told me about this, and one or two writer friends who had written tough stories for young adults were discussed, but almost from the beginning I had begun to feel some of the tensions and visualize some scenes that would need to be dramatized in any telling. There was something uniquely powerful in those moments. They drew me in.

I have not been molested, though there was a moment in high school, a meeting with an older man, that immediately came to mind, and I remembered how I felt when that happened. I also felt that the ultimate truth of what happened—the suicide—was something that occurred when the boy was approaching adulthood and that any story for younger readers would likely have to end before that. It might have been at this time that the element of telling the story from the friend’s point of view became the way into the tragedy. So, the molested boy’s friend tells the story, and it would chart the days and weeks of the ongoing abuse from the friend’s point of view. If, as I later discovered, from 1 in 7 to 1 in 20 boys is sexually abused, that left the majority of boys as bystanders, friends of the abused. It seemed a way to broaden the story, make it approach real life, to write from the likely reader’s point of view.

These tensions drew me into the story both deeply and quickly and there was no question of talking to other writers; I would try to create a draft to see how it might work. The narrator’s name, Owen Todd, came to me from that place where names come. It wasn’t assembled. It came, he came, with a voice and a personality, as these things often do. I loved him, his vulnerability, his likes and dislikes. I don’t think this is news to any writer. A character is born, not crafted, and that’s the way of it with Owen.

MH: The awful reality of what is happening to Sean is clearly, and yet delicately, stated. How much discussion happened in the editorial process about what words would be used and what words might be avoided?

TA: To begin to answer this, I have to say that the original draft had the characters aged around 8 or 9. The summer was between 3rd and 4th grade. What I knew, but perhaps not completely consciously when I submitted the draft, was that the language I was using, both in conversations between Owen and Sean and in describing the events of the abuse, was pushing the story out of that lower-age area of middle grade stories. To tell the story properly it had to be harsh and raw in parts. To have really worked it for younger readers, some of the language would have to be less precise and more vague. “Bad touching,” instead of the wordage Sean actually uses in the book. I felt that the gauzier language would have made the book poorer as a piece of art and as a representation of reality. So my editor kindly brought me back up to meet my own language, so to speak. The characters are now eleven and in the summer between  elementary and middle school. This made the story match the kind of humor and emotion, description and relationship interaction the characters already displayed. The Summer of Owen Todd may be one of the first middle-grade stories to talk this way about the sexual abuse of a boy, but what is still needed is a book for younger boys who are very much the prey of molesters. Another way of saying this is that I failed to find the way to tell the story I had in mind to a readership lower than ten years old.

MH: I wouldn’t say you failed as much as you adjusted the story you had in mind to fit a slightly older audience. Tell us about the sale of the manuscript. What did your agent say about the manuscript’s marketability?

The first draft was some 18,000 words long. Eighty pages. The events in the published book were mostly all there, but in compressed form, one abuse following the other until the end. My agent at the time, Erica Silverman loved the story as I submitted it. She thought, I suppose, that it was too short as is, but it was like a, what did Dickens call such things, a sledgehammer, and that it would find an editor with an encouraging response. We assembled a list of six or eight editors from different companies and imprints, and Erica sent copies to some of them, keeping a reserve of a few for a second round of submissions. There were a couple of odd passes from good editors, a useful letter or two, but it took a few submissions and weeks to find Joy Peskin at Farrar Straus, an editor who saw the inside of the story, saw what it could be, and knew from the brief draft that I could pull and push and enlarge the story into what it has now become. Joy’s wanting me to go back and draw some of the background characters and situations into the light—Owen’s sister, Ginny; his grandmother; the buying of the go-karts, the baseball game, the outdoor theater—proved to me that the story was both bigger and more real when I made it fuller. We knew from the beginning, Joy, Erica, and myself, that it was a specialized sort of book. Not one that you could market to all comers.

MH: How much outlining/preplotting did you do while writing this book?

TA: I tend to outline very specifically when I write a mystery or a thriller, and I have done quite a few of those. For novels—and yes, I guess I make a distinction between my books this way—there isn’t anywhere near as strict a machine for getting from the first page to the last. There is a very strong thread, I would call it, that I know the story will follow, or that I suspect it will. But there is enough play throughout so that events and motives can transform themselves, and that thread becomes more like a tapestry of several motives, weaving together what is a more complex whole. Some of what results during the writing of the story are, of course, elements I hadn’t the least conceived when I set about to write it. Those surprises are organic and, as such, exciting and life-bearing. All this is to say that I knew where the story would go, how it would end, but not all the features of the landscape.

MH: You capture summer on Cape Cod from the perspective of the locals, which is different from many seaside stories told from the point of view of vacationers. Why did you choose to set the book there?

Place has always been a character in the stories I love to read. Give me descriptions of rooms, weather, streets, the panorama of life. When I start to read a book and I find I don’t feel the place, I don’t go on.  I’ve visited the Cape for decades, just about every summer, often off-season. I am deeply in love with it, want to live and die there, if at all possible. If the characters and their voices and feelings come first, the setting comes quickly after. Where are they speaking and feeling? In this case, everything I knew about living on the Cape would find a home with these boys. I love go-karting, I love the Gut in Wellfleet, Provincetown, Chatham, Brewster, all of those things became living backgrounds for the psychological progress of Owen and of Sean. The idea of being locals; now that’s interesting. I suppose after going there for so long, I don’t feel like a tourist anymore. My wife and I and our daughters have so many “regular” places, it’s like being home.

MH: In the bookstore scene, there’s a nod to Brian Lies’s Bats at the Ballgame when Owen’s little sister Ginny picks out a “picture book about vampire bats playing baseball.”  Is Owen’s choice— “I find a novel about a boy who disappears”— also a nod to one of our own middle-grade contemporaries?

TA: Ha! This is funny. Because Brian lives on the South Shore below Boston, he’s quite familiar with the Cape; I thought of his books immediately when the bookstore scene came around. The novel, the one that Owen would buy for himself, is a veiled reference to one of my own, which isn’t out yet, and turns out to be not a quite truthful description of it, after all (but I still claim it!). I thought I would save Owen’s choice for something of mine, didn’t want it to be an old one, so it sort of just hangs out there as a question: what book is he talking about?

MH: Talk to us about using the truth as a springboard into fiction, as you’ve done so beautifully in this book.

TA: The idea of fact becoming fiction is always fascinating to me. Although the impetus for The Summer of Owen Todd came from a real event, the novel that emerged is almost completely imagined, and this sort of thing happens in an interesting way. The voice of Owen came first, I feel comfortable in saying. Sean’s voice, second. The center of the story would be Owen and his reaction to what  happens to Sean, but also his reactions to summer, which is a big deal in a resort area. So, first the voices, then the setting, then the emotional thread I mentioned earlier begins to establish itself. You know instinctively, I believe, when the novel you are writing cleaves too closely to what really happened, because it lacks a certain kind of fictive truth. Fictive truth, I’m compelled to say, is not less true than what really happens, but creates itself out of the emotional reality of the story you are crafting. If an imagined conversation or event aligns with that truth, then it is as true as life.

MH: Tony, thank you. Thank you for the brave way in which you tackled a project that many would have deemed too difficult. Thank you for generously sharing your process with us. And, thank you, for providing The Mixed-Up Files of Middle-Grade Authors with TWO signed copies of The Summer of Owen Todd for our giveaway. Your kindness is so very appreciated.

To enter, see below. *Contest open to U.S. residents only.*

a Rafflecopter giveaway

The Stars of Summer-Giveaway & Chat with Tara Dairman

The_Stars_of_Summer_CVR_LIB

In this charming sequel to All Four Stars, eleven-year-old foodie Gladys Gatsby now has her first published review under her belt and is looking forward to a quiet summer of cooking and reviewing. But her plans quickly go awry when her friend Charissa Bentley delivers Gladys’s birthday gift: a free summer at Camp Bentley.

As Gladys feared, camp life is not easy: she struggles to pass her swim test and can’t keep the other campers happy while planning lunches. The worst part is she can’t seem to get away from the annoying new “celebrity” camper and sneak away for her latest assignment—finding the best hot dog in New York City. But when it turns out her hot dog assignment was a dirty trick by a jealous reviewer, Gladys’s reviewing career may be over forever.

My kids and I were thrilled to read an ARC of THE STARS OF SUMMER, as we’d loved ALL FOR STARS. Today I’m delighted to be talking with the books’ author, Tara Dairman.

Hi, Tara! One of my favorite things about your writing is the way you present girl/boy friendships, making your books appealing to all kids. (My son really enjoyed THE STARS OF SUMMER!) Did you have boys as close friends growing up? How important do you think it is that we move away from labels like “Boy Books” and “Girl Books?”

Thanks so much, Louise! I’m so glad you and your son enjoyed Gladys’s relationships with her friends, male and female. Sandy, Gladys’s best friend, isn’t based on anyone in particular from my real life, but I did have good friends who were boys as a middle-grader and teenager. And now, as a homeschool writing tutor, I love putting great books in the hands of my students regardless of the reader’s gender and of whether there’s a boy or a girl on the book’s cover. I think that we’re really shortchanging kids if we give them the message, from such a young age, that certain books are not for them. If we only ever consumed stories about characters who were exactly like ourselves, the world would be a very boring place.

Gladys gets an “assignment” to find and review the world’s best hot dog. The results are hilarious! I have to know: Do you like hot dogs? And how many of the varieties presented in the books have you actually tasted? Any favorites?

I love hot dogs. Even when I was writing some of the grosser hot dog scenes in the book, I would find myself craving a hot dog!

Like Gladys’s friend Parm, I was a very picky eater growing up, but hot dogs were always a hit. Then, as an adult, when I backpacked around the world, I was surprised at how universal hot dogs were—they kept popping up in so many countries, with so many fantastic variations! Every international hot dog that Gladys eats in the book I have eaten as well; in fact, the ones I chose to have her cover for her review (Chilean completo Italiano, Icelandic pylsur, Thai battered and fried hot dog, New Mexican Sonoran, Nathan’s famous, and South African Gatsby) are all favorites of mine.

Aaaand now I want a hot dog.

Speaking of the scrumptious and often “exotic” food mentioned in THE STARS OF SUMMER, how do you research all of these delicious dishes Gladys reviews and makes? Do they spring from your own personal globetrotting experiences?

Yes, exactly. I wrote a lot of ALL FOUR STARS before I went world-traveling, so the foods in that book are based more on foods I tried as a teenager and young adult in New York City. But THE STARS OF SUMMER draws heavily on cuisines I sampled in my travels. I sometimes had to go back to my travel blog or do some sleuthing online to confirm my memories of certain dishes, but for the most part, not a lot of extra research was required.

I love the plot surprises and twists in your books. As a writer, I’m curious to know how much pre-plotting you do before you write. Did you find writing the sequel more challenging than writing the first book? Do you have any advice for writers working under tight deadlines?

All Four Stars by Tara Dairman CoverFor me, these two questions are related, so I’m going to answer them together. I found writing THE STARS OF SUMMER much easier than writing ALL FOUR STARS, and I think there are two main reasons why. Firstly, I spent so many years working on ALL FOUR STARS that, by the end, I knew my characters inside and out. That made it so much easier to stick them into a new situation in the sequel, because I already knew what their passions were and how they’d react to just about anything I threw at them. And secondly, I outlined THE STARS OF SUMMER very fastidiously before I started to write it (I explain my process in detail here: http://taradairman.com/2013/09/19/first-drafting-now-96-faster/). Of course, details always change in the execution, but knowing where all the major plot turns were in advance helped me feel confident as I drafted the book and get the work done quickly.

I’ve heard Book Three is in the works. Congratulations! What can you tell us about Gladys’s upcoming adventures? Do you know a release date yet?

Thank you—I’m excited that the series is continuing! Book Three should be out in Summer 2016. I don’t want to give too much away, but I can tell you that Gladys will be starting middle school, and will be getting an unexpected houseguest and an even more unexpected (or should I just say less expected?) job offer.

Oooh, unexpected houseguest AND a new job! Now I’m speculating… 

Tara is graciously giving away a copy of THE STARS OF SUMMER to one very lucky commenter! We’d like to know your favorite hot dog toppings/flavor, or favorite foreign dish.

 

Tara Dairman headshotTara Dairman is the author of ALL FOUR STARS, which was named an Amazon Best Book of the Month and a Mighty Girl Top Book of 2014 for Teens and Tweens. She is also a playwright and recovering world traveler. She grew up in New York and received a B.A. in Creative Writing from Dartmouth College. After surviving the world’s longest honeymoon (two years, seventy-four countries!), she now lives in Colorado with her husband and their trusty waffle iron.

Connect with Tara:

 taradairman.com

twitter.com/TaraDairman

facebook.com/TaraDairmanAuthor

instagram.com/allfourstars/