Check This Out: The Mo & Dale Mysteries by Sheila Turnage

Today on the blog, I am thrilled beyond measure to have one of my favorite authors—the one and only Sheila Turnage! I’ve mentioned her in this post, this one, and others.

She is here today to talk about her middle grade mystery series, the Mo & Dale Mysteries, which began with the Newbery Honor-winning Three Times Lucky (click here to read a synopsis). In September, it will end (sob!) with The Law of Finders Keepers. Penguin Random House is the publisher of this series. Trust me. You will want all of them.

 

 

Sheila is represented by Margaret Riley King at WME. Her editor/publisher is Kathy Dawson of Kathy Dawson Books (which is the imprint for the last three books of the series). Now, let’s talk to Sheila!

El Space: Four quick facts about yourself?
Sheila: I grew up on an NC tobacco farm, and live there today with my husband Rodney, a dog named Callie, and way too many chickens, guineas and ducks. Well, I guess that’s more than four, even after I left out the goats.

El Space: Three Times Lucky won the Newbery Honor in 2013. How has winning this award been a game changer for you?
Sheila: Winning a Newbery Honor was huge for me. Honestly, at the time, I had no idea HOW huge. Thanks to that award, I get to visit schools all over the US and talk to kids about my books and about writing. Plus Three Times Lucky is published all over the world, which is just amazing. It astounds me to think of my mystery involving two best friends—Mo LoBeau and Dale Earnhardt Johnson III—being read by children in China, or Sweden, or . . .

The Newbery Honor was huge for my heart, too. It’s an amazing feeling, hearing your name called and walking out in front of all those librarians to accept that award. And it’s an incredible acknowledgement of a lifetime of work.

2657El Space: Mo and Dale are some of the best kid characters I’ve read on this side of To Kill a Mockingbird. In fact, all of your characters (Harm Crenshaw, Miss Lana, the Colonel, etc.) are well realized. What were the inspirations behind Moses, Dale, and their town—Tupelo Landing? Which character, if any, is like you? Least like you?
Sheila: Wow, thanks for the compliment!
Honestly, Mo’s just one of those characters who shows up, and starts whispering her story in your ear, if you know what I mean. She was just THERE one day—vivid and sassy and tender. And wearing those plaid sneakers. And Dale kind of grew into whatever space Mo left vacant, I think. They’re a great team.

Of course the voice is rural North Carolina—which is where I was born, and live. I’ve been hearing the poetry of that language all of my life. And readers hear it in Mo’s voice, too.

As for Tupelo Landing, there are lots of small towns in rural North Carolina, and they’re the inspiration for Mo’s and Dale’s little town. If you come to visit, you’ll find tiny towns scattered all along our many rivers and streams. The waterways used to be avenues of commerce. They’re not now, but those great towns are still here—sleepy and slow.

I think I’m a blend of Mo and Dale, probably. I’m more like Dale when I’m writing a lot. And more like Mo other times. I hope I’m least like Mo’s arch enemy—the very stuck-up Anna Celeste Simpson, aka Attila Celeste. Actually, I’m pretty sure I’m the least like her. Which is a relief.

El Space: Yes! Of the books in the Mo and Dale Mysteries, which was the most challenging book to write? Why?
Sheila: Each one presented its own challenges. But in many ways, The Law of Finders Keepers was the hardest to write, maybe because I knew it was the last and I was grieving as I wrote it. I wanted to write a book that was strong enough to end the series on. I think I’ve done that, so I’m happy with it. But honestly, it was hard on my heart. I’m going to miss Mo, Dale and Harm. All of them, really.

El Space: I will definitely miss them! What mystery books or shows, if any, inspired you as you created this series? Did you always have a certain number of books in mind for the series? Why or why not?
Sheila: When I was a girl I loved reading the Hardy Boys and so I guess they inspired me, in a way. I’ve always liked books with cliffhangers, and lots of action—and that’s what I write.

I really didn’t start out to write a series. I wrote Three Times Lucky as a standalone, and things unfolded from there. Each book is designed to be read as a standalone, or in sequence.

For kids who’ve read only Three Times Lucky, and want to know whether Mo ever finds her Upstream Mother—well, all I can say is the Desperado Detectives take up the case of Mo’s long-lost mom in The Law of Finders Keepers. Mo’s fans won’t want to miss it.

El Space: I have been waiting to find out! In rock, paper, scissors, what do you usually go for the moment you hear, “Rock-paper-scissors”? Seriously, which one? Why?
Sheila: Rock! I’m suspicious of scissors because they’re so snippy. And I get tired of using paper all day. . . .

El Space: What will you work on next?
Sheila: Thanks for asking! I’m already working on a new middle-grade book for my publisher/editor Kathy Dawson (Penguin Random House). It’s set in Eastern NC again—this time on the Outer Banks, near the Graveyard of the Atlantic. I’m having fun with it, and I hope readers will too!

El Space: Sheila, thank you for being my guest!
Sheila: Thanks so much, Linda! You rock! (paper-scissors)

Looking for Sheila? Her website’s under construction currently to add her latest book. So, you can find her at her author page on Facebook.

You can find the Mo & Dale Mysteries at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wonderful bookstores near you. But one of you will win a copy not only of the first three, but a pre-order of the fourth, The Law of Finders Keepers, which is available on September 11. Comment below to be entered in the drawing. The winner will be revealed on Monday, August 13.

Book covers courtesy of Sheila Turnage and also Goodreads. Author photo by Rodney L. Beasley. Guineas from animal-wildlife.blogspot.com. Newbery honor medal from somewhere on Pinterest. Rock-paper-scissors image from dramafever.com.

A Tale of Three Trees

As promised, today I will reveal the winners of Halfway to Happily Ever After by Sarah Aronson and Every Shiny Thing by Cordelia Jensen and Laurie Morrison. See this post and this one if you’re completely confused by that statement.

     

     

Before I get to that, in honor of the first day of summer, here is a photo (the one on the left) of three trees I pass every day. Okay, yeah. You can only see the the trunk of the tree at the far right. So, the photo at the right shows the tree you couldn’t really see in the left photo (though some of the foliage in the left photo belongs to that tree). Yeah. I know. The knot holes give it a creepy look. So, let’s call it Creepy Tree. Despite its appearance, squirrels and birds by the score are drawn to it and to the one across the street from it. The latter tree seems like a happy tree, with its fuller access to the sun’s rays.

 

Happy Tree. Even the branches seem like a smile.

The tree in the foreground of the picture on the left (same tree in the photo at the right) reminds me of a brush, so its nickname is—you guessed it—Brush. Brush is a haven for birds. I’ve seen cardinals dart into it from time to time, though they usually live in one of the larger evergreen trees nearby.

   

Brush has reached a lovely height.

Brush is a place that many birds visit, but don’t live in. Sort of like a Starbucks or a library—a place they go to hang out in or work. But Creepy Tree and Happy Tree are the homes squirrels and birds return to after a hard day’s work.

Creepy Tree is less creepy from this side of the street (the Happy Tree side).

What makes some trees more habitable than others? It takes a squirrel or a bird to know best, since trees are their domain. But as I asked myself that question, I couldn’t help thinking about stories—places we find ourselves inhabiting, even if the settings are completely made up.

There are some stories we visit. We might read them once and move on. But there are stories we call home—the ones that draw us back to their pages again and again. We become citizens of their well-drawn worlds, and gladly tread their well-worn paths.

In what story worlds are you a citizen?

Speaking of well-drawn worlds, time for the book giveaways. Thanks to the random number generator, the winner of Halfway to Happily Ever After is

Is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

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Nancy Hatch!

The winner of Every Shiny Thing is

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Is . . .

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Is . . .

Marian!

Congrats to the winners! You know the drill. Please comment below to confirm.

Author photos and book covers courtesy of the authors. Tree photos by L. Marie.

Check This Out: Every Shiny Thing

Today on the blog, you will find not one, but two of my incredible VCFA classmates: the marvelous Cordelia Jensen (left) and the awesome Laurie Morrison. They are here to discuss their middle grade novel, Every Shiny Thing, which was published by Abrams in April. Click here to read the novel’s synopsis.

   

Cordelia and Laurie are represented by Sara Crowe. After the interview, I’ll tell you about a giveaway of their novel.

El Space: Four quick facts about yourself?
Laurie: 1. I used to be able to hula hoop for hours on end, doing all kinds of fancy tricks. 2. I ran three marathons before hurting my knee while training for a fourth. 3. I think chocolate chip cookies are pretty much the world’s most perfect food. 4. I have a brother who can play the piano by ear, like Ryan can in Every Shiny Thing.

Cordelia: 1. I was a certified scuba diver in high school. 2. I was a camp counselor for eleven summers. 3. When I turned 39, I got my first cavity, my first dog died, and I broke my first bone. It was like I turned 9 not 39! 4. I have boy girl twins who are 12, now we all read the same books!

El Space: How did your premise—two middle graders who come up with what has been described as an ill-advised Robin Hood scheme to raise money for people in need—come about?
Laurie and Cordelia: We started with a vision for our two characters and the relationship they would form, and we thought it would be compelling if Lauren developed a compulsion to shoplift and Sierra felt like she had to cover for her. But Laurie, who wrote Lauren’s point of view, is terrified of breaking rules and couldn’t fathom why Lauren would shoplift until she thought of the middle school students she taught and how passionate many of them were about social justice. We thought: what if Lauren is angry about the inequality she sees in the world around her and wants to do something to make the world a fairer place, sort of like Robin Hood…but then she gets carried away and her well-intentioned scheme spirals out of control?

El Space: The book was written in prose and poetry. What was your process for writing? What was your favorite thing about working together?
Laurie and Cordelia: Laurie wrote Lauren’s sections in prose and Cordelia wrote Sierra’s sections in verse. We had a big brainstorming session before we began writing, during which we figured out the midpoint and ending, and once we had written a little more than half of the book, we met again to plan a chapter-by-chapter outline for the rest of the story so it wouldn’t run away from us. But for the most part, we just went back and forth in a Google doc, one of us writing a chapter, then the other building off that chapter to write the next one, and so on. We both found the process incredibly energizing because we could bounce ideas off each other and improvise with each other as we went. And it was pretty great to get immediate feedback on the sections we wrote so we knew right away what was working and what wasn’t. And we gave each other lots of compliments as we went, which was also very fun and validating!

El Space: Talk to us about your main characters—Sierra and Lauren. How are they different than or similar to middle grade you? What advice would high school you give to Sierra and Lauren about surviving middle school? Why is this important?
Laurie: I was conscientious and loyal, like Lauren is, and I had brothers I felt somewhat protective of. I cared about injustice, but not as single-mindedly as Lauren does. And I was a rule-follower, so I never would have stolen! I think high school me would have been overwhelmed by the misguided intensity of Lauren’s Robin Hood plan. There were a couple of times when I was in high school when I really wanted to help a friend but realized I was not equipped to figure out how to do that, so I went to a trusted adult—the guidance counselor at my school—to ask for advice. High school me would have gone to the guidance counselor to work out a plan to help Lauren, and I likely would have tried to help her talk to someone she trusted, like her Aunt Jill or her teacher, Mr. Ellis. I would have advised her that there are times when things get intense and hard enough that you may need adult reinforcements and sometimes you may want to turn to adults other than your parents, and that’s just fine.

Cordelia: I was definitely a caretaker like Sierra is, which is part of the reason I wanted to write this book. I would tell Sierra (1) you are safe now, let yourself trust in your new environment and the people who are caring for you (2) if you feel overwhelmed in a relationship, seek help and support. Dare yourself to ask for help even if it feels impossible. Feeling like you are the only person who can help someone can become an addiction itself.

El Space: Social justice is a big theme in society and in your book. What do you hope kids will take away from your book?
Laurie and Cordelia: The School Library Journal review of Every Shiny Thing says the novel may encourage some readers to examine their privilege, which we were thrilled to see because we definitely like the idea that the book would make readers stop to think about things in the world that aren’t fair and things they can do—without resorting to illegal measures like Lauren does—to make a difference.

In addition, if kids are struggling with an addicted parent, we hope they will see that there are resources out there that can offer help.

El Space: Please tell us how your passion for writing books for kids developed.
Laurie: I only began writing fiction after I began teaching middle school. There was something about my students’ passion, humor, creativity, and honesty that inspired me deeply. I also went through a lot of big life changes when I was in middle school and high school, and I very vividly remember what it felt like to be that age and deal with big revelations and relationship shifts. I feel a lot of empathy for my middle school and early high school self and am moved to explore some of the intense feelings I had at those ages.

Cordelia: I have always been a writer and even concentrated in Creative Writing at Kenyon College as an undergrad. However, I began writing for kids after working with them. Besides having an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults, I have an M.Ed in School Counseling. I worked as a counselor in my twenties and was also a camp counselor for a long time (see fun fact). Once I became pregnant with my own kids, I was drawn to write stories and poems for the kids I had worked with for so long. I felt I had a lot more to say to kids and teens than to adults.

El Space: What will you work on next?
Laurie: I’m finishing up edits on my next middle grade novel, Up for Air, which is a summer story about competitive swimming, self-esteem, fitting in, and standing out that will come out next spring, and I’m working on a couple of other projects that are in much earlier stages.

Cordelia: I’ve been working on a picture book, a MG novel, and a YA—all in verse!

Thank you, Cordelia and Laurie, for being my guests!

Looking for Cordelia and Laurie? You can find them at these locations.

Laurie Morrison: website, Twitter, Instagram.

Cordelia Jensen: website, Twitter, Instagram.

Every Shiny Thing is available at a bookstore near you and online at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Indiebound.

If you’re a teacher and need resources to teach about the topics in Every Shiny Thing, click here.

One of you will be given a copy of this book simply because you commented. Check back on June 21 to discover the winner. 

Having read Every Shiny Thing, Lippy Lulu and Macy Macaron are inspired to do something to help others in need.
What would you do?

Cordelia Jensen author photo by Marietta Pathy Allen. Laurie Morrison author photo by Laura Billingham. Hula hoop from keywordsuggest.org. Scuba gear from ladyasatramp.blogspot.com. Social justice image from stephenandmary.org.au. Google docs image from heavy.com. Robin Hood image from freepins.com. Middle school image from sites.google.com. Shopkins Shoppie dolls—Lippy Lulu and Macy Macaron—by Moose Toys. Photo by L. Marie.

Making Friends with Failure: Guest Post by Sarah Aronson

As I mentioned in Monday’s post, today on the blog is a guest post written by the marvelous Sarah Aronson, author of the Wish List series, published by Scholastic, and other books. (Check out her website for a list of her books.) If you have read this blog in the last year or so, you will remember Sarah from this post and this one. And now, take it away Sarah!

If you know me in real life, you know I love a good graduation speech. This is partly because I grew up in academia, so I’ve heard a lot of them.

Two favorites were John Irving reading a work-in-progress, and Millicent Fenwick’s message to the Rutgers College Class of 1983: Be careful who you marry. (Great advice that was largely unappreciated.)

 

But mostly, like many writers and artists, I love a great perseverance story—a story that details someone overcoming years of rejection and failure and self-loathing, to finally get a lucky break and succeed.

This year, my favorite message of perseverance comes from Abby Wambach at Barnard College. (Note: she was the inspiration for Parker in Beyond Lucky—so in general—I’m a BIG FAN!)

   

She said,

Here’s something the best athletes understand, but seems like a hard concept for non-athletes to grasp. Non-athletes don’t know what to do with the gift of failure. So they hide it, pretend it never happened, reject it outright—and they end up wasting it. Listen: Failure is not something to be ashamed of. It’s something to be POWERED by. Failure is the highest octane fuel your life can run on. You gotta learn to make failure your fuel.

You can read the whole speech here.

I like how she puts this. Failure is a gift. Not something to fear. That’s because when we fail, we learn. We make connections. We grow. And thus, we should feel good about it. We should celebrate our failures. We don’t have to feel alone. And yet, we need to talk about it all the time.

Social media is packed with threads on perseverance and the struggle to succeed. Most of these messages are pragmatic. And hopeful. Successful creators offer the struggling artist hope: if you keep failing, someday, you will succeed.

For what it’s worth, I’ve written many times about my writing journey, my tangle (or perhaps tango) with failure and success. I have shared the moments when I hit rock bottom, when I promised myself I would find another path. I have shared how I challenged myself to write without expectations—to write for writing’s sake alone.

But this is what I’ve come to understand. When I was failing, talking on and on about how hard it was, I already knew what success felt like. The truth is, most people who write about failure only talk about it after they have succeeded. I rarely see anything about written about failure, while the failing is happening.

This was one of the reasons I wrote The Wish List series. In The Wish List, Isabelle seems to always be on the brink of failure. She does not like to study—because she has some learning issues. She has a hard time concentrating. Just in case that’s not hard enough, she has a high-performing sister. She is the daughter of the biggest failure of all, the worst fairy godmother ever.

  

Because of these books, I have spoken to lots of kids about kindness, determination, gusto, and failure. I’ve told them about my childhood failures (I came late to reading), and about the many drafts I always need to get the stories right. I tell them about the manuscripts that line my desk drawers. About what it feels like to hear no. To not know if YES is ever going to happen.

I will never forget the young reader who waited until everyone else was gone to ask me, “What if I’m not good at anything?”

She came to mind as I read Abby’s motivating speech. I opened up a discussion about failure on Facebook, in preparation for a session on Making Friends with Failure at nErDcamp Kansas.

Very quickly a few things became clear: Failure is not so easy in the present tense. Many of us need to experience a period of mourning—some time to get beyond it. (So if that’s you, don’t feel bad!) More important, fear of failure holds us back. It can keep us from taking risks that would pay off! It keeps us from envisioning greatness—from striving for more.

Although many acknowledged failure and its usefulness, many writers were privately grateful that they did not begin their journeys in this age of social media, where all of us are inundated with distractions that can make us all feel low, worthless, and overlooked.

This is what scares me: in a life surrounded by stories of success, many of us are feeling anxiety. And sadness. We feel out of control. Not safe. We don’t celebrate the process as much as we should.

In Kansas, I shared this feedback. Then I asked the teachers how they approach failure with their students. Right away, I was filled with hope.

Compassionate teachers talked about responding to failure by specifically and meaningfully talking about what went right.

They talked about using humor to quash sadness, but at the same time, knowing that everyone is different. Sometimes, humor doesn’t work. Sometimes we simply need to feel it.

And of course, we talked about the power of community—about how much better we feel about risk taking when we feel supported and safe. Creativity—and great books are born—when TRYING is celebrated—when it is actually rewarded.

Dear writers,
Can we do that?
Can we use humor? Can we embrace sadness? Can we set measurable goals and celebrate them? Can we help each other feel safe?
Can we make friends with failure?

This is what I work to foster in my Highlights retreats and classes at writers.com. I set out to lower the bar, to let writers take risks. I want them to fail gloriously. Because when we do, in fact, only when we do, we succeed.

In those failures, we see seeds. Seeds and glimmers of what will be a foundation for a better draft. A deeper story. A more authentic character.

Take it from Teddy Roosevelt.

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Writers, get into the arena. Be curious. Make trouble. Strive for what you want, but along the way, don’t cower, because failure is part of the process. You have to get used to it. If we stick together, we can all embrace it.

L. Marie here. Sarah just released the third book in her Wish List series, Halfway to Happily Ever After.


Book four of the series will debut on January 29, 2019. By the way, a picture book by Sarah, Just like Rube Goldberg, will debut on March 12, 2019.

I’ll be giving away a copy of Halfway to Happily Ever After to a commenter. The winner will be revealed on June 21.

Wish list book covers courtesy of Sarah Aronson. Beyond Lucky cover from Goodreads. Abby Wambach photo from gossipbucket.com. Teddie Roosevelt photo from commons.wikimedia.org. John Irving photo from sites.google.com. Millicent Fenwick photo from greatthoughtstreasury.com. Failure sign from teachertoolkit.me. Failure cartoon from clipartpanda.com. Other failure image from hownottodosocialwork.wordpress.com. Risk-Failure image from brucecoaching.com. Man in egg image from stevenaichison.co.uk. Success-failure image from livingwithtrust.com.

What Makes You Nostalgic?

The other day, I watched a YouTube video where the producers tried to recreate Dunkaroos (photo below). You can find that video here, if you’re curious. Or click here to learn a little more about Dunkaroos.

I’m seldom nostalgic over childhood snacks. As a matter of fact, I’m content to never eat a Twinkie again. (Now Hershey’s Kisses on the other hand . . .)

No, what gets me nostalgic are libraries and bookstores. Just the sight of a book still retaining its Borders sticker—like this one below—gives me the feels. I really miss Borders Bookstore. I used to shop at one in Wheaton, Illinois (photo at the right). It had a coffee shop, where I’d meet friends on many an evening. Local musicians would play on Friday nights. Sometimes poetry slams were held there. I attended many book signings there also.

   

See the photo below? This is my childhood library—the Walker Branch Library in Chicago (the far south side). Just looking at this photo causes a wave of nostalgia to wash over me. I used to go every week, up the hill to the library. I can still remember the children’s section, and the librarians who gave book suggestions to a curious kid like me who loved to read. I used to carry home several books, and gradually worked my way through the books in the children’s section. I read anything and everything.

I also miss the Barnes and Noble that also used to be in Wheaton—not too far from Borders, actually. When Barnes and Noble closed many of its bookstores years ago, the Wheaton location was an unfortunate casualty. I used to get my copies of the Harry Potter series at midnight every year at that store (along with hundreds of other people). The salespeople in the children’s section knew me.

What about you? What makes you feel nostalgic? While you consider that, as promised, I will now reveal the winners of Yoga Frog by Nora Carpenter and The Mortification of Fovea Munson by Mary Winn Heider. (For the interviews with these authors, click here and here.)

  

     

Thanks to the random number generator, the winner of Yoga Frog is

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Is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

Charles Yallowitz!

The winner of The Mortification of Fovea Munson is

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Is . . .

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Is . . .

Is . . .

Nicki Chen!

Congrats to the winners! Please comment below to confirm. I hope you enjoy these books!

P.S. Normally, I post once a week. But stay tuned this Wednesday for a special guest post by Sarah Aronson, whose third book of her Wish List series recently debuted. Yay! More on that on Wednesday!

Dunkaroos from thesobremesa.com. Twinkies from tested.com. Author photo of Mary Winn Heider by Popio Stumpf. Book cover art by Chi Birmingham. Author photo of Nora Carpenter by Chip Bryan Photography. Walker Branch Library photo from the Walker Branch website. Borders photo from Yelp. Barnes and Noble logo from comicsbeat.com. Other photo by L. Marie. Lemony Limes Shoppie Doll by Moose Toys.

Check This Out: The Mortification of Fovea Munson

This week, the amazing Mary Winn Heider, another of my fab classmates from Vermont College of Fine Arts, is here on the blog to talk about her middle grade novel, The Mortification of Fovea Munson, which was illustrated by Chi Birmingham.

 

Mary Winn is represented by Tina Dubois. The Mortification of Fovea Munson was published by Disney-Hyperion Books, and as of today, is available to the world.

I have good news! One of you will be mailed a copy of this book next week. Details to follow. Now, let’s get to gabbin’ with Mary Winn!

El Space: Four quick facts about yourself?
Mary Winn: 1. I grew up in South Carolina and Indonesia.
2. I now live in Chicago.

At the Chicago River

3. I don’t know how to type.
4. I played the bagpipes when I was a kid.

El Space: Your book is about a kid whose parents work in a cadaver lab. Your main character, Fovea, has to do a favor for some disembodied heads. (That’s not a spoiler by the way. The book jacket tells you that much.) How on earth did you come up with this premise?
Mary Winn: It was an accident! I got a job working in a cadaver lab—as a receptionist, the same job that Fovea gets stuck with on her summer break. I didn’t start working there for research—I started working there because I needed a job—but I quickly realized it was a fantastic place to set a story about struggling through middle school and figuring out who you are. The stakes are pretty much the same, you know? Everything feels like life or death. So then once I had the setting, I sorted out who the other people might be in the world—and the most interesting ones turned out to be these disembodied heads. Then when I realized what they needed, and that they couldn’t solve their problem on their own, I knew what Fovea was going to have to do.

Marty Feldman as Igor in Young Frankenstein

El Space: You made me laugh out loud throughout this book. But I was also touched by Fovea’s longing for friendship. How did you balance humor with the more poignant aspects without resorting to bathos?


Mary Winn: Thanks! That’s lovely to hear. When I set out, I definitely wanted the story to be weird and funny and secretly full of heart. Like not just hearts, but also heart. You get me.

I didn’t know outright how to do that—there was a lot of trial and error to make the balance work. But my guiding principle was that as ridiculous and absurd as things got in the story, I could never forget what was really at stake. If a bit didn’t somehow serve the needs of the characters or the scene or come justifiably out of an emotional arc, then I cut it. I cut so many bits. So I didn’t have a map starting out, I really just always had one eye on it.

El Space: How did your training as an actor prepare you to write this book?
Mary Winn: Ooh—there are a lot of big picture ways that theater has helped my writing; for example, I have a lot of experience staging a scene with an ensemble and being part of an ensemble in a scene. I like playing with focus. I totally held blocking rehearsals for my characters using action figures. And my training has definitely been good for getting in the heads of my characters. Including . . . well . . . the heads.

The girls want to dress up as Fovea and the disembodied heads for the next Halloween. There’s just one obvious problem. . . .

As far as the day-to-day influence, for the last ten or so years, I’ve been a member of this theater company in Chicago—Barrel of Monkeys. We teach creative writing residencies in Chicago Public Schools and then perform what the kids have written for them. And so in a perfect confluence of the things I love, my theatrical life has me working with a lot of student authors. And they just never stop being inspiring.

  

Left photo: Yes, that is Mary Winn. Photo from The Marshmallow by Isabella—Loyola Park Program. Right photo: Mary Winn with Michael Turrentine in Episode One: The Blowup of Underwear Planet: The Amazing Blah Story by Richard W—Skinner North Elementary. Photos by Evan Hanover.

El Space: Without giving any spoilers, if you can avoid them, which character in the book did you identify with the most? Why?
Mary Winn: Ha! Parts of me are definitely in all of them, even the lovesick cremator. Who doesn’t want to be loved?! That said, I identity most with Fovea. That feeling of being unmoored by a lost friendshipthat was how I kicked off my middle school years. And having to tangle with the uneasy feeling that everybody changed the rules when you stepped out for a moment. I still feel like that sometimes. I wasn’t as funny as she is, but I aspired to be.

El Space: How did you come to write for children and young adults? What books or movies inspired you?
Mary Winn: It was a long, meandery path! And oh, I’ve been inspired by so much along the way! I was a serious reader as a kid, but struggled with writing. I turned to theater, and eventually wound up going to Vermont College of Fine Arts, where I finally made the connection that drafting isn’t too far away from rehearsing. That’s when it started being fun. And I really never got as excited about writing for adults as I did for kids. Kids are the coolest. No offense, grown-ups.

If we’re talking specifically about this story, I’d say some of the books that are deep in Fovea’s bones are Outside, Over There by Maurice Sendak, the Snarkout books by Daniel Pinkwater, Fat & Bones by Larissa Theule, Flora and Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo, The Princess Bride by William Goldman, The Faraway Tree books by Enid Blyton—though I haven’t reread them since I was a kid and I’m not sure I want to. Also, on the movie side of things, definitely Young Frankenstein.

 

   

El Space: What will you work on next?
Mary Winn: My next project is another middle grade due out next year! It starts when somebody throws all the tubas off the roof of the school.

Thanks, Mary Winn, for being my guest. Your next book sounds like a hoot (or rather a toot, since it is about tubas).

Wondering why the name Fovea sounds familiar? Click here. 

If you’re looking for Mary Winn, you can find her at Highlights, Twitter, Instagram, and Barrel of Monkeys.

The Mortification of Fovea Munson is available at a fine bookstore like The Book Cellar, and online at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Indiebound.

One of you will be given a copy of this book just because you commented. So,  think of something to say! Winner to be announced on June 11.

Author photo by Popio Stumpf. Book cover art by Chi Birmingham. Book birthday image from romancingrakes4theluvofromance.blogspot.com. BOM pics are by Evan Hanover. Kids’ Next photo by Nora Carpenter. Bathos definition from dictionary.com. Marty Feldman photo found at theaceblackblog.com. Young Frankenstein movie poster from morganrlewis.wordpress.com. Other book covers from Goodreads. Photo of the Chicago River and the Shopkins Shoppie dolls and Shuri photo by L. Marie. Shopkins Shoppie dolls by Moose Toys. Shuri action figure by Hasbro.

Check This Out: The Book Passage Children’s Writer’s Conference

I don’t think I have ever talked about conferences for writers on the blog, let alone had someone on who coordinates one. But with me on the blog is the fabulous Pamela Livingston, who roomed with me during grad school. She’s here to talk about the Book Passage Children’s Writer’s Conference in Corte Madera, California.

  

El Space: Four quick facts about yourself?
Pamela: 1. I was the Macy’s Easter Bunny.
2. I am the proud owner of both a VCFA MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults degree plus a Picture Book Certificate which I may have illustrated before finally finding space on a wall.
3. My newest aka is “Mama Goose” of Goosebottom Books since purchasing this award-winning publishing house from its founder, Shirin Bridges.
4. I’ve been a circus star stage mom.

El Space: Tell us about Book Passage. What is it? What is your role in this conference?
Pamela: Book Passage is one of the greatest indie bookstores in the world, having survived and thrived for forty-one years and counting under the eagle eye of Elaine Petrocelli, the voice of indies for NPR and other media outlets. I’ve been the conference director since 2016, although it feels more like a curatorial position, developing a potent experience for our participants. Over fifty percent of our attendees return year after year—this was the first writing conference I attended over ten years ago. Since I also head Book Passage’s Path to Publishing program, this conference provides me with an opportunity to mix in all of the components for children’s writers and illustrators.

El Space: How long is the conference? How many years has the conference been held?
Pamela: This conference is a three-day, Friday morning through Sunday afternoon, festival which includes meals with our faculty under a northern California sky. For almost twenty years we’ve held it at our Corte Madera store, just north of the Golden Gate Bridge. It was the first children’s writers and illustrators conference in the San Francisco Bay Area.

El Space: What challenges do you face setting up a conference like this? What do you find most enjoyable?
Pamela: Embracing all of our children’s literary community is my highest priority while providing educational excellence. To that end, our faculty represents members of SCBWI, VCFA’s Writing for Children and Young Adults program, award winners from a wide range of genres, diversity in all sectors, experts in the business of books, plus dedicated editors and agents who can move our participants’ work to the next level.

I thoroughly enjoy every aspect of this process, from coordinating with the authors, editors, and agents whom I’ve long admired, to hanging out with the conference’s attendees. It’s as if a wand was waived by the Fairy Queen of Books to create a dream weekend for my favorite people in the world. When I take into account faculty such as Elizabeth Partridge, Ellen Klages, Gennifer Choldenko, Tim McCanna, and Ying Compestine; plus Creston Books’ legendary founder Marissa Moss; Jennifer de Chiara’s venerable agent Stephen Fraser and representatives from West Coast agencies; editors from Bloomsbury and Cameron Kids—all in one place—I know I’m in for three days nestled in the Land of Enchantment.

El Space: I’m especially stoked that Betsy Patridge (photo at the right) will be there, since she was one of my lovely advisors. Why is a conference like this important for a writer? What makes this conference unique?
Pamela: Conferences are the best way for a new writer to learn if this is a world they want to be in, what it will take, plus pick up the tools and network they need to get them there. As this conference is held at the most lauded independent bookstore in America, we are able to pull back the curtain on the business of books. My journey began as a storyteller, but I knew nothing about the mechanisms behind the business of bringing those stories from the page to the patron. Even my two graduate degrees in writing were light on the business end of this process. It wasn’t until I managed a bookstore and bought a micro-publishing house that I developed a clear picture of this process. This conference not only focuses on the craft of writing, it provides the creators of children’s stories with an understanding of the business of books.

El Space: What can a writer expect at a conference like this?
Pamela: Our conference is both intimate and active, with options for participants to choose their educational opportunities along with a comfortable bookstore setting and café to meet, chat and get to know the faculty and each other. At last year’s conference, I was as impressed with the participants as I was with the faculty, since our attendees included a multi-Grammy award winner, adult genre-published authors changing to the children’s market, author networking leaders, teachers, librarians, etc. And did I mention the food? Let’s just say that one of the best restaurants in the county caters dinner!

El Space: Who should people contact for more information?
Pamela: For more information, folks will want to check-out our website where updates are posted, along with our Book Passage Conferences Facebook page.

El Space: What are you working on?
Pamela: Besides the conference, finding the perfect illustrator for a Goosebottom Book on Marco Polo, learning Quark, and praying that a particularly wonderful editor flips over one of my circus picture books.

El Space: Thanks for being my guest, Pamela!

Photos of the conference crowd scenes by Ying Chang Compestine. Conference logo designed by Mary Osborn. Pamela Livingston photo by Valerie Kippen. Elizabeth Partridge photo from her website.