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.

No Peeking!

004Remember when you were a kid, and you tried to figure out what was in those boxes under the Christmas tree? (Maybe you still do.) Perhaps you grabbed a box and did the shake test to figure out its contents. (With the shake test, you run the risk of it backfiring if you are particularly vigorous and the package’s contents particularly fragile.) Or, maybe you were bold enough to tear off a tiny corner of the wrapping paper, which you later blamed on the dog or cat or a sibling, especially after a parent told you, “Hey, no peeking!”

If you’re anything like me, you didn’t wait for presents to be added to the tree. You went looking for them. I usually did, especially after hearing my older brother say, “I saw something in Mom and Dad’s closet.” Yes, I was gullible enough to take him at his word. And of course I didn’t find anything in the closet. But I continued the search by poking under their bed and in the living room closet. And you know what? My parents were way ahead of us. With three curious children, they didn’t bother hiding gifts in the house. A locked car trunk ensured that our Christmas gifts remained unopened until Christmas Day.

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Hello Kitty wants to peek inside this gift. But the tied string thwarts her. Poor Kitty. She failed to realize that the gift is in the envelope. The thing on top of it is a crocheted Christmas tree light stuffed with cotton.

What is it about surprises that make us try to figure them out beforehand? Some surprises, like wrapped Christmas gifts, are all about delayed gratification. But in our instant, I-can’t-even-wait-a-second-for-my-download society, we have to know NOW. “I’ve gotta peek,” we tell ourselves. But does learning the outcome right away make getting the gift any better? (I hear some of you murmuring, “It sure does.”)

Waiting is part of the magic of Christmas. Think about it. When a parent refused to give in to any demands to tell you RIGHT NOW what’s in those packages, the anticipation was all the more heightened. Consider how excited you were as you lay in bed, counting the seconds until you could spring up and rush to the tree.

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This season, is there anything for which you’re waiting? What can you do to regain that delightful sense of anticipation if you haven’t felt it for a while?

While you think about that, let me move on to another item of business. Those of you who waited for the Christmas book giveaway reveal, the wait is over! (Wondering what I’m talking about? Look here.) Drumroll, please . . .

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First up is a preorder of Audacity by Melanie Crowder.

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The winner of is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

Courtney Stein!

Next is The Terror of the Southlands by Caroline Carlson.

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The winner of is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

Nancy Hatch!

Last, but not least, is Caminar by Skila Brown.

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The winner is . . .

Is . . .

Is . . .

Laurie Morrison!

Congratulations, winners! See? You didn’t have to shake a package or look in a closet or under the bed. Merry Christmas! When you confirm below, please provide an email address. Thanks for commenting.

Christmas gifts from ivysays.com. Santa hat from dcafterfive.com. Drumroll from funylool.com.

Deck the Halls with Three Good Books (Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la)

santa 9Ho ho ho! Santa’s got a brand-new bag. (If you’re a James Brown aficianado, you’ll have “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” in your head now. Mwahahaha!) Today on the blog, I’m thrilled to welcome three great authors and fellow VCFA alums: Melanie Crowder, Caroline Carlson, and Skila Brown. They agreed to a quick interview without any coercion from moi or that cupcake-wielding supervillain, Hello Kitty. If you’re totally confused by that last statement, go here.

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Melanie, who also wrote Parched, is here to talk about her upcoming young adult historical novel-in-verse, Audacity, which will be coming to a bookstore near you on January 8, 2015 (published by Philomel Books/Penguin). Melanie is represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette.

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Caroline is here to discuss The Terror of the Southlands, book 2 of her middle grade series, The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates, published by HarperCollins. If you were around last year, you’ll remember that Caroline stopped by just before the first book of her series debuted. (See here and here.) Good times. Caroline is represented by Sarah Davies.

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And last, but certainly not least, Skila is here to talk about her middle grade historical novel-in-verse, Caminar, published by Candlewick Press. Skila is represented by Tina Wexler.

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After our discussion, I’ll talk about a holiday giveaway that I hope will be an annual thing.

El Space: Greetings and welcome to the blog. Could each of you provide an elevator pitch for your book to bring readers up to speed about it?
Melanie: Audacity is the inspiring story of Clara Lemlich, whose fight for equal rights led to the largest strike by women in American history.

strike

Caroline: Hilary Westfield is a full-fledged pirate now, but if she doesn’t prove her boldness and daring by rescuing a kidnapped Enchantress, she’ll be kicked out of the Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates for good.
Skila: Set in 1981 Guatemala, this novel-in-verse tells the powerful tale of a boy who must decide what it means to be a man during a time of war.

El Space: Awesome. So, tell us what inspired you to write your book.
Melanie: Clara’s story just wouldn’t let go of me. I first discovered her in 2010, while looking for topics to try my hand at picture book biographies during the second semester of my MFA at Vermont College. But the more I read about Clara, the more I was captivated. I began to suspect that this would turn into a novel-length book. And then her voice showed up—in free verse, no less! I had to follow. . . .
Caroline: The Terror of the Southlands is a sequel to my first book, Magic Marks the Spot. I wanted to continue the story of Hilary’s adventures on the High Seas, explore more of her world, and learn more about the characters I’d created for the first book. Also, I love detective stories, and this book, while not a traditional mystery, is absolutely swarming with detectives. Pirates too, of course!

pirate_clipart_ship_2Skila: I spent a long time reading and learning about Guatemala’s Armed Conflict and the role that the U.S. played in that violence. It made me angry—angry about what happened and angry that not many people know about it. There are so many things I can’t do about so many issues in the world. But one thing I can do is tell a story. So that’s what I did. I told a story about a boy who survived. I think survival stories are the best kind of stories to read.

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El Space: You’ve all intrigued me! If you had a choice of educating, astounding, amusing, or challenging a child or a teen with your writing, which would you choose? Why? You can pick a combination of two if you wish.
Melanie: Challenging. Definitely. This is a book for teens, and Clara was a teen when she became an activist. I absolutely want readers to find her story and to know that they, too, can change the world.
Caroline: I love reading and writing humor, so one of my main goals every time I sit down at the keyboard is to amuse both myself and my eventual readers. That said, I hope that while kids are laughing, they’re also being challenged, astounded, and only very occasionally educated.
Skila: Challenging. I was the kid who loved to be challenged and also who loved to challenge. There’s always that one kid in every class, right? Raising her hand in class to say, “I think you’re wrong,” to the teacher. I would love the idea of my book challenging what you might believe about war, or the way you think about the world, or the capabilities of a child. I love books that make me think. I hope Caminar is a book like that.

El Space: If your main character had a Christmas stocking or made a Hanukkah wish, what would this character wish for? Why?

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Melanie: Books! Clara loved poetry, and she loved learning—languages, social theory, literature—all of it!
Caroline: Hilary’s Christmas stocking would probably include a sword-polishing kit, a packet of homemade cookies from her governess, and a good book she could read aloud to her gargoyle.
Skila: Carlos would probably wish for food, for obvious reasons. But on a lighter note: candy! And maybe a radio.

Thanks, Melanie, Caroline, and Skila for stopping by! I’d love to have you guys come back again!

And if you’ve popped over to check out these authors, thanks for stopping by. There are other places where they can be found. Looking for Melanie? Look here. Looking for Caroline? Look here. Looking for Skila? Look here. You can find each wonderful book by clicking on its title:

Audacity (preorders only)
The Terror of the Southlands
Caminar

You can also find each book at Barnes & Noble and Amazon. If you’ve been wishing for more books this holiday season, your wish is about to be granted. I’m giving away a preorder of Audacity and a copy of The Terror of the Southlands and Caminar. Comment below to be entered in the drawing. Winners will be announced on Monday, December 22.

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Jordie and his archnemesis have agreed on a truce during the holidays. Each is hoping Santa will bring him/her books by Melanie, Caroline, and Skila. Um . . . yes, Jordie and Hello Kitty still believe in Santa. Don’t you?

Christmas ornament from realestateyak.com. Hanukkah menorah from tucker-tribune.blogspot.com. Christmas stocking image from dryicons.com. Santa bag from its-so-cute.blogspot.com. Pirate ship from free-clipart-pictures.net. Strike photo from historymatters.gmu.edu.

More Valuable?

I don’t know about you, but when I was a kid, all you needed to do to make my day was to hand me an inflated balloon. Didn’t matter what color. Just hand me one and I’d be happy. And when it would pop, as inevitably it would since I was the kind of kid who quickly popped balloons or broke things because of my less-than-gentle grasp, I would be devastated. But for those moments of having that balloon, all was right with the world.

Birthday-Balloons

What is it about a balloon that brings such joy? The fact that they float? Their roundness when inflated? I dunno, but I’m done trying to analyze the appeal. Let’s just leave chalk them up to fun, okay?

While pondering the issue with balloons, I couldn’t help segueing to the issue of humor in a story. I’ve pondered this issue many times, because I’ve had conversations about the subject over the years. These conversations raised the following questions: Are serious stories more valuable than humorous stories? Is the entertainment factor of a humorous story equal to that of the entertainment value of a balloon—here today and probably popped tomorrow? In other words, not long lasting?

By now, you might be calling for my head for daring to equate humorous writing with balloons. Rest assured—that is not my assessment. As I mentioned in the previous paragraph, I’ve been thinking about the subject. Part of the reason for my pondering comes from conversations in which I’ve heard unfavorable comparisons made between humorous writing and writing of a more serious nature with humor writing deemed as the lower life form. I’ve also been told that you’re not a “real” writer unless you write War and Peace, Antigone, or something else of a serious nature.

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I’ve heard similar thoughts uttered about graphic novels and picture books—basically that their brevity of text and higher ratio of pictures (the nature of both types of books) make them entertaining but not as valuable as, say, Ulysses.

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I think we all know that such comments are subjective, rather than constructive. Anyone who has ever written a graphic novel or a picture book knows how difficult it is to write a good one. Because of the marriage of text and images, every word has to be chosen carefully.

Same with humor. Don’t believe me? Then read something by Dave Barry, David Sedaris, or Tina Fey.

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The funny thing is (and yes that pun was intended) humor is sometimes discounted, because the value of laughter is discounted. But you have only to Google laughter is good medicine to find many videos on the medicinal value of laughter.

I’ve had bouts of depression over the years. At those times, I often turned to books written by this guy:

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Sir Terence David John Pratchett or Terry Pratchett

At those times, books with a somber tone would have gone over like the proverbial lead balloon. Even when the cloud lifted, I turned to Terry’s books. Many have a gorgeous combination of humor and pathos—not an easy combination to get right.

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Don’t get me wrong. I love a good tragedy. Macbeth is one of my favorites. And I’m totally loving Babylon 5, a series created by J. Michael Straczynski that I somehow missed in the 90s and can now see, thanks to Netflix. It has a wonderful combination of humor and agonizing tragedy. Season 2 is heartbreaking!

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I’m reminded of this passage from Ecclesiastes:

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: . . . a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh. Ecclesiastes 3:1, 4

Sometimes a heartbreaking story or angsty poetry “speaks” to me. Other times, a laugh-out-loud-funny book is just what I need. So I can’t value one over the other, because they both meet a need at a particular time.

Getting back to the balloon, there’s a time for them too. While recovering from an illness or surgery over the years, nothing heartened me more than a cheerful balloon floating above my bed. There are some things, you never let go of. Balloons are one of those joys I never outgrew.

If you like John Cleese, click here for a great video on laughter. (And no, it’s not a Monty Python video. Sorry.)

Balloons from happypartyidea.com. Terry Pratchett photo from Wikipedia. Book covers from Goodreads. Babylon 5 image from brainstomping.wordpress.com.

Snake Surprise

When I told my dad about the butterfly and moth post I wrote recently, somehow we got on the subject of snakes. . . . Oh I know why we did. We were talking about crawfish (or crayfish if you prefer) and how I’d seen some in our backyard, along with snakes.

“It wasn’t my imagination, was it?” I asked, since I . . . um . . . had imaginary friends as a kid. I just wanted to make sure. . . .

He said that yes, there were burrowing crawfish in a hole in our yard, maybe two years after we moved into our house in Chicago—a house that had been newly built at the time. (Wondering about burrowing crawfish? Check this or this or even this.) And there were snakes too. When I was seven, I remember being terrified of a green snake crawling along the sidewalk in the front of our house, and wondered how it got there (after I finished screaming). Well, mystery solved finally on the snake front, after all of these years.

Smooth_Green_Snake

“Your brother brought them home,” said Dad. (Note the plural pronoun them.)

My older brother and his best friend, both nine years old at the time, had gone exploring around an old factory (later torn down due to the expressway extension by our house) and brought home souvenirs—snakes to live at our house. Perhaps the others escaped their clutches. But one decided to linger at our house. When I saw it, I didn’t want to go outside ever again, especially since the snake chose to slither into the bushes at the front of the house.

“Oh girl, the snake’s not poisonous,” said my sympathetic parents. (Keep in mind that I was a city kid and had never seen a snake before, outside of a reptile house at the zoo. My parents had been raised on farms in a different state, and could readily identify a poisonous snake, having seen them.)

So I have my brother to thank for my trauma. I should have known. He also was the one who favored the old snake in a can gag.

Snake in a can

But how to thank him properly? Unfortunately, he lives over a thousand miles from me, so I can’t send a snake his way.

Or can I?

I had to Google to find out. Turns out I could through Ship Your Reptiles.com! It’s nice to know that I have options. Mwwwwahahahaha!

But this brings to mind another incident involving snakes. Back in my early days as a curriculum editor, the managing editor brought his pet boa constrictor to the office and parked him in one of the conference rooms. I was curious and a little bolder than I was at the age of seven, so I drifted into the room where a crowd had gathered. But I flinched as the snake’s head edged toward me.

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“Oh, let him crawl up your arm!” said the managing editor. “He’s friendly.”

Haven’t we all heard that one before, usually in regard to a snarling pet who might be friendly to the owners, but not to strangers? I didn’t want to look like a wimp, so I did. The boa was very smooth as he made his way up my arm. But since he did not provide flowers or candy nor ask for my phone number, our relationship was brief.

I can only hope that in the future no one else decides to surprise me with a snake. If anyone’s going to do the surprising, that person’s gonna be me.

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If you think of it, say happy birthday to Andra Watkins, who is two thirds of the way through her Natchez Trace walk! This is one for the history books!

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Snake photos from Wikipedia. Snake in a can from ebay. Birthday cake from great-birthday-party-ideas.com.