Middle-Grade Mysteries, Spy, & Sci-fi stories featuring South Asian Characters: Interview and Giveaway with Sheela Chari

Hello Mixed-Up Filers! I’m pleased to welcome Sheela Chari, author of the new mystery series, The Unexplainable Disappearance Of Mars Patel, for an interview at Mixed-Up Files today.


Hi Sheela, thanks for joining us today at Mixed-Up Files.

Thank you for having me—it’s great to be back! Years ago, I was one of the original members, and I loved interviewing other writers! These days, writing, teaching, and being a parent has taken over much of my time. But it’s definitely fun to be in this familiar space again.



The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel follows Mars Patel and his pals on their quest to find their missing friend, Aurora, who might be part of a chain of other disappearances around the world leading back to billionaire inventor, Oliver Pruitt. It’s a story filled with conspiracy theories, deceptive adults, and enterprising kids who know how to rely on technology and each other to solve problems.

Mars Patel was originally produced as a podcast mystery drama series for kids by Gen-Z Media.

Now, it’s also a middle-grade novel and series written by me!

When I was invited to write the novelization, I was asked to take an audio-drama and re-envision it in written form. I had to really think about who Mars, Caddie, JP, Toothpick and the rest of the characters were, and the stories of their lives not captured in the podcast. It was a lesson in character study and plotting, and even rethinking everything I knew about dialogue. In the book, you will find a traditional story littered with emails, texts, podcast transcripts, and other asides to capture the same chatty dynamic of the podcast. It was really my wish to reflect the very interesting, funny way that young people talk to each other today both online and IRL (that’s “in real life” for the uninitiated).

On Mars Patel identifying as an Indian-American spy kid

Representation have always been important for me. It’s the reason that I wrote my mystery novels, Vanished and Finding Mighty, which both feature Indian-American detectives, and are rooted in my experience of growing up Indian-American. I also make an effort for the other supporting characters in all my books to reflect the diversity and inclusiveness I see and cherish as a part of being an American immigrant. The Mars Patel series is a perfect representation of these ideals. Not only that, Mars gets to do those very things that ALL kids should be seen doing in novels: sleuthing, pranking, laughing, messing up, apologizing, doing better, taking risks, and growing up.




On how reading mysteries was an integral part of your childhood

When I was young, I would pore over Nancy Drew books in my library and at home. Not just the stories themselves, but also those wonderful interior illustrations and cover art, observing how Nancy Drew, and her loyal friends, Beth and George, transformed from book to book. To me, they were heroes and old friends, and even the way I met my own best friend (we found each other in the Nancy Drew aisle of the Iowa City Public Library). From then on I would graduate to other mysteries and spooky stories (Lois Duncan comes to mind!). But I do believe this idea of mystery-solving and friendship finds it roots in those Nancy Drew mysteries and a shared love for them with a close friend.

On drawing inspiration from your own life when writing this book

The original podcast hints at a story set in the Northwest. I went a step further and set the book in Washington State, where I lived when I was in middle school and high school. Mars’s fictitious town of Port Elizabeth is based on all the trips I made to Seattle and the Puget Sound as a young person. So writing the book was truly a trip down memory lane for me. I also went on a recent vacation to visit an old friend in the Puget Sound, and it was very inspiring. I used all kinds of details — taking the ferry across the water to Seattle, that particular quality of rain, clouds, and occasional sun, the up-and-down hills, the inky waters of the Sound —to help me describe Port Elizabeth. It was so much fun!

On immersing yourself in a MG sci-fi with corporate conspiracies

Yes, in this story there are bad guys, surveillance, and a conspiracy to hoodwink kids. Even so, for me, Mars Patel is about looking to the future, where anything is possible, even a chance to start over as a society. It’s a book that celebrates technology, space travel, and innovation. Not to say there aren’t threats — Book 1 starts with a Code Red scene in school. Later books in the series take on the urgency of climate change. Even so, the story has always given me a surprising and upbeat way of looking ahead, of knowing that kids growing up now will have the mindset to invent and think differently. Thank goodness.

Sheela Chari is the author of FINDING MIGHTY and VANISHED, which was nominated for an Edgar Award. Her latest middle-grade novel, THE UNEXPLAINABLE DISAPPEARANCE OF MARS PATEL, based on the Peabody-award winning podcast, is out this October from Walker Books US, an imprint of Candlewick Press. Sheela teaches creative writing at Mercy College and lives in New York.

Want to own your very own signed copy of The Unexplainable Disappearance Of Mars Patel? Enter our giveaway by leaving a comment below! 


You may earn extra entries by blogging/tweeting/facebooking the interview and letting us know. The winner will be announced here on October 16, 2020 and will be contacted via email and asked to provide a mailing address (US only) to receive a signed, personalized book.


STEM Tuesday — Sustainable Living– Book List


Let’s jump into books this month that help us keep our bodies and our environment healthy. This list includes books on feeding our hungry planet, gardening projects that you can do at home, and why our federal protections are important to our food safety. 

Let’s Eat: Sustainable Food for a Hungry Planet by Kimberley Veness

Readers will take a look at the impact of pesticides, fertilizers, food chains, and commercial fishing on our food and environment.

The Nitty Gritty Gardening Book: Fun Projects For All Seasons by Kari Cornell, photographs by Jennifer S. Larson

Why rely on others for your fruits and veggies? This book provides readers with easy projects to jumpstart your own gardening.

The Poison Eaters: Fighting Danger and Fraud in our Food and Drugs by Gail Jarrow

“Revolting and riveting” is how Kirkus described this book that takes a look at why we need protections and regulations in the food industry.

Recycled Science: Bring Out Your Science Genius with Soda Bottles, Potato Chip Bags, and More Unexpected Stuff by Tammy Enz and Jodi Wheeler-Toppen

This title shows you how to put your waste to work with ideas to recycle common household items and learn science while you are at it.

Ours to Share: Coexisting in a Crowded World by Kari Jones

What does a growing population mean to our planet? Jones explains the impact of overpopulation on humans, animals, and the environment.

We are all Greta: Be Inspired by Greta Thunbert to Save the World by Valentina Giannella, illustrated by Manuela Marazzi

Greta Thunberg’s global mission to save our planet from climate change can inspire us all. Delve into data and discover what that you can take action with this book by Valentina Giannella.

Start Now! You Can Make a Difference by Chelsea Clinton

Who better than First Daughter Chelsea Clinton to show young readers how they can make a difference in the world? This is a great resource for young activists.

Diet for a Changing Climate: Food for Thought by Christy Mihaly and Sue Heavenrich

Can we alter the way we eat to solve the problem of hunger in the world? Authors Mihaly and Heavenrich offer a compelling look at facing the global hunger crisis by eating weeds, wild plants, and bugs.

Nancy Castaldo has written books about our planet for over 20 years including, THE STORY OF SEEDS, which earned the Green Earth Book Award, Junior Library Guild Selection, and other honors. Nancy’s research has taken her all over the world from the Galapagos to Russia.  She strives to inform, inspire, and empower her readers. Nancy also served as Regional Advisor Emeritus of the Eastern NY SCBWI region. Her 2020 international title about farm and food is THE FARM THAT FEEDS US: A Year In The Life Of An Organic Farm. Visit her at 

Patricia Newman writes middle-grade nonfiction that empowers young readers to act on behalf of the environment and their communities. The Sibert Honor author of Sea Otter Heroes, Newman has also received an NSTA Outstanding Science Trade Book Award for Eavesdropping on Elephants, a Green Earth Book Award for Plastic, Ahoy!, and a Eureka! Gold Medal from the California Reading Association for Zoo Scientists to the Rescue. Her books have received starred reviews, been honored as Junior Library Guild Selections, and included on Bank Street College’s Best Books lists. During author visits, she demonstrates how young readers can use writing to be the voice of change. Visit her at Stay tuned for her upcoming Planet Ocean – spring 2021.

Interview with Anika Fajardo, author of What if a Fish plus a GIVEAWAY!


Hello Mixed-Up Readers,

I recently I had the privilege of interviewing Colombian-American author Anika Fajardo, author of What if a Fish. Anika’s story is sure to speak to diverse middle grade readers who might see themselves in some of the experiences and uncertainties that are faced by her protagonist.

APP: Tell me a little bit about yourself as a Latinx storyteller. What makes you, you?

AF: I was born in Colombia and raised in Minnesota after my parents divorced when I was two. From the time my family began reading to me, I wanted to be a writer. My memoir, Magical Realism for Non-Believers: A Memoir of Finding Family, was released last year after almost a decade of work. Even though it took me a while to become a writer, I have always worked with words in some way. I’ve been a fifth-grade teacher, a librarian, a communications manager, an editor, and a professor. My debut middle-grade book is called What If a Fish.

APP: I really enjoyed What if a Fish! Tell us a little bit about your story.

AF: What If a Fish features 11-year-old, half-Colombian Eddie Aguado. When his older half-brother’s trip to visit Eddie in Minnesota is canceled, Eddie is sent to spend the summer in Colombia instead. What follows is a generational story of family, identity, and all the things you might find at the end of a fishing line.

APP: What was your inspiration for this particular story?

AF: This book started with names. Eddie, known as Little Eddie, and his older brother, known as Big Eddie. I have a half-brother who is named after our father and nearly all the men in our family.  I suppose that if I had been born a boy, my brother and I would have had the same name. And I wanted to know what that would be like. How do you separate yourself from someone else who has the same name? How does what we call ourselves inform who we are?

APP: That is so interesting, but this story is not only about identity, it is also about perseverance and grief.

AF: I didn’t set out to tell a story about grief, but my grandmother passed away while I was writing this book. I had already created the character of Abuela. And I felt like the best way to honor my grandmother, while also processing my own grief, was to write it into the story. I think the idea of letting go turned out to be an important theme whether talking about letting go of a loved one or letting go of a fish.

APP: Abuelas are so important in so many of our lives as Latinx people! Water is another important element in your story. Tell me about that.

AF: Water is both necessary to life and yet dangerous. It can reveal and it can hide. I wanted to center the story on water in order to contrast Minnesota—land of 10,000 lakes—with coastal Colombia. The two places that Eddie calls home are very distinct, but they have commonalities, much like people from different places might.

APP: So true! There is something magical about water and about all of the female characters in this story, don’t you think?

AF: I love this idea of the females in the story being magical. The women and girls around Eddie help to ground him, make him brave, help him to see love, and connect him to family. It takes all of them to help Eddie fulfill his destiny.

APP: I was particularly fascinated by the character of Cameron. I want a whole book about her. Tell me about how you decided on the role she would play in the story.

AF: I read somewhere that Kate DiCamillo was told to add more kid characters to Because of Winn-Dixie, that a child protagonist can’t spend all their time with adults. So I knew that, because Eddie’s brother is 19, I needed another child character. Cameron is partly based on my own daughter (who started campaigning to dye her hair purple after I wrote that part). In many ways, Cameron is the opposite of Eddie. She’s brave, fierce, and doesn’t seem to care what anyone thinks of her. It’s nice to see the two of them interact and learn from each other.

APP: Team Cameron, love her! And I support your daughter’s quest for purple hair. But I’m wondering why you chose to have your main character be a boy?

AF: Eddie was a character that came to me many years before I started writing this book. For some reason, the idea of this boy wandering the neighborhood in search of something took hold. I think that a girl character might have required more dialogue, more interior complexities. In some ways, a boy character is a stripped-down story with action at its center. But I also wanted the character to be a boy because I wanted to show that boys can be introspective and quiet and vulnerable. There isn’t one way to be a boy or a girl.

APP: Absolutely, and as the mother of many daughters and several sons, I agree. I feel that you perfectly captured the feeling of child immigrants like me, as well as children of immigrants. We can feel like we don’t really belong anywhere. Did that come from your own childhood experience?

AF: Although I’m not technically a child of immigrants (my Colombian father never immigrated to the US and lives in Colombia still), I definitely felt the pull from coming from two cultures, two countries. Now it’s hard to believe, but when I was a child in Minnesota in the 1980s, my Colombian background was extremely unusual. Where I grew up, there were hardly any non-whites. I was constantly asked where I was from or what I was. I never had a good answer for that. When I was a young adult, I went to Colombia and found that I also felt out of place there. For anyone straddling two cultures, it’s as if you don’t fit in either place. The number of children in the US that come from mixed backgrounds or from immigrant families is going to continue to increase and those children need to see themselves reflected in stories.

APP: Yes! Another way that I connected with this story is as a person who only has half siblings myself. I was annoyed at first when Little Eddie kept referring to Big Eddie as his half-brother. I wanted him to just say ‘brother’ like I do to my own brother. He will never have a full sibling and I wanted him to just embrace the one he had. Did you do that intentionally? If so, why?

 AF: I have a half-brother and it’s true that, too, generally refer to him as my “brother.” But I think Eddie calls his brother his “half-brother” because he’s trying to make sense of the relationship. He’s trying to name things. Obviously, names play an important role in Eddie’s world. He also loves facts (he reads his encyclopedia regularly), so I also think it’s important to him to be factual. And the fact is that his brother is, technically, his half-brother.

APP: Yes, I love the way he took an encyclopedia with him on the trip! I was surprised that Little Eddie had never visited Colombia before. Why would he not have visited as a small child, and why did he speak no Spanish at all? I wanted to complain about that.

AF: Your complaint has been registered! The truth is, the reason is simply because I modeled Eddie’s experiences on my own life. Colombia was always quite mysterious and distant to me as a child. I didn’t visit Colombia until I was an adult. Part of the reason for that divide in my own was personal and familial. But part of it was also that Colombia was, and in many ways still is, a dangerous place for visitors. So I used that as my excuse.

APP: That explains it! On another topic, I really hated those bullies who were rude to Little Eddie. Do you feel that it is important for Latinx writers to portray how kids can be treated at schools and in neighborhoods?

AF: I often felt like an outsider, like I was different. And when you’re a kid, being different is often seen as a bad thing. While I never had an experience like the one of the bullies in the book, I’ve felt the sting of people’s prejudice. Outside of my own experience, I also wanted to reflect my brother’s experiences growing up. Based on the stories he’s told me, I think it can be harder for boys in terms of outright bullying.

APP: What do you feel are some of the most important challenges for Latinx writers trying to get published today?

There is a perception that “everyone” wants to publish diverse books by diverse authors. But that can manifest itself in a call for a specific type of story—stories that perpetuate the stereotypes of racial/ethnic groups. For Latinx authors, that often means stories that reflect certain, specific aspects of the Latinx experience (immigration, assimilation, language, etc). Although the industry is changing, I still think it’s a challenge for Latinx writers who want to write about other topics.

APP: Yes, it is a challenge. What advice do you have for authors interested in writing magical realism for middle grade audiences?

Magical realism is sometimes confused with fantasy. But magical realism is about magical things happening in otherwise realistic fiction. It has its roots in Latin American literature and is a reflection of colonization and diverse representations of reality. Middle-grade readers demand that stories make sense, so I think that magical realism in books for this age group needs to be thoroughly woven into the reality of the narrative. In What If a Fish, I used magical realism elements sparingly to make them pop. I also made them a little dream-like so that a reader who isn’t sure they believe in the magic can imagine an alternate reason behind the magic.

APP: Thank you so much for this interview Anika!

For a chance to win a copy of What if a Fish enter the rafflecopter below! NOTE: US entries only please!

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