Book Spotlight: Wonderworks by Angus Fletcher

It’s the time of the year to be grateful. Grateful for what we have in life. Grateful for communities like From the Mixed-Up Files…of Middle-Grade Authors. Grateful even though life sometimes throws us curveballs. 

Life does throw us curveballs. Sometimes we hit the ball, most of the time we miss. Life also has been known to lob a ball right down the fat part of the plate allowing us to take one heck of a swing. Sometimes we drive those for base hits; other times we knock the ball out of the park. Life provides unexpected opportunities.

Recently, while listening to the fantastic three-part episode on The Little Mermaid from Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent podcast, Revisionist History, life lobbed a pitch that floated across the strike zone as big as a beach ball. 

In Episode 2 of the Revisionist History podcast, Malcolm Gladwell talks to Angus Fletcher, a literature professor at the Ohio State University’s Project Narrative. Dr. Fletcher talks about fairy tales and what makes the oldest of the fairy tale twist stories work for kids while the poetic justice fairy tale stories and their modern “Disney-fied tales really don’t resonate with them.

After listening to Dr. Fletcher’s interview, two things jump out.

  1. Angus Fletcher is a neuroscientist turned English professor.
  2. He has just released a book called, Wonderworks: The 25 Most Powerful Inventions in the History of Literature.

Cover for Wonderworks

Wait! A literature professor with a background in brain science wrote a book about 25 ground-breaking literary inventions?

Count me in!

So I bought the book. I started reading the book. I knew immediately I needed to share this book with my MUF friends and family.

The format of Wonderworks is well designed. Each literary invention is a chapter. It starts with a literary history and a background as existed at the time of the invention. The literary invention is introduced by an author or philosopher in their creative work with an explanation of why the invention worked. Examples are often provided highlighting the use of the invention by different authors.

The kicker, the hook, the thing about this book that reels me in is the section of each chapter where Dr. Fletcher delves into the brain science, the neurology and neurochemistry behind how and why the literary invention works for the reader. Shots of dopamine. Left brain/Right brain interactions, the HPA Axis (Hypothalamus, Pituitary gland, and Adrenal gland), the balance between the amygdala vs the prefrontal cortex. So much awesome, I’m in reader/writer/scientist heaven!

As a scientist/STEM-enthusiast and writer, this connection is what earns Wonderworks a place on the top shelf of my writing resource books. Absolutely fascinating to read a book about the effect literature has on the brain.

Confession time. I fully expected to be completely through Wonderworks by the time this post was due. 

I’m not. But there’s a great reason why.

Each chapter is so intriguing and packed with information, I find myself needing to work slowly through each of the literary inventions. I find myself seeking out the works mentioned as examples. Some of these books I have on my own shelves. Some I find online, while others I’ve found in my local library. I’ve landed on the Project Narrative website at Ohio State seeking more story knowledge and have downloaded academic papers from the participating faculty. Talk about going down the rabbit hole! Each invention listed in Wonderworks has sprouted many paths to investigate, directions to discover, and mysteries to seek out.

Have a wonderful holiday season, everyone! Enjoy the process. Create like the world needs your work because the world needs your work. Be grateful and celebrate the power of words. If you get time, I recommend Wonderworks: The 25 Most Powerful Inventions in the History of Literature.

The story of story, it turns out, is a fascinating story.


Indy Spotlight: A Children’s Place, Portland OR

It’s always a treat to feature an independent bookstore devoted to children’s books, especially one that has been in continuous operation for years. Today we’re talking with Pam Lewis, owner of A Children’s Place in Portland, Oregon (

MUF: Portlanders love books. It would be hard to find another town with so many good independent bookstores, and yet some have folded recently. During the COVID challenge, what have your strategies been?
Pam: Well,  it’s been a lot more work and procedure to get books out the door. We’ve relied on face-timing and phone orders and delivering at the curb or sometimes directly to cars.

MUF Have you had good community support during this time?
Pam: Oh yes, that’s why we’re still here! Our community made a good effort to buy from us rather than from Amazon, even during the shutdown.

MUF: Have you been able to resume live events?
PAM: No. We will not have live events here again until all children can get vaccinated!

MUF: What kind of atmosphere do you aim to create in A Children’s Place?
PAM: Welcoming to all. We greet everyone, parents and kids, and offer to help them find their next best book. Our staff reads the books and talks about them with customers. The store has a little stage and colorful posters all around. Customers who have been coming to the store since they were babies are now in college and still coming.

MUF: How do you choose the titles to carry in your store?
Pam: We talk with book reps about what books are “hot,” and we order books from authors we know and like. We listen to the interests of the children who come into the store. In addition to fiction, our customers look for books about birds, nature books, and guides to Oregon trails.

MUF: As middle-grade authors we’re curious to know: what are some books, new or old that you find yourselves recommending to readers 8-12 these days? That they ask for?
Pam: Dragons and dragon stories are always in demand, as well as unicorns and dinosaurs. Series are big with this age group: Tui Sutherland’s The Wings of Fire (dragon epic), Shannon Messenger’s Keeper of the Lost Cities (a telepathic girl in a strange world), Chris Colfer’s Land of Stories (fairytale adventures). In graphic series there’s Kazu Kibuishi’s Amulet .
We’re finding, too, that parents who buy the books are looking back to the classics, books they read as children and want to share with their own.

MUF: Tell us about how your store pursues its mission of raising readers, including your relationships with teachers and with homeless students in the Community Transitional School?
Pam: We give discounts to teachers and work closely with them to help build classroom and student libraries. We’ve been active with the Community Transitional School from the beginning. This welcoming school provides a stable education for homeless children pre-school to 8th grade. It even provides transportation to the site, something that is often difficult for the homeless to manage. Every Christmas, we have a Giving Tree with book requests on it that our customers can purchase. This means we can deliver a new book to every child in the school each year.

MUF: Describe an ideal day for you at The Childrens Place.
Pam: It’s kids coming in and finding the next book they want to read. We get to know our customers, who the advanced readers are who are the reluctant readers. Helping them find good sci-fi or graphic novels or whatever their interests are is what we like to do.

MUF: If a family from out of town visited your store, would they find family-friendly places nearby to get a meal or snack after shopping and browsing? And if they could stay longer, are there some especially unique or interesting sites or activities nearby youd recommend for a family to see?
Pam: Yes. There’s Caffe Destino, Grain Gristle, and Lucca (Italian). There are so many sites of interest in the area, including The Rose Garden, the Japanese Garden, Mt. Hood, and numerous hiking trails.

Thank you, Pam, for taking the time to talk with us today. Readers, if you haven’t been to A Children’s Place, be sure to visit next time you’re in Portland. 1423 NE Fremont Street.

Interview With Cory Leonardo, Author of The Hedgehog Of Oz

I’m thrilled to welcome Cory Leonardo to the Mixed-Up Files…of Middle-Grade Authors to chat about her new novel, The Hedgehog of Oz. As a HUGE fan of all things OZ, I was especially excited to read this book. I was also keen to learn how she came up with the idea and if she was at all nervous about taking a trip down the yellow brick road. 

Tell us about The Hedgehog of Oz.

I’d love to! The Hedgehog of Oz is a story about a hedgehog named Marcel who convinces himself that his beloved owner Dorothy no longer loves him, so he runs away during a picnic at the park. He instantly regrets it. Lost Marcel finds his way to the abandoned balcony of the old Emerald City Theater where he and two comical chickens spend their days eating popcorn and candy and where he’s constantly tortured by the Saturday matinee: The Wizard of Oz, his and Dorothy’s favorite movie. But when the animals are found out, all of a sudden, Marcel is boxed-up and kicked to the countryside where he finds himself in an all-too-similar plot. He lands in Mousekinland. He meets Scamp, a spitfire of a mouse who’s trying to prove her smarts to everyone (while brandishing a sling-shooter); Ingot, a grumpy old squirrel without a heart; scared baby raccoon Tuffy, lost and afraid in the forest. There’s Oona the Luna moth to guide him; Toto, well, Toto is actually a fairly useless cocoon; there are awful seagulls, terrible rats, and an owl named Wickedwing stalking their every move. And then there’s home. And what home is. Is it the place you live? Or the people you live with?

How did you come up with the idea?

Marcel came to me first. I was watching a movie with my daughter and one of the side characters was the sweetest (if a little bumbling) character I’d seen in a long time. I instantly wanted to write a book with a character like that. I knew he’d need characters unlike him to balance the story, so I found a loud, brave mouse and a crotchety old squirrel. The problem was, I had no plot. I’d done some extensive research on the Wizard of Oz for a historical novel I began eons ago and had, at one time, used its characters as archetypes. One day it clicked. THIS was the book that was begging for Oz magic. Once I realized that, the book seemed to write itself!

Have you read many of the Oz books? If yes, which one is your favorite? 

I’ve actually only read the first!

Did you feel intimidated or anxious about writing a story that takes place in OZ? 

Maybe I should have? But with such a classic story there’s a lot of reassurance in knowing the bones of it are good. And sort of like my first book where I took classic poems and reworked them, I absolutely adore exploring beautiful art deeply, tearing it apart, and then playing with the pieces. 

Do you base your characters on people you know? If yes, spill the beans!

Oh yes. There are definitely pieces of people I know in them. My spunky 8-year-old niece came to mind a lot when writing Scamp. But I’ll pluck personalities, ways of speech, quirks, and hang-ups from anywhere. I love stealing TV personalities. There’s an awful lot of Betty White in Bertie Plopky in The Simple Art of Flying/Call Me Alastair.

How much of your real-life experiences play a role in the stories you tell? 

I’m a big believer in drawing on the well of your life experiences. It’s the only well you know deeply. I write a lot about animals because I grew up with a veterinarian mom. I love to write beautiful settings because I live for a good walk in the woods. But the deepest experiences I draw on are feelings. Anxiety, love, wonder, frustration, feeling small, dreaming big . . . I think it’s diving to the deepest part of the well, the human condition, that ends up connecting with the reader in the most intimate way.

What books did you like to read when you were a kid? Do those books influence your writing?

I actually didn’t read a ton of different books as a kid! We didn’t have many at home (the ones we did, I read a million times though), and I went to a tiny private school without a library. Once a week we trekked to the public library, but I tended to borrow the same books over and over again because it was overwhelming and unfortunately, no one was feeding us a list of books to try. The ones that stick with me the most are the few read aloud by parents and teachers: Narnia and Little House. Once I got to middle school, I found my “thing.” The Babysitter’s Club was EVERYTHING. I’m not sure how much my childhood reading influences my writing other than my desire to create a world that makes readers want to melt right into it, just as every good book does.

What are you working on now? 

Oh, lordy. A beast of a book that I think is trying to murder me? I sort of determined that before I started to write some of the more contemporary tales I’ve got swimming in my head, I wanted to cap off my animal characters, at least for a bit. This one is more of a gothic fantasy that jumps back and forth in time and has a missing prince, an unlikely hero of a girl, and magic, some of which has brought a few stuffed animals to life. If you don’t hear from me for a while, you know the book has succeeded in its diabolical murder plan.

What person, place or experience has most impacted your writing life?

Pitch Wars! Definitely. Being edited and mentored (by the brave Cindy Balwin and Amanda Rawson Hill–the best!) at that level of skill gave me an education that’s hard to get from craft books. You don’t know where your blind spots are until you’ve got a few pros pointing them out.

How long was your road to publishing and what happened along the way?

Long. I’d determined NOT to be a writer in college. I managed to avoid every creative writing course offered . . . and I have an English degree. It was too scary. I should’ve realized that the things you run from generally come looking for you in time. I stayed home with my kids, and when I got to the point where I needed to rethink careers, writing kept niggling the back of my mind. I tried to shut it up for a good eight years, even while researching everything about the business, the craft, writing in multiple genres, reading all the children’s books I never did as a kid, and querying picture books. The first novel I finished (there were many others I didn’t) was my Pitch Wars novel. And the rest is history. It was about ten years from start to seeing my book on shelves.

What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

This can change on any given day, but one thing I’m currently reminding myself is that while I am a writer, being a writer isn’t the total of me. There’s something about this business that can suck the soul from your chest at every stage–published or not. There’s always a height you haven’t reached, a book you haven’t written, meaning you haven’t found in it. Everytime you sit down to write, take off that weighty backpack of fear, guilt, pressure, and comparison, and give it a good kick. Write for the pleasure of writing. That pleasure will find its way into your work. That pleasure will attract people’s notice. And don’t neglect a good walk.

Everybody has a comfort food they turn to when they are feeling down or need an emotional hug. Do you have a comfort book?

When I need to be reminded of the beauty and importance of a good story, or when I just need to sigh and look with wonder on the world, I will always pick up a Kate DiCamillo book. She’s a master.

Thank you for spending time with us at the MUF Files. It has been great getting to know you. I loved The Hedgehog of Oz and hope more adventures are coming our way.  

To learn more about Cory Leonardo, please visit her website.