Giveaways

Interview with Helen Rutter, author of the MG debut, THE BOY WHO MADE EVERYONE LAUGH + a giveaway!

Let’s give a hearty Mixed-Up Files welcome to Helen Rutter, author the MG debut, The Boy Who Made Everyone Laugh. Praised by children’s author Jacqueline Wilson as “Very funny, very touching, and very truthful”—and featured as a Waterstones Book of the Month—the novel was released in the U.K. by Scholastic on February 4, 2021. It will be available in the U.S. on August 3.

Here’s a summary:

Billy Plimpton has a big dream: to become a famous comedian when he grows up. He already knows a lot of jokes, but thinks he has one big problem standing in his way: his stutter.

At first, Billy thinks the best way to deal with this is to . . . never say a word. That way, the kids in his new school won’t hear him stammer. But soon he finds out this is not the best way to deal with things. (For one thing, it’s very hard to tell a joke without getting a word out.)

As Billy makes his way toward the spotlight, a lot of funny things (and some less funny things) happen to him. In the end, the whole school will know—

If you think you can hold Billy Plimpton back, be warned: The joke will soon be on you!

Q&A with Helen Rutter

MR: So glad to have you with us, Helen. Welcome to the Mixed-Up Files! Huge congratulations on having published your first novel.

HR: Thanks so much for having me! It’s so exciting that the book is coming out in the U.S. The whole publication process has been a wonderful series of lovely moments, and this really is a big one!

Struggling with Stuttering

MR: Billy Plimpton, the protagonist of the book, struggles with stuttering. I can relate, because I too have a speech disorder—spasmodic dysphonia. Although my voice problem is different from Billy’s, I connected deeply to the character’s challenges and frustrations. As a non-stutterer, how were you able to capture Billy’s story with such authenticity? Was there research involved?

HR: The research came through raising my son, who is a stutterer. Over the years, we have been to speech therapy together, and I’ve witnessed all the ups and downs that come with growing up with a stutter. As most parents would attest, watching your child struggle and then learn how to deal with challenges is a pretty powerful thing. It’s no wonder he inspired me to write my first novel!

Inspiration for Billy

MR: As above, the idea for The Boy Who Made Everyone Laugh came from your son, Lenny, who has a stutter. I’m guessing that Lenny was instrumental in the formulation of Billy’s character. Did he have any specific thoughts and suggestions? Any objections? What did Lenny think of the final product? 

HR: He was a HUGE part of the process. I read him each chapter when I’d finished it, and he would let me know when I had really hit the mark. It was such a lovely experience, and offered opportunities for us to talk about things that had happened to him. Also, he told me when things did not work, usually when I used words that “kids just don’t say anymore, Mum!” He really enjoyed hearing the drafts of the story as they developed, and he was an excellent proofreader as his grasp of punctuation and grammar is far better than mine!

When we found out that it was actually going to be published, Lenny was thrilled. He has been involved in TV interviews here in the U.K. and has loved every second of it! He’s much older now, and his stammer has changed a lot. He no longer struggles with it in the same way, and it doesn’t define him like it once did. Because of that, his stutter is not as apparent as it used to be, which gives him more confidence. When it does come back, he realizes that it’s just a tiny part of who his is. I think the story is a great reminder of that.

Creating a Nuanced Antagonist

MR: At school, Billy is bullied mercilessly by a classmate, William Blakemore. I’ve never experienced deliberate cruelty because of my speech disorder, but I could empathize with Billy’s pain and humiliation. As a writer, how do you humanize a bully? What advice would you give to other writers who want to create a nuanced antagonist?

HR: Blakemore’s character grew a lot over the editing process. It took time to get enough of his backstory into the book, in order to give his character depth, without apologizing for his behavior. I didn’t want to hold back on the bullying, to show how brutal and heartbreaking it can be, but I also had to show glimpses of where Blakemore’s bullying behavior came from. For every character, you need to show that their life and personality are complicated, contradictory and nuanced, and to do that they have to do things that are not always expected.

The Joke’s on You

MR: Despite his stutter, Billy dreams about being a comedian when he grows up. His biggest fan is his beloved grandmother, Granny Bread. What is it about comedy—and about the act of telling jokes—that appeals to Billy? For someone who is reluctant to speak in class, telling jokes onstage seems like a herculean task.

HR: The size of the task is what made it so appealing to write. I love an against-all-odds story! Sometimes we are drawn to something that seems beyond our reach for that very reason. I also wanted to show that just because Billy stammers, he still has a lot to say. It’s easy to assume that people who stammer are nervous or shy, and that certainly is not the case with Lenny. He is incredibly confident. He never stopped talking, raising his hand in class, or making his voice heard, however hard it seemed.

Many kids who stammer do withdraw, so I wanted to show in Billy that even though he was tempted to retreat and stay silent, the need to tell jokes and make people respond to him in a positive way had more power. Lenny definitely doesn’t want to be a comedian in real life (he would prefer to be a drummer), but I do know a comedian with a very strong stammer, so when I had the idea of using comedy, I knew it was rooted in reality.

How to Respond to a Stutterer

MR: As a stutterer, Billy is hyperaware of how people react to him when he speaks. He’s even created four categories of listeners: The Encouragers; The Mind Readers; The Jokers; and The Waiters. How did you come up with these categories? Can you tell us a bit about each? Also, what advice would you give to people who interact with a stutterer? What should—and shouldn’t—they do?

HR: This section of the book was Lenny’s favorite. It came from how I had witnessed people responding to him, and he said that it felt like I had climbed inside his head!

The Encouragers do just that; they try and help by telling him to “keep going” or “slow down.” Generally, very kind people, but  encouraging is not that far from interrupting and, as it says in the book, “Telling someone to relax when they are clearly struggling is like shouting, ‘Run faster!’ at someone being chased by a tiger.” They would if they could.

Mind Readers finish the sentence, trying to guess what a stammerer is going to say (and often getting it wrong, as far as Billy is concerned).

Jokers mimic the stammerer. I’ve seen this done to Lenny so many times. You may think that it’s just kids who would do this, but  I’ve seen more adults do it. I think it’s an attempt to be playful, and I think it happens when a person doesn’t know that it’s a stutter they’re hearing. This is definitely the most shocking response I have witnessed.

Waiters are the best category as far as Billy (and Lenny) are concerned. This is what I would always try to do. It’s harder than you may think. People aren’t the most patient, but it’s a useful skill to practice and I’m grateful to Lenny’s stammer for reminding me to be more patient!

An Actor’s Life Is (not) for Me

MR: Before writing your first novel, you were an actor and stand-up comic. What prompted you to make the switch from acting to writing? Also, can you tell Mixed-Up Files readers about your path to publication?

HR: I loved acting, but after having kids the reality of auditioning and touring lost its appeal. In fact, I started to dread the calls from my agent instead of hoping for them, so I knew it was time for a change. After I had Lenny, I began to write and perform comedy as well as write plays and theater shows. I completely fell in love with writing–more so than any performing I was doing, so when I had the idea for this story, I knew that it was not a theatre show, but a book. It was an exciting moment!

A very quick draft followed, and I realized it was all character and no plot–and so the editing began! I found my wonderful agent and then things went super fast when she sent it out to publishers. After an auction, I was pleased to sign a two-book deal with Scholastic. It felt like I had just the right amount of luck and serendipity, as well as a pretty thick skin!

Writing Rituals

MR: What your writing process like, Helen? Do you have a specific routine or word-count goals? Any writing rituals?

HR: No word count goals; I think that would stress me out! I go and sit in my writing shed in the garden most days after school drop-off, and when the procrastination is out of the way, some writing usually happens.

MR: Finally, what’s next on your writing agenda? 

HR: I’m working on book two, which is about a boy called Archie Crumb. He and his mum are really struggling, and just when he thinks things can’t get any worse, he bangs his head and his wishes start coming true! He has no idea if it’s all for real or just a huge set of strange coincidences. I guess, ultimately, the book is about hope, and how we can put positivity out into the universe.

Lightning Round!

MR: Oh! One last thing. No MUF interview is complete without a lightning round, so…

Preferred writing snack? Chocolate, of course!

Coffee or tea? Decaf tea for me. I don’t need to make my brain any busier!

Favorite joke? What did the drummer name his two daughters? Anna One Anna Two.

Zombie apocalypse: Yea or nay? Nay.

Superpower? Flight. No, invisibility. No, flight. No… How about decisiveness?!

Favorite place on earth? My home.

You’re stranded on a desert island, with only three items in your possession. What are they? I am assuming I’m not allowed to say my family or dogs? I’m also assuming that sensible items such as a lighter, water and a boat are not what you’re after either. In which case, I will say suncream, a snorkel/mask, one of those notepads with an attached pencil.

MR: Thank you for chatting with me, Helen—and congratulations on the upcoming publication of The Boy Who Made Everyone Laugh. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I know MUF readers will too.

HR: Thanks so much. I am thrilled that you enjoyed the book. Fingers crossed at some point that I can come over to the US and see it in the shops!

And now…

A GIVEAWAY!!!

For a chance to win a copy of The Boy Who Made Everyone Laugh, comment on the blog–and, if you’re on Twitter, on the Mixed-Up Files’ Twitter account–for a chance to win! 

All About Helen

Helen Rutter lives in the English countryside, just outside Sheffield, with her comedian husband, two children, and two lovely dogs, Ronnie and Billy Whizz. When she is not tapping away in her writing room, she loves walking the dogs, playing board games, and reading. Before writing her first novel, Helen wrote and performed her work on the stage. She has even done some stand-up comedy, and before that she was a jobbing actress. She now much prefers to write the stories than be in them. Learn more about Helen on her website and follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

The Anatomy of a Middle Grade STEM book — AND a Giveaway!

People are always asking me where I come up with ideas for my STEM books. After all, if you’ve seen my books, I tend to use out-of-the-box angles to get kids excited about some interesting STEM topics.

Astronaut Aquanaut book by Jennifer Swanson

 

Take my Astronaut-Aquanaut book. This one compares and contrasts SPACE and the OCEAN. Pretty cool concept, especially when you learn that while these two places are very extreme enviroments, it takes a lot of similar training and equipment to go both places. Which would you rather be?

 

 

 

Then there’s my Save the Crash-test Dummy book. It’s the history of car safety engineering, told through the lens of a day in the life of a crash-test dummy. Yes, you read that right.   Save the Crash-test Dummies book by Jennifer Swanson

A crash-test dummy. Probably NOT a job you want to have. But it’s a great way to get kids interested in car safety. (Shhh… don’t tell the kids they are learning about Newton’s Laws of Motion)

 

 

 

 

So HOW do I come up with my ideas? And then HOW do I turn these ideas into books? Well, I’m going to give you a peek inside my creative process. It’ll be fun. You might even say, SPORTS-tacular. 🙂

Yep, I’m going to use my new book that releases next Tuesday, July 20th, from Black Dog & Leventhal, as my example. I’ll take you through how this book started as an idea, then a proposal, then… a book. (With amazing illustrations by Laurène Boglio)

The Secret Science of Sports book by Jennifer Swanson

STEP 1: Come Up with an IDEA

  • The easiest thing to do is write what you KNOW. — For me, I grew up with 3 brothers and a father who love sports. It was natural that I would as well. After all, I spent most of my days playing baseball in the backyard with my brothers, shooting hoops in the driveway, swimming laps in the pool for swim practice, running, hiking, biking, etc. You name it, I’ve played the sport. It only seemed natural that I write a book about something I know and love.
  • Write something that INTERESTS you. This one should also be easy. If you know the topic, hopefully, you’ll like it. I do happen to like sports, which is good.
  • Find the HOOK– This can be the tough part! After all, just because YOU like it and find it interesting, does not mean that others will. You need to  think about how you can make this topic exciting to others. For this book, it was natural to combine my love of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) + Sports =  STEM Sports Book (Exciting!)

 

WHY STEM and Sports? To me, combining STEM and sports seemed natural. Many people watch sports and just look at the game, but I see the physics, the technology, and the math everywhere. I thought if I could get kids (of all ages) to see that, they might find it cool to know as well. Besides, using something a lot of people love (sports), with something everyone learns (science and STEM), that just seemed logical to me. Good thing my editor agreed. 🙂

 

STEP 2: Write the proposal and a really good pitch

Writing middle grade nonfiction book proposals are not for the faint of heart. They take a lot of time and research, but are totally worth it. Here is a great place that offers tips just for this:  https://www.dystel.com/nonfiction-proposals

Writing pitches is not easy either. You need to include enough information to make the editors interested, but not too much to make it boring. Keep your voice fun and entertaining (it should match your voice in the book) and have LOTS of energy.

Here is  my first pitch: Hey! Want to know the secret to winning at sports? It’s not what you’d think. It’s… SCIENCE! Yep. To be great at sports you need to know about physics, biology, neuroscience and even a little engineering. Who would have thought that science class would be the best place to learn how to be a better athlete. Shh…. don’t tell anyone.

 

STEP 3:   WRITE the manuscript!

So now that you’ve sold the book. Yes, I skipped over the hardest part, selling it.  It can take awhile or in the case of this book, it was relatively short. An editor happened to be looking for a book on this topic at just the right time that my proposal was ready. Pretty great, huh? That does not happen all the time. But let’s face it, part of this career is just plain luck, right?

Anyway, as I began writing, I knew I wanted this book to be different. First of all, it had to have  a cool kid-friendly voice. Here are the first few sentences:

If you picked up this book, it’s probably because you like sports. Maybe you want to see if it has tips for how to improve your game (it does), or how to become more fit (it has that, too), or just because you want to learn more about different types of sports (also there). But wait, the title says, the Science of Sports. That means that this book also teaches you about science. What does a sports book have science in it? Those two subjects seem so different. It’s not as if sitting in a science class can teach you more about your sport than practicing it. Actually, it can.       

©Jennifer Swanson, Secret Science of Sports 

 

But most of all, I wanted kids to USE this book. After all, science is best when it’s in action. So, I as I wrote about the science and STEM, I had the readers DO activities like these:

Secret Science of Sports book page

 

 

Secret Science of Sports Book page 25

I also included images that showed the readers how the STEM was actually happening.

Secret Science of Sports Book - Soccer pages

 

 

Again, my editor was totally on board with all of these ideas, thankfully. When you add in the amazing illustrations by Laurène Boglio it is really COOL! Readers get their own STEM sports-tastic view of the world!

So, THAT’s how I created my latest book. It was tons of fun and easy to write. For me, it was simply a trip through my sports-filled life. My hope is that readers of all ages find this book interesting, exciting, and useful. I want this book to get taken outside, sloshed through the mud-filled soccer fields, have sports drinks from tennis and football players spilled on it, and yes, even get a little wet from being beside the swimming pool.

It’s also a  PERFECT companion for those of you that will sit down to watch the 2021 Summer Olympics

Sports Book with Olympic rings

Finally, there NEEDS to be more STEM Middle grade books in the world, consider writing one. Kids of all ages will love you for it. GO STEM/STEAM!

I am giving away one copy of my Secret Science of Sports book. Leave a comment below with your favorite sport or favorite sports memory to be entered. 

 

 

Author Interview + Giveaway: THE VERDIGRIS PAWN by Alysa Wishingrad

We’re so pleased to welcome author Alysa Wishingrad to MUF, here to talk about her new middlegrade novel, THE VERDIGRIS PAWN. She tells us about the book, what the title means, and more about her career and journey to kidlit author.  

THE VERDIGRIS PAWN is the story of Beau, heir to the ruler of the Land, a man so frightening, people only dare call him Himself. Beau has been raised isolated and alone. And despite the harsh and judgmental treatment he gets from his father, Beau has no idea of the brutal tyranny Himself unleashes upon his subjects, and how hated and feared their family is.  This all changes when he meets Cressi, a young servant, who opens his eyes to the realities of life in the Land – especially about Mastery House, a terrible and brutal place where the children of the poor are sent to be raised and trained to be servants in exchange for payment of their families taxes.

The Verdigris Pawn by Alysa Wishingrad

This discovery of the truth sets Beau off on an epic adventure as he tries to undo the poisoned legacy of his family. But in order to restore fairness and equality to the Land, he must think of things like a real-life game of Fist (a board game similar to chess!)  But when you’re reviled throughout the Land and false heroes lurk around every corner, leading a rebellion is easier said than done.  This is a story about how appearances aren’t always what they seem and how real power can come from the most unlikely places.

MUF: What does the title mean?
AW: The title refers to the key game piece in Fist, in which either the king must knock the verdigris pawn off the board, or the pawn will unseat the king. As for Verdigris, it’s an alchemical reaction that turns copper and brass a beautiful blue-ish green color when it oxidizes. A great example that we can all call to mind is the Statue of Liberty. Just as the pawn in fist can be transformed into the king, Beau, Cressi and Nate, my three central characters, all also go through life-changing transformations.

MUF: This is your debut kidlit novel. What career path led you to write a book? Why MG?
AW: 
I wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember. I was constantly telling and writing stories as a kid. I graduated college with a degree in playwriting and moved back to NYC with the intention of writing plays. But life and work, and a measure of insecurity about my words, got in the way. I followed another career path for about 15 years, but writing would not leave me alone. It was when I moved up to the country to raise my kids that I got back to it.

As for why I write MG, simply put, I love this age. I think MG readers are truly some of the smartest and open people there are. It’s this beautiful knife’s edge time between childhood and the teen years, before the cynicism and deep seeded doubts can take hold. It’s a time of realizing you have a voice and striving to use it. This is fertile terrain both for telling stories and for learning about ourselves.

MUF: You say that your novel is, a “new take on the classic middle grade books we all grew up with.” Can you speak more to that? 

AW: There’s a very classic feel to this story, to the way it’s constructed, and I think in the writing as well. It might bring to mind classic fantasies such as the Chronicles of Prydain and Diana Wynn Jones’s work. But while it nods to those stories, it also poses questions that are urgently relevant to our world while challenging some deeply held cultural assumptions.

One of the themes the story explores is who gets to write history, and how is it even possible to tell the entire story from all sides. I like to think that the book will encourage readers to examine issues around power; what does it mean to have it, how can you claim your power when you feel powerless, and can power be wielded to enhance rather than sacrifice the greater good.

Author Alysa Wishingrad

MUF: Speaking of classics, what are a few of your favorite classic MG titles?
AW: I used to get lost in Mary Norton’s The Borrowers books for hours on end– oh, how I wanted to have little people living in the walls of my house. I loved how resourceful they were, how clever and united as a family they were, especially through all the very hard times they faced

This one I mention with a caveat that I haven’t re-read it in a very long time, and I’m sure there are elements that do not hold up today, but E.B. White’s Stuart Little was another book I re-read so many times. I loved that here was this mouse who was unconditionally welcomed into the family. That no one questioned that he was different was a picture of the world as it ought to be. And then somehow he aged at twice the rate of his sibling and was ready to go off and explore the world long before they were. There was so much hope and inspiration in that story for me. The blending of the world as we know it with the potential for the fantastical is still the terrain I like to explore as a writer.

MUF:  What new MG book(s) do you love? 

AW:  Oh gosh! How much time do we have?

I have been blown away by so many of my fellow 2021 debuts – but I’ll just stick to the fantasy titles for now since that’s where my heart lives.

Root Magic by Eden Royce is gorgeous, magical historical fiction.

The Gilded Girl by Alyssa Colman is a wonderful magical retelling of The Little Princess with a social conscious.

I love the infusion of mythology with adventure in Josephine Against the Sea by Shakirah Bourne.

And last but not least, The Wolf’s Curse by Jessica Vitalis, which will be out in September, is a lyrical and fantastic examination of grief, love and life.

MUF: Can you tell us one thing you learned while writing The Verdigris Pawn?
AW: I learned that white paging a book  (starting over from the blank page) is nothing to fear. In fact,  it’s incredibly liberating. Sometimes beginning anew is the best way to get to the heart of a story.

I’ll explain.

I had a meeting early on with my editors to address some issues on how the story was rolling out. The longer we talked the more I realized that I couldn’t patch it, I couldn’t revise my way to a fix. So, I metaphorically balled the book up into a giant 375 page wad, threw it over my shoulder and started over.

The arc of the story has always been the same, but how it rolled out changed – and so very much for the better!

That experience of doing what I once thought of as the unthinkable has made me more daring, and freer as a writer.

Find Alysa on Twitter @agwishingrad, on Instagram @alysawishingradwrites, and her website at www.AlysaWishingrad.com  (where you might find some Pawn-ish treats and facts).

Thank you so much for having me, I’ve loved chatting with you!

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