New Releases

Interview with MG author Mary Winn Heider

I had the privilege of meeting and working with Mary Winn Heider at a Highlights Foundation workshop this spring. Mary Winn’s debut MG novel, The Mortification of Fovea Munson was released last month. This delightful story features talking heads in a cadaver lab, a Grandma who will leave you in stitches, losing friends and making new ones. Mary Winn took time from her busy book tour to offer insight into her writing and her work with the Barrel of Monkeys theater program in Chicago.

The setting of The Mortification of Fovea Munson is a cadaver lab. I know you worked briefly at a medical university lab. Can you tell us about that experience and how it played into your story? Did you meet any talking heads?  ?

Ha! I didn’t meet any talking heads, thankfully! I did meet the non-talking kind, despite the fact that my job was ostensibly just to be the receptionist. My responsibilities (like Fovea’s) definitely became a little more involved during my time there!

The lab itself was both very inspiring and very weird, which is sort of a sweet spot for me. On one hand, the stakes were super high: every day that I went to work, I found myself considering my own mortality. And my grandparents donated their bodies to science, so it felt somehow extra personal. On the other hand, the whole thing was really absurd—I was making signs to remind people not to wear flip-flops while they practiced surgeries. I was ordering body parts online. Minor spoiler: in the book, Fovea accidentally orders 600 legs. I totally did that. So there I was, at this intersection of super high stakes and total absurdity—and it felt so perfectly like my experience of middle school. Deadly serious. Completely bananas. Totally right.

And then aside from the ordering…er…snafu, I drew on the details of the real lab a lot, especially the day-to-day logistics. We’d order the parts, keep them frozen until they were needed, and plan ahead so they could thaw for however long they needed to thaw. There was a bit of a scandal with one of our suppliers at one point, and watching that play out helped me think through the ramifications of the (very different) trouble in the fictional lab.

I loved all the humor throughout especially the anatomical references, and the Grandma, oh my goodness, what a hoot! Tell us a little bit about your inspiration for the humor in your characters.

Well, broadly speaking, I wanted to have the most fun possible in this world that was (in theory, anyway) all about death and dying. Also, I’ll admit that once you start with the anatomy puns, it’s like you actually can’t stop—I don’t understand what force of nature that is, but it’s so real. So real.

Fovea initially struggles with her parents’ occupations, and yet, the plot involves Fovea trying to save them from ruin. I think it’s a perfect reflection of that awkward time in child/parent relationships. One minute a child doesn’t want anything to do with you, and the next they are defending you as a parent. You credit your parents as “being the coolest” in the acknowledgements. Did you ever experience the tug and pull in your relationship with yours?

For sure—I think maybe it’s impossible to avoid completely? And that that’s a really good thing. We test the waters of independence and maybe they’re a little intense or not intense enough, and then there are all sorts of feelings on both sides. But inch by inch, we grow up that way. My parents and I were lucky and didn’t have a lot of straight-up conflict—more like the occasional growing pains.

Fovea’s friendships are at the core of the story. Did you have an Em or Howe in your life?

The summer before sixth grade, I had a friendship that ended before I was ready. Every part of it was more nuanced (and less gross!)—but at heart, I’d say it was the same dance. I lost a friendship, found myself and found other friendships. Just…sans heads.

Your imagination is incredible! I found myself marveling at the solutions you provided for Fovea for the many challenges she came up against in helping Andy, Lake and McMullen. Especially the scene in making their way to the recording studio, which brought forth one of my fondest stories from my childhood. Care to offer any insights as to where you came up with such creative scenes?

Oh, I love that the trip to the studio managed to do that! That makes me so happy!

One of the things that I really dig about writing for this age is the constant negotiation between what middle schoolers can do on their own and what they can’t. So in some ways, it’s just about necessity being the mother of invention: in that scene, Fovea can’t drive, but she’s got to cover some serious ground to the studio.

And actually, early on, there was a very complicated subplot about getting to the studio (involving a kid with seven stepmothers who each had their own food truck—I’m rolling my eyes at myself even as I type this). A writer friend graciously clued me in that it was super distracting. So I cut the whole thing, and in the process, discovered Grandma Van, who adds so much more to the story. So I find when I try to be outrageous, I get in my own way. When I’m just problem-solving within some slightly oddly-shaped given circumstances, the internal logic of the story guides me. So I think I’m saying that I have nothing to do with it? That’s probably right.

I know you are a graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Arts Writing for Children and Young Adults. Did Fovea’s story originate while you were pursuing your master’s degree?

It did! I got the cadaver lab job toward the end of grad school. Then I realized I should be writing about the lab just in time for my last workshop at VCFA, so they got the first twenty pages. They were fantastic, and asked me all the questions I needed at that early generative stage.

I’d love to hear a bit about your writing process. Do you write every day? Where? Home? Coffee Shop? Cadaver lab? Theater?

All of the above! I try to write every day, although I don’t really succeed. But I’m generally doing the artist hustle, so I write wherever I can, which has definitely included at home, in coffee shops, at the cadaver lab, and backstage in theaters all over Chicago. Sometimes even in costume between shows. I have a harder time writing when I’m memorizing lines—my brain isn’t great at learning other people’s words and building my own sentences at the same time, but once a show is up and running, it gets a little easier.

Please tell us about your experiences with the Barrel of Monkeys theater program!

Yay! Barrel of Monkeys is the best. It’s a Chicago-based theater company. We go into Chicago Public Schools, teach six-week writing residencies, and then adapt what the kids have written and perform it for them in their own schools. The program gives the kids space to be expressive right at a time when they’re getting slammed hardest with state testing. And then we reflect back to them what creative rock stars they are by treating their work the way we’d treat professional writers’ work.

I’ve been in the company for about ten years—it’s made up of professional actors and educators all over the city. And the kids are endlessly inventive and inspiring. A month ago, I was in a show and got to play a reckless, heart-broken volcano, a metal-singing devotee of a potato chip god, a monster drawing come to life, and, as part of a reinterpretation of A Wrinkle in Time, played Mrs. Mild Sauce alongside Mrs. Ketchup and Mrs. Honey Mustard. The kids are where it’s at.

Finally, I know you’ve been involved in some interesting work situations in addition to your work at a cadaver lab. Are any of these roles playing a part in your next work?

I’ve had a pretty strange run of jobs, but at the moment, no! Well— none of my work as an adult, anyway—I’m currently drawing on my very influential time as second chair French horn at Hand Middle School.

Thank you so much for your time!

Thank YOU!


July New Releases!

One of the best things about summer is lounging in a lawn chair and reading. Lucky for us, July is filled with a pile of new middle grade books – including books by our very own Natalie Rompella and Beth McMullen (Congratulations, Natalie and Beth!) – just in time for those lazy summer days. Enjoy!

July New Releases:


Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgMidnight. Stars speckle the darkness with bits of light.

A cockroach skitters across the kitchen floor to snatch a forgotten breadcrumb. In the backyard, a spider weaves an intricate design on the fence. Winged insects dance and flicker in the porch light.

Day and night, small creatures are busy working, eating, hunting, hiding.

This nonfiction picture book reveals the hidden lives of insects and other small creatures from one midnight to the next. The world may appear to be sleeping in the dead of night, but it is not. As moonflowers open and stars shine, nature goes about her business. The world never sleeps.

Natalie Rompella’s lyrical text is vividly complemented by Carol Schwartz’s watercolors. A cat roams through the illustrations―silent witness, in the house and in the yard, to the myriad lives of night and day. A sense of mystery pervades all―even the backmatter natural-history portraits of the animals met in the book. This nature book invites children into a parallel universe, one that teems with life while they sleep.

Abby and the rest of her friends go international as they embark on their first “official” Center mission in this second book in the Mrs. Smith’s Spy School for Girls series.

After discovering the truth about her spy school/boarding school–and her super-spy mom–Abby Hunter is ready for her next adventure, but what’s about to happen is something she never would have guessed…


Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgEveryone at The Smith School is obsessed with Monster Mayhem, the latest reality video game craze. But when Drexel Caine, the mastermind behind the game is suddenly kidnapped, it becomes clear that the kidnappers are playing for more than just special badges.

After Drexel’s son–who is Abby’s friend, Toby–receives a cryptic message, Abby and her friends discover the kidnapping is part of a bigger scheme that could take down The Center for good.

With the help of Abby’s frenemy (and reluctant mentor), Veronica Brooks, the group tackles their first official Center Mission. They tangle with the world’s most notorious hacker, get in trouble for the possible theft of the Mona Lisa, and prepare for the ultimate showdown in London. But not before they have to contend with one more hurdle: the agonizing Smith School Spring Formal. Along the way, they discover they are much stronger as a team they can ever be alone.

And with a little luck, they might just save the world.


Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgA hilarious—and slimy—alien adventure (set on Earth) that the bestselling author of Zombie Chasers, John Kloepfer, calls “fast paced, out-of-this-world fun!”

When Margot Blumenthal removes a bright blue slug alien attached to Mateo Flores’s back, the school play co-stars know it’s definitely not going to be a regular day at West Cove Middle School.

They reluctantly team up and soon discover that the mayor and countless other adults, including Mateo’s dad, are infected—which means that West Cove, and possibly all of Earth, is in danger.

What will they (and their new scientist friend) do? Ditch class and protect humankind, of course—because one unexcused absence doesn’t matter when the world is at stake!



Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgThirteen-year-old chef Lailu Loganberry must stop a war between the elves and scientists in this follow-up to A Dash of Dragon, which Kirkus Reviews calls “a recipe for success.” It’s the Week of Masks, a festival held to chase away evil spirits. But Lailu doesn’t have time to worry about demons. She has bigger fish to fry–or rather, griffons, now that she’s been asked to prepare a mystical feast for the king’s executioner, Lord Elister. Unfortunately Lailu’s meal is overshadowed by the scientists’ latest invention: automatons, human-shaped machines that will respond to their masters’ every order. Most people are excited by the possibilities, but the mechanical men leave Lailu with a bad taste in her mouth. Even worse, the elves still blame the scientists for the attacks on them weeks ago, and Lailu worries that the elves might be cooking up revenge. So when she and her sorta-rival-turned-almost-friend Greg stumble across the body of a scientist, the elves are the prime suspects. With help from Greg, her best friend Hannah, and the sneaky, winking spy Ryon, Lailu has to discover the truth behind the murder, and soon–because hostilities between the elves and the scientists are about to boil over faster than hydra stew. And just ask any chef: war is bad for business.


Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgNew Horizons was designed by NASA to study Pluto and the fringes of our solar system, farther away than any spacecraft has ever explored. Join science writer Elaine Scott as she tells the story of this mission. For Stephen Hawking, New Horizons signifies that “We explore because we are human and we want to know.” This remarkable ship, no bigger than a piano, and using no more energy than a lightbulb, has already traveled three billion miles out to Pluto, and is continuing on to the Kuiper Belt, the farthest reaches of our solar system. The book will feature the beautiful, amazingly sharp photographs it is sending back from its journey, which are letting scientists fill in the blanks in our knowledge of Pluto–and delivering a few surprises along the way. Elaine Scott tells the exciting story of everyone’s favorite planet, from Pluto’s discovery through the frustrating attempts to study such a distant object, the creation of the New Horizons project, scientists’ hopes and expectations for the mission, and what is being discovered. Her clear, engaging prose does more than narrate the events. By showing how scientists operate, their hypotheses, hopes, and disappointments, and how they make use of them, she gives readers an inspiring portrait of the scientific method itself.


Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgFans of The Thing About Jellyfish and A Snicker of Magic will be swept away by Cindy Baldwin’s debut middle grade about a girl coming to terms with her mother’s mental illness.

When twelve-year-old Della Kelly finds her mother furiously digging black seeds from a watermelon in the middle of the night and talking to people who aren’t there, Della worries that it’s happening again—that the sickness that put her mama in the hospital four years ago is back. That her mama is going to be hospitalized for months like she was last time.

With her daddy struggling to save the farm and her mama in denial about what’s happening, it’s up to Della to heal her mama for good. And she knows just how she’ll do it: with a jar of the Bee Lady’s magic honey, which has mended the wounds and woes of Maryville, North Carolina, for generations.

But when the Bee Lady says that the solution might have less to do with fixing Mama’s brain and more to do with healing her own heart, Della must learn that love means accepting her mama just as she is.


Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgA fully illustrated, globe-trotting new middle grade fantasy-adventure series about mythical creatures and their cultures of origin, from the Newbery Honor-winning author of The Inquisitor’s Tale. Elliot and Uchenna have barely recovered from their first adventure with the Unicorn Rescue Society when the mysterious Professor Fauna approaches them with an all-new quest. And this time, they’re going to have to cross the Atlantic Ocean to the Basque Country. Elliot and Uchenna, with Jersey in tow, soon wonder whether their newest, fire-breathing rescue might be more than they can handle. And why do the evil-doing Schmoke Brothers seem to be involved yet again? This is the second book in Unicorn Rescue Society, an exciting and hilarious new series about friendship, adventure, and mythical creatures from around the world by Newbery Honor-winning author Adam Gidwitz teamed up with Mixtape Club founders Jesse Casey and Chris Smith, and Hatem Aly, illustrator of The Inquisitor’s Tale.



Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgFans of the Princess in Black and Dory Fantasmagory series will love Isadora Moon: half-fairy, half-vampire–and ready for her first-ever human birthday party. Isadora Moon might be half-fairy, half-vampire, but she wants to have a totally normal human birthday party. She gives her mom and dad a list–cake, balloons, presents, and games. But when the invitations arrive on bats’ wings, Isadora worries that maybe her parents don’t know how to throw a human party. Which can mean only one thing: Isadora’s birthday is going to be anything but normal.






Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgDarek and Zantor work to convince everyone that dragons and humans can get along in this second book in the fantastical Dragonling chapter book series

Ever since Darek saved Zantor the dragonling, they’ve been inseparable. Darek is the only family Zantor has ever known. But now Darek is bringing Zantor home from the Valley of the Dragons, and the villagers are up in arms He and his brother Clep are called traitors. Their best friends are turning against them. Even Darek’s father has been threatened for allowing the enemy in their midst.

How can Darek prove that dragons are good neighbors to the villagers?





Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgKids who love video games will love this first installment of the new 5-book series about 12-year old Jesse Rigsby and his wild adventures inside different video games.

Jesse Rigsby hates video games – and for good reason. You see, a video game character is trying to kill him. After getting sucked in the new game Full Blast with his friend Eric, Jesse starts to see the appeal of vaporizing man-size praying mantis while cruising around by jet pack. But pretty soon, a mysterious figure begins following Eric and Jesse, and they discover they can’t leave the game. If they don’t figure out what’s going on fast, they’ll be trapped for good!

Fun, relevant, and action-packed Trapped in a Video Game is the perfect book to get kids off screens and into books! Included in this edition is a bonus More to Explore section that teaches computer programming concepts through a fun game.



Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgWatch out, middle school In her second foray out of graphic novels and into middle grade, Babymouse has a smartphone, and she’s not afraid to use it. . . . Ping Ping The sound of texting is in the air. Everyone at middle school has a cell phone. Babymouse just has to get one, too. But having a phone is a lot of work Building up a following on SoFamous, learning text lingo, keeping up with all the important koala videos . . . Babymouse is ready to tear her whiskers out. Why does it suddenly feel like she has no friends? Somehow, Babymouse needs to figure out how to stop worrying and love her smartphone . . . if Locker doesn’t eat it first. #Typical.






Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgIt’s Desmond and Andres versus the Zombie Zookeeper in the fourth book of the Desmond Cole Ghost Patrol chapter book series. Welcome to Kersville, a town with a spooky history and a collection of ghosts and spirits who are major mischief-makers. Most kids spend their days without ever seeing or dealing with a ghost, but some kids get stuck with a haunt. When that happens, they call Desmond Cole Ghost Patrol. There’s no job too spooky, icky, or risky for Desmond. I’m not like that at all. My name’s Andres Miedoso. I’m Desmond’s best friend and ghost patrol partner. For this case, we’re off to the zoo Zoo field trips are the best. You get to ride in a bus, you get to spend the day outside, and all the animals are safely far away in their enclosures. Nothing scary here, right? Wrong Leave it to Desmond Cole to find the one zookeeper who’s also a zombie. With easy-to-read language and illustrations on almost every page, the Desmond Cole Ghost Patrol chapter books are perfect for emerging readers.



Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgFrom the New York Times bestselling author of The Mark of the Dragonfly comes a thrilling fantasy adventure about two magical friends living as refugees in a world that doesn’t trust magic. Perfect for fans of Serafina and the Black Cloak and the School for Good and Evil series. There was no warning the day magic died in Talhaven. It happened with a giant explosion and the arrival of a skyship full of children, all with magic running through their veins and no memory of home. Rook and Drift are two of those children, and ever since that day, they’ve been on the run, magical refugees in a world that doesn’t trust magic. Because magic doesn’t die right away–it decays, twists, and poisons all that it touches. And now it’s beginning to poison people. Try as they might, Rook and Drift can’t remember anything about their lives before Talhaven. But it’s beginning to look like they’re the only ones who can save their adopted world . . . if that world doesn’t destroy them first.



Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgA poignant middle grade debut about the friendship between a white girl and an elderly black woman in the 1960s South. Alice is angry at having to move to Rainbow, Georgia–a too small, too hot, dried-up place she’s sure will never feel like home. Then she gets put in charge of walking her elderly neighbor’s dog. But Clarence won’t budge without Miss Millie, so Alice and Miss Millie walk him together. Strolling with Clarence and Miss Millie quickly becomes the highlight of Alice’s day and opens her eyes to all sorts of new things to marvel over. During their walks, they meet a mix of people, and Alice sees that although there are some bullies and phonies, there are plenty of kind folks, too. Miss Millie shares her family’s story with Alice, showing her the painful impact segregation has had on their town. And with Miss Millie, Alice is finally able to express her own heartache over why her family had to move there in the first place. Tamara Bundy’s beautifully written debut celebrates the wonder and power of friendship: how it can be found when we least expect it and make any place a home.



Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgThe Museum of Peculiar Arts holds many oddities–a mechanical heart, a diary bound in its owner’s skin . . . and Penny, a child-size marionette who almost looks alive. Fog clouds Penny’s memories from before the museum, but she catches glimpses here and there: a stage, deep red curtains, long-fingered hands gripping her strings. One day, a boy named Chance touches Penny’s strings and hears her voice in his head. Penny can listen, and watch, and think? Now someone else is watching Penny and Chance–a man with a sharp face, a puppeteer who has the tools to change things. A string through a needle. A twist of a spindle. And suddenly Chance is trapped in Penny’s marionette body, while Penny is free to run and dance. She knows that finding a way to switch back is the right thing to do. But this body feels so wonderful, so full of life How can Penny ever return to her puppet shell?




Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgJasmine’s best friend, Linnie, has just gotten a puppy. And now Jasmine wants a pet of her own―a flamingo! So when her grandmother sends Jasmine a daruma doll as a surprise gift, Jasmine colors in one doll eye and wishes for a flamingo to keep.

Next, Jasmine tries to convince her parents that she’s responsible enough for a pet. She cleans her room, brushes her teeth, takes out the trash, and, most importantly, researches everything she can about flamingos. But soon it becomes clear that her wish may never come true! Will Jasmine’s daruma doll ever get its second eye? Luckily her big sister, Sophie, has a surprise planned that fulfills Jasmine’s wish beyond her wildest dreams.

Debbi Michiko Florence is at her best in this sweet, special story of sisterhood and new responsibilities!




Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgA Mississippi ghost town and an art mystery combine in this gorgeously written debut just right for fans of Three Times Lucky and A Snicker of Magic. How far would you go to find something that might not even exist? All her life, Cricket’s mama has told her stories about a secret room painted by a mysterious artist. Now Mama’s run off, and Cricket thinks the room might be the answer to getting her to come back. If it exists. And if she can find it. Cricket’s only clue is a coin from a grown-over ghost town in the woods. So with her daddy’s old guidebook and a coat full of snacks stolen from the Cash ‘n’ Carry, Cricket runs away to find the room. Surviving in the woods isn’t easy. While Cricket camps out in an old tree house and looks for clues, she meets the last resident of the ghost town, encounters a poetry-loving dog (who just might hold a key to part of the puzzle), and discovers that sometimes you have to get a little lost . . . to really find your way.




Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgA quirky Dungeons & Dragons-inspired adventure that will appeal to gamers and readers of the Mr. Lemoncello’s Library series. What if your favorite fantasy game characters showed up on your doorstep IRL? Sixth graders Ralph, Jojo, Noel, Persephone, and Cammi are hooked on fantasy tabletop role-playing games. When they somehow manage to summon their characters to Ralph’s house, things take a truly magical turn
The five are soon racing around town on a wild adventure that tests their both their RPG skills and their friendship. Will Ralph and crew be able to keep their characters out of trouble? Trying to convince a sticky-fingered halfling rogue not to pickpocket or a six-foot-five barbarian woman that you don’t always have to solve conflicts with a two-handed broadsword is hard enough. How will they ever send the adventurers back to their mystical realm?




July is overflowing with great books! Which of the July New Releases are you putting at the top of your stack this month?



9 Wacky Facts from the National Geographic Kids Almanac 2019

Big welcome to Angela Modany, the editor of the National Geographic Kids Almanac 2019! To celebrate the brand-new guide, Modany answers a few Mixed-Up Files questions for us, and shares some wacky factoids from this year’s Almanac.

Mixed-Up Files: What goes into creating the National Geographic Kids Almanac? How many people and how much time does it take to get this project done?

Angela Modany: We start working on the Almanac about a year and a half before you can buy it in stores. (We’ve already been working on the 2020 edition for several months now!) It takes a big team to make sure the book is ready on time. We have a main writer, contributors, fact checkers, editors, photo editors, and designers, all of whom do a lot of work to make sure the Almanac has the greatest stories, information, and photos that will appeal to kids. And we stay busy updating news, trends, and facts up until press time.



MUF: What’s the most fun part about working on the Almanac? 

AM: The best part about working on the Almanac is reading all the stories and facts. I learn something new every year and it reminds me that there’s so much in our world to explore. I also love seeing what photos are chosen for the Cutest Animals section!




9 of Angela’s favorite, wackiest fun facts from this year’s Almanac:

There is a hotel run by robots in Japan. An automated velociraptor greets you at the front desk!

A lion can eat 40 pounds of meat—the same as 160 hamburgers—in one sitting.

There is a laser that can produce gas that is hotter than the sun.

Barbershops in India will close on Tuesday because a Hindu superstition considers Tuesday haircuts bad luck.

The Hubble Telescope has traveled more than three billion miles.

The Dorcas gazelle lives in the Sahara and doesn’t drink any water. It also doesn’t ever pee.

“Berserkers” were Viking warriors who wore bear and wolf skins and bowled in battle like wild animals.

South Koreans say “kimchi”—a pickled cabbage dish—instead of “cheese” to smile for photos.

The Statue of Liberty has a 35-foot waistline and wears a size 879 shoe.

Find out more about the all-new Almanac over at National Geographic.