Nonfiction Titles

Feeling Lucky with Author Heather Alexander

Welcome to MUF, Heather Alexander, author of The Good Luck Book: A Celebration of Global Traditions, Superstitions, and Folklore (DK Children), out November 2023. Heather Alexander is the acclaimed author of more than 70 books for children, and she also works as a children’s book editor, packager, and literary scout. Here, she talks to MUF contributor Andrea Pyros about luck, her research process, and why we really cover our mouths when we yawn. 

Mixed-Up Files: Tell us a little bit about The Good Luck Book. Where did the idea for this come from?

Heather Alexander: THE GOOD LUCK BOOK is a large, illustrated, middle-grade nonfiction book that explores fascinating traditions and superstitions from all over the world. Kids will discover how and why they started, why people still do them today, if they hold up to science, the good luck charms we share, and the unique ways we wish for good fortune. All my nonfiction titles spring from my curiosity of the world around me or from articles that spark my interest. This one originated very close to home. You see, I generally pride myself on being very logical, but then I realized how many little superstitious rituals I do without thinking. They range from the typical, like crossing fingers or wishing on shooting star or blowing out the candles on a birthday cake, to the more personal, like knocking the side of an airplane before I enter. It got me thinking about lucky numbers, lucky foods, lucky animals–and when the list went on and on, I knew there was a book there.

The Good Luck Book by Heather Alexander

MUF: What was your research process like? How did you find all the different traditions and beliefs about luck?

HA: I always scour libraries and used bookstores, both in person and online. And for this book, I looked at a lot of university folklore websites and even checked out international message boards on the topic. Everything I found was then cross-referenced for multiple sources. There are sooooooo many superstitions and lucky charms throughout the world so I tried to focus on the more popular ones. Also, there are a myriad of variations on similar rituals, depending on where you live or where your family is from, so the one I ended up choosing may not be exactly way the reader has heard it.

MUF: How did you and your illustrator work together? What was that like? (The art looks great!)

HA: I know, right? The art is stupendous! It was created by four different artists: Ruth Burrows, Teo Georgiev, Sonny Ross, and Sarah Walsh. Usually, I only have the honor of working with one illustrator on a book, but because there was so much to illustrate in a relatively short time Stefan Georgio, the art director at DK, decided the more, the merrier–and the faster. While I didn’t interact directly with the talented artists, I did give art notes through Vicky Armstrong, my editor, and Stefan.

MUF: We’re sure you learned all sorts of fascinating things during your research and writing journey on The Good Luck Book. Can you tell us a few facts that really surprised you?

Author Heather Alexander

HA: It’s hard to pick a few! How about:

• Covering your mouth when you yawn comes from a very old superstition. Your hand was there to block spirits from coming out of or going into your open mouth!
• “If birds fly low, expect rain and a blow,” is a popular saying. Can birds predict “fowl” weather? It seems so! Most birds have a Vitali organ. This is a special receptor in their middle-ear that can sense a drop in atmospheric pressure, and that drop means a storm is on its way.
• Many shops and homes in India hang seven chilies and a lemon from a thread on the door. It’s an old superstition meant to keep away Alakshmi, the goddess of misfortune. She likes eating sour and hot things, so if she’s happy with the treat, it’s believed she won’t enter to bring bad luck. But, it turns out, this is actually a supersmart natural pesticide. When the cotton thread pierces the chilies and lemon, a pungent and sour odor is slowly released, and this stench helps to repel flies and mosquitoes!

MUF: What do you want readers to know about the concept of luck?
HA: Lucky charms can be fun and superstitions interesting to learn about, but the most important thing is to make smart choices and search for real answers. We each have the power to decide what we believe and what we don’t, what we let scare us and what we don’t, what wishes we send out into the universe, and—most of all—what kind of luck we bring to ourselves and the people around us.

Learn more about Heather at her website or on Instagram @halexanderbooks.
The Good Luck Book: A Celebration of Global Traditions, Superstitions, and Folklore by Heather Alexander, illustrations by: Ruth Burrows, Teo Georgiev, Sonny Ross, and Sarah Walsh.

Steve Jenkins’ Books: a Middle-Grader’s Treasure

Author/Illustrator Steve Jenkins’ recent and sudden death surprised and saddened fans of his informative, engaging books about animals and the natural world

Now is a good time to celebrate and enjoy the many books we have by him (they never go out of print) and to share them with young readers. I’ll speak of Steve here in the present tense, because he is still very much alive in his books, and there are more to come!

Steve Jenkins’ career and  books combine in marvelous ways his life-long love and understanding of science, of art, and of children, how they think and wonder. He’s never lost his playfulness or his own childhood curiosity about the natural world. His book ideas often begin with an irresistible question that kids (including his own) have asked.  Or one that he has asked himself. How do different animals see? What do animals do on their first day? What animals are the stinkiest? What are tails actually for?

A great place to start reading or re-reading Jenkins is with The Animal Book: A Collection of the Fastest, Fiercest,Toughest,Cleverest, Shyest–and Most Surprising–Animals on Earth. Imagine a 208-page picture book! The Animal Book is a kind of Steve Jenkins compendium and masterwork. It combines hundreds of his stunning cut-and-torn paper collage images of animals–living, endangered, and extinct. His illustrations are so lively you expect to feel their texture when you touch the flat page. Facts in his clear language, both basic and believe-it-or-not, accompany these stunning animal portraits.

Jenkins expected The Animal Book to be one a reader could browse in, starting anywhere. But he has also organized it in a progression of themes and subtopics–from a definition of animal to family relationships, senses and defenses, to an outline of animal evolution in “Story of Life.” Jenkins always strives to lead his readers to an understanding of how the world works and how these facts fit into a larger picture. The time-lines and other infographics in the book are beautifully clear.  His seamless book design makes the topics and their subtopics easy to follow.

A real treasure comes as an extra at the end of the book.  In a section simply called “Making Books,” he shows readers how he gets his ideas and  how he does his research.

Photo by Kevin Moloney, NYT

Then he takes us into his studio, with his collection of textured papers filling color-coded drawers. We learn how he selects just the right paper to cut or tear for a jaguar’s fur or a toad’s belly, a terror-bird’s beak or a rhino’s hide.  He also includes a graphic timeline of bookmaking from idea to finished publication. This book belongs on every public, school, and home library bookshelf.

So what are the new titles  from Steve and his wife and collaborator Robin Page that we can look forward to in 2022? One of them obviously began with a question. The Animal Toolkit: How Animals Use Tools explores some surprising ways we’re discovering that animals solve problems and interact with the world.  Disasters by the Numbers came out this month, and there will be two more By the Numbers titles this year. The series has included Earth by the Numbers, Dinosaurs by the Numbers, Insects by the Numbers, and Solar System by the Numbers. These books are chock-full of accessible infographics and are a middle-grade trivia buff’s gold mine. The 2022 additions will be One Day by the Numbers and Animal Facts by the Numbers.

Steve Jenkins has always had great, serious fun deepening his knowledge of animals and the natural world. His readers will, too. When you buy a Jenkins book for a child–or for yourself–get the hardback version if you can. His books are keepers.


Smashing the Single Story Narrative: A New Middle-Grade Series by Kate Messner

Paul Revere’s famous cry “The British are coming!” warned residents of Lexington and Concord of the imminent danger of British invasion. Right?

The Titanic was touted as “unsinkable” before its ill-fated maiden journey. Right?

Well, not exactly. The stories we’ve been told about historical events have been skewed by the fact that most were written from a single perspective. And no event has EVER had only one perspective.  That’s why I’m so excited that author Kate Messner is writing a new series for middle-grade readers called History Smashers.

History Smashers: The Titanic by Kate Messner

Before we talk about the books, though, let’s talk a bit more about this notion of  the “single story narrative.” Last fall, while walking my daily two-mile neighborhood loop, I listened to author Linda Sue Park discuss her book PRAIRIE LOTUS with Matthew Winner on The Children’s Book Podcast. In the podcast, she talked about the “single story narrative” and about how she introduces the idea of a single story to young readers.  The analogy she uses is very clever. You should click the link above and listen to the podcast.

Since then, I’ve thought about how much of our history has been learned from a single perspective, and I’ve pondered the challenges teachers, parents, librarians, and those of us who write, edit, and publish for young readers, face.  Digging deeper, I listened to the TED Talk titled The Danger of a Single Story by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie that Linda Sue mentions in the podcast. The talk is more than ten years old, but never has it been more important that we ask ourselves “Who else was there?” and “What if we start the story from a different perspective?”

History Smashers: The American Revolution

In an interview with Publisher’s Weekly, Messner says she wants “to tell stories in a way that’s respectful of kids. Kids can handle more than we think they can. And I feel like being honest with kids is really important. Sometimes our teaching of history has not fared so well in that area, particularly when it comes to our failings as a country, our mistakes. We like to teach little kids nice stories about history. I think we can start to have those conversations earlier.”

Out of that vision, the History Smashers series was born. With five titles complete and more on the way, the reviews are fantastic!

“Critical, respectful, engaging: exemplary history for children.” —Kirkus Reviews, The Mayflower, starred review
”The book’s format may be a good match for those with shorter attention spans, and permits it to be gratifyingly capacious in what it covers.” —New York Times Book Review

“Kate Messner serves up fun, fast history for kids who want the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Absolutely smashing!” —Candace Fleming, award-wining author

I also love that these books are fact-packed and visually enticing, with sidebars, graphic panels, and lots of illustration. They’ll be a welcome addition to classroom, public, and home libraries. I have no doubt they’ll be conversation-starters for years to come. Keep the conversations going, friends!

History Smashers: Pearl Harbor.   History Smashers: Women's Right to Vote  History Smashers: The Mayflower