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Sydney Taylor Book Award Blog Tour — Interview with Honor Book Award-winner Author Sofiya Pasternack



The Mixed Up Files Blog is proud to be a host for the Sydney Taylor Book Award.

The Sydney Taylor Book Award is presented annually to outstanding books for children and teens that authentically portray the Jewish experience. Presented by the Association of Jewish Libraries since 1968, the award encourages the publication and widespread use of quality Judaic literature. Gold medals are presented in three categories: Picture Books, Middle Grade, and Young Adult. Honor Books are awarded silver medals, and Notable Books are named in each category.  To learn more about this prestigious award and to see a list of all of the winners, please visit this website:



Today we are thrilled to introduce Sofiya Pasternack, author of the Black Bird, Blue Road (published by Versify,
an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers

a  Sydney Taylor Honor Book in theMiddle Grade Category. CONGRATULATIONS Sofiya!





BlackBird Blue Road


In this historical fantasy novel, praised as a “rich, omen-filled journey that powerfully shows love and its limits*” and “propulsive, wise, and heartbreaking,”** Ziva will do anything to save her twin brother Pesah from his illness—even facing the Angel of Death himself. From Sydney Taylor Honor winner and National Jewish Book Award finalist Sofiya Pasternack.

Pesah has lived with leprosy for years, and the twins have spent most of that time working on a cure. Then Pesah has a vision: The Angel of Death will come for him on Rosh Hashanah, just one month away.

So Ziva takes her brother and runs away to find doctors who can cure him. But when they meet and accidentally free a half-demon boy, he suggests paying his debt by leading them to the fabled city of Luz, where no one ever dies—the one place Pesah will be safe.

They just need to run faster than The Angel of Death can fly…



Pasternack shows how Ziva’s love of justice drives her, while depicting a world in which spirits are manifest, healers come in many forms, and a bold girl can literally bargain with the Angel of Death. Tenderly rendering Ziva’s feelings of responsibility—including around Pesah’s physical care and amputating his infected fingers and toes—Pasternack imagines a rich, omen-filled journey that powerfully shows love and its limits. — Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Pasternack’s story is rich in the rhythms, values, and deep magic of Jewish culture and life in the Turkic Jewish empire of Khazaria. It revels in an often overlooked mythology, deploying exciting fantasy elements with ease. More than simply an adventure, this is a story about grief and illness and arguing with the rules of the world, enduring and enjoying the living that happens between now and the end, threaded through with the profound, unshakeable love of two brave siblings. Propulsive, wise, and heartbreaking. — Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

Pasternak’s historical fantasy weaves Jewish mythology and traditions into this heroine’s journey that asks readers to contemplate issues of life and death. Readers will be intrigued by the ravens that follow Pesah everywhere, the details of the city of Luz (where no one dies), and Pesah’s vision that the Angel of Death will visit him on Rosh Hashanah. This works as an adventure, but it should also prompt discussions about the ethics of preserving life at all costs.  — Kay Weisman — Booklist (starred review)

Set in Khazaria, a medieval empire of the Eurasian steppes, this moving tale steeped in Jewish lore is a welcome addition to middle grade fantasy shelves. Ziva is a fierce, appealing heroine, driven by her deep love for her brother, a profound sense of justice, and an unwillingness to accept the status quo—qualities that serve her well but sometimes keep her from seeing those around her clearly. An omniscient narrator addresses the reader in interludes that lend the text a mythic feel, while the main narrative is a rousing adventure and coming of age story inflected by Ziva’s internal struggles. — Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books (starred review)

Pasternack (Anya and the Dragon) writes with a storyteller’s cadence without sacrificing liveliness, keeping emotions front and center (“She’d jab the Angel of Death in every single one of its eyeballs if that meant keeping Pesah safe”).  – SHOSHANA FLAX — Horn Book Magazine


Thanks so much for joining us today at the Mixed-Up Files, Sofiya!

Booklist said of your book, “Pasternack’s historical fantasy weaves Jewish mythology and traditions into this heroine’s journey that asks readers to contemplate issues of life and death.” You weave these topics so skillfully together. Can you tell us more about why you chose to write about these topics? 


Well, I write historical fantasy because it’s fun! History is full of amazing stories all over the place, and as a lifelong fantasy enthusiast, including some magic makes really fascinating history just a little more amazing. I write Jewish mythology because it’s not terribly common and I want to see more of it; sometimes, I’ll see a Jewish story that’s had all the Jewishness taken out of it (Corpse Bride is one that comes to mind!), and I aim to put the Jewishness back in. As for why I wanted to write about life and death, it was a way of processing not only the cycle of life and death that I saw at the hospital every day (as an ICU nurse), but also my own dad’s death. Death is a difficult topic, and I think the more stories we have about the topic, the better able we’ll be to face it when it shows up in our lives.


You often set your books in these wonderful, vivid and mythical settings. Why? 


I like settings that are mostly like the regular world, but if you pay attention, they’re not. I’ve been to incredible places that are totally real (I’m pretty sure, anyway), but are also so magical that if an elf or a sheyd or a wizard showed up, you wouldn’t really be that surprised. Recreating these in fiction is a great challenge: can I approximate the feeling of the fog racing me down the street on the Pacific Coast? Or watching the sun rise over the High Atlas Mountains? Or squeezing through the Roman aquifers under Naples? I sure hope so.


This book depicts a strong and supportive relationship between siblings. It seems as if family plays a big part in all of your books. Is there a significance to that? 


Generally, I write a family I wish I’d had. Ziva’s family is a little bit different, because a large part of her growth was that she needed to challenge her preconceived snap judgements about people—including her own family. She made some assumptions about her family members, and then was forced to reconsider them. She also needed to consider that people are rarely all bad or all good. I hope to explore all kinds of families in my stories, from Anya’s supportive and close-knit family, to Ziva’s family fractured by terminal illness, to someone’s future family that looks like something entirely different.


Your books all have a wonderful world-building aspect to them. What drew you to this world in particular? 


The Byzantine Empire was something I didn’t pay much attention to when I learned about it in middle school, but as I grew up and started to appreciate history a little bit more, that time period and place got more and more interesting. The Byzantines are well covered though, so I kind of directed my attention elsewhere for inspiration. The Empire of Khazaria is fascinating because it was and remains mysterious, and is fabled to have been an empire of (some? mostly? all?) Jewish converts. An ancient empire of once-nomads on the wide steppe around the Caspian Sea? The world erupts to life all around me!


Do you have any tips for aspiring writers (of all ages)? 


It seems cliché, and I’m sure you’ve all heard it before: keep writing. Keep creating. Keep imagining. Sometimes it feels like you’re screaming (writing?) into the void, but every line written makes the next one better, and if you want to read a certain story, it’s basically guaranteed that a whole ton of other people want to read it too. Don’t give up!


What are you working on next? 


I have a whole bunch of projects lined up! One is about Maria Hebraea, the first alchemist. Another is set during the year 536 CE, which was called “the worst year” by historians because a huge volcanic eruption blocked out the sun for a year and a half! There are a couple more, but for sure there will be more history, more fantasy, and more Jewish magic from me!



STEM Tuesday– Author Interview: Gae Polisner

Welcome to STEM Tuesday: Author Interview & Book Giveaway, a repeating feature for the fourth Tuesday of every month. Go Science-Tech-Engineering-Math!

Today we’re interviewing Gae Polisner, author of Consider The Octopus, proof positive that STEM related topics don’t have to be restricted to nonfiction texts. Co-written with Nora Raleigh Baskin, this engaging book employs humor and mistaken identity to explore the impact of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch on our environment as told through the eyes of two twelve-year olds.

“Superlative writing and character development uplift this timely story . . . An inspiring tale of friendship and conservation.”Kirkus Reviews, starred review


Christine Taylor-Butler: Before we get into the book, can you tell me a bit about yourself? For instance, many people think writers have always been writers but are surprised to learn many have professional non-writing jobs. What is yours?

Gae Polisner: I’m a lawyer by profession. I graduated from law school at the height of the 1991 depression when there weren’t a lot of job openings. My family law professor hired me. I started as a litigator but then I trained in family mediation. It uses a different side of my brain and I love it.

CTB: Law was your graduate degree. What was your undergraduate?

Gae: Marketing. Believe it or not that degree has helped me survive in publishing. It gave me the skills to put myself out there and make connections with readers and book buyers.

CTB: So how did you make the leap to writing?

Gae: I wrote all the time as a kid. When I was younger I was praised by teachers for my writing in elementary school and middle school. I got compliments in creative writing classes in college. But it was outside the scope of professional jobs. I planned to go to law school or medical school. My father was a surgeon so in my family, having a profession was a given. After graduating I practiced law and started a family. I was fulfilled in my life, but I missed being creative.

When I had my second son I started writing women’s fiction and got an agent. By the time my kids were eight and ten I was reading aloud to them every night. My agent was submitting and I was getting great feedback but lots of rejections. That’s when I decided I was going to write a book for my kids. I wanted to write the books I liked to read when I was younger. I loved Judy Blume and Madeleine L’Engle. I loved the Mixed Up Files.  I wrote The Pull of Gravity which was published by Frances Foster (FSG). It was two more years before I sold my next book, Summer of Letting Go (Workman/Algonquin). I’m most known for The Memory of Things which is about 9/11.

CTB: You have seven books in print now?

Gae: Yes. But that’s seven books out of twenty-two manuscripts. It’s been an interesting journey.

CTB: So let’s dig into your latest book: Consider the Octopus. This book caught me off guard. It’s not often I find such fun storytelling which is simultaneously covering a real science topic. Could you tell me how the idea came about?

Gae Polisner: I say it was a bit of synchronicity. I was headed for a swim and listening to NPR in the car when Norah called and said “Turn on NPR! They’re talking about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.”

Note: Here’s the WYNC link for readers:

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is Worse Than You Think.”

CTB: So you were both listening to the same broadcast when she called and you both had the same idea about creating a book using that as the basis for the adventure.

Gae: Yes. Nora and I had already collaborated on several manuscripts including a novel: Seven Clues To Home. So when she called I said, “Okay, let’s write this but the only requirement is that we write a funny book.” Neither one of us wanted the book to be solely an “issue” book. We wanted something that covered environmental pollution but wasn’t “heavy.”

CTB: Even so, you wanted to make sure the science was real.

Microplastics noaaGae: The garbage patch is often described as an island so initially I thought people could stand on it. When we were thinking of ideas for the book I wanted to put a research station there. Then I did research and realized the idea of it being an island was a misnomer. In photos you often see large groups of plastic trash floating in the ocean. There is quite a lot of that floating on the surface of the water and the “islands” are formed by the currents of ocean water. But most of the patch is composed of particles of plastics called microplastics. Some are microscopic which means they’re so small that you can’t see them. But they’re still dangerous to wildlife and the environment. According to the EPA it’s now found in every ecosystem on the planet.

CTB: To bring home the importance of this problem, the story is written in the points of view of two twelve-year old kids who form an unlikely friendship: Sydney Miller, who is invited to join the research ship after being mistaken for a famous scientist of the same name, and Jeremy Barnes, who is responsible for issuing that invitation. Did you and Nora write both voices together?

Gae: Actually, Nora wrote Sydney’s voice and I wrote Jeremy’s. Sydney’s character is funny but is the more serious of the two kids. Sydney has dreams and can’t believe what we’ve done to the oceans. She’s accompanied by her goldfish Rachel Carson who she smuggles on to the trip.

CTB: You were the voice of Jeremy. One of the fun aspects of this book were the titles for the chapters. Jeremy changes his nickname and the jokes are self-effacing and yet they project what is coming next in the text. For example, Jeremy JB “Not Made of Willpower” Barnes, or “Jeremy JB “Please, No More Puking” Barnes. No wonder kids find this book funny.

Gae: His voice was one of those muse things. I thought about boys I knew. The kids who were a cut-up and so smart but take a long time to recognize they are smart. One of my neighbors was like that and he was at my house all the time.

CTB: We tell readers (and aspiring authors) to spend a lot of time observing people and their behaviors to make their book characters real.

Gae: Yes. I look at how a kid’s brain works. Sometimes they are unintentionally funny. Once I knew who Jeremy was, writing his voice came easier

CTB: The majority of the book was set on a fictional research vessel named the Oceana II. Your details were so vivid I felt as if I were onboard with the Sydney and Jeremy. Have you been on a similar vessel?

Gae: No. It’s incredibly challenging to write that setting when you haven’t been on a research ship yourself. I’d never even been on a cruise ship. But there are plenty of places to get information. For instance, everyone thinks that SEAmester was a clever setting but it’s a real program. My friend’s son was interested in Marine Biology and did the program. Then he blogged about it so I got a sense of what it was like for a young kid to be on a research vessel in the middle of the ocean.

One of the great things about the internet is that I found a virtual tour of an Australian Research Vessel “Solander”. That allowed me to “travel” down into the lower levels and explore. The 3D tour was constantly open while I wrote. I could see how the different rooms worked including the dry room, the galley, etc..

AIMS Research Vessel Solander

RV Solander

CTB: What other resources did you find that readers might enjoy exploring?

The Jenny Ocean cleanupGae: There’s a lot of initiatives working on the problem. I sent you a cool link that follows “The Jenny.” It’s an ocean vacuum system that is having some success cleaning up the patch. It collected more than 30 tons of plastic. Readers can find it here at: The Ocean Cleanup.

I also found a documentary by Jack Johnson. It’s called “Smog of the Sea.” The film allows you to see how every mile of the ocean is filled with microplastics. You’re traveling in it when you’re sailing.

CTB: That’s amazing. You slip in so much science in a seamless way. Even something as simple as the “goldfish” t-shirt is written in scientific notation: “79 AU 196.97”. Seventy-nine is the atomic number for gold on the periodic table, AU in its elemental symbol and 196.97 is its atomic mass. You don’t go out of your way to explain everything, you leave some things for the readers to discover on their own. When writing science topics it always helps to have a second pair of eyes. Once the manuscript was complete did you and Nora reach out to people to read the draft?

Gae: We did. Norah reached out to Karen Romano Young. She’s a fellow writer and scientist who has been on a research ship. She’s also contributor to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. I asked a friend who is a marine biology teacher to read the book and vett the science before it was published.

CTB: One of the hardest parts about the pandemic was so many good books didn’t get the visibility they deserved. I wanted to help readers discover this particular book.  I just completed three books for the “Save The….” (Animals) series with Chelsea Clinton. One of the things that kept popping up what how many animals are endangered by the plastics in our oceans. Which, by extension, means we are also exposed as humans. We wanted, at the end of the book, to provide ways young readers can get involved and have a sense of agency. That you were able to highlight both in a book that uses humor and heart was such a bonus. Thanks for agreeing to be my guest this month.

Gae: You’re welcome!

sample from book

Win a FREE copy of  Consider The Octopus.

“A fun read… made me laugh… also has a really powerful message about how we need to save the environment.” Ronak Bhatt, Kid Reporter: TIME for Kids

Enter the giveaway by leaving a comment below. The randomly-chosen winner will be contacted via email and asked to provide a mailing address (within the U.S. only) to receive the book.

Good luck!


PolisnerGae Polisner is the author of seven books for young people. Awards and honors include Booklist and Kirkus Starred Reviews, The Wisconsin’s Children’s Choice book award, The Nerdy Book Club Award, the Pennsylvania School Library Association’s list of best fiction and others. Consider the Octopus is her first middle grade novel with a STEM focus.

To learn more about Gae and her books, please visit You can follow her on Twitter @gaepol
Christine Taylor-ButlerYour host is Christine Taylor-Butler, MIT nerd and author of three books in Chelsea Clinton’s Save The . . . (Animals) series and many other nonfiction books for kids. She is also the author of the middle grade sci-fi series The Lost Tribes. Follow @ChristineTB on Twitter and/or @ChristineTaylorButler on Instagram

STEM Tuesday gift recommendation– Buy STEM/STEAM books for the holidays!


Happy Holidays!!

It’s that time of year where people scramble to find gifts. We, at STEM Tuesday, recommend you give the gift of CURIOSITY. DISCOVERY. ADVENTURE… Buy a STEM/STEAM book for someone! Not only will you be opening a child’s eyes to the wonder of the world around them, you’ll also be supporting a STEM author, too. 

But what topic? And where do I find a great book? While your first thought might be to look at award lists (which also start to come out this time of year),  we recommend that you look further than that. The award books are great, but there are also plenty of other STEM/STEAM books out there that don’t win awards. So look widely and take a gander at our monthly book lists. They are chock-full of great titles!

author christine Taylor-butler

Our own Christine Taylor-Butler did a post on where to find great STEM books and how to support STEM authors last year. Since it’s very pertinent to today, I’m re-posting it here. (Thanks, Christine!)

Over the past two years authors I interviewed for STEM Tuesday have taught me about spider silk made from genetically modified goats, women who were denied a spot in the astronaut program despite performing better than their male counterparts, and implicit bias in archeology that may skew what we know about ancient civilizations. One author/illustrator judged an MIT contest showcasing implausible scientific ideas. Another learned to dive with a photographer in order to better understand the nature of ocean conservation. And while the world knows about the women showcased in Hidden Figures, one author published a book about fifty additional African American women whose STEM contributions changed the world.

If I were to ask you to name the above authors, would you be able to do it without looking at my interviews? That’s my concern in a nutshell. A select few of these authors have been recognized with awards, but most have not. Nonfiction is a staple for helping young readers develop executive functioning and learn more about the world around them, but the authors are not often celebrated in proportion to their contributions to children’s literature. Even with awards, most authors are still struggling to become household names let alone achieve financial stability.

Writing STEM is hard. The research often rivals an academic research paper. Many of us write for magazines, textbooks, trade publishers and educational publishers. What is often true is that authors need to log a lot of hours in the library, speaking to experts and researching in the field to determine how to best present the subject matter in a way a student can understand. In a sense, we have to do a deep dive to understand the material before we can explain it coherently to someone else. Unique to children’s publishing there are additional rules to follow. There’s an art to working within those constraints. I’ve been asked to do planet books of 4,000 words for upper elementary students and recast those same facts for a beginner readers using only 300 words. It’s not just the word count but the choice of words. For instance, with younger students we have to be mindful about sentence length, how many multisyllabic words in a sentence, and words common for that reading level and Lexile range.

After the books are printed and in circulation, awards are tricky. For every author that receives recognition, there are many equally skilled authors that don’t. And remember, the industry celebrates winners, not runners up. A different committee, on a different day, might have picked a different book entirely from the same pile. I know, because I’ve been on a number of awards committees. There are epic battles and painstaking discussions before a consensus is reached.  I’ve also noticed that the attention paid to award winning fiction authors is sustained much longer than for nonfiction authors. Those awards often translate into more work for fiction authors and higher compensation but not necessarily for their nonfiction counterparts.

I’ve been luckier than most of my peers in this respect. I’ve published more than 90 books for children and have more under contract. So I wanted to raise my voice to challenge the readers of this blog to change the nature of the game. The industry pays attention to where the money is flowing. Publishing pays attention to social media chatter and reviews. You can help my STEM peers by doing the following.

Once a month:

  1. Check out a book (or two) from the library. If you need a place to start, we have great recommendations on our STEM Tuesday site. Books that are checked out stay in circulation longer.
  2. If you’re in a school district, consider adding a book to the school library or classroom. I know budgets are small, but even one book is a boon for that author.
  3. Write a review. It only takes five minutes. Amazon, Goodreads, Barnes and Noble.
  4. Give a shout out to an author whose work you admire. Try to pick someone who isn’t getting a lot of marketing support from publishers. The ones the awards committees didn’t announce. I’m all for boosting underdogs. That shout-out will make an author’s day.
  5. Buy a STEM book as a gift for the holidays! 


Win a FREE copy of the book of your choice from me, Jennifer Swanson.

It’s the holiday season so let’s do something positive to end 2022.

This month, instead of us telling you what we found fascinating…this time you tell us.

What nonfiction book have you loved?

What’s next on your wish list?

Enter the giveaway by leaving a comment below.

The randomly-chosen winner will be contacted via email and asked to provide a mailing address (within the U.S. only) to receive the book.

Good luck!


Jennifer Swanson, author
Jennifer Swanson dreams of one day running away to the Museum of Science and Industry- then maybe she could look at all the exhibits and try out all the gadgets without competing for them with her kids. An author of fifty nonfiction science books for kids, Jennifer’s goal is to show kids that Science Rocks! She lives in sunny Florida with her husband and Great Pyrenees dog, Sasha. When not writing she’s on the hunt for fun science facts.