Posts Tagged humor

Author Spotlight: Summer Rachel Short… plus a Giveaway!

Today, let’s give a warm Mixed-Up welcome to Summer Rachel Short, author of the debut middle-grade novel, The Mutant Mushroom Takeover.

Described by Kirkus as “Packed to the gills with fun,” and by School Library Journal as “A fun debut novel with an action-packed climax that will leave readers eager to scope out the weirder side of nature,” the book is out now from Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.

About The Mutant Mushroom Takeover

Ever since Magnolia Stone’s scientist dad left Shady Pines to find a new job, Maggie’s been stuck in her gramma’s mobile home with her grumpy older brother, Ezra. Now she’s on a mission to put her family back together by winning the Vitaccino Junior Naturalist Merit Award.

When Maggie and her best friend, Nate, a wannabe YouTube star and alien conspiracy theorist, scout out a rare bioluminescent fungus, Maggie is certain she’s a shoo-in to win. But after animals around town start sprouting unusual growths and Ezra develops a bluish glow and hacking cough, Maggie wonders what they’ve really stumbled onto.

As things in Shady Pines become stranger and more dangerous, and conversations with her dad get complicated, Maggie must use her scientific smarts and Nate’s impressive knowledge of all things supernatural to put things back in order and prevent these peculiar glowing mushrooms from taking over their home.

Q&A with Summer Rachel Short

MR: So glad to have you with us, Summer. Welcome to the Mixed-Up Files!

SRS: Thanks so much for having me! I’m so glad to be here!

MR: So, I stayed up late into the night reading The Mutant Mushroom Takeover and it really gave me the heebie-jeebies! It also made me rethink my love of mushrooms. 🙂 What inspired you to write about bioluminescent fungus–and the “weird” side of nature–in the first place?

SRS: Thank you! I do hope you’ll be able to resume your love of mushrooms–once you’ve given your produce a solid once over, of course!

Things that are a little weird have always fascinated me, because they spark my curiosity and make me ask “how” and “why.” One of my first inspirations for this book was an old documentary on fungi that I stumbled upon on YouTube. There was an ominous voiceover, creepy soundtrack, and time-lapse video of fungi unfurling and spewing their spores on unsuspecting hosts. It was all so bizarre, and such an unknown world to me, that I wanted to know more. I kept researching, and eventually the bits and pieces coalesced into a story idea.

Maggie and Nate: The Dynamic Duo

MR: The novel’s protagonist, Magnolia “Maggie” Stone, is a STEM-savvy eleven-year-old aspiring naturalist. She’s brave, smart, and committed to discovering the truth about the mutant fungus. Her best friend, Nate, a wannabe YouTube star and alien conspiracist, is loyal to Maggie’s cause and hysterically funny. What allowed you to create such nuanced—and incredibly realistic—characters as Maggie and Nate? Also, do you have a favorite?

SRS: Thank you for saying that, Melissa. I love all my characters, particularly the main pair, Maggie and Nate. But in terms of who was the most fun to write, it’s probably some of the side characters, like Nate, and my villain. One thing I focus on when creating characters is paying attention to their dialogue. I read it out loud and then play it back to myself using the text-to-speech function on my computer. It gives me a feel for how the characters may sound to others.

MR: In the novel, Maggie’s older brother, Ezra, displays weird symptoms after coming into contact with the bioluminescent fungus. When Maggie and Nate go into the forest to investigate, they wear hazmat suits made from garbage bags, and wear protective goggles, to keep themselves safe. This sounds eerily similar to precautions taken during the coronavirus. Am I reading too much into this?

SRS: I didn’t know about coronavirus at the time I wrote those scenes, but there are some similarities in how the problem is tackled. Since the kids don’t have access to fancy hazmat suits, they improvise and create their own makeshift suits using household items. It was fun to brainstorm what a couple of kids without a lot of money could come up with on the fly to protect themselves from mutant spores.

Extra, Extra! Read All About It!

MR: Before writing The Mutant Mushroom Takeover, you were a science reporter for a newspaper, covering such diverse topics as nanotech tweezers, poultry farm pollution, and the nighttime habits of spiders and snakes. What was the strangest story you ever covered?

SRS: The nanotech tweezers is still one of my favorites. The professor I interviewed was working on a project at NASA at the time and was very excited about all the possibilities in the field of nanotechnology. The project focused on the creation of laser tweezers that would allow scientists to manipulate things like atoms and molecules without damaging them. It’s been a number of years, so I’m sure the science has continued to grow. It would be interesting to find out what can be done with nano-particles in 2020. Perhaps something that could end up in a middle-grade mystery?

MR: Can you tell Mixed-Up Files readers a bit about your path to publication? Smooth sailing or bumpy terrain? Or something in between?

SRS: It’s probably somewhere in between. I started writing fiction many years ago, in college, with hopes to one day write a novel. But then I started my professional life, had kids, and life got busy. I put the dream on the back burner for a long time. Then, about five years ago, it was like a switch flipped and I started writing again; this time with more intention and focus. I felt determined to see things through, and approached the goal with more drive than I’d previously had.

It took about two years of writing–including finishing and querying a different manuscript–before I got the idea for The Mutant Mushroom Takeover. I entered an early draft of the manuscript into a writing contest called Pitch Wars, and selected to be a mentee in the fall of 2018. Boosted by the advice from my mentors, I spent that winter revising the book. In early 2019, I landed my agent, Alyssa Eisner Henkin, and that summer we sold the book to Simon & Schuster. Now, about a year later, The Mutant Mushroom Takeover is out in the world!

Tips for Multitaskers

MR: I read that you have three kids. How do you balance your parenting responsibilities with your writing? It must be a herculean feat, especially in these difficult days of Covid. Any tips to share with other multitasking writers? 

SRS: It can be challenging at times. When I’m on deadline, I try to squeeze writing in whenever I can–early mornings, afternoons, late at night. Otherwise, when I’m drafting or working at a more usual pace, I carve out a window of a couple of hours most days and head to a quiet room in the house to work. Thankfully, my kids aren’t tiny anymore so they’re able to be independent for a bit.

The process isn’t always picture perfect. My house gets messy and sometimes our meals aren’t as great as I’d like. But the busyness comes and goes in waves, so I try to have grace with myself and not feel too guilty about dusty furniture or laundry in need of folding.

MR: What’s next on your writing agenda, Summer? Care to share a bit about your latest project?

SRS:  I’m currently revising the sequel to The Mutant Mushroom Takeover, which is set in Yellowstone National Park and features a brand new mystery for Maggie and Nate to solve. I won’t say too much, but there are large reptiles involved! The book is slated to release Fall 2021, and I hope to do a cover reveal in the next few months. (I’ve seen a sneak peek and it’s gorgeous!)

MR: Oh! Last thing. No MUF interview is complete without a…

Lightning Round!

Preferred writing snack? Dark chocolate.

Coffee or tea? Coffee with cream and cinnamon.

Favorite mushroom? Shiitake.

Favorite song? “West Coast” by Imagine Dragons.

Zombie apocalypse: Yea or nay? Nay, unless they’re the really slow kind.

Superpower? Snap my fingers and the house cleans itself.

Favorite place on earth? The Redwood Forest.

You’re stranded on a desert island, with only three items in your possession. What are they? Well, my husband is building a boat in our garage, so if I can take that then I’ll just make it a relaxing day trip to the island and have my other two items be a book and a snack.

MR: Thank you for chatting with me, Summer—and congratulations on the publication of The Mutant Mushroom Takeover. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I know MUF readers will too!

SRS: Thanks so much for having me!

And now…

A GIVEAWAY!!!

For a copy of The Mutant Mushroom Takeover, comment on the blog–and, if you’re on Twitter, on the Mixed-Up Files’ Twitter account–for a chance to win! A winner will be chosen at midnight EST, 10/30. Good luck… and may the best mushroom win!

SUMMER RACHEL SHORT Summer lives in North Texas with her charming husband, three hilarious kids, a fluffy kitty, and a big yellow dog. Before spinning tales about mutant mushrooms, she once worked as a science reporter for her university’s newspaper, where she wrote on topics like nanotech tweezers, poultry farm pollution, and the nighttime habits of spiders and snakes. For fun, she enjoys exploring new places with the family, playing tennis, and dreaming up ideas for her next book. Learn more about Summer on her website and follow her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Family Book Club: Middle Grade Books That Can Be Enjoyed by ALL

As I write this I am preparing to leave New York where we’ve been for the summer and return to London (where we live during the year) in time to quarantine for 14 days before school starts. I am kind of freaking out about what I am going to do with my kids in quarantine, but probably like most people with children or who are around children, the theme of this summer has certainly been “unstructured time.” My kids are currently 15, almost-12, 9.5, and almost-6. And thinking back to lockdown, one of the things that worked well was spending some time a few days a week listening to an audiobook while we colored or just relaxed. Okay, the 15-year-old did not involve herself in this, but for the rest of us it was nice. And when I would be reading a middle grade book to the 11 and 9 year old before bed, she would often casually come in and listen, or if we were discussing a book she’d read or I’d read to her when she was younger, she would happily weigh in.

How about a Family Book Club, in whatever shape that might look like to you?

So, for other people struggling with how to fill the last weeks of kids’ summers with something other than screens and devices, I thought I’d make a list of middle grade books that family members of different ages and genders would all enjoy reading (or listening to) and could then discuss.

I’m thinking middle grade books that work on a number of different levels—understood even by little ones not quite reading chapter books to themselves, hit the sweet spot of middle grade readers (either to be read out loud to or to read themselves), might interest your teen if they’ll deign to participate (boredom works in interesting ways), and sophisticated and nuanced enough to be truly enjoyed by adult readers too. 

Because of Mr. Terupt by Rob Buyea—this moves quickly because of short chapters narrated by different voices. The classroom dynamics are realistic and I found it wise in a way that I, as an adult, have taken the subtle lessons, for example how to handle a “girl wars” bully. There are now 3 additional sequels.

 

Because of Winn Dixie by Kate DiCamillo—written deceptively simply, this one is funny and moving and heartwarming—an all-round winner for everyone every time I’ve read it. I’d say ANY Kate DiCamillo is a good choice for family book club: as Ann Patchett writes, some people like the magic animals ones (her) and some the realistic childhood ones (me) but they all “crack you open and make you a better person.”

  All of a Kind Family by Sydney Taylor—written in the 1950s about a Jewish family on the Lower East Side in the early 1900s, this one just never, ever, feels dated. We are working our way through the sequels now.

 

 

Fudge books, in particular Superfudge by Judy Blume—laugh-out-loud funny and relatable about 6th grader Peter and the antics of his irrepressible 5-year-old brother Fudge. (My teen daughter’s suggestion was Otherwise Known As Sheila the Great).

 

Fortunately The Milk, by Neil Gaiman—madcap storytelling that’s fun for all ages.

 

Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White—honestly, I hadn’t read this since I was a kid and pretty much remembered nothing from it. Reading it to my almost-6 year old this summer, the writing blew me away as well as the story. Garth Williams’ illustrations are a delight for everyone. A classic for a reason.

 

The Ramona books by Beverly Cleary—again, funny and relatable situations that make moving drama out of everyday circumstances and relationships. These have been a big hit over and over again and provoke great discussions about relationships and difficult situations. My personal favorites are Ramona and Her Mother and Ramona Quimby, Age 8.

 

All of the above are available as audiobooks too. And speaking of audiobooks, a special mention for How to Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell narrated by David Tennant because on the SCBWI British Isles Facebook group someone queried if people had recommendations for an audio book for a long car ride with an 8-year-old that everyone else in the car would enjoy, and this was the overwhelming favorite.  

An important note:

When I looked at my list above I realized that it had no real diversity or POC in it. While many of the books we’ve enjoyed as a family do (see below), I couldn’t think of one that worked as well with my criteria of working for young children too—please, if anyone has any suggestions please add them in the comments.

 

Books next on my own family to-read list that I think will work well:

George by Alex Gino

Wonder by R.J. Palacio

The List of Things That Will Not Change by Rebecca Stead

Babysitter’s Club, the original books by Ann Martin—I loved this piece in the New York Times recently about boys reading these and my sons have devoured the graphic versions, not to mention that all of us are LOVING the fabulous Netflix series. Thought this might work well for us in audio. The first 5 are narrated by Elle Fanning.

 

Family Book Club for Middle Grade Readers and Up:

Graphic novels abound with moving stories and are great for reluctant readers or for kids ready for sophisticated themes but aren’t at a reading level for more advanced MG novels. They don’t work as well for the littlest members of the family, but if that’s not your situation, these books sparked lots of conversation and good book discussion in our family recently.

New Kid by Jerry Kraft —code switching and discomfort in either world when middle schooler Jordan changes schools, but instead of art school where he’d wanted to go, his parents send him to a prestigious academic school where he is one of the few kids of color. My kids have each read this several times and have asked a lot of questions sparking great discussion.

 

When Stars Are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed—family love, education, and a Somali refugee’s story as told to graphic novelist Victoria Jamieson. Both my sons devoured this. My 9-year-old described it as about “a boy with a brother who can’t speak. Really sad but really good.”

 

Other MG books on my (older) Family Book Club list:

One Crazy Summer trilogy—The first book, the story of 3 sisters joining their estranged mother in tumultuous 1960s San Francisco, has been a big hit with all my kids over the years and coming late to the party I’ve just discovered that there are two sequels which I can’t wait to try.

The Length of a String by Elissa Brent Weissman—“Imani is adopted, and she’s ready to search for her birth parents. But when she discovers the diary her Jewish great-grandmother wrote chronicling her escape from Holocaust-era Europe, Imani begins to see family in a new way.” I can’t recommend this book highly enough—I think my boys will be ready for it this year and really look forward to reading it with them. I also gave it to my older daughter’s best friend who loved it and I hope my daughter will read it too!

High-Rise Mystery by Sharna Jackson—this just won the prestigious Waterstones Book Prize in the UK and I’m excited to read it with the kids. 

If mysteries are your family’s thing, check out some of these.

 

Turtle Boy by M. Evan Wolkenstein. I just finished this and want to hand a copy to everyone I know. In a portrait of contemporary Jewish life, this book explores self-image, grief and friendship and is a wonderful, wonderful, thoughtfully-written debut.

Middle Grade for All

In truth, minus needing to encompass a little one’s needs, to me the perfect Middle Grade book is written in a way that absolutely resonates on many levels and to many ages. My list includes a lot of obvious ones–classics and award-winners. But there are thankfully untold numbers that are amazing for a Family Book Club. In addition to the ones mentioned above, here are some suggested by friends of mine who said these worked well for different-aged readers in their families:

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin

Book Scavenger by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman (for fans of The Westing Game)

All Four Stars by Tara Dairman

Look Both Ways: A Tale Told in Ten Blocks by Jason Reynolds (have just ordered this for myself)

Born a Crime: Stories From A South African Childhood by Trevor Noah, adapted for young readers edition

And Finally, In Her Own Words:

One of my favorite middle grade readers, who was in a neighborhood mother-daughter book club with her mom, recommends these (and her mom endorses them too 🙂

The Way to Bea by Kat Yeh

Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt

A Drop of Hope by Keith Calabrese

Al Capone Does My Shirts by Jennifer Choldenko

Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt 

Orphan Island by Laurel Snyder

 

Happy Reading, Everyone!

Let me know how you get on with any of these, and please write more Family Book Club suggestions in the comments. With fears of a second Covid-19 wave and another lockdown looming (and who knows what will be with school), we all might have a LOT of time on our hands. But I can think of worse things than spending it reading and discussing great children’s books. Stay safe and Happy Reading! 

 

All books can be bought on MUF’s Bookshop.org affiliate program or wherever fine books are sold.

STEM Tuesday– Symbiotic Relationships– Author Interview

STEM Tuesday–Symbiosis– Interview with co-authors Jenn Dlugos and Charlie Hatton

 

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

Today we’re interviewing authors Jenn Dlugos and Charlie Hatton, co-authors of Odd Couples, part of their “Things That Make You Go Yuck” series. Although busy with lots of projects–Jenn writes and illustrates science text books, and Charlie is a computational biologist–they say they collaborate on their books to meet a “fundamental ‘need’ to be creative.” Self-proclaimed science nerds who met through stand-up comedy, they bring humor to their books. In a time when basic biology has revealed its scary side, it’s a relief to be able to laugh a little while enjoying the fascinating tales of interrelationships in this book.

(*I had a lot of questions and Jenn and Charlie had a lot to share. This interview has been edited for brevity.–CCD)

 

Pictuer of the cover of Odd couples.

Carolyn Cinami DeCristofano: What’s Odd Couples about—and what was most important to you in deciding to write it?

CH: Odd Couples is part of a series of “Things That Make You Go Yuck!” books, all about interesting and unusual critters and plants. This book explores some of the cooperative – and competitive and completely bonkers – relationships between organisms. With Odd Couples and all the Yuck! Books, we wanted to show young readers that even the “yucky” bits of nature can be fascinating, inspiring and sometimes oddly beautiful.

JD: Every second is life or death in the wild, and sometimes organisms have to work together to survive. Odd Couples covers everything from weird mating habits to strange friendships (and  frenemy-ships). From a crab that waves sea anemones around like pom poms to ward off predators to sloths that have strange friendships moths that lays eggs in sloth poop, Odd Couples covers the oddest of the odd.

CCD: You are two co-authors of a book named Odd Couples, so of course I have to ask: What kind of an odd couple are you? How would you describe your creative partnership?

CH: Oh, we’re odd. We met around fifteen years ago doing amateur standup comedy around the Boston area among a crowd of fellow misfits. We began collaborating on creative projects a few years ago, which has turned out to be much more productive than telling jokes at a coffee shop at midnight on a Tuesday. We’ve taken a “sure, let’s try it” approach to projects, leading to working together on writing books as well as short plays, producing a web series and short films, and various other oddities-in-progress.

JD:  In biological terms, we’re in a parasitic relationship. The parasite is whomever is not paying the tab that week.

CCD: What’s one of your favorite organism relationships from the book? Why is it a favorite?

CH: We researched a number of parasites for Odd Couples, which is a really… interesting way to spend your Saturday afternoons. My favorite is a flatworm called Ribeiroia that infects frogs during one phase of its life cycle. The worms’ next stage of development occurs in birds. To improve their odds of getting there, the worms affect infected frogs’ development, causing them to grow extra, gangly useless legs that hinder their hopping. These frogs are less likely to escape birds trying to eat them, which is good for the worms – though not as much for the Franken-frogs. It’s basically a Bond movie villain strategy for getting ahead.

JD: My favorite animals are spiders. (Yes, really. I had pet tarantulas when I was younger.) So, I have to go with the peacock spider. It’s an adorable little arachnid who basically does the Y.M.C.A. dance to attract a mate. Scientists recently discovered a new species of peacock spider that has markings that resemble a skeleton. You know, because spiders need to double-down on their creepy reputation.

CCD: Can you say a little about how your writing partnership works? For example, who does what when?

CH: On most projects, we discuss an outline and detailed plans for writing. I promptly forget most of it, and Jenn reminds me of the parts she says that we both liked the best. It’s not the most efficient process, but it works. While writing, we generally pass material back and forth – in the case of Odd Couples, we agreed on a format and researched the organisms we wanted to include, then split them up to each write about our favorites. Sort of like a fantasy sports draft, only with more spiders and parasites.

JD: Nothing happens until food and drinks arrive. It’s very possible that our waiter/waitress is our muse. Several hours later, we have something that resembles an outline typed out in Jenn-ese on my phone. I translate it to something that resembles English, and from there it’s a 50/50 split. We’ve been writing together for so long that we’ve developed a joint voice, and we sometimes forget which part each of us wrote. There have been more than a few times we have seen/heard a joke in something we’ve written and wondered which one of us was responsible for that nonsense.

CCD: What’s next for you as authors?

JD: Another infographics book (is) waiting in the wings after Awesome Space Tech.

(Awesome Space Tech, also an infographics project, is Jenn and Charlie’s latest book. –CCD)

CCD: Well, I’d bet that your humor and serious science creds have led to yet another book that will inspire, entertain, and fascinate kids. Your symbiosis certainly benefits others! Thanks so much for your time!

Win a FREE copy of Odd Couples

Enter the giveaway by leaving a comment below.  (Scroll past the link to the previous post.) 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!

 

 

Snapshot of co-authors Jenn Dlugos and Charlie Hatton in a comic pose.

Boston-based collaborators, Jenn Dlugos and Charlie Hatton are co-authors of Prufrock Press’s series, “Things That Make You Go Yuck!” and, in Charlie’s words, “several other, far more ridiculous projects.”

By day, Jenn writes science textbooks, assessments, and lab manuals for grades K–12. By night, she writes comedy screenplays, stage plays, and other ridiculous things with Charlie Hatton. Her favorite creepy crawlies are spiders.

Charlie is a bioinformatician who slings data for a cancer research hospital–as well as a science fan and humorist. He enjoys working with genetic and other data to support cancer research, learning about new and interesting scientific areas, and referring to himself in the third person in biographical blurbs.

 

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photo of author and STEM Tuesday contribuor Carolyn DeCristofanoCarolyn DeCristofano, a founding team member of STEM Tuesday, is a children’s STEM author and STEM education consultant. She recently co-founded STEM Education Insights, an educational research, program evaluation, and curriculum development firm which complements her independent work as Blue Heron STEM Education. She has authored several acclaimed science books, including Running on Sunshine (HarperCollins Children) and A Black Hole is NOT a Hole (Charlesbridge).