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STEM Tuesday– Math– Interview with Author Rajani LaRocca

STEM Tuesday–Math– Interview with Author Rajani LaRocc

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

Today we’re interviewing Rajani LaRocca, author of Much Ado About Baseball. The book is told in alternating voices. Trish pitches for her team and worries about her future until she is sent a mysterious book filled with math puzzles. Ben is a former pitcher who now plays first base but is a math nerd at heart. They are math rivals at school competitions but now must form an alliance to solve the mysterious puzzles. They’re rewarded with magical results but soon they reach a puzzle that is the hardest of them all.

Kirkus Review said, “A moving tale of baseball, magic, and former rivals who come together to solve a problem.” (Fantasy. 8-12) Starred review.

Author Brad Thor’s review on The Today Show called it one of the best middle grade books he’d read as an adult.

 * * *

Christine Taylor-Butler: Rajani, you are a prolific writer for both children’s fiction and nonfiction. Many people in are unaware of how many women in our industry have STEM backgrounds. For example, you have both an undergraduate and a medical degree from Harvard University. Was it always a dream to go into medicine?

Rajani LaRocca: I knew I wanted to study medicine as far back as elementary school. But I was also a huge reader. In high school I told my creative writing teacher I was going to be a doctor and he said, “Who said you have to choose?” He gave me books written by doctors. It blew my mind. Even so, I wrote a lot of personal essays in college but no fiction. I didn’t start writing for children until much later. I love what I do and I still have an active practice in Internal Medicine/Primary Care.

CTB: How did you get the idea for this book?

MidsummersMayhemRajani: It started when I wrote my first book: Midsummer’s Mayhem. It takes the magical people from Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and puts an Indian family at the center of the action. I thought, “What would fairies like Tatania and Oberon be doing if they were living in today’s world and interacting with modern kids?” The answer is they would be fighting and it would embroil a number of people. I tried to figure out what fairies might fight over and what the consequences would be. I decided they would be fighting over something ridiculous and petty like sweet things vs. salty things. So Tatania, queen of the fairies, opens a bakery and Oberon, king of the fairies, opens a snack shack. Whoever made the most money would win. Then I realized, not only could Tatania be the patron of sweet things, but also other things like cooking and music and literature. I imagined that this might be why there are so many famous writers in Concord, Massachusetts. Oberon, on the other hand, would be the patron of math, science and sports. So the first book is from the perspective of “team sweet.”

Much Ado about Baseball is from the perspective of “team salty.” But it’s still about fairies being petty in their rivalry.

Much Ado BaseballCTB: We always suggest aspiring writers spend time observing kids to lend authenticity to their work. Did you have any real life inspirations for the story?

Rajani: My daughter is inspiration for one of the characters. But for Much Ado About Baseball, my son is the inspiration. He’s been a math kid from the day he was born. He understood multiplication and the power of two at a very young age. When he was 3 years old he was trying to figure out analog clocks so my husband taught him the power of five. After a while my son would quiz me too. He was on the math team in school and was always working on all these puzzles. He has just graduated from Williams College with a degree in statistics.

CTB: There’s so much detailed information about baseball and the math involved. How much research did you have to do to understand the game?

Rajani: My son played baseball from the age of five so that’s how I know so much about the game. I’m a mom that lived with baseball and knew there was a lot of math involved. It’s very much a summer activity. So I thought it would be fun to write a book from the perspective of kids who were math rivals playing on the same baseball team. And when they team up, magical things happen. I was inspired by Shakespeare’s play, Much Ado About Nothing.

TrishCTB: You wrote the book in alternating voices, Trish and Ben who don’t start out as friends. Was that hard?

Rajani: This book almost broke my brain :-). It was my sophomore novel and I was wondering how to write in dual point of views in such a way that each advances the plot. I had to balance competing motivations since the character’s didn’t know what was going on in the other person’s head.


CTB: So in a way that puts the readers at an advantage over the characters.

Rajani: Exactly. The reader is in on the secret. They can know and see things the characters can’t see.

CTB: This month’s theme is math. And while we usually cover nonfiction, books, we realized that sometimes people have a hard time getting their head around the idea that STEM can be embedded in speculative fiction for kids. You created a book about baseball that included a book of magical puzzles but also embedded so many facts about the game and math in general. It’s seamless.

baseball diamond

Photo by Haniel Espinal on Unsplash

Example: “Twelve-year-olds like me play Little League on a sixty-foot diamond, with forty six feet between the pitchers mound and the plate. But in the spring, we move up to the big diamond, which is the size of a Major League infield – ninety feet between bases, and sixty feet six inches from the pitcher’s mound to home plate.”~ Trish

Rajani: Trish is a math kid but it also fuels her secret sadness. When you move up to the bigger field it’s a long way to throw a ball. Those kids are still kids but in a year they’ll be stronger and bigger. But Trish is a girl and she’s thinking that the boys are going to get stronger faster. She’s worried she can’t do baseball anymore but is trying to make the math work of moving up to a bigger baseball diamond. So the book looks at both STEM and character growth.

CTB: When I was writing the Lost Tribes Series I had to balance puzzles needed for the characters to advance in the plot with the real science of the places and problems they encountered. How hard was it for you to embed the science and create the puzzles at the center of your plot?

Rajani: The Math Puzzler team (the imaginary math team in the book) was about these kind of puzzles. They’re the same type of activities my son was doing in the school math contests. The problems are not just straight math. The goal was to get as many right as you could. So the lead up to the competition was practicing different types of puzzles. It takes too much time to “brute force” the answers so the students were constantly thinking of multiple ways to arrive at an answer in the least amount of time.

I observed my son and thought “How would I solve this myself?” These were upper elementary kids learning the process. I wanted to put that in the book as well. The idea that math could be fun and joyful. It’s just a puzzle to solve.

CTB: You’ve written other books that are more directly about STEM. For example: The Secret Code in You – All about your DNA. and A Vaccine is Like A Memory.

Secret Code Inside You

Rajani: The Secret Code Inside You: All about your DNA was the first picture book I ever wrote. It’ a non-fiction science book in rhyme. I tried hard to change it to prose but it didn’t work. The nucleotide base pairs line up every time so it fits the same pattern as a rhyme.

vaccine is like a memory

I wrote A Vaccine is Like a Memory after I got my first Covid-19 vaccine. I wanted to show how vaccines occurred and the science behind it. But also what the world was like before vaccines were invented. It’s like a memory of a disease you’ve never had. I loved the metaphor: at the end, we have to remember. We can’t forget that people once died of diseases we don’t have anymore. An example would be measles. We have to remind people what it was like back then. Polio in the US is another great example. Until recently, young people have never experienced those desperate times. We need to ask the question – do we want to go back to those times? No. Many diseases were particularly deadly to young children.

One of the things I discovered in my research was that a slave named Onesimus taught a minister, Cotton Mather about smallpox and how to people in Africa inoculated other people from getting sick. Doctors in the Boston area turned up their noses at the the suggestion except one: Zabdiel Boylston. The people he inoculated died at 1/6th the rate of the general population. Later, Edward Jenner realized that cowpox was a milder disease but gave people an immunity against smallpox. This concept of giving people a mild infection to prevent them from getting sick had been known for thousands of years in China, Africa and India.

spread from vaccines

That’s how I came to the title. Vaccines are our body’s way of “remembering” a disease it might not have actually had so it can fight the illness the person is infected later. Aside from water and food sanitation, vaccines are one of the greatest advancements in public health.

One and only heartCTB: So the book about vaccines will be out in June 2023. Is there any other book we should look forward to seeing?

Rajani: I wrote “Your One and Only Heart.” It’s a picture book written in poetry. I love this book so much. It will be out August 2023. The book is about anatomy and physiology.


CTB: One last thing. Many people might not know that you produce the STEM Women in Kidlit podcast with the amazing Artemis Roehrig. It rates a 5 out of 5 on What was the inspiration for this.

STEM Women podcastRajani: I was at the Kindling Words children’s literature retreat eating a meal and Artemis said “You know, we both have STEM backgrounds and I’ve been asking around. You wouldn’t believe how many women in this room also have STEM backgrounds. She said “We should do a podcast.” There’s a lot of giggling because working together is so much fun. We started in 2020. There are so many links between STEM and writing for kids. So many authors draw inspiration from their experiences and training.

I wanted to highlight women’s voices. The world rejoices about men’s contributions in children’s literature and in science. As a result, people believe that what they’ve been taught about history is all there is to know. Our podcast celebrate the contributions of women. Also, I’m heartened about the number of biographies coming out about the significant contributions made to the field by women. I happy to see the industry changing.

CTB: Thanks for joining our blog this month, Rajani. I would like to urge readers to look at Rajani’s substantial body of award winning work. She covers topics in a way that is both joyful and accessible. It’s a great way to help encourage young readers to learn about the world and how they can create their contributions or solve problems. And most importantly? STEM is just puzzles scientists like to solve.

LaRocca book banner



Rajani LaRocca


Rajani LaRocca is the award-winning author of books for young people. Her work includes novels and picture books, fiction and nonfiction, written in both prose and poetry. Her middle grade novel in verse, Red, White, and Whole, won a 2022 Newbery Honor, the 2022 Walter Dean Myers Award, the 2022 Golden Kite Award, and the 2021 New England Book Award, as well as other honors. She is the author of numerous other acclaimed novels and picture books, including Midsummer’s Mayhem, Seven Golden Rings, and more. She also co-hosts the STEM Women in KidLit Podcast. A graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Medical School, she’s been working as a primary care internal medicine physician since 2001. She lives in eastern Massachusetts with her family and impossibly cute dog. Follow @rajanilarocca on Twitter and @rajanilarocca on Instagram.


author christine Taylor-butler

Photo by Kecia Stovall

Your host is Christine Taylor-Butler, a graduate of MIT and author of The Oasis, Save the… Tigers, Save the . . . Blue Whales, and many other nonfiction books for kids. She is also the author of the STEM based middle grade sci-fi series The Lost Tribes. Follow @ChristineTB on Twitter and or @ChristineTaylorButler on Instagram. She lives in Missouri with a tank of fish and cats that think they are dogs.

Author Spotlight: Kellye Crocker + a GIVEAWAY!

Today, Melissa Roske chats with Kellye Crocker, author of the MG debut, Dad’s Girlfriend and Other Anxieties (Albert Whitman & Co). Described by best-selling author Rita Williams-Garcia as “thoroughly engaging,” the novel combines serious topics—anxiety, ADHD, blended families—with laugh-out-loud humor. It also hooked Newbery Medalist Erin Entrada Kelly “from the first page,” which is no mean feat. Want a chance to win a copy of the book? Giveaway details below 👇👇👇

A Summary of the Novel

Anxiety has always made Ava avoid the slightest risk, but plunging headfirst into danger might be just what she needs. 

Dad hasn’t even been dating his new girlfriend that long, so Ava is sure that nothing has to change in her life. That is, until the day after sixth grade ends, when Dad whisks her away on vacation to meet The Girlfriend and her daughter in terrifying Colorado, where even the squirrels can kill you! Managing her anxiety, avoiding altitude sickness, and surviving the mountains might take all of Ava’s strength, but at least this trip will only last two weeks. Right?

Interview with Kellye Crocker

MR: Welcome to the Mixed-Up Files, Kellye. So happy to have you here!

KC: Thank you, Melissa! I’ve been a MUF fan for years! I’m so excited to be here!

MR: First, I have to tell you how much I enjoyed Dad’s Girlfriend and Other Anxieties. It was fun, fast-paced, and highly relatable. Can you tell us a bit about the novel? What inspired you to write it?

KC: Thank you so much! The book was inspired by my surprise move to Denver and my own anxiety disorder. After living most of my life in Iowa, the only thing I knew about Colorado was that my partner suddenly had a job there. Colorado is so different from Iowa, and I wanted to pay attention to those differences before I got used to them. I fell in love with Colorado—like everyone does (except Ava, at least at first). I’d been feeling down about my writing and a close friend suggested I take a more playful attitude. I had so much fun exploring the state with Ava and writing her contrarian views.

I wasn’t diagnosed with anxiety and depression until I was an adult, in the late ’90s. But I believe it’s something I’ve always had. It had been well-controlled for years—until the move. I didn’t intend to write about anxiety but it suddenly was part of my day-to-day life again and it danced onto the page.

Dealing with Anxious Thoughts

MR: Ava suffers from anxiety, which causes her to obsess over things that can go wrong—especially during her trip to Colorado, where the novel takes place. Ava’s fears include: altitude sickness; rattlesnakes; wildfires; hypothermia; avalanches; ghosts; poisonous plants… The list goes on. How were you able to jump inside Ava’s brain and channel her anxiety so effectively? Also, what did your research process look like?

KC: Here’s the thing: Ava’s not wrong about those dangers! 😜 She just doesn’t have the tools to accurately assess the risks and deal with her anxiety. I have a lot of those tools, and still there were times when I was a bit freaked about, say, bears. And rattlesnakes. And driving on very narrow, very twisty, very high roads with “falling rocks” signs. (By “driving,” I mean white-knuckling it in the passenger seat.) I took a lot of notes about my feelings and physical sensations, especially in the mountains, and drew on childhood memories.

When I finished the first draft in late 2016, I started researching anxiety in young people and was surprised to learn that it was growing and the American Academy of Pediatrics and other organizations were concerned. (This, of course, was pre-pandemic.) I ended up reading a lot of studies and articles about adolescent development and anxiety. I even talked to (and spied on) real young people! I also did a lot of internet searches for things like “how to stay safe in Colorado.”

My amazing editor—who gave me permission to share this—was diagnosed with anxiety as a young person. Everyone’s experience with anxiety—or illness or disability—is unique, so it was very helpful to talk about our experiences as we deepened Ava’s story.

Iowa, Dogs, and Charlotte’s Web

MR: Ava is not the sum total of her anxiety. On the plus side, she’s smart, resourceful, and highly relatable. On the minus, she sabotages her dad’s carefully planned vacation to Colorado with a host of evil-adjacent deeds, including canceling the hotel reservation and putting rocks in The Girlfriend’s shoes. How were you like Ava as a child? How were you different?

KC: One of my biggest childhood fears was getting into trouble! There is no way I would have done what Ava does. She’s also a shy introvert. I’m the opposite of shy. My first grade teacher wrote, “Kellye likes to go visiting” on my report card! As I’ve grown older, though, I’ve discovered that I’m actually an introvert, too. I love being with people, and I need lots of alone time. Ava and I also love dogs, books, and Iowa. We both like a good comfort read, including Charlotte’s Web. (For more children’s books that can calm anxiety, click here.)

The Connection Between Vulnerability and Humor

MR: I appreciated how you were able to take serious topics—anxiety, ADHD, blended families—and add a generous dollop of humor. How were you able to pull this off? Also, what is the secret sauce for writing “funny”?

KC: Thank you! I think humor plays such an important (dare I say “serious?”) role in helping us face and cope with difficult, scary things.

As with so many aspects of writing fiction, I think the humor comes from the main character. How does she uniquely experience and see the world? I can’t quite articulate it, but, for me, there’s also something about the connection between vulnerability and humor that really gets me, especially in writing for young readers. Funny situations often reveal an embarrassing, tender, honest part of ourselves.

At the same time, hyperbole is a fun tool for creating humor, and I may have exaggerated Ava’s Colorado take because it made me smile. I also love paradoxes, and I think it’s true that anxiety can be both awful and funny.

It helps to have really good (and funny) critique partners! (How would any of us survive without friends to help us laugh?) Shout out to Sarah Aronson and Coral Jenrette, in particular, who helped make some last-minute revisions funnier.

Finally, I can’t help thinking about what EB White and his wife, Katharine S. White, said in an essay: “Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process…” I haven’t found the secret sauce, but if you do, Melissa, please share, and I promise to do the same!

Advice from Elizabeth Gilbert

MR: I know you’re a fan of the following quote from writer Elizabeth Gilbert: “Fear can come along for the ride, but it doesn’t get to drive—or touch the radio.” What is it about this advice that resonates with you?

KC: Oooh, you’re good, Melissa! Respect from one journo to another! Fear and writing is something I’ve been interested in for years. As strange as it sounds, our sweet, twisted fear is trying to protect us. It’s the ancient lizard part of our brains that sounds the alarm: BELONGING IS EVERYTHING1 What if your writing is terrible, and everyone knows but you? You will be REJECTED! YOU! WILL! DIE! ALONE!

First of all, Elizabeth Gilbert’s quote frees me from even trying to get rid of fear. (I think it’s probably impossible. Also, fear is part of ourselves, which is why she opposes macho approaches like “Punch your fear in the face!”) Her quote reminds me that when I’m doing something I really care about, especially when it’s so uncertain, fear will show up—and that’s okay. It might arrive disguised as procrastination or writers’ block, perfectionism or the most vicious Inner Critic (whose voice sounds so familiar… Your dad? Your former coach? A jealous ex?) However it shows up, it’s not the boss! It sits in the back seat because it’s not making any decisions about this creative road trip.

I try to make Fear feel as welcome, safe, and cozy back there as I can. Setting baby-step goals, finding joy in writing, focusing on a playful process instead of the end “product,” all help me calm my fear. A friend and I joked that we feed our Fear warm applesauce cake—and then she made me one with her own home-grown apples! It was delish—and still warm. Writing (and baking) friends are so important for dealing with the fear that comes with this work.

On the Move

MR: Ava faces relocation after her dad falls in love with The Girlfriend and considers a move from Iowa to Colorado. This is something you faced yourself when you relocated to Colorado from Iowa. Can you tell us about it? What are the pros and cons of moving from one place to another?

KC: As an adult, I’d moved four other times to places where I knew no one (and little about each state), and each experience was positive. The move to Colorado felt different because I’d lived in Iowa as an adult for 26 years. My roots were deep. Maybe stuck?

I didn’t want to leave our son, who had started his first year of college, my parents, and friends I’d loved for decades. I also still was recovering from a debilitating, long-term illness. Our mortgage would be paid off in three years. My husband and I were nervous. Should we do this? What if we moved to Colorado and didn’t like it? What if it was a huge mistake?

At the same time, we agreed that our decision had to come from a positive place and not fear. (Say it with me: Fear doesn’t get to drive! That quote works for everything! 😃 ) We were new empty-nesters. Weren’t we due for an adventure? If not now, when? We could return to Iowa if we wanted, couldn’t we?

Getting our house ready to sell was a full-time job. Sometimes I’d stretch out on our living room floor and sob about all I was leaving. (Why the floor? I didn’t want to disturb the stager’s precise sofa-pillow arrangement.)

AND…Colorado’s sunny, laid-back vibe really suits us. Exploring the state’s famous mountains, history, cultures, customs, and food—and meeting amazing new friends—is the shake-up we didn’t know we needed. We joke that we should have moved sooner.

Path to Publication

MR: You were a newspaper journalist and freelance writer and editor for more than two decades. How did your past career prepare you to be a novelist? Also, can you tell us about your path to publication? Was it a straight path or a curvy road?

KC: A sure way to improve your writing is to write a lot every day, and that’s what newspaper reporters do. As a reporter, you’re constantly meeting different kinds of people, and it’s such a privilege to hear their stories. You have to be able to understand their perspective, even if you personally disagree, and that’s important for writing fiction, too. One of my fiction-writing strengths, I think, is dialogue, and that probably comes from so many years of listening to—and writing down—what people said and how they said it. Also, as a reporter, you don’t have the luxury of waiting for inspiration. You sit down, write, and meet your deadline. It’s great training for novel writing.

My road to publication was long, with lots of hairpin turns, potholes, construction zones, and traffic jams! I wrote fiction for kiddos seriously and steadily for sixteen years before publishing my debut novel. Here’s to all of us late bloomers!

The process of getting the book out has been nerve-wracking. Like a lot of books in the past couple of years, mine experienced supply chain and shipping delays. In addition, the publisher was unhappy with the quality of the initial printing, so the book went through an entire reprint. (I’m very happy that they did that.) My release dates were 9/1/22, then 10/18/22, and, finally, 11/22/22.

I was told that November 22 definitely was my pub date… except no print books were available! Amazon was saying the hardcover wouldn’t ship until January. (It seems to have shipped sooner than that.) The book seems to be sort of trickling out. I haven’t seen it in “the wild” yet, and occasionally a friend emails asking, “When is your book coming out?”

Writing: Inspiration Is in the Cards

MR: What does your writing routine look like? Do you have any particular writing habits or rituals?

KC: I usually work for two or three hours in the morning, and sometimes can get another hour or two in in the afternoon. I have a neurological disorder and chronic illnesses that cause serious exhaustion, and, sadly, that has worsened recently. I’m trying to learn how to work with it. (Fighting it didn’t help.) For example, I just learned about pre-emptive rest—resting before you absolutely need to—and am experimenting with that in the hopes that it increases my energy.

It’s funny when I think about my writing habits and rituals. I don’t have one thing that I always do, but I have a bag of tools, so to speak, that I use often, as needed. I do a lot of journaling, but not every day. I’ll go through periods where I light incense for certain projects. (I like Golden Coast and Amber and Moss from PF Candle Co.) Sometimes I ask a question and draw a tarot card for inspiration. (I recently bought the cool Modern Witch Tarot Deck by Lisa Sterle.) Making low-stakes visual art—drawing, painting, collaging—is helpful. Sometimes I play music. I like to read early in the morning—it inspires my own writing. (I also read while resting in the afternoon…and at night. LOL.)

Read, Read, Read… and Write, Write, Write

MR: In addition to being an author of MG fiction, you teach creative writing to young people. What advice do you give to your students—and to other aspiring authors—besides “Never give up”? (For more insight and advice from Kellye, click here.)

KC: I want my students to know that writing is good for everyone. Scientific studies show writing helps them think better, stretch their creativity, and express themselves—all important skills for whatever their dreams are. Other studies have found strong mental health benefits from even short sessions of journaling (private writing about feelings).

For those who want to publish, I recommend the standard: Read, read, read. Write, write, write. Send, send, send. As I’ve turned toward a more relaxed, playful writing process, I’ve encouraged my students and others to do the same. Drafting and editing require different skills and brain regions. It’s unhelpful to attempt both at the same time. Try to bring as much of your weird, wild, and wonderful self to the page. That’s truly where the magic is.

I also love, love, love working with young reluctant writers! I think it’s important that they understand they are innately creative, what they have to say is important, we need their voices, and stories can take lots of forms. I wrote a guest post about teaching creative writing to young people for The TeachingBooks Blog here.

New Projects Ahead

MR: What are you working on now, Kellye? Care to share?

KC: I’m juggling a few things. One is a middle grade novel set in the Victorian era. I finished the first draft ten years ago! I did a big revision in 2022, but it’s still a mess, and I’ve been stuck for quite a while. Expecting an epiphany…any…day… I’m also dipping into a new novel-ish thing…middle grade…set in the near future, involving politics and basketball. And I’m working on two nonfiction picture books. Picture books are a new and challenging form for me, but nonfiction feels like coming home.

Lightning Round!

MR: And finally, no MUF interview is complete without a lightning round, so…

Preferred writing snack? Dove dark chocolate

Coffee or tea? Cold brew coffee, even in winter—unless it’s really cold—then hot. Black. But iced tea (no sugar) on a hot, summer afternoon is lovely.

Cat or dog? DOGS. DUH. (Written under the watchful eye of Daisy Crocker, my energetic, bossy, loudly barky Black Lab.) As a kiddo, I was dismayed that the only pets allowed at my house were tropical fish. As an adult, I’ve been a devoted pet mom (consecutively) to two black cats and two Black Labs. They stretched my heart in so many ways.

Zombie apocalypse: Yea or nay? OMG, are you even KIDDING?! NAY ALL DAY, NAY ALL THE WAY!!! (I’m assuming this question involves me facing real zombies, in which case, I’m probably already dead. If it involves me safely reading about or watching zombies [on TV], then yea.)

Superpower? Napping

Biggest fear? That someone I love will be hurt or die. (Second biggest: Zombies. Thanks for that!)

Tractor rides or hiking trails? Hiking. At a leisurely pace, not too far.

Favorite place on earth? With family and friends. Maybe in a magical, cozy-cool indie bookstore?

If you were stranded on a desert island with only three things, what would they be? Assuming clean water and food (coconuts? bugs?) already are included, I’d bring the biggest book I could carry, a notebook-and-pen, and sunscreen. Because of the hyphens, I’m hoping we can count notebook-and-pen as one thing. If I’m overruled, I’ll ditch the sunscreen.

MR: Thank you for chatting with us, Kellye—and congratulations on the publication of Dad’s Girlfriend and other Anxieties. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I know MUF readers will too!

KC: Thank you so much, Melissa! Your questions really made me think. And I really appreciate you taking the time to read Dad’s Girlfriend and to share it with your readers!


For a chance to win a copy of Dad’s Girlfriend and Other Anxietiescomment on the blog–and, if you’re on Twitter, on the Mixed-Up Files Twitter account for an extra chance to win! (Giveaway ends 2/19/22 EST.) U.S. only, please. 


Kellye Crocker is a journalist who’s worked in library youth services and has taught writing at two Iowa universities. She teaches creative writing to young people through a large literary nonprofit. She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She’s an empty-nester who lives in Denver, where you’ll find her reading, making art, and hiking with her husband and their rambunctious black lab, Daisy. Learn more about Kellye on her website and follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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!