Posts Tagged New Releases

Interview with Tod Olson, Author of Into the Clouds + Book Giveaway

Sean McCollum: This is my first blog post for Mixed Up Files, and I couldn’t be happier to be here, as well as an appropriate amount of nervous. What a cool, helpful crew working together to keep creating this website. I’m a long-time writer for youth and educational publishers, and being part of MUF helps keep me current with young readers and the MG universe, even as I live the life of a digital nomad. (House-sitting in Edinburgh, Czech Republic, New York, Phoenix, and Ecuador in the last year—Have Internet, Will Travel.)

I’m also MOST pleased to introduce Tod Olson to MUF-world. Tod and I go back nearly 40 years, to a small liberal arts college—Lawrence University—in the belly of Wisconsin, before working together at Scholastic. So as I considered what my first post might be, an interview with my best bud (having been his Best Man) immediately came to mind. He also happens to be one of the foremost authors of narrative nonfiction working in children’s publishing—so bonus! Hey T, welcome to MUF.

Tod Olson: Thanks, Sean! Wish we were doing this in person, but I’ll settle.

SMc: I loved Into the Clouds and its nuts and pitons description of the first attempts to climb K2, the second highest mountain in the world. How did you first learn about this chapter in mountain-climbing history and what attracted you to it?

TO: So, I really wanted to tell a climbing story, partly because the ethical questions are so primal: What’s your obligation to other humans when you barely have the resources to keep yourself alive? The 1953 expedition to K2 is legendary in climbing circles for the selfless—some would say suicidal—attempt to get a sick comrade home alive. But the story hadn’t yet found a wider audience. Plus, the contrast with the previous expedition to K2, which ended in disaster, raised interesting questions, not just about climbing but about life: What’s important about any endeavor—the summit or how you climb? The product or the process? Your achievement or the bonds you form along the way?

SMc: You and I have both done some expeditioning and climbed non-technical mountains. So why do people undertake such misery-causing forms of recreation?

TO: A lot of climbers talk about the mountains as a world apart from their workaday lives in New York or Peoria. It’s a place where the complications of civilized life are stripped away and your relationship with nature, with other people, with yourself, is somehow more basic, more pure. I think there’s also a mindfulness to climbing. The danger focuses the mind in the moment—the feel of the rock under the fingers; this foothold, then the next one. Besides, the burgers taste that much better when you get home.

SMc: Oh yeah, and the warm bed. Your writing is rich with sensory detail. How much of that is personal suffering and how much is imagination and empathy for your subjects? In other words, do you go out and risk your life as a way of doing primary research?

TO: Ha! Writing is the most exquisite form of suffering ever invented. Why would anyone feel the need to add to the misery? Actually, it does feel like an act of hubris to presume you can capture an experience you haven’t lived. But even if we tried to climb K2, our experience of the mountain wouldn’t match anyone else’s. We still need to find a way into the minds of the people we write about. I think of research as listening, whether I’m actually interviewing people or engaging with written sources.

In large part, I think I look for portals—observations, phrases, or anecdotes that suddenly admit me into the world of the other. For K2, for instance, one of the 1938 climbers talked about his reluctance to read mail from home on the rare occasions when it arrived at Base Camp. For some reason that made it real for me: Conditions on the mountain were so uncomfortable that in order to bear it, he had to block out the fact that some people in the world lived differently, even if it meant cutting himself off from the people he loved most.

SMc: How did you get interested in survival stories, like the four books of the Lost collection?

TO: When I was 11, I read Alive, the story of the Uruguayan rugby team that was stranded in the Andes by a plane crash and had to eat the bodies of friends and family to survive. I barely left my chair for two days, and I think I’ve been trying to recreate that immersive reading experience as a writer. I tell the Alive story on school visits, and it’s amazing how quickly the thought of eating your cousin can focus the attention of a couple hundred 6thgraders.

SMc: Why do you think young readers are so interested in such stories, whether fictional or not?

TO: Survival stories have an interesting history. Eighteenth-century Europeans were entranced by stories of people marooned with cannibals on remote islands. Robinson Crusoe was arguably the first novel in English, and it was a survival story. At that point, European settlers were spreading out around the globe, leaving everything familiar behind, colonizing places that felt alien to them. The stories were a way of working out their fears.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that survival stories do something similar for a kid anticipating her own entry into a complicated adult world. Besides, what is middle school but a three-year survival epic with really bad food?

SMc: I can still taste the liverwurst. In your mind, what distinguishes narrative nonfiction from fiction? And narrative nonfiction from history? What niche in our need for stories does narrative nonfiction fill?

TO: I love thinking about the first part of that question, but we could talk about it for hours and still fall short of an answer. When you really look closely, I think it’s hard to draw a clear line. So much mediates our knowledge of the past—the limitations of memory, cultural gaps, lack of documentation. Narrative nonfiction authors make decisions on every page about the relationship between their sources and the words on the page.

That said, I think we absolutely need to draw a line, and for me it’s that everything needs to be documented. As for the importance of narrative, I don’t write books primarily to teach, but I do think we learn best through story. We understand people at a deeper level, we empathize, and we retain what we read. If you need evidence, try Say Nothing, which I just finished. It’s an amazing feat of storytelling that made me understand the Troubles in Northern Ireland for the first time.

SMc: Could you describe your research process for Into the Clouds? How much time did you spend researching versus writing?

TO: Hard to say because the research continued after I started writing, but maybe a year of researching and six months of writing. I reached out to the family members of all the climbers I wrote about, and that can take a while because you’re following leads that lead to other leads, etc.

It’s really all about primary sources, and the turning point for me was when I found Dee Molenaar’s diary. He was one of the climbers on the 1953 expedition, and he wrote with disarming honesty about his struggles with pride and fear and insecurity on the mountain. That kind of candor was unusual for the era, and it gave me that portal I needed to get inside their experience on K2.

SMc: Tell us about your writing journey up to this point. What literary mountains are you still wanting to climb as a writer?

TO: I’m done with survival stories for a while. As much as I love them, there’s a sameness to the story arc, and after a while you run out of synonyms for cold, hungry, and miserable. I’m trying to write a novel, which is a lot harder than writing nonfiction. At any given moment, there are hundreds of viable choices instead of dozens.

SMc: What is something people would be surprised to learn about you, besides you and your dad once being national tennis champs in father-son doubles?

TO: I hate being cold. (How are things in Ecuador?)

SMc: Living and writing at 8,000 feet … please … send … oxygen. Advice for writers wanting to try their hand at narrative nonfiction?

TO: Be faithful to your sources, but make the story your own. You’re not building a day-by-day, minute-by-minute chronicle of lived experience. You’re telling a story. As you research, pay attention to the pieces that quicken your pulse, raise a lump in your throat, make you think. Those are the peaks in your mountain range; write up to them, down from them, and around them.

SMc: What are you working on now?

TO: That novel, but we don’t need to talk about that. During quarantine I made a really cool (I think) on-line scavenger hunt for Into the Clouds: https://todolson.com/scavenger-hunt/into-the-clouds/. It’s on my website, and anyone who completes it gets a chance to win a book. If the novel doesn’t work, I’m going to be a scavenger hunt writer. Is that a thing?

It is now! Thanks, T, for taking the time to share your adventures—writing and otherwise—with us. The best way to follow Tod is through his website: https://todolson.com/.

And here’s another chance to win Tod’s Into the Clouds—via MUF, thank you Tod. (Sorry, only available for MUF readers in the United States and Canada.)

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Teachers, You Inspire Us

On this Labor Day Holiday, it only seems appropriate to give a huge shout out thank you to all the teachers. You INSPIRE US!

According to the Department of Labor:

Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.

While many workers fulfill that particular requirement, teachers do that every day by inspiring their students. Teachers aren’t just the ones who work in the classroom, but also are paraprofessionals,  coaches, librarians, and yes, even parents. Everyone who works with students has the ability to have a positive affect on them. Sometimes you see it right away, and sometimes it doesn’t happen for many years. Regardless, some teaching moments and teachers in particular stay with us our whole lives.

That happened to me. I truly believe that I would probably not be a science author if I hadn’t had some amazing teachers in my life.

Here is my story:

 

I have always loved science! It captured my attention and imagination from a very young age. Luckily, I had parents who encouraged my love of science. Oh, and we also had a creek in our backyard. I spent many wonderful days exploring that creek, knee-deep in water, mud, and yes, sometimes frogs.

At the age of 9, I decided that I wanted to become a pediatrician. I didn’t really know how to do that until I stepped into my 7th grade science class and met a woman that would change my life. Her name was Susan Roth. And to this day (over 40 years later) I still remember my first day in that class. She had a full skeleton model in her classroom. It was the coolest thing I’d ever seen.

 

And then there was Mrs. Roth, herself, a very outgoing, happy, encouraging teacher who was EXCITED about science. And most of all made science EXCITING for us!  She used the textbook only as a guide, but instead we focused on the most amazing experiments in her classroom. She encouraged me to study the creek water, really look at it. I did reports with my classmates on the microscopic creatures that we found in it. We mapped the entire creek throughout our little town. We studied its levels, how it moved, and discussed erosion affects from the floods we had occasionally.

We also worked with that skeleton, of course, studying all of the parts of the human body, the systems, and I  could even name all 206 bones!

The best part about Mrs. Roth was that she always encouraged everyone. This was in the 1970’s and it was unusual to have a female science teacher where I lived. Yet she fit in so well. I remembered one day telling her that I wanted to be a pediatrician and she didn’t laugh. She didn’t stop to say, um, that is a difficult road. Instead, she said, “Awesome! I know you’ll be great. You can do anything.”  Those words stuck with me.

In fact, about ten years later when I was nervous about applying to the U.S. Naval Academy, where I would eventually go to college, I remembered Mrs. Roth’s words. They gave me the courage to apply, get in, and pick chemistry as my major. After all, that was the degree you’d need to go to medical school back then.

Being a chemistry major is not easy.

Those of you that have taken even 1 chemistry class in college can probably agree. When you add the requirements of 2 years of math classes, 3 years of engineering classes, plus all of the naval ship classes, it’s a lot. I got bogged down in all of that work, and my grades were about middle of the road. My dream of becoming a doctor was slipping away.

And then I had another teacher, Dr. Joseph Lomax, he was my chemistry teacher at USNA. He knew how hard I worked in the class and that my grades didn’t always reflect the amount of effort I was putting in. He took the time to talk to me and to listen to my dreams about becoming a doctor. Having had it for almost 12 years, it was a tough dream to give up. He didn’t shrug it off, instead, he told me how I could take my gifts and use them in a different way.

He told me that  I had a gift for explaining difficult things in a way that students could understand. That I could take complex science and engineering ideas and turn them into easily understandable concepts. It was something not everyone could do, and that I’d make a wonderful teacher some day. He was right.

Those words Dr. Lomax said to me carried me a long way. In fact, you might say that they helped me to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. At only 24 years of age, I could never have envisioned– all these many years later– that I would end up here, writing STEM books for children.

But when I look back, it makes total sense. I feel like I spent my whole life moving in this direction. Taking complex and unique STEM topics and turning them into exciting books for kids which, hopefully, will inspire them to love science and STEM as much as I do. I am very lucky to have a job I love. And I do it in the name of my teachers.

I’ve dedicated two of my books to my teachers. For Mrs. Roth, I dedicated my Dr. E’s Super Stellar Solar System book

 

“To Susan Roth, my 7th grade science teacher, who opened my eyes to the amazing intrigue and adventure that the world of science has to offer. She is my true Science Super Hero.”

 

 

 

 

And to Dr. Lomax, I dedicate my new chemistry book, ” Thank you for believing in me and helping me to see how my gifts in STEM can be used to inspire others as yours have done for me.”

 

 

 

 

In fact, all of the amazing things I’ve been able to do as a STEM author can be traced back to their encouraging words. I wouldn’t be there without them. (And my AWESOME family, too, of course).

     

 

I realize that this year is particularly difficult for all who are teaching. Unusual circumstances have changed the way things normally work.  And yet, I know you are all doing your best to continue to make those personal connections. Students won’t forget that.  When they reach a time in their life when they need a voice to tell them, “You can do it”, it just might be that of a special teacher who believed in them.

HUGS to all of the amazing teachers out there and THANK YOU for what you do for us. We appreciate it!

Enjoy your holiday. You deserve it.

 

And in honor of my two amazing science teachers, I am offering a giveaway of these two books as a pack.

 

I’ll pick 3 winners. To be entered, leave a comment below about a teacher who inspired YOU. OR if you are a teacher, let us know about the kids YOU inspire every day. 😀

 

Author Spotlight: Joy Jones… plus a GIVEAWAY!

For today’s Author Spotlight, I’m pleased to interview Joy Jones, author of the debut middle-grade novel, Jayla Jumps In (Albert Whitman, 2020). Plus a giveaway!!!!

About the Book:

When 11-year-old Jayla finds out that her mother used to be a Double Dutch champion, she’s stunned. Who knew her mom, who’s on doctor’s orders to lower her blood pressure, could move like that? Jayla decides to follow in her mom’s footsteps, thinking that maybe Double Dutch can make her stand out in her big, quirky family. As she puts together a team at school and prepares to compete, Jayla finds that Double Dutch is about a lot more than jumping rope—and it just might change her life, in ways she never imagined. Full of hilarious family dynamics and plenty of jump-rope action, Jayla Jumps Infollows one girl’s quest to get her mom healthy and find her place in her community.

And now, without further ado, let’s jump into the interview! 

Interview with Joy Jones

MR: Welcome to the Mixed-Up Files, Joy! First and foremost, I need to tell you how much I enjoyed your book. It’s filled with heart, humor—and, of course—Double Dutch. What was the impetus for writing this novel?

JJ:  I’m so glad you liked it! I want the reader to have fun. I always feel great when I jump Double Dutch; I’m hoping the reader gets to feel a little bit of that joy–and maybe even decide to actually try it!

When I first came up with the idea to jump Double Dutch, I was trying to lose ten pounds. Now, I’m trying to lose twenty. Hmm… the weight loss has been a little tricky but I gained a great deal of creative capital. I got a stage play and a book out of the deal.  So what happened? Well, some co-workers and I were talking about losing weight and I suggested we jump Double Dutch during lunch. Everyone said they were already too fat to exercise so we never did it. But I thought it was a pretty good idea. Since I didn’t get to do it in real life, I did it in my imagination and wrote a play called Outdoor Recess about a group of adult women who form a Double Dutch team. When I was promoting the play, someone suggested that I actually get some women together to jump rope–and I did. That’s how DC Retro Jumpers got started. {Check out this video of the Team in action!}

Years later, I would talk to my agent in passing about the various exploits of DC Retro Jumpers. “You should write a middle-grade novel about Double Dutch,” she said. But because I had already done a play on the theme, and as the team’s founder who was often promoting our activities, I didn’t think I had anything more to say about Double Dutch. But she brought up the idea again, and this time I decided I’d try writing on that theme. That’s how Jayla Jumps In was born.

Combatting Loneliness

MR: Speaking of your book, Jayla, the 11-year-old protagonist, often feels lonely, despite being part of a large extended family. As an only child myself, I can absolutely relate to this. Did you experience loneliness as a child as well? If so, how did it affect you—and how did you cope?

JJ:  I’m the oldest in my family so there were a few years when I was the only child. My way of coping was to inform my parents that I wanted a baby sister. When I was seven, they delivered what I requested–practically on my birthday! My sister, Lorraine, was born on November 22nd; I was born on November 23rd. (I think that was the last time my parents gave me what I wanted. ) I also have another younger sister, Vita, who is an August baby. But was I lonely as a child? No, I always had a book at hand whenever I wanted company, or was feeling bored, or had nothing to do and nobody else was around. Sometimes I preferred a book even when people were around.

A Jump on Health

MR: The importance of exercise and healthy eating factors heavily in Jayla Jumps In, when Jayla learns that her mom suffers from hypertension, a health issue that affects 1 in 3 Americans. If not treated, uncontrolled high blood pressure increases your risk of serious health problems, including heart attack and stroke. What prompted you to focus on this particular health issue? What is the message—and ultimate takeaway—for your middle-grade audience?

JJ: Being physical is such a wonderful thing! All you couch potatoes, stop rolling your eyes. A physical body was made to be physically active! You’re zoned out on the sofa only because you haven’t yet discovered the activity that’s right for you. When you move, you stimulate your endorphins–the ‘get-high’ hormones in your body. Vigorous movement feels glorious! It’s not work, it’s pleasure. You do like to feel good, don’t you? As I like to say, not everyone likes to exercise but everyone likes to play.

Too many people spend too much time padlocked to a screen, watching somebody else do something fun. For many adults, we have childhood memories of being outdoors, playing a game that doesn’t require batteries or using our imaginations to entertain ourselves. But too many young people haven’t experienced the fun of physical movement, of outdoor play, or of at least actively exercising their own imaginations, rather than passively consuming someone else’s creativity that’s been packaged for sale.

I also do yoga, take frequent walks, swim, and dance–my favorite physical activity. I hope by reading Jayla’s story, young readers get motivated to try some old-school, screen-free fun. I’m not at my goal weight, but I am convinced that my good health is in large part due to being physically active. My mother has hypertension–she’s 89–and although sometimes we have to nag her about being consistent with her medication,  she regularly exercises and is in pretty good shape. She can still fit into the wedding dress she wore in 1952!

Team Spirit

MR: You founded the DC Retro Jumpers, an adult Double Dutch exhibition team, in 2004. What was your motivation for forming the team? Did you jump as a child, or are you relatively new to the sport? Also, what is it about Double Dutch that appeals to you most? I’m guessing it’s more than exercise.

JJ:  Yes, I jumped rope as a child, but single rope more than Double Dutch. Although I enjoyed it hugely, I think I get even more enjoyment now. Jumping Double Dutch gives a rush that’s both easy and exciting at the same time. Plus, my ego gets stroked because often people are surprised–and impressed–to see someone old doing it. During DC Retro Jumpers demonstrations, I love it when someone comes forward to jump. Usually, it’s been years since they jumped or they never learned how. But once they start jumping and they find the rhythm, the joy that suffuses their whole being is gratifying to witness. People on the sidelines are cheering them on, and cell phone cameras are recording their triumph. The experience hits all my pleasure centers: fresh air, having fun, helping others, ego strokes.

Renaissance Woman

MR: In addition to being a middle-grade author, you are a playwright, a poet, an educator, a journalist, a trainer, a motivational speaker, and you write non-fiction for adults. You’re also active in the DC Retro Jumpers. How do you juggle so many balls—and keep them in the air? Also, what does your writing routine look like? Enquiring minds want to know!

JJ: Some years ago I was working a job that sapped my energy, and my soul. I wanted to quit and spend my days lazing around in bed and reading novels. But my wallet said, “No, Joy, that won’t work!” So I started saving money aggressively. I managed to accumulate a nice stash that allowed me to leave my full-time job for part-time work. I landed a job at DC Public Library (an ideal place for a writer!), working 20 hours a week. This allowed me to have time for my creative pursuits.

My writing routine? Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha. Even now that I’ve got a less stressful schedule, the writing happens catch-as-catch-can. I used to believe one needed long stretches of time to get writing done. That’s nice, but life seldom accommodates me in that way. Usually, I write in stolen snatches of time. I always keep a journal with me, so I can write while in a waiting room, on the subway, during slow moments at work. If you keep doing a little bit of writing, eventually the bits and pieces become pages–and then the pages become books. I begin in longhand, with pen and paper for the first draft, then go to the computer to edit and refine.

Question from Jonathan Rosen

MR: Oh, and Joy? MUF member Jonathan Rosen has a question for you, so I kind of feel obligated to pass it on…

JR: Hi, Joy! Which version of the song “Double Dutch Bus” do you prefer—the original 1981 hit by Frankie Smith or the remake by Raven-Symoné, as featured in the 2008 movie, College Road Trip? (I should mention that “Double Dutch Bus is my go-to karaoke song.) <MR: Sadly, it is.>

JJ:  Shhh… I don’t normally reveal this, but I can’t stand that song. I cringe any time it is played when we’re doing a demo. But I’m sure when you sing it on karaoke night you rock the mic. <JR: Yes, people have noted my rockstar quality…>

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

Preferred writing snack? Fruit.

Coffee or tea? Tea.

Cat or dog? Traditionally, I’ve preferred cats, but over time dogs have become more appealing. But I’m too lazy to keep a pet myself.

Favorite song? (And certainly not “Double Dutch Bus”! I’m partial to R&B oldies. Too many favorites to single out just one.

Zombie apocalypse: Yea or nay? Nay. Unless you count the way everybody is glued to their screens like zombies. In that case, the zombie takeover has already happened.

Superpower? I’m a pretty good listener; especially at hearing what’s not being said.

Favorite place on earth? Muir Woods in California. When I’m among those majestic redwood trees I feel like I’m in God’s living room, basking in His company.

Signature Double Dutch move? Pop-ups. That’s when you propel yourself straight up in the air while jumping. I never could do that as a child, so it’s been especially exhilarating to learn how to do it as an adult. Old dogs can learn new tricks!

If you were stranded on a desert island with only three things, what would they be? A library, a dance partner, and a box of Thin Mints Girl Scout cookies.

MR: Thank you for chatting, Joy—and congratulations on the publication of Jayla Jumps In. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I know MUF readers will too!

And now… a fabulous

GIVEAWAY!!!

Joy has generously offered to gift a lucky reader with a signed copy of Jayla Jumps In. Just comment on the blog (and, if you’re on Twitter, on the Mixed-Up Files Twitter account) for a chance to win! 

JOY JONES is a trainer, performance poet, playwright and author of several books, including her MG debut, Jayla Jumps In (Albert Whitman & Company, 2020). She has won awards for her writing from the D. C. Commission on the Arts & Humanities, and the Colonial Players Promising Playwrights Competition, plus awards from both the D. C. Department of Recreation & Parks and the D. C. Commission on National & Community Service for outstanding community service. She is the director of the arts organization, The Spoken Word, and the founder of the Double Dutch team, the DC Retro Jumpers, which has led exhibitions and classes throughout metropolitan Washington and abroad. Joy often leads workshops on creative writing, communications and black history. Learn more about Joy on her website and follow her on Instagram and Twitter.