Sunday, January 31, 2010

YAedge Feature Author: Jacqueline Houtman

We welcome another amazing guest from the Class of 2k10 to YAedge, Jacqueline Houtman, author of The Reinvention of Edison Thomas (Front Street). I'm looking forward to reading this title and will be recommending it to students, parents and staff who work with students at my school with Eddy-ish challenges.

The blurb:

Science geek Eddy Thomas can invent useful devices to do anything, except solve his bully problem.

Eddy Thomas can read a college physics book, but he can’t read the emotions on the faces of his classmates at Drayton Middle School. He can spend hours tinkering with an invention, but he can’t stand more than a few minutes in a noisy crowd, like the crowd at the science fair, which Eddy fails to win.

When the local school crossing guard is laid off, Eddy is haunted by thoughts of the potentially disastrous consequences and invents a traffic-calming device, using parts he has scavenged from discarded machines. Eddy also discovers new friends, who appreciate his abilities and respect his unique view of the world. They help Eddy realize that his “friend,” Mitch is the person behind the progressively more distressing things that happen to Eddy. By trusting his real friends and accepting their help, Eddy uses his talents to help others and rethinks his purely mechanical definition of success.

Here we go with the questions:

Eddy sounds like he has special challenges in life. I haven’t read the book yet, (can’t wait to get my copy!) but I’m guessing he has Asperger's or a similar disorder. I’ve met kids like Eddy at my school and I know they (and the staff who work with them) will identify with his struggles. How much research did you do to write Eddy’s story?

You guessed correctly. Eddy is indeed “on the autism spectrum.” Certainly a lot of the research was through observation. I had a few people who served as “technical advisors.” Autism--and Asperger’s syndrome in particular--is more common than many people think. Several studies have estimated that one in 100 people fall somewhere on the autism spectrum. I suspect the rate is even higher among scientists and engineers.

I also did academic research. For example, when looking at facial expressions, most people use a particular part of the brain to interpret what they see. People on the spectrum use a different part of the brain, a part that usually is involved in recognition of inanimate objects. For this reason, I made sure that all the descriptions of facial expressions were very mechanical. Eddy analyzes facial expressions instead of instinctively understanding what others are feeling.

I love that while you’re a scientist (of what exactly?) you also dabbled in theatre and write fiction. When writing The Reinvention of Edison Thomas, were there times where you struggled to blend fact with fiction?

I have a PhD in Medical Microbiology and Immunology and I’ve been making my living as a freelance science writer for more than ten years. I’m a stickler for scientific accuracy (so is Eddy). I’m not sure what you mean by “blending.” All fiction contains factual elements. Look at historical fiction. To be any good, it requires huge amounts of research so that the historical facts are correct. I like to call EDDY “sciency fiction” because real science is integral to the story, and not just tacked on. The characters and events may be fictional, but there’s nothing speculative about the science.

I see Eddy has some fun facts stored in his random memory. Care to share your favourite with us?

I’m a walking trivia encyclopedia, so they are all my favorites. Here’s one—“Fact Number 28 from the Random Access Memory of Edison Thomas: Listening to slow music can lower your heart rate, while music with a faster tempo can increase your heart rate.” I like this one because 28 (the fact number) is the lowest recorded heart rate, and the record belongs to Miguel Indurain, a five-time winner of the Tour de France. I’m a big fan of the Tour de France, and Indurain, so this was a great way to sneak The Tour into the book. (Observant readers will note that the random fact numbers throughout the book are not really random.)

Just for fun can you make this sentence sound scientificy?
“Sneezing makes me feel funny inside.”

It depends on what you mean by “funny” and “inside.” I’m going to take a guess and go with “Sternutation induces subcutaneous crepitus.” Crepitus is a grating, crackling, or popping sound and sensation.

How did you discover Eddy’s favourite band, They Might Be Giants?

A friend introduced me to their first CD for kids, which is called NO!. I loved that it appeals to both kids and grownups. No offense, but one can only stand so much Raffi. I started listening to more of their music, both the grownup and kids’ stuff. My favorite songs are the ones with the obscure facts. Who else would do a song about James K. Polk? In a quirk of timing, I found out about the imminent release of Here Comes Science just as I was doing copyedits. It’s a kids’ CD made up entirely of science songs, so it was bound to be Eddy’s favorite. That required some changes in the ms. In the course of a couple of days, I got my hands on the CD, changed the text (and rewrote a scene), and sent the ms to my editor.

If you could invent any device to make your life safer – what would it be?

I would love a bicycle force field. We’re a big biking family; my husband commutes by bike, even in sub-zero temperatures. Madison is generally a bike-friendly city, but sometimes the drivers are not as alert to cyclists as they should be. A force field would protect bikers from cell-phone-talking, texting, coffee-drinking, mascara-applying drivers.


You've just inspired me to haul my bike out of the garage this spring. ;) Thanks for hanging with us and we wish you many readers. Check out Jacqueline's website for additional info and more cool science facts!


Jonathon Arntson said...

What a book! I cannot wait.

Bonnie J. Doerr said...

I've read Jacqueline's book and it's positively and uniquely brilliant on top of being just plain fun to read. It's going to soar, I just know it.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating. I just finished reading this one (through an ARC tour) and have to say , it's so very wonderful. I think everyone will love Eddy, and these fun characters will guide kids as they learn about how to interact with one another, quirks and all. Perfect for the classroom, this book will really get kids talking about some important stuff!

annoynomous said...

Love this! I'm so excited to buy this book when it comes out. Yay! I also want a bicycle force field for my husband and kids! -- Your next task, Jacqueline!

Janet Fox said...

This is a great interview - I love the fun facts! - and a great book, which deserves to reach a wide audience.

Leah said...

This book was indeed fantastic, clearly thoroughly researched without ever getting bogged down in the research. I love the internal joke about fact #28! Awesome.

Denise Jaden said...

ha - I love the sciency-speak, Jacqueline! Can't wait to read the book!

Anonymous said...

Great interview! I'm excited to read this book.