It was wonderful talking with Tonya Mezrich as she is the co-author of Charlie Numbers and the Man in the Moon, which is featured in one of our STEM boxes. While Charlie Numbers is Tonya's first book as a listed author, she has been the secret weapon for her husband, Ben Mezrich, on many of his works.
You have had an interesting career. You received your degree in dentistry from Tufts before becoming a jewelry designer. I read you used your dental instruments to design your jewelry. Is that true?
It is. I was in dental school, but I always loved fashion. I had a friend who was making her own jewelry that I loved and I asked her how she was doing it. She said it was really easy. She was using our old ortho tools to bend wires. So I took what she said to heart, got some beads, and started designing. I was making things for myself to wear and gifts for friends. People really loved it. Then this boutique in a sports club in Boston asked to carry my jewelry. I wasn’t thinking of it as a business. I was just doing it for fun, but I gave it a shot. I started selling regularly there and then a few more Boston boutiques picked it up. It was a great outlet from dentistry. Using the same skills I had learned in school and applying it to art and business.
You then went on to partner on a clothing line. Does your background in dentistry and design influence your writing?
That is an interesting question. I definitely think it has played a large part in my life. I approach any project with this background in the hard sciences. To be honest, I never really wanted to be a dentist. I wanted to be an architect, because I loved art. But sadly my father kind of squashed that plan because he thought architecture was too much of a male dominated field. He was trying to protect me. I went to dental school to please my parents and have a stable career, but deep down my passion was always in art. Partnering on the clothing line was just another part of me trying to express my artistic side and translate that into a business. So when I write, I come at it from that angle. It’s helpful because the Charlie Numbers series is really about turning math and science into something magical and tangible for kids.
That leads into my next question. Charlie Numbers and the Man in the Moon is about a group of 5 kids from Massachusetts who use their brains to solve mysteries. With a background in science was it important for you to write a book encouraging science and technology?
Absolutely. My husband is most famous for Bringing Down the House, which is about the MIT blackjack team. At the time we thought about the Charlie Numbers series, our son was about 3 or 4 years old. Ben wanted to write a book he could read before he was 14. That’s how we dreamt up this series. When we were thinking of what would make sense for our audience and what we really like, we thought of older books we both loved like Encyclopedia Brown. Then we thought about what kids are reading today, and we thought of Harry Potter. We wanted to create a series that had the Encyclopedia Brown feel to it where you are solving these mysteries, but also had that magical element. And the science just made sense because to us science is a real way of showing how magic works.
I love that idea. One of my favorite lines from the book is when Charlie says “there was no such thing as magic. Only math. But sometimes math could be a sort of magic.”
To us math and science are so important. We wanted to appeal to this population of kids who might not really be interested in math and science and make it fun.
In an interview, your husband said he thought it was important to have a book where the nerdy kid is the hero. You can see this when Charlie uses “playground chemistry” to make glue to embarrass a bully. Or when he talks about using math to beat carnival games.
Absolutely. We were both kind of nerds growing up. We can relate to kids feeling like nerds and feeling like they don’t belong. We wanted to show it’s cool to be nerdy. It’s great to be able to use your brain and overcome these situations.
Another thing I really liked about the book was how Charlie’s mom is a double PhD in virology and biology and Crystal is one of the co-leaders of the Whiz Kids. As a woman in science, was it one of your goals to encourage girls in STEM.
The Crystal character was an extension of myself. And since the series was born we also now have a daughter, so it’s important to us to have that strong female character. Crystal is the geology expert and, while Charlie is technically the leader of the team, she really runs the show.
I think Crystal is a great character and girls will really get behind her. As we already touched on, this is the second book in the series. Your husband, Ben, is the sole credited author for the first one, Bringing Down the Mouse, but we discussed how you also helped come up with the idea and write that one. Your husband has been quoted as saying you have always been his secret weapon and highly involved in his writing. Can you describe how you worked with him on previous books?
Yes, we’ve been working together for many years now. We have a power lunch where we eat at the food court in the mall every day and discuss the plot, the characters and all the things that go into the different stories. He’ll give me research assignments. So we work as a team to develop these books. It’s fun that now we are officially co-writing this children’s series, but as he said I’ve been helping him along the way for quite some time.
You wrote the first draft of Man in the Moon, which sees the Whiz Kids helping NASA find a missing moon rock by entering into a paper airplane making contest. How did you come up with the idea?
It’s loosely based on Ben’s book, Sex on the Moon, which tells the true story of a moon rock heist at NASA by a young scientist. Going along with the theme where Bringing Down the Mouse is loosely based on Bringing Down the House. And then the paper plane part is ubiquitous. Every kid, every adult has made a paper airplane at some point in their lives. We thought it was a really cool way to give the Whiz Kids something fun and sciencey to do while solving this mystery.
Did you and Ben make a lot of paper airplanes while writing this book?
Oh yeah, but he would definitely say mine are better. He has two left hands. I am much better with fine motor skills. As a dentist that is what you are doing: working in this tiny little area with these tiny little tools.
Your husband, Ben, has had a few of his books turned into movies, most notably the movies 21 and The Social Network are based on his books. I read there is interest in turning Charlie Numbers into a tv series.
Yes, we are working with Ellen Pompeo from Grey’s Anatomy and her production company, Calamity Jane. Charlie Numbers will be a live action tv show. It is still in the beginning stages, but we are definitely moving forward.
And I understand you plan for more books in the series. Have you started writing another?
We just submitted a proposal for books 3 and 4. We’ll see what the editor wants to do and what order he wants to do them in. Then we’ll get started. We are hoping the next book will be published in 2019. In other exciting news, we just sold the audio rights for the first two books. We all have those summer road trips and it is great to get the story out to kids who are trapped in the car for three hours.
We love audiobooks for road trips. I think it is a great way to forego screen time and all be engaged in a book together. I did want to ask if you’ve read Charlie Numbers to your kids, Asher and Arya, and what they think?
We started reading it to them. For our book tour in Boston, we had a couple events where we had kids from the neighborhood read passages from the first chapter. Asher was one of the readers. He really likes it.
And speaking of the book tour, Ben and Tonya have a few more events coming up. If you are in the area, I would highly recommend you stop by.
Book signing and movie screening of Planes
Soho Beach House Miami
Date: Feb 17 at 1pm
(Open to members or guests of members )
STEM presentation and book signing
Boston Museum of Science
Date: Feb 23 from 10am-12pm
Paper Airplane Presentation and book signing
Boston Children’s Museum
Date: TBD during week of April 17-20
Betsy Hotel South Beach Miami
Date: TBD in March 2018