Education Opinion

Middleworld Blog Tour

By Donalyn Miller — July 25, 2010 4 min read
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Over the last four years, authors Jon and Pamela Voelkel visited over twenty Maya sites across Belize, Guatemala, and Mexico. They’ve canoed underground rivers, tracked howler monkeys in the jungle, taken a Maya cooking course, talked to contemporary Maya people and met with leading Maya archaeologists--all in order to provide a rip-roaring adventure for children and an accurate portrayal of an incredible civilization.

The first book in The Jaguar Stones trilogy, Middleworld, focuses on 14-year-old Max Murphy, who finds himself reluctantly traveling through the jungles of the Maya--complete with haunted temples, zombie armies, and human sacrifice--in order to save his parents, both Maya experts and archaeologists He meets Lola, a modern day Maya girl, who helps him unlock the secrets of the Jaguar Stones. Together they encounter smugglers, ancient kings, perilous underground rivers, secret passageways, and more, for fate has delivered a challenge of epic proportions. As the internet works itself into a frenzy about the end of the Mayan calendar Max must save the world from the Lords of Death, who now control the power of the Jaguar Stones.

Middleworld recently appeared as a Today Show Al’s Book Club selection and has received glowing reviews. The Voelkels took time from their hectic book tour to answer a few questions about The Jaguar Stones, writing children’s books, and the allure of mythology.

What interests you about writing for kids?

The Jaguar Stones trilogy was always going to be for kids because it was inspired by our son’s favorite bedtime story. Every night, Jon would make up another episode in a long-running series about a girl who lived on a pyramid and all her best friends were monkeys. She was very smart and resourceful, and outwitted every baddie in the jungle. Children’s books are close to our hearts because we read every night with each of our three children - it’s like a family ritual, a special part of the day. You often end up reading the same book over and over again - so we know from bitter experience that it’s not always easy to find books that appeal to children AND adults. The middle grade age group especially appealed to us because they’re old enough to understand the remorseless nature of consequences and young enough to suspend disbelief.

How has your background influenced you?

Jon grew up in Latin America and, for a long time, he had a chip on his shoulder about that. He wanted the latest music and trendy clothes and McDonalds. (His mother used to smuggle cheeseburgers for him in her suitcase when she returned from visits in the States.) Now he understands how lucky he was to experience the kind of freedom that city kids never know. And, of course, his childhood directly inspired The Jaguar Stones trilogy! As for Pamela, she feels like she spent her entire childhood reading in her bedroom in a boring little seaside town in northern England. She used to dream about the places she would one day visit and that childhood longing has motivated her to travel all over the world - and always choose the adventurous option!

Writing together must have its challenges. How do you make it work? What’s your process?

Actually, working together has been the most fun part of the enterprise. Where most writers have to argue things through with the voices in their heads, we get to argue out loud with someone who knows the characters every bit as well as we do. We used to pass the manuscript back and forwards between us, each one producing a complete draft. Now we know better where we’re going, Pamela does most of the writing and Jon does most of the illustrating. But we still plot everything out together and there’s an interesting male/female action/emotion dynamic that makes the story more rounded.

What has been most exciting for you about Middleworld’s publication?

Of course, it’s just the most amazing thing in the world to see your book in a bookstore. Or the first time someone asks you to sign your name in their brand spanking new book. Or when we went on The Today Show in our pith helmets. But the most unexpectedly enjoyable part has been presenting in schools. We take along an incredible custom-made Maya king costume which a teacher usually models for us. Our best moment so far? When a principal posed with the Maya king - and 300 kids rose as one, chanting “Sac-ri-fice! Sa-cri-fice!”

Are you already writing the next installment? Can you give us any non-spoiler hints about it?

The Jaguar Stones, Book Two: The End of the World Club comes out December 28, 2010. We’re very excited about it, because we think it’s even faster, funnier and more thrilling than Book One. All we’re allowed to tell you is that it takes Max and Lola to Spain on the trail of the conquistadors and there’s a wedding, a funeral, a fire - and the craziest concert in the history of rock and roll!

Why do you think mythology in general fascinates people-- especially young readers?

That’s an interesting question. Maybe, because it’s larger than life, but rooted in reality. In Maya mythology, you get gods acting like spoilt children - and being bested by clever humans. It’s hard not to cheer when the Hero Twins go down to the Maya underworld and outwit the outrageously evil Death Lords. It’s like a cartoon strip where anything is possible. Plus you get some really cool monsters and superheroes!

What is one thing you’d like teachers, librarians and reading professionals to know about Jaguar Stones?

It’s a good book for reluctant readers because it has so many cliffhangers; they have to keep turning the pages. It’s also been a big hit with Hispanic students as it has strong Maya characters. And if I could please just add that all the teachers in your blog audience are invited to email us for a free cross-curricular lesson plan CD on the world of the Maya and the rainforest. Our address is voelkel@jaguarstones.com

The opinions expressed in The Book Whisperer are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.