Sharon Morrisette has worked for many years as a publication professional in high-tech industries, writing on subjects from jet engines to semiconductor chips. Toads and Tessellations is her first children’s book. She lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.
How did this story come about?
You could think of this book as a Harry Potter rebellion.
I spent years working with a high tech development team and sat in on meetings where talented engineers hashed out topics ranging from early designs for reverse thrust in engines to new instrument design systems that would greatly simplify large high tech development projects. It occurred to me one day that these engineers really believed they could do anything given enough time and money.
Then along came Harry Potter, the boy who could change the world with a wave of his wand. The emphasis on magic power really grated on what I saw as the real, everyday power of science and math – which Harry wasn’t learning.
A math adventure was the perfect platform for my own wizard – a wizard with clumsy magic that couldn’t be trusted, a young wizard with dreams of science and math. I added in the problem solving strategies from my children’s curriculum – after all, that’s the real magic. Then I gave him great mathematicians and scientists for heroes and a fascinating time period when science was blossoming. I came across the idea for using tessellations in an article about the use of tessellations in cutting scrap metal in World War II. The shoes were created during an afternoon with polar fleece, a ruler and a needle and thread. The shoes illustrated in the book are based on those I made that afternoon and can be made by any child.
Have you always wanted to be a writer?
I think I always wanted to be a storyteller. Good writing is hard work and comes with practice and, frankly, persistent editing. Storytelling is the fun part, when you can let your imagination fly. Even as a child I was good at it, to the point where sometimes I’d have fifteen or twenty of the neighborhood kids gathered around listening.
The problem is that I can’t seem to tell the same story twice – something that frustrated my kids when they were young. I’m really good at making up stories on cue given a prompt. When I was in college making my living as a waitress, I had a group of regular customers who would demand a story about some obscure thing, like a wine cork, and then listen while I made it up. The trick is to let your mind travel two steps ahead down possible paths - things that could reasonably happen in your characters circumstances. I actually think I learned how to do it while playing chess.
You learned storytelling by playing chess?
Absolutely. I have older brothers who taught me to play when I was very young, and then I attended an experimental grade school that taught chess during math class as part of their emphasis on thinking strategies. I can still feel my brain click into what I think of as chess mode when I’m faced with a problem. You think through all possible paths and their potential outcomes. It works in math; it works in storytelling; and it works in life. Every child should learn.
Your stories are all math and science based. Why?
The short answer is that it is absolutely, the coolest thing that anyone can think about. The long answer is that I was a daddy’s girl and followed my father everywhere. I’ll never forget the evenings spent holding a light while he fixed an engine, all the while explaining all the parts and what he was doing. I watched him fix radios, wire houses, and once even build an electric car. He was head electrician for a large paper mill in Wisconsin and occasionally even took me along while he fixed the big machines. Bless him, he would have the big electrical diagrams spread out in front of the boxes struggling to find wiring problems and still always took time for my questions. I’m never happier than when I’m listening to some engineer or designer telling me how something works. I think all kids really want the same thing: to know how the world works, and that’s what I want to accomplish with my writing.