Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Q&A with Leah Anderson Magaña

Leah Anderson Magaña is the author of the new children's book The Outlier's Secret: An Interactive Math Mystery. She is the PreK-12 director of learning at Le Jardin Academy in Kailua, Hawaii.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Outlier's Secret, and for the book's interactive structure?

A: I started writing The Outlier’s Secret nearly 10 years ago while working as a fifth grade teacher. My students at the time were struggling to find relevance in the math they were learning through the curriculum so I started writing short math mysteries to engage them in the math they were learning.

What I found next, though, was that the stories were just longer word problems, they weren’t motivating students to do the math. My students needed a “why.” They needed a reason to solve the math. So that’s when I started writing the first iteration of this book in which the reader would need to solve the math to solve the mystery.

It was several years and multiple revisions later that I added the “choose your own adventure” element to the story. This is the element that my readers comment on enjoying the most. They like that they have to solve the math in order to decide where to go next AND which suspect to eliminate.

Writing this first book was quite a puzzle, especially because I wanted the clues to align with the Common Core Standards, but in the end it all came together. 

Q: What was the inspiration for your character Miles Mathews?

A: Miles is based on my most challenging math student, Cody. Cody challenged me daily and ultimately pushed me to be a far better teacher over time. He was one of those kids who pushed back, who demanded to know the rationale and the context for what he being asked to do.

He also struggled with math, but was a true genius deep down, he just hadn’t mastered the foundational skills. 

Q: What do you hope kids take away from The Outlier's Secret?

A: I want kids to play with math! I want them to see that math is fun, it’s mysterious, that math is everywhere, that it explains the world around us. I want kids to find a love for both reading and math through this book.

Q: What are some of your favorite books?

A: Oh boy, where to start. As a child I loved wilderness adventure books like Jean Craighead George’s My Side of the Mountain and Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet. Of course I loved the Choose Your Own Adventure series as well.

Still, my favorite children’s book remains The Invention of Hugo Cabret. I was fortunate to meet and get some tips from its author, Brian Selznick early on in writing The Outlier’s Secret.

Currently, I am primarily reading non-fiction around research in education, curriculum, and human development, but I read to my 5-year-old twins every night and we're thoroughly enjoying Mo Willems’ Elephant and Piggie books. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Currently, I’m the Director of Learning at a medium-sized PreK-12 independent school, so I’m quite busy with my day job. I do have most of Book 2, focused around geometry and measurement, sketched out, so that will be the next project. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I’ve recently heard from several readers that they were hesitant about writing in the book. This book is meant to be scribbled all over! Unless the book is borrowed, from a library or a friend for example, I wholeheartedly believe that the reader should be an active participant in the story. Go ahead, highlight, circle, and scribble. Embrace your voice and choice, and make the story your own. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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