Friday, December 9, 2022

Q&A with Michelle Mohrweis




Michelle Mohrweis is the author of the new middle grade novel The Trouble with Robots. A STEM educator, they live in Colorado.


Q: What inspired you to write The Trouble with Robots, and how did you create your characters Evelyn and Allie?


A: The Trouble with Robots came to me in a rather unexpected way. I was a robotics teacher at a middle school, and enjoyed reading middle grade contemporary stories, but was sure that I only ever wanted to write fantasy. 


Then COVID hit. 


I was stuck inside, missing my students and school, and that’s when I thought up the idea for The Trouble with Robots. I’d never written contemporary before, but the idea wouldn’t leave me be, so I gave it a try. I fell in love with the genre, and through the story was able to better cope with missing my classroom. 


As I wrote, I thought about the things my students deal with every day. I thought about how every year I have a student or two who is so dedicated to robotics but struggles with the teamwork part. I thought about the “tough” kids, the students who are often dismissed as uncaring, when in reality they have so much going on behind the scenes. I thought about how year after year I watch the robotics class become a safe haven for students, a group of friends so strong it always amazes me. 


I channeled those thoughts into Evelyn and Allie, and that’s how the characters came to be. 


Q: The Booklist review of the book says, “Full of girl power without ever showing them as outsiders in robotics because of their gender, this brings a diverse team to the page and shows the various skills needed to make a team succeed.” What do you think of that description?


A: Overall, I like the description! Right now, STEM careers are still dominated by men. It’s challenging for any other gender to make their way into a STEM career. 


When I wrote The Trouble with Robots, I didn’t necessarily mean to write a girl power type STEM book. I just liked writing female presenting main characters, and I liked robotics, so the two fit together naturally for me.


That said, I’m really glad I can show girls in STEM and that I was able to write a story full of diversity and a variety of marginalized characters to reflect the world we live in. I hope kids reading this story will be able to see themselves in the spot of any of the kids on the team, and know they have a place in the world of STEM, even if there aren’t many people that look like them in it yet. 


So yeah, I like the description. 


Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: I knew the ending right away, and I knew the overall bones of the story from the moment I started drafting. I tend to be a planner, so I had a whole outline plotted out for the story before writing it. I think what changed the most were the details that fleshed it out. 


For example, Evelyn is autistic. I gave her many of the same traits and habits I have. When I wrote the first draft though, I hadn’t been diagnosed yet. So, in that first draft, I didn’t actually mean to write her as autistic…I was just writing what I knew and giving her a lot of my own habits. Then I got diagnosed, and suddenly a lot of stuff I did made sense. Suddenly a lot of stuff Evelyn did made sense. 


By the time I was working on developmental edits with my editor, I had come to really accept and understand myself. As I worked on those edits, I couldn’t help but notice how Evelyn read as autistic. 


I wanted to embrace that more, to show kids it’s okay to be autistic, that we are wonderful as we are. So I made it intentional. I gave Evelyn many of the same stims I have, I gave her headphones to cope with sound sensitivity, I teased out more of her passion and her way of viewing the world and made her a character that would have helped young, confused me as I figured out the world. 


Is she perfect? No. Is she always in the right? Naw. But she is trying her best, learning as she goes, and figuring things out, and all the while she is wonderful and autistic. 


So yeah, the main changes were moments like that, moments where I was able to flesh out the characters more, adjust scenes to really highlight them, and adjust the dynamics to match my own understanding of the world. The ending though? It has been there since that very first outline!


Q: How would you describe the dynamic between Evelyn and Allie?


A: Evelyn and Allie are interesting, because at a surface level they are very different.


Allie doesn’t care; not about robotics, not about school, not about anything. She just wants to be left alone with her art. Evelyn, meanwhile, is controlling. She cares too much, so much that she takes things over and doesn’t let others have a say on the team.


See? Pretty opposite. 


Only, when you dig deeper, you realize that they have a lot in common. Allie may act like she doesn’t care about anything, but that’s a defensive measure. Allie is hurting and grieving. She’s lonely and lost in a world that she doesn’t know how to navigate. She’s lost her closest family and doesn’t know how to handle the emotions and hurt she experiences.


Plus, she constantly feels like a fish out of water. The kids around her are starting to have crushes and romantic feelings and she doesn’t get it. She knows she’s different but doesn’t understand why. Her anger? Her uncaring attitude? It’s a wall she’s built to avoid more hurt.


Evelyn is lonely too. Her only friend moved away, social interactions are complicated, every day is a constant battle to read the right social cues and “fit in,” and she doesn’t know how to open up and trust her team. She cares about others, but neurotypical folk don’t always recognize her attempts to express that. Robotics is more than a special interest; it’s a comfort and familiarity. Yet even that is falling apart on her. 


Though Evelyn and Allie seem so opposite on the surface, the two are both lonely and drowning in a world they don’t know how to navigate. So when they find each other, when they actually start opening up to each other? They can help each other find the confidence, patience, and words to really shine and find solid ground in this world.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Oh goodness, so many things! 


I’ve been doing edits on The Problem with Gravity, a companion story to Robots. It’s a first crush story about two girls who end up paired together for an engineering project, and releases through Peachtree in Fall 2023.


I’m so excited for this story! It’s full of all my love of space engineering, lets us get a glimpse at how the robotics team is doing, has a baton-twirling main character, an autistic main character, and has what might be the cutest first crush plotline I’ve ever written. 


I’ve also been having a blast drafting a series of young reader fantasy books for Collins Big Cat. Those follow autistic Lily MacGuffin as they help at their aunt’s antique shop and go on all sorts of adventures. They also release in 2023!


Besides that, I have about a dozen story ideas tumbling in my head at any given time and have been playing around with my writing. We’ll see what comes of it! 


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: For the teachers out there: The Trouble with Robots is at its core a story about teamwork, friendship, and identity. My goal when writing it was to write a story kids will love and have fun reading, even as it tackles some heavier topics.


That said, all the robotics in it is loosely based on the robotics I taught. The facts, the gear ratios, the design notebook? It’s all very much accurate to robotics. I wanted this story to be something not just enjoyable, but also potentially useful in a STEM classroom. If you really wanted to, you could read this story, then turn around and build a robot VERY similar to the one the team made!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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