LINCOLN SQUARE — As a young bookworm, Mary Winn Heider fell in love with Humboldt Park resident L. Frank Baum’s “Oz” books and Scottish writer Andrew Lang’s 19th-century fairy tale collections.
Today, partly inspired by the stories that captivated her as a young reader, the fortysomething author has found a niche writing adventure novels for middle-schoolers. Her brand-new third novel — “The Stupendous Switcheroo,” a collaboration with her good friend and former neighbor Chad Sell — goes on sale Tuesday. The co-authors will celebrate the publication with a launch party Friday at The Book Cellar, 4736 N. Lincoln Ave.
A prose/comic-book mashup, “Switcheroo” kicks off a multi-volume series from Knopf Books for Young Readers. Filled with felines, robots, secret laboratories and dastardly villains, the adventure-mystery book follows the journey of a kid who discovers that he has a super power — except it changes every day. One morning he wakes up with telekinesis; the next, super speed; another day, he can talk to cats. He’s continually learning about his new skill while also trying to figure out what happened to his missing mother.
A past job had a huge impact on Heider’s current literary career: While acting with various theaters in Chicago, she became a company member of PlayMakers Laboratory (formerly known as Barrel of Monkeys), a nonprofit arts-education group. Heider and her colleagues coached Chicago Public School students during six-week-long writing residencies; then the company would perform the skits written by the kids in a popular revue, “That’s Weird, Grandma.”
Heider, who lives with her husband in Lincoln Square, got the perfect window into middle-graders’ minds during her decade with PlayMakers.
“Working with those kids, encouraging them to write what was really on their minds, seeing the totally bonkers way their minds work — that was such a validation. The bonkers stories I want to tell have a place,” Heider told Block Club Chicago. “It really supports me being as weird as I need to be, in a way that’s honest to my voice. That’s one reason I love writing for kids: They’re open to possibility in a way that adults are not.”
Heider’s imagination drew directly on life experience for her very first novel, published in 2018. Her eclectic work history also includes a stint as receptionist at a cadaver lab, which is how she got the idea for “The Mortification of Fovea Munson.” An odd tale about a seventh-grader with coroner parents who discovers three talking heads in her parents’ lab, the book was a hit. It even captured the attention of the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., which commissioned a musical adaptation that premiered this past March.
While it’s no surprise that the success of “Fovea” resulted in future book contracts, Heider got another reward from her rookie effort: a close friendship with artist-author Chad Sell. They were both first-time authors when their books were tapped for the Illinois Reads program, an initiative promoting literacy and championing state authors. After Sell’s popular “Cardboard Kingdom” and “Fovea” both made the 2019 list, the two met at a local event.
“Authors are all awkward and shy — well, a lot of us,” Heider says. “So we very easily could have not had a conversation. But we did.” They found out they lived 17 houses apart, and a friendship blossomed.
The pair soon began strolling together along the Chicago River, conversing “about everything from our careers to the funky birds we’d see in River Park,” Sell recalled. “Naturally, we would talk about new book ideas we were working on … and because we’d become such good friends, and I admired her writing so dang much, I asked if she’d like to work together on the series.”
They developed the story together; the finished book features Heider’s chapter-book prose blended with Sell’s spot illustrations and comic-book sequences.
Although the kidlit besties are no longer neighbors — after nine years in Chicago, Sell and his husband moved to Connecticut in 2022 — they remain hard at work on the series. (The second volume is scheduled for publication in summer 2024.)
They’re excited to reunite at Friday’s launch party, and Sell will stick around for several days so they can work together in person, plotting future books.
“It’s been such a blast creating a whole pantheon of heroes and villains in the Switcherooniverse with Mary Winn,” Sell said. “Our brainstorming sessions have been some of the most fun we’ve had. We’re always trying to outdo ourselves with the wild characters we come up with!”
“It’s been an incredible partnership,” Heider agreed. “It feels like we have one bigger brain. His work is heartfelt, intricately designed and meticulously crafted. Mine is bonkers and weird and goofy. We’ve really been able to bring out the best with each other. Working with him has made me such a better author.”
The launch party for “The Stupendous Switcheroo: New Powers Every 24 Hours!” starts at 7 p.m. Friday at The Book Cellar, 4740 N. Lincoln Ave., in Lincoln Square. For more information, visit The Book Cellar website.
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