Anne: Thank you, Sonja, for joining us at MG Book Village to chat about your debut novel, Sir Fig Newton and the Science of Persistence, which hits shelves tomorrow, March 22. Would you please start by giving readers a very brief summary of the story?
Sonja: Hello! Thanks so much for having me. Sir Fig Newton and the Science of Persistence is about a twelve-year-old scientist named Mira Williams who will stop at nothing to save her sick cat when her parents can no longer afford to treat his diabetes. It’s a story about friendship, family and the power of persistence.
Anne: And the cat’s name is Sir Fig Newton! Now, a friend calls Mira “stubborn,” but she prefers “persistent.” I love that! My question is whether you are at all like your protagonist? Are some parts of Mira’s story autobiographical? (If so, which parts?)
Sonja: Ha! Being stubborn—I mean persistent—is one of several things that Mira and I have in common. Just like Mira, I’m a biracial Black female (my father’s Black and my mother’s White); I grew up in a small Central Florida town, in between Orlando and Cocoa Beach; and I love listening and dancing to music. We’re both Orlando Magic fans and I too had a chonky gray cat diagnosed with diabetes.
Anne: You open with Mira trying to explode grapes in a microwave, hahahaha. Did you try that, yourself? Did you try all of the experiments mentioned in the book?
Sonja: I did try the grapes in a microwave! But after several attempts, the only result I got was smoke and a “charred, sugary stench.” I tried some of the other experiments mentioned, but not exactly in the same way that Mira did them. I purchased two National Geographic experiment kits: crystal garden and catapult (these were two of the experiments Mira did during STEM Girls camp). I hadn’t done experiments like these in a long time and they were so much fun. It was very satisfying to see my paper trees blooming with colorful crystals and watch my catapult successfully launch a cat sparkle ball across the room!
Anne: Very fun! In the story I enjoyed the mention of tee shirt slogans (such as “Never trust an atom, they make up everything”) and references to highway signs (like the one from NASA: “Curiosity is Out There”). Are these for real, or from your imagination?
Sonja: It’s a little bit of both! Most of the fun tee shirt slogans I either found online or I own the shirt (like “Otter Space”). But the shirt slogan “STEM Girls Just Want to Have Fun” and all of the highway signs are from my imagination.
Anne: Mira often wrestles with tough questions related to faith. Could you share a bit about your own thinking as you were drafting those scenes? When it comes to issues of faith, what do you hope readers will take away from this novel?
Sonja: When I began writing this story, I didn’t set out to include tough questions related to faith. It happened organically. At first I wanted to reveal Mira’s scientific beliefs—her faith in the facts. But then as I was going through some very rough times myself, I realized I wanted to show readers that even though we don’t have control over a lot of the hard stuff we encounter in life, we are never alone. There’s always something bigger than ourselves to help us move through it.
After reading this story, I hope readers will feel empowered to discover their own beliefs and that finding their faith will help them find themselves.
Anne: That’s great. The story also sheds light on the problem of diabetes (both in people and in cats). How much research did you have to do to understand this disease, and how did you decide how much to put in the story (diabetes is complicated!) and what to leave out?
Sonja: Luckily, I didn’t have to do a ton of research. Not only did my father and two uncles have Type 2 diabetes, but the story is loosely based on my real-life relationship with my cat, Whiskey, and our struggles when he was diagnosed with diabetes in 2007. I was fortunate enough, however, to be an adult with a great paying job so that I could afford the large vet bills.
It was difficult to decide how much to include and what to leave out. I did my best to stay focused not only on Mira’s main goal of saving her cat, but also to stay in her point of view. I’m very thankful for my editorial agent and amazing editor, who helped me keep the story focused, fun, and full of relevant-to-the-story information.
Anne: On your website, you reveal that your original title was “Mira and Whiskers.” When did you change the title, and why?
Sonja: As I mentioned, the story is loosely based on my cat, Whiskey. I called my fictional cat Whiskers (to make the name kid-friendly) and named Mira after my paternal grandmother, Elmira. One of my early readers pointed out that Mira the scientist would most likely have a different name for her cat and I immediately agreed. So after some fun brainstorming, Sir Fig Newton came to be.
When I was sending queries to get an agent, the title was Sir Fig Newton & the Greatest Scientist That Ever Lived (after Einstein, of course). My agent suggested I shorten the title and after more brainstorming, Sir Fig Newton and the Science of Persistence was born. Although it wasn’t much shorter, we both agreed that it fit with the story’s theme, and it’s a fun title.
Anne: It IS a fun title! Finally, where can readers go to learn more about you and your work?
Sonja: Readers can visit my website, bysonjathomas.com. I’m also on Instagram and Twitter at @bysonjathomas. Sir Fig Newton and the Science of Persistence is available at all the usual retailers, including Bookshop and IndieBound, and at some of my favorite local indie bookstores, Annie Bloom’s Books, Vintage Books, and Powell’s Books. For readers who don’t have it in their budget to buy a book, please consider requesting Sir Fig Newton and the Science of Persistence at your local library (if it’s not already in stock)!
Anne: Thank you so much for stopping by MG Book Village, and for writing such an engaging story!
Sonja: Thank you so much for having me. I had the best time answering your thoughtful and fun questions and I’m so glad you enjoyed the story. I hope your readers will love Mira and Sir Fig’s story too!
Sonja Thomas (she/her) writes stories for readers of all ages, often featuring brave, everyday girls doing extraordinary things. Sir Fig Newton and the Science of Persistence is her debut middle grade novel. She’s also a contributing author for Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls: 100 Real-Life Tales of Black Girl Magic. Raised in Central Florida—home of the wonderful world of Disney, humidity, and hurricanes—and a Washington, DC, transplant for eleven years (go Nats!), she’s now “keeping it weird” in the Pacific Northwest with her roommate and four pawesome cats.
Anne (A.B.) Westrick is today’s MG Book Village interviewer. She’s the author of the older-MG novel Brotherhood. You can learn more about her at https://abwestrick.com/