Taryn Souders ('01) has been nominated for one of literature's highest honors -- the Edgar Award for mystery books.
But she fell into writing completely by accident.
Souders, who earned an interdisciplinary studies degree with a specialty in math, was a former math teacher and mother of three before she wrote four children's books with plots that draw from her math experience -- and involve possums and skeletons. Her novel, Coop Knows the Scoop, is up for Best Juvenile book at the April 29 awards ceremony.
"Kids are totally willing to suspend reality, which I love," she says. While adults may micro-analyze a film or book, with children's books, "You can just use your imagination. The simplest explanation can make for the most fun."
Souders' first attempt at writing was a picture book for children.
"How hard can that be?" she thought.
She had just moved to Florida in 2003 after teaching at Calhoun and Strickland Middle Schools in Denton. She thought she could rewrite a Bible story called "Holy Moses," but she couldn't rhyme.
Then she thought she could turn the phrase "Holy Cow" into a fun fraction book and wrote a couple of stanzas in a few hours. The book, Whole-y Cow! Fractions Are Fun, was published a few years later.
"Wow," she thought, "that worked out pretty good."
She wanted to try something bigger. So she wrote Dead Possums are Fair Game, in which the main character, Ella Hunter, is a mathophobe who may end up in tutoring during summer break if she doesn't pass the math fair project.
Then Ella trips over a dead possum at school and the students use the creature -- named Morty, as in rigor mortis -- to figure out math problems. The book even includes the equations they solve.
Souders bears some resemblance to Ella's mathophobia.
"That was totally me growing up," she says. "I would cry at the kitchen table. I thought, ‘I'm never going to get it.'"
In high school, a math teacher helped click on the light bulb for her, inspiring her to go into education.
"I knew what it was like to struggle," she says. "Maybe I could help those who struggle get it."
Souders grew up mostly in Texas, and found the right fit at UNT's teaching program, and especially enjoyed a class in which one teacher read them children's books.
Now she's the one reading her own books to children during school visits, mostly through virtual meetings these days. She tells them how her own life experiences inspired her to write How to (Almost) Ruin Your Summer, and how her love of mysteries led her to the plot of Coop Knows the Scoop, in which a skeleton is found buried in a playground.
"What I tell the kids is I don't like the blood and gore," she says. "With a murder, there's a little bit of blood and gore. What can I do that's not icky?"
She also consulted her neighbor, a police deputy, for advice on how to bury a body.
"It was fun to have those kind of shock moments with my neighbor," she says.
She got another shock moment when an author friend called her up to tell her she had been nominated for the Edgar.
"He told me while, unfortunately, I was in a library," she says. "I did not use my indoor library voice."
Obviously, she's excited about the Edgar nomination.
"It was very validating," she says. "It was just exciting and reassuring that more than my mom liked the book."