Wednesday, March 1, 2023

Interview With Leading Public Health Expert, Patty Mechael, On Her Middle Grade Novel, The Antidotes


  1. What is your newest book, The Antidotes: Pollution Solution, about?  The Antidotes: Pollution Solution is about Gir, Izi, and their fifth-grade friends coming out of a pandemic only to discover that a plastic-eating bacteria is making fish and kids sick. They apply basic public health knowledge, science, and technology to understand the problem and develop a solution. They also have secret meetings, do a little spy work, and make some useful discoveries. Along the way, they learn to embrace their differences, and discover that they are stronger when they all work together. The Antidotes race against the clock to get out the word to kids around the world about how to stay safe. But— will the Antidotes be able to get enough kids to reduce their plastic use before it makes any more fish or kids sick? The book touches on returning to normalcy after a global pandemic, the challenges of grief, and co-parenting in an age-friendly way.  
  1. What inspired you to write it? At the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrator’s (SCBWI) Conference in New York in 2020, I learned there was a need for smart middle grade fiction. I figured I had a ready-made audience at home with my then 7-year-old son. It was the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, and as a public health professional, I was horrified by the lack of understanding and appreciation for how public health works among the adult population. I started joking with my son that things would have not gotten so bad that we would need to shut down if kids were in charge. That idea really captured his imagination, and I found a writing collaborator who had great ideas and very strong opinions about what would work or not for kids his age. As the rest of the pandemic unfurled it reinforced my sense that as a society, we as grownups have lost our sense of collective action around our own individual health and our collective consciousness and responsibility to public health. But young people haven’t.  
  1. As a public health specialist and advocate for nearly three decades, with your work spanning across 45 nations, how do you hope to inform and empower our youth to care for their well-being physically, psychologically, and socially? So much of a young person’s success and ability to thrive in life is dependent on public health. It takes a combination of healthy individual choices, but also growing up in a safe and healthy environment. Did you know that in the United States, a person’s zip code is the most significant predictor of health and life-expectancy? Where you live can literally kill you. As a society, we are not teaching public health in schools – there are components of it with nutrition, physical education, sex education, etc. But public health is a way of thinking about and taking action to ensure that youth can assess and evaluate their exposure to risk and then do something about it. I am hoping to empower young people through my teaching as a Senior Associate at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, The Antidotes series and my other writing and speaking, and by directly engaging with teachers, parents, and young people through workshops and Book Clubs on how to embed basic public health knowledge into everyday life.  

4.      What can – and should – parents be doing to help their children take ownership of their health? Instilling a solid appreciation and understanding of science as the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation, experimentation, and the testing of theories against the evidence obtained- is an important foundation for taking ownership of health. The study of one’s own body and how it responds to internal and external influences is a big part of maintaining health and well-being. It’s also important for parents to model healthy behaviors and practices for their children and help to expose the cause and effect of different risks. When I was 4 years old, I pretended that my crayon was a cigarette and told my father that I wanted to be just like him when I grew up. He was horrified, put his pack of cigarettes in the garbage and never smoked again. 


  1. How about the health of the planet – can the next generation do what all other generations have failed to do when it comes to protecting our planet’s valuable resources? The health of the planet is the biggest external contributor to human health that includes and involves everything from access to clean water and air as well as nutritious food. Having politicized and ignored changing ecosystems and demonized science, we have not done what needed to be done to maintain a healthy planet. This is creating the conditions for old diseases to resurface and new diseases to emerge. While in previous generations, we had the knowledge and the resources to protect the health of the planet and our own health, the next generation has no choice. On the positive side, it’s not yet too late. If we are able to act now together to bring to bear all that science technology and innovation has to offer- then we might have a change to slow the process and even reverse some of the damage caused.  
  1. One of your messages is to encourage more girls and young women to embrace an interest and a career in STEM. Why do so many females still gravitate to liberal arts and other areas, instead of to science and math? There are not very many good examples of women and girls in STEM in the media and many women in science, including myself, don’t easily self-identify as scientists. This is starting to change in very positive ways with characters like Shuri, Letitia Wright’s character in Black Panther and Wakanda Forever, but we have a long way to go. Science is also a team sport and without supportive men who can help champion meaningful engagement and representation of women on the team, it is hard to break through. Over the past 20 years there has been a significant increase in women enrolling in science degrees, but still a significant gap in female role models in senior academic roles. Innovation in general, but especially in science and technology, is also enhanced through greater female engagement, but it’s not happening fast enough. For many boys and men, their success is a zero-sum game. If you succeed, I fail. Whereas in science, if you succeed, we all benefit. In The Antidotes, this dynamic is illustrated through Gir and Izi having to learn to work together as a team as well as through the positive collaboration between Gir’s scientist divorced co-parents.  
  1. Your book showcases a stimulating adventure for kids and touches on returning to normalcy after a global pandemic and the challenges of grief. Did our medical and scientific community make mistakes during the Covid-19 outbreak that we need to learn from? The biggest failure during the pandemic was early clear consistent correct frequent communication about what was known, what was unknown, what to do, and why it was important for us to all be doing specific things. With a new disease, there is a lot that was not known at the beginning and throughout and that’s the reality- but the way it was communicated was too little too late, inconsistent with lots of contradictions, and at times unscientific misinformation. This misinformation or incorrect information took root through social media in a way that encouraged entire segments of the population to ignore the science and put themselves and others at risk. It then also became disinformation – where people knew the information was wrong but they chose to spread it anyway through social media. This was especially dangerous as it created an “infodemic” alongside the actual pandemic. Also much of the misinformation and disinformation that originated in the United States has spread to and taken root in many countries throughout the world, making it difficult and slowing the progress towards disease control. The early politicization of the pandemic made it hard for everyone to work together to get it under control. It also undermined the Centers for Disease Control to the extent that what was once the global leader in public health is no longer respected in the global health community, which is a shame. As a country we are losing our credibility and leadership in public health.  
  1. Why are so many kids challenged to secure a mental wellness balance? Young people are overstimulated. There’s too much exposure to everything all the time through our hyper connected technology world. And they are not being supported to adopt a foundation of health behaviors that can then increase their resilience to adverse events like pandemics.  There are certain healthy basics that all young people and frankly all people can embrace that would contribute to overall wellbeing and mental health. The first is good sleep- at least 8 to 10 hours of it. The second is a healthy well-balanced diet of mostly fruits and vegetables. Then in today’s modern technology age, it’s important to put technology into context with young people and find ways to get off our devices to ground ourselves in the real world and engage in positive human interaction and inter-personal relationships and then also to engage with technology with eyes wide open about what it is doing to our brains and wellness. Another key to mental wellness are positive relationships. More and more young people are escaping into their devices and losing the ability to form and sustain good friendships in the real world.  
  1. You were the first person to study the impact of cellphones on the health of children. What did you discover? In my research, I was exploring how mobile phones were being used to increase access to health services and information in low- and middle-income countries where land-line telephone infrastructure never took off. Alongside this research, I came across research looking at how mobile phones were changing everything from family dynamics and parent-child relationships, but also child to child relationships. I discovered that technology is a means to an end with both strong and weak positive influences on health and wellbeing as well as strong and weak negative influences. There’s also a lot we still don’t know or understand about the short and long-term effects of mobile phones on children. Some things we do know is that parent use of cellphones around children is having a negative effect on child development and from personal experience with my own son, he does not appreciate having to compete with my phone for my undivided attention. We also know that it’s better to keep children on larger devices for as long as possible. For example, televisions over tablets, tablets over mobile phones, etc. As soon as children begin to get their own accounts and lines their risk increases dramatically.  
  1. As a mobile health pioneer and an award-winning digital health specialist, what are your recommendations for phone and internet usage for young kids and teenagers? Technology is not going anywhere, so we must find ways to harness the positive and mitigate the negative effects it has on young kids, teenagers, and even ourselves as grownups. This varies from person to person based on how they are using technology as well as their state of mind while engaging with technology. We also must find ways to educate ourselves and our kids on what we are being exposed to and how it might be influencing our health and wellbeing. The second Antidotes book is about this very thing, but through the eyes of the kids themselves as they encounter the benefits and pitfalls of social media as well as the algorithms that drive the content that they are exposed to. Some recommendations include delaying the timing of a young kid getting a mobile phone, co-developing rules about how and when they use their devices- including what photos are appropriate or inappropriate, who they are able to engage with through the phone- limiting to only known and trusted contacts, deactivating features on the device that might increase exposure to strangers or risk, etc. I recently received an e-mail from my son’s fifth grade counselor reporting on the circulating of inappropriate sexual content among students through mobile phones encouraging parents to talk to review their mobile phone use and talk to their kids about things like the inability to retrieve anything that gets posted to the Internet once it is out there. 

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About Brian Feinblum

Brian Feinblum should be followed on Twitter @theprexpert. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog ©2023. Born and raised in Brooklyn, he now resides in Westchester with his wife, two kids, and Ferris, a black lab rescue dog. His writings are often featured in The Writer and IBPA’s The Independent.  This award-winning blog has generated over 3.3 million pageviews. With 4,400+ posts over the past dozen years, it was named one of the best book marketing blogs by BookBaby  and recognized by Feedspot in 2021 and 2018 as one of the top book marketing blogs. It was also named by as a "best resource.” For the past three decades, including 21 years as the head of marketing for the nation’s largest book publicity firm, and two jobs at two independent presses, Brian has worked with many first-time, self-published, authors of all genres, right along with best-selling authors and celebrities such as: Dr. Ruth, Mark Victor Hansen, Joseph Finder, Katherine Spurway, Neil Rackham, Harvey Mackay, Ken Blanchard, Stephen Covey, Warren Adler, Cindy Adams, Todd Duncan, Susan RoAne, John C. Maxwell, Jeff Foxworthy, Seth Godin, and Henry Winkler. He recently hosted a panel on book publicity for Book Expo America, and has spoken at ASJA, Independent Book Publishers Association Sarah Lawrence College, Nonfiction Writers Association, Cape Cod Writers Association, Willamette (Portland) Writers Association, APEX, and Connecticut Authors and Publishers Association. His letters-to-the-editor have been published in The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, New York Post, NY Daily News, Newsday, The Journal News (Westchester) and The Washington Post. He has been featured in The Sun Sentinel and Miami Herald. For more information, please consult:  



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