Co-Authors Tonya and Ben Mezrich Talk Children’s Books, UFOs, and Ellen Pompeo

The married co-writers discuss their most recent collaboration, Charlie Numbers and the UFO Bash—which was not, in fact, inspired by Congress’s now-infamous "little green men" hearings.

Co-authors Tonya and Ben Mezrich with their protagonist Charlie Numbers. / Photo by Russ Mezikofsky

When she’s not writing about the city’s coolest boutiques and tastemakers for this magazine, Boston style editor Tonya Mezrich is working with her husband, New York Times bestselling author Ben Mezrich on their wildly popular Charlie Numbers children’s book series. The Simon & Schuster titles follow protagonist Charlie Lewis and his team of friendly Whiz Kids, who use math and science to solve mysteries when they’re not in school. Drawing on real-life fields of study like physics and robotics, as well as the Mezrichs’ experiences with their two children, Charlie Numbers makes extensive scientific knowledge digestible for middle-grade readers.

This Saturday, October 21, the co-authors will appear at Boston Book Festival’s JustKids! festival to discuss latest in the series, Charlie Numbers and the UFO Bash—one of many recent projects for Ben, whose book The Antisocial Network is the basis for the Paul Dano-starring film Dumb Money, and whose next release, Breaking Twitter, hits shelves November 7. Before the free Nubian Square event, the Mezrichs sat down to talk with us about their favorite childhood books, how Tonya’s dentistry study at Tufts introduced her Grey’s Anatomy star Ellen Pompeo, and what it’s like really like to work with your spouse.

This is the fourth book of the Charlie Numbers series and the third of the series that you’ve written together. When did the decision to have Tonya join the writing process come about? What sparked that?

BEN: Throughout my career, Tonya has been a secret weapon in all my books, and she’s the first person to dive in. I started this series because we have little kids, and I wanted them to be able to read my books. It made sense for the two of us to do them together. It’s been a wonderful process.

TONYA: I was really ecstatic at the opportunity to jump onboard with the series for the second book [2018’s Charlie Numbers and the Man in the Moon]. It was like a dream come true, thinking I would get to write a book with you [Ben]. When we do children’s events—where we go to schools and talk to kids about the book—it’s nice for the kids to see both of us involved in writing together and having this as our career.

What challenges does working with your spouse present for you two?

BEN: We’re both very busy. A lot of it is forcing ourselves to get to the book. The timeline is the hardest thing.

TONYA: It helps to be part of a team, because when you’re stuck, you have the other person to help push you forward. Whereas if you’re a solo writer, you only have yourself, and sometimes that’s not enough.

Do your two children enjoy your books? Do they have any personal influence on the characters?

TONYA: They have dabbled in reading the books. But it’s like when you’re a chef and your kid doesn’t want to eat your food. We bounce ideas off them now that they’re in that 8-to-12 age range of middle-grade fiction. They like the books, and they’ve helped us go on tour, promote, and do readings from the book in a public setting.

BEN: A lot of the books take place in places that we spend time with our kids. They’re all Boston-centric: They’re at places like the Franklin Park Zoo or the Museum of Science, and we do our research by going to these places with our kids. Our kids and their friends are a big part of why we’re writing them, and you’ll see them in the books.

What are some literary influences you both channel when writing and brainstorming ideas for the Charlie Numbers series? What were some of your favorite childhood reads?

BEN: The series was influenced by Encyclopedia Brown. I know I’m aging myself, because I don’t think Encyclopedia Brown exists anymore, but I was into those when I was a kid. Also, the Hardy Boys kind of stuff, the old school.

TONYA: We wanted it to have a little bit of that Harry Potter flavor. But instead of magic, everything’s based on math and science. As a kid, I read everything I could get my hands on. I read a lot of Beverly Cleary.

Photo by George Rodriguez

The Charlie Numbers books are slated to become a movie series with some celebrity cast members such as Ellen Pompeo. How did this come about?

TONYA: The Ellen Pompeo connection has to do with my dental background. Her husband, Chris Ivory, was a patient of one of my dear friends from dental school. They have kids who are similar in age to ours, and we gave them a copy of the book. Ellen fell in love with the story. She has a production company, Calamity Jane, and they decided they wanted to take this on as one of their projects.

BEN: Whether it would be a series of shows or a series of movies over time is something we’ve gone back and forth about, and it depends on who ends up making it. Ellen Pompeo would be amazing if she played the science teacher who’s always with them.

Aliens and UFOs were a subject of Congressional hearings recently. Is there a specific reason this book is focused on alien interactions, or was that simply luck with the timeliness?

BEN: The tie-in is my other book, The 37th Parallel, which came out a few years ago. It’s a true story about a sheriff in Colorado who had started to investigate weird UFO sightings and got fired from his job, then became a UFO hunter. I spent a year researching people who were obsessed with UFOs, and the timing was coincidental. Kids are obsessed with UFOs, and it’s fun for kids to learn about what’s going on in physics and robotics, rather than talking about little green men running around.

Is there anything new coming soon regarding the Charlie Numbers series?

TONYA: Yes! The paperback will come out in a year and that will potentially be a set with all four of the books together in a gift box. Winchester Book Ends, one of the local booksellers that we love to partner with, is going to be selling books there and donating a portion of the proceeds to Raising a Reader, which is a literacy charity that we love and support. Lastly, we’re doing a cool event at the Boston Book Festival in Nubian Square on October 21, which is free and open to everyone.

Ben and Tonya Mezrich will appear at JustKids: An Awesome Celebration of Books for Children on Saturday, October 21, from 1:45-2:15 pm, for an author session talk at Bolling Building School Committee Room, 2300 Washington Street, Roxbury. Robotics engineer Kris Dorsey will be on hand to discuss the technological aspects of Charlie Numbers.