Tom Phillips Tackles Toxic Masculinity through Middle Grade Mysteries

Em and E.J. get nostalgic for the 90s with middle grade action and mystery author Tom Phillips in a chat about Reading Rainbow, the Pizza Hut Book It! Program, Land of the Lost, and more, with a side of how his new release takes on the issues of toxic masculinity for young readers.
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Today we are chatting with middle grade mystery and adventure author Tom Phillips.

  • Tom Phillips debuts his first middle-grade novel, THE CURIOUS LEAGUE OF DETECTIVES AND THIEVES: EGYPT’S FIRE, in June 2022. An artist, optimist, writer, philosopher and retired superhero, Tom  mischievously brings the power of the written word by assimilating everyday lessons into witty and humorous stories of heroism and bravery. 

  • Tom really loves Em’s introduction for him, which she did not steal from his website at all. 

  • Em has to start by sharing that of all the blurbs she’s ever seen, the one on Tom’s debut is her favorite. 

  • A “blurb” is when an author gets other authors or celebrities to share a short quote about their book to put on the cover.

  • Tom’s blurb is from LeVar Burton, of Star Trek and Reading Rainbow fame. Talk about nostalgia, right? 

  • Tom shares that LeVar is a personal hero of his. As a kid he loved Reading Rainbow, and LeVar and his now-wife visited their area with friends regularly and rented a boat from Tom’s parents’ marina. 

  • Tom’s mother used to tell him, “Call LeVar, he’ll give you a job!” And Tom kept telling her, that’s not how this works. Then he moved to LA and was job hunting when Reading Rainbow was rebooted. Tom got a job on the team because they needed an editor – see? His mom told him to call LeVar. 

  • Tom says LeVar is exactly who you see – such an amazing man. 

  • Em agrees he seems very genuine.

  • LeVar has a podcast now: LeVar Burton Reads. If you love books and you aren’t listening to it, Tom is sad for you. 

  • Em reminisces that the 90s nostalgia brings her back to that whole era: Bill Nye and Scholastic Book Fairs and the Book It! Pizza Hut program. 

  • Tom says they should bring Book It! back, and also do one for adults where you get wine. 

  • Em and EJ agree they would do it for the pizza regardless. 

  • Pizza Hut! With the booths and the dusty chandeliers and the video games. Good times. Pac-Man. Mario. Choice-Ten. 

  • Tom feels most of his curiosity as a child came from Reading Rainbow. 

  • Tom grew up in a small town in the mountains, so there wasn’t much culture around other than nature, and reading was a cool escape. 

  • They’d drive down the mountain and go into Denver and he and his siblings thought they were the coolest when they got a Happy Meal. 

  • Flashback for Em to when Happy Meals came with the Land of the Lost dinosaur puppets. 

  • Speaking of books as an escape for kids, writing for kids is so important, especially now. Books can offer a comforting escape. Em asks Tom where the CURIOUS LEAGUE books help kids escape to. 

  • Here’s the thing about Tom’s book: It’s insane. 

  • It’s about a kid who lives in a museum and is framed for stealing an invaluable ruby. He joins a Willy Wonka-ish detective to catch the Mauve Moth. Kids escape into an old school middle grade zany adventure book–think THE MIXED UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E FRANKWEILER or THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH

  • But today’s kids have different needs. One of Tom’s biggest issues with the world now is how we handle toxic masculinity. 

  • He’s a huge advocate for people being happy, whatever that means for them. As long as you aren’t taking away someone else’s happiness, you’re okay, and have a right to live your life as you see fit. 

  • But while we’re pushing for equality we’re leaving young boys behind. In today’s world, the old role for boys is gone, everyone has new roles, but no one is telling boys how to take their role and fit into this new world and change with the times. 

  • In CURIOUS LEAGUE, the boy learns the 37 Rules of Being a Good Detective-which are also the 37 rules of being a good man. 

  • Example: The first rule is that you learn the most in an interrogation in the silence, not when you’re talking. The message being, you have to listen to the other person, and not spend that time thinking about what you will say next. If you listen, you can understand the other person’s needs and find a solution. 

  • You can’t force lessons down kids’ throats. You have to introduce it and let them decide on their own. This book is about John making his choices, and learning that no matter what, he’s responsible for his own happiness. 

  • E.J. observes that a kid living in a museum feels like a science nerd spin on ELOISE, who lived in the Plaza Hotel. (Please ignore the dog barks in the background, nothing to see here, we are very professional.)

  • Tom elaborates on his inspiration, THE MIXED UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E FRANKWEILER, in which the kids run away and go live in a museum. That always stuck with him, because he wished he could live in a museum. When he lived in New York City, he went to the American Museum of Natural History maybe three times a week to hang out and draw. 

  • His friend pointed out that when you have kids in cities, you designate a landmark so that if a kid gets lost, they have an easy place they can get to so you can reunite–like the Empire State Building. Which is basically what happens in the book: something happens to John’s mother and she never comes to get him, so he just stays there. 

  • EJ calls out the big trope of children’s fiction: Where are the parents?

  • Em points out how necessary it is–parents don’t let adventures happen.

  • Tom adds that if a child has parents, they can’t be lost, and if a child isn’t lost, they can’t be found. And then, what’s the point?

  • A good example: In A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS, all the adults are so dumb, and the kids are really smart. Which is totally how middle grade kids think about adults. 

  • Shout out for the Netflix show with Neil Patrick Harris. And the film with Jim Carrey while we’re at it. 

  • Em wants to know what Tom’s favorite book was as a kid. 

  • THE NEVER ENDING STORY! Tom is dyslexic, so most of his stories were from his sister reading out loud, and she read that one over and over and over. Also THE PRINCESS BRIDE and PETER PAN.

  • Em shares that PETER PAN was the first book she read that she felt was a “real” book, the first thick adult book, as a kid. (Side note, ALL books are real books!)

  • E.J. never read the book but has the ‘80s TV adaptation burned into her brain for all eternity, VHS recorded with all the commercials. As the ‘80s kid does. 

  • Tom has the PETER PAN trivia: Did you know it’s tradition for the actor who plays the Darling father to also play Captain Hook?

  • E.J. observes that feels in line thematically with the idea of adults as villians and parents as absent. 

  • Though, Tom points out, more modern middle grade actually often have present, well-meaning parents–they just still completely misunderstand the kid throughout the story. Think DIARY OF A WIMPY KID

  • Em feels that’s truthful to the childhood experience. 

  • Em asks if Tom always knew he wanted to write for kids. Tom feels he never had a choice because that’s what he loves to read! Adult books are too much “adult-ness.” Though he writes for adults for television and film, too.

  • Em has tried to write middle grade, and it was hard! You’re in a whole different stage of life and you have to be aware of that as you write your characters. 

  • To Tom, the trick to writing children as an adult is that you used to be a child. The times might change and kids now worry over TikTok views, but we have the same fundamental needs–we want to be accepted and find the things we love to do. You can write a good solid middle grade book from these fundamental needs. 

  • But then, have a kid read it, and really talk to them about what they like or don’t, what they don’t understand, etc. Tom gets this insight from his nephews. They’re completely brilliant, but they’re favorite part is still when the monkey poops. 

  • Em asks if Tom had a particularly beloved character as a kid. Em herself spent a ton of her time pretending to be Meg Murray from A WRINKLE IN TIME, which she discovered in a second-hand bookshop with no idea of the novel’s renown. She loved that Meg got in fights and wasn’t a typical “girl.”

  • Tom loved the A-Team. He wanted to be either Mr. T, a Catholic priest, or Gene Kelly. Then he found out priests can’t marry. And that he couldn’t be Mr. T because he isn’t African American. To dance lessons it was! But he wasn’t a very good dancer. 

  • E.J. never exactly wanted to BE a character but gravitated to misfits and troublemakers. Eloise was a favorite, just how much of a problem she was all the time. Also Meg Murray, who E.J. contends absolutely had ADHD. She went through a major BOXCAR CHILDREN phase too. She liked that they lived in the woods and solved mysteries. 

  • Tom jokes the BOXCAR CHILDREN would never be published today. Kids living in the woods in a boxcar? That’s ridiculous!

  • One editor told Tom it was unrealistic a kid could live in a museum without an adult and not get caught … Come on, it’s a book! Did you notice the talking monkey?

  • Em thinks this is part of what she struggled with writing middle grade after thrillers. In thrillers, every single minor detail has to be exact and accurate to the real world. In middle grade, you have to trust the magic and wonder of the story, as long as it’s internally consistent. Explaining everything ruins the magic.

  • Tom mentions that his publisher PIxel + Ink (shout out for his editor Alison Weiss, who is brilliant) had him do a pass through his manuscript for continuity and called out points like traffic flow in New York City for car chases. Come on, it’s a book! But even in middle grade, some things have to be accurate to reality. 

  • Em moved a LOT as a kid but the place she considers “home” is in South Louisiana, where there were twelve people in her class. Em and Tom reminisce on the quirks of dating among a very small circle of peers. 

  • This blows E.J.’s mind. She’s from the city–her graduating class was 600 and her school was 2,500. She doesn’t even know everyone she graduated with.

  • One of Em’s old schools has a Facebook Group that features people who go ghost-hunting there. One of her buddies trolls them. Group: What happened in here?! We can tell you what didn’t happen here–learning. Ghosts of lessons lost!

  • When you get published the publisher assesses your platform reach to see how your social media might transfer to sales. Tom says his Twitter is awful, but his Facebook is super active, because his small town people comment on everything! 

  • And, they absolutely buy his books. They were HERE for the support. 

  • Em had a similar experience with her first book and even got in the newspaper. 

  • But no one gives a shit about you in a big city, E.J. says. You’re an author? Get in line. 

  • In a small town, if you need someone to back you up, they’re there, Tom says. Which might be an issue for negative reviews. Tom won’t comment to anyone, but he can’t promise people from his town won’t. 

  • Em’s sister is a librarian and Em was SHOCKED to find she was not included in the author birthdays for her birthday month. Em’s book is in their library! Her sister fixed it. 

  • Speaking of sisters, Tom adds that people always talk about big brothers as protectors, but he didn’t need a big brother–he had Annie. 

  • Em got kicked out of church camp for fighting another kid who teased her sister. (She licked the battery and then they made fun of her. Em was like, damnit Jill, again?)

  • This has been fun, but it’s time for … TROPED OUT!

  • Tom was not told what this is, but he’s excited. 

  • Chosen One or band of ragamuffins going on a quest? 

  • Most genres in fact have some version of the gang of ragamuffins. Except maybe romance. (E.J. suggest the harem trope).

  • We agree it’s best with kids though–shout out for STRANGER THINGS, the ultimate  manifestation of the ‘80s kid crew. 

  • Morally gray villain or hidden hero?

  • Rags to riches or poor little rich kid? 

  • Finally …. we must! Secret celebrity or secret baby?

  • In middle grade, you ARE the secret baby. 

Thank you to Tom Phillips for hanging out with us! 

You can find Tom Phillips on social media on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok, or on his website His debut novel is THE CURIOUS LEAGUE OF DETECTIVES AND THIEVES: EGYPT’S FIRE, releasing June 7. 

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