‘Whale farts” is how Winston’s younger sister, Louise, describes the sounds he makes with his tuba in “The Losers at the Center of the Galaxy,” a new novel by Mary Winn Heider.

Winston is not insulted. He likes the deep, low notes. They help him to express his feelings. And he enjoys contributing to something larger than himself, the vast sound of his middle-school band. All this is helping him through a hard time.

Heider can relate to Winston. As a kid, she sometimes felt lonely. In middle school, she started playing an instrument, the French horn, which allowed her to express this.

“The French horn sounds melancholy, like the call of a coyote, far away,” Heider told KidsPost by phone.

“I was never that good,” she said of her playing. “But there is so much incredible teamwork in band, and I liked being part of that.”

Turning to music for solace

Like Winston, Heider turned to music more recently during a hard time. Last year when the coronavirus caused covid-19 and the closing of schools and workplaces around the world, she decided to learn another musical instrument, the ukulele.

“It helped to take my mind off [my worries],” she said.

Perhaps listening to or playing music has helped you during the pandemic or another time of confusion or sadness. Or is there a different interest or activity you turn to?

For Winston’s sister, Louise, that interest is science. She is determined to find a cure for a brain disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). It is caused by frequent blows to the head, which over time, can damage the brain. CTE sometimes occurs in athletes — such as boxers, football and hockey players — who have suffered many head injuries, such as concussions.

Louise and Winston’s father has CTE. He was a professional football player, who began to experience terrible headaches, anxiety and memory loss. Before the book begins, he disappears.

Where could he have gone? Louise and Winston have no idea. This is not your usual mystery. Funny and strange things happen. The middle school teachers start to dress completely in black. Winston’s tuba vanishes. Louise yearns to free the caged bear that is the mascot of her father’s former football team.

But through all the uncertainty, Winston and Louise know they can rely on each other.

That’s how Heider feels about her two younger brothers, to whom she dedicated the book. There’s a bond between siblings, she said.

Theater, music and writing

Growing up in Columbia, South Carolina, Heider loved reading, especially Wayside School and Babysitter Club books. A passion for acting began with classes in fourth grade. She also learned how to operate lights and set the stage at the local community theater.

“I wanted to know how to do everything in theater,” said Heider.

That curiosity and drive led to interesting jobs as an adult. She has worked with circuses in Italy and Germany and acted in plays in Chicago, Illinois, where she now lives.

Creative writing had often been frustrating when she was a kid, Heider said, because she could see that the words on the page were not the well-written story she wanted to tell.

“And then I realized that [story] drafts were just like practice for musicians or rehearsals for plays — a chance to keep working [at a piece of writing] and improving,” she said.

During the pandemic, Heider has used Zoom to work with others on new projects. With comics creator Chad Sell, she’s been collaborating on a novel that combines graphics and prose. And for the Kennedy Center in Washington, she is turning her first middle-grade novel, “The Mortification of Fovea Munson,” into a musical.

Theater, music, writing — staging this play, said Heider, “brings together many things I love.”