January 15, 2009
My clock is ticking and no, it has nothing to do with babies per se. It concerns my youngest son. A couple of weeks ago, Sam turned eight. For those of you with older children, you know where I am headed. Gone are the days of holding hands in public. Forget about blowing kisses when he gets out of the car for school. And above all, I can’t use any terms of endearment in front of his friends.
Luckily, I have not yet been banned from our favorite nightly ritual. There’s nothing quite like snuggling with him for a good bedtime story. His infectious belly laugh is the perfect medicine for washing away the day’s stress. I know, I’ll be getting my walking papers soon, but until then, I am going to relish every precious moment I have left.
It seems only fitting to be launching my first children’s author Jen’s Jewels column this month. And of course, there’s no better person to bestow this honor upon than my son’s favorite, Dan Gutman. A fellow New Jersey native, his witty repartee has been making kids laugh for years.
As part of this interview, HarperTrophy, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers has donated five books for you, my lucky readers, to win. So, don’t forget to look for the trivia question at the end of the column. And as always, thanks for making Jen’s Jewels a part of your reading adventure.
Jen: Please tell us a little about your educational and professional background that led to your pursuit of a career in writing.
Dan: I never took a writing class in my life. I studied psychology at
Jen: Was there a particular life-changing experience that validated in your mind this career choice or was it more like a “let’s see where this takes me” kind of journey?
Dan: Well, I started out writing for grownups, and I was a dismal failure. I was awful, and I wasn't making a living at it. But then...see your next question!
Jen: What made you decide to write children’s books?
Dan: My son, Sam, was born in 1990. With Sam, I started reading a lot of children's books for the first time since I was a kid, and I decided to try to write one. And as soon as I started writing for kids, I thought--THIS is what I'm good at!
Jen: I would think that writing computer-based stories as you did early on in your career versus children’s books which you do today would be like comparing apples to oranges. What I want to know is how did you manage to pick up the lingo without sounding like you were trying too hard? (“Oh, snap!”, a catch-phrase from My Weird School, is often used in our house!)
Dan: I fell into the computer thing by accident. I was working on a magazine about video and computer games. But I didn't know ANYTHING about computers. I was a total fraud, and I had to try very hard to hide that fact. I don't have to try at all to relate to kids. That comes naturally. And my own kids, of course, have helped a lot too. I get a lot of the catch phrases and stuff from them. But I got "Oh, snap!" from a camp for physically handicapped kids where I worked for four summers during college. The kids in my bunk used to say that.
Jen: Also, when I read your books aloud to my youngest son, I wind up laughing as much as he does. Your books appeal to both audiences simultaneously. What’s your secret?
Dan: The secret is to have the brain of a 53 year old and the maturity level of a 10 year old.
Jen: As you know, writing any novel is a labor intensive process that incorporates many facets of development including characterization, themes, and voice to name a few. Children’s books are much shorter and the language is obviously simpler. What is your major focus when you begin writing a children’s book? And, what overall strategies work best for you? Do you plot first? Outline?
Dan: I try to come up with a "big idea." Like, I try to take an ordinary kid and put that kid into an extraordinary situation. A kid runs for president of the
Jen: From a technical standpoint, during the creative process, did you collaborate with Jim Paillot (your illustrator in the MY WEIRD SCHOOL DAZE series) as to exactly where the illustrations would appear throughout the book? And, do the illustrations affect the writing of the story in any way or is it more of an after-the-fact kind of procedure?
Dan: Actually, Jim and I have never even met. He lives in
Jen: Tacking onto the last question, how is an illustrator selected? Did you personally choose Jim or did HarperCollins make that call?
Dan: I had nothing to do with it. HarperCollins picked Jim, and I'm glad they did. He is terrific. Each cover looks different, but similar.
Jen: Your latest release, MY WEIRD SCHOOL DAZE #4: COACH HYATT IS A RIOT!, is the fourth book in your highly popular series. For those readers new to this series, how did you arrive at the premise? Who are the main characters? What makes your series unique?
Dan: I got the idea for the My Weird School series when my daughter Emma was in second grade. She was really enjoying the Junie B. Jones books, and I wanted to try a series for that age group. I thought it would be cool if there was something like Junie B. Jones told by a boy. All the books in My Weird School, you may have noticed, are dedicated to Emma. The first title, “Miss Daisy is Crazy,” came from the old song “Tutti Fruiti.” It goes, “Had a gal named Daisy, she almost drove me crazy.” The main characters are A.J. (who is the narrator), his arch-enemy and love interest Andrea Young, Andrea's crybaby friend Emily, and A.J.'s friends Michael, Ryan, and Neil the nude kid (who was actually the "new" kid but everybody thought it was "nude.") By the way, when I was a kid, there was a girl in my class named Andrea Young, and she was a real smarty pants. I hope she never sees these books.
What makes the series unique? I guess the rhyming titles and the idea that the kids are normal while the adults are all insane. I think kids enjoy reading about adults doing weird things.
Jen: From Ella Mentry School to Vomitorium, your play on words is quite entertaining. Do you try-out your phrases on your children to see if they’ll sink or swim? Do the kids give you any input for the storylines?
Dan: A lot of that comes from my kids. Like, I overheard my daughter say the word "poodlenasta," which is noodles and pasta. Instantly, I knew I had to use that. And often, yes, I'll think of some silly word or phrase and run it by the family. I like the sounds of strange words. I think I heard "vomitorium" at a school I visited once. They had an "auditorium," a "cafetorium" and a "vomitorium."
Jen: Unlike adult fiction where stand-alone titles dominate the market, children’s books often wind up as series. How are you able to keep each story fresh while writing twenty or so books with the same set of lead characters?
Dan: Beats me. Every time I finish a book, I think there's no way I can come up with another one. But when I sit down to write it, the thoughts somehow flow.
Jen: In MY WEIRD SCHOOL DAZE, with which character do you most identify and in what ways? (I have to admit. I’m so Andrea)
Dan: I'm a combination of A.J. and Andrea. I'm more like Andrea, but I always wished I was more like A.J. People like him seem to have all the fun.
Jen: What is the biggest challenge for children’s authors today? In your opinion, how has the market changed? Do you think that e-books are a viable option for kids? Or is there something to be said for a good old-fashioned well-thumbed book?
Dan: For me, the biggest challenge is keeping all the balls in the air. I need to write a MY WEIRD SCHOOL book every three months, a baseball card adventure once a year, plus I do some other projects and do a lot of speaking engagements too.
I don't really know how the market has changed. I don't pay much attention to that stuff. That's why I have an agent!
Down the line, I guess e-books will be a big thing with children's books. But there will always be people who prefer to hold a book in their hands, and I hope there will always be books on paper. I wouldn't want to take an e-book into the bathtub with me, that's for sure.
Jen: Please tell us about your website. Do you have e-mail notification of upcoming releases? Do you participate in book talks and/or school visits outside of the New Jersey area? If so, how would my readers go about contacting you?
Dan: I don't have it together enough to email people that a new book is coming out. Once a year, I update my site and list the new books that will be coming out that year.
I used to travel all around the country visiting schools. But I got sick of airplanes, airports, hotels, and all the hassles that go with travel. So now I only visit schools I can drive to. But I did make a DVD version of my school presentation for people who are farther away. You can see a preview of it on my web site. The site also has some of my rejection letters people will enjoy reading, a chapter from a book that hasn't come out yet, a trivia quiz about my books, bio information, me ranting about global warming, and lots of other stuff. It's like having a TV station all about me broadcasting 24/7!
I get a lot of email and it is really hard to keep up. I know the day is coming when I won't be able to reply to each email, but until then, people can go to my web site and click a button to send me an email. I really do appreciate my readers. And thanks for doing this interview. Your questions were excellent!
I hope you have enjoyed my interview with Dan. Please stop by your favorite bookstore or local library and pick up a copy of MY WEIRD SCHOOL DAZE #4: COACH HYATT IS A RIOT! today.
Better yet, how would you like to win one instead? Be one of the first five readers to e-mail me at email@example.com with the correct answer to the following question and you’ll win! Good luck!
Name the lead female character in the MY WEIRD SCHOOL DAZE series.
Next time, I will be bringing to you my interview with New York Times Bestselling Author Suzanne Brockmann. You won’t want to miss it.