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Transcript from a video interview with Tom Angleberger

Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' interview with Tom Angleberger. The transcript is divided into the following sections:


Meet Tom Angleberger

Hi I'm Tom Angleberger I am the author of the Origami Yoda series and a few other books.

You know it really is no surprise that I ended up being somebody that tells stories because my family is famous for stories, both my mother and my father have stories that are dragged out over and over and over again. Usually about some larger than life figure that we had in our life. And we hear about this person over and over and over again and they get to be bigger and bigger until, you know, they become tall tales.

So, yeah, I have a number of figures like Mountain Bob. There was this guy, Bob the king of the mountain that my father had a million stories about Bob doing all this crazy stuff. And my father was a — is a very funny guy. He has lots of jokes and stuff. And so I just sort of grew up thinking well you make a joke out of every situation and you get these stories and you polish them up and you make them funny and that's how you, that's how you communicate.

And so yeah, that's definitely how we did it in our family.

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Nose in a book

Well, when I think about when I was reading when I was kid I always think that I was like some kind of an amazing reader that started when he was two or something, but actually, apparently, my mother claims it took me a long time to learn how to read. But when I finally did, it just took over. And I was one of these people that would go somewhere but only be reading a book.

So it didn't really matter that we were in Florida on vacation because I was in the backseat reading a book. And my family — they're all big readers and they definitely supported me reading and we took a lot of family trips to the public library and of course I hung out in my school library all the time. But they were also supportive of stuff like comic books and Garfield Treasuries and that kind of stuff.

So I wasn't always a big thick serious book reader that was never my thing. And when a book — when I hit passages, description, that's often when I want to put it down. So my parents were very good about being like, "You want to read Beetle Bailey or Garfield? Go ahead."

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Pirates, pickles and puppets

I think the reason I write for kids, first of all I think a lot of adult books are boring. I don't want to write a boring book. I want to write a book with say shipless pirates or lots of pickles or talking Star Wars puppets.

And so, I want to write a book that's got awesome stuff in it and for unknown reasons adults — a lot of adults don't want to read a book that has awesome stuff in it. And so I want to write books that have awesome stuff in it and it just so happens the kids are the only ones that are smart enough to read those books, so my books are kid's books.

If adults loved cool stuff and nerdy stuff and Star Wars, well of course there are a lot of adults that love Star Wars books. And thankfully some of them have found my books too. Yeah, so I just want to write about cool stuff and it happens that when the publisher sees the list of stuff I've come up with, they say, "Oh, that's a kid's book."

I have always been reading kids books and I never stopped. You know, when, when other people are like, "Oh I'm reading Hemingway," or whatever, you know, I was still reading The Furious Flycycle. I remember — I don't know if you've read The Furious Flycycle, I remember bringing it to school and the other kids were like, what are you reading. And I was like well I got tired of getting bored and stuck with books. I wanted to get out a book I knew I was going to love.

So I guess I was in high school or maybe eighth grade and I was reading this, you know, second or third grade book and everybody else was like what are you doing? And I was like, "Man this book is awesome." And I actually went back and read The Furious Flycycle again just a couple of weeks ago and it really is awesome. It's a fantastic book.

And there's a lot of books I'm excited about now. A couple that I wish I had had when I was kid. Of course I like Wimpy Kid and Captain Underpants and there's this new series out called Fangbone, I love Fangbone, I just I'd had come up with the idea. Fangbone is like everything you could want and its little graphic novels. Great stuff. But, you know, a book with some pictures and, you know, fliparoma like Dav Pilkey has in Captain Underpants, that's how you win me over.

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Details make the story

When I got out of school, I didn't know what I wanted to do. I thought I wanted to be an artist and I went to this newspaper and I gave them my sheet with all my stuff on it and they miss understood what I was doing and the woman came out and said, "Would you like a job as a reporter?" And it wasn't a real job, it was to get $15.00 to go out and sit through a town council kind of meeting and then report on it. And I tell you at that point I was, you know, I didn't know what to do.

And I was like, yeah I'll give it a try and after that one meeting I knew I had found something that was going to be a big part of our life. So after that I was a report for like 15 years and I covered all kinds of stories, interviewed, oh my gosh, interviewed everybody from like country music people to backyard wrestlers. And actually the backyard wrestler was a lot more interesting than the country music star. He was awesome.

And I got to do all these amazing stories and meet all these great people. And then one day there was this story about this sewage treatment plant and they were doing a big — all this stuff down at the sewage treatment plant and I was going to make a phone call and my editor was like, "I think you need to go down to the sewage treatment plant."

And so I went, I went to the sewage treatment plant and the guy down there, he doesn't even realize, I don't think that it smells bad there. He's been working there for so long. So he gave me a two hour tour of the sewage treatment plant. Two hours walking around that place. And what a lot of people don't realize is there are different smell zones within a sewage treatment plant. Different parts of it smell differently.

So I came out of there and I, I went to my desk, I wrote what I thought was a fantastic story. I mean, I wrote the beginning of the story and I thought it was fantastic. It was best thing I had ever written. And I showed it to my editor and he wrote — he sat back and he said, "Are you kidding?" So I had to rewrite the story and make it boring and less information about what it smelled like and what it looked like there.

But I kept that little bit that I had written about, what it was like at the sewage treatment plant and one day I realized — oh now I know who, who this belongs to. This is a book for kids to read. And so I kept all that and that became the first book that I ever got published. The Quick Pick of Adventure Society, about a trip to a sewage treatment plant. And instead of putting in less information about what I smelled like, I wrote more information about what it smelled like and I even wrote poems about what it smelled like and I — and I filled this book with the smells and the sights of the sewage treatment plant and that was the first book that came out for kids and actually we're going to reprint it soon, so a new generation of kids can find out what it's like in a sewage treatment plant.

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Why editing matters

When I first started, you know, you had this thing you don't want anybody to mess with what you've done. You want to write it and you want to send it off and you want them to print it as is. And, you know, when you're, when you're in school and you write it and you're teacher gives it back to you and it's got red marks on it, that means you might have gotten a bad grade. You know.

It's like a C-, I was, I was like the kind of guy that got a lot of B-, C- on stuff. And you get it back from the teacher and they didn't like it and you're like, oh. Well, what I've discovered in the, in the real world outside of school is when you get it back and it's covered in red stuff, that's actually, it doesn't mean you failed, it means you still have a long way to go, but the editor is there to help you get an 'A' eventually.

And the editors not going to stop until it's an 'A'. So you've got to get back to work and if you see it as an opportunity, if you see it as not just fighting the editor but actually trying to see what the editor is doing, because the editor wouldn't have made that red mark if it was right. Or sometimes the editor wouldn't have made the red mark if they understood what you were saying.

So the editor isn't always saying you're wrong, sometimes the editor is just saying, I'm going to give you another chance to be clear with what you were doing. And I can honestly tell you that my books — if I had a chance now to let kids read Origami Yoda before I had been through the editing process, I'd be embarrassed. I'd be embarrassed for them to see it, because my editor helped make that book what it is.

And she made it a better book, she made it more clear what I was trying to say, she helped me get my point across. And she helped me understand what I was, what I was trying to say, helped me make it clear and help me make it better. Yeah. No one is ever going to see those original manuscripts. Those are buried now, because my editor, she made it so much better that that's what I'm happy to people — that's what I'm happy for kids to see.

And it's a team effort. The editor and me, we're a team and it's hard to have that relationship with your teacher. It's hard to see that you're teacher is doing the same thing. But that is what your teacher is trying to do. Your teacher is trying to team up with you and help you get to the 'A'. And when I was in school it was hard for me to see that and I would be mad at the teacher. And it takes a long time, it took many years to realize we're all on the same team, we're trying to get to the same place.

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The awesome shelf

There totally is something called a reluctant reader and I totally understand where they're coming from because some of the books, there are some books out there that just aren't particularly interesting. And I think there are people that don't get anything out reading descriptions and so there is a well meaning teacher who's like — who's read a book that's full of beautiful descriptions and it really moves the teacher so they want this kid to read it. And the kid picks it up and he tries to read it and it's like oh the — there's a bunch of stuff in here — it was like a meadow full of — I don't know — and it gets so boring.

Meanwhile, you can pick-up a cool graphic novel like, Smile by Raina Telgemeier or Fangbone, the novel I was excited about and instead of reading the description you just see a picture of it. And instead of reading three paragraphs about what this kid's house is like, you just see a picture of the kid's house and now you can dive right into the action. You can find out what the kids going to do.

And I think there are a lot of people that want to read a book about people doing stuff and there are other people that like to read books about people thinking stuff and oh this is what this kid thinks about their life and there are great books out there about them. There are some amazing authors that write stuff like that, but there are other kids that want to read about what's this guy going to do.

So you pick up a book about Fangbone, what's this guy going to do? He's going to pull out a sword. Awesome! And I, I just think that — I've met a lot of great librarians in the last couple of years and there are librarians out there that understand this.

But I tell you if you go in the library and you maybe ask the librarian where the awesome shelf is, they've got an awesome shelf and they'll, they'll be so happy if you go over there and read the book.

Maybe I can make that my thing. Get an awesome shelf. Maybe put my books on it. No, I'm not sure I would make the cut on the awesome shelf. It would be chalked full of, of, of great stuff, with lots of pictures, lots of excitement. Sharks. That kind of stuff.

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Origami Yoda

Origami Yoda is a very different book without the pictures, because it's really two narrators, there's Tommy that tells the main story and then there's Kellen who he tells his story through his doodles. He's the guy that doodles in it. And Tommy is sort of this series kid in some ways and Kellen is just gonzo and, and nuts and very funny. And so he's the guy that goes in and makes the book funny sometimes. If it was, if was just Tommy the books would be a little more serious. So, I'm not all that serious of a person as you can tell, so as for me the books to have that right balance they have to have Tommy and Kellen working together.

Dwight is the main character of my Origami Yoda books and he's the guy who actually starts the whole thing by making Origami Yoda and bringing Origami Yoda to school. And even before he brings Origami Yoda he's already like the weird kid at school and this book is not my autobiography, but a lot of stuff in the book really happened to me or to my friends or is inspired by the of disasters that was my middle school career.

But the thing is I didn't have Origami Yoda. You know, I was like Dwight that doesn't save the day. It just ended in disaster and I went home miserable. So my book is me telling my stories and my friends stories with Dwight, but Dwight was smarter than me. Dwight found this great positive way to deal with things and that way was Origami Yoda.

So when he brings Origami Yoda to school he saves the day so it, instead of being a disaster like it was in real life, often he and his buddies end up coming out on top. And so I didn't have Origami Yoda, I didn't have Jedi wisdom to help me get through middle school, so that's, that's the idea of the book. Can Dwight and Origami Yoda save the nerds and the weirdoes and the strange kids and get them through middle school alive.

Okay. Well, as you know I did not invent Yoda. Every once in a while I'll run into a kid who says, "Are you the guy that invented Yoda?" And I have to be like, "No, I'm not the guy that invented Yoda. That was George Lucas." But George Lucas is this great guy that lets other people play around with his characters and it's like this giant sandbox he created and a lot of people they get sand boxes and they fill them with toys and they're like, "No, stay out."

And we thought that's what was going to happen, we thought George Lucas would say, no we don't want you messing around with Yoda. I don't care if it's origami; it's none of your business. It's been the opposite. When my publisher contacted Lucas Film and they're the people that have to make all the decisions, Lucas Film was like, "Come on in and play, let's go, do whatever you want!"

And so instead of me trying to sneak around and steal their idea, it's like they're sharing and I'm having a great time and they're very, very supportive. It's been, it's been a terrific experience.

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How to fold Origami Yoda

So here's how you fold Origami Yoda so you can have your own Jedi wisdom in school. What you do is you get a piece of paper and this is just a piece of paper cut into four pieces, this is one of the four pieces. And it's a rectangle so you have to make sure you're holding it the right way. So all you have got to do is remember Yoda is short so keep your paper short.

If you use your paper tall, you're going to end with a green Darth Vader, okay. Nobody wants a green Darth Vader; keep your paper short like this. Now you're going to take one side and you're going to fold it about half way over like this and give it good a crease down the side. Creases are very important in origami. So there you go, you fold it at half way over, now you're going to fold this other side over top of it like this. Okay, and give that a good crease down the side.

Now you'll notice everything isn't perfect here, that's okay, it will all work out. Now, what we've got is a rectangle and we need a Yoda. Well, the thing, the only thing that you need to absolutely have a Yoda is big green ears. Okay. Anything else is an extra detail. Big green ears though is what you got to have, without big green ears you don't have a Yoda.

So here's how you make your big green ears, there's a loose corner on top here, you're going to pull that over to one side and then squash it down flat. Now this is a little tricky the first time you try it. Okay. I've folded over 2,000 Yodas now, so it's easy for me. If you're having trouble with, just take a minute and try to figure it out.

I just took one corner; I folded it over to the side and squashed it down flat. So I have a triangle sticking out to the side of the rectangle and once you've done one of those, the second one is pretty easy, except that the corner is kind of buried here. So you got to carefully pull that out and squash it down on the other side. My ears are very even but that's okay, it will work out.

Now, we're only one fold away from having our Origami Yoda, this is the five-fold emergency Yoda, for emergency situations, when you absolutely got to have Origami Yoda's wisdom right away. You just grab a piece of paper, you do these five folds. This is the fifth and final fold. You're going to take the top and fold it down here. It's almost like folding it in half but we're not going to go all the way to the bottom, we're going to stop right here.

It's going to go right through the ears like this. Just like that. Now guys I'll tell you a real jet eye, I mean, real origami masters don't draw the faces on their origami but I'm not an origami master, I'm just a guy that likes Star Wars and folding paper and having fun, so I draw the faces on my Yoda's, so I'm just going to get a pen here, draw a couple eyes and a mouth and ready to give Jet Eye wisdom — I'll just put him on my finger just like Dwight does in the book, I put him on my finger and now I can walk around and say, "May the force be with you always."

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A new Origami Yoda case file

Origami Yoda is this story and it's sort of in some ways become bigger than me. It's a story happening at this middle school and the characters have taken it over and I just sort of have to listen to what they want me to do and so I'm trying to listen to them and understand when this story is going to finish, but I know there's going to be another book and Kellen and Dwight had this idea that they wanted to write their own case file.

You know, Tommy writes most of the case files and it's mostly words with some pictures. Kellen and Dwight got together and they wanted to make a case file that was going to be mostly pictures. So that's actually going to be the next book, it's going to be R2D2 and it's actually going to be Art2D2 and Kellen and Dwight are going to fill it up with how to draw stuff, how to fold stuff and then since it's, you know, a group project, Tommy's going to come up with some and Sarah and even Harvey, they're all going to have their own stuff in it.

It's going to be another case file but it's going to be completely a different, different kind of thing. So that's going to be the next book R2D2, but I know the story is going to continue. I don't really have official titles or I don't know how many books it's going to be but I know the story goes on, because Dwight, Dwight's not done, Dwight hasn't saved everybody yet, Origami Yoda hasn't saved everybody yet, there's more trouble ahead.

There may be another villain on the horizon, you know, General Grievous from Clone Wars, he's out there, we haven't dealt with him yet, he's the kind of guy that if he came to school he would cause a lot of trouble, so we haven't dealt with him yet. There's definitely more to go.

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Middle school memories

To write about kids that are in middle school, I have a vast store house of memories from middle school. And every once in awhile I'll run into people, you know, that I knew back then and I'll say, "Do you remember that time when such and such happened?" And they're like, "Boy, I don't remember that." But I do. And not always in a happy. These aren't always happy memories but I do remember all this stuff.

And in my head I can play back that entire school; walking down the hallways, going to the cafeteria, sitting on the little round sets that we had at the lunch tables. I remember all of that and it's very clear to me and there were a lot of painful moments there and I can replay those and every once in awhile there are maybe one or two little victories and I can replay those.

And sometimes when I write about them I have to change things a little bit. Sometimes I'm like; well today if a kid was in this experience they would go look it up on Google or something. You know, when I was a kid, if somebody said, there's this song called the Twist, I would have to go home and ask my parents, "Have you ever heard of the Twist?" And my mother would say, "Well, we had this record." And a little 45 record and you put it on and it goes around — and that's how I would have found out about the Twist.

Well, obviously today a kid would type in Twist on Google and Chubby Checker would pop up and they'd be hearing the song in 30 seconds. So I have to change things but it's still all the same stuff. And, you know, I have this chapter about a kid that gets this embarrassing stain on his pants, it's just water, but it's in a place where people think it's something more than water.

And Yoda tells him to make all of his pants wet so it's not just in that embarrassing place anymore. So his whole pants are wet. Well, I heard about this kids recently who had read my book and well, he was an amusement park, he was on a roller coaster, the roller coaster was really scary, something happened in his pants, he peed in his pants, because it was scary. I can understand that, it was scary. He peed in his pants. So now he's at the roller — he's at the amusement park, he doesn't have a change of clothes. Is he going to walk around with this stain on his pants? That'd be embarrassing. And he remembered Yoda's advice.

He remembered that Origami says, Origami Yoda says, "All of pants you must wet." So he told his uncle that he was with, "Let's go on the Log Flume ride." So they went on the ride, they got soaking wet, all of his pants were wet, nobody thought he had a pee stain, everybody thought, "Oh, that guys been on the Log Flume or whatever it was."

So it's still the same stuff, you're still embarrassed about your pants, you're still embarrassed about girls or boys, you're still getting yelled at by teachers for stuff that's not your stuff. It's all just the same stuff it's just different amount of gadgets and different slang terms. And sometimes higher stakes nowadays. If, you do something embarrassing somebody might have filmed it. You know. But it's still all the same stuff.

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The Murky dictionary

I have this character named Murky. For most of my characters say something like Awesome or Holy Jabba, but I have this character names Murky and Murky is the one character — I never knew anybody liked Murky.

I knew this kid would have the nickname Murky, I knew he would walk around saying stuky and then I'm writing and I'm like Murky's words just pop into my head, he's like this character that is forcing himself into existence. And he's got so many crazy words that he says that kids suggested, you should write a Murky to English dictionary so we can figure out what he's talking about.

So I was like, that's a pretty good idea. So now I've got in the new book, there's a whole chapter it's how to translate what Murky says into English. And it turns out that almost everything he says either means awesome or not awesome. And one of the kids complains about it, they're like, "Is that all he ever says is awesome?" And the other kids are like, "No." The point is he doesn't say awesome. He's got his own language!

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The characters take over

The way I write, is I sort of figure out, you know, what's going to happen and then I figure out, well, what's going to happen to Quavondo, what's going to happen to him in this book. And it might take me a couple months to figure out what's going to happen to each character in the book. And then I just sit down and I try to like think like Quavondo and once I start, I know what Quavondo going to do, or I know what Tommy is going say.

And one of the characters, the most fun to write is Harvey. You just think what's Harvey going to say, how's he going to be a jerk in this situation. Because the poor guy, you know, a lot of kids think Harvey is the bad guy, he's not exactly the bad guy, he's, he wants to be a good guy, he just doesn't know how. And you just know that Harvey is going to say something that he thinks is funny and everybody else is going to think it's obnoxious.

And so he's actually one of the most fun character's to write. Like there's a whole chapter in the new book and it's nothing but Harvey going, "I was right. I was right. I was right. I was right. I was right." You know, I personally wouldn't necessarily think to write that but once I sit down and I'm like, how does Harvey respond to the situation, I just know what Harvey is going to do and then I know what Tommy is going to do and what Quavondo is going to do.

And you know, and Sarah, I — Sarah is this character who, you know, she started out as just, she was going to be this girl that Tommy was crazy about but now she's her own character and I know what her response is going to be. I know what she is going to say. And so that's why it was fun to let her be the star of the Fortune Wookie book, because Sarah had a lot of her own stuff she had to say and if Tommy had been the star of that book she wouldn't have had a chance to say it. The characters they just take over.

Yeah, I like Sarah, I've written a new Sarah chapter for a feature book and you know, I just, she's the one who sometimes has to take charge. Because she's actually — Origami Yoda is very wise of course but sometimes you need, sometimes you need a little girl power wisdom.

Sometimes Sarah's the one who has to step in and say, "Okay, guys here's how it's going to have to be."

But Sarah's got her own problems too. You know, Sarah, her best Rhondela, Rhondela's getting interested in boys and clothes and different stuff from Sarah and it's tough times for Sarah ahead. Because she's got to deal with maybe losing her best friend.

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Crankee Doodle

Recently I had the crazy experience teaming up with my wife to write this book, Crankee Doodle. And we both had the idea for Crankee Doodle. Crankee Doodle is kind of like Yankee Doodle, except he's cranky.

He doesn't — you know, everything Yankee Doodle does, Crankee Doodle doesn't want to do, he doesn't want to ride to town, doesn't want to right a pony, doesn't understand why putting a feather in hat would be macaroni. You know, he doesn't, he doesn't — all that stuff just makes him angry.

So anyway, my wife and I, we had that idea together, we came up with the whole story and so then when we got home — we were in a car, we were on a car trip making the whole thing up, we got home and I wrote the story. I actually put, you know, the words down on the computer and then it was her job to draw the pictures to go with it.

And she ended up changing some of my words around, deleting some things that I had written and I had to learn to be okay with that. I knew she was going to do a great job with it. And she did, she drew amazing pictures and every once in a while I maybe had an idea to change her pictures and sometimes she listened and sometimes maybe she didn't. But we were a team and then we had an editor that understood what we were going for and encouraged us. And so that's been an exciting process and I think I've got a book that I'm so proud of and it's not something I could have done on my own.

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Fake Mustache

In an election year there's just this flood of information. You're watching the news and you see the candidates giving the big speeches and everything. And it's crazy; I mean the stuff is absolutely crazy. If you stop and think about it for a minute it's absolutely crazy just because they're adults doesn't me they know what they're doing. It doesn't mean that the stuff that they're saying makes sense.

And so I just had all that election stuff pouring over me and so I wrote this book about a kid that gets involved in all the election stuff, but of course a kid can't run for president cause there's this law that you have to be 35 years old. I, you know, who, who made that decision, I don't k

"Children are made readers on the laps of their parents." — Emilie Buchwald