Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' interview with Megan McDonald. The transcript is divided into the following sections:
- Judy and Stink
- The hand in the toilet
- Book thief
- Moods happen
- The Holly Jolliday
- Hanja Humorek
- Satisfaction for struggling readers
- Writing advice
Judy and Stink
My name is Megan McDonald, and I've written probably over 30 books for children. I've written all kinds of books. I started out really writing lots of picture books for younger kids that are fully illustrated. I love history and I love mystery, so I've written some historical fiction [and] a mystery book that takes place in Jamestown, back in time.
I'm probably best known for a series of books I write called The Judy Moody Books. Judy is a big sister. She's about eight years old, and she's rather bossy and has a lot of different kinds of moods, both good moods and bad moods. When I came up with the idea to write about a big sister, since I have four big sisters myself, I had a lot of material; but I had to give her someone in her family that she could boss around and do things like play jokes on.
To make it different from my own life with all the sisters, I decided I would give her a little brother just for something different to write about. I gave her a little brother, and I named him Stink, because he's kind of a pest. He's one of those annoying little brothers that thinks he knows everything and is always bugging Judy.
Now, Stink actually has his own series. After I wrote several Judy Moody books, a lot of boys were reading Judy Moody, but they loved the character Stink, and they kept saying, "When are you gonna write a book about Stink, where he gets to be on the cover? I wanna see that." From kids themselves and from my readers, that really planted the idea of, "Hey, I really could write about Stink and tell some of the stories from his perspective, of the youngest child, since that's really me."
I especially love Stink myself, and he's just such a fun character to write. So, now there are three books about Stink. The latest is about Stink and the world's worst stinky sneaker. Stink finds out that he has a special ability where he has a very sharp nose, and he can smell things really well. You kind of think that he wants to enter his stinky sneakers in the contest, but as things go on, it turns out that one of the judges for the contest has a cold. Stink, because of the nose, gets to step up and become a judge in the world's worst stinky sneaker contest.
The hand in the toilet
Usually, my older sisters played tricks on me, but my favorite trick that I got to play on my big sister is a trick with the hand in the toilet.
This just happens to be my favorite Judy Moody story. It's in the first book. In the book, Judy plays this trick on Stink, but in real life, all my sisters got to go to Washington, D.C., and we were visiting friends. When we got there, Mom and Dad took everybody to the White House to go on a tour, but I was too young, so they said I would get bored, and I would cry. So, I got left behind.
I was so disappointed, 'cause when you're the youngest, you wanna do everything your big sisters get to do. We were with our friends, and they said I could play with whatever — they got out a big box. I could play with whatever toy I wanted. I found this fake hand that looked really real. It had fingernails and everything on it.
I went all over the house. I had this idea. "I'm gonna play a funny joke on my sisters while they're at the White House and I'm not." I took the fake hand, went all over the house. As any kid would probably do, I thought, "Hey, why not the bathroom?" — right? I went in the bathroom, lifted up the toilet seat and had the fake hand stick out of the toilet [and] look like it's reaching out to get you. Then I waited for my sisters to come home.
It took them forever, but finally my sister Michelle went into the bathroom. She goes in there, shuts the door, and it was two seconds later we hear this, "Ah!" — this really big scream. She came running out of the bathroom, and she goes, "Mom! Dad! There's somebody in the toilet!" We, of course, were just cracking up. My poor sister to this day, she has not lived down the family story of the hand in the toilet.
In the book, Judy wants to play that trick on Stink. Stink being the youngest like I was, gets to go to the White House, and he dresses up as a human flag, and Judy's sort of incensed. She gets the idea, "Hey, I'm gonna play a trick on him." She borrows the fake hand and plays the same trick on Stink in the first book.
I immediately thought of a time when I was working at a bookstore, a children's bookstore, and a teacher had called and ordered tons of books. I put them into two, big shopping bags with handles, ready for her to come and pick them up. I set them right inside the back office.
It was a hot day, so I opened the back door to the store, and I was the only one working that day. A guy came by on a bicycle down the back sidewalk. He must have just seen shopping bags and thought, "Ha-ha." He grabbed the bags but had no idea that they were weighted with tons of books.
He's on his bicycle, teetering, trying to get away, speed away, stealing the books. I ran out the door, ran after him, and I'm like, "Stop! Those are our books! Those are our books! You can't have them!" Luckily, because he couldn't really go very fast, and he knew he was gonna get caught, he dropped all the books. We never did catch him, but all the books were rescued, and we got them back.
"Who is Judy Moody?" Good question.
I think most of all, Judy is just a real kid, and I think some of her characteristics — I mean even just having messy hair — she's very real. She's not good at everything. She's terrible at spelling, and she's always getting in trouble in class for talking out of turn. They send her to Antarctica in the back of the room, where she [has] to chill out. She's just a very real kid, and I think a lot of kids read about Judy and recognize themselves, or feel like they can connect with her, because it's something that a lotta — I get tons of letters from kids, and a lot of kids write to me and want to be Judy Moody's best friend. They really recognize themselves in her and think that they would make, you know, a good pair, or good friends. I think that's a lot of the popularity of Judy is that kids really make this connection with her.
A key thing to Judy Moody was hitting on the idea of moods, and I would go out and visit kids in libraries or classrooms, and around this age, about eight or nine, kids started to ask me if I was ever in a bad mood. They would go a little further and say, "Well " I would say, "Yeah, of course." We all have a bad mood sometime, and I in particular have a lot of them. They would say, "Well, can you write a book while you're in a bad mood?" They were really thinking about moods and maybe hearing this from their parents and having it pointed out when they're in a mood.
It got me thinking that right around this age, the idea of moods become really important to kids. I thought if this is something they're really experiencing, wouldn't that be great to show in literature and have somebody who isn't always happy and isn't always the best at everything? When she has disappointments and obstacles, sometimes she's in a really bad mood. If they're in the car, and Stink is really bugging her and won't leave her alone, it puts her in a bad mood. I think that's something that's just so universal, that kids really started to see themselves in Judy.
The Holly Jolliday
A new book coming out in the Judy Moody series is actually a little different. It's not a Judy Moody book, it's not a Stink book, but they're both in the book, starring equally together. It's called Judy Moody and Stink: The Holly Jolliday, which is kind of a tongue twister for "jolly holiday." It's actually a Christmas book.
It's the first time readers will get to see the characters in full color, which will be very exciting. I've had readers writing to me for a few years now, saying, "What does Judy's hair color look like?" or they really wanna know — see her in color and know what the clothes look like and everything. It's in full color for the first time.
The Holly Jolliday is a Christmas story, or set at Christmastime. The premise is that Judy has this huge, huge, long list of what she wants for Christmas, and Stink only wants one thing. He really wants snow for Christmas, but they live in Virginia, and it's sort of warm there, so they haven't had snow for Virginia for a hundred years — it's been a hundred years since they've had snow on Christmas Day. "So, what are the chances?" Judy points out.
At the beginning of the book, Stink goes out to the mailman. He goes out to get a package, and it's not the regular mailman. There's a new mailman, and so Stink meets him and finds out the mailman's name is Jack Frost. Suddenly, he thinks maybe this mailman, who has a big, white, bushy beard and looks sort of like Santa Claus — maybe the mailman could bring about a little magic and help Stink to get snow for Christmas.
Judy Moody is now popular all over the world, and I think she's translated in about 15 or 20 languages, and some of them, it's kind of difficult since her name rhymes, "Judy Moody." Some of the translation is a challenge but in some languages she's Judy Moody, but in other languages, I think in Dutch or something, she might be "Hanja Humorek", and there's "Fleur Humeur," and my favorite, I think it's Serbian. She's "Cocka Focka." Kids in particular like the sound of that name.
I don't quite know why Judy's popular all over world, except to say that I think she's such a universal character, I think it just sort of strikes a chord, that kids all over the world identify and relate with Judy. There's certainly a lot of very American things in the books, but I know as a reader myself, that's always fun for me, to read a book that has a setting in another country, or where there's a kid who's speaking in British slang, something that they may not know.
It does represent some really funny challenges. For example, I'll get a call saying, "What does 'cooties' mean?" In another language, they don't have cooties. They don't know. They're saying, "Well, is it lice?" I'm like, "Well, not exactly." Some of the issues that come up in the translation are really funny. In the first book, I had all the time where Judy was giving this poison ivy stare. Well, the books are finished in Australia, and they don't have poison ivy there, and they don't know what it is so we had to take some of those references out. It's just really interesting to see how that plays out in different languages.
Satisfaction for struggling readers
One of the wonderful things about the Judy Moody series is that it's been so well received by struggling readers. Parents and teachers are very happy to have something that — I think the humor really engages kids, so the character and the subject matter, they really want to read the book. The design of the book that Candlewick Press has come up with is so inviting for reluctant readers, because there's a lot of white space. There're wide margins. The print is large, but not too large, so I think kids really get the satisfaction of reading a chapter book for the first time.
I've had kids come up to me and say, "I read a book like my mom and dad read." For them, it's their first experience with a real book.
Now that Stink has come along, Stink is actually a little bit shorter and easier than the Judy Moody books, probably around a second-grade reading level. That's been equally as satisfying and rewarding, because a lot of kids that age are looking for something. They've practiced reading a lot of easy-to-read books, but go through them really quickly. They're looking for what is that next thing, and I've had so many parents write to me or come up to me and say, "I could not get my child to stay interested in reading, and the Stink books really did that for him." That, to an author is, he highest compliment we could be given.
For all the kids out there who're looking to learn how to become a writer, or be a better writer, I would say the best thing I can tell you to do is just to read, read, read. If you go to the library and borrow books, or go to the bookstore, read during the summer, when you're not in school — anything you can do to just keep reading.
Find the books that you really love, and read them over and over. I've read Harriet the Spy millions of times, and The Great Gilly Hopkins and all of my favorites. You'll start to notice that you just begin to kind of internalize story, and just from reading you'll learn about beginnings, middles and ends and some of the things that you're also learning about in school. That will all come naturally if you just keep reading books.