Transcript from an interview with Lin Oliver

Meet Lin Oliver

So hello, my name is Lin Oliver and I’m a children’s book author and I’m also founder and executive director of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators which is a non-profit organization comprised of over 25,000 people who write, illustrate, edit, and publish children’s books. So my life has been devoted to the creation of great quality literature for children.

I am, I am more than a southern California native. I am actually the original valley girl. I was born in the Galleria or actually right next to it, I spent my teenage years in the Galleria which was the original mall where valley speak created, was created, so I’ve spent a lifetime trying to get rid of my for sure valley totally girl accent.

When I was in high school, every other word was punctuated so like I go, and so like he goes and my parents who were from the east coast, my father went to Harvard University, made me start every sentence over if it had the word like or um or totally in it. And that was a very quiet year for me.  It was hard to finish a sentence.

Born a storyteller

You know it’s interesting how you become a storyteller because I think I was born as a storyteller, when I was a child my parents called it lying. And I was punished for lying all the time and I would try to explain to them that it wasn’t really a lie, it was the way I saw it. But it was really never the truth. So every story that I told was embellished. As a matter of fact, the story they tell about me in my family was when I was two years old, when I had just learned to talk, I would walk up and down the block and knock  on people’s doors and say hi, it’s Linda, my real name is Linda.

Do you want to know what happened in our house last night? And then I would continue to reveal the family secrets. My parents had had a fight, my mother made soup out of a can, my father sleeps in his underpants, and it was a, to my parents I was out of control. But to me I was reporting, I was telling the stories of our family. So I think it was always clear that I was going to be a writer or a storyteller of some kind.

And then when I started school, I started winning prizes, in the first grade we had a poetry contest. And my poem won the first prize and was put on the bulletin board and I still remember it in fact, it was called My Father and it goes like this: My father goes out and works all day so the family can go and spend his pay. My father treats us very good, especially when we do what we should.  And apparently they thought that was genius for a first grader.

So it was put on the bulletin board and that was really my first publication, so I got very interested in the idea that you could create something yourself and then other people would see it and I think from that day on my fate was sealed, that I knew that I was going to write for other, so that other people could read what I had to say. And then I continued, so then all through middle school and high school I was a journalist, I was editor of our high school newspaper.

And I wrote a weekly column called Oliver’s Editorial Twist. And then I won a contest as, which was a journalism prize, and the prize was you got to work at the local newspaper for a summer as a cub reporter and that, I just fell in love with that. I mean I was reporting on traffic accidents, fender benders, but I just felt, you know I had a press pass and I felt like I was…

And then all through college I wrote for the college newspaper at Berkeley and I also produced a radio show for public radio that was for children. So I started to become interested in the combination of journalism writing and writing for children so that was really how that originated. And then when I came, when I left Berkeley which is where I went to the University and came back to Los Angeles if you want to be a writer in Los Angeles primarily  you work in film and television.

So that’s what happened, I became a comedy writer and I wrote for situation comedies and, and I didn’t like that but it was very good training in terms of producing writing, producing writing products.  And that was when I became interested in children’s book. So I wrote and produced television series primarily for children.

So it was a combination of producing, and of writing, and of writing for children and families. Which brings me almost up to the present.

Reading and the sound of words

My parents idea of a fun weekend was to take my sister and me to the library every Saturday and to give us money for a treat. So my association with the library was getting a Cherry Coke and a piece of lemon meringue pie. So I would go to the library every Saturday. We had great librarians and there were reading programs so that you would get a prize for reading one of every genre of books.  So you could read a biography and a science book and a novel and an historical novel.

And you got a bead or a feather or something, but it was very motivating to me. Plus of course the Cherry Coke and the lemon meringue pie.  So I grew up in the public library, that was essentially my living room. At home my parents were great readers, my father read the classics and so we had a collection of all the classics and the summer when I was eight and the summer when I was nine, my assignment for the summer from my father was to read all of the classics.

So I read The Scarlet Letter and The Last of the Mohicans all through, The Deerslayer, all of the American classics. I didn’t really love that.  But my mother would read us poetry and she would read us the poems of A.A. Milne who wrote Winnie the Pooh. And Robert Louis Stevenson and Edward Lear, The Owl and the Pussycat. And that I think was more instrumental in my loving to read because I learned to love the sound of the words.

And then I discovered real children’s books, I read series fiction like Nancy Drew and The Bobbsey Twins. You know, commercial fiction. And all I ever wanted, when I was growing up in the library there was a young adult section, which was very new then, young adult wasn’t a real genre it was just being born. And those books had a red stripe on them and they were in a separate section of the library.

And I can remember being ten years old and looking over at that section and thinking one day, one fine day I’m going to be able to go into the red stripe section. The books were very mild, they were like Beverly Cleary’s Fifteen, but to me it represented being a teenager. So I moved, I moved from children’s books to young adult books very early, when I was maybe eleven or twelve.

And then I started reading adult fiction, mostly humor, popular fiction. James Michener, Exodus was my favorite book, Marjorie Morningstar.  So I’ve always been a reader. You know I’m here for the, the National Book Festival and they say that Thomas Jefferson said I can’t live without books and I think that’s really, I read everything, I read the toothpaste box you know. I love to read.

And I love to read up and down, I don’t necessarily just read high literature. I love to read magazines, I love magazines. And so reading is just a primary, it’s not even like it’s a hobby or a pleasure it’s just, it’s part of not only every day, part of every hour.

Dinner table conversations

Endlessly, my father talked to me endlessly about the classics. And he was, you know, he would feed me things and at the time I resented it terribly but for instance he gave me a biography of Oliver Wendell Holmes who was a Supreme Court justice and the one who wrote the famous decision you can’t yell fire in a crowded place. My father was an attorney and he loved constitutional law, so he had both my sister and me read it and then we would discuss it at the dinner table.

And we wanted to talk about clothes or TV and here he would conduct these kind of erudite conversations. But it was, looking back on it now, it was a wonderful thing. And I’ve done it with my own children, you know I would start dinner by reading a poem. Everybody was, I have three boys, they’d moaned and groaned and said you know, we want to talk about our hard drive and I was you know making them discuss a poem.

I think it’s, you know reading is a great way to begin conversation. You don’t’ have to end the conversation by what you’ve read but it starts, it brings your ideas into a different plane, you’re not just talking about what you did that day or what happened that day but it elevates it to, to an idea. Which makes a much more interesting conversation.

Reading to babies

Yeah, I have three sons and the oldest has children and he, he started reading to his daughter when she was four weeks old. And it’s interesting, the American Pediatricians Association has just published a study that is talking, that it’s a neuroscience study and it’s talking about reading to infants and it says that just the sound of the words increases the plasticity of your brain, increases your actual ability to learn and understand and communicate.

So those of us who are involved in children’s books have known that intuitively but it’s great now that there’s scientific evidence that reading from the earliest possible age, from infancy or being read to raises your intelligence, actually your intelligence, not just your appreciation of literature.  But makes your, the matter in your brain function more efficiently, able to absorb more information and be plastic, be flexible.

The joy of reading and learning

I feel another great thing that happens with children’s books is you actually get information. And little kids, tiny kids want information. They don’t just want to know about a fire truck, they want to know about all the different kinds of fire trucks and what their names are.  And so teaches you, it teaches you that language is really the clothing for ideas and for specifics. It’s not just a way, a word we throw out.

It’s the, it’s the right word that, that enables you to communicate exactly what you mean. So I think somewhere along the line, we as a society got the idea that reading was hard, and that reading was unpleasant and that reading was a task and that we had to teach children to read because it was important to read.  But if we can somehow rethink that, I think that children are eager to read.

And how it became, maybe it’s because of our evaluation system of how we measure reading skills but if we can kind of rethink that and understand that the pleasure of hearing a story or laughing along with a story or having a human body next to you when you’re reading or of getting information, which children are so curious about. We say oh children are always ask why, well there’s the answer right there in a book.  So there’s no reason for it to be something that’s to be avoided or, or regarded as a chore.

In order to enjoy reading, you have to get fluent at it first. So that, that and for some kids, I write about dyslexic kids, so for some kids that’s tricky.  But the ability to gather and absorb information and to enjoy the information and to reprocess it in your own life, I think that’s common to all people.  So you, even if you’re not a great physical reader, if there are things in your chemistry or in your brain that inhibit you from reading fluently then you can take in that same information other ways.

The point is not to limit your ideas or your creativity or your ability to process information by how you take it in. And not to have it be stigmatized.  Because every, every human being is fascinated by something we just have to, the trick of education is to find out what that is and let them go for it.

Flooded with media

Well, I have a lot of feelings about visual media, about the surplus of media in our society.  I love television and I love film and I love telling pictures with stories, I also love picture books, it’s the same thing.  I think that, that we’re all stimulated by the visual part of storytelling.  And for some people that’s the primary way that they’re reached rather than the verbal, so I’m all for it.

It, what I have some concerns about is how we’re flooded with media and how, and what the gatekeeper is for that. You know, kids, if you look at the studies now the most common activity of kids between the age of two and six, the most common recreational activity is not watching television, it’s watching YouTube videos. So that’s an interesting thing because YouTube videos are kind of unfiltered.

And I’m not talking about inappropriate content, I’m just talking about lousy content, you know amateur content, you know not good storytelling, not you know reality television that’s kind of mindless. So I think, I’m absolutely not opposed to having media in kid’s lives because that’s in my life and it’s an entirely pleasurable part of it. But I do think that we’re kind of over flooding ourselves with media that isn’t particularly curated.

You know that’s just out there. And I think that that’s a problem because you get used to filling your mind, you know your mind can only absorb so much and if it’s filled with material that’s kind of without purpose or without elevation or you know without something that has some kind of purpose or nobility then really it’s just a waste of time.  So I’m more concerned about it as a time waster taking time away from doing other activities that are creative.

But if you’re watching interesting television, educational television, and stimulating television or great film, that’s as much an art form as a book is.

Parents and screen time

You know I think, I think as a parent you have to be present in your kid’s lives in terms of media. So I think what’s a problem is when your kid goes in their room and closes the door and disappears for two hours, you’re not really monitoring how they’re, what ideas are passing through their head and how they’re processing that. So it’s not, for me it’s not so much the time but what’s on the screen.

And I’m not talking about predator behavior, I’m just talking about mindless behavior. And also about peer pressure which I think is really a problem, I think cyber bullying is a tragic thing that’s happened as a result of social media that none of us anticipated. So I think as a parent you have to really be interactive, not so much perspective, not you can only have an hour of screen time a day.

I think that’s the go to behavior for parents you know, you just limit the time. But it’s more what are you doing on the screen, what are you watching, is there some quality to it? Is it kind, does it have a kindness in nature because I think there’s a lot of…particularly when kids get to middle school and high school I think there’s a lot of screen time that’s used for not very humane pursuits you know.

So I think that, that being present and being a collaborator in their use of social media is more important than limiting, than putting a physical limit on what they’re doing.

A really tough time to be a parent because what that requires, what it requires is of a parent is to also keep abreast so if you learn about Snapchat two years after, it doesn’t do you any good.  So, and of course all of us who are, who are not digital natives it’s a scramble to keep up you know. Each new skill that you have to learn with your smartphone or with your computer is exhausting.

So, but you do, I think it’s imperative to keep up with the content and with the trends in what kids are, and how they’re using media. 

Curiosity about the world

When I was growing up, I had a wonderful mother, she was really smart and funny and feisty and I would always say and this, and in the summer we didn’t do anything there was no, we didn’t particularly go to camp, we just, it was a long hot summer there in Burbank. And every day around one o’clock I would announce that I was bored and she only had one answer, well she had two. One was read a book, but her main answer was open up the front door.

And that was such a great thing I said it to my kids. Step outside, there’s, you know you’ll find, it’s out there, things are out there, you can collect leaves or take a magnifying glass and look at a doodle bug or invent a game or just open up the front door, it’s, you know staying inside and announcing that you’re bored is, is boring. But if you step outside with an area, with any kind of curiosity, you’ll find that things capture your interest.

So I think that’s a great thing.  The tendency today is I’m bored, I’m going to pick up a device. And those can, those are, that’s a kind of addiction I think.  It’s your first reaction.  And there are times when it’s great to pick up a device you know but I think it’s, I think in the end it leaves you, it leaves you empty or dejected or under stimulated or unsatisfied or sad.

It never, you know the first half hour is fun and then after that you just, you kind of feel lost I think.  Because it’s so much more fun to interact with a human being or to interact with the world.  It’s actually physically more fun, it doesn’t make your eyes hurt, it doesn’t dry your mouth, it’s, there are reasons that it’s fun to be outside. There are reasons that it’s fun to play a game with other people.

And so as long as we have a mix of that I think we’re okay, it’s when it becomes all screen related, all device related that I think it’s, it only uses a very small part of our human being-ness, humanity I guess would be a better word.

Being present

Something I see all the time is young mothers nursing their children, so they’re holding their child’s face like this and their cell phone is here. So they’re on the, you know multitasking is an evil word I think because it implies that there’s something good about multitasking when it fact to me it’s a very definition of lack of pleasure. Things that give you pleasure are things that allow you to single mindedly focus on something.

Writers talk about when you’re writing you’re in the flow which means that the world around you evaporates and it’s just and your characters and that’s, that’s when writing is pleasurable. Or when you’re having a great meal and you’re not thinking about other things, you’re thinking I can’t believe how this melted cheese sandwich tastes, it’s the most delicious thing. So pleasure for me is defined by single mindedness and multitasking is by definition annoying to me.

So if you’re, the pleasure of nursing a baby, you know babies vision is constructed so that it’s 18 inches you know for the first four months they see best at 18 inches. That’s because that’s the difference between their face and their mother’s eyes.  So if they’re looking in their mother’s eyes and she’s looking over there at the screen, you kind of wonder you know.  I think they’ll probably grow up fine but maybe the mother isn’t so fine.

You know it’s, the pleasure of doing anything and focusing on the thing that you’re doing, being in the moment, is what makes it worthwhile. So I think the problem, one of the problems with having a ubiquitous device in your hand is you’re always multitasking. You’re never, if you take the train, nobody is looking out the window, they’re on, they’re on devices. Meanwhile the world, there’s a pretty interesting thing going on around you. 

Nobody is present when you go visit any site in the world, everybody’s taking pictures of it and you wonder have you stopped to look at it or just feel it for a moment? So somehow in society we’re going to have to find a balance between being here and now and present and experiencing pleasure and being productive, we’re all under the gun to be so productive, we have to be answering our emails at 11 o’clock at night when maybe you’d want to sit outside and look at the stars or go to sleep.

Looking at life through humor

Humor is an interesting topic because so many, I work with a lot of new writers through my work in the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.  And everybody wants to write humor because there are things we know about kids, one is they like to be scared and two is they like to laugh. So if you can write funny, you have a very good, you have a much better chance at being published. And I actually have always had the opposite impulse, I always wanted to write tragic, deep, psychological stories and everything comes out funny.

So it’s, I think there’s, there is a way that you approach the world and the way that I learned to approach it was with humor. I had an older sister who was a very stern older sister and bossy, you know the real big bossy older sister. And I think the way that I learned to navigate was I could be the funny one, you know she could be the commanding one and I could have a wisecrack, I was like the sidekick so I think I kind of learned that early on.

Plus things strike me funny, you know writing humor isn’t just about creating something funny, it’s about appreciating what’s funny. So I see things all day long that I think are hilarious, that really make me laugh, so I try to incorporate that. So, so when I was in college and wanting to be a writer, I had the image that I was going to be a deep, dark, depressed, struggling writer who wore all black and no makeup and starving in France.

And instead I won a comedy writing prize, and worked on television shows writing comedy. So I think it’s kind of, part of it is in your nature and I’ve come to, I’ve come to embrace it now. But I think I write a very particular kind of humor because I think one thing that makes you an effective comedy writer is to know what makes you laugh and write that and not try and write what makes other people laugh.

So here’s an example.  I don’t particularly like physical humor, you know, I’m the only person in the world that I’m going to say this on camera, who does not like Charlie Chaplin, doesn’t, I find it annoying, you know I don’t think it’s funny to watch him eat shoe leather it does, I mean, good for him, but it doesn’t make me laugh. But I love Jerry Seinfeld because I like observational humor, I like humor that comes out of a real thing.

I love character humor, I love Monty Python because it’s character humor. So I don’t really write, and also I don’t like jokes, in fact I’m allergic to jokes, when someone says oh have you heard a new joke and they tell it I get squirmy because I’m always afraid I’m going to miss the punchline. I don’t like it when people do dialects around me and it makes me feel like I’m on trial, like is my sense of humor going to live up to this joke that they’re telling.

And it also is manipulative, it’s demanding, it’s like saying I’m going to tell you something and you’re going to laugh. So I don’t, I don’t write jokes. And I don’t write physical humor particularly, what I write is characters who are flawed and say funny things out of embarrassment or out of discomfort or awkwardness, because that’s what makes me laugh.

So the kind of humor that I write, for instance in the Hank books, Hank is a very funny kid but his humor comes out of a feeling of inadequacy because he’s bad in school. And every child who’s bad in school knows that that feels terrible, even if you say you don’t care, it feels terrible to be bad at the thing that you have to go to every day. So his humor is, is a defense against that.

So what I hope is that when I write something funny it also has a little tear in it, it also, it’s funny because everyone can empathize, everyone can say oh, I know what that feels like and so now it helps you laugh at yourself rather than feel bad about yourself.  So, the kind of humor I write is what makes me laugh, and I think the kind of humor each person should write is what makes them laugh.

The best thing in the world is to laugh out loud when you’re writing, you make yourself laugh. And that’s one reason why it’s great to have a collaborator too, when Henry Winkler and I write together we laugh all day long.

Because, and if we don’t laugh, it doesn’t go in the book.  So that’s, I think that’s, there’s no trick to writing humor except that one, that’s the only one I know which is write what’s funny to you. Not what you think is going to be funny to other people because everybody laughs at different things.

I think the primary skill of writing for children is to really be around kids, or be around yourself as a kid and know what you feel.  Not write to what you think is going to be entertaining for kids because every, every child, every person is different, every child is different. And there is no one thing that’s going to be funny to all kids.

Because there’s a notion that children require something different, they’re mysterious beings who have to be amused in a certain way or spoken to in a certain way.  And I’ve never found that to be true. 

Empathy

I love talking about themes in my book because, because they’re funny books they’re not necessarily apparent on the surface. But they’re apparent to me and I hope so.  So I have several things, the first thing that is always in everything that I’ve written, in the Hank books, in the poetry books, in the comedic books that I’ve written on my own, is empathy. Because to me it’s the most important thing.

So if you’re a bully in one of my books nothing good is going to come to you. If you, if you feel empathy for other people, everything good is going to come to you.  So empathy is different than compassion, empathy means that you put yourself in another person’s shoes, that you put yourself in the position of another person and you feel what they’re feeling. So almost every story that I write, at the bottom of it is about empathy, is about somebody who is not really understood what it’s like to be another person.

So that’s a huge theme. 

Resistance to authority

The second thing that I write about, which I didn’t know about until I created a body of work, I’ve now written 35 novels, so I didn’t realize this until about novel 28 which is I like to write about resistance to authority and I think that comes from when I was little and I was a storyteller I got in trouble with my parents all the time, I was the kid that always in trouble because I was making up stories or I was late, I wasn’t telling the truth, I got too curious and I explored something that I shouldn’t have, you know.

And then I would try and cover it up.  So, and my parents were very strict, they had a lot of rules.  So I had to knuckle under to authority.  But because I was a rebellious kind of creative kid, I never really did it, I looked like I was knuckling under but then I would sneak out and do something else.  So that kind of resistance to authority is, is in everything I write.

I did a four book series called Who Shrunk Daniel Funk which is a very funny series.  And it’s about a boy who develops the ability to shrink down to the size of his, the fourth toe on his left foot.  Well I think the reason I wrote that is because I remember growing up wanting to be invisible.  Wanting to be little so that I could do what I wanted.  All I wanted was to do what I wanted, to not have to finish the mashed potatoes at dinner if I didn’t want to.

Or to be able, I was not allowed to take the bus downtown in Los Angeles because that was deemed dangerous.  I just wanted to take the bus, I didn’t want to do anything bad.  So the idea of being invisible where you could go about your own, pursue your own desires, without a grownup saying mm, that’s inappropriate, no you can’t do that, no that’s not safe, was been so strong in me and I always found ways to get around it.

And I think writing is one way that I express that, it’s not to do unsafe things but just to be able to do what you want.  You know my motto if I had a motto that was inscribed it would be you can’t make me.  That’s you know, I remember saying that growing up, you can’t make me do that.  I’ll do it but you can’t make me like it.  So that’s kind of what I write about is a child who has, who knows so much what they want and who just wants to navigate the world on their own.

And succeeds in doing that, not in an unsafe way but in a way of sort of making the adults in their life understand that they have to do it their way.

Navigating your own path

And that’s the final theme, that each of us has, each of us is unique and has our own path and that there are a lot of ways to get where you’re going, not just one way.  And so what I hope in my books is that children will read them and understand that part of their job is to let the adult world know that they’re going about their lives.

But they’re doing it in their own way and that the purpose of the adults in your life is to help you navigate that, not to make you get on their road but for them to see what your road is and to help clear the way.  So that’s a really important theme and certainly in the Hank Zipzer books, that’s the predominant theme of a kid who is dyslexic who is not successful in school but is smart and resourceful and resilient and knows what he wants to do.

He just has to clear the adults out of the way and let them, so that they can see him, so that he can be successful in his own path.  And in fact, with writing with Henry Winkler, that’s what he had to do.  He was, he was dyslexic and he didn’t know it so he was a bad student.  But he’s real smart, and real talented, and real charming and real resilient and committed to what he wanted to do so he found a way to do it but had resistance at every single step.

That’s why I wanted to write these books with him, because that journey really resonates with me, that our job as parents and our job as teachers and as adults in the world of children is to help, is to see, to truly see who that child is and then to help make their way easier, not to put up roadblocks.

And that way may not look like everyone else’s way but everybody has, everybody has a dream and everybody has a talent and everybody has a purpose and so what we’re here in the world to try and do is to clear the way so people can reach, can fulfill their purpose without having to look like everybody else around them. 

Parenting and infinite weirdness

Well, you know it took me, this is off topic too but it took me a long time to discover that with my own children because when our first son, the reason that I agreed to write these books with Henry Winkler was when he told me, we were introduced by a friend who’s an agent, someone we both knew from working in television.  And he was the one who suggested that Henry write about his experience growing up dyslexic.

And so when we met to talk about it and he told me his story of how he had been kind of thwarted all through school, I resonated with that because our oldest son, isn’t dyslexic, he doesn’t have a learning challenge, but he’s probably ADD, I’m not sure we ever even had him diagnosed but he was just a kid who wanted to do what he wanted to do, he was kind of a dreamy kid and he was all, you know the teachers were always calling you know.

Theo is making frog noises in class, and I would say well he’s three, you know, he likes frogs, I don’t know what to tell you.  So, but I as a new parent would punish him, I would say well you can’t play Nintendo because you made frog noises in class, so it took me a long time to understand that he was different than me, that he wasn’t going to, that his student path wasn’t going to look like mind.

I did everything right, you know.  And so I think as a parent it takes, it’s not something that you can, someone can tell you.  You know you have, you have to learn by failure, I failed with him, the poor child had, had, I kept buying him calendars, you know day at a glance calendars to write down his homework assignments.  And when he was maybe 15, after I had been doing this for twelve years, I looked in the drawer of his desk and there they all were, not one of them was even unwrapped you know.

And there were probably 50 of them, it was such a sad, such a sad thing to see but this was my attempt to say get organized, you know.  But he couldn’t, he couldn’t get, it was the most ridiculous assumption that that was going to help him because that’s exactly what he couldn’t do.  Believe me if he could have filled out those calendars he would have just to get me off his back.  So it’s something you have to learn about in parenting or in teaching.

That, you haven’t created a second self that here’s this person and they have their own way, they have their own needs.  And it is not your job to make them like you.  That’s a mantra that you have to say over and over again, this is not my job description to make them like me, this is for me to see them.  And it’s, I don’t, you know it took me, I made a lot of mistakes in raising my own kids until I sort of got that.  So, people are different, people are very unique you know.  And part of the thrill of being a writer is that you get to explore that uniqueness and not try and make everyone, not try and even it out, but to celebrate differences in character, that’s what character is.

That’s what writing an original character is writing one that you haven’t seen before that isn’t a type, that isn’t an archetype but that’s a real honest to goodness authentic human being.  And we’re weird as human beings, we have infinite weirdness.

Almost Identical

Yeah.  So Almost Identical is a series of four books that are about tween girls.  Sammy and Charlie Diamond and they’re twins, they’re identical twins.  But what they come to understand in the course of the books is even though they may look alike on the outside, everybody is unique on the inside, even identical twins.  And the idea of at first, it actually came from reality.

My oldest son went to school starting in preschool with a set of identical twins and they scared him because they were so identical he would, in fact he used to call them the devil girls because he would look at one and talk to her and then he’d turn around and there the other one would be right there and he thought she was just over there, how did that happen?  Because they were that identical.  So as I watched these girls grow up, they differentiated themselves.

So it was very interesting to me to see how these two people with the same genetic makeup differentiated themselves, developed their own identities and so that was really the inspiration for that because I think what, what kids at that age are dealing with is identity so this, that series finds the girls as they’re going into seventh grade and as they’re starting a new school.

So this is their moment to do that and following in the footsteps of these real twins I know, one girl wants to identify with the kind of it crowd and the other wants to identify with a group that they call the truth tellers.  They’re sort of a drama group and they’re improvisational and they express their true feelings and they of course as sisters bump into each other because the kids who are sort of the athletic jockey, you know, boy interested girls make fun of the kids who are more alternative and the other way around.

So it’s a way of exploring different – assuming different identities, experimenting with different identities and in the end they’re sisters and they love each other.  So in the end, it was a good metaphor for people coming to understand that you can choose a different path and still love each other and not have to be critical of each other.

So – and I think that’s a really important thing for middle schoolers because once you start down the road, you have a clique of friends or a certain group of friends and you start to develop an identity that’s a pure identity, right, you’re part of this crowd or that crowd.  And that’s fine, but first of all, you can be fluid.  You can go from one to the other.

No person is just one thing and you don’t have to be critical of the other.  Everyone is struggling.  When you’re 11 and 12 and 13, everybody is struggling with identity.  Nobody has it easy.  We’re all searching to answer that question, who am I and where do I feel comfortable and what’s easy for me, where’s the best fit, and so those are the years that you experiment with that and those are the years where it’s most important to be non—bullying, non-judgmental and let people discover what path is best for them and let them change the path if they need to because you’re trying —

You know, it’s like you’re trying on different masks and you’re seeing where you fit in.  So that’s what inspired that, and my experience in – I speak to schools a lot about that series and the kids really relate to those issues and they all recognize the social groups that, you know, that have formed and they all struggle with the notion of who am I and where do I fit in.

I think it’s universal at that age.

Here’s Hank

Well, the initial books that I wrote with Henry were Hank Zipzer: World’s Best Underachiever and those were inspired by his experiences or his primary experience in school of being very successful in so many areas of his life but not successful in school and they were funny.  They were funny stories.  This isn’t a woe-is-me tragic story.

This is a great kid, a popular kid who has everything but good grades.  And as those – we completed 18 of them and they sold almost 4 million copies, you know, they were really successful and we got so many letters from parents of younger kids who said is there anything like this for my kid who’s in the first grade or second grade because kids start to feel right away whether or not they’re diagnosed with a specific learning challenge it starts to make itself clear early on in kindergarten, first grade if they’re going to be the academically successful kids or not.

So we developed the series Here’s Hank.  Here’s one of them.  This is our newest one.  It’s called There’s a Zombie in my Bathtub.  And it finds Hank Zipzer when he’s in the second grade before he’s been diagnosed with any specific learning challenge but when he’s still suffering the effects of it so he’s kind of just goofy in school.

Reading is hard for him, spelling is hard for him, math is hard for him, handwriting is hard for him, recess is easy for him, social interactions are easy for him because he’s a great kid so we developed age appropriate stories for kids at the first and second grade about Hank before he’s diagnosed with a learning challenge but when school is still presenting challenges for him.

Readable book design

And so these books, one thing that’s great about them is they’re illustrated so that makes it more – full page illustrations so that makes it more appropriate for younger kids to read and what’s really significant is that they’re printed – I’m going to show you a page here – in a special type.  I don’t know if you can see that.

And the type is called dyslexie.  And it’s a type font that was created by a typesetter in the Netherlands who has dyslexic kids and so the type font is specifically for kids who have reading challenges.  So if you notice, the ascending strokes in the letters go up higher and the descending strokes like Gs and Ys go down lower.

And there’s more leading in between the letters so that they don’t run together and so it makes it easy on the eyes because part of a learning challenge is just the physical part of actually looking at the page and decoding the words.  And what we found in these books is it certainly makes it easier for kids with specific reading or processing issues but it makes it easier for all kids.

It’s a really pleasant page to look at. 

One of the things you want is for reading to be a pleasure, so we try and make it a pleasure in creating funny stories, in creating lovable characters and then this completes the goal by having it physically pleasurable to read, to hold in your hands and to read so that you don’t – once I was talking to a school and one of the boys said he hated to read.

And I said why do you hate to read and he said it gives me a headache and I thought well it probably does.  He’s probably, you know, maybe he needed glasses or maybe just the squinting and the tracking was hard for him, so these books are created for – to be easy on the eyes, easy to process it.   

This one – the Hank Zipzer books, Here’s Hank were the first to use the dyslexie font in America.  It’s one of those things like how can this be, why wouldn’t we have thought of that before, but it hadn’t been done, so we’re thrilled.  It’s expensive.  You know, thanks to our publisher who had to pay – this isn’t a typical font so they have to invest in this, but it’s – so we’re very grateful and it’s so worth it from the feedback we hear that kids don’t even know why they like reading.

They just feel good when they’re reading.

Why kids love Hank Zipzer

Well, the feedback we get on the Hank Zipzer books, we get two primary responses.  We get hundreds of letters a month, hundreds of letters because – we get letters from parents who say things like I was walking down the hall on the way to my bedroom and I heard my child laughing and I opened up the door and they were reading a book.  I mean their parents are just, you know, so many parents say this is the first book my child has ever read.

For a lot of kids who have had reading issues, the Hank books introduce them to reading and there are 18 of them.  It’s a real series so we’re the gateway to reading.  So that’s the reaction we hear a lot from parents but from the kids we hear two things over and over and over.  One is how do you know me so well and that – that’s a thrill and I attribute so much of that to Henry Winkler because he had never written books before so when we came together as a writing partnership I came from the writing part of it and he came from not only acting but from the person who had dyslexia.

And he has been so insistent that we be true to those emotions and kids respond – they say it’s like you were inside of me, how did you know me and he says I know because that’s what I felt.  I know what it feels like to be the one who stands up at the spelling bee and know your words and then forget them the minute you stand up there and I know the humiliation of that.

I know what it’s like when your parents say you’re just lazy and you know that you’ve been working as hard as you can and you’re not lazy, you just can’t do it.  So how do you know me so well is the thing that we hear over and over and that’s really attributable to his unsparing honesty in remembering what the process is like.  And the other thing we hear is about the humor.

Kids say I laughed so hard my funny bone fell out of my elbow, you know?  Because it’s a – they’re funny and they’re very funny and they’re intentionally very funny because we want the sound of laughter because that’s how – first of all, that’s how you understand yourself and that’s how it makes reading a pleasure and if you’re going to go on to read other things, you start with looking at reading as an entertainment.

So what we hear is how did you know me and that this is unbelievably funny, hysterical.  Kids all say this is hysterical, your books are hysterical.  And then there are a lot of kids who write and say I’m not – I don’t have learning challenges but my brother does or my next door neighbor does or my best friend does and that’s really touching too because the statistics are that one in five kids in America has some kind of learning issue, one in five.

That means if it’s not you, it’s the person two doors down from you, so one of the things we’re trying to encourage is for people to understand that this is – that everybody learns differently and this doesn’t affect your future.  This doesn’t limit your future.  It just means that you have to be taught differently and you have to figure out ways to learn that —stimulate yourself and you have to figure out what you’re good at.

What are you good at?

When we go out to schools, we always ask the kids what are you good at and a lot of times we’re speaking at schools where there’s a high percentage of kids with learning differences and they all say well I stink at school, I’m a bad student, I’m terrible at school.  We say okay, yeah, we get that but what are you good at? 

And it’s amazing what they say.  One kid said well I’m a really good friend.  I said yeah, how about that?  Well I’m good at basketball, I’m good at drawing, you know, I’m good at talking to grown—ups, you know?  So you start to see the array of things that people are good at and to try and help them think of ways that that is their gift.  You know, everyone has destiny and your destiny will work out best if you use the gifts that you have and not focus on the gifts that you don’t have, you know?

There’s a very famous educational psychologist who wrote if your child has a reading disability, don’t get them a reading tutor, get them an art teacher.   So you go to your – you go to your strengths and you figure out what’s unique about you.  Whether or not you have a learning challenge, this is what we all do in life, right?  You say well, you know, I know my parents want me to be a physicist but I really want to make clothes.

And we all struggle with that, you know?  My parents did not want me to be a writer.  They wanted me to be a nurse because a nurse was a good profession for a young girl.  They thought that was secure.  And a writer, a writer lives in a garret and, you know, will starve and then when I refused to be a nurse they said all right, well then you have to be a teacher and I said all right, well I can live with that and I did.

I went to graduate school.  I got a teaching credential and I was a very bad teacher because I didn’t – it just wasn’t natural for me and so I tried it and in the end it was me having to rebel against my parent’s themes to say no, no, that isn’t – I’m never going to be really good at that, you know?  I so admire excellent teachers, but I wasn’t going to be one because I just didn’t have the gift for it.

So the trick is to find a supportive community, your family, adults, friends, teachers, counselors, gatekeepers of all kind who will help you see yourself for what you are and to run after that with all your heart and soul and passion and not try and fit into a mold that wasn’t designed for you.

The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators

I’ll tell you about the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators in a very shortened version and I’ll give you the kind of sanitized, cleaned up version.  You know, when I – after I graduated college, I came down to Los Angeles to be a writer and so the first job I got was as a comedy writer on a television show and I really didn’t like it. 

It just felt like it wasn’t for me.  It was a bunch of guys eating Chinese food late into the night and shooting baskets.  It wasn’t for me.  So I quit and I went to the unemployment office because I didn’t have a job.  I was an English major, you know?  And so if you believe in destiny at all, you would have to — this would be the final convincing argument.  I looked on the bullet board of jobs listed and there was one that said children’s book writer wanted.

And I thought well that doesn’t happen, but it was.  It was a federally funded research and development lab that was creating a reading series for kids and they wanted – they had all kinds of educational psychologists who were doing the word text skills and the reading pedagogy but they needed two writers to write the stories.  So you had to audition, so I wrote a story and I was selected as one of two.

So when we got in – the other writer was a young man named Stephen Mooser so they put us in an office together and they said now what you’ll be writing is 110 short stories, controlled vocabulary all the way up through novels for fifth graders, a K—5 curriculum.  I said okay great.  They left the room and I turned to him and said I don’t know how to do this, so we said well no problem, we’ll go to a conference, we’ll take a class, we’ll study children —

At least we had the good sense to know that this was a special skill, children’s book writing.  You didn’t just – and there wasn’t anything so I was 21 and I said well let’s throw a conference so I wrote – I went to the library, worked with the children’s librarian and read all the great children’s books that were on the shelves and I picked my 10 favorites and I wrote those authors, Dr. Seuss, Sid Fleischman, Jane Yolen, you know, Judy Blume and said we’re throwing a conference and would you be available to come.

When I look at it now, it’s just a laughable thing, but, you know, out of those 10 letters, I got 10 responses.  Ten wrote back.  It starts to tell you something about the world of people who create children’s books.  This is an unusual world.  And eight out of the 10 said yes.  The only ones who said no were Dr. Seuss who wrote a rejection letter in rhyme which I still have and E.B. White who wrote Charlotte’s Web who was sick.

He died shortly thereafter and he said I think the old girl being Charlotte and I have to stay in the barn this summer.  Anyway, so we threw a conference and here came Sid Fleischman and Jane Yolen and Don Freeman and we had – there were 35 people.  We had no idea what we were doing but we fell in love.  The whole community fell in love and there was no such organization at the time.

So that’s how it began.  It’s now a lifetime later and there are over 25,000 members and basically everybody who writes and illustrates children’s books is a member and of the last 20 years I think we’ve sort of produced the next generation of children’s book authors and illustrators.  They’ve all come up through the organization.  It’s a non-profit and so it is a community.

We call it the tribe, you know, a really tight knit community of people who write and illustrate and publish for children.  It’s a very unique peer group.  Everyone is motivated by a longing to do good work, longing for the success of the next person, you know, a kind of altruism in terms of helping kids, helping schools, loving librarians. You know, this is a very unique community.

So the organization has thrived really kind of in spite of us, you know, it grew up, you know, it was kind of a crazy idea that was never intended to be this but because the community is such a heartfelt community and so bound by love that this organization has grown and flourished and I’m sure will continue to way beyond me.

The Golden Kite Awards

So the Golden Kite is the award – there are four Golden Kites, four honor books and one award that’s named after Sid Fleischman which is given at the same time for humor and as far as I know, it’s the only award of its kind for excellence in children’s literature that’s judged by a jury of your peers.  So it’s a slightly different criteria.          

You know, the Newbery and the Caldecott and the Sibert, all of those are judged primarily by librarians.  Librarians are amazing.  They are the gatekeepers to our literary culture for kids so their choices are unbelievable.  When you’re judged by a jury of your peers, I think this criteria are slightly different.

I think the librarians have a responsibility to look at that. This is more on the guts of the writing and on the originality of the idea so that we’re all aware of the history of children’s books so these can be either form busting or fresh.  The book that won the Golden Kite for fiction this year by Deborah Wiles is called Revolution and it’s a new form.  She calls it a documentary novel.

So it’s about Freedom Summer, the summer of 1964 but it uses not only narrative but it uses menus from the time and letters and slogans and photographs so I think that it got a lot of respect not only for the character of its writing and the content and the ideas but also because it’s someone clearly experimenting with a new form, with trying to kind of bust the fourth wall of what is a traditional book.

So I think the criteria are slightly different and I think the emphasis is a little bit more on courage, guts, you know, breaking out of something that’s been done before because that’s what writers, you know, we’re all seeking originality.

The Sid Fleischman Award

And the Sid Fleischman Award was named after – he was the first speaker at the SCBWI.  So many years ago.

And it took him a long time to win a Newbery Award.  You know, he had a whole body of literature and that’s because we all felt that he wrote comedy.  He wrote – he was just a master of comic invention, historical novel comedies and so one year he was sort of bemoan — then he did finally win the Newbery for The Whipping Boy but we were talking about – we were bemoaning the fact that so many great novelists, Paula Danziger, for instance, Judy Blume have never won the Newbery and the Caldecott because they’re viewed as more serious.

So we decided to create in his honor, in his name the Sid Fleischman Award which is for a work of excellence but in the humor vain, in the category of humor and we’re so proud of that.  It’s been existing for 10 years and because the books, they’re not joke books, they’re not necessarily ha ha books but they’re books where comic invention is at the center of the plot line, the center of the characters.

And so I think that’s recognized a whole body of literature that is very easy for the Caldecott and Newbery committees to overlook and I think they do overlook them and those are the ones when you look at the Kid’s Choice Awards and the popularity awards, those are the ones, you know, those are the ones that come in first, so we feel really proud of being able to acknowledge that, you know, what is the old song that dying is easy but comedy is hard, you know?                                                        

That it’s just as difficult to write a humorous book as it is to write a tragic book or an issue book, so this allows a special category for those, a special place for them to be acknowledged in the pantheon of great books.

Diversity in children’s literature

All right, so the question of diversity in children’s books is a long overdue question and I’m so glad that we’re finally addressing the issue.  We’re making some progress in the field, not nearly enough and not nearly fast enough so, for instance, the SCBWI has several grants and awards that are given out for people who come from an underrepresented culture or religion.

We support the We Need Diverse Books movement and the organization itself. We Need Diverse Books has created internships for people working in publishing, for diverse people to actually get jobs in publishing because one of the ways it has to change is the power structure inside publishing has to be diverse which it essentially isn’t, so the SCBWI is offering memberships and free conferences and things to all of those people.

So we’re very much at the heart of that and so what we’re supporting is that diversity represents – comes from racial diversity, ethnic diversity, religious diversity, gender diversity and the idea is that every child in America, in the world really but America is our primary concern, needs to find himself or herself in the pages of a book.

You know, as they say, if you don’t see yourself in a book, you’ll go looking for yourself in all the wrong places.  So that will only happen if there’s a greater diversity of subject matter and a greater diversity in terms of the authors and illustrators who are creating the books.  So we’re all for it.  We’re doing everything that we can to support it, offering grants, offering scholarships, going to colleges and universities and trying to seek out people who will enter the field who represent a different point of view.

And now finally the industry has acknowledged that this has been an issue.  And the other thing that we’re trying to do that all of us should do is buy books that come out of a diverse experience because in the end, publishing is not a charity, it’s a marketplace, and so when you’re thinking of stocking your classroom with books or buying a birthday present for your child’s best friend, it’s important to look at the books that are around and not just pick a book that looks like your child but expose your children to all kinds of literature and all kinds of tales and all kinds of characters that represent the diverse world that we live in.

So you have to support it with your dollars as well as your heart.

Writing workshop: teaching the basics

So when I travel to schools I do a lot of writing instruction with kids and what I try and emphasize is this, is that – and I’m talking about fiction writing because I think there are very good ways to teach expository writing and argumentation but I’m talking about fiction writing.

And so what I try to teach are the basic essentials of story, that story starts with a character and we do some character development workshops where you actually try and develop an individual character and not just an archetype.  It’s not a fuzzy dog or a mean parent but we try and actually think about what that character is like because I think that’s the — for me, that’s the essence of writing is starting with a protagonist that we care about.

So once we develop a protagonist that we care about, then we think about what’s in the way.  The story will come from having some obstruction to what that person wants so we start by saying what is it your character wants more than anything in the world, more than anything in the world, so it’s not just I want to stay home from school that day because a lot of the problems that we all have with creating stories, they don’t really matter.

They’re just an adventure.  So if you say what does your character want more than anything in the world, my character more than anything in the world wants a dog because her other dog died and she wants to feel the love of a dog, that’s a real – even though it’s a story we’ve all read, it’s real and then you say what’s in the way?  What’s preventing her? 

Well her parents are moving and they can’t have a dog.  Her dad just lost his job and they had to move to an apartment and they don’t allow dogs so then now you have the traditional storytelling of problem resolution but it starts with character.  That’s my particular beat on it is you have to have a character that you love, that you care about and know what they’re longing for and what’s in their way and then that will result in your story, in your plot.

Because then you can get to not just what’s in the way but what – so what happens when they try?  Well, complications ensue and that becomes a plot.  A plot is what happens when you try to do something that you want to do and other things block you.  And then you come to a resolution and the resolution comes back to the original question – what does your character want more than anything in the world and what’s in their way?

Well, it doesn’t – they don’t have to get it but it has to resolve.  An ending is about a resolution so it can be happy or unhappy or satisfying.  It can never be unsatisfying.  You know, it has to – even if it’s unhappy, even if the character doesn’t get what they want, it has to satisfy your need to have read that story.  So that’s the basic plot structure that I teach.

Revise, revise, revise

And then we write and then we revise and what I find in working with young people is nobody wants to revise but I find that working with middle aged people to.  I don’t want to revise.  It’s annoying, you know?  So then we go into editing, that you have to actually have – and I’m kind of a stickler for this, that you actually have to have correct grammar and correct punctuation and it’s — 

I think for a first draft it’s great to sort of do best guess writing, you know?  But I think in the end, if you want to be writing, then you’re a professional and you have to adhere to the standards, so we go back and we edit both for content in terms of what’s clear and what isn’t clear, what makes sense and doesn’t make sense, what needs more development and what doesn’t.

And we edit for actual English language diction, for what makes sense.  And then they have to do it again and sometimes they even have to do it a third time to understand that writing gets better as you spend more time with it.  It doesn’t get worse.  It gets better.  And so teaching children the patience to sort of produce a first draft and get to the end and then once you’ve done that you kind of know what you have, that there’s a lot of joy in re—writing.

There’s a lot of pleasure in it.  It’s not just like oh, the teacher made me do that but that’s when you turn it into something that’s polished.  So part of the teaching is not just what makes sense as writing but what the standards are, what the professional standards are because when you turn in something, whether you’re turning it in to your teacher or to your school newspaper or to a contest or to your publisher, you’re saying this is my best work and that’s a hard thing for all of us to learn, especially for kids.

You can say well there I did it, you know?  When my sons were growing up, they always had to write a paragraph.  That was sort of the unit of commerce, write a paragraph about and every one of my sons and this I thought was maybe typical of them would say can one sentence be a paragraph.  I would say yeah, it can be, but is it your best work, you know, and they said well who cares, we just have to write a paragraph. 

So I think getting kids beyond that, beyond what the assignment is into being invested in it, that this is a little PCU that you’re putting out in the world and that you want it to represent the best of you is – I mean if you can teach that, then you’re really teaching writing.  It’s hard because kids don’t want to do it but I think that the pride that they feel from going over something once or twice or three times and then having something that can go up on the bulletin board like my poem did or can be sent home or can be put in a magazine that your class publishes, I think that those – the pride in that moment lasts forever.

I’m a living example of that.  You know, my poem in the first grade was put up on the bulletin board and here it is 50 years later and I’m still writing and loving it because I keep hoping it’ll get up on another bulletin board somewhere.

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