Famous author James Patterson was reluctant reader

December 6, 2013

James Patterson didn’t plan to become a famous children’s author. He wasn’t even a big reader when he was a kid, despite having a teacher for a mom and a grandmother who was a librarian.

“I didn’t read as much as I should have,” he admits. “I read what I had to.”

It wasn’t until college, when he could read what he wanted, that he grew to love books.

“I just couldn’t get enough. And it got me scribbling,” he says. “I really liked scribbling. I like telling stories.”

A glance at the “P” author shelf in any library proves it. Patterson has written more than 100 books, about a fourth of them for kids. His latest, “ I Even Funnier: A Middle School Story ,” comes out Monday.

Patterson’s interest in children’s books traces back to when his son, Jack, was 8. Like his dad, Jack was a good student but a so-so reader. That summer, Patterson and his wife made a deal with Jack: He could skip some chores if he agreed to read every day. “Aw, do I have to?” Patterson recalls Jack saying. Jack’s parents told him they would help find books he would really like. “By the end of the summer, Jack had read a dozen books, 10 of which he thought were terrific.”

Patterson loves telling this story when he appears at schools, as he did last month at Stuart-Hobson Middle School in Northeast Washington. Every student there had been given one of his books beforehand, so the auditorium was buzzing when he got up to speak.

The great thing about reading, Patterson tells kids, is it’s fun right from the start.

“A beginning guitarist? That’s painful,” he says. “But as a reader, you can get cool stuff right away” and learn about different people and places.

He also stresses why reading matters. If you don’t read well, he says, “you’re going to be lost in high school. And what are you going to do in life? Be a pro athlete? A rapper?”

While that might sound good to some kids, the chances of it happening are slim. So that makes reading — and doing well in school — a big deal. “Reading will give you a lot of choices,” Patterson says.

Stuart-Hobson kids speak up

“I like it when the author paints a picture,” says Ashley Harris, one of a trio of Stuart-Hobson students who spoke to
KidsPost for this story.

Ashley, 12, read more than 30 books last summer, many of them at the breakfast or dinner table. “My mom tells me to ‘Stop reading. I’m trying to talk to you,’” the seventh-grader says. “But that’s my time to read.”

Nicholas Taylor tells a similar story.

“My mom says, ‘You’re always on the phone.’ But I’m reading on the phone,” said Nicholas, 11. He likes action books about cars, sports, hunting and bicycling. A teenage relative suggests books he might like. “I’ll go to the bookstore. If the cover jumps out at me, I’ll skim through it,” Nicholas says.

Ashley scans covers, too. Mostly she likes “realistic fiction — something that could happen.” She doesn’t mind if a book is depressing, because then “I see that my life isn’t so bad, because look at what these kids [in the book] go through.”

Sixth-grader Allison Branham, who might want to be a writer or librarian one day, says she “hung on to every word” that Patterson said. The 11-year-old was even able to recite a saying included in one of his books: “When the world says ‘Give up,’ hope whispers, ‘Try it one more time.’ ”

“Sometimes I just give up,” says Allison, who has a condition called Asperger’s syndrome, which, in her words, “makes my brain think differently. I have my own world in my head. And all the books I read give me ideas on how to improve that world.”

Patterson’s talk “inspired me,” she says. “I like to imagine things.”

‘I can’t stop writing’

Who or what inspires James Patterson?

The author says he has “a very active imagination” and keeps a folder full of ideas. At any time, he has 45 to 55 projects going, including movie scripts.

“I study, study, study” before writing, he says. “Then I write seven days a week . . . for five, six or eight hours a day.”

To hold readers’ interest, “I pretend there’s a person sitting across from me, and I don’t want him to leave until I’m finished with the story,” Patterson says.

Because he’s not superhuman, many of his books have co-authors. “I’ll have an idea and will write an outline” of 60 to 80 pages, including ideas for drawings. The co-author writes the first draft, which Patterson checks often “to keep it on track.” Then he buffs up the final version.

His children’s books aren’t sugar-coated. There are kids with disabilities, kids without parents, kids being bullied.

“Yes, there is a dose of reality” in them, he says. “I think that’s good. These books are not softballs. Readers love them because they show kids taking responsibility for their own actions, for their own lives, at a young age.”

A children’s book takes six to eight months to complete; an adult book, about twice as long.

Patterson, who is 66, shows no signs of slowing down. “I am a crazy person, totally crazy,” he tells the 400 kids at Stuart-Hobson. “ I can’t stop writing, and I can’t stop reading.”

Get to know author James Patterson

James Patterson has sold more than 295 million books! That’s almost one for every person in the United States. Inspired by his son, Jack, now 15, Patterson has written 28 books for kids and teens. We asked the award-winning author about his life, including his childhood in Newburgh, New York.

What was your favorite subject in school? That always depended on the teacher. One year, it was reading. The next, social studies. But never, ever . . .

Your least favorite? . . . mathematics! Which was usually my best subject, but the least interesting. I guess even back then I preferred a good story — beginning, middle, end, action, humor. Math wasn’t challenging.

What was it like growing up with three younger sisters? Did they bug you a lot? Not just three sisters in our house, but my mother, my grandmother and two female cats. I still have that constant buzz and purr in my head. Can’t get it out.

Do you have any pets? One cat, an Abyssinian.

What’s your favorite thing to eat? Cat. [Editor’s note: He’s funny.]

You appeared with Miami Heat basketball star Dwyane Wade on a reading web­cast this year. What was that like? He’s a very, very nice man. And his kids are all big readers. What I noticed is that, when I come into a school, 20 or 25 percent of the kids will know me. But if I come in with him, 80 percent will be “Ooh, it’s Dwyane Wade!”

Do you have advice for kids who want to be authors? Read, read, read, read. Then read some more. Write stories until your hands bleed and you can no longer hold a pencil or tap the keys of your computer.

Patterson doesn’t just write books, he gives them away. He has given thousands of books to schools across the country, including 4,300 to Washington schools. Check out his Web site, ReadKiddoRead.com, for the titles of some books you won’t want to put down. (Always ask a parent before going online.)

— Marylou Tousignant

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