National Book Festival: Young Novels
Tuesday, September 19, 2006; 12:00 PM
Andrew Clements the author of several popular novels for middle graders, including "The Report Card," "The School Story," "The Landry News" and "The Janitor's Boy." His recent works include "Room One: A Mystery or Two," "A Million Dots," and the 10th anniversary edition of "Frindle."
Clements fielded comments and questions about his novels and participation in the National Book Festival.
The transcript follows.
Reston, Va.: What do you think is your best book? -- Andrea, 4th grade
Andrew Clements: Hi Andrea--
It's hard to pick a favorite. I can't read my books the way you do, because I already know what's going to happen next--and not knowing what's next is one of the best parts of reading.
Arlington, Va.: How do you remain in touch and connected to the mindset of youngsters? I myself can't remember what it was like to be 30 let alone 11. Thanks.
Andrew Clements: I think there is such a thing as thinking like a writer, and a big part of that is the ability to identify with others--which is part observation and part imagination. The years I've spent as a teacher and as a dad have certainly helped a lot.
Reston, Va.: Do you think you will always write? -- Alexis, 4th grade
Andrew Clements: Hi Alexis--
Writing is one of those careers with no specific retirement date. I guess I'll keep writing for a long time. The ideas keep coming, so I keep tapping on my keyboard.
Reston, Va.: When did you first know that you wanted to be a writer? -- Kati, 4th grade
Andrew Clements: Hi Kati--
I didn't think much about writing until I was in college, and even then I only wrote when I felt like it or when I had to for school. I explain a bit more about this on my website--andrewclements.com
Reston, Va.: Where did you get your idea to write Frindle? -- Chuck, 4th grade
Andrew Clements: Hi Chuck--
The short answer is that I was trying to explain where words come from to a group of first and second grade kids. The long answer is written out at a website called frindle.com.
Alexandria, Va.: My children have read and loved your books for years. I was unaware of the National Book Festival event until now. Will there be many readings for kids there? We'd love to come and get our books signed!
Andrew Clements: I'm a newcomer to the festival as well. There are many events, and I'm sure you can find a website that explains it all. I'll be speaking at 10 AM, and signing books from 11-12. Hope to see you there.
Reston, VA: Are you writing a new book? -- Michelle, 4th grade
Andrew Clements: Hi Michelle--
I've just finished a book that will be published next year. It's called No Talking. The newest published book came out in June 2006 and it's called Room One.
Reston, Va.: What inspired you to become a writer? -- Kelcie, 4th grade
Andrew Clements: Hi Kelcie--
I think it was reading so many good books that got me interested in words and language and storytelling. The best advice I could give to a young writer is to read as many good books as you can, especially now when you have the time--which means you have to choose more page time and less screen-time.
Alexandria, Va.: Hi Andrew,
Have you found that the interests of children and teens have changed when it comes to what they want to read about or are some of the same themes relevant no matter the decade?
Andrew Clements: I've only been writing for 2 decades, so my personal historical sweep is pretty limited. But I think it's true that the same things that worry kids now worried them fifty years ago, even though the pace of life and the technological surroundings have changed. Everyone wants to be loved and respected. Everyone wants to be safe. Everyone wants to make individual progress. As far as I can tell, the basics never change.
Fairfax County Public Library: What do you think of the graphic novel phenomenon? Are such books attracting young adult readers away from the type of novels you write?
- Fairfax County Public Library
Andrew Clements: I'm mixed about graphic novels. On the one hand, great art and great words do complement each other, and I certainly love the illustrations in many of my books. But to see another's vision of the pictures suggested by the words instead of being able to create your own as you read--I'd miss that, and I think most kids would as well. Hopefully, there's room on the bookshelf for everyone's work. There are two great books by Scott McCloud--Understanding Comics and Reinventing Comics--which changed the way I look at graphic novels and comic books.
Annapolis, Md.: Hello Andrew! My son and I love "Frindle." Could you tell me where the story idea of Frindle came from?
Andrew Clements: I'm so glad you've enjoyed the book. There's a website called frindle.com that has a full explanation of how the idea developed. I love that it grew from a simple question that a student asked me, which was, "Where do all the words in the dictionary come from?"
Washington, D.C.: My daughter loves your books! She just finished reading "The Report Card," in which a profoundly gifted girl hides her smarts to avoid being treated by friends, teachers and family as "different." I appreciated your writing a book that discusses this issue, but the book's conclusion seems to affirm the idea that smart kids are happier when they can pretend to be average. Was that your experience as a teacher? What advice would you give to a kid like Nora, the book's main character?
Andrew Clements: Nora knows she isn't average, and during the course of the book she stops pretending that she is. She figures out that she wants to be herself, but she does not want to be defined merely as "gifted" or a genius. All labels are limiting--genius, average, handicapped and so on.
Identity includes a broad sweep of qualities. I think what the librarian says to Nora is pretty good advice--all you ever have to do is the next good thing. Between that and "Be yourself--your truest self", a person can live a good life.
Fairfax, Va.: Mr. Clements: Thank you for all the wonderful and inspiring books you've written for children. Who are some of the writers who influenced and inspired you? -- Eloise
Andrew Clements: Hi Eloise--
No writer is self-created. I owe so many for inspiring me and helping me to love words and language. Margaret Wise Brown, E.B. White, A.A. Milne, Jack London, Mark Twain, and later Shakespeare and Keats and Yeats and the words of the Bible--It's a long, long list.
Washington, D.C.: Dear Mr. Clements, I wonder if you might comment on a phenomenon I have noticed. As the parent of an 11 year old boy who is a voracious reader, I find that I have difficulty finding books for him that he likes and to which he relates. He likes adventure and historical fiction books and reads some fantasy, but that is not his main interest. When I scour the shelves of bookstores for options, I find that they are populated far more fully by titles that are female-oriented. There are simply not that many teen/young adult books that are male-targeted. Is this a supply and demand issue? Is it the case that fewer books are produced because there is a perception that boys read less? Might boys read less because there is less material of interest to them? Thanks for commenting.
Andrew Clements: It's an interesting problem, and I get a lot of thank yous for writing stories that boys enjoy. And I know that more are needed. But as parents of four boys, my wife and I found that all of them loved the Little House on the Prairie books, and many others that might be labeled as 'girl stories'. So it helps if parents and teachers and librarians try to resist the notion that literature breaks along gender lines. The Read Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease will help you find great books and help share them too.
Arlington, Va.: I don't have a question, but I just wanted to tell you that when I taught 4th grade (I stopped when I had children of my own), I read aloud your novel Frindle. It was always a big favorite with my students. Thank you for writing such a great story about the power of language.
Andrew Clements: Thanks so much.
Washington, D.C.: What kind of feedback do you receive from kids who read your books? Any funny anecdotes?
Andrew Clements: I'm glad to report that I've gotten thousands and thousands of letters during the past ten years. It's hard to pick funny anecdotes out of that flow, but I've got a file folder called "Fan Mail Classics."
Great Falls, Va.: We read "Frindle" for our mother/daughter book club and loved it. Now that we have discovered you, we'd love to keep reading your work and also discover some new authors. Which children's authors -- besides yourself -- are your favorites?
Andrew Clements: You should ask your school librarian or a children's bookseller for their ideas. Sadly, I've found that writing all the time limits my reading. Good books pull me in for days, and that's hard when I'm trying to keep my own narrative flow moving forward. Thus, I'm a little out of touch. Sad but true.
Silver Spring, Md.: I read "School Story" to each of my sons and it made me cry both times. Thank you for such a wonderful book.
Andrew Clements: Thank you, and thanks for spending that time with your kids--memories that will last all your life and all of theirs as well.
Jacksonville, Fla.: I am a teacher and a big fan of your books. My question for you is if you plan to write any non-fiction for young readers. Are there any topics that interest you in that regard?
Andrew Clements: I have a few non-fiction ideas, but they're simmering very slowly. I wrote a 4th or 5th grade level biography for a Houghton Mifflin reading program--Bill Pickett-An American Original--and I enjoyed the research. But fiction is still my home these days.
And I have a new picture book out now called A Million Dots--it's a non-fiction math book.
Fairfield, Ct.: I haven't read "Room One" yet, but are mysteries something you think you will pursue further?
Andrew Clements: I think every good novel includes some element of mystery. I'm beginning a series of six books that will be more in the mystery vein than anything I've done so far.
Harrisburg, Pa.: Do you have ideas for novels for other age groups? If so, may I inquire what else you'd like to write? Or do you plan to devote your work towards middle school readers?
Andrew Clements: A book called Things Not Seen is a young adult novel that was published in 2002, and the companion books, Things Hoped For was just released this month. I'm working on the third (and final) in this set called Things That Are. So I have books that range from almost wordless picture books to Young Adult. But you're right to observe that the middle-grades are where I spend most of my creative effort.
Virginia, Va.: Do you keep a writer's notebook? I teach 4th grade and my students are keeping a notebook of seeds or ideas. Do you come up with ideas like this? -- Suzanne Bond
Andrew Clements: I wish were organized enough to keep a tidy notebook of ideas. My notes are usually scribbled on to scraps of paper that live in my pockets for months at a time. And when I think they may be lost or become completely illegible, I'll lay them all out on my desk and type the contents into a document and tuck it away in a computer file folder called Story Ideas. But I like your method better!
Glasgow, Scotland: Mr. Clements, Who are your literary heroes? I'm always interested in knowing a writer's models. . . Thanks for this very nice exchange.
Andrew Clements: I don't know that I have models or heroes per se. I love different writers for different reasons. Hemingway for clarity and brevity, Shakespeare for everything, E.B. White for economy and a wonderful heart, and so on and on. But ultimately, I want to try to speak with a distinctive voice and reflect the light I find.
Hancock, Mich.: Hi Mr. Clements, I'm 40 and I can barely relate to people in their 20s, let alone understanding the innerworkings young teens. How do you keep your mindset in sync with the middle-ager's? Do you mentally channel your younger self?
Andrew Clements: Another participant asked a similar question. I think there is such a thing as thinking like a writer. Having thought for many years now about what that might be, I can look back and see myself thinking like a writer years and years before I ever tried to be one. And the common thread is that I've always been able to feel like I know what someone else is feeling or thinking. It's partly observing, partly guessing, with a good dollop of pure imagination. But when I get responses from kids and parents and teachers saying how close I've come to their reality, then I'm just glad that I can see experience this way.
Montclair, N.J.: I read Frindle with one of my children several years ago and was especially moved by the teacher. Is she based on someone you know? Every now and then I see a glimmer of her character in a fabulous teacher, and I remember her!
Andrew Clements: Mrs. Granger is a composite of every good teacher I've had or known, and also of myself on my best days during the seven years I taught. Glad you had some great ones too.
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