Wednesday, January 19, 2011

18 WOW Weds: Tom Greenwald on Writing to a Need

This week's guest post is by Tom Greenwald, who has one of those miraculous stories you hear about in the publishing world but never actually believe. He's represented by Michele Rubin at The Writer's House and his first book, CHARLIE JOE JACKSON'S GUIDE TO NOT READING, will be out in July. In fact, he's been kind enough to let us give away an ARC of the book to one lucky person who comments on this post. You can see the book trailer here, or visit his web site.

Writing to a Need

by Tommy Greenwald

The love of reading is not one of those traits that is passed down from one generation to the next.

I know this because while I have always loved reading, my three kids – Charlie, Joe and Jack – have not. Now, I don’t want to use the “H” word, but let’s just say they dislike reading intensely. They’re a bit older now, in high school, but when they were in middle-school, they would go out of their way to not read. I would give them the choice of staring at the wall or reading, and the wall would win every time.

And trips to the library or bookstore? Don’t get me started. What a nightmare. The only thing that worked is bribery. With the promise of cheeseburgers, or ice cream, or cold hard cash, I could get my kids to go to the library and begrudgingly pick out ONE book. Never more than that. And whether they would ever read it was another question entirely.

Eventually, I discovered that I wasn’t alone. A lot of my friends had kids who hated reading. It seemed like it was more the rule than the exception, especially with boys. There were far too many options other than reading. Fun ones, that usually involved a screen. It’s not that reading was way down on the list. It just plain wasn’t on the list at all.

So then I started thinking… there had to be a market here. Somewhere, somehow, there had to be a book for kids who hate books. And if there wasn’t, by God, I would write it!

So the first thing I thought about was… if I was a kid who hated to read, what would I want to read? If my Mom or Dad dragged me into a bookstore or a library, what title would make me go, “Hmmmm. Okay, maybe I’ll give this one a try.”

I should back up a second. I’d always been a writer. My day job is as Executive Creative Director at Spotco Advertising in New York, which is an ad agency for Broadway shows: I’d also written a produced musical called JOHN & JEN and a few optioned but never produced screenplays.

But I’d never attempted a book. A book sounded daunting. A book sounded scary.

A book had a ton of words in it.

A picture book, on the other, had very few words in it! So naturally, I decided I’d make it a picture book. I wrote a draft called THE BOY WHO HATED READING, which I thought wasn’t bad at all. (You can read it in its entirety at It’ll take you five minutes, tops.)

And here comes the part where you’re going to hate me… One of my old friends from high school, Michele Rubin, is an agent at Writer’s House. I sent the idea to her. No query quagmire nightmare necessary. I’m so, so sorry about that.

Anyway, she really liked the idea, but told me I should turn it into a middle-grade novel. I asked her how many words went into the typical middle-grade novel. She said around 30,000 or more.

I said something not suitable for a children’s book website.

But then, I dove in. And when I created the character of Charlie Joe Jackson -- a literal combination of my three kids – who was a smart but lazy middle-schooler, and quite possibly the most reluctant reader ever born, I knew I’d found somebody I could spend time with.

And suddenly, 30,000 words didn’t seem so far away.

I wrote the first draft in about three months, and Michele sent it out to about five editors. I ended up with the wonderfully amazing Nancy Mercado at Roaring Brook Press, and after another six months or so of tweaking, and a bunch of brilliant illustrations from JP Coovert, we put that baby to bed. I’m now semi-hard at work on the next book in the series, CHARLIE JOE JACKON’S GUIDE TO EXTRA CREDIT, which will come out in 2012.

I still can’t believe how this has all worked out. And it’s all thanks to Charlie, Joe and Jack, my three kids who refused to read.


At least they said they did.


  1. Thanks for sharing your inspiring story. Even knowing an agent, you had to have had a great idea to get her interested.You're right that there are a lot of kids who don't like to read. I hope your book helps with it. Good luck.

  2. What a great story, and I love the concept. I have two girls who inhale books but they are always looking for funny and different books so I will have this one on my radar for them, plus I have a nephew who sounds exactly like these boys. :-)

  3. Thanks so much for this post! I think one of the things that killed reading is teachers requiring 15-30 minutes a night. Also, all the deconstructing of every text, with post-it notes. This was such a funny post--I can totally relate, as I have three kids, two of whom are semi-reluctant readers. They're always begging me to stop getting them books, until they stumble on the gems, and then they're off reading again. Bravo to you! Can't wait to read your books.

  4. Awesome idea for a middle grade novel! One interesting tidbit... boys' brain development is usually a year or two behind girls. Unfortunately, schools don't make this distinction and although the girls might be ready to read, the boys aren't. As such, reading is tougher for boys and that early experience drives many of them away from reading. Too bad we don't develop schools that teach girls and boys in a manner consistent with their brain development rather than "tradition." Just because we've always taught a certain way doesn't mean it's the best way.

  5. Terrific story about how you wrote this book. Cool beans!

  6. you're right. I do hate you for not having to go through query hell....

    ah, alright, I'll forgive you ;)

    love this story behind your book! It makes me want to read it even more. Congrats!

  7. Tommy, I don't think I've heard all of this before!

    As I told you yesterday, my boys loved the bookmarks, and my older son wanted to know if it was a graphic novel. Sounds like yes?

  8. I LOVE this story. There's a big part of me that would really wants to write middle grade novels for reluctant readers but is extremely intimidated by 30,000 words. Yeah, not happening this month! Your line about finding someone you could spend time with, though, does make it seem more do-able!

    Congratulations and nice work! I can't wait to read it!

    ~Carla (

  9. hi guys thanks for your comments! no caroline not a graphic novel, but liberally sprinkled with illustrations throughout... a couple of the illos are on my website if you want to check out the style. cheers, tg

  10. I love this:
    "A book had a ton of words in it."
    Tommy Greenwald you crack me up- can't wait to read this :)
    And I bet my 12 y.o. son will wrestle me for it!

  11. This is absolutely, hands down, no questions asked, the funniest trailer ever. Holy Guacamole! And, Tommy, if you got those ideas from your kids when they were younger, I just don't see how you survived without cracking up! :) Great job! And Congrats!

  12. Lovely story, gives hope and inspiration to us all.

  13. What a terrific genesis of a book, Tommy! I love every word of this. "The wall would win every time." LOL

  14. Although I can't relate and am sure a character like Charlie Joe Jackson is ENTIRELY fictitious and strains every limit of credulity, I will still read the book, and will not own up to how many times I've watched the trailer.

  15. Holy cow, what a story! I wish Tom sounded horrible so we could have a reason to hate him. Instead, he sounds like a great guy whose stars were aligned. Awesome.

  16. This one is near and dear to my heart, having two sons who do not like to read (until I gave them The Hunger Games, that is...muahahaaa.

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

  17. Such a great story! I know kids who didn't read until Harry Potter came out, too. :) Glad you made it work; it's so cool. Having two daughters who loved going to the library with me and reading voraciously, I can imagine how frustrating it was for you to have kids who didn't read!


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