Writing to a Need
by Tommy Greenwald
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 tommygreenwald.com. 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.
They did read CHARLIE JOE JACKSON’S GUIDE TO NOT READING, though.
At least they said they did.