Archive for November 30, 2011

Fan Mail Wednesday #130: My First Book

Here’s one I loved . . .


My mom dug out some of my old books from when I was a kid, and I got my old copy of Maxx Trax: Avalanche Rescue back.  I remember loving this book when I was a kid, I was really into the artwork.  I remember seeing another book in the Maxx Trax series at some point, but can’t remember what it was called.  How many books were in this series?  The art is really great, very eighties in its sensibility.  I was reading through the book and got the impression that the trucks were left behind after an armageddon, since there were no humans, and the trucks had to cross over a pile of abandoned cars, and the snow seemed to indicate a nuclear winter.  I was just curious about your take and inspirations for these books, I am an artist myself now, and appreciate the vehicle designs, and interested in the origins of one of my favorite books when I was a kid.


I replied:
Eli! Thanks so much for that letter. Maxx Trax: Avalanche Rescue was my first published book, back in 1986 when I was a mere pup, 25 years old — and that was the little book that launched this Incredible (Unstoppable! Unflappable!) Publishing Empire.
Thank you, thank you very much (in Elvis voice).
Actually, I have great fondness for that book. It’s been out-of-print for nearly two decades, but when it was first offered on Scholastic Book Clubs, they put it on the front cover of SeeSaw Book Club and it sold through the roof, eventually moving more than 1,000,000 copies. Crazy, I know. But because it was my first book, and worked in-house as a junior copywriter, I was paid a flat fee, no royalties, so I earned $2,500 on the deal. But I’m not bitter!
The book began with a Star Wars-inspired introduction, epic and overblown.
It’s a little embarrassing, but also, I think, the tone we were going for.
Even worse, when it came time for the sequel, Scholastic inexplicably fired the original illustrator, Joe Lapinski, who did such a pitch-perfect job on the original. He nailed it. But I suspect that Joe wanted more money for the next book, and corporate had other ideas.
The illustrations for the follow-up book, Maxx Trax: Monster Truck Adventure, featured a new, experimental technique: computer graphics, and it did not turn out very well. I remember when my editor told me about it. I was like, “Why didn’t you just rehire Lapinski? He was great.” Oh well. The technology was too new, too primitive. Think early Pac Man but in picture book form. I looked at that second book and my heart sank. I knew that no kid would go for it. And that was the end of the series. (Buy, hey, on the bright side: corporate saved money on the illustrator!)
Yeah, sure, a nuclear winter makes sense to me. I’m not sure if I understood the backstory in those words, exactly. Perhaps I didn’t even think about it that deeply. I just kind of accepted the circumstances as fact and told the story from there — a world seemingly without people, with trucks that communicate and perform . . . all sorts of . . . amazing . . . truck-ish type feats. With lasers!
Here’s the killer. When I visit schools, which I do fairly often, I’ll sometimes pull that book out. Students always ask about my first book. And every time, the boys see it and freak out. They want to buy it right there, right now. And I have to say, “Sorry, I’ve got two copies to my name, that’s it. The book is out of print. You can’t buy it anymore.” If I’ve learned anything about the children’s book business in the past 25 years, it’s that I know Maxx Trax would sell today. It’s so cool, so much fun, so right for boy readers. Trucks and adventure.
Quick, get Lapinski on the phone! Come on, Scholastic. Wake up, already. I’ve already got the title of the next — Maxx Trax: Tsunami Rescue!
The Dawn of Maxx Trax must rise again . . .
Seriously, Eli, thanks for writing. In every author’s heart there’s a special place for his first book. It was awfully kind of you to take the time to write to me. You’re a good soul. Good luck with your own artistic efforts — keep on believing in yourself, keep on feeding that brain of yours, and work hard. Send me a JPEG or something. I’d love to see what you’re up to.
My best,

Mark Twain’s Library & Other Pleasures

I won’t make you wait for it. My apologies for the spillover into the sidebar, but it would require actual skill to adjust the size of the photo. So, like, that’s not happening!

This is Mark Twain’s first-floor library in his Hartford, Connecticut, home. How cool is that?

You can thank Emily Temple of Flavorwire for that shot, since she recently compiled a hot batch of photographs featuring the libraries of famous writers, inspired, in part, by the recent publication of Leah Price’s new book, Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books.

Below, a few more of my favorites . . .

Joan Didion, John Dunne, daughter Quintana Roo, and dog.

William Faulkner collected old books, apparently. Oh, wait.

Anne Sexton’s shelves look so . . . normal.

Norman Mailer lived in Brooklyn Heights, not far from my brother. But Norman had more books, and a better apartment. He also liked lamps.

This Rolling Stone gathers no moss, but collects books, obviously. If you are really in a Keith mood, go here for my ultimate “Keef Sings” mix.

Dream Guitar

I was happy to come across this article, “Revealed: The Real Guitar Heroes,” which features a new book,Instrument, by photographer Pat Graham. (Check out Graham’s awesome blog, here.)

In the article, various musicians discuss their favorite instruments. I particularly liked Peter Buck’s description of his beloved guitar, because it so closely matched what I’d already written in my upcoming Young Adult debut, Before You Go (July, 2012).

Before we get to Buck and his guitar, here’s a brief section from my book, written over a year ago. To set the scene: Jude and Becka are hanging out together for the first time after work; they’ve walked the Jones Beach boardwalk on a cloudy day and are now playing putt-putt golf. Becka tells Jude that she’s saving up for her dream guitar:

This could be what Becka’s dream guitar looks like.

What kind of guitar do you want to buy?”

“Rickenbacker 330,” Becka answered.

“You like that jangle sound, huh?”

“John Lennon, Johnny Marr, Peter Buck, they all played Rickenbackers,” Becka said. “You know Guitar World in Massapequa? That’s where I’m going to buy it. I’ve got mine all picked out.”

“Tell me,” Jude said, tapping the ball into the hole. He didn’t bother to fill in the scorecard. Jude hated those ultracompetitive guys who took things like P.E. way too seriously. He and Becka randomly cut over from the third to the eleventh hole. Nobody was around, nobody cared, and this one has a fake pirate ship in the middle of it to enhance the awesomeness.

“You should see it, gorgeous guitar,” Becka enthused. “Semi-hollow maple body, fireglo finish, rosewood fretboard with dot inlays, single-coil pickups –“

“Wow, you know your stuff,” Jude said. “That’s not a cheap guitar.”

“Almost two thousand balloons,” Becka said. “My parents are willing to go halfsies.”

“Halfsies?” Jude laughed.

“You know what I mean,” Becka protested, a hint of color rising to her cheeks. “I’ve been staring at that guitar for the past year. It’s my goal for this summer. I need that guitar.”

Jude knew exactly how she felt. He was always coveting a new guitar, or considering a trade-in. Every guitar had an individual sound, a character of its own, something that most people didn’t understand. Jude and Becka talked guitars and music, compared iPods and favorite tunes, thrilled to have that connection. “I’d love to hear you play,” Jude said.

I know, nothing fancy going on here, just two characters finding common ground, the beginning of something more. But I do love the setting, Jones Beach. I spent so much time there as a kid — hanging out and, later, working at the concession stands and washing dishes in the restaurant.

Now, from the article, here’s Peter Buck, name-checked in the section above (as is Johnny Marr, who coincidentally wrote the foreward to Graham’s book), describing his beloved Rickenbacker 360 JetGlo:

Buck & his guitar, 1983.

I bought my first Rickenbacker in about 1980. I love the tone. I love the history, knowing that Roger McGuinn and George Harrison and Pete Townshend also played Rickenbackers.

That one got stolen eventually, I think in 1981, when I was doing a show for $100. So we went to a tiny little guitar shop and pulled a Rickenbacker out of a box. It was in tune. I played it, it sounded great, and it’s the one I’ve used on every single record I’ve ever made. I’ve played it on stage my entire adult life and on every REM record except the “Radio Free Europe” single, because I didn’t have it at that point.

NOTE: I just triple-checked my Lennon/Rickenbacker reference. I know I got it from somewhere, that he played a Rickenbacker, but with Buck’s mention of Harrison, I started to wonder. Here’s a good article for guitar geeks, “The Beatles and Their Rickenbackers,” by Bjorn Eriksson.

And here’s Buck & company for your listening pleasure . . .

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Reading with Cisco

Through the miracle of Facebook, I’ve enjoyed the great pleasure of renewing my acquaintance with an old friend of my sister’s, Bruce Donnola. No, my sister’s name is not “Bruce Donnola,” but I’m too tired to get myself out of that messy sentence construction. “Bruce Donnola” is actually the name of . . . nevermind. Growing up, Bruce was once very much my long-haired elder, but I’ve closed the gap over the years. He recently sent to me a brief essay that was intended for my defunct but most awesome blog,, which, alas, died on the vine. The blog didn’t get the response I’d hoped for, but more importantly I learned that I just didn’t have the time to give it the energy necessary to succeed. Disappointing, but lessons learned. I still care deeply about the gender gap in reading, about boys and reading.

Here’s the father’s story that Bruce sent. I scanned it quickly upon first reading, the way hurried people read emails, and thought it was good. Then I reread it, taking my time, and just now reread it again with deepening appreciation. I gradually recognized how many deep, important truths about boys and reading were contained in this subtle narrative. The comic books, the reading for information, the parental disappointment (and, at times, disaprroval), and the boy himself — an alert, active mind picking his way curiously through the pages and statistics and cereal boxes.

My wife worries that our eleven-year-old son doesn’t read. This has been going on for a few years now. It started in second grade when we bought him easy readers like Danny and the Dinosaur. We read that to him many times, imagining that he would eventually enjoy finding a quiet time to sit and reread it on his own, just like us grownups. But Cisco never had the slightest interest. He enjoyed having us read to him (thankfully, he still does). But he would not read books from cover to cover on his own. “He won’t even read Danny and the Dinosaur,” my wife despaired.

That disinclination has remained unchanged over the last three-plus years. But my response to my wife has always been the same: Cisco does read — he just doesn’t read books from start to finish, unless they’re assigned in school. He pulls out books on things he’s interested in — Star Wars, Leggos, dogs. What he does on an almost daily basis is open a book, flip through the pages looking at photos, stop when something grabs him, read a caption, maybe a paragraph or two, then move on. He does this with books, with comic books, with toy catalogs and most recently with newspapers.

My son is totally hyperactive, with little patience or desire to sit still. The way my son reads is part of the way he is. But the truth is that I was not hyperactive as a kid, yet my reading habits were much the same as his. Despite growing up in a highly literate household where everyone read constantly, much of it heavy literature (my mom’s favorite author was William Faulkner, my oldest brother loved James Joyce), the truth is that I barely read any books from start to finish unless they were assigned in school. Just like my son.

Yet I read constantly.

I read comic books the way some people eat potato chips. I couldn’t get enough of them, bought every new issue of (mostly) DC Comics every month and reread old issues dozens of times. I had a huge collection of Classics Illustrated and, despite the derision often accorded them, developed a love for the great stories of western literature that remains to this day.

I also read other frivolous things as a kid. I had a subscription to Mad Magazine, with contents that ranged from silly to brilliant. I LOVED Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, a periodical that mostly focused on old horror films from the 1930s and 40s, with a strong appreciation of earlier silent films. It was also filled with truly horrendous puns which any boy would appreciate (it came from Horrorwood, Karloffornia). This wonderful and ridiculous magazine led me into a lifelong love of cinema history.

I also read Peanuts voraciously — in fact, I probably learned the word “voraciously” by reading Peanuts. I remember often going to my parents holding a Peanuts paperback, asking what certain words meant, trying to understand jokes about Beethoven, psychiatry, or World War I fighter pilots. The intelligence, wit, and incredible comic timing of Peanuts in the 1960s are still a marvel to me. How many words are in any given four-panel Peanuts strip? Yet how much depth is contained in those words?

I also found joy reading ephemeral things like toy catalogs. I literally spent hours poring through the legendary Johnson Smith catalogs, with their X-ray specs, trick black soap and plastic vomit. Each item that was for sale was described in probably one or two sentences. But I savored each one of those brief descriptions over and over, as if they were a perfect haiku. All the possibilities of the mysterious world ahead seemed to lay in that booklet of magic tricks and practical jokes.

I could go on but the point is simple: what a boy reads is not the issue. The number of words he reads is not the issue. The issue, assuming there is no reading disability and assuming he is in a home where the parents read, is: does he have access to the books, magazines, comics, catalogs, baseball cards — whatever — that are about things he loves?

I didn’t really start reading books from beginning to end until I was a teenager, and truly it was not until I was eighteen or so that I really fell in love with literature. But the foundation had been laid in my childhood: in a house of book lovers, with good and great books shelved and piles up in every room, my parents quietly encouraged me to read by providing every silly book, comic, magazine or useless piece of printed ephemera, no matter how few words or how unchallenging, that I craved. The result was I had fun reading. The result was I have always loved to read.

So now in my son’s room you will find, once you recover from seeing the astonishing mess, two bookcases packed with books that range from early readers to teenage titles; a few stacks of old comic books, mostly from my childhood era (unlike today’s comics, they were actually meant for kids); Leggos magazines, which are mailed to us free every other month; a couple of DK Eyewitness books on Star Wars that look like they’ve survived the Clone Wars; two books on dogs recently taken out of the school library (hint-hint); a horrible new teen music magazine (he’s got the hots for Victoria Justice), and at his bedside a copy of Danny and the Dinosaur. One night recently he pulled it out on his own and decided to read it before bed. And there it remains, reread many times since. At his age, eleven years old, it presents no challenge to his intelligence and no challenge to his reading abilities. He simply likes to read it because it makes him happy.

I Got Your Back

I’ve lost track of the original source for this photograph, so my apologies in advance. I seem to recall the photo was taken of a random student in a coffee shop somewhere, passed along by ABC: Anti-Bullying Coalition, which I subscribe to on Facebook (recommended).

The text reads:













I’d Follow Joan Didion’s Mind Whatever It Roams

I just read Joan Didion’s new book, Blue Nights.

She’s just an amazing writer, so precise. I’d follow her mind anywhere. And this book is particularly remarkable, not only for the content, but for the style — the texture of the thought as much as the thoughts themselves, if the two can separated. Brief and fractured, at times clear and direct and yet elusive, slippery, the book takes on the qualities of a prose poem.

It struck me that Didion in this book writes as an elderly woman in her late 70’s, from that specific place, the way her thoughts (and sentences) keep circling back, almost forgetful, picking up dropped threads, weaving them into loose patterns, drifting back again, and plunging forward as if reluctantly, yet determined to arrive . . . at something. There’s a frailty here, the uncertainty of any old brittle-boned body, picking a cautious path down the sidewalk, fearful of losing her balance, falling. Reading it, I thought of my own mother, age 85 or 6, who knows anymore, and the new palpable fear she experiences stepping off a curb, walking to the mailbox, wondering when gravity will be her undoing. And yet out into this perilous world she bravely steps.

Two things:

First, look at this photograph, the peculiar pose, that thin right arm, hand rested on her right shoulder, and that clear-eyed gaze. What an intimate photograph by Anthony Dunne.

Second, let us now marvel, and reread over and again as we gape with admiration and open-jawed awe at the punctuation, pace, and mastery of writer Joan Didion (pp. 140-141, Blue Nights):

—–And yet:

—–And still:

—–Despite all evidence:

—–Despite recognizing that my skin and my hair and even my cognition are all reliant on the estrogen I no longer have:

—–Despite recognizing that I will not again wear the red suede sandals with the four-inch heels and despite recognizing that the gold hoop earrings and the black cashmere leggings and the enameled beads no longer exactly apply:

—–Despite recognizing that for a woman my age even to note such details of appearance will be contrued by many as a manifestation of misplaced vanity:

—–Despite all that:


—–That being seventy-five could present as a significantly altered situation, an altogether different “it,” did not until recently occur to me.

Here’s an earlier photo, similarly shielded, creating an interesting echo. Which brings me to the third thing: I’d love to have lunch with this woman, just sit at the same table, talk. Hey, a guy can dream.

Write What You DON’T Know . . . Yet

First, this is funny:

We’ve all heard it. And most of us have probably said it. Write what you know. Value that singular fingerprint you carry, the gathered sediment of our long hours, the crazy accumulation of days, the fossilized imprint of memory — all that we know, and have felt, and dreamt. Start there, dear writer.

As most folks know from my school visits, I’m a writer who very much begins from the particulars of my life. My family, my memories, my experiences.

But also, but also, but also.

Let’s not forget, as we recite the mandatory mantra, write what you know, that part of the great fun and discovery of writing is to learn new things, explore new places and events, and to write it.

Write what you find out. Write what you learn.

Don’t feel limited by your small little town, the supposed meagerness of your experiences. Learn new things. Go out — seek, discover! I’m saying: Writing doesn’t have to always fall back on the familiar. Inspiration might well come from your journey into an unknown country.

That is, again: You can’t write convincingly about what you don’t know. But you can certainly find out. You can research a new place, a different kind of job, an illness, or any other place your imagination carries you.

I think many young writers, boys especially, feel constrained by this idea of writing what they know. Their lives, they might think at this age, are too dull, too boring. Not a story anybody’d want to hear, much less write.

(Of course we understand that it is not our lives, but our response to the life, that truly matters.)

We hear it so often, from so many writers: they love the research, the finding out; it’s the fuel that feeds the furnace. It gives flesh to the writing, the research becomes the fire, makes it all fun and, yes, even educational. You can imagine a character in a place you’ve never been, a beach or city or distant moon, so long as you convincingly make the reader know it, and for most of us that begins with research.

Write what you don’t know — but first, learn it.

One Book, One School: My Visit to John Winthrop Middle School

Trying something new today — typing on my iPad from a hotel in Newberry, South Carolina, about my visit a few weeks back to Deep River, Connecticut.

First, an article that gives you all the info you need, plus some snaps. Media specialist Cara Rothman spearheaded the plan, enlisted the support from fellow teachers and administrators, and, amazingly, about nine months after she first emailed me . . . there I stood, meeting with the students of John Winthrop.

I love the “one school, one book” concept. It creates a true unity of purpose among the educators, and a common experience for students. It doesn’t have to be my book; there are so many great books out there. But I do think it brings a school together in a spirit of cooperation, everybody pulling on that same oar.

Thank you, Cara!

Really nice, carpeted library — the perfect setting. Nice chairs, too. At John Winthrop, even the halls were carpeted. Very quiet.

Cara used the book to teach and reinforce vocabulary and key concept

These awesome girls hung around to comment and ask questions after one session — and somebody grabbed a camera. I love it when a book seems to appeal to both male and female readers.

Oh, dear. An unfortunate angle.

Essential Listening: “Middle School” as featured on THIS AMERICAN LIFE

It’s been a busy month, with many school visits and almost no real writing. On Sunday, tomorrow, I’m heading to South Carolina, a trip that begins with three presentations in a middle school. So I thought I’d share my highest recommendation with you.

Listen to This American Life: Middle School. Trust me, it’s terrific. Smart, insightful, poignant, funny, heartbreaking. Really, I mean it. This is brilliant and you have must, must, must give it a listen.

Seventh-graders at a costume dance, dressed

as characters from The Outsiders.

To listen to the show, you have a couple of options. You can go here, for free, to hear the show in its entirety. Or you can catch up on all the old episodes of “This American Life” on iTunes for only 99 cents each. The “Middle School” segment originally aired in late October. Here’s some background info, as provided by WBEZ:


Middle School

This week, at the suggestion of a 14-year-old listener, we bring you stories from the awkward, confusing, hormonally charged world of middle school. Including a teacher who transforms peer pressure into a force for good, and reports from the frontlines of the middle school dance.


Host Ira Glass interviews a 14-year old named Annie, who emailed us asking if we would do a show about middle school. She explains why exactly the middle school years can be so daunting. (4 1/2 minutes)

Act One: Life in the Middle Ages.

In an effort to understand the physical and emotional changes middle school kids experience, Ira speaks with reporter Linda Perlstein, who wrote a book called Not Much Just Chillin’ about a year she spent following five middle schoolers. Then we hear from producer Alex Blumberg, who was a middle school teacher in Chicago for four years before getting into radio. Alex’s takeaway? We shouldn’t even try teaching kids at this age. Marion Strok, principal of a successful Chicago school, disagrees. (6 1/2 minutes)

Act Two: Stutter Step.

We sent several correspondents straight to the epicenters of middle school awkwardness: School dances. Producers Lisa Pollak and Brian Reed, plus reporters Eric Mennel, Rob Wildeboer and Claire Holman spoke with kids across the country during the nervous moments leading up to the dances. And Lisa even ventured inside, to the dance itself. (9 1/2 minutes)

Act Three: Mimis in the Middle.

When Domingo Martinez was growing up in a Mexican-American family in Texas, Domingo’s two middle school aged sisters found a unique way of coping with feelings of inferiority. This story comes from Martinez’s memoir The Boy Kings of Texas, which Lyons Press will publish in July 2012. (11 1/2 minutes)

Act Four: Anchor Babies.

We realized that there are already reporters on the ground, embedded inside middle schools: The kids who report the daily announcements, sometimes on video with full newscast sets. Producer Jonathan Menjivar wondered what would happen if instead of announcing sports scores and the daily cafeteria menu, the kids reported what’s really on their minds. Students at Parkville Middle School outside Baltimore, and their journalism teacher Ms. Davis, agreed to try out this experiment. (7 1/2 minutes)

Act Five: Blue Kid on the Block.

Producer Sarah Koenig reports on a kid we’ll call Leo, whose family recently moved away from Rochester, NY, leaving behind all of Leo’s friends and stranding him in a new—and in his opinion, much worse—middle school. (10 minutes)

Act Six: Grande with Sugar.

Ira speaks with Shannon Grande, a teacher at Rise Academy in Newark, about a seventh grader who had all sorts of problems with behavior and hygiene and schoolwork. In order to help turn him around, Grande had to harness the power of peer pressure for good. This story came from Elizabeth Green, who’s writing about Rise Academy for a book and for a reporting project on the schools called Gotham Schools. (7 minutes)

Note: Here are the covers of the two books mentioned above. I haven’t read either, but suspect that might change:

Fan Mail Wednesday #129

This one is from Canada — I can tell, because it will cost me almost a dollar to send a reply.

And yes, folks, that’s a hint! Please include a self-addressed, stamped envelope.

I replied:

Dear Troy,

Thanks for your letter. I love hearing from fans of Jigsaw Jones, because I think he’ll always be my favorite character. Jigsaw and me — we’re tight. I’m proud of those books.

Ideas come from everywhere and everything — but most often, for me, from real life. I think of it as a diving board. I bounce on real life, spring into the air, and land into a pool of imagination. That’s writing for me, real life splashing into the liquid world of “anything goes!”

Does that make any sense at all? I start from real life, then . . . sort of make stuff up. And that’s one way of describing the genre, Realistic Fiction.

My publisher, Scholastic, has been kind enough to publish 40 Jigsaw Jones titles. At this point, they don’t want any more. I’d love to write another story with Jigsaw. Who knows, maybe someday.

Yes, I suppose Jigsaw and I are similar. We share the same views on most things. We vote the same in general elections. We both like the Mets and cereals that are bad for our teeth; we both dislike making our beds, and people who eat tuna fish with their mouths open. I admire a lot about Jigsaw — he has fine qualities I’ll never possess. I especially like his friendship with Mila Yeh. Those two are great together, true friends, and I like the way they are so good to each other.

Keep on reading, my friend! All books, any books, even mine.