A Conversation with Jordan Sonnenblick, Author of the New Memoir, “The Boy Who Failed Show and Tell”

Whew! I’ve been cleaning all day in anticipation of a visit from Jordan Sonnenblick, one of the most beloved middle-grade authors writing today. And by “cleaning all day” I mean to say, I just picked up an old yogurt container from the floor. It was kind of scuzzy. And by “picked up” I mean to say, pushed it into a corner with the side of my foot. Look — here comes Jordan now! 

Jordan, welcome. Sorry about the mess. Normally I have a whole fancier setup –- kind of a spa vibe with cool lighting — but, Covid, you know. Anyway! Yeah, that’s right, just shove that stuff aside. You can sit on that milk crate.

Thanks, man. But I’m a little bit picky. Do you happen to have a low-fat oatmilk crate?

Um . . . 

No? Okay, I will make do.

In the past, you’ve often used your own life as a basis, or at least a springboard, for your novels. What made this book, a true memoir, different for you?

The biggest difference was how easy the writing felt. When I’m writing a novel, I am constantly worrying — 24/7 — about the plot: What will happen next? Are the characters and the conflict developing well? Creating a memoir was awesome, because every morning when I woke up, all I had to do was sit down at the computer, see what actual event from my 4th-grade year was next on the timeline I’d made, and start writing down what had happened. Getting rid of all that uncertainty about the plot really allowed me to hone in on things like humor and getting my 4th-grade voice right.

 

 

Yes, the voice! I think you nailed that. How the heck do you do that? I mean, is it instinct? A natural feel for channeling your inner 4th-grader? Or are there specific things that you look for in the revision process? Vocabulary, sentence structure, or general worldview stuff?

I don’t know. But I can tell you that when I got my first book advance (for two first-person young adult novels), my wife said, “Hey, you’re finally getting paid to be immature!” So I’m thinking that when my instincts take over, a kid voice is what comes out.

I’d bet twenty bucks –- if I had it – that you really enjoyed writing this book. It comes through. It’s funny, closely observed — smooth and affectionate and true. For example, I liked your description of classmate Robert Falcone with his brand-new pack of 256 Crayola crayons.

But Robert’s coloring equipment is on a different level. His crayons come in a cardboard briefcase. With a plastic handle on the side.

Robert is like a professional fourth grader in a roomful of amateurs.

Robert was so incredibly cool! But yes, writing about all these real people and experiences was incredibly fun. That year of my life was quite bittersweet as I was living it, but reflecting back from where I am now was a pure pleasure.

I have a recurring thought about memoir writing. We hear Lucy Calkins and other highly-qualified educators give students this terrific advice, “Write about your own life, even the little moments that happen.” But I am sure that a lot of boys think, “Yeah, that’s totally boring. I wouldn’t even want to read that book.” If nothing explodes, what’s the point? You know what I mean? We grow up with the sense that our everyday lives aren’t interesting enough.

Yes, absolutely. Fortunately for me, my teacher at the beginning of fourth grade, Mrs. Fisher, was basically a villain out of Charles Dickens, and my health situation was pretty Dickensian, too — so I had lots of real adversity to play with. Everything is more exciting when the main character might suddenly stop breathing any second!

 

Vonnegut has a great writing rule that I sometimes share on school visits: “No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them –- in order that the reader may see what they are made of.”

Vonnegut is my all-time hero!

Yes, he’s up there for me, too. 

I have never seen a bad piece of writing advice from him. And the beauty of writing these memoirs is that, in focusing on just one short period of my childhood for each one, I could pick only the times when truly atrocious things were happening to me. I could have written an excruciatingly-boring book about my happy, charmed 1st-grade year, for example.

So you actually had a teacher who told your mother, “Jordan will never amount to anything.”

Yup. Not one of my proudest parent-teacher night experiences.

Because as a vulnerable kid, you thought that comment said something bad about you –- rather than something unforgivable about her.

YES! I mean, I knew my teacher was mean. But that didn’t necessarily transfer to knowing that she was wrong.

As a former teacher yourself, and as an ex-kid, I’m sure you have thoughts on this: What do you think makes a good teacher?

Well, that’s very interesting. Believe it or not, I originally sat down and wrote an entire memoir for adults about my own career as a teacher, and how the good and bad educational experiences of my childhood shaped my interactions with my students. But when I was done writing that book, I realized the real gold mine was in the childhood parts, so I pitched a two-volume childhood memoir to my editor at Scholastic, David Levithan. In this first volume, I think it’s pretty clear that, for me, a good teacher is the opposite of Mrs. Fisher. I was so very lucky that my second 4th-grade teacher, Miss Tuff, was the opposite of Mrs. Fisher, in every conceivable way. Where Mrs. Fisher had been cold, played favorites, and shown nothing to me but contempt, Miss Tuff was warm, loved every student equally (or at least, gave us all that feeling), and made each of us feel special, at a time in my life when I very much needed to feel special.

 

When I first coached Little League, I came into it with all this amazing knowledge to impart. Tips and techniques and entire life philosophies! But after a few seasons, I narrowed it down to simply this: I’m the guy who believes in you. That was my job. The booster of confidence. Even when a kid doubts him or herself, I was there saying, You can do it. And hopefully along the way giving them the tools to succeed.

Absolutely. I always say in teacher trainings that the most important thing a middle-grade teacher has to do, before anything else can even be possible, is keep the kids safe, reasonably happy, and interested in learning. Once that flame of interest (in school, in baseball, in anything) burns out, it’s incredibly hard to rekindle. Or, to put it another way, it’s easy to bruise a piece of fruit, but impossible to un-bruise one.

You really struggled as a ten-year-old in all sorts of ways. Asthma, feeling different, not fitting in. How do you feel about that kid now? Do you want to kick him in the butt? Do you want to hug him? Bring him to a Yankee game?

How ‘bout all of the above? Looking back at nine-year-old me, that kid was equal parts irritation, stubbornness, and nobility. I was a gigantic pain to several of the adults in my life (and a couple of the kids, too), but my strongest desire was to be good.

Oh, hey, I meant to ask you: What’s it like to be illustrated?

So, so cool! When my editor forwarded me the initial sketches by Marta Kissi, I was so excited I yelled for my wife and kids to come see. Without ever once talking to me, Marta absolutely nailed the feel of that electric year in my life.

I loved the last triumphant lines of the book: I have books. I have music. I am ready for anything. Is that still pretty much true? Or would you now include, say, a good pair of compression socks?

At this point, I would definitely throw my beloved wife and kids in there at the very top of that heap. But I will say this: without books and music, I never would have ended up with the wife or the kids, because those things completely turned my life around. Every good thing I have basically flows out of my love for books and music.

We see music become a big part of your life in the book. So I have to ask: Favorite Beatles album?

It has changed at different points in my life. But I will tell you that when we brought my first-born son home from the hospital, on the very first morning he woke up in his crib, I took him downstairs to our family room, laid him across my chest so we were both right between the speakers of my stereo, and put on side two of Abbey Road. I wanted that to be the very first music he ever heard. “Here Comes the Sun” –- what a perfect overture for life. Amirite?

Wow, what a coincidence. I tried something similar with my first born. Except I used Captain Beefheart’s “Trout Mask Replica.” Maybe, upon reflection, it was the wrong album. That kid is so messed up. 

[awkward pause]

Anyway! Last question: This goofy kid in the story, the one with glasses and asthma, any idea what ever happens to him? Is he gonna be okay?

 I might not go all the way to “okay,” but he does survive — and he stays goofy. I know this because the sequel, which comes out next year, takes place when that same goofball gets to middle school. The working title is The Boy Who Failed Dodgeball.

Ouch, that’s gotta hurt.

You’re not kidding! I always joke that the highlight of my Little League career was the 1980 season, when I led the league in concussions. But middle-school dodgeball was worse.

Thanks for coming by, Jordan. Good luck with the book. I’m not a teacher, but I imagine it could serve as a mentor text for any teacher trying to encourage her students to see the story in their own lives.

My pleasure. Thanks so much for having me, James!

Oh, please, Jordan, we’re pals now. You can call me “Mr. Preller.”

 

       

Readers can learn more about Jordan Sonnenblick, and all the books he writes, and his entire family, by hiding in the bushes near his house. Infra-red cameras are amazing these days. There are also ways to tap phone lines. Failing that, just Google the guy. He keeps a website and everything. 

 

 

 

 

 

As for me, I’m a writer, too. I’ve authored the Jigsaw Jones mystery series, along with many middle-grade books, including Six Innings, The Courage Test, The Fall, Better Off Undead and Blood Mountain. My upcoming book, Upstander (Macmillan, May 2021), is a prequel/sequel to Bystander. It was recently named a 2021 Junior Library Guild Selection. Clearly, you should buy it. 

And by “buy it” I mean: Yes, actual money!

Was that too subtle?

 

AS ALWAYS, THANKS FOR STOPPING BY! 

 

 

 

 

One comment

  1. Mary Convertino says:

    There’s definitely a place for the adventure story AND the day-to-day. I imagine much like the rest of us, young people like to read about the mythical version of who they could be, but also the version of who they actually are now. There’s great comfort in being “seen.” It’s great that you still have the pipeline open to your own experiences and feelings from that time in your life.

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