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How does an author create stories about student/teacher relationships that cut to the heart of a grade schooler's experience? And how does he keep kids coming back for more? We caught up with Andrew Clements, popular author and busy father of four sons, to learn about his experiences as a teacher and children's book editor and to revel in his contagious passion for words.

Double Trouble in Walla Walla
The Landry News
Big Al

eToys: We noticed that several of your books, including Frindle, feature a 5th grade student who takes specific action to challenge a teacher. What is it about the mind of a fifth grader that particularly appeals to you?

Andrew: Having taught 4th grade and 8th grade, and having been in that middle school area for a long time, I can say that fifth graders are still more children than teenagers, and still more elementary school kids than junior high kids. This sense of what a fifth grader is has been confirmed again and again as I go out and visit schools and talk to kids. You can say things, and they will understand--you can just speak at a whole different level with fifth graders than you can with fourth or third graders.

I'm writing a book right now where the two main characters are 6th grade girls. And it's a's a different kind of book, and it's dealing with a little more advanced experience. These girls live in New York City, and that's a different experience in itself. It just seemed right for them to be in 6th grade, so they're kind of very old 12-year-olds.

eToys: Can you share more details with us?

Andrew: The name of the novel is The School Story. The concept is that one of the two girls is a writer, and one is a talker. The writer writes a book that is essentially a school story based on her own experiences, told first-person, but not really--it's fiction! She shows it to the talker, who says, "This is really good. You really ought to have your mom publish this book," because her mom works for a children's publisher in New York City. And the writer says, "Yeah, right, like my mom is going to publish my book." And the talker says, "Well, I bet we can figure out how to make it happen." And that is what the story is about--it's about trying to get a book published.

eToys: Your books such as The Landry News initially engage student and teacher in conflict, and a resolution is set in motion when the teacher realizes that the conflict is a prime opportunity for learning. In what memorable ways did your students challenge you? How did you resolve those conflicts?

Andrew: I don't know if there is a direct correlation there. The whole educational system has an interesting structure, and I don't want to characterize it as adversarial, but it's just the nature of the beast. That dynamic has been around since prehistory, probably. You can imagine a group of kids gathered a little distance away from the main cave, being taught what they need to know by a person in animal skins, and all they can think about is getting out of there and doing something else. You have to be inventive if you want to be a good teacher. I've met so many wonderful teachers; they're a committed, inventive group of people. They work hard at what they do. I think the situations in my books are unusual, but they're still believable, somehow, because every kid and every teacher understands that there is an edge. The kids outnumber the teacher 25 to 1, typically. So you've got one person professionally charged with imparting information. It's kind of like trying to push a piece of wet spaghetti across the table from one end--it just kind of keeps buckling. But one of the most enjoyable things about teaching is that kind of edge. There are all these subtle little relationships you have with so many kids during a day.

eToys: How did you settle on "frindle" as the perfect made-up word?

Andrew: I was invited to the John F. Kennedy Elementary School in Littletown, Rhode Island, as a visiting author after the publication of the picture book Big Al in 1989. I was standing in front of a group of first graders, with a couple of second graders thrown in for good measure. I had been talking about words and language and the dictionary, and I had the great big, Webster's unabridged dictionary with me. I was telling the kids, "There are more than half a million words in this book--there are more words in the English language than in any other language on the earth, and that's the truth." And they weren't particularly interested in that--they were first graders, it was Friday afternoon, it was actually the day after Halloween, so I had a lot of strikes against me that day.

One little boy asked where did the words in the dictionary came from. I said, "Well, the truth is that ordinary people make them up." And they didn't believe me. I pulled a pen out of my pocket and I said, "If all of us today started calling this thing a frindle," I just made it up right there on the spot, "...instead of a pen, and if enough people joined us and started calling this thing a frindle, the people who make dictionaries would notice, and eventually it would go in the dictionary." That was really the birth of Frindle, standing in front of a group of kids at a school.

eToys: Language arts and the use and meaning of words figure prominently in your works, even in the silliness of Double Trouble in Walla Walla. What is it about language that compels you to reveal and share the power of words with your readers?

Andrew: I guess it's just that language is so astonishing. Most people never really stop to think about the way words work. It used to be that words were considered almost sacred, and priests and shamans and those who were charged with knowing sacred things were among the first people who knew how to read and write.

When I'm visiting at a school, I sometimes ask kids, "Imagine what it would be like if every day you had to pay even just one penny for every word you use." Words are free, they can't be used up, they are ideas. They're what we use to dream with, and think with, and communicate good thoughts and bad thoughts, and dream and pray...and you know, they're pretty amazing things. I think the more kids become conscious of that, the more aware they become of the power of words. That awareness makes us better thinkers, and it certainly makes us better writers and speakers.

eToys: What books did you read as a child that sparked your love of language? What was it about those works that you especially loved?

Andrew: I loved all the Winnie the Pooh books, the A.A. Milne books. I loved some of the earliest Golden Books, in the '50s, when I was first reading books. One of my great heroes as a writer, at least in terms of her writing, was Margaret Wise Brown. Five Little Firemen...I can see those pictures, I can hear those know, "the little fireman, with his muscles as big as baseballs...." And I was in one of those fortunate families where my parents loved to read. We always had good books around the house. And of course, you know, the little popguns, the toy trucks, all the sweaters, and all the other things I was given as a child, are all gone, but I still have every one of those books. And the more good books you read, the more you really do learn what good writing feels like and sounds like.

As a kid, I never dreamed of being an author, but I do remember reading things and saying to myself, "Ah, I wish I had written this." I can remember reading stories by Jack London when I was in junior high. There's a scary story he wrote called "Diablo, a Dog." You can't read that story, even if you've read it before, without the hair on the back of your neck rising. And you say to yourself, "How is he doing this?" If you look closely, you can figure it out. You can see the structure, and the pacing, and the word choice, and the length of the sentences, and the structure of the sentences--all that stuff plays in to how the writing works on the reader.

eToys: You write text for picture books like Big Al as well as chapter books. Which unique aspects of each do you enjoy--or prefer?

Andrew: A book, any book, is really a container. The picture book is a small container. For a writer, that's one of its charms--it's short. It's not a lot of words, but in a way, that's an extra challenge, because every single word has to count. You have typically about 12 page turns from the beginning to the end. So, it's a very compact form. By the time you've turned the third page, you better know who the main characters are, you better have a good idea of what the conflict is, and you better have hooked your reader, because the story's one-fourth over all ready. A picture book has that kind of very tight, almost poetic structure to it. It's really a wonderful art form. When I worked as an editor for many years, I had the opportunity to get to know Eric Carle, and I saw firsthand how clearly he thinks, and how much distillation goes into writing a really wonderful picture book.

So a picture book is a very small container. A chapter book is a little larger container. It will give you a little more time to explain things, to expand on the characters, to deal with a more complex set of relationships. You're writing chapter books typically for an older kid, and older kids are ready to think more deeply about the expanded relationship that you have the space in a chapter book to explore. So, you might say that the more complex the idea, the larger container you need to put it into. You see, a picture book can deal with a very deep subject, a very profound subject, but it can't be that complex. Sometimes I get an idea that's just the right size for a picture-book container, and sometimes I work with ideas that are a little more complex and need a little more space.

eToys: You've mentioned your visits to schools throughout this interview. Do you make these visits for research purposes, or are they simply a way for you to stay in touch with your audience? It sounds as though you really enjoy visiting students.

Andrew: I do enjoy it very much It's a wonderful counterpoint to the writing work. When I write, I need quiet time, and I need enough time to complete the work. So, it's just the opposite of what a school situation is, where you have a lot of kids, a lot of noise, a lot of activity, and all that incredible energy. But, in a way, I write for children really for the same reasons that I became a teacher. I enjoy children. I enjoy feeling like what I'm doing has the possibility of helping someone else, of being a part of someone's education, or being a part of someone's childhood. What a responsibility!

For me, visiting a school is kind of the best of both worlds: I get to go back and be a teacher for a day with a very specific lesson plan, if you will, based on my writing experiences, my experience in the publishing world, or my books. It all depends on the age of the kids I'm visiting and what the school has asked me to focus on. So it's just a great opportunity. It is fun, it is ongoing research, it makes me feel like I'm keeping in touch with real kids and real teachers. And at least for the chapter books I'm writing, a good number of them are about the school experience. In fact, many of them fall into a genre of books called "school stories," which are essentially books about kids and teachers revolving somehow around the school situation. So, it certainly does keep me in touch with what I'm writing about, and it's a lot of fun.

eToys: Those students are lucky to actually meet the creator behind the works that they're reading.

Andrew: It's an experience I never had, growing up. It's a fairly recent phenomenon, and it speaks to a number of issues. It's demonstrating a level of commitment to books and reading, and I think that may have been fueled in part by the technical revolution, by the encroachment of screen time. Everywhere that I've visited, all across the country, parents, teachers, and librarians are eager to make sure that books are getting their fair chance to be seen as fun, as worth spending time with. It's important that screen time doesn't take up all of kids' time, because screen time and page time are very different. During page time, you're really alone, with one other voice, typically. And screen time, whatever it is--whether it's TV, a computer, or a computer game--you are not alone.

eToys: Based on your experience as an educator and writer, what do think is the ideal balance of education and entertainment in children's books?

Andrew: Well, education is a funny word. Everything is educational, and the question is, is it the right education? Especially when you're talking about children, balance is a matter of asking very basic questions: Is this book or TV show or Internet site good? Is this worth a child's time? Is this going to move a child forward as an individual? Is it going to help children find out more clearly who they are, what they know, what they like, what they're able to do, will it help them develop a talent, develop an understanding, something of substance? So that's always got to be the question, and I think the word in your question, what is the right "balance," well, that kind of has to be worked out individually. But balance is the key concern. Too much of anything is definitely not healthy -- if things are kept in balance, then you have, I think, what would be thought of as a good education.

Double Trouble
in Walla Walla


The Landry News

Big Al

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