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S2: Rating, middle grade rating for kids who are in third, fourth, fifth, sixth grade. That’s just like the sweet spot for school visits. You do occasionally talk to somebody who writes young adult who’s moved into middle grade. So they’ve been going to high schools and talking to high school students and then they come talk to kids in fourth and fifth grade and they’re like, oh, my God, I’m never going to go talk to teenagers again in my life. This is so much better.
S1: Welcome back to Working, I’m your host, June Thomas,
S3: and I’m your other host, Ramona Lum
S1: Reman. The voice we just heard belongs to Stuart Gibs, who is a writer of middle grade books, a term I need you to educate me on very soon. But before we get to that, I noticed from your excellent Twitter feed that you seem to be on a bit of a spring cleaning job right now. Does that fever extend to your creative life?
S3: I think it’s mostly in so far as it’s a form of denial or distraction from that creative life. I, I do have a couple of pretty big projects that I’m meant to be working on. It’s a very familiar pattern of behavior. Rather than deal with my work, I have to get really involved in organizing the Tupperware or, you know, it’s sort of a classic distraction.
S1: Perfect. So who is Stuart Gibbs and what age group are his books aimed at?
S3: So Stuart writes middle grade novels, you know, think of those fat paperbacks that are for kids who are old enough to read solo, but really still too young to care about the kinds of things that teens want to read about. I think it’s a very particular sweet spot that both of my boys happened to be in right now.
S1: And are they fans of Stewart’s work?
S3: My younger son and I have read a ton of Stewart’s books together, including all of the installments of a series that he writes about a zoo called Fun Jungle there, mystery novels. We’ve read all of them, including the brand new one, which is called Bare Bottom, which comes out this week. And he is a big fan. And it’s like maybe just incredibly corrupt of me to want to cover this thing that my own child is a big fan of really won me some parenting brownie points to be able to get Stuart Gibbs on the phone for an interview.
S1: Well, forgive my very profound ignorance of childhood development schedules, but our students books intended for kids to read by themselves. Are they for kids who are still being read to.
S3: I think that’s a really good question, actually, you know, both of my boys, they’re 11 and eight, they’re old enough to read by themselves. But with Stuart’s book in particular, these are books that I have read aloud to my younger son, Xavier, at night, right before bed. You know, they’re not written to be read aloud the way that illustrated picture books are, but they’re not written not to be read aloud. You know, a teacher in a classroom could read these to their students over the course of a week. Xavier and I read for about 30 minutes before bed every night. And, you know, these are really good stories. They really hold your attention for about half an hour.
S1: I love to hear that, because I know you you’ve mentioned several times that you always read before bed. So I love that you’re actually reading multiple times with multiple different members of your family. It’s a really lovely picture.
S3: Yes. One of the particular risks of that, though, is that reading aloud makes me incredibly sleepy. It really primes me to go to bed when the kids go to bed, when in fact I stay up for like three or four hours longer than they do. So it’s really a challenge. But Stuart’s work has brought a lot of happiness into my household, which is really like the best and all you could ask for writing for children. You know, Xavier and I like I said, we’ve read the Fun Jungle Books. Stuart has another series called Spy School, which is exactly as it sounds. It’s about a boy at boarding school that turns out to be an academy for FBI agents. Xavier and I are currently reading the first installment of a series about a character named Charlie Thorne, who is a genius 12 year old girl who is recruited by the CIA. You know, we read these books. We talk about what we read the previous night. We talk about certain subplots or certain details. We sort of revisit like every evening. We sort of recap what we read last night. I’m pretty well versed in Stuart’s work at this point.
S1: Yeah, bet I would kill to hear some of those literary discussions. Sounds really lovely. Before we get to the interview, though, I also want to mention that Sleepless next, we’ll hear a little something extra from your conversation. What will that be?
S3: Well, Stuart talked a little bit about what’s on the horizon for him. So we’re breaking news here on including about the books that he’s working on next. And I also handed the mike over to my son, Xavier. I let him play podcast host. And speaking of which, June, he’s going to send his invoice in this week.
S1: OK, do not under any circumstances miss that. And why would you when it’s so easy to subscribe to Slate? Plus, you’ll get exclusive members only content, zero odds on any Slate podcast bonus episodes of shows like Slow Burn and Dear Prudence. And you’ll be supporting the work we do here on working. It’s only one dollar for the first month to sign up. Go to sleep. Dotcom slash working plus. All right, let’s hear Remands conversation with Stuart Gips.
S3: So, Stuart, your first book was published in 2010. So I’m so curious to hear briefly what you were doing in your adulthood prior to becoming a writer of books?
S2: I was actually as I was struggling to become a writer of books, I was working as a writer of screenplays. And so I did find a way to to write writing books had always been my dream. And when I was a kid, I was tracking down agents and submitting my books to publishers with no success. But I realized there were other ways to try and be a professional writer. So when I was in college, I worked for television news. I wrote for a local newspaper, and then I decided to give screenwriting a shot. So I moved out to Los Angeles and was able to sort of pound the pavement, meet the right people, get jobs, writing screenplays. But the film business, as many people know, is is a very strange business. You can actually make a living, but have very few things actually come out. And when my son was born, he was about to I was sort of had this moment one day where I thought, you know, one day my son is going to say, what do you do for a living? And I’ll be like, I write screenplays that don’t get made into movies, you know? And so I thought at the time sort of had come to try writing a book again. And since I was repeated at my agency that handled my screenwriting, also had a book division. And I should say that I was actually thinking that I was going to write books for adults. And it wasn’t until this particular agent, my agent, Jennifer Joel, called the very first conversation I had with her said, hey, have you ever thought about writing middle grade that I kind of went like, oh, I guess I guess I could do that. Yes.
S3: So that’s so interesting to me to know that it hadn’t occurred to you prior to that first book. And I just want to say so that first book, it’s called Belly Up. It’s a mystery set in this sort of combination of zoo and theme park in Texas. That theme park is called Fun Jungle. My younger son and I have read all of the books. We’re big fans of it in this house. And it is a book for young readers. It’s a book for what we call middle grade readers. It sounds like it was your agent’s brainstorm. Did you ever conceive of yourself as writing in that space?
S2: Well, when I wrote movies a lot of the time, I was writing like family movies, we would call them. And and a lot of the time I would have an idea for a movie that people would say to me, oh, that sounds like it’s a movie for kids. Even when I had thought it was a movie for adults in the first place, there was a classic where I had thought about doing a comedy set in the American Revolution and people were like, Oh, for kids. And I was like, why would that be for kids? And they say, well, you know, you learn about the Revolutionary War in elementary school. And I’d say, Yeah, but it’s still a war. You know, it’s not like a fun war where, you know, the people were fighting with cream pies or anything. So so I would have these ideas. And one of the ideas I’d been playing around with forever was this idea about trying to do something set in a zoo. And every time I tried to do something set, Zuby would be like, no, that’s for children. Belly Up was originally even in the book version. I had thought I was thinking it was it would be a mystery that the zoo vet would be the guy who suspected that this hippopotamus was actually murdered and investigated. And the moment Jennifer Joell said to me and I thought about writing middle grade, I thought, wait a minute, that crime is the perfect crime for a kid to solve because there is no hippo homicide division of any police force in the country. The moment the kid goes to the police and says somebody murdered the hippopotamus at the zoo, they’re going to say, you know, they’re not going to take him seriously. And so he’s going to take it upon himself to go investigate this himself.
S3: When you’re writing a screenplay, a family screenplay, you’re writing that screenplay for the director and the actors to bring it to life. Right. But when you’re writing a book for a young reader, it’s going directly into the hands of an eight year old and nine year old, an 11 year old, and they’re interacting with it personally without the intersection of a director who’s a 45 year old person. So what’s the difference in that particular exchange for you artistically?
S2: When I write for for my target audience, I really try not to write down to them, I really just try to write the book that I would want to read myself. I’ve never been that cautious about how big the words I use are or anything like that. So I just try to sort of engage my readers on the level that I would engage them if I was talking to them in person. And, you know, I mean, there might be like there are certain topics that I can’t write about for that age range, but I didn’t want to write about those topics anyhow, really. So, I mean, I’ll give you one story that I wasn’t when I wrote Belly Up there. There is there’s an issue that that the hippopotamus in question was a particularly unsanitary hippopotamus. And hippos have this habit or it’s actually a behavior where they called dung showering, where they fire a stream of feces and spread it out with their tails. And I didn’t put that in the first draft of the book. And then I was talking to my first editor and I said, I don’t know if this is the sort of thing I should be writing about for middle school or fourth and fifth grade boys. And he said, no, no. That’s exactly the sort of thing you should be writing about for fourth and fifth grade boys. So I said, OK, here we go. And that is
S3: you bring up an interesting point actually about gender in the reader because. The hero of the jungle is this intrepid young man named Harry Fitzroy, who my kid really loves, who is a boy who knows a lot about animals and cares deeply about animals. You have a boy who’s kind of a proxy for a young James Bond in a series you’ve written called Spy School. I mean, you have written a great girl protagonist in another series, Charlie Thorne, who is like a girl genius CIA agent. I guess my question is whether. There is a way that the market distinguishes between like this is a book for boys and this is a book for girls and how the artist kind of response to that or whether that’s an old fashioned way of thinking about books.
S2: It’s not really an old fashioned way. Is that when I was hired to write when my publisher bought belly up, the idea was that they needed to get boys reading books, that girls were reading books in this space. But there were not that many books for boys. I think some of that does come from the fact that girls are maybe a little more open minded about the protagonist that they’re willing to read about, that girls don’t seem to make a huge delineation between whether or not the protagonist is a girl or a boy. But at least at the time, the perception was that the boys were doing that and that we needed more books with male protagonists. I can’t guarantee that it hasn’t changed somewhat over the time that the belly up has come out. But certainly when I when I first started writing, that was thought. And I mean, there are sort of those two reasons that two reasons that I made my my protagonist were all male. One was to try and attract boy readers. And the second was that I was a boy myself at one point. So I had some idea of how they thought. But in targeting boys with my books, that didn’t really preclude girls from reading them. Girls were perfectly happy to read my books and they don’t seem too bothered about the idea about reading a book with a boy who’s a protagonist.
S3: Yeah, and you know, little girls that age are as amused by a hippo showering feces on a human being as little boys are. You know, some things are something of an appeal for all.
S2: Yes, exactly.
S3: So you have two kids yourself, and you mentioned kind of impetus toward book writing upon becoming a father. But I’m just curious about, like, the ways in which your kids affect the work that you do. Is it like a market research thing, having two kids in the house, or were you really writing from a perspective of your own memories of being a kid yourself?
S2: I know I’m definitely drawing a lot of my own memories, but having the market research team in the house has been really, really beneficial to talk about the Fun Jungle series very quickly. My children started to influence that series because I was writing about animals. And so in Poached, which is about a kidnapped koala, there is this sort of subplot involving sharks. And that came about because my son was very into sharks at a very young age and said, you know, people are afraid of sharks and they shouldn’t be afraid of sharks. And he had a whole theory that great white sharks had not killed as many people as people thought, that maybe bull sharks were to blame. But but that certainly we should sort of mystify the danger of sharks. And I thought, OK, that’s really important. You aren’t going to work that in. And then when time came to write the third book, as I was trying to come up with the idea, you know, I sort of done like, oh, a murdered hippo and a kidnapped koala. There was something a little bit silly about those ideas. And my family and I went to the San Diego Safari Park, which at the time had four of the remaining eight North African white rhinos on Earth. And now there’s only two left. This species is about to go extinct. But my son was was so moved by the idea that this species was going to go extinct. He he said, oh, you have to write about rhinos and poaching and extinction. And I thought, well, that’s you know, it’s kind of a heavier topic there. But if he wants to hear about it, then I guess other kids want to hear about it, too, and it will resonate with them. And so he influenced the series that way. My daughter then, as she grew up, started to influence what animals I talked about as well. And then they also they’re also part of my editing team. So they get to read a book earlier in the process than most other kids do, are they don’t they don’t have to wait till the finished copy and they will catch continuity errors that will catch you editing mistakes. They will occasionally catch a plot flaw. So they’re they’re very important on my on my team. I don’t know what I’m going to do when they age out. Really? Yeah.
S3: It’s funny to hear you talk about the complexity of writing a, you know, a plot that is a crime plot that also talks about the extinction of an animal species. Like that’s a very serious thing in the new Fun Jungle Book, which is coming out this May, May of this year. It’s called Potom. You’re doing a similar thing, there’s like the fun plot that animates the story, which is about like, did this wild bear somehow accidentally steal this very expensive piece of jewelry? But underneath that, there’s a conversation about some serious things, sophisticated ideas about the relationship between white Americans and Native Americans, for example, or the stewardship of America’s public lands and. I feel like as someone who has read these books to my kid, I think part of what’s interesting to me is the way you don’t avoid these complex topics. It’s of a piece with, as you said, like not avoiding hard words.
S2: Part of what my job entails is talking to my readers and going to schools and and talking to students and which I did not know was part of the job when I when I first said, oh, yeah, I’d be happy to do a book deal. But it’s this fascinating part of the job. And so there have been things I’ve noticed that certainly kids are able to deal with these topics. But when I first wrote about poaching and I would talk to kids about it, the school, they would there was sort of this thing where they could sort of kind of pooh pooh the idea and be like, OK, we know that’s a problem, but we don’t have anything to do with it. Right. We you know, we we don’t kill rhinos for their horns. We don’t import rhino horns. So that’s like a problem that other countries have. And then I start to think, but there’s plenty of issues in our country as well. And certainly I’m trying to write for kids all over there. But my target audience is very much the kids I’m talking to are here. And so you think like, OK, something like human wildlife conflict where we’re just expanding into, you know, wild animals are running out of room and everybody’s great with having grizzly bears until one wonders into your neighborhood or something like how our national parks were formed. And I love our national park system. I think it’s one of the greatest things about this country. But when you start to go, oh, wait a minute, like where did that land come from? People were actually living on it when we declared a national park. You know, those are important things, some of which I only discovered in really writing the books myself. And when I hit on something like that, I think, well, you know, that’s something that kids should know about. And so and they are always ready to handle that topic.
S1: We’ll be back with more of our conversation with Stuart Gibson. One of the things we’d love to do with the show is help solve your creative problems, whether it’s a question about productivity or a specific inquiry like whether a bear or a hippo makes a better protagonist anything at all, send them to us at working at Slate Dotcom or give us a ring at three or four nine three three w o r k. And if you’re enjoying this episode, don’t forget to subscribe to working wherever you get your podcasts. Now let’s return to Roman’s conversation with Stuart Gibson.
S3: One of the other things that was really, really notable to me in this new book is so bellbottom. We see a lot of characters who we’ve met before. One of them is this sort of, you know, minor character who is a kind of he’s an employee of this zoo. He’s like the suit. He’s the public relations guy. And in this book, we understand that he’s gay. It’s never come up before in the context of any of the books because it’s not necessary per those plots. But something about the plot of bellbottom requires the introduction of his partner and. There’s something really incredible to me about that it would have been utterly mind blowing to me as a child myself reading this when I was 10 in nineteen eighty seven, but in the context of two thousand twenty one, it’s just the world as it is for young readers. And I think that that’s really incredible.
S2: Well, well, thank you. I appreciate that. You know, it certainly has been something that’s been on my mind as I’ve been writing the books. And this is another thing that comes out from a lot of my readers. A lot of readers are saying, when are you going to introduce LGBTQ a plus characters? And I do read books that are for middle grade and therefore not primarily about like the relationships of the kids. They may have crushes or things like that, but but that’s not what’s driving them. So I’ve thought about, well, how do I work this in? And to me it just seems like, you know, my kids, we live on the street. There are several gay couples on our street. My kids don’t think anything of it. That’s just life for them. And and so, you know, in this day and age, to have my protagonist, Teddy, just be like, oh, I mean, it doesn’t make a big deal of the fact that Thwacker is gay. It’s just like, oh, FTS here is his husband’s here and that’s life. You know, it’s always interesting me what I’ve gotten the most pushback on from usually not readers, but parents of readers. And talking about homosexuality is one of them. The other is talking about climate change. And and what’s very interesting about when people are angry at me about talking about homosexuality is that generally the way that they phrase it, it’s almost like there’s been a guide to how you respond to this is to say I don’t think your readers of this age should know about this. And but, you know, when are they supposed to know that? Right. And so you’re usually not supposed to engage somebody on something like this. But every once in a while, somebody will write to me and say, I’d love to know what you were thinking and I’ll write back to them, say, I was thinking I would include this because it exists. And now my kids know it exists. It hasn’t affected them adversely in any way. If anything, it’s made them more understanding and and compassionate and recognize that all people are pretty much like one another. And it doesn’t matter who you love.
S3: I mean, my kids have two dads. So, of course, that particular mention didn’t hold any interest for him because he wants to know who committed the crime. That’s the only interest he has in reading the story is like, what’s the solution to this particular story?
S2: Well, that’s that’s sort of what I’m going for there is that is that it should just feel like it’s just natural. Right? Right.
S3: It’s just the the texture of life itself. You know, my son actually had a question. You want to play it, Kameron? They’ll be great.
S4: My name is Xavier, I’m eight years old.
S3: Do you have a question for Stuart Gibbs?
S4: Yes. Like what inspired him to write, like books about mystery? Like what inspired him to write like look like cases that you have to solve? Like. Yeah. And like when he writes his books. Does he know who like who ever took the necklace is going to be or does he like just work his way there and start piecing it out himself?
S2: OK, first of all, Xavier there has he’s an excellent interviewer that was so articulate, that’s fantastic. I write mysteries, I think, for two reasons. One is that I’ve always loved mysteries ever since I was a kid. I loved reading like the Encyclopedia Brown series by Donald Sobol or The West End Game by Alan Raschein is one of my favorite books of all time. But I read like every mystery I could get my hands on. And I think over the years, like, why did I like mysteries so much? And I’m pretty sure it’s because it’s a story where the smartest person wins, that the power of the person, be it Encyclopedia Brown or Sherlock Holmes, is that they are smart and respected for being smart. They might not really be good at fighting or shooting or, you know, what a lot of movie heroes are good at. But they can figure out what the bad guys are up to and they can figure out how to defeat them. And so I’ve always liked that and and was drawn to that. But also I you know, since I write them because that’s how my brain works, I don’t necessarily always set out to do a mystery. I did the Moonbase Alpha series, which is set in the very first moon base. I did not intend for that to be a mystery series. I was just trying to figure out how to do a story set on the first moon base. And everything I kept coming up with was a mystery. And a mystery is actually a very good way to sort of, you know, introduce is setting. It gives you excuses to go to all these different places in that setting. And it provides a really good structure because you you know, the crime is committed and you’re here has to go and find all the clues and then solve the crime. And then maybe there’s a little action sequence. But then the story is pretty much over and you know where it’s going to end. And so I’d like that. Which sort of leads to the other Xavier’s other question there about do I know who did it? And I do. I outline everything ahead of time. I believe there may be a mystery writer, too, out there who does not do that. But for the most part, the mystery writers I know do plot out the mystery at a time, figure out who did it. And that doesn’t mean you can’t change your mind. There have been two cases where I actually changed my mind about who my bad guy was, which meant I wrote a mystery so good even I didn’t know who did it. But but for the most part, I have a very good idea of who did it. And I’m working towards that. And that allows me not only to sort of construct the mystery the way I want to, but also to throw suspicion towards all the other characters as well.
S3: Well, it’s going to be thrilled that you answer this question. And I am I am also thrilled to learn that you are an outliner and that you have a sort of methodical approach, although I’m not that surprised because it would seem to me that your work would demand it, because as we’ve discussed, you’re writing the series, the Fun Jungle Series, which is all set at the zoo. But you’re also you have these other series, one set on the moon. You have a series sort of like a James Bond series set at a school for spies. You have a CIA series. You’re bouncing between these different worlds. And it would seem to me like you would have to stay organized. Do you work on these individual books simultaneously?
S2: I really try not to. I try to only be working on one draft of a book in one series at a time. So I might be working. I might finish the first draft of a book in one series and then move on to the fourth draft of a book in another series, maybe the tenth draft of the book. And in another series they go back to that first series again. So, yeah. So there’s I’m not really the most organized person, the yellow pads all over my office where I got all the ideas down and try to at least have one yellow pad for a series of her book. And so I know where all the ideas for that one book are. But I am I am jumping around between the different series to get everything done on time.
S3: Well, it seems to be working because, you know, your first book came out 11 years ago and by the end of twenty, twenty one you’re going to have twenty four books in libraries. That’s pretty. You can’t really argue with results like that. You also mentioned earlier your own surprise that part of being a writer for children is being in schools, is being in libraries, because being available to your actual readers, it’s it seems to me quite different from being a writer for adults. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about what that is like and and whether you enjoy that aspect of the job.
S2: I do really enjoy that aspect of it. I do wonder sometimes I have become friends with a lot of authors who are very outgoing. We figure there’s got to be a whole bunch. Authors who must not say who became an author because the last thing they wanted to do was talk to people. And so I guess they don’t do it. But but I actually do really enjoy talking to the students. And it’s very fun to engage with them, in particular, writing middle grade writing for kids who are in third, fourth, fifth, sixth grade. That’s just like the sweet spot for school visits there. They’re just so engaged. They have such great questions. You do occasionally talk to somebody who writes young adult who’s moved into middle grade. And so they’ve been going to high schools and talking to high school students and then they come talk to kids in fourth and fifth grade and they’re like, oh, my God, I’m never going to go talk to teenagers again in my life. This is so much better with these kids. But that is certainly an aspect, the change that I can’t do any more. But we have all this new technology that happened to come along just at the right time that I can visit schools, I can do a zoom or and I can put my presentation up and I can come to these kids in their own homes. And, you know, that’s not exactly the same. I missed the back and forth interaction with the kids, but it’s it works well enough that there is a lot of thought that maybe this is going just to be the way of the future, that that we’re not going to do away with in-person visits, I don’t think. But it just if I want to talk to a school in the East Coast, it’s so much easier for me to just hop on my computer for an hour in my office than to jump on a plane and fly. And so so I don’t I don’t think that Virgin’s going to totally go away once the pandemics are. I think I think there is going to be a whole avenue of of talking to students virtually that on a regular basis.
S3: Younger readers in particular, this is something that I really remember from my own youth, like when you love a book, you can read it so quickly and you just want the next one. You want more. You fall in love with this character, with this universe, and you want more out of it. So hence the popularity of the series like Fun Jungle you have. There are seven installments now, right? So their bottom is the seventh. So you even note in the afterword to this book that this book is a departure because it is not set on the premises of the zoo. The characters have there in Montana for reasons that are clear. As you read the book, is it hard for you to stay locked into these worlds that you’ve established? Do you ever want to just write a one off and, like, be done with it and leave the characters and the world behind or.
S2: Well, when I first started writing the all these series, I didn’t know they were going to be series. So when I when I wrote Belly Up, I did not know there would be another book in the Fungible series. When I wrote Spice Girl, I didn’t know there would be another Spice Girl. The reason we do a series is not really because we know that kids are going to want one. And that’s good for sales. It’s because you fall in love with your world and your characters and you don’t really want to leave them behind. And so it’s even hard for me now to even think of what a one off would be, because I think the most recent series I started was Charlie Thorne. And by that point I was I was thinking, gosh, I I’m going to fall in love with my characters again, I think. And I and I’m going to do all this work to create Charlie in the world and everybody around her. And I’m probably not going to want to say no, that’s it. After after book one, which is exactly what happened. So I’m not I’m not against that. In a weird way, one of the hardest things I ever had to do was I did have to end the Moon Base Alpha series. And when I had created that one, that was the first time I actually created a series. And I knew it was going to be a series. When I wrote a book, when I knew that I had the clout to have a book two and three, and I thought, oh, I’m setting this on the moon. It’s got the potential. This could be like a 20 book series for all I know. And in my quest to make that series is set in the near future in two thousand forty one. And I was trying to be as realistic about space travel as possible. And in the quest to be as realistic as possible, I made the world really kind of limited. And this moon base is very small. Wherever you go on the moon, it’s just moon dust and and lava rock. It doesn’t really change. And I got I started book three and thought this is actually going to get really repetitive if I keep going beyond book three. And I called up my editor, my publisher and said I got to end the series. And and I I was unhappy to do it, but I just thought so when you were talking about, like, saying, OK, well, there’s these there are some constraints. Yeah. That certainly happened in that series in the Fun Jungle series. Like, yes, keeping it at Fun Jungle is a bit of a constraint, but there’s a whole other world out there and there’s all sorts of things that can go wrong.
S3: And so you found a good workaround in there. But I will say, like, it didn’t it doesn’t disrupts the logic of the series, even though it’s not in the police for which it is named, because you have all the same characters. And at any rate, my my son was wrapped. Stewart, it was really such a pleasure to have you on working. Thank you so much for your time.
S2: Today is a pleasure talking to you. Please give my best to Xavier.
S3: Yes. Yes.
S1: It was wonderful to hear for your son Xavier and to hear that he clearly has strong opinions about Stuart’s book. I didn’t realize until I heard this interview how much time writers of books for kids spent visiting schools and talking to kids about their work and reading and so on. That really makes me think that writing for children is a special vocation, like the talent and the creativity that all writers need still has to be there, but there’s an extra requirement of being able to interact with readers who happen to be young people. Was that something you were aware of before you had kids?
S3: No, it isn’t something that I knew about it, but you’re right, you know, writers for adults were asked to sell our book, you know, by tweeting, by sitting on panels, by attending conferences, doing events at bookstores and libraries. Writers for kids do all of that stuff as well. But the thing that they do that writers like me don’t is they go into schools and into libraries and they talk directly to their readers far, far more often than people like me do. You know, that is if they want to if they’re adept at it. And I think clearly from talking to Stuart, he is good at that. You know, he’s a dad and maybe that has something to do with it. But you can just kind of tell from our conversation that Stuart is the sort of grown up who can have a conversation with kids.
S1: Totally. I know your last book, the wonderful Leave the World Behind, came out when humans were not interacting in person. So no in-person events for that. But you’ve done that for your other novels, asking if you enjoy doing readings and hearing from readers feels too loaded a question. But let me ask instead, what’s the most fun thing about those kind of book events for you, the writer?
S3: You know, I do think it can be rewarding and, you know, I have to say it’s kind of fun to see people who care about your book. You know, you can’t you can’t ever count on that. And the notion that there are real people, real, real readers out there who are not part of your immediate family who spent their attention on your work is really satisfying. But I definitely can see how it might be especially invigorating for a writer who’s working for younger readers. You know, kids, they just they love deeply and their attention can be even more galvanizing than the attention of an adult reader. And kids are so funny and they’re so curious about such unpredictable things. You know, like with Xavier, often when we were reading Stuart’s Fun Jungle Books, you know, they have a lot of detail about animals in the natural world and never would interrupt me to tell me the animal facts that he happens to know. And it’s so charming when you see young minds at work. And I bet if you write for readers that age, you find that really lovely.
S1: Yeah. Something Stewart said made me feel guilty for having been a horrible cynic for years, which was that he doesn’t write series for reasons to do with sales, but because he falls in love with the world and characters that he’s created and he doesn’t want to let them go. I absolutely believe him. And what a wonderful statement about how much fun it is to create a world that you then get to wander around into.
S3: It’s so funny that you would mention that, because I noticed that as well. And I also really believe him even in our conversation, which was very grown up, you can tell that Stuart has this enthusiasm for his work that’s kind of childlike in its purity in the best possible way. You know, and in his new book, Bare Bottom, for example, you can see Stuart pushing the boundaries of the fictional worlds, trying to broaden the scope so that he can stay with these characters. You know, and I just don’t think you could do that if you’re sole motivation was financial.
S1: Yeah, I was really fascinated to learn from him that the two biggest drivers of complaints by parents are the presence of LGBTQ people in the books universe and discussions of climate change. Honestly, that second item surprised me, didn’t you?
S3: You know, I can understand it. You know, for starters, corporate forces have been extraordinarily successful at framing climate change as a political issue, which it plainly is not. And parents have a desire, an understandable one, I think, to protect their kids. But this, I think, tips really quickly into condescending to them and shielding them from the reality of contemporary life, whether that’s racism or homophobia or climate change, by suggesting, oh, kids don’t need to worry about such matters. But, you know, raising kids in ignorance of such things is just malpractice.
S1: Yeah, there’s something really poignant about thinking of kids aging out of a certain kind of book. It’s one, of course, of many such acts that they do over the years. But it’s also kind of sad because certain series and characters are really important to some kids. Are there any books that you read as a small child that still stick with you?
S3: Oh, because so, so many I mean, for me personally, books like Harriet The Spy by Luis for to you and I have talked about this before is a very important touchstone. Judy Bloom’s work was really important to me. And now sort of seeing my kids do that is very affecting. My younger brother had a baby a few months ago and I pulled several of our favorite picture books off the shelf. And I, I put them away for my nephew. And it was so sad. You know, I’d done the same thing with our board books quite a while ago now sending them off to friends or to second hand shops. But, you know, June, in truth, part of the reason the house is so messy right now is that there are many board books I just couldn’t part with. And they’re downstairs and they’re still in my mind. You know, you read these books over and over again before your kids are able to read and they become much more than just physical artifacts. They really become narratives that mean something, at least in my life.
S1: Yeah. So as a father, you do something that I and some parent don’t do, which is read and by a lot of children’s books, but even some parents like me need to buy gifts. Are there any that you want to recommend for? No nothings like me.
S3: The truth is that it’s really no different than with books for adults. You know, I could tell you to read my favorite books, quiet modern novels in which nothing happens. No, but the recommendation really means more. If I understand what you want out of a book and kids have their own tastes, you know, some like mythology, some like animals, some like science, some like comics. And there are great books for readers of every age on every one of those subjects and more. And the expert is really just as close as the library or a wonderful kid’s book shop like. New York’s Books of wonder, hmm,
S1: have you ever thought about writing for kids?
S3: Oh, I have. But the truth is, I don’t know if I could do it. I think sometimes we assume that the comparative simplicity of a child’s intellect must mean that writing to entertain them should be really simple. But I think that’s really wrong. I think it’s a real skill and some people are actual geniuses at this sort of thing. Beverly Cleary comes to mind. Judy Blume does Jason Reynolds or for younger readers, people like William Steiger or Miracleman. When you talk about Ramona Quimby, you know, for Beverly Cleary to have made that book is as significant as for Hemingway to have written his books. It’s not just something anyone could do.
S1: So true, no doubt whatsoever. Listeners, we hope you have enjoyed the show. If you have remember to subscribe, whatever you get your podcasts, then you’ll never miss an episode. And yes, I’m going to give you a sleepless pitch slate. Plus, members get benefits like zero odds on any Slate podcast bonus episodes, shows like Slow Burn, for which there is a brand new season that just started this week. But I also hope you would like to support the work we do here on working. It’s only a dollar for the first month to learn more, go to sleep. Dotcom’s working.
S3: Plus, thank you to Stewart Gibbs for being our guest this week and as always, enormous thanks to our producer, Cameron Drus. We’ll be back next week for June’s conversation with the cartoonist and graphic memoirist Alison Bacto. Until then, get back to work. Hazlet plus listeners, we have a little something extra for you this week. Here’s a short conversation that I had with my son Xavier, who’s eight about Stuart Gibs most recent book. And then I let Stuart listen in and weigh in on what he thought of his reader feedback. So I’m going to read you part of bare bottom, and when I was reading it to you, you started laughing and I want you to tell me why you loved. OK, so in this part, all of the family and friends have just finished having dinner. And here’s what Teddy says. It took a few more minutes for everyone to leave because adults can never say goodnight or goodbye quickly.
S4: That’s true. Yes, because every time I go to a party, like my parents always say, like, OK, it’s going to be like a quick high and like it ends up being an hour. I’m like, but isn’t this supposed to be like two minutes long?
S3: So what is it about these books that you think is funny?
S4: I can I can really relate to them.
S3: I mean, so what you’re hearing is my eight year old telling you that he can relate to this fictional world, which is, you know, I will say I did not coach him on things like this is really what he had to say. What is it like? I’m so curious to know how you do that. So we’re like, how do you stay connected to creating a texture of reality that kids will find relatable?
S2: Well, it’s it’s funny you picked that clip because I, I remember writing that scene and and that was just one of those moments where my children are always getting on me back before the pandemic about that exact thing. And I thought, like, oh, I sure I was upset at my parents for doing that. And so when you’re trying to write in the perspective of a 12 year old, you’re always trying to just, you know, be in that frame of mind of what would Teddy think? And I got to that point about like, oh, all the parents, you know, are supposed to say good night and go to bed. But, of course, like, they don’t do it and and Teddy’s going to comment on it. And so I was not like I didn’t like that’s not a detail I worked out ahead of time. That was a detail. I sort of just in that very moment, I thought, like, oh, this I know exactly what’s going to happen here, because if I was away with my kids, I would say, OK, it’s time to go to bed or whatever and then sit around for another half hour and give me a ton of crap about that. And so so every once in a while, you just have that moment go. Oh yeah. Yeah. No, this is like just in the moment you go, oh right. This is what Teddy would think and. Yeah, yeah. And some kid somewhere is going to say, yeah, that’s exactly what you do.
S3: Stuart, what is your twenty twenty two look like. What are those yellow legal pads in your office looking like right now. Like are you engaged in working on something new or are you just thinking about the promotion and protection of the books that are coming out
S2: in two days and twenty two? There will be a third Charlie Thorne and a ten spy school. There’s going to be a spy school graphic novel and I am going to start a new series that is a bit of a secret. It’s going I don’t have the wherewithal to do another big chapter book series. So this one is going to be a little more heavily illustrated. But it’s a shorter book. It’s, in theory, written for slightly younger kids. But I think it’s just going to appeal to the same group of kids I’ve been writing to all along and maybe their parents and everybody as well. So, gosh, I’m not even sure how much I’m at liberty to say about this yet.
S3: We don’t have to hold you to it. But I’m just right. My sense the reason I asked is that I just my sense that you are somebody with a really powerful ethic, work ethic and an imagination. And there’s a lot happening there. And like I said, twenty four books in eleven years. That’s a pretty crazy number.
S2: It is I think in a sense, it was like a reaction to having worked so long in the film business and I did have movies come out, but my my publisher actually sort of likes to recall that, you know, you sort of build up this the cynicism in the film business that nothing is ever going to get made. And when I turned in my final draft of Belly Up, they said, OK, you know, it’ll come out in six months. And I was like, yeah, well, I understand if something goes wrong, it doesn’t come out. So now the book is going to come out. I’m like, I’ve heard this before. And they’re like, no, no, no. The book comes out. And so, you know, suddenly you’re like, wait, I can write stuff and it’s going to come out and people can read it. And so I was like, I’m going to do this as much as I possibly can. I’m going to write I’m going to write as much as anybody. Lets me write
S3: the reason No. One million the books are better than movies, I think. Like conclusive proof. Right. Right. That’s about it. Thank you again, sleepless listeners.