In addition to best-selling mysteries and thrillers for adults, James Patterson also writes for young readers, and he’s extremely proud of his “Middle School” series. The latest entry, I Funny, is told from the point of view of a middle schooler who uses humor to help him cope with a physical handicap and the loss of his family. In this case, laughter really is the best medicine for Jamie Grimm, the narrator of I Funny.
Your series for young adults, like “Maximum Ride” and “Daniel X,” have been checked out so many times from my library that they’re falling apart. What makes them so popular with teens?
Well, when my 14-year-old son, Jack, was younger, I told him that I expected him to read every day during his summer break. Jack was never a huge reader, but his mother and I told him that we would make sure he had really cool books to read. Cool books are ones that he wouldn’t put down and when he got done he would ask for another one. When kids are younger, we want them to read, read, read, and they will only do that if they like what they read. Kids in middle school need books with stories that move along, stories that they love, and pages that practically turn themselves so kids won’t pick up a book and say that they don’t like it and they don’t like reading. I think that books need a lot of meat in them. For example, Maximum Ride is really about a couple of things beyond the story line like dealing with being different. It is really about kids taking responsibility for their own lives. My most popular books are the Middle School books.
Why did you create the website Read Kiddo Read? Has it made a difference in kids’ lives?
Absolutely! Part of my interest in creating the website was watching Jack grow up and watching his attitude toward books. Even with his friends who are very bright, it has always been a struggle to get them to read at least on their own time. That is a big stimulus for me. As individuals we cannot do much to help the health care crisis, budget situation, or global warming. Unfortunately, we spend a lot of time just talking about these things, which doesn’t help anything, and I am big on doing stuff. As individuals, we can most times get the kids in our houses reading or our grandchildren reading, or we can even help our local school get more books. So doing something to get kids reading is a big deal for me. I have been trying other things too, like working with independent bookstores to hold essay contests, where kids write about a book that most affected them. I have set up over a 100 scholarships at different colleges across the U.S., and they are all for teachers. We plan to double this number in the coming year. We have even set up a program at Vanderbilt University to bring in kids every Saturday to help improve their reading skills. I am testing an after-school program in four middle schools in Palm Beach County to get kids help with their reading, and we pumped 700 to 1,000 books in all these schools. If we can get a cadre of kids reading, the teachers will notice when their reading improves and more kids will start reading and over time this will improve the neighborhoods. I do all of this because I can. We must help kids build good habits and break down bad ones. Getting kids to read will not happen overnight. We must keep at it and get the right books into the right hands.
Why does the “Middle School” series focus on humor?
Humor is one of the ways to get to kids. Combining the prose and illustrations makes the book more like a movie, and that’s a cool thing. All the Middle School books are good stories. I think that I Funny is my best.
I like I Funny‘s main character, Jamie Grimm. Could the story have played out the same way if he wasn’t in a wheelchair? Are you worried that some people might be offended because he makes fun of his handicap?
I like the idea of a kid having a terrible break in life, rising above it with comedy, but yes the story would still be valid if Jamie didn’t have a handicap. Nobody should be offended by this book. I am not big on political and social correctness, because I think it is more important to be a good human being.
Which gets us to the contest for the Funniest Kid in America. What kind of response are you hoping for? How does the contest relate to your literacy work?
Some kids are going to be brave enough to submit videos, but we are going to put a lot of videos up on the website for kids to watch and that should be fun. I recorded a bunch of short pieces with Zach Gordon, who was in the Wimpy Kid movies, to introduce the idea of the contest. We want to get kids attention and hopefully this will help them start building the habit of reading.
Elizabeth Kahn is the librarian at Patrick F. Taylor Science and Technology Academy in Jefferson, LA. She writes reviews for School Library Journal and Library Media Connection as well as a blog to chronicle the happenings in her school library at Tales from a Loud Librarian.
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