Jeff Baron is a relative newcomer to the world of children’s literature. However, since the publication of his first middle grade novel I Represent Sean Rosen and its follow up, Sean Rosen Is Not for Sale (both HarperCollins, 2013 and 2014), he has been speaking to teachers and librarians and visiting schools. For the past two years, he has also been working with the seventh grade students at the Ardsley Middle School in Ardsley, New York, undertaking an imaginative writing project that taps into family history, investigative reporter skills, and creativity.
School Library Journal caught up with playwright-turned-author to ask about his newfound career.
Tell us about about your character Sean Rosen and the “Sean Rosen” series.
Sean is a very funny seventh grader who has a lot of ideas for movies, TV shows, and games. He thinks these ideas are so good that big Hollywood studios should produce them. I Represent Sean Rosen and Sean Rosen Is Not for Sale are about a boy with no show business connections who figures out a clever way to get established in the entertainment business—while keeping it all a secret from his parents, friends, and teachers.
There are transmedia elements to the “Sean Rosen” books. Tell us about that.
Sean makes videos. They’re about donuts, dogs, hair, the post office, and his cousin’s bar mitzvah. He posts them on his YouTube channel, www.youtube.com/user/seanyrosen, and his website, www.SeanRosen.com. There are 27 videos now, and he keeps making new ones. The idea is that if you like [the] videos, you’ll want to read the books. Or if you start with the books, you’ll see that Sean talks about working on his “podcast,” but he doesn’t tell you what it is. You have to go online to see it. Reading the books and watching the videos combine to tell Sean’s story in a richer way than one or the other. The combination seems to work, because here’s the question kids ask most often: “Is Sean Rosen real?” Sean’s videos are also the way that Hollywood producers and studio executives can see a sample of his work, which plays an important part of the story in Sean Rosen Is Not for Sale.
A YouTube video from Sean Rosen’s podcast about his bar mitzvah, “I Can Tell Him U Like Him.”
Is there any part of you in Sean?
When I was Sean’s age, I was already writing stories and plays, but I wasn’t actually sending them to Hollywood or Broadway. 21st-century kids think bigger, engage with adults more, and are much more entrepreneurial than we were. Sean comes up against some of the same challenges I did as a Hollywood screenwriter, but I was in my early 30s and he’s in his early teens, which in many ways works in his favor.
For the past two years you have been part of a writing program at the Ardsley Middle School. Tell us about it.
It’s so cool, and it’s multimedia, more than just a writing program. It was inspired by the movie idea Sean Rosen comes up with in I Represent Sean Rosen. The kids in Sean’s movie are cranky about having to spend a week with their grandparents, until they discover that their grandfather invented a virtual reality time machine that allows you to go to any day in someone’s past if you have some of their DNA. The kids meet their grandparents as teenagers and discover how interesting they were (and still are). In our program at Ardsley Middle School, all 160 seventh graders (including the special learners) interview one of their grandparents (or an older relative or friend) about what they were like in seventh grade. The questions include: How would other kids in your seventh grade class describe you? Is that how you saw yourself? What was something about you or your family that other kids didn’t know? Then, using tools that I use myself as a writer, the students analyze these interviews and they each create a character based on their grandparent as she or he was in seventh grade.
Jeff Baron at the Ardsley Middle School Library, explaining part of the program.
In groups of four, the students come up with an original story based on an event from the interviews, using their grandparent-inspired characters. My favorite part of the program takes place in the school library, where these many groups of four sit at tables or on the floor, all figuring out their stories at once. The creative buzz reminds me of working with other writers on episodes of TV series in Hollywood. The question I ask [the kids] most often is, “Okay, those are the characters, but what happens?”
It sounds like a lot of fun. It also sounds like a good lesson for English teachers to replicate.
At the National Council of Teachers of English in Washington this year, we’re going to recreate parts of this program (including asking English teachers those probing questions about their seventh grade experiences), and we’ll talk about how other schools can do their own versions. The first year [of the writing project], each group had to pitch their idea, Hollywood style—I taught them how—to me and their English class. I gave them instant feedback and suggestions, the way a studio executive would. This past June, instead of a pitch, they had to write and perform an original short play, a period piece set in the year one of the team’s grandparents was in seventh grade. I shared the tools and principles I use as a playwright and gave them feedback on drafts. Then they performed their plays, complete with costumes, props, and video flashbacks, first for the fifth and sixth graders, then for one another. It was a blast. The teachers tied everything we did in the program to what the students had learned about character development, story, point of view, conflict, and drama during the school year.
What role did the Ardsley Middle School librarian play in the program?
Jean Mancuso was an important part of the planning for the event both years, but perhaps the biggest thing she did was establish a great creative atmosphere in the school library, where many parts of the program take place. Unlike when I was in middle school, where the library was a ghost town where you were sent once a year to learn the Dewey Decimal system, the Ardsley Middle School Library is like a community learning center where students love to be. Also, the first year of the program, to illustrate the value of interviews for developing characters and stories, I interviewed Jean in front of the entire seventh grade about her own seventh grade experiences and showed everyone a picture of her from back then.
How did you come to write books for kids?
It was a total accident. When I first thought of Sean Rosen, it was a movie idea. Then for some reason, I remembered something a FOX studio executive suggested to me years ago after I pitched a movie—”Write it as a novel first.” I had never tried writing a novel, but Sean Rosen’s voice popped into my head, and once he started talking, he never stopped. I thought what I had written was a novel for adults, that happened to have a seventh grade narrator. In fact, my first visit to Ardsley Middle School was simply to see if actual seventh graders believed Sean Rosen sounded like a real kid. They loved the chapters I read, which gave me the courage to find an agent. Julie Just, my agent, believed very strongly that what I had written was a book for kids. I was dubious, because the book was so inside-Hollywood, including deal points and emails from studio executives. She was right. Two big kids’ book publishers wanted it, and I am very happy in this new world of schools and kids.
Would you consider the “Sean Rosen” books to be “boy books”?
Like Sean Rosen, I write for a mass audience. When I hear from readers, it’s pretty evenly divided between boys and girls. That said, I’ve been told by teachers and parents that boys, who generally read less than girls, have a special connection to Sean. Because the books are written in the first person, and because Sean’s Hollywood life is a secret from the rest of the world, readers get to go inside his head and go through his thought processes. I’ve had a lot of boys come up to me and say that Sean thinks the same way they do. And teachers say that for boys who don’t like sports books or dark fantasies, the Sean Rosen books are perfect, because they’re realistic, and they’re funny. A lot of boys graduate from the “Wimpy Kid” books to “Sean Rosen.” And even though the ideas in the books are complex, the language and situations are very familiar. I hear that some boys who are generally reluctant readers stick with Sean through all 300-plus pages. Sean is inspiring for a lot of boys, because he’s an unlikely hero. What he’s good at isn’t obvious to everyone. Because his parents don’t know what he’s up to, they can’t do everything for him. He has to overcome obstacles and figure things out for himself. If Sean Rosen can do it, maybe I can, too.
I understand that there is a Sean Rosen Family Book Club. Do you think it is important for parents to read your books?
Important? Not necessarily, though I think there’s a lot in the books for families to talk about. Sean is faced with many interesting ethical issues, in his career, in school, and with his friends and family. I think if books that are basically entertaining for both kids and adults also provide a way to talk about important life issues, it’s a good way to put those things on the table. But the Sean Rosen Family Book Club mostly consists of fun activities. In a time when parents and kids often sit in a room or a car together, each on their separate devices, I think anything that can be a shared experience is valuable.
Tell us about the next “Sean Rosen” book.
It’s the summer after seventh grade. Something huge happens during the seventh grade class trip at the end of Sean Rosen Is Not for Sale that is a game changer for Sean in terms of both his Hollywood career and his relationship with his parents and his best friend. In the third book, we see how all of these things affect Sean, who is really starting to grow up. He goes to Los Angeles for the first time and gets tripped up in various funny ways by the tangled web he wove in the first two books. In addition to the movie he’s writing and the TV series he came up with, now Sean invents a game with a girl in his school and learns that it’s not so easy to be in business with a friend or a—well, we’ll see.