July 26, 2017

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From Speechwriter to Fan-Favorite “Stick Dog” Author: Chatting with Tom Watson

The success of Tom Watson’s books can be summed up by an experience I had with a downcast eighth grader who wandered into the library dejectedly seeking respite from the combined assignments of Night and To Kill a Mockingbird. When I offered the student Stick Dog, he perked up considerably before saying “Am I ALLOWED to read this?” There are times in this troubled world when Stick Dog is exactly what all of us need to read. Today, Mr. Watson catches us up on the inspiration and plans for our favorite junk food-obsessed canine.

Who were you as a middle-grade reader and student? What books were your favorites?

I was a comic book guy.  My favorites were Daredevil and the Black Panther. My dad had a collection oftom watson Horatio Alger books, believe it or not. I read a bunch of those at that age. They were all about poor, destitute kids who make it by working hard and being honest. Total cornball stuff. But I wonder sometimes whether they might have influenced the way I’ve shaped Stick Dog. He is, after all, a very honest and heroic pooch.

My favorite picture book was, Go, Dog, Go!  A bunch of dogs ride around in cars – and then they have a big party in a tree.  I love the randomness of that.

One of your previous writing jobs involved working for a government official. What inspired you to change gears?  How do the skills you acquired in political writing benefit your fictional works for young readers?

I worked for U.S. Senator John Glenn right after college. He just passed a few weeks ago – and it has stirred some really warm memories for me. He was an amazing and modest man. We could use a little more modesty in the world today, I think.

I was also the Chief Speechwriter for the Governor of Ohio – and I do think that experience translates to the books. With speechwriting, you write for the ear. My writing was meant to be heard, not read. I think that comes through in the books. I like to think my stories sound different in a young reader’s mind – or if they’re used as a read-aloud. My goal is to make it feel like storytelling at the bedside or at the kitchen table. That’s what I shoot for anyway. It’s a subtle difference in the narrative voice, but I think it’s a distinct difference. That’s probably way more information than you wanted.

stick dogLike any good writing for children, “Stick Dog” can be enjoyed by older readers as well as the target demographic. How do you manage to create humor on a variety of levels?

There is a video of a father reading the third “Stick Dog” book to his son on my website. The dad can’t continue reading any longer because he’s laughing so hard. The mom in the family is a librarian and shot it in secret from the hallway and sent it to me. It’s my absolute favorite thing.

I love to hear from parents, grandparents, and teachers who are laughing along with the story. I get stuff from teenagers too. I like to think of it as adult humor in a book for kids. It’s irony, self-deprecation. Very character-driven. There is no bodily-function humor in my stories. And I think it’s sort of long-form.  Jokes take a while to build. And there’s certainly no mean-spiritedness in the humor.

Most important, I like to let the kids in on the joke. I think it’s empowering. It makes them feel smart – because they are smart. So, Stick Dog’s friends will do or suggest something entirely ridiculous and implausible. But only Stick Dog and the reader know how crazy it is. Then it’s fun for the reader to watch Stick Dog be a leader and wriggle his way out of the verbal predicament while never hurting anybody’s feelings.

Are you more of a cat person or a dog person?

I’m definitely a dog person. Mainly because I’m allergic to cats. I have very little frame of reference or insights into cats.

That said, I think Stick Cat is the funniest thing I’ve written. The book started coming together when I began to shape Edith, Stick Cat’s best friend, as a character. Stick Cat himself is logical, practical, stick catsmart, cautious in many ways. But Edith is, umm, different. I wanted her to embody the prissiness, the standoffish nature of cats. She thinks a lot of herself – and rarely for good reason. But she’s also incredibly brave – but sort of not-so-smart brave. All of those traits come together in Edith – and play a role in their adventures.

The Stick Cat book was really just going to be a one-off in the “Stick Dog” series. I think it was going to be number five. But when HarperCollins met Edith, they decided just to make it into a second series.

Notebook-style novels are very popular. What motivated you to create an illustrated novel? Was it difficult to go from creating your own drawings to working with an illustrator?

The notebook thing really happened just because we needed to identify a narrative voice for the story. Who was telling the story? It made sense to make it a fifth or sixth grader. I think of it as an older brother telling a story to a younger sibling. And where would someone that age write their story? In a composition book. That’s sort of how the packaging came together.

It is a popular genre, that’s for sure. What’s funny is that I wrote the original Stick Dog story just for my kids about nine or ten years ago, when they were six and seven. It was before the whole notebook novel thing even happened, I think.

I do all the original sketches for the story and then send them to Ethan Long who is a world-class illustrator. He takes them and finishes them up. He uses my style – if you can call stick-figure drawing a style – but just cleans them up. He can show motion way better than me. I love that he can do that. We e-mail and talk often. It’s a partnership. He makes the books better, that’s all I care about.

We really needed to collaborate on Edith in Stick Cat. She kept looking too much like Stick Cat as we bounced things back and forth. And then I had an epiphany: What if Edith is the only one of my characters without right angles? What if she’s, you know, round. That’s when we got her right.

stick dog 2I usually say that series should only be five to seven books long, but I would make an exception for “Stick Dog” since they don’t need to be read in order. Did you know from the beginning how many books you would write about Stick Dog?

Well, I’m glad you said that. Because there are going to be 10 “Stick Dog” books! When I first signed with HarperCollins, I already had three stories written. I thought we might get to four. I had no idea there would be 10. I work really hard to make the stories different – even though each one is a quest for food. The next one is titled Stick Dog Craves Candy. It’s got a little Halloween tilt to it.

What was your favorite costume for Halloween?

In about fifth or sixth grade, I convinced a group of friends to dress up with me. We went as Christmas carolers. So we’d knock on the door and when people opened it, we didn’t yell, “Trick or Treat!”; we started singing Jingle Bells. Most people thought it was funny. But some older folks thought they had gotten their holidays mixed up for a few seconds.

What about “Stick Cat”?  How many books in the series are planned?

Well, it was going to be three, but I just signed for two more. So there will be five of those. The second book comes out in April. I think it’s even funnier than the first.

Any more hints about what else is going to happen in either series?

I think Stick Dog and Stick Cat may get together in the same story sometime soon. But that’s a secret.

In the future, would you prefer to continue to do series work or write some stand-alone titles?

I like the idea of a series. I love being able to develop characters and story lines over a series of books.  In “Stick Dog,” for instance, we understand that one of the dogs has a deep dislike and real resentmentstick dog 3 toward squirrels. In the first few books, that becomes more and more animated. It’s a funny bit. Later in the series, I have time to explain what happened in his past and why he feels this way. And then, ultimately, he does get to come face-to-face with a squirrel. I don’t think I’m overstating things by saying that it is, without question, the greatest confrontation in American literary history.

I certainly wouldn’t rule out a stand-alone title though – if the idea was right. I’ve been thinking hard about doing something for younger readers too. We’ll see. I’m pretty busy with cats and dogs right now.

Why do you write humorous novels for middle-grade readers?

It’s because I want to accomplish two simple things. First, I want to make kids laugh. We need more laughter in the world. Second, I want my readers to realize that reading is a blast. It’s fun. It’s exciting.  If kids are laughing they’re going to continue to flip that page – and develop a lifelong love of reading.

I try to do other things with my stories. I think there are important but subtle lessons about friendship, loyalty, patience, modesty. But laughing and loving to read are my main goals.

Why no Stick Chicken?

I’m Stick animal-ed out. Fifteen books by the end. That’s plenty.

And, let’s be honest here, I don’t think I could draw a Stick Chicken. It would probably just look like Stick Dog with feathers and a beak.

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Karen Yingling About Karen Yingling

Karen Yingling is a middle school librarian from the Midwest. She blogs about and reviews children’s literature at msyinglingreads.blogspot.com.

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