Reluctant Readers, Writing Humor, and Books that Inspire
Jarrett: I’m doing great! Thank you so much for having me. It’s a real pleasure to be invited on to speak about these topics that I’m very passionate about and to be involved in WriteOnCon in some way.
Sarah: Yeah, great to have you! For those of you who may not know, Jarett is the author of ENGINERDS. Jarrett, can you tell us a bit about your book?
Jarrett: Sure, yeah. ENGINERDS is the first in a series. It’s a middle grade adventure story about a group of very clever, crafty kids who like doing things like borrowing their parents’ vacuum cleaners and making hovercrafts or, in this case, building some robots. And in ENGINERDS, these robots start showing up on kids’ doorsteps and they do some pretty crazy things, including assemble themselves and demand to eat all the food in everyone’s house. And after eating the food, they compact it all down into these little cubes. There’s a flaw in their design and instead of dumping out these cubes in some normal, safe, harmless manner, they fart them out at extremely high speeds, start injuring kids and breaking things, and they get loose in the town. The kids have to band together to figure out who’s behind these robots, why they’re sending them to the Enginerds, and how to stop them before they all get in some serious trouble.
Sarah: Okay, I have to ask, what inspired you to write this novel?
Jarrett: When I first got into the kid lit world, I was writing young adult. I wrote young adult for years and got an agent actually for my young adult work, and I wasn’t selling it. I finally sat down one day and I was frustrated and I said, you know what, I’m gonna write just a purely fun, enjoyable story that is amusing to me and that makes me happy and makes me laugh. Because my other stuff was humorous, but it was also a little bit heftier. And I said I’m gonna write the book that 10-year-old, 11-year-old me would have been obsessed with and this poured out of me, and I showed it to my agent, and I was like hey, I tried to write a little middle grade. And she was like, “This is the best thing you’ve ever written, like this is you.” So that’s how I came to write this story. I guess I’ve always been interested in robots and things like that, but this is like 10-year-old Jarett stream novel so that’s where it came from.
Sarah: That’s awesome. So I’ve actually heard that writing humor is very difficult. What are some methods that you use to get into the right humorous voice?
Jarrett: One thing I do is I try to read other books that have made me laugh. I also just try to be in the right the right frame of mind. I try to always find humor in the world around me, but you’re not always in the right mood. There are certain things I know I can do to get myself relaxed and at ease and feeling positive and happy. Sometimes it’s listening to music. I have certain music that I listen to that’ll get me into a more buoyant, happy mood; music that always cheers me up. Make sure I’ve got a full stomach so I don’t get hangry during writing. It’s a lot of stuff. I feel like that goes towards just trying to write in general. But humor is often written in revision. Sometimes I even write, “Insert funny scene here, this character needs to make a joke right here,” and keep this scene moving. So often humor is the work of revision and fine-tuning those jokes and those silly bits so they land right.
Sarah: That’s really interesting. You mentioned that reading other books that make you laugh gets you into that framework. Are there any books that you would recommend or that come to mind?
Jarrett: Yeah, there’s a lot of great funny books. One person whose humor I’ve always loved, I’ve loved him since I was a kid and he’s still one of my favorite writers, is Jerry Spinelli. He’s got a way with language and a way with humor that I think no one else does quite like him, and it’s so fluent and it comes off so easy and I’m sure he worked hard at it. But I’ve always loved his humor and he has this ability, which I aspire to do, to switch registers from humorous to serious and deep in the space of a sentence, which I have always admired. So he’s a big influence on me. I also really love Jon Scieszka, I’m a big fan of, and Judy Blume has always made me laugh. There’s a couple new books that I’ve read just this year that really inspired me, especially the humorous stuff: Dusti Bowling’s INSIGNIFICANT EVENTS IN THE LIFE OF A CACTUS, Shelley Johannes’ BEATRICE ZINKER UPSIDE DOWN THINKER. Those were two of my favorite books last year and they were both very humorous and those are two of my new favorite writers, I think.
Sarah: I’ll have to check all of them out; they sound amazing. How can you tell if your humor is actually funny or just funny to you?
Jarrett: Ha yeah, that’s important. I mean, I think everyone’s had the experience where they think something is hilarious, a story or something, and they start telling people and a quarter of the way through the story they realize they see all these blank faces, and they’re like okay this story is not going over well, and like do you jump ship or do you keep going? It’s definitely hard, but I think with humor, just as it’s important to get feedback and give your books to your agent and your editor or beta readers, I think with humor that’s especially important. I always ask people who I have read for me, “Mark down, remember where and what made you laugh,” and sometimes it’s what I hope for and what I expected to and sometimes it’s stuff that I didn’t even think was funny that people loved. I think you need another set of eyes on your manuscript. There are techniques to get outside of your own perspective in your own head so you can look at your manuscript with fresher eyes by yourself, but when it comes to humor, another set of eyes is so important. Because yeah, all of your jokes might be falling flat for whatever, there’s a lot of reasons why, but it’s hugely important to get an input on that.
Sarah: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. It kind of ties in with what you were saying about how a lot of it happens in revision. The feedback you get is a big important part of that.
Jarrett: Yeah and I’ve revised. I always have my wife, she’s always my first reader, and I’ve had jokes or funny lines that I thought would get a laugh out of her that haven’t and sometimes
it’s as simple as removing a word, sometimes the rhythm is just off. Or sometimes you just need an extra beat before so you need an extra sentence instead of taking out a word. You need just an extra moment, an extra pause before that joke lands. It’s sort of like when we watch a stand-up comedian, their timing, if they’re really good, you don’t notice how good their timing is. They just seem so natural and perfect and spot-on and a lot of times it’s about fine-tuning that rhythm. That rhythm and the timing.
Sarah: You mentioned earlier how much you admire Jerry Spinelli’s ability to go from humor to serious just in a single line. Do you have any more thoughts on how a writer does that?
Jarrett: Yeah, well it’s really interesting. This is something that I love thinking about and talking about and a great example of another person who does that is Dusti Bowling who I mentioned in her book INSIGNIFICANT EVENTS IN THE LIFE OF A CACTUS. She combines humor and
seriousness in marvelous, astounding, such impressive ways. I think it’s definitely hard to write about anything serious, but I think humor offers an avenue towards seriousness that a lot of people, readers and writers, might overlook. Because to me humor is the great leveler of human experience. Humor is the thing that brings us closest together. It has a way of taking down our armor and making us feel closer to each other. Sharing a laugh is one of the closest ways to feel more in line with someone or feel like the person next to you isn’t a stranger. If you share a laugh over something, you’re suddenly neighbors, some random person on a train or something. But it’s also, we’ve all been the butt of the joke, we’ve all been the target of humor so it works both ways. I think it reminds us of our vulnerabilities so it either accesses our empathy very quickly by reminding us of times that we were vulnerable and we were made fun of, or we’re the innocent embarrassing situation and it was funny from the outside, or when it’s funny from the inside and our empathy is engaged through that sense of community and that sense of sameness of finding something funny that someone else does. So I think humor, through those means, offers a really quick path towards seriousness and towards being able to lead your reader into the darkest places, the deepest places, the most serious places. And someone like Dusti Bowling really shows us, and Jerry Spinelli, in their writing how by making you laugh in the beginning of a passage, at the beginning of a sentence, you’re more keen and you’re more willing to let them lead you into that darker serious territory. So it seems paradoxical, but I think actually if you can write humor well, if you want to go there and you’re willing to go there, you can write serious well too. It’s two sides of the same coin, but one helps the other. My favorite serious books, my favorite books that would never be marketed as humorous or given to someone and say, “You’ll get a laugh out of this,” are the ones that don’t deny themselves those humorous moments because life is humorous. You could be at a funeral and someone could in a eulogy crack a joke and that could be a beautiful, beautiful thing. Humor is never far from seriousness and I think it’s the best writers who see that and capitalize on that. So it’s definitely hard, like anything in writing, to combine those two. But I think the route between the two is shorter and closer then a lot of people think.
Sarah: Wow, that’s really powerful. I love what you said about how it seems like two such totally separate things, but really it’s two sides of the same coin. And what you said about how at the heart of both of them lies just human vulnerability and connection so that makes it a lot closer than it seems.
Jarrett: I also read another middle grade book recently by Michelle Cuevas called THE CARE AND FEEDING OF A PET BLACK HOLE. It was one of the most beautiful books I’ve read in a while. It’s just passages of pure poetry. It’s just gorgeous, but she combines humor and seriousness, and humor and severity, and lightness and darkness, in a really powerful, incredible way like I said with Dusti and Jerry Spinelli doing it in the space of a single sentence. It’s just really astonishing, but it’s really true. I feel like that really gets to the heart of the human experience and kids’ experiences because we’re writing for kids and talking about writing for kids.
Sarah: I’ll have to check that book out. I really admire that skill as well. We just fall into stories that seamlessly do both. I could probably talk about this forever! Next question for you is, what ways can writing humor help engage reluctant readers?
Jarrett: Well, I think two ways. The first I would say is what we were just talking about, that it can engage them through that neighborly way that a funny joke, something that you laugh at with someone else, that shared experience can turn a stranger into a neighbor. It sort of makes a book less threatening or seem less of a task, like it’s an assignment, it’s homework. So it can bring them closer to the characters by using humor to engage their empathy more so they just feel more attached to the story and interested in the story. But the other thing is just that it teaches kids that books aren’t boring and they don’t have to be boring. There are certainly boring books out there, and there are certainly books that one person finds boring and one person doesn’t. My father is an academic, and I think what he does, so is my mother, but I think what they both do is very interesting and important, but sometimes I read their academic papers and it’s not for me. I can’t read a whole academic book in a sitting like the two of them can. So for me that’s boring. And for a lot of kids, you give them a Newberry winning middle grade novel that’s full of some really serious, deep, important issues. It’s just not what they need, it’s not what they want in that given time. You can work towards that, but I think reluctant readers need to be taught there are books for everyone and they’re out there and some of that is just a problem and a question of access and getting it in front of them. But the lesson that books can be fun and that they can be an enjoyable pastime is huge. And being an author, I see it. Being an author of humorous books, I see it all the time. Kids think they’re almost getting away with something they shouldn’t be by laughing at books, but we’ve got to let them know that books can be a joy, and humor is I think probably the most direct way to show them that. And later on they can see all the other joys that come from reading a story that maybe goes into deeper issues and harder topics, but it’s a great way to show people the joy of books and reading.
Sarah: When you say you see it all the time with young readers coming to fall in love with reading through these humorous books: do you have any experiences or certain stories that come to mind?
Jarrett: There are kids who, at events… Every event you do as an author is different. Sometimes there’s really great turnout, sometimes there’s low turnout, sometimes the kids who you’re talking to are psyched to be there, sometimes they don’t really realize who you are or what they’re doing in front of you if you’re at a school. But sometimes when I’m at bookstores, I’ve done a couple things at bookstores where I’m not on a panel, but where I’m just involved, like a grand opening celebration I did recently or just an author day where the kids walk around and they meet authors.
Sarah: That’s so cool!
Jarrett: Yeah! And sometimes they’ll say, “What’s your book about?” because they noticed the cover because I was lucky, fortunate enough to get a really great cover. And I tell them about my books and when I get to the part about robots farting, their eyes light up and some of them even like, if they’re with their parents, they sort of side-eye their parents and be like oh my god
am I gonna get in trouble like I’m not supposed to say fart at home, but I guess this adult is allowed to write stories about it. So there are moments like that where you can see a kid’s eyes light up in excitement. And also, this is a classic, but the Captain Underpants books, I mean those are rightly a classic, but you give those to a kid, and I’ve seen it a million times. I’ve gifted those books countless times and their eyes go wide and they just sit down right there in the middle of a room and start reading and looking at those marvelous illustrations because they didn’t know books could be so fun. So yeah and seeing that, seeing a reader, seeing a kid sort of maybe not right there and then become a reader, but decide that maybe they ought to give reading another chance or that they might be into reading is the best part of my job. It’s such an inspiring, exciting thing to see and I think it’s why a lot of us write for kids is to reach them like that.
Sarah: Wow, I love that. That’s very wonderful. How can books inspire hands-on activities? Have your books ever done that? Do you include activities in the back? What do you think, what are your thoughts about it?
Jarrett: Yeah, so my books don’t actually include any activities like some of the other books do for kids. They could because there’s certainly a lot of activities, but one thing I like to do with my books and one thing I love when I encounter it in books is finding kids and characters who are really passionate about something. I read a lot of adult fiction when I was in high school and college, and I felt like so much of the fiction that I was being given by teachers and that I was finding on my own was about writers. And it’s a big thing to write about writing and write about writers in adult fiction, but as kids writers, even though our passion is writing it’s… There are a few books that get away with it really well. CILLA LEE-JENKINS: FUTURE AUTHOR EXTRAORDINAIRE by Susan Tan is a middle grade novel about writing that does it really well. But I love finding kids who are passionate about something else in books and writing about kids who are passionate about something they like doing. So in this book, in the Enginerd series, these kids are hands-on. They like building things and taking things apart and I love giving kids something besides writing or reading, which are obviously my passions, that they can maybe look at differently and say hey, maybe I could get into this too and showing these kids getting excited about things besides books in ways that might inspire them. I think passion is contagious and infectious. So showing people passionate I think is a great way to get kids searching for their own passion, which is a really important part of growing up especially in those middle grade years. And showing kids that and giving them ideas for things they can do outside of the book in a subtle way implies the value of a book. That they can go to a book to learn something or to get ideas that take them out of the book. So when I talk to classes or on my website, I have some activity guides and discussion questions. I always try to do stuff that’s based in the book as well as stuff that will launch them outside of the book that is more thinly tethered to my own book, but that will let them create on their own and become creators themselves. Because that’s a way of showing them, hey I read this book and it gave me this awesome idea like the Captain Underpants books or the Dog Man books now. So many kids, I see this almost every time I do a signing or an event or I go to a school; there are kids there who have their own comic books that they made and who want to show people and I credit so much of that to Dav Pilkey and the Captain Underpants books because he showed kids who were passionate about doing this thing and it got kids doing it themselves. It showed them that they can go to books to get ideas and to have a good time and laugh and have a story, but it can also be a place of inspiration. So I think including kids who are passionate and doing things and other activities, whether it’s building robots or playing sports or participating in gymnastics or drawing their own comics at home, is a really important thing for kids who are at this age. Really trying things out and trying to find their passion or passions plural.
Sarah: Could you give some examples of some of the activities that you share in class or that are on your website?
Jarrett: Yeah, well one I do… So the kids in my book build robots so one thing that I love doing- and there’s a purpose behind these robots, there’s a reason why they’re being built and why they’re doing what they’re doing which is eating all this food and farting it out- the one activity that I love to do with kids is I have them design their own robot. And I usually like to have them draw it. A lot of them don’t think they’re good illustrators or good drawers, but
if Dav Pilkey has taught us anything with his Captain Underpants books it’s that anyone can be an accomplished professional artist. And Dav can draw really well, I’m sure he’s a great draftsman, but he draws in that kids style that’s sort of basic, almost primitive style, to make it more approachable for kids. So I always try to encourage kids to draw even if they think they can’t because they can. But I have them design their own robot visually and then with descriptions and say what it would do and why it would do it so you know, maybe it would be… a really basic one would be like a room cleaning bot, a robot who would clean your room. And some kid really wants that and I challenge them to think about things beyond their own
individual needs. I talked about some of the robots that are being built today by like
SpaceX or NASA or there’s some companies here where I live in Boston that are doing some really cool robotic stuff for great purposes like helping out in hospitals, helping nurses transfer patients to beds in a more safe, easy way rather than have three nurses try to carry someone into a new bed or down the hall or whatever. You can get a robot to do it. Or, you know, self-driving cars. Or there’s a hotel in Japan now that is fully staffed by robots
Sarah: What! That’s crazy, wow.
Jarret: Yeah! So I tell them all these things and then I encourage them to think about greater purposes for their bots. And some of the kids automatically already go there, like “I’m gonna have a bot that goes and cleans debris after natural disasters,” and I’m just like wow you’re already an amazing person. If they don’t go there immediately, I encourage them to think about what are uses in the wider world and sometimes the things they come up with, it’s already happening, which is really cool. And that’s opening their eyes to maybe that’s something I want to be involved with. So that’s on activity that I really love and it engages their creativity and all sorts of other things.
Sarah: Wow that’s really cool. Okay, after this podcast I’m gonna go design my own robot.
Jarrett: Yeah! Come on, It’s really fun. They always ask me what I would do and I have to come up with a thousand different answers. But it’s fun.
Sarah: You mentioned before that you actually got signed as a YA author first and you wrote a YA book. What do you think it was about writing this middle grade that unlocked your “This is the most Jarrett book I’ve ever written!” kind of thing?
Jarrett: So yeah, it’s interesting. I think the best way to say it, or the easiest way to say it, is that I’m not a young adult writer. I thought I was a young adult writer. I read young adult like crazy and I knew I wanted to write children’s literature. I was also reading middle grade back then and picture books and chapter books. I read everything, but I thought I was a YA writer and that’s what I was writing. It’s really interesting because my agent didn’t have this idea until later on, but after like three manuscripts or something with my agent, every one when she would give me feedback- well I’m moving ahead. I got my agent for my YA, but I’m moving ahead. Every manuscript I got whether we sent it out on submission and it didn’t get bought or whether we just did a couple rounds of revision with it, she always said, “Your characters are sounding a little young. The stakes that they have in their lives are more in line with younger kids and their voices are younger. You need to make these kids more like teenagers, more like older kids because you’re saying that’s their age.” And it took my agent finally saying, “Why don’t you just try, why don’t you just write middle grade?” I realized that that’s where my voice was but it took years and I had to write several other novels in order to get to that epiphany. But as soon as I started just saying, you know what, yeah, I’m gonna write middle grade, just that two letter switch in my head, YA, MG, as soon as I allowed myself to think of myself as a middle grade writer, the manuscript started pouring out of me. It was the biggest burst of creativity I’ve ever had. I wrote several things and not all of them will go somewhere, but yeah, it was just as easy as that. I mean, not easy. I had to go through that whole process, but just mentally thinking of myself, maybe you’re a middle grade writer when you’ve been stubbornly thinking of yourself as exclusively a YA writer, just that mental switch really unlocked so much for me. And I think that’s it, at bottom the voice I have inside of me, the characters and the stories I have to tell, are middle grade stories when it comes down to it.
Sarah: That’s really cool, and you’re so passionate about it. It’s amazing to hear.
Jarret: Thank you!
Sarah: You mentioned ENGINERDS is a series. Can we expect a sequel to come out any time soon?
Jarrett: Yep, the sequel, so I don’t have an official date. But I think it’s gonna be at the latest early 2019, so I’m not sure exactly when, but it’ll be probably about a year from now. At the end of the day, publishing is a business so depending on the sales of things, there might be a third. I have a third one lined up in my head to end the series, but we’ll see. I’m hoping it’s a third, but it’s only been out for a few months now, so we’ll have to see how it does. But yeah, I hope there’ll be many more.
Sarah: Wow, exciting! I can’t wait can’t wait to check it out. So finally, just to close off, where can readers and listeners find you online if they want to connect with you?
Jarrett: So I’m probably most active, and maybe even more active than I should be, on Twitter. You can find me on Jarrett underscore Lerner. I also am at Jarrett Lerner dot com and I’m at Instagram too. I’ve been encouraged by some friends to be more active on Instagram so I’m trying to do that and if you need any reason to follow me on Instagram, I mostly post photos of my baby and my cat. Often with books that I’m reading or they’re reading or I’m reading for them which is fun. I’m also a co-founder and administrator of MG Book Village dot org which I encourage everyone to check out and get in touch with us through our contact page or our contact form or on Twitter or on email with me, however you want to get in touch with me.
But it’s a place where anyone and everyone can come have their voice heard, whether you’re an author, a teacher, a librarian, just a parent, or even a kid. We’re over there, talking about middle grade literature, celebrating it, discussing it, and anyone and everyone can come have their say at the MG Book Village, so I’m over there a lot creating content and getting content and getting people excited about these awesome books.
Sarah: Wow, MG Book Village, okay I’m definitely going to check that out. After I design my robot, that’s what I’m gonna do.
Jarrett: Yeah, I’m giving you a to-do list.
Sarah: Honestly the rest of my day is full! Thank you so much for the conversation. It was really incredible, and thank you to all the listeners for listening! I’m looking forward to reading your book and to seeing how the rest of the series goes.
Jarret: Thank you so much. And it’s really an honor and a pleasure to be invited on. I can’t wait to see how WriteOnCon all pans out. I’m excited. I’m excited to be involved in it.
Sarah: Yeah, awesome. Thank you so much, Jarrett!