Andrew Clements Interview Transcript
- Grades: PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5, 6–8
With the guidance of discussion questions, students and teachers talked about Andrew Clements' books Frindle and A Week in the Woods. Then Andrew Clements himself joined in the conversation. The discussion took place October 18-29, 2004.
Mr. Clements, why did you decide to write about a boy figuring out a new word? Frindle is a great book.
Thanks. I'm glad you like the book. The story grew out of a time I was trying to teach some kids where words come from. I told them, "The truth is, all words were made up by people," and they didn't believe me. So I pulled a pen from my pocket and said, "What if we all started calling this thing a ... a frindle?" And that got everyone thinking. You can read the whole story of how the book began at a Web site called Frindle.com.
Did you like Frindle as much as we did?
I do like that book a lot, but my books are a lot like my children. It's impossible for me to choose a favorite. Books and people are hard to compare.
Mr. Clements, are you like Nick in Frindle?
I think I'm a little Nickish now and then, but I haven't met many boys or girls who aren't. How about you??
Did you ever have a mean teacher like Mrs. Granger?
I've had teachers like Mrs. Granger, but I don't think I'd call her mean. She was stern - very business like - but she was that way on purpose so she could help her students learn and think more clearly. And she sure didn't let anybody get away with being lazy or sloppy. At the time I had some teachers with these same qualities, I may have thought they were mean. But really, they were just trying their best to help me grow and learn.
How did you come up with all the characters in Frindle?
I guess I started with Nick, and then I put him a school, and a town, and a family. It all happens quite naturally, but the real job is to sit and take the time to think it all out. Finding characters often means sifting through memories of people I've known.
Why is Mrs. Granger so obsessed with the dictionary?
I can answer this, because I am at least as obsessed about dictionaries as Mrs. Granger is. The dictionary is like a time capsule of all of human thinking ever since words began to be written down. And exploring where words have come from can increase your understanding of the words themselves, and expand your understanding of how to use the words, and all of this can change happens in your thinking when you read the words. So I've given Mrs. Granger some of my own characteristics.
Did you get interviewed when you wrote Frindle?
Yes, I've been interviewed about this book many times. It's a book that seems to get people thinking and asking questions. Sometimes I can answer the questions well, and sometimes not so well. But I always try.
Did you make up a lot of words like Nick when you were a kid?
I don't think I made up any. There were a few around our house. My sister called her pillow a pilgo. My brother called his pacifier his nimma. But I don't think I was much of a word generator myself.
Why did Nick make the word frindle?
Like a lot of kids do, Nick got an idea, and he tried to do something with it. When he realized that what Mrs. Granger had told him - that people really do make up new words - he just had to try it out for himself. And that got the whole story going.
Where did you get the idea of Nick asking long questions? Did any of your students do that to you?
Kids did this to me all the time-especially my 8th grade students - and it always worked. It was very easy to get me off track because it's easy to get me talking about all sorts of things. And I always knew they were doing it to try to waste some time, but I usually managed to tie what I was rambling on about back into the topic of the class.
Was your English teacher like Mrs. Granger?
I have had several teachers who had qualities like Mrs. Granger has. I also worked with teachers like her, and during the five years I taught English, I think I was a bit like her myself.
HI! I really like how Nick's attitude is really funny, and he is a nice kid, and he deserves a list of his own, just like you said.
I'm glad you like Nick - me too. Thanks for letting me know.
Mr. Clements, How did you come up with the name Frindle for the book? Amber
Here's what I say about that on my Web site, Frindle.com:
I was talking to a bunch of first and second grade kids one autumn afternoon in 1990 at the JFK Elementary School in Middletown, Rhode Island. It was shortly after my book Big Al had been published, and that was one of the first times I had been a visiting author.
I was teaching a little about the way words work, and about what words really are. I was trying to explain to them how words only mean what we decide they mean. They didn't believe me when I pointed to a fat dictionary and told them that ordinary people like them and like me had made up all the words in that book - and that new words get made up all the time. Pulling a pen from my pocket I said, "For example, if all of us right here today said we would never call this thing a "pen" again, and that from now on we would call it a ... frindle." I just made up the word frindle, and they all laughed because it sounded funny. And then I said, "No, really - if enough other people start to use our new word, then in five or ten years, frindle could be a real word in the dictionary."
So that particular name, frindle, that just popped out of my mouth. I didn't sit and try to make up a funny sounding word. That I happened to grab a pen, I don't think that's an accident. I have always loved pens and writing things out by hand.
What inspired you to write the book A Week in the Woods? Thanks, M.S.
I've always loved the outdoors, and the woods of Maine and New Hampshire in particular. And when I was a graduate student, I went on a week of outdoor education as a student teacher with a whole sixth grade to state park on the Rock River in Illinois. Add about 30 years, the start of a writing career, stir, and out comes A Week in the Woods.
Mr. Clements, did you ever go camping as a young boy like Mark? Was the setting similar to the one in your book?
Yes, I've been camping the Maine woods quite a few times, and I drew on those experiences and memories to add the details in Mark's experiences. Personal experience - or careful research - is important to a writer. It's the details that make a story feel real.
Why did you put the date of the book called A Week in the Woods on Friday the 13th?
Honestly, that did not even occur to me. I'm not a superstitious person. I was just working with a school year calendar to make Mark's moving date be just after the year had begun at his new school in New Hampshire.
Do you have any kids who inspired you to write A Week in the Woods?
This book was inspired mostly my time spent in the woods and mountains, and also by a week I spent as a student teacher with about a hundred sixth graders at a state park in Illinois.
Dear Mr. Clements, when you were a little kid did you have any experiences like the ones in your books, especially A Week in the Woods?
A Week in the Woods grew out of my love for the Maine woods and the New Hampshire mountains, which I visited every summer when I was growing up. I was never truly lost like the character in my story, and I was certainly never rich like his family is. I did have the experience of being a student teacher with a whole sixth grade during a week of outdoor education at a state park on the Rock River in Illinois, but no one got lost. So that book - like most of my books - is a mixture of real experience and imagined events.
Mr. Clements, I enjoyed A Week In The Woods. Our school librarian read half of the book to our class. I liked it so much I got my own copy. Everyday I read more than 10 pages. I finished the book, but I wondered, how long did it take you to write this story? I wonder because it had so much detail. -5th grader
Dear 5th grader-
As I recall, it took me about eight months to write the book, and then another two or three months of working with an editor to get it as good as we could make it. And that's true of most of my middle-grade novels. Most take me about a year to get the words just right.
Dear Mr. Clements, I have a question for you. Was any one else in your family a good or great writer? I like your book A Week in the Woods. It is a really neat book. The first two chapters are really sad because the boy has to move away from his friends. Did you move away from any of your friend when you were a kid?
Thanks, A fifth grader Ft. Wright K.Y.
Dear grade 5 friend- Thanks for your kind words about A Week in the Woods. Yes, like millions and millions of other American kids, I moved more than once during my elementary and high school years. It's a common event, and I know my own experience with it helped me think about what it felt like to be Mark in that story.
Mr. Clements, why do you like to write stories if you find it difficult to do so?
Three days ago on a windy, drizzly day in New England, I stacked firewood for five hours straight, three cords of wood - had to be a couple tons of the stuff. It was difficult, but all winter now, there will be a cheery fire in the fireplace, and toasty warmth from the stove in my writing shed in the back yard. I like cheery fires and toasty stoves enough to want to do the hard work of stacking wood.
I know from my own experience that reading a good book can be life-changing event. So I'm willing, actually happy to do the work of stacking all those words so they'll give off some heat and light in another's life on a winter afternoon or a summer night. And if I have the ability to perhaps make that happen, then the work becomes fun.
Which character in your books would best describe you?
Tough question. Part of being a fiction writer is being able to imagine how someone else is thinking and feeling. I think I've always been good at that. But being able to imagine another's thoughts and feelings, and then to write about that person in a way that makes the character feel real to reader - does that mean I am actually like the character I've written about? And I think that every real person is actually much more complicated than any character in a book could ever be - and I think that's true about me, too. I've been a student, and I've gotten into some mischief, and I've been a teacher and a dad and a brother and a husband and an editor and a salesman and a son and a friend and a neighbor and a volunteer and now and then, I've been an idiot. So like I said, tough question.
Was the book that you found to be the most difficult to write, the one that took you the longest to write or did you find that it went smoothly after you got over the hump?
Right after I finished my first novel - Frindle - in 1984, I began writing another book about a boy who wakes up one morning to find he's become invisible. And I finished it, and sent it to the same publisher in 1985. They said no thanks, and asked me to write two more books about kids and teachers and school, which I did - The Landry News and The Janitor's Boy. Then I sent this other book about the invisible boy to them again, and again they said the same thing. So I wrote The School Story and a couple more books. After they said no thanks to my invisible boy story the third time, I sent it a different editor at a different publishing company. This editor liked it, but said I'd have to rewrite practically the whole thing. And I did. So in 2002, seven years after I first wrote it, a completely rewritten book called Things Not Seen was finally published. It took a lot of work and a lot of time, but I was very happy with the finished book.
Mr. Clements, my teacher makes me use pre-writing strategies and graphic organizers. Do you use pre-writing strategies? If so, what are they? How do you begin the writing process?
My whole life is a pre-writing event, right up to the second I sit down and try to catch an idea on paper. When I get an idea for a story, I make a lot of little notes. And as I'm writing on my computer, sometimes I get a glimpse of what's coming further ahead, and I'll type it quickly while it's still fresh in my mind, or I'll turn to my desk and scribble it onto a pad of paper. Sometimes I like to shut off the computer and just sit and think. There's no substitute for thinking time if you want to do good writing work. I taught in public schools north of Chicago for seven years - fourth grade, eighth grade English, and high school English. And I taught writing. If I went back to a classroom today, I would teach writing differently. My students would write far fewer things, and we would spend far more time on each project, pre-writing, writing, rewriting, reshaping, rethinking, clarifying, simplifying, expanding, sharpening, focusing. Because the difference between writing that's okay and writing that really jumps off the page and into a reader's head - the differences between them are usually small. It's all about the fine tuning, making little adjustments. And the only way to figure out what those small changes should be, is spend more time on the writing. So I'm glad your teacher is helping you think clearly about the whole process. Pre-writing is when you begin assembling the raw materials for your story: characters, basic plot ideas, small details that would be fun to fit in, events in your own life that relate. And I think I do prewriting every day. For example, I've been working on a book called Lunch Money since February. I only spend about five hours a day actually sitting in the shed in my backyard writing. But all the rest of the time, I'm thinking about what's going to happen next. I make little notes to myself and stick them in my pocket. And when I actually sit down and try to move the story forward, I gather all the bits and pieces together, look them over, and begin picking and choosing. Writing is all about choosing. And the more you have to choose from, the better. So pre writing is a valuable process, and it never really stops until the moment that you are certain that a piece of writing is absolutely as good as you can make it.
Hi! I have a question for you. Here it goes. Why did you decide to be an author? I really liked A Week in the Woods. My teacher read it to my class last year. It was a great book! Do you have any new books? Are you planning to write more books? I would really like to read them. Thanks for your time!
Milena L., 5th Grade,
It's not like I sat down and decided to become an author. I loved reading, and that got me hooked on the power of words. I began messing around with them, writing poems, then song lyrics. And years and years later, I began working for a children's book company, and the boss asked me to try writing a story for an illustrator, and that became my first published book back in 1985. So it's almost like writing came and found me - and the important thing is that I was ready to be found. I'm glad you liked A Week in the Woods. My newest book that's completely done and in bookstores is called The Last Holiday Concert. The book I'm working on right now is about a boy who wants to be rich, and also works at it. It's called Lunch Money, and it should be in bookstores in June of 2005. So I'm keeping busy, and I know you are too. Hope you're having a great school year.
What's up, dog? Why'd you want to be a writer? Word! PEACE!!!
Speaking of Word!, it was the words that got me, and the way great writers use them. And speaking of dog, read The Call of the Wild. Jack London takes you inside this sled dog's head. And when I was reading great stories, in the back of my head I'd be saying, I'd love to be able to write something like this. But I didn't actually start working at writing until I'd started college, and then I just messed around when I wanted to. To actually write a story that grabs someone's head, it takes some real work. And speaking of PEACE!!!, Amen.
Dear Mr. Andrew Clements,
Where did you get your idea about writing The School Story?
How long have you been writing?
Hi Gabrielle -
I've been writing - just messing around with words on paper - for almost 40 years. I've been getting books published since 1985, which is only about 20 years. So you can see there is a difference between just writing, and writing things that get published and sold to people. The idea for the school came after kids began asking me, 'If I wrote a book, do you think it could ever get published by a real publisher?" I started thinking about that, and the book is the result.
Are you married? If you are, whom are you married to?
I've been married to Rebecca Pierpont Clements for 32 years, and we have four sons.
Dear Andrew Clements, how long have you been writing books? Do you like writing stories? You are my favorite author. From Christina
My first book - a picture book called Bird Adalbert - was published in 1985, so that's almost 20 years ago. I do like writing stories because it's like being an explorer. Thanks for calling me your favorite author - such a great honor.
Dear Mr. Clements,
I am an aspiring writer, and I hope that you could give me some quick advice. I want to publish a novel, but where do I go? What do I do? I hope that you will write back!
I'm not the best person to ask, as I got published by first working for publishing companies for a number of years. If you go to a well-stocked library, there's a book called LMP - Literary Market Place - which is like the yellow pages of the book industry. The book lists all the U.S. publishers, and it also lists agents - reputable companies, which, for a percentage of any eventual earnings, will present your ms (manuscript) to their cultivated contacts at publishing companies. So you have to look at the publishers, see which ones might be right for your book, and then decide if you want to send your ms to them directly, or try to get an agent to do the submissions for you. So in general terms, that's the process. And if you have contact or friends in the publishing world, by all means, make use of them.
Even though writing is difficult for you to do, we think you are very good at it. What other talents do you have?
5th grade class, KY
Thanks for the kind words. Other talents? I play guitar well enough for others to enjoy listening - for a little while. I enjoy building things and have repaired and renovated a number of homes through the years. I've always loved pens (that 'frindle' means pen was not an accident), and I like making marks and doodling - I won't call it calligraphy. And I probably have other talents, but enough about me.
You told us that writing is difficult. What do you find is most difficult about it? What is the most difficult thing about writing?
Writing is the process of making thoughts visible to others. Speech is intuitive and natural, writing is not. And when I begin to imaginatively explore the experience of another person, and try to make another's thoughts and speech and experience feel real to a reader, then I learn how little I understand the process. Even though I've written a number of books, when I sit and start to try to write a new one, it's as if I have to learn how to write all over again. True, past experience gives me confidence that it can be done. But it does not make the doing of it any easier. And when I pick up a piece of writing that pulls me in and carries me along, where I can hear the voices in my thinking as I read, see the rooms and the furniture, feel the salt spray in the air, and the words seem to flow so effortlessly, I know now that the effortlessness is an illusion. The ease of enjoyable reading was created by a writer's hard work, pushing and pulling at the edges of language and thought and meaning.
As teachers, the goal of writing instruction is not to turn our kids into published writers. The goal of writing instruction is always clear thinking. Occasionally, there will a be young writer who can progress further and faster, and we have a special responsibiltiy to help that happen. But all need to learn to write because all need to be able to think clearly, and then capture that thought and send it on.
Whew! - that question got me going.
Mr. Clements, which kind of books do you prefer to write - picture books or novels?
Novels and picture books are so different. Some ideas are the right size for a picture book, and some need more room. On my frindle.com web site you can read "Nick's New Word" - a picture book version of Frindle that I sent to a lot of editors, all of whom told me that it needed to be a chapter book. I resisted, because I'd never written anything longer than a picture book. But I finally made myself sit down and try to write a sustained narrative. And that manuscript was rejected several times, too. But then one editor said she'd work on it with me, and my career as a published children's novelist began.
But I still write picture books, which I like to think of as a distinct literary form. There are usually twelve page-turns in a picture book, and the number of words per page must be controlled. But there needs to be character development, a problem to solve or an idea to explore, rising action, a tipping moment, and a satisfying conclusion. So a picture often has a lot in common with a novel. But there are only 12 page-turns.
Mr. Clements, who is your favorite author? Do you have a favorite book?
It's hard to pick one favorite, but I can say that when I'm looking for inspiration as a writer, I've turned a lot of times to the writing of E.B. White. He has a great control of language, and he also has a good heart. And you shouldn't be surprised when I say I think Charlotte's Web is one of the best novels ever. But there are so many truly wonderful writers, past and present. And future, no doubt.
All of your books are very popular with our students (and faculty!). Even my college-age son saw a copy of The School Story at home, read it, and could not stop praising it.
Keep up the good work.
Librarian, Shulamith School For Girls
Thank you for this news from the front lines. And thank you for your work as well. It's a good partnership.
Do you have a favorite place where you write? Is it in your home, the library, a cabin etc.? Do you have a favorite chair or desk there?
I have a small garden shed in my backyard that I've equipped as a place to write. There's an air conditioner for the summer, a wood stove for the winter, and yes, I've a got comfortable chair and a sturdy wooden desk there. I carry my laptop computer out to work, usually about noon after I've done e-mail and phone calls and correspondence in the morning. I try to spend time there at least 5 days a week. A good day means I've written 500-1000 new words and moved a story forward. But some days I spend more time thinking than tapping keys or pushing a pen. There's no TV, no phone (except a cell phone with a number known only by a few friends and family members), no Internet or e-mail, no games on my computer. When I go there, it's only to think and to write.
Hello, I am a kindergarten teacher in the Shohola Elementary School in the northeast part of Pennsylvania. I am in charge of our reading incentive program. The children in our school are crazy about your books. Do you do appearances in schools? We would love to have you come to our school. I can imagine you are swamped with requests like this, but we all figured that it couldn't hurt to ask. If you could let me know I would be forever grateful. We are looking for a guest author to speak at our school in April. Thank you for your time.
Dear PA friends-
It's true - I'm overloaded with kind invitations like yours, which is a truly wonderful, inspiring problem to have. After a few years of trying to accept all of them, I learned I couldn't do that and still have time to write. So I now accept only a few school visits a year, as I'm also visiting conventions and association meetings too. And my calendar gets filled up out in the dim and misty future. But if you contact my publisher, and if you can be patient, it's not out of the question.
Have you had writers block? If so what books did you have it on?
I don't accept the whole idea of writer's block. It's an imaginary condition. If you say to yourself: I can't think of anything to write, I can't think of anything to write, I can't think of anything to write, I can't think of anything to write, then guess what? You won't be able to think of anything to write. But it's not true, and here's why. Thinking there's nothing to write is really saying, "nothing could possibly happen next." And that's never true. Always, for time and eternity, something HAS to happen next. And my job, if I'm being a writer, is to sit down, put one word down on paper or on my screen, and then another, and then another - whether I'm feeling inspired or 'unblocked' or whatever - and make SOMETHING happen next. It might even be the wrong thing, and I might decide to toss it all out the next day and make something else happen next. I can't always make the perfect thing happen next. But I CAN refuse to sit there and say, "I have writer's block." And so can you and any other writer.
Do you proofread every page when you're done writing?
Yes, I am constantly proofreading as I write, and then when I'm all done I proofread again - looking for spelling and grammar mistakes, looking for factual errors, looking for ways to make the storytelling better and the writing clearer. And when I've sent a story to the publisher, they have wonderful, talented proofreaders and editors who check, double-check, and re-check their double-checking. And we still publish mistakes sometimes - but not often. Proofreading - and revising - is a good thing to do, because it shows respect for your reader. It's like washing the kitchen floor before you invite friends over for a party.
If you were writing two books at a time, how would you keep the characters straight?
It would be hard, and that's why I always work on one at a time. I may have ideas for new books, and I'll jot them down, but I will wait until I have finished the project at hand before I will let my mind wander into new territory.
I don't even let myself read other people's books when I am writing my own stories, which is hard, because I love to read so much. But I've found that if I read other books, my own story will get pushed aside by someone else's great writing.
Does one of your books show how you feel in every day life?
I think all of my books have a hopeful, positive tone to them. And I think that's the way I am most days. I know there are problems, and I try not to hide from them, but I think that problems can be solved.
Which of your books is your favorite book that you have written out of A Week in the Woods, Frindle, A School Story, The Landry News, and The Report Card? Why is it your favorite book?
I can't pick a favorite. Each one came along just at the right time. Each one taught me new things, helped me become a better writer, led me to the next step in my life as an author. So it's impossible to choose one as more important to me than another.
How many books do you intend to write? -Dakoda
That's a little like asking a person, How long do you intend to live?
And since you ask, I guess I intend to live forever. And I guess I plan to keep writing for as long as I live. Wish me well.
Here's another interesting question: How far off into the future will the books I write continue to be read?
So here's my best offer: I'll try to keep writing for as long as you keep reading. Deal?
What was one of your favorite books growing up? Did it give you any of the ideas for your stories?
I loved the stories of Jack London, the picture books of Margaret Wise Brown, the stories and poems of Robert Louis Stevenson, the novels of Mark Twain, the Hardy Boys, Tom Swift, Uncle Wiggily, The Wind in the Willows, Mother West Winds Children - on and on and on. And while these books haven't supplied actual ideas for my own books, they certainly contributed to my love of words and ideas and good stories well told.
Dear Mr. Clements: Are any of your characters formed after you or your sons? I kind of think I am like Nick in Frindle because I am always thinking of things in strange, new ways.
Yes, my sons and I have been contributors to some of my characters. And you would be surprised how many boys and girls - and teachers and parents, too - have told me "I'm SO much like Nick!" And I'm glad to hear that you're a thinker.
How many books have you written?
It's getting to be a pretty large number - more than 50. But if that seems like an impossibly huge number to you (like it does to me), remember that each of those books was written the same way you write a letter to a friend: one word at a time. And when you pick up a book, what you are really looking at is the time someone took to sit and write down one word, then another, and then another.
What is the funniest book you ever published?
That's a question I am not qualified to answer. Sometimes I think something will be funny, and no one else laughs much. A lot of people have said they think Frindle is funny, and a lot of people have said that about Jake Drake, Class Clown. So you'll have to ask yourself and your friends.
Have you ever put your kids in your books if you have any?
My wife and I do have children - four boys, who are all now 19 and older. I haven't actually put them into any of my books, but I've certainly borrowed some of their actions, their qualities, and occasionally a phrase or two. And when I was translating a picture book a long time ago and I needed a name for a bear, I used the name my son John called his teddy bear: Rump-Rump.
Dear Andrew Clements, how do you get a character's name? Where do you get them?
I choose names carefully. When I write realistic fiction, I try to make the names sound like they're real, and there may be real people somewhere who have the same names as my characters. But if so, it's only a coincidence. I don't name characters in my stories after real people that I know. Once in great while I will use the name of someone I know, but only if I am 100 percent sure they will be pleased. For example, there were three teachers in my town, two sisters and a brother, who all together taught for more about a hundred years. So in my Jake Drake books, I named a school after their last name - the Despres Elementary School. And they were pleased I'd done that.
In your biography you said that your high school English teacher said your piece should be published. What grade high school l was that?
From 5th grade student
That happened when I was in 12th grade, my senior year at Springfield High School in Springfield, Illinois. And the English teacher was Mrs. Bernice Rappel.
Did you ever stop writing a book because you thought it was to difficult to write? If so what would you call it?
Nate from Ft. Wright School
I've got a lot of beginnings of books, both picture books and novels, that I have not finished writing. The reason I haven't finished them is usually because I have gotten interested in something else. There are so many ideas that could be turned into books that a writer has to learn to choose one at a time and work until the idea is fully explored.
One of the books I haven't finished writing is called The Basement Door. Another is called Why Wallace Went Back to Sleep. And so on. Maybe they'll turn into books one day, and maybe they won't. We'll see.
Have you written any poems before?
I've written a lot of poems, especially song lyrics. Before I began trying to write books, I wrote a lot of songs. Before I learned to play the guitar and began writing songs, I wrote poems. I like rhyming, and I like trying to put an idea into a small container - which is what a poem usually is - like a haiku, or a limerick, or a sonnet - small containers. Writing picture books is a lot like writing poems in that way - big ideas, small containers. One of my picture books, Who Owns the Cow, is much more like a poem than a story.
And think of all the great poems that have been turned into great picture books - The Night Before Christmas illustrated by Tasha Tudor, or The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere illustrated by Ted Rand. And then read all the picture books by Margaret Wise Brown - starting with The Runaway Bunny or Goodnight Moon. They're all great poems. And then, there's Dr. Seuss. So many great books, and such wacky, wonderful poems.
Mr. Clements, what's the funniest book you ever read?
My sense of humor keeps changing. Most books are not howling funny all the way through. But some books by Dave Barry and Bill Bryson come close - which are mostly books for older kids and grown ups because of the language these guys sometimes use. I love the children's books by E.B. White, especially Charlotte's Web, and I think that book has some very funny stuff in it. Ben and Me is great, especially the pictures, and the Time Warp Trio books always make me laugh. The Wind in the Willows is great, and so are the Frog and Toad books - makes me smile just to think of them.
Do you write books under another name?
My first two books, Bird Adalbert and Noah and the Ark and the Animals were written by me using my middle name as my last name - Andrew Elborn. Since my third book, Big Al, all the rest have been written using my first and last name.
Where do you get your ideas?
Most of my ideas grow out of my own experience. I've got a good big pile of memories that I dig through when I'm looking for something new to write about. And I'll find a moment, or a conversation, or an event, or a person, and I'll begin writing and see where it leads to. For example, a lot of people have thought that I must have started to write The Report Card about tests and grades. But I didn't. I began that story by thinking about the one or two really, really, really smart kids - try genius kids - that I knew when I was a teacher for seven years. And I thought it would be interesting to tell a story from the point of view of a person like that. And when I began telling that story, after about four months of writing, the character ran into the question of tests and grades. So a book changes as I write it, but most of the ideas come from my own experiences.
Do you have any kids? Do they like your books? Have you gotten ideas from any kids?
South Hiram 5th Grade
Yes, my wife and I have four sons, all college age or beyond now, and all are boys. They don't appear as themselves in any of my books, but the experience of being a dad, of living among an active family, of being engaged in their lives and schooling - all this has had a positive effect on my writing. And generally speaking, yes, they do like my books.
How long did it take you to write your first book?
My first picture book is called Bird Adalbert, and it's now out of print. It took me about a week to write. Picture book texts are not many word, which is why they can often be finished in a fairly short amount of time. My first novel is Frindle, and including my first drafts and the four or five revisions I made with the help of a wonderful editor, it took more than a year to write.
Will you make a movie based on A Week in the Woods? If not, Frindle or The Jacket or The Janitor's Boy? They are very good books. They'd make really good movies. -Alli
Some good people are working hard to turn Frindle into a movie, and I think they will succeed. It's a long, difficult process, and I'm eager to see the results, but I don't have a lot of control over the final product. So keep watching and we'll both see what happens.
I think the books you wrote so far are really super. Please write sequels to them. For example, I really want to know what happened to Nick after Frindle ended.
Thanks for your compliment, and I'm glad you've liked the books you've read. I haven't written sequels to any books because I feel like I still have new ideas to explore, and right now, that seems more important to me. Also, when I finish with a story, I feel like it's complete. Now, of course, you could always go further with a story - wasn't there a book and a movie called The Neverending Story? But every writer has to decide how far a story should go. I'm not saying I'll never write a sequel to Frindle or some other book, but so far, that idea hasn't grabbed me. Thanks for asking.
When you write your books, does your wife give you ideas or are they your ideas? You are a great writer, and I encourage you to write more books!!!!
My wife is one of the very smartest, best read people I know, and as I'm writing, sometimes I'll tell her about new ideas I've gotten about the book I'm working on. But I don't ask her for ideas, and she doesn't volunteer any either. We both think it's best if I work out the stories on my own. Now, when I'm done, she is almost always the very first person to read the finished first draft, and when she's done, she always has good thoughts and ideas. I have learned to be glad to accept all the help I can possibly get to make my writing as good as it can be. And I've had great help along the way, not only from my wife and our children, but also from friends who are teachers, and of course, from amazingly talented, clear thinking editors at the publishing companies that make and sell my books. I'm happy for all the help I can get.
Dear Mr. Clements, in your book Frindle, I like when Nick makes up the word frindle. Did you ever make up any other words? After all, you could, you are an author.
Actually, anybody could make up a new word, and it happens hundreds of times each year. That's why the dictionary keeps growing. The people who make the biggest English language dictionary - The Oxford English Dictionary, known as the OED for short - they are working on a revision of the OED that they hope to finish by the year 2025. The current OED has over 600,000 English words in it. They estimate that by 2025, there will be over 900,000 words. So somebody must be making up a LOT of new ones. And who knows, maybe frindle could be one of those new words that makes it into the OED. It all depends on how many people are using it.
How do you add so much detail into your writing? Sometimes I find this very hard. Also, how do you plan your writing? Do you use rough drafts, or graphic organizers? -A fifth grade student, Kentucky
Dear fifth grade reader-
You've made an excellent observation. Details are important to make a story, a place, a character, a moment, a conversation feel real to a reader. As a writer you need to learn what details to put in, and also which to leave out.
I don't do a lot of formal planning when I begin a novel. I have a central idea or a central character or a central character in a specific situation in mind, and then I just begin writing. Often, I will write many different beginnings of a book before I discover what the story is actually going to be about. For example, The Report Card probably seems to most readers like I set out to write about tests and grades. Not true. I began to write about a very intelligent student - happened to be a girl. (Have you noticed that I like to switch back and forth between boy and girl main characters?) I put this very intelligent girl into a public school. And what did she run into? Tests and grades. So that became a big part of what the book was about. But I didn't sit down and say, "I'm going to write about standardized tests.''
As I keep writing stories about school and teachers and kids, the fact that I was a teacher for seven years certainly helps me find the details that help me try to make situations feel real. Again, excellent observation.
What hobbies do you do? Do you ever write about your hobbies? -5th grade student, KY
Dear Kentucky friend-
I like camping and hiking, and that worked its way into A Week in the Woods. I like to kick a soccer ball around, and that shows up in a lot of my novels. I love pens and trying to draw and doodle, and that has appeared in a book or two as well. I love tools and woodworking and carving, and I wrote a picture book called Workshop that is all about the characters and qualities of different tools. So the answer is yes, my hobbies do show up in my writing. If you do some writing yourself, it's good to remember that when you write about things you actually know about, it becomes easier to make the details feel real to your readers. It works for me, and I bet it would work for you too.
What's your favorite book you've written?
It's hard to pick a favorite book, just as it would be hard for a mom or dad with more than one child to pick a favorite son or daughter. Also, remember that I can't read my books in the same way you do. One of the best parts about reading a new book is that you can't wait to find out what happens next. Authors already know what will happen next in their own books. So reading one of my own books is a very different experience for me than it is for you.
Do you play any video games?
I've tried a few, but have never been able to get into them - I guess I've always liked books better. All my sons love video games, but they also show signs of outgrowing them. My favorite ones to watch my own kids play are the ones where there's some sort of quest or search. My least favorite ones are those that involve shooting. Until our boys were 18 and had their own money to spend, those were not allowed in our home, and I think that was a good rule. I also like the racing games, like Mario Kart - do I even have that right? I played it once or twice and did a lot of crashing.
Dear Mr. Clements,
I read The Landry News and I think that Cara is a wonderful character. What inspired you to create her?
LOVE YOUR BOOKS
Dear Love Your Books-
I think everyone has a story. I have met thoughtful, shy kids like Cara, both boys and girls, who are bright and good with words, but generally quiet. And I have wondered what life is like for them. That's where most of my books begin - probably most fiction, too - with a writer wondering what someone else's life is like. Also, when I was a student teacher in a 6th grade classroom in Skokie, Illinois a long time ago, a boy in the class created his own newspaper and published it on the back bulletin board every Friday. This book is clearly not about that boy, but just as clearly, if I hadn't met that boy, I don't think I'd have written The Landry News.
Very truly yours,
I like your books. They're really good!
Writers need readers as much as readers need writers, so thank you very much.
In my school, we were reading some of your books. I read A Week in the Woods and thought it was great! I'm planning to buy some of your other books too. All of your books are great, and I hope you write many more! -Shannon, Maine, 5th Grade
I'm glad you liked A Week in the Woods. It makes me very happy to think of bright, talented kids like you who have discovered that reading is a great way to spend some of your time - and of course, not just my books. There's a whole wonderful universe of good books to explore, and your teachers and librarians can keep you supplied with books you'll like almost forever. So keep up the good work.
What's your favorite book to read?
These days I spend much more time writing than I do reading, and I don't seem to be able to do both. When I'm in the middle of trying to write a new story of my own, it's best if I don't get involved in the stories others have written. But when I have time to read, I like all kinds of books. I have a few favorite writers - E.B. White, Mark Twain, Jane Austen, Joseph Conrad, Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy - on and on. And I also admire the writing of Gary Paulsen who wrote Hatchet and a lot of other good books. There are so many good writers that it's hard to pick a favorite.
What college did you go to?
I went to two different schools. I studied English literature at Northwestern University and got a bachelors degree there. And near the end of those four years, I decided I wanted to be a teacher, so I enrolled at a school called National College of Education (which is now called National Louis University). And I studied there for one year in a speeded-up program to earn a Master of Arts in Teaching degree.
Did you like Maine and Howard Johnson's food?
HoJo fried clams along the Maine turnpike - mmm. One of my happiest childhood memories.
How old were you when you wrote A Week in the Woods and Big Al?
I was in my thirties when I wrote Big Al, and I was in my early fifties when I wrote A Week in the Woods.
Why did you stop teaching?
When I began teaching, each year for seven years in a row there were fewer and fewer children enrolling in the schools. And during the last few years I was teaching, teaching jobs were cut, and since I was one of the newer teachers, I was out of job. Each time, I was rehired, but that made me start thinking about other kinds of work. And eventually I ended up working in the publishing business, and then I started writing books, picture books at first, and then novels. And now, I write a lot about kids and teachers, and I get invited to go to schools and talk - so I'm teaching all over again. My life has made a pleasing circle.
How did you come up with the idea for Things Not Seen?
Invisibility is not a new idea - it's actually as old as God. And books about people who become invisible - that's not a new idea either, but most of these earlier books were either science fiction books or sort of scary, mad-scientist type books. I just wanted to explore what might happen if a normal kid woke up invisible one day. Would it be pure fun, or would there be another side to the experience. And that idea got the story started.
Mr. Clements, I was curious to know how old you were when you wrote your first book. So I did some math, and I think you were 36. Am I right?
Good math work - and detective work, too.
What does it take to spend A Week in the Woods?
How did Bobby turn invisible in Things Not Seen?
I think you should look for answer to each of these questions in the books themselves. If I tried to answer them, it might give the endings away to someone who hasn't read the books yet.
What did you like best about teaching?
I loved looking into the faces of bright, funny, intelligent kids all day. I liked seeing a student's face as he or she figured out a new idea, or finally understood something new about a book or character - or a math concept. And over the course of a whole year, teachers get to see real progress in their students - in their ability to think and write and get along with others. It's a great feeling to know that you've helped someone else.
Do you like to read your own books? -5th grade student, Ft. Wright, KY
When I'm writing a book, I read it again and again, working to get the story and the action and the plot and ideas and the conversations just right. When a book is all done, I'll look at it now and then, and sometimes I'll be asked to read a little of a book out loud. But I really don't read my own books - I already know exactly what's going to happen next.
What would you be if you were not an author?
I think I would either be working as an editor helping other writers, or I would be a teacher again, helping the young writers and thinkers.
When is your birthday?
Thank you for asking, but I don't think about birthdays much, and believe it or not, I don't even want to get birthday presents anymore. But I'll tell you that I was born during the month of May.
Did you play any sports?
The only team I was on during my school years was the high school wrestling team. My best sport growing up was water skiing, which I did every summer at a lake in Maine, day after day. And later, when I was teaching school, I started to enjoy playing ice hockey - just messing around, not with the pads and everything. And I also began to like playing soccer, and even did some soccer coaching for one season.
What was your favorite subject in school?
That's an easy one: Reading. I always loved books and stories. And I still do.
How did you get the idea to create a beach in the classroom for Frindle?
When I was teaching 4th grade, one of the boys put a paper palm tree on the corner of his desk. The next day there were three, and by the end of the week, every kid had a little palm tree on the corner of his desk. And I thought it was very funny, so I put that into the book. And I thought, if you have palm trees, why not bring in some sand, too? So I guess that's where the idea came from.
Do you have a pet? -Wincy
During the 32 years we've been married, my wife and I have always had a cat, and we've had two dogs as well. Our most recent cat is Ginger, who went out one night about two weeks ago when we were visiting in Maine and didn't come back. He may have gotten lost and ended up at a farm or a home near where we were. We looked everywhere, but after three days we had to come home again to Massachusetts. Ginger came from a farm in Maine, so in a way, he's back home again now. At the moment we are catless, but probably not for long.
I might get a bird at Christmas. So I was wondering if you had a bird growing up. -Julianne
My brother Jeff had a parakeet for a while when I was very young, and I remember that it was fun to feed. My family also had a canary for while when I was about 10 years old, and it sang beautifully, especially when it thought it was alone in the house. My oldest son John had a cockatiel bird named Dingo, and the bird learned to talk. It could say, "Dingo, Dingo, Good bird, pretty bird" - which upset our cats Knipps and Gracie. Dingo was fearless. He would fly down onto the floor and strut around, saying, "Dingo, Dingo, Good bird, pretty bird" over and over, and the cats would leave the room. And I had Dingo trained to come and land on my hand when I called his name. But I made a mistake. I thought that if I took Dingo outside, he would still come when I called his name. He didn't. He flew up to the very top of a huge oak tree in our neighborhood, and then just disappeared and never came back. So, if you get a pet bird, I'd advise keeping the windows closed.
How many hours do you spend on writing a book? -Helene
My typical work schedule is to be always thinking about the work I should be doing. I get the most writing done when I walk outside to the little shed in my backyard with my laptop and make myself stay there for 3 to 8 hours. Some weeks I do that five or six days; other weeks it's as few as one or two days, depending on the demands from the other departments of my life. Generally speaking, a longer novel takes me six to twelve months; a shorter novel takes three to six months; and a picture book can take as little as a single day, or as much as a year - picture books, though few in words, are deceptively simple, and it's rare to have a good one tumble out in presentable form.
Mr. Clements, How did you get the idea of the name Nora for the book The Report Card?
Dear Savannah -
I'm always on the lookout for interesting names. I have a dictionary of names; I have a list of names of women who graduated from Wellesley College; I have phone books, and so on. I've known a few people named Nora, but I wasn't thinking of any of them when I named this girl. Naming a character in a book is a lot like choosing a name for a new baby. You try to find one that sounds and feels right to you, and one that will fit the person you hope the baby (or character) will grow up to be. Thanks for your question.
What's it like to be an author?
You know that feeling you have as a student when a writing project is assigned, and you know it's due, and you know you'll be evaluated for your work, and every day before you actually finish it, it's hanging there inside your head like a big gray curtain? Being a professional writer can be very much like that. There is always, always something I should be working on, and it's almost impossible to escape that consciousness.
On the other hand, I don't want to sound like I don't like my work, because I do. It often takes me several months of writing and lots of thinking before I discover what the book I'm working on is actually about. Up to that moment, all I have is a handful of characters involved in some situation. But eventually, if I keep at the work, an overarching theme or a powerful central idea emerges. I love that moment.