All About Adolescent Literacy

All about adolescent literacy. Resources for parents and educators of kids in grades 4-12.
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Transcript from an interview with

Rodman Philbrick

Below is an edited transcript from our interview with Sid Fleischman, divided into the following sections:

Meet Rodman Philbrick

Well, my name is Rodman Philbrick. I didn't start out writing books for kids. For years I wrote mystery novels and detective stories and thrillers and medical thrillers under my own name and other names, and then when I was in my early 40s I stumbled upon an idea for a book about kids.

And I had so much fun writing it. It was called "Freak the Mighty." Although I continued to write books for adults, I still try to write every couple of years another book for young readers.

I started writing in about 6th grade, actually. I'm not quite sure what gave me the thought that I could be a writer except that I loved to read books. And I have three younger brothers and when we used to entertain ourselves when my mother would encourage us to go outside and play so that she could have a moment of sanity in the house, we often acted out stuff we'd seen on television or read in books.

So somehow or other when I was in 6th grade, I got it into my head that I could write too. And I tried to write short stories. They were mostly very short stories, a page or a page and a half with a trick ending. And I began to have them typed up and tried to send them out to magazines with the idea that I would keep this a big, dark secret from everybody until I became a famous author overnight.

That didn't happen when I was in junior high school. I wrote many stories and then when I was in high school I still hadn't sold a story. And I hadn't told anybody that I was a writer because I didn't wanna be made fun of, frankly; I wanted to announce it when-the moment I became famous.

I decided in high school that short stories weren't working, so I would have to write a novel. And so I did. When I was a sophomore, I wrote what I thought of as a novel. I know think of it as a series of short stories about the same two characters. And I was, once again, convinced that when I had it typed up and brought it into a publisher, that I would become famous overnight and then everybody who thought I was just, you know, sort of some jerky kid in the back of the room would be really glad that they knew me.

But they managed to resist the temptation to turn me into a famous teenage author and it wasn't until I was in my late 20s and had written seven or eight novels that I was finally able to sell a book. And that was books for adults — thrillers and mysteries. As I say, it wasn't until later on that I discovered that there was a 12 year old boy's voice in my head that wanted to keep telling me stories.

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Sounding like a twelve-year-old boy

I do sometimes get asked why I write under-have written under several names and it's not because I was writing from prison. I was always writing from my desk. But basically when I was writing mystery novels, there was a certain kind of detective story I wrote and then when I wrote a different kind of story, the publisher asked me if I could put it under a different name.

So, of course, I said yes, wanting to sell the book. And that's happened a couple of different times over the years. But all of my books for younger readers have been written at Rodman Philbrick, which is, in fact, my name. So I'm gonna try sticking to that one for a while.

I found that there wasn't a great deal of difference for me in writing for kids or adults, except in some of the content of the stories. Obviously, I wanted the books for younger readers to be a bit shorter and easier to read cause I was interested in trying to get to kids who weren't necessarily already in love with books.

And so I would try to make the stories… And some of the things that I learned writing mysteries and thrillers is that you always have to find a way to get the reader to turn the page. So even though I'm not writing a mystery or a thriller for kids, I'm writing sort of straight stories, I still wanna have that sense of suspense working.

And so I try to keep the story moving as best I can. The only difference is that my kids books are told through the eyes of an 11 or 12 year old instead of a 30 or 40 year old. And so I just stick with what I remember of what it was like to be 12 years old. Now I found that I like sounding like a 12 year old boy.

This was not a great surprise to my wife Lynn who had been hearing me for years, but I didn't know that about myself until I started writing for younger readers. And I think it's because I started writing in 6th grade made me remember 6th and 7th grade with great detail.

I can remember all the rooms that I had my classes in 6th grade, who my teachers were, who sat next to me in class, what it looked like out the window, and I think I remember that vividly-more vividly than, say, my brothers do because I was writing things, and that sort of reinforced my memory.

A lot of writing is about memory and how you see detail. And I think it helped me a lot, that I started writing young when I turned-that I was-began to be interested in writing about characters who were that age.

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Meet Homer P. Figg

I've had the most wonderful time on my most recent book which is called The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg.

Now it's called The Mostly True Adventures because Homer has a problem with the truth. He tends to stretch it a little bit. And I wanted to write a story about a boy from my home state of Maine who comes from a really bad background. He and his brother are orphaned and they live on their uncle's farm, and their uncle is known as the meanest man in Maine.

And he makes them live in the barn and just works them on the farm. And when Homer's older brother, who is his hero, when his older brother turns 17, suddenly he's big enough to stand up to the uncle. And the uncle doesn't like that at all and so the uncle essentially sells him off to the Union Army as a replacement fee.

They had just started the draft of people during the American Civil War. And Homer is so concerned that his brother will be killed in the war that he runs away from this farm in upstate Maine and travels all the way south until he gets to Gettysburg.

And, needless to say, there's an involvement at the Battle of Gettysburg with Homer, his older brother. But what I wanted to do was tell a story about the background of the Civil War, all the things that were going on off the battlefield. Now it culminates in the — one of the great battles of the Civil War which I chose because my home state (inaud.) from Maine had something to do with that battle.

But I wanted it to be not only an informative adventure, but I wanted it to be exciting and I wanted to try to make something happen on every page. In other words, I wanted to draw the readers in rather than making it a homework assignment. So, believe it or not, although the book is only 200 pages, it took me three or four years to write because I kept putting it down.

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Finding Homer's voice

I didn't have the voice of Homer quite right. I wasn't sure exactly what he sounded like. And when I finally had his voice, then the book went quickly and all the research I'd done over the months was there for me to use in the book hopefully in a way where it won't seem like a homework assignment.

One of the things that young reader — young writers find difficult sometimes is getting the voice of a character. And I try to convince them that what they need to do is think about it for a while.

You have to live inside the head of your character and begin to see the story through that character's eyes, and then really think of them as a real person. That's the-that's the method I use. And so my character, Homer Figg, in The Mostly True Adventures of Homer Figg, I knew it was gonna be a boy of about 12 years old and I knew he would be small.

And I wanted his voice to be legitimately from a farm in Maine but I didn't want to get it into a lot of the vernacular stuff. In other words, the funny spellings to give you want an accent might sound like in Maine. I know how he sounds and if you have ever been to Maine, you'll be able to pick up on that.

But I didn't want people to have to sort through the spelling to Figure out how he was speaking.

But that's all I really knew about him. And I had to let him sort of take shape in my mind as I did some of the research.

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Be sure to change the names

One of the things I hear from young writers is that they make mistakes. And the great thing about writing is that you can always fix the mistakes, and the best way to do that after you've written something is to put it down for a day or so and then read it again and try to imagine that you are the reader who's reading your work.

And you have to be kind of vicious about it. You have to cross out all the extra stuff. But, you know, any mistake you make can be corrected. If you were doing it in a drawing, you'd be able to get your eraser and erase it over again. And nobody ever gets it right the first time, and that includes me.

None of the books that are published are ever the first draft. What I've written the day before is the first thing I look at this morning when I sit down to write. And I go through it and I try to make it as clear and crisp as I possibly can so that it's easily understood and so that I understand what's going on.

And so that's one of the great things about writing. It's not like acting where you're gonna get stuck out on stage forgetting your lines, cause you can always take the time to find what needs to be said in your story. So don't worry about making mistakes. We all make a million mistakes and you're gonna contribute to that total.

The other thing for young writers to really remember is don't worry about trying to make it an absolutely original story the first time you write. Write the kind of story that you like to read. It's part of an exercise; it's part of practice.

I tell kids who are interested in athletics, you know, you could have all the talent, all the eye/hand coordination that makes a great basketball player and you're not gonna get to be in the NBA unless you practice hours a day. It's really no different for writing or the arts or anything that's creative.

If you like to do it, you have to do a lot of it to get good at it. And the other thing with writers is you have to listen to people. If you'll just be quiet sometimes and listen to what people will tell you, they will tell you the most amazing things that you can then steal from their lives and use in your own stories.

But be sure to change their names. And try not to write about your parents the first time or you're gonna get yourself in big trouble.

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I got Bs on my book reports

I don't know that there's a secret to getting kids to read a book. All you can do is tell the best story you can and try to make it interesting. And the most fatal thing you can do as a writer for young readers is to talk down to them.

You really have to tell the story from their point of view. Now I don't hang out in schools and try to pick up the latest slang that kids have cause that'll be outdated by the time my book is published. So I tend to go back to my own childhood and my own experiences in junior high school and Figure that things haven't changed so much as long as people remain constant.

Now the world has changed a lot since I was a kid, which was over 400 years ago now. But the one thing that hasn't changed is the people themselves and the young readers.

This is a busy world we live in. We have a million distractions. You can play video games, you can do online stuff, you can be outside playing sports, you can be watching movies. There's all kinds of activities that people can have. And if you're going to expect them to read your book, you have to draw them in and fulfill the promise that this is gonna be worth their time. I always have that in mind.

Now for any kids who are interested in doing book reports, now I hated to do book reports when I was a boy, but I did them anyways and I actually sometimes had fun with it. But if you're interested in finding out information that you can use on book reports or author reports, I invite any of the kids to go to my website at and take the time to click through all the links.

There's a lot of stuff on there and you can find out all kinds of interesting things that you can then use in your reports. And I'll try to link to anything that's interesting as well. So use your investigative skills as a user of the internet and you'll be surprised what you might discover.

Oh, I will say that I did a thing for Scho-the Scholastic website a few years ago about writing book reports. So any kids who are interested in that process, or teachers who are interested in introducing writing into the classes, I invite them to go Goggle that and find-drill back down through it until you find Rodman Philbrick book reports and there may be a thing or two about book reports.

Now I will confess that I never got anything but a B on my book reports when I was a kid. But this is an A+ effort that I use. So if I could go back and rewrite my book reports, I'll bet I'd get an A this time.

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Reading from The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg

This is Chapter 5 from my novel, The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg. Now Homer, my hero has run away from his terrible circumstances on this really hard, scrapple farm in Maine and he's searching for his brother who has been taken into the army. And he's stolen the horse that belonged to his mother from his uncle and it's the dark of night. This chapter is Chapter number 5, "Bears As Big As Boulders."

"You probably already know this but horses don't like to go places at night anymore than sensible folks do. A horse has its patterns and its habits and night is for standing around and sleeping. For a while Bob keeps trying to turn back, his eyes rolling white and fearful, but he doesn't Fight me too much all things considered.

'Good horse', I keep telling him mostly so I can hear the sound of my own voice because the forest has a way of creaking and groaning that puts a lump of nothing in my stomach.

'It's only the tall trees' I keep telling myself, the pine and the spruce and the hackamatack moving in the wind, the way their long boughs brush like fingers and make a sign you can feel deep in your bones. 'Good horse,' I say. 'Good horse.' It's not like we're moving fast.

Bob's old and slow. Besides, even a young horse can't run in the dark or he'll break a leg for sure. Has to see the ground or he doesn't feel connected. I walk Bob for miles and then skinny up onto his back and let him walk me for a while under the night shadows of the mighty trees finding our path through the blind darkness, me and that good, old horse.

All the time Harold is in my mind, how he must have marched and marched with a stick on his shoulder and the whiskey sergeant shouting orders. Does it scare him to be that far from home? Does he know I might follow? Do his feet hurt?

Then I get to fussing that bears might get him, black bears as big as boulders, and it makes me so fearful that the shadows start to look like hungry bears and the spruce branches are the bear's long teeth snapping at us from behind.

Bob the horse, he knows I'm afraid and that makes him afraid too and he starts to pick up the pace. 'Whoa. Now hold.' I pull back on the reins but the horse won't stop. He's got an idea in his head and the idea is to run away from the darkness and the shadows, run until he gets to daylight and can see the world again.

All I can do is hang on, clinging to his thick neck. Branches whipping all around us, so close I can smell the pine needles; the horse snorting with fear and shaking his head to keep clear of the reins, running blind at a full gallop trusting his hooves to find the way, not caring what the next step brings.

I Figure any second he'll trip and break a leg and I'll go flying and crack my skull on the trees or the rocks, and that will be the end of my adventures. But just as fast as he bolted, Bob starts to slow down. He's run out of oats and remembered how long he is, and he can't run that fast no more and he's heaving and gasping and snorting up a lather.

Got to rest the horse or he'll die on me for certain. Poor, old thing is shaky he's so wrung out and making funny, little noises deep in his throat. And that means he's still plenty scared. Me to, because I can hear something in the dark that shouldn't be there — voices, folks talking.

Two men it sounds like, one of them low and rumbly so the words are muffled. But the other voice, the one that's doing all the telling, that voice is clear as a bell. 'Kill that son of a b,' it says. 'Kill him while we've got the chance.'"

And you'll have to go on to the next chapter to find out what happens next.

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