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

Jerry Spinelli

Below is an edited transcript from our interview with Jerry Spinelli. The transcript is divided into the following sections:

A quick bibliography

I have written at this point, about 26 or 27 books. I'm not even sure. And I think it's an amazing thing. I think it's an amazing thing simply to have written one book. Whenever I meet somebody who has written a book, I congratulate them.

I think that's a terrific thing to do, because there are so many folks who say, "I think I could write a book," and so many folks start writing a book and never get past chapter one or two. And so for someone to actually sit down and write a book and finish it, whether it ever gets published or not, I think it's a terrific thing. So, I'm proud simply having done that.

My first book was Space Station Seventh Grade, followed by Who Put that Hair in My Toothbrush? I think my sixth book was Maniac Magee. Maniac Magee won the Newbery Medal, and a couple of books later, Wringer, won the Newbery Honor, and there is a series of books called Schooldays, and one of my more recent books is Star Girl, which attracted a lot of readers around the world and is now under development as a movie. My last book-before the one that has just come out-was Milkweed, a historical novel. And my latest is called Eggs.

Jingle jangle dreams

I guess the first thing I wanted to be was a cowboy. I remember once maybe second or third grade, I woke up, and it wasn't Halloween, but I got dressed in my cowboy outfit, complete with spurs on my boots, and walked to school that day. In those days, you walked a half mile to school. I don't know what people must've thought, seeing this little kid walking to school dressed like a cowboy.

I walked in the classroom, and my teacher took a look at me and said, "Wow. Would you like to do something for us?" So I think I stood up in front of the class and sang, "I have the spurs that jingle, jangle, jingle," or something like that. So, that was my cowboy phase. That lasted for several years.

And then I wanted to be a succession of other things. But before long, I decided I wanted to be a major league baseball player. I'd made Little League. I was a shortstop, and I decided I wanted to be a shortstop in the major leagues.

So, that ambition stayed with me until about halfway through high school. We had some good baseball teams that I played on-we were the Pennsylvania State champions in Connie Mack knee-high baseball. Then in high school, I discovered I was not so good at hitting a curveball, and it began to be clear that I wasn't going to become a major-leaguer after all. About that time, I took an interest in writing and traded in my baseball bat for a pencil and decided now that's what I wanted to do-become a writer.

The football poem

Well, there was a big football game, in I guess it was eleventh grade. It was against Lower Merion High School-Lower Merion that year had one of the top teams in the country in high school football. They had been undefeated for three straight years. They won 32 straight games, and we were playing them on a Friday night, and we were winning 7 to 6. One of their runners got loose and made it all the way down to the one-yard line before we stopped them. I was up in the stands, watching the game. I was on the soccer team.

So, there it was, first down and goal to go on the one. Four times they tried to make those 36 inches, and four times we stopped them and won the game 7 to 6. And our stand went crazy, kicking cans, yelling, screaming, blaring horns. What did I do? I went home and wrote a poem about that inspirational goal-line stand. I wrote it out in long hand, handed it to my father, and pretty much forgot about it.

A couple days later, I opened the Norristown Times-Herald newspaper to the sports page, and there's my poem in the middle of the sports page. My father, unbeknownst to me, had gone down to the editor's office and handed him the poem, and he must have liked it and decided to print it. There was my poem in the newspaper.

I went to school the next day. All the players and students, teachers, and coaches patted me on the back. "Way to go, man." I'm thinking, "This is cool. Maybe I'll be a writer."

So, I date my moment of decision back to about that time.

Cough syrup or milk?

I've been lucky enough to have some nice things happen with my writing, and yet, I think the thing I may be proudest of is simply the fact that I am making a living writing stories. Nobody had ever told me how hard that was going to be.

It's one thing to write a book; it's another to get it published. It's yet another to sell enough to make enough money to pay a few bills and then to follow that up with a second book that does the same thing, and a third and a fourth and so forth, until you reach the point where you can actually leave your day job and make a living doing nothing but writing books. Nobody ever told me how almost impossibly hard that was going to be and how lucky we were going to have to be to be able to do that. And I'm fortunate enough for that to be the case, and so simply saying that I make my living writing books is a lot bigger deal than those simple words sound.

I remember one night I was shopping at a local supermarket, and those were the days when I was writing my books on the side in my spare time after dinner. I recall that I had a problem, because money was so tight. One of our kids needed cough syrup for a cold, and the other kids needed milk, and I did not have enough money for both. Frankly, I forget what I bought that night. What I do remember is the painful dilemma of it all and the wish that someday I might be in a position to write books that people might want to buy, so that I could have enough money in my pocket to buy both the milk and the cough syrup. And I'm happy to say that's happened.

Stargirl societies

We were originally made aware of Star Girl societies by correspondence with someone in Canton, Ohio. It turns out this was a teacher telling us about their Star Girl Society. It sounded so interesting and we wanted to be encouraging, so we decided to go out there and visit them and see what this was all about.

And what we did was we met with about 50 middle school and high school girls who met and, as far as I know, still do meet once a month or so, and they take as their guiding point the Star Girl book and the Star Girl character, and they do Star Girl-like things.

In one case, I was told they got permission from the principal's office to kind of slink through the hallways of their school after hours, putting anonymous complimentary notes, slipping them into classmates' lockers-things like that. A kid in a Star Girl Society, you might find her tossing loose change onto the sidewalk like Star Girl does in the story. This Star Girl Society, every year they have an inner beauty pageant. They do things like that, and other Star Girl Societies have come to my attention, and I think it's terrific.

Eileen Spinelli

It works out very well being married to a writer. I don't envy people who aren't. I remember shortly after I met Eileen, we crossed paths headed home after work-we worked in the same place-and the next thing I knew, she dumped a pile of loose-leaf notebooks on my lap, and they were all poems of hers. So we were introduced to each other as writers.

It's worked out very well, because we are each other's first editors, really. I write a chapter, I give it to her, and she tells me whether it's any good or not. And she does likewise with me. There is no sense of competition or anything. People seem to assume that there is; but, really, it doesn't work that way at all. We're not each other's competitors; we're each other's supporters.

And so it really is terrific, because there're so many things we can talk about, I mean that we understand about each other's writing situations.

Bats and books

Sometimes when I get requests to write a letter to school kids, encouraging them to read, one of the things I tell them is that they should be more like Maniac Magee than me. You see, when I was a kid, I didn't read much myself. I read the sports page. I read the backs of cereal boxes while I had my breakfast in the morning. I did once have a subscription to Bugs Bunny comic books when I was 12. That was about the extent of my reading.

Now I regret that. So I say to kids, "You know what? When Maniac Magee is running along the tracks, he carries something in his hand. And when he goes to play football with the high school kid, he's carrying something in his hand. And when he goes up to swing the bat against McNabb on the Little League field, he's carrying something in his hand that he puts down on home plate so he can use both hands for the bat." I say, "In all these cases, what is it that he's holding?" I ask kids in the audience and they'll all raise their hand and say, "A book!" I say, "Yes, a book. That's the point I'm trying to make."

I think that having my character, in this case, Maniac Magee, carry a book with him everywhere he goes might've almost subconsciously been my way of going back and doing it right. I couldn't literally change my own childhood, but I could at least have my character do it the way I wish I had done it. So that's what I tell kids, "Sure, go ahead and play, but read also. Do both."

Advice for young writers

Every writer gets that question, "Do you have any advice for young writers?" Any writer could list you a hundred little do's and don'ts, to the point where you'd get so confused, you wouldn't be able to write at all.

So, I like to distill it all into just one golden rule that I think may lie beyond all others, and that is simply, "Write what you care about." That's what I say. When I write it down, I underline the word "care." Write what you care about, because, ultimately, it's not going to be about your punctuation, or how straight your margins are or your spelling. The measure of your writing will be its ability to touch the heart of someone else, the reader.

Well, if it doesn't touch your heart first, chances are you're not going to write it well enough to touch someone else's heart. That's why I say, "Write what you care about." If you do that, you'll probably do your best writing.