For unstoppable publishing powerhouse James Patterson, there seems to be no limit on the number of books he can produce or the subjects, age groups and genres he can convincingly tackle.
After reaching the pinnacle of success as an adult suspense writer (with more number-one bestsellers than any other author), he began writing for teens, launching the Maximum Ride series in 2005. Next up was the middle-grade category and two successful series for the 8- to 12-year-old set.
Patterson adds to his bulging oeuvre this fall with Treasure Hunters, a rollicking, funny middle grade adventure, co-written with Chris Grabenstein, in which four homeschooled siblings keep the family treasure-hunting business afloat after their father is swept overboard and disappears.
We caught up with Patterson to learn more about Treasure Hunters, his efforts to connect kids and books and his scholarships for aspiring teachers.
Another middle grade series? Really?? With two successful middle grade series already in progress (Middle School and I Funny) why did you decide to launch another one now?
I say it often, but it’s so true: the books that I am the most passionate about writing are these books that get kids reading. I’m especially proud of the work that Middle School and I Funny have done to fulfill this mission. This one is different, and I’m very proud of it. Treasure Hunters is really my first action/adventure books for middle school-aged kids, and it’s funny. Something that I hope’ll catch the eye of a kid who’s never picked up one of my books before.
Treasure maps, sailing ships, orphans, sibling rivalry, adventure—Treasure Hunters has so many things that kids love to read about. What was the inspiration for this story?
I grew up reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. As a child, I was always on the hunt for buried treasure. I never quite got over that urge to find it, which is what fueled my initial idea for Treasure Hunters. I also love Indiana Jones, which I think comes through as well…
Are you a sailor yourself? Ever been caught in a storm?
I live in Florida. We locals have crazy storm stories. Sure, I’ve been scared, stuck in a storm, I’ve been hit in the back by a sailboat boom. But I’ve certainly have never encountered one as wild as the one that the Kidd family experiences.
"For every book I write, I have to surprise myself at the end of each chapter. If it’s no good, I toss the chapter and start over."
Why are illustrations an important part of your middle grade books?
I think that the combination of a lot of writing and heavy illustration in kids’ books can be great for engaging young readers. Kids are drawn to these books because there’s a lot to read AND there’s also a lot to see. It becomes a combination of a book and a movie, which can engage even the most reluctant reader. Then, you have kids saying, “I love this story. I want to keep reading and find out what happens next.”
What do you think kids will like best about Juliana Newfeld's drawings for Treasure Hunters?
Juliana’s images are fantastic. They’re going to really draw kids in and make them feel that they are accompanying the Kidd family on this adventure. Kids will love that. And, they’ll love that Juliana’s artwork is "created" by 12-year-old Rebecca "Beck" Kidd within the story. Call me crazy, but I think kids seeing a brother and sister working together will actually go over well.
Tell us three things kids should know about Bick Kidd, the narrator of Treasure Hunters.
Bick Kidd is one of my favorite narrators ever. At 12 years old, he’s already a great storyteller and writer. He always has his notebook on him and he’s always writing everything down. He’s one-half of the Kidd twins (his twin sister, Beck, is the illustrator of their story). He thinks of himself as the leader and the navigator, but his siblings would likely disagree with that one. He loves martial arts. I could keep go on and on about Bick but I feel bad not saying anything about Beck and Storm and Tommy! They’re all unique, great kids and every kid is going to see themselves in one of them.
You're the best-selling author in both the YA and middle grade categories. How do you manage to aim squarely at your target audience? Is it challenging to write books for both age groups at the same time?
Having a son who’s now in high school, I know what’s worked for him at both age levels. With my site ReadKiddoRead.com, I’ve had a ton of feedback from parents, teachers and kids about what middle school and high school reads work for them—not just my own books, but books across the board. I know what clicks for a ten year old boy and for an eighteen year old girl. Guess what? They both like jokes. The goal for me is to tell a great story that I believe all kids will enjoy.
What would you say are the common elements between your adult thrillers and your books for kids?
This is a must: For every book I write, I have to surprise myself at the end of each chapter. If it’s no good, I toss the chapter and start over. If I’m not turning the pages, then my audience definitely isn’t either. I like to have a hero, too. I’m a fan of those larger-than-life heroes.
You've said previously that you didn't do much pleasure reading when you were a kid. If you could talk to your 10-year-old self today, what would you tell him about reading and what he is missing out on?
Two words: Peter Pan. That book was awesome! I would have loved it! Sigh.
What is the number-one thing parents should keep in mind when they're trying to select a book for a child?
It’s all about lining up the kid’s interests. If your kid plays soccer and loves it, how about a book on Pelé? If your kid loves going to the zoo, how about animal fact books, or a great fiction fantasy about a bunch of talking cats, like Warriors, or rabbits, like Watership Down? And remember, never knock out books your kids want to read. Comics work. Freedom of choice is key. Give my site ReadKiddoRead.com a look. It’s helped a lot of people so far, and there are great books, tips, and tricks on there.
You've publicly supported many causes—from promoting childhood reading to saving bookstores and libraries. But many readers may not be familiar with the Teacher Education Scholarships funded by the Patterson Family Foundation. Why did you think it was important to support teacher education?
Speaking of larger-than-life heroes… I think that heroes are among us, and they are manning our children’s classrooms! For me, getting kids more excited about reading is my absolute number one goal in all this. And I really believe at this stage of my career that I can make a lasting difference, so I’m going all in. Equipping teachers to make that happen is essential. With the sometimes insurmountable expense of going to college, I knew that the schools and grad schools were where I could do some good. My wife and I started with our alma maters, Vanderbilt, Manhattan College and University of Wisconsin. Then we kept going; I’m funding teacher scholarships at twenty different universities.
How do you choose the universities that receive the scholarships?
I look for the most innovative teaching programs, and go from there. We craft the scholarships around what makes sense for each college. Applicants must write an essay on their commitment to children’s education, why they want to dedicate their lives to it. Then we check in with them each year, ask them to continue the dialogue. I’m hoping it guides them seamlessly into the classroom, and allows them to envision their roles as educators in the grand scheme.
What do you think is the biggest challenge facing teachers today?
I think the lack of a culture of reading in this country is making teachers’ jobs considerably harder. Teachers can’t pick up all the slack if parents aren’t already taking a lead in their kids’ reading habits at home. So many schools have lost their libraries and librarians—the presence of books is getting scarcer. And there are untold negative effects of a kid growing up as a nonreader. They lack the basic skills and confidence to face all subjects.
I’d imagine, though, that when a teacher knows they’ve turned a kid into a reader, and sees a face light up thanks to excitement about a book or a character, it dissolves all the hurdles and the impossibles. Ask one.
Interestingly, the Beck kids in Treasure Hunters were homeschooled by their parents. What's your opinion on homeschooling?
In their case, it made total sense—when you’ve got to lead a family in epic treasure hunt adventures around the globe, you’re going to have to read books and teach algebra on deck. Maximum Ride had to homeschool her flock, too. It certainly gives an interesting perspective on childhood, I think.
If I were to start my son Jack in school again, and try the homeschool route, I think I would last a day trying to teach the guy. I’d spend the time furiously looking up the answers to all his questions. But hey, if you’re brave enough…
If you could give one piece of advice to a teacher who is just starting out, what would it be?
Take a moment to seriously answer one question. Is teaching what you absolutely love more than anything else? If the answer’s yes, jump in with your whole heart. If it’s no, you might want to reconsider such a valiant role. Because it’s going to become your whole life.