Although he's now a popular and prolific children's author, Dan Gutman says his own love for reading and writing was slow in coming. In fact, when he was a boy, he admits, "I hated to read. I thought it was boring and hard to do."
Although it might sound counterintuitive, it was his new enthusiasm for sports at age 10 or 11 that led Gutman to discover an affinity for the written word. "When I got into sports, I realized I had to read about stuff if I wanted to learn about it," he explains. "That's what got me interested in reading."
He kept reading, and started writing, too: after college, he penned articles and screenplays, and in 1982 he launched a magazine called Video Games Player (which closed in 1985). He wrote several sports-centric books for adults, and continued to write about sports and technology for magazines and newspapers.
But it wasn't until his son was born—and he tried his hand at writing children's books—that Gutman felt really excited about what he was doing.
"My son inspired my whole career," he says. "When Sam was born in 1992, I started reading kids' books for the first time since I was a kid." The experience sparked an epiphany: "I instantly felt, this is what I'm good at—this is my calling."
Since then, Gutman has written 75 children's books, with more on the way. He writes from an office in his Haddonfield, New Jersey, home, but doesn't tend to stay put for long: he regularly visits schools across the country, where he does readings, answers questions and lunches with students. "It's much more fun than eating with grownups, and it's great to bounce ideas off the kids," he says.
Fittingly, his My Weird School books, a 21-book series for early readers, have been a big hit with the younger set. The wacky stories—which have titles like Miss Daisy Is Crazy! and Mrs. Cooney Is Loony!—offer a kids'-eye view of the seemingly (and sometimes genuinely) bizarre antics of the teachers, principal and other denizens of Ella Mentry School.
Gutman says the series was inspired by his daughter Emma. "She was in second grade, reading the Junie B. Jones books, and I thought there should be something like that told from a boy's perspective." Enter A.J., who routinely declares that he hates school (but always ends up having fun there, somehow). A.J. goes to school with know-it-all Andrea, crybaby Emily and a host of characters that kids and parents alike will enjoy.
This year marks the launch of the My Weird School Daze series, which follows the children from the My Weird School series into third grade, where they embark on fresh adventures.
In the first book of the new series, Mrs. Dole Is Out of Control!, second-grade graduation goes hilariously awry: two PTA moms get in a fight, A.J. accidentally tosses his cap right into the eternal flame, and a bunch of animals escape from a nearby petting zoo. In the second entry, Mr. Sunny Is Funny!, the gang is spending summer vacation at the beach, where Andrea develops a crush on the hunky lifeguard. Those sorts of goings-on certainly keep kids reading—and Gutman writing.
"As the Daze series has progressed, it's gotten more wacky. There's usually a climactic ending where all hell breaks loose, and kids love that stuff. Grownups are always the ones who say a story is too far-fetched. Kids never say that—they get that it's fiction, so anything could happen."
But although that wackiness is humorous and freewheeling, there's a serious purpose behind it. "I'm really trying to reach the kids who are tough nuts to crack, especially boys who refuse to read," he says. "I try to write a story so captivating that they open the book and two hours later, don't even feel like they were reading. It should be effortless, it shouldn't feel like work."
He adds, "I don't spend a lot of time describing things. Kids don't care—at least not the reluctant readers. I have a short attention span, too, so I can relate to them. Kids who are really good readers can read Harry Potter, or books by Philip Pullman. Those who aren't, can read my books."
And readers of all ages would do well to heed Gutman's take on things—specifically, the value he places on having fun. Just as he is driven by a desire to make reading fun for kids, he says, "I enjoy what I do, and love what I write. I don't have to push myself to get to work." Sounds nice, doesn't it?
Linda M. Castellitto wishes more of her teachers' names rhymed with adjectives.