Best-selling children’s author James Howe had written many books, but suddenly he was stuck. Really stuck.
Howe was determined to write a book about Addie Carle, one of the main characters in The Misfits, his 2001 novel about four middle school friends. He had already written one sequel, Totally Joe, about a gay seventh-grader in the group. But he had spent two unsuccessful years trying to capture the voice of the strong-willed and extremely outspoken Addie.
“Her voice can be kind of off-putting,” Howe admits during a call to his home in Yonkers, New York. “I had tried so many different approaches, and nothing was working.”
Finally, a letter from an eighth-grade fan put Howe on the right path. The girl wrote: “Addie’s got such a strong personality, but sometimes I think readers don’t actually know what her soft side is.”
Howe realized he had been ignoring Addie’s soft side, and decided to explore what he calls her “inside voice.” He also decided that the best way to explore this part of Addie’s personality would be to write his novel in poetry. This presented yet another hurdle, since Howe had never written a book in poetry. He enjoyed the writing, but soon realized that all of his new poems needed to form a narrative whole.
A letter from a young fan helped Howe discover the softer side of an outspoken character.
“At one point my dining room table was covered with all of these printed-out poems,” Howe remembers. “I was rearranging and physically trying to find where the story was. So it took a good two years to get the shape of the book.”
If all of this sounds like a giant puzzle, Howe isn’t fazed. “I like to draw, and I love to do collage,” he says. “And I used to direct theater. I think there are connections in all of these things. I like taking pieces and making something out of them.”
The result was certainly worth waiting for. Addie on the Inside is immensely readable, with an active and conversational tone.
What did Howe end up learning about Addie, who was, as he puts it, “such a tough nut to crack?”
“I learned that she’s much more tender than I thought she was,” Howe says. “And I learned more about where her outside voice came from, and how connected it is to her own insecurities. I also learned, and this was a surprise, that she did have some desire to be popular and be cool.”
Howe is best known as the author of books for younger children, having gotten his start in 1979 with a beloved series about a vampire bunny named Bunnicula. A struggling actor and director at the time, he began writing for children by accident.
“I was doing what a lot of actors do and staying up too late and watching movies on TV,” Howe recalls. “It was watching all those bad vampire movies in the ’70s that led to the idea of Bunnicula. I can’t say that it’s my proudest moment when I tell young children how I got the idea for still my most popular book.”
He and his wife Deborah co-wrote the first book, but sadly she died of cancer before their book was published. Ever since, Howe has had an intriguing literary and life journey, having now embarked on what he calls “almost a second career” writing for middle school students and young adults.
Howe eventually remarried and became a father to Zoey, now 23. His editor at the time remarked that Howe would probably begin writing board books for his daughter. Instead, Howe felt compelled to head in the opposite direction. “These very powerful feelings that come with being a parent were pushing me to write work that was more personal and deep,” he says, “for older readers.”
Zoey’s eventual complaints about middle school social dynamics prompted him to write The Misfits. Another important event helped trigger Howe’s writing for middle school students. When Zoey was in the fifth grade, he divorced his second wife and came out as a gay man. Howe has now been with his partner for 10 years, and they plan to marry in September.
One of Howe’s immediate reactions upon coming out was anger. “I thought, I cannot believe I have put so much energy and have lived with this inner turmoil for so long and feared all of this rejection,” he says. “I wanted to write a book in which there’s a kid who’s growing up and gay and feels fine about who he is.”
The publication of Totally Joe ended up sparking a few controveries about its gay protagonist. “I was referred to as the openly gay author of The Misfits,” Howe recalls. “After years of being in the closet, that was actually pretty thrilling.”
Howe is especially gratified that The Misfits inspired an annual event called No-Name-Calling Week, which began in 2004.
“It’s gotten big,” Howe says. “There’s a curriculum for it. It’s -really taken off and it makes me feel very good.”