The latest news to emerge from James Patterson isn’t that he’s got a gruesome new thriller out that will add to his roster of 94 New York Times best-sellers or that he’s adopted another new writer to his stable of co-authors to pen that thriller. The news isn’t even about a book, exactly, but about the places where they’re sold: Patterson announced in September that during the next year, he will donate $1 million to independent bookstores. In addition, Patterson has donated at least one box of books to every school in the Palm Beach County, New York City, Savannah, and Los Angeles Unified school districts, as well as many underserved schools in Chicago—over 500 middle and high schools in total.
ReadKiddoRead.com, the heart of his effort to get more children reading, is currently gearing up for a pilot program in four New York City classrooms. The We Read in Our House program will donate to each student in each classroom 12 books to take home throughout the year (two fifth-grade classrooms in the Bronx, a second-grade classroom in Newburgh and a second-grade classroom in Poughkeepsie are part of the pilot program). The hope isn’t just that owning a shelf of books improves kids’ reading habits, but that it will influence their overall confidence and happiness.
Anyone who has followed Patterson’s career closely is aware that the million-dollar gift isn’t the first of his philanthropic efforts; he has a history of funding reading, teaching and education efforts, including $1.7 million in scholarships this year to students who want to become teachers and the spearheading of an essay competition for high school seniors whose prize money goes toward college book purchases. That initiative has disbursed $170,000 in three years. He also gives books to schools and book stipends to students. I talked to Patterson recently about his philanthropy and wanted to get right into the details of how a children’s book ends up on ReadKiddoRead.com (between its website and print materials, the program reaches 2 million people monthly). But Patterson wanted to first talk about the big ideas behind his donations: He describes it as nothing less than saving children’s lives.
How do you decide which books go on the lists of good books on ReadKiddoRead.com?
Well, I think the bigger picture for me is when I talk about what I’m trying to do: I’m here to save lives, and I think that’s something that some publications don’t get. There are millions of kids at risk out there, and there are millions of kids in this country who’ve never read a book they like. At the end of it, we want them to pick up another book they like. There are the kids who are at-risk, the kids who are not reading at all, and with those kids, it’s a difficult thing: They don’t like to read, it’s going to be hellish for them to try to get through high school, and if they do make it in some crazy way, they have trouble getting jobs and a life that has some satisfaction. The other side of it are kids who are decent readers but they don’t read that much, so their view of the world isn’t as broad as it could be. When Jack [Patterson’s son] was 8, he wasn’t a big reader, and we said, “You’re going to read every day this summer.” And he said, “Do I have to?” We said, “Yes but we’re going to get books you like,” and he read about 10 of them. That at-risk side is an even bigger deal to me because it’s serious stuff.
So how do you convert nonreaders into readers?
The only trick, I think, is that you really need to ingrain a habit; they go into a book once, and then they go back to their habits again. I wish parents would use the summers better and really enrich them; they don’t do it often enough. You wouldn’t knowingly send your child out with a handicap, but that’s what you’re doing when you don’t encourage them to read. We have bumper stickers that say, “We read in our house,” and it’s just a simple reminder. We’ve started publishing one of my children’s books and an adult book on the same day and then parents are reminded, “Oh yeah, I have a child.”
Now with the e-book phenomenon, unfortunately, fewer adults go into the store, and kids haven’t switched over to e-books. As individuals, we can’t solve global warming and we can’t solve the health care crisis, but as an individual, I can do a lot in terms of getting people reading and slowing down this process of moving to e-books. There’s nothing wrong with e-books, but no bookstores and no libraries is not good. There may be an evolution where that can be dealt with on the Internet. You may be able to shout your mouth off on amazon or bn.com, but that doesn’t really do anything, and that’s not taking the place of having someone in a bookstore or a library who can recommend good books.
In general, it seems like there might be more reluctant readers who are boys than reluctant readers who are girls. When you’re writing a middle grade or teen book, are you thinking about whether it’s intended for boys or girls?
I try not to; I’ve never written that way. I always want them to be entertaining, and I had an agent at one point who had four kids, and she encouraged me to write kids’ books. That’s how I got into Maximum Ride. I don’t think you can force people to turn pages. Illustrated books are not simple-minded; there’s something to think about, but I think the illustrations help kids get into them more often. Some kids will go, “Oh man,” but they can read the chapters pretty easily. There’s pictures in movies and there’s pictures in museums—I think it works with kids. I think it’s useful.
Claiborne Smith is the features editor at Kirkus Reviews.