Jennings is quick to point out that writing is still work. “I’m definitely one of those guys who loves having written, but the writing itself is a bit of a grind.” But when it came to the Junior Genius Guides, which are intended for eight to 10-year-olds, Jennings found a great deal of pleasure in creating the kind of book he thrived on when he was little. “I had a shelf full of these kinds of things, you know, Ripley’s Believe It or Not! and Guinness World Records—that’s what I loved to read as a 10-year-old boy. More than any single teacher, this is what inspired me to like to learn.”
He describes his first two guides (Maps and Geography and Greek Mythology) as “very dense,” packed with “pop quizzes, extra credit facts and fun projects.” The books feature Jennings as “smart guy teacher,” leading a student through an intellectually stimulating school day. Once he thought up the school-day structure, Jennings says, the organization of all that material fell into place quickly. “You could have a game idea as recess, a snack recipe as lunch, a craft activity as art period, a project activity as homework.” Organizing the book this way allowed him to “cover a lot of stuff in a sort of fun old-timey activity book sort of way.”
Jennings, as the father of two, knows the perils of writing for this young audience. “Kids have someone trying to fill their heads six hours every day and if you’re going to ask them to do it in their spare time, you better be funny and entertaining.” Jennings pictured himself with his own children on a long car ride, trying to keep them from poking each other. “Quick, distract their attention! Don’t let them get bored, keep ‘em entertained! This book is a long car trip ride with a desperate driver. I’m making sure there’s always something new for kids to look at or think about.”
He also makes a point of not talking down to his young readers. “Kids that age, they want to feel grown up, and they can tell when the grownups are condescending to them,” he says. “If you’re smart and funny, it makes them feel smart and funny.”
Does Jennings see himself as a willing foot soldier in the fight against trivializing intelligence? “Absolutely! I don’t think, even though we call it trivia, that knowing lots of things is trivial at all. It’s one of the most valuable things we can do. I feel like kids are ahead of us in this way.”
Jennings says he’s been on plenty of talk shows where he was asked, “Wow, you won a lot on Jeopardy! Did you get a lot of wedgies in school? Did kids stuff you in lockers? People actually think that’s the paradigm: Let’s beat up on smart people.”
That, he says, has really changed a lot. “Who are the titans of industry we look up to now? Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg,” he points out.
Jennings is convinced that kids have picked up on this. “I was at a school yesterday where I made a joke about nerd pride and all the kids just started cheering and clapping their bespectacled friends on the back. I found it very empowering!
“It made me realize, at least at that age, kids don’t have to be afraid to be smart,” he says. “That’s something you have to be taught. Hopefully we just stop teaching it to them.”
Jessie C. Grearson is a freelance writer and writing teacher living in Falmouth, Maine. She has co-authored two books and several essays on intercultural subjects and reviews art, books and audiobooks for a variety of publications. She is a graduate of The Iowa Writers’ Workshop.