“In a sense, Hokey Pokey began with my longtime desire to write a science fiction book,” says Newbery Medalist Jerry Spinelli. The author, who has an abiding interest in astronomy and nuclear physics, says he’d been making notes on an idea for weeks, trying to “scratch this science fiction itch,” but kept getting bogged down. Then one day, he says, “I found myself just veering to the left and writing pretty much the words that you see now on the first page.”
Though this “practically unconscious muse-donated first page” surprised him, looking back, Spinelli suspects he was already at work on Hokey Pokey without knowing it. He’d overheard a little girl at one of his events ask her dad, “what does tomorrow mean?” and marveled at being so young that the future was an unfamiliar concept, a reminder that “our more adult-centric idea of the linear day-to-day nature of time is not necessarily a given.” The familiar phrase that kids “live in their own little world” began to make a kind of conceptual sense to him.
What if, Spinelli mused, childhood was an actual place? And what if he could depict the bittersweet passage out of that place not in a time span encompassing years, but just a single day? Plotting such a work seems daunting, but Spinelli says that he followed his usual creative process, trusting the story to tell him how to proceed.
“The story,” he says, recalling the words of Madeleine L’Engle, “knows more than the writer. So the question becomes how to execute the idea in the best way that I can.” Spinelli says he likes to “take an idea out to lunch” and interview it. “ ‘What makes you tick? Where do you want to go? How can I best dramatize you?’ When an idea gives me answers, I am on my way.”
In this case, the way led to the land of Hokey Pokey, a dreamy, dusty Old West–style world where bikes roam the hills like wild ponies and children hoprock, sneakerski and dropflop from one completely absorbing activity to another from jubilant dawn to tuckered-out dusk, with adult voices removed to a low rumble like distant thunder. Here, main character Jack and his beloved bike Scramjet rule the world of youngsters–until something nearly imperceptible starts happening.
The book’s inventive language (Kirkus noted its “stunning turns of phrase”) creates a poetic intensity that captures the vivid experiences of childhood and artfully pinpoints the moment things begin to change. Spinelli says one “source point” of the particular style he uses, though he’s not sure everyone will recognize it for that, is the old florid melodramatic language of the ’20s and ’30s pulps. “That felt like the right fit, invoking that style.”
The physical landscape of Hokey Pokey can be easily traced to his hometown of Norristown, Pa. (to which the book is dedicated). “For the writer who wants to write about childhood, you’ve already got the resources—they’re called memories.” Spinelli says Hokey Pokey “resembles an area in the West End, beyond the dead end of George Street with its train tracks and red hills and creek and where, in fact, many decades before there was a pony in the back field….That pony became a herd of bikes in this storyteller’s lopsided head.” Scramjet is based on Spinelli’s own beloved Roadmaster bike, a favorite Christmas gift that he “lived on for five years” and still thinks of as, “love, leaning on a kickstand.” And the Hokey Pokey man, the only “materially present” adult in the story, who appears once a day to grant children an ice treat in any flavor imaginable? “That’s a description of the guy…who pulled his cart by hand all around town,” Spinelli says. “He offered us this treat we would now call snow cones…it just felt right to bring him back to make an appearance once a day.”
When asked about the book’s ideal reader, Spinelli says he is never overly concerned with writing for a particular audience. His allegiance is to the story, to its best execution. “I hope it will in time (that word again!) find a happy audience, and that readers, enough of them, will be patient enough to see what’s there.” After all, though the book’s premise is fanciful, Spinelli believes he’s left enough “crumbs on the trail” (a map of Hokey Pokey, definitions, section titles) to orient the reader to the story’s wildly imaginative landscape.
“I set my book like a bowl of milk on the edge of the porch and then walk away,” he explains. “I don’t stand there and call the cats. I go back in the house and see who comes to drink.”
Jessie C. Grearson is a freelance writer and writing teacher living in Falmouth, Maine. She has co-authored two books and is a graduate of The Iowa Writer’s Workshop.