In The Amazing Adventures of John Smith, Jr., aka Houdini, when the protagonist decides to write a book, it's not to gain insight on his character or bring a sense of logic to his life. It's to make money.
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After all, his parents are both exhausted from working too hard, and his older brother is fighting in Iraq—his family could use some extra income. But Houdini discovers more than a get-rich-quick scheme between the pages of his notebook. He learns about his friends, his parents, his brother, even himself. Peter Johnson shares what he thinks is important for kids to know and how he learned it in the first place.
In your book, the character, Houdini, is the one writing the novel—why did you choose this structure?
At first I was going to parody the conventions I've been seeing—all these books coming out with lists—but then rather than approach it negatively, I realized that every kid would really love to write a book, and that with boys we don't stress that enough.
So, a writer visits a school and makes some suggestions on how to write a book. Houdini was smart enough to say OK, I'm going to follow this because I want to make money, but he couldn't restrain himself from actually going beyond the lists. He can't keep himself from letting the story take over.
When you teach creative writing, all the students want to know is, how do I write a bestseller. You can give them some hints, but the bottom line is that your imagination takes over.
A few times in the book you write that writing novels changes you—how were you changed by writing this novel?
Well, this book signaled a move from YA to middle-grade fiction. I didn't think I could, but I was surprised by how easily I became a 13-year-old boy, though maybe my wife wasn't so surprised.
I really believe that writing or even reading a really good book can change you. I don't like books where it's clear there's a message trying to be put forth, that authors are just using the characters to talk about cutting, or depression, or global warming, or whatever.
The thing about 13-year-old boys is that they're not the most introspective—everything's kind of a blur. For me, and Houdini, writing the book makes things slow down a little. I can't say it will make you a better person, but you'll think about things, examine things; think about how much Houdini learns about his friends, about his father. I think anytime you have to explore anything and go inside yourself, you're going to be changed in a significant way.
Kids are generally taught to deal with bullies in nonviolent ways, but Houdini and his friends get back at a bully with a plan that was pretty mean.
I think the logic of the story went that way. They're thinking, how are we going to get back at Angel, and they didn't really want to hurt Angel, because you get the sense, after leaf raking, that he has a human side.
It's interesting, I wrote my own teacher's guide, and one of the questions I asked is, do you think Houdini and his friends handled the revenge against Angel in the right way? And then I asked the question, do you think girls would have handled it differently?
That's one thing I love about the move from poetry: When you're a poet, everyone's afraid to say something stupid, so there's a lot of posturing, but you go into these classes and these kids tell you things about your books you never even thought of. I can't wait to hear what kids say about this.
You have tough men in your book who are also sensitive and loving—why is it important for kids to read about these characters?
It's really, really important to me. I grew up around the steel plants in South Buffalo, in a really Irish Catholic macho neighborhood where if you messed around you got smacked. A lot of my work has been about running away from that, especially with raising two boys.
The culture works against you. You can read all the books you want and come up with strategies, but the culture works against you. I really want to present characters who are tough in terms of they're going to stand up for their ideals, and if they have to, they'll stand up for themselves, but they're decent. I like that word, I've always liked that word.
It's refreshing to read about kids with a sense of self-sufficiency.
In my family we always joke—excuses are for losers. I don't mean it in a harsh way. We've always tried to impress on our boys that no matter how bad things are you can do something about it. People will try to help you, but you'll be the only one who can help yourself. At some point if things are going badly you have to get angry, but don't spray paint a school or rob a liquor store—you can go down with your anger, or you can put it toward something. I did that in my own life.
Andi Diehn lives in a house full of books in Enfield, N.H. Find more of her work at andidiehn.com.