Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Middle Grade Madness with Jim Benton

It's not every day you get the chance to have a New York Times Bestseller stop by the Asylum to stir up the residents. Did I also mention our guest is an award winning writer and artist? Let's not forget, a funny guy that can itch the giggle bones. And one of the most important traits, gasp, a MONSTER lover.

After my delicate email stalking, JIM BENTON, author of successful series Franny K. Stein and Dear Dumb Diaries, was kind enough to let me prod the gray matter about his certain brand of middle grade madness. Igor, dim the lights.

Can you tell us what brought you to writing for children, especially middle grade?

Jim Benton: I suppose my daughter is partially to blame. She's in middle school, and I've always loved to make her laugh.

Can you talk to me about the process of creating a middle-grade series? Do you have the idea fleshed out with several story arcs or do you put the first story out there and see if it will become something more?

JB: When I first pitched it I had exactly four pages of text and they bought four books based on those pages. I had TITLES in mind for other books, and those titles sparked story ideas. I know: it should work the other way around. Brains are weird.

For me, I try to think of timeless issues and storylines; ones not specific to a gender or age. I like writing about things that bother everybody.

Your Franny and Diary series revolve around young female protagonists. Can you talk to me about writing from a female perspective? Where do you find the voice?

JB: I don't write very much from gender. I write about things common to us all. I'll never be able to write "A Very Special Dear Dumb Diary: Jamie Buys A Bra."I just won't have the insights. But I can write about her buying about a jillion other things that could embarrass her. Actually, I'm getting an idea here about deodorant.

Franny K. Stein has a lot of monster movie references throughout the books. Are you influenced by the old monster movies? If so, who were some of your favorites?

JB: I was born on Halloween, and I think as a result I have always associated monsters with positive feelings. My favorites were Creature From The Black Lagoon, and Werewolves.

When I used to watch The Munsters and The Addams Family on TV, I always thought Lily and Morticia were knockouts. They never struck me as anything other than glamorous and lovely.


I agree, Jim! They are sublime.

You also do the illustrations for your series. How many illustrations do you create for a book and how many are actually used on average? What happens to the illustrations that don't make it? (used in other books/)

JB: I try to put a drawing on every page, so it's about 115-150 per book. Maybe a dozen drawings have been redrawn at the editor's request--something just came out looking wrong so I fixed it. Sometimes I send originals to kids as gifts. I get a lot of fan mail.

Dear Dumb Diary has become wildly successful. What sets it apart from many of the other Diary series of books? Why do you think some catch on and others don't? 

JB: I haven't read any of the other diary books, but I suppose it all comes down to two things: Kids have to discover it, and then kids have to like it.

Do you have a writing ritual that you have to follow to get through a book?

JB: A ritual? Like sacrificing a chicken? Does extra-crispy with a side of cole slaw count? I just write and draw and rewrite and redraw until I think it's funny.

How do you handle the first draft? (write and edit, or vomit it all out then go back and edit). How long does it usually take you to write that first draft?

JB: I hammer out the first draft with the most alarming typos you can possibly imagine. Honestly, it looks like I wrote it during a seizure on horseback. Then I go back and fix it. The whole process is 4-6 weeks I guess.

If you could be any monster, who would it be and why?

JB: I would be a werewolf, because it's only part time, and some days I think I'd like to have a full head of hair again.


It has been a pleasure having Jim stop by, and I want to thank him for taking time away from creative noodling to share a few minutes with us. If you would like to learn more about Jim and his creations, visit -


  1. Great Interview! Thanks, D.M.!Thanks, Jim Benton! I love to watch Lily and Morticia on 'The Munsters' and 'The Addams Family'. They're wonderful!

  2. Wow. What an amazing interview. Thank you for sharing DM and for giving it Jim.

  3. What a wonderful interview! Thanks for sharing. Also, for the record, I'm all in favor of sacrificing chickens if it leads to better books. After you sacrifice it, fry it, and we'll have something to eat while we read your book:)

  4. You had me at Monster lover. Seriously though, this guy is a genius. My nieces love the Dear Dumb Diaries. Great interview!

  5. Awesome interview! My son loved these books when he was in 2nd and 3rd grade and my daughter is starting to read them now. The combination of humor and slight creepiness is perfect for this age group and I like to read them too :)