Today is the first day of October and the kick off to a month of spooktacular, terrorific, and giggle-filled madness. What better way to start the month that brings us Halloween than to speak with the mad creator that gave rise to Zombiekins, Kevin Bolger.
Kevin, like many of us, is a multi-hyphenate. He's a writer, parent, teacher, and uber cool guy. In his insanely busy schedule he was so kind to take time to answer my questions before I stalked him like a horde of flesh eaters in a Romero film. What makes this book so special to me is that it contains a grip of my favorite things - humor, scares, zombies, stuffed animals, and great illustrations by Aaron Blecha. It goes without saying, even though I am going to, Kevin is my kind of writer and I'm pretty excited to have him here at the Asylum. Without any more blathering from me, here we go.
What brought you to writing for children?
Kevin Bolger: As an elementary teacher specializing in reading and writing, I spent every workday for ten years reading great kids books with actual kids. Naturally that made me want to make one of my own. Books, that is.
Can you tell me a bit of your history and the journey to getting your first book published?
I spent something like four years writing Sir Fartsalot in my “spare time” while working as a teacher. When I thought I was “almost done,” I bought some US stamps (I live in Canada) for return postage so I could mail it around to New York publishing houses. Only the mail rates changed twice while I kept obsessively polishing and polishing. (Literal fact.) I never actually did mail it anywhere. Eventually I fired off an e-mail query to few agents--from a public library computer, because I didn’t even have internet at the time (luddite). Then I went about my day, figuring I had at least broken through the inertia and got my first ten rejections out of the way. Next time I logged in, there was a reply from the lady who wound up being my (awesome) agent, asking to read the manuscript. She liked it, I spent a couple months giving the book ANOTHER polish based on her notes, then she sent it around to some editors and the next day called me and said, “Are you sitting down?” Another 18 months or so of interminable waiting and, ta-dah! A book with my name on it! Right there on the shelves of my local bookstore, rubbing dustcovers with Judy Blume.
Has being a teacher helped your writing? If yes, why?
KB: Yes, in so many ways I don’t know where to begin. I spend all day every day studying books with kids. And kids with books. I don’t know what better training there could possibly be for a wannabe children’s book author. Also I get to play dodgeball with people half my size.
Your books are chock full of humor and great gross out moments. Do you feel these are key elements in writing middle grade?
KB: Yes! The humor part, anyway. Different kids like different elements in books (action, adventure, magic, horses) but nothing has more universal appeal than humor. Aspiring authors out there, the world needs more funny books for middle-graders!
Actually, I don’t think I really resort to as much “gross-out” humor as one would naturally presume from the title of my first book (Sir Fartsalot Hunts the Booger). The word “fart” appears nowhere in Sir Fartsalot except about a thousand times in the main character’s name. There is a fart joke, but it is strictly implied. I am by nature a bit of a prude about such things. But the best fart joke in kidlit is the “Frobscottle and Whizzpoppers” chapter in Roald Dahl’s The BFG. Super funny read aloud.
Zombiekins has a few zombie gross-out scenes (notably the chapter in which Zombiekins attacks some other stuffed toys) that sort of grew naturally out of the subject matter.
I don’t think gross-out humor is necessary in middle-grade fiction. In fact, it might drive away as many readers (girls) as it draws in (boys).
What aspects do you have to have in your books when you write?
KB: I aspire to write humor in the vein of certain classic nonsense writers (see below) I idolize. So I strive for an absurdist, cartoony, Pythonesque brand of humor. To me, that is a natural fit in a genre where you have the freedom to invent whole worlds, make up words, and otherwise give total rein to your imagination. To me, most middle-grade “humor” out there would be a lot funnier if it was a little less realistic.
Also I aim to pack in a lot of action, and adventure, and in the case of Zombiekins, suspense.
I want to talk about writing spooky for kids. Did you find yourself being cautious of going too far? Or did you let it all hang out and let the editors police it?
KB: I set out to write a book that was as suspenseful as a movie thriller, but funny.
In my experience as a reading teacher, kids were really drawn to purportedly “scary” books, but most of them were structured more like mysteries – kid hears a wolf howl outside his window, finds a paw print on his lawn, and spends most of the novel slowly uncovering the existence of a “monster” that only makes a cameo appearance at the book’s climax.
Whereas I wanted to write a book that was structured like a movie thriller, with an ever-present sense of danger and a lot of “scares” throughout. Only I write spoofs, so it had to be funny. So I use a lot of oral ghost story and movie thriller techniques to build up suspense which usually culminates in a gag.
To my surprise, none of my editors expressed any qualms about the zombie mayhem in the book. I mean, a certain singing dinosaur gets its head ripped off. I definitely expected somebody from corporate would object. But somehow I slipped it by them.
I did try to keep it pretty G-rated, though. My hope is that the book is a little suspenseful for younger children, but the tension always resolves in a sufficiently comical way that isn’t going to give them nightmares, whereas older children will just find it funny.
Zombiekins was a blast! What can we expect in book 2 (any teasers you can share)?
Zombiekins and the other stuffies he attacked in book one come back to life at the three-year-old birthday party of Stanley’s sister Rosalie. Zombie toddlers –‘nuff said.
What kinds of books were you reading growing up? Is there one that you always return to for inspiration?
As a kid in elementary school, I read a lot of superhero comics and comic strips. I don’t remember being a voracious reader of books, exactly, but I seemed to pick some pretty good ones. I remember going crazy over Charlotte’s Web, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Hobbit, and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Not too shabby.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was the book that made me want to be a writer.
Nowadays, there are a few classic nonsense writers I reread again and again for inspiration: Stephen Leacock (Nonsense Novels), James Thurber (The White Deer, The 13 Clocks) and Donald Barthelme (supremely funny writer of “experimental” short stories whose one dabbling in children’s literature, The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine, or the Hithering, Thithering Djinn, won the National Book Award ).
In the kidlit line, I love Roald Dahl, Dav Pilkey, Margaret Mahy, Tove Jansson, Louis Sachar’s Wayside School series, Roddy Doyle’s Giggler series, and probably numerous others I am forgetting.
That is a pretty stellar list if you ask me. Many of my favorites there. I want to thank Kevin for haunting the halls here and giving us some good old fashioned creeps and laughs. I am chomping at the chain to get my hands on the next Zombiekins book. Can't wait!