Mike, you've won a Pulitzer Prize for your work at The New York Times. You cover the national education scene and you've published fascinating nonfiction for adults. And now you've written a novel for young peoplewhat led you down the path to writing fiction, and why fiction for kids?
Though I've made a living as a writer, I guess I have a good deal of teacher in me, because I've always enjoyed working with kids. Long before I had my own, I coached Little League in Rochester, New York, Louisville and Hazard, Kentucky. I have four of my own children, now ages fifth grade to 11th and from the start have coached their sports teams and studied for their tests with them. The side benefitI know the difference between kinetic and potential energy. Almost the entire time I've been with the Times, I've worked out of our home so I could put them on the school bus in the morning and be there when they got home. I'm the one who makes their lunches in the morning and the family dinners at night and it's not an obligationit's why I had kids. I like being around them. They say lots of funny stuff.
One of the great joys of being a Dad is all the wonderful children's literature I've been exposed to. Though my youngest is in fifth grade, we still read aloud to each other. I find children's literature every bit as goodsometimes far betterthan the adult stuff I read. Authors like Gary Paulsen, Katherine Paterson, and Kate DiCamillo are for me, every bit as great as our best adult writers. And so, after 30 years of journalism, when I could get a leave and could financially afford to earn no money for a year, I decided I'd try to do a kid's novel. It's what I long wanted to do but could not afford to.
As any parent or teacher knows, amazing things come out of children's mouths. Reporters know it too. I've found that only two groups of people tell reporters the truth‚the elderly, because they're retired and aren't worried about offending their employers; and kids, because they don't yet worry about the consequences. A lot of what came out of the mouths of the kids' I've interviewed and my own kids has wound up in the mouths of Adam, Jennifer and Phoebe in Adam Canfield of the Slash.
You write for a wide variety of readers. Newspaper readers are not necessarily book readers. Nonfiction readers may not read fiction. You now write for young people and adults. Do you have a specific readership in mind when you write?
To be honest, less than you'd think. Writing for a newspaper teaches you to write as clearly and as simply as possible. Readers are busy and are looking to get through their morning paper as quickly as possible. As a journalist I always look to choose the simplest word that conveys the truth. The challenge to writing Adam Canfield was finding the voiceonce I had Adam's voice and mind set, the writing flowed. I did not have to go back at the end and convert big words to young adult words because I don't write that way to begin with.
Was your novel inspired in any way by your children and their experiences or by your own experiences as a kid?
The novel was inspired by my 30 years as a reporter. Most of the stories that Adam, Jennifer and Phoebe tell were stories I myself wrote for the Times and the three other papers where I worked. For example there really was a dental association that sponsored a smile contestin Louisville, Kentucky, long ago. Beyond that, a lot in the novel comes from my own experiences and my kids'. Though I never worked for my school papers until college, my first newspaper job was selling The Boston Record outside a factory at 6 in the morning when I was in sixth grade. I love newspapersgood ones, that isincluding their smell and feel.
Were you a "reader" as a kid? Do you think that being a reader has anything to do with becoming a writer?
I was a big reader as a kid. Mostly sports books as I remember it. In the summer, my brother and I would compete to see who could read the most books from the Wollaston Public Library branch. In those days, they stamped a record of each book you took out on your library card. We competed to see who could use up their library card faster and get a new one.
Did any one book, or books, have a tremendous influence on you as a child or young adult? Did you come from a home that was bursting with books?
There were lots, but as a kid I particularly loved Dr. Seussthe rhythms of his writing played in my head like music. To this day, when an editor at the Times wants to change something I've written, I say I'll call back. And then, in a moment of deadline quiet, will read it out loud in my head. To know if the writing is good, I have to hear it. Dr. Seuss is the first writer I remember hearing in my head.
Do kids need school libraries? Do school libraries, run by certified librarians, make difference to the quality of education offered by a school? --After all, we have public libraries, isn't that enough for kids?
School libraries can make an enormous difference, something I've written lots about in my education column. They teach something beyond the mechanics of literacya lifelong love for reading. A good school library becomes part of the daily school curriculum. Kids come in daily to check out books. Teachers use it for lessons. And if a school has a certified librarian it's usually a sign that the commitment is there to do it right. There's an enormous difference between a room full of books, left any which way on the shelves and a well organized school library full of books you can find by the Dewey decimal system and run by a certified librarian who knows the book you're looking for, even if you can't remember the title or author.
As a NYT reporter and columnist covering education, you have a broader perspective than many of us, what concerns you most about education in our nation?
That testing has become the end rather than the means. And that all this testing is pushing teachers and children to go a mile wide and an inch deep in the curriculum. I know from my own experiences in school and my children'swhat sticks is those projects and units where you spend the time to really delve into something from many different vantages. To me, the most important thing you can teach children is how to go deep on something that they care about. That's a lesson that turns a child into a lifelong adult learner.
The Leave No Child Behind Act is supposed to insure that every child has a quality education. In your personal opinion, is it accomplishing what it was enacted to do? Why or why not?
No. It's mainly just institutionalizing testing and a test-driven curriculum. In my experience, the more challenges a child has such as learning problems and overcoming the effects of poverty, the more support the child needs from smart, caring adults. And hiring more smart caring adults costs. No Child Left Behind claims to address the problem by exposing failing schools as measured by standardized tests. But it does not provide the funds needed to help struggling children at those schools. It's supposed education reform on the cheap.
In 47 states courses in children's literature are not mandatory for elementary teacher certification. That means even if teachers are successful teaching kids to read, they may not know very much about the book choices available for kids. Do you think, as writer, it is important for teachers to have a working knowledge of literature?
Absolutely. There are two main components to teaching reading; teaching the mechanics of reading and teaching the love for reading. The best way to teach that love is through quality children's literature and teachers need to know what that is, from picture books to novels.
What are the most exiting things happening in education across the country? What do you think is being done in educational reform that works?
There are so many. North Carolina has a teaching fellowship program that pays for the smartest high school seniors to attend college, and then requires that they give back by teaching in the public schools for at least four years. New York City, in cooperation with the Robin Hood Foundation is opening great new school libraries with certified librarians at the poorest schools across the city. Herricks Middle School on Long Island, New York has a writing program that gets away from the deadly five paragraph formula so popular on standardized testing now and teaches all forms of writingfrom letters, to narratives to poetry to plays to expository writing. The writing is edited and re-edited and then included at year's end in a journal that is reviewed and critiqued by professional writers. I could go on and onthere is so much exciting and hopeful going on in our public schools that is overlooked by the media and the politicians.
As a father, do you, or did you read aloud to your kids?
We read aloud all the time. And whenever we have a long family trip we get books on tape from the library and we all listen to the same bookno headphone music allowed. If kids see that parents love books, and kids see that it's something important that parents want to do with their children, then kids will get a valuable lesson on the worth of reading. And they'll think back on it as a regular and rich family experience.
Why would you recommend that parents read aloud to their kids?
Most of all because it's fun. And you're conveying important values.
What are some of your family's read-aloud favorites?
Too many to mention. But Hatchet by Gary Paulsen; we read the first few Harry Potters out loud together. The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson. Maniac McGee and Star Girl by Jerry Spinelli. Desperaux and Because of Winn Dixie by Kate DiCamillo. And more and more‚all the Dr. Seuss books and the Beverly Cleary books and Pippi LongstockingÖ
Have you received any feedback from young people about ADAM CANFIELD OF THE SLASH?
Only the ones who like it; the others seem to be polite enough to keep it to themselves.
Are you working on a new book?
Yes. There will be at least three Adam Canfield books. There are many more news stories to be written.