FORTY FORT — To hear children’s book author Gordon Korman tell it, the first and second grade students he talked to Tuesday still have five years to write their first book.
“I wrote my first book when I was 12. I was in seventh grade,” Korman told the students at one of several sessions with different grades during Wyoming Seminary’s annual author day. Of course, he had an unusual set of circumstances.
“Our track and field coach taught English,” he explained, because they needed a substitute teacher and he was the only one available. “He never taught English. When it came to writing, he didn’t know what to do.” So the teacher of physical education essentially told the youngster that, from February through June, they had “45 minutes every day to write one story.”
Korman wrote in longhand in one of those old notebooks with the marble print on the paperboard covers. His story earned a B+ (it lost points “for messiness”). His mom typed it up and as the class monitor of Scholastic Books (“I opened the mail”), he decided to send it to the company. Two years later, as a 14-year-old high school freshman, he was a published author.
Korman wasn’t bragging, he was giving potential authors tips.
• Use personal experience. “When I was late for school it was never because I overslept. It was because a meteor caught our grass on fire.” Spinning school yarns led to one of his big hits, “Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire.” It’s about chronic tale spinner Zoe, who, chided for claiming an eagle made a home in her back yard, builds a fake nest on a cooking wok, using peanut butter to hold twigs in place. It turns out eagles like peanut butter, and one actually lands in the fake nest. Not surprisingly, no one in school believes the real story about a real eagle.
• Ask what if? “They are the two most powerful words to write,” Korman said, noting one of his best sellers, “Ungifted,” was sparked by asking what would happen if a regular student was accidentally assigned to a gifted school?
• Research topics for more ideas; with Google, 30 seconds can spawn a plot. The first book in his island series involved youngsters escaping a boat explosion by floating on a piece of remaining wood in the middle of the tropical Pacific ocean. Korman asked the students what they thought were the biggest risks to survival in such a situation. Most said sharks, one said a whale, some said food. Turns out, a little online research showed the two biggest threats are dying of thirst and heat, so the story started with one of the surviving youngsters grabbing two things before abandoning ship: a rubber hat to catch rain water and a piece of a sail to shade them from sun.
Korman provided a generous part of his 40 or so minutes for question and answer, and one boy asked how they could collect rain in the hat while hiding under the sail. “Well, the sun isn’t out when it’s raining, so they wouldn’t need the sail,” he said.
One girl asked: Couldn’t they just catch the rain in their mouths?
Sure, he said, but probably not enough to live.
And did he illustrate his own books?
Alas, the author admitted to a limit in talent. “I am not an artist,” Korman confessed. “If I did the covers, they would be stick figures.”
Wait, is that a story idea? What if you woke up to discover you were a stick figure? Let’s Google it …
Reach Mark Guydish at 570-991-6112 or on Twitter @TLMarkGuydish