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Classical Jazz 2005: Home

An Interview with Children's Novelist
Jerry Spinelli

by Debbi Michiko Florence

Jerry Spinelli is the author of twenty-one middle grade/young adult novels, including the Newbery Award winner, MANIAC MAGEE and Newbery Honor book, WRINGER. His writing career began when a poem he wrote after a high school football game was published in the local newspaper. Twenty-five years and four unpublished adult novels later, Jerry Spinelli found book publication success with a middle grade novel called SPACE STATION SEVENTH GRADE, and has been writing wonderful books for young readers ever since. Born and raised in Norristown, Pennsylvania, Spinelli has a B.A. from Gettysburg College and an M.A. from Johns Hopkins University. He is married to children's author, Eileen Spinelli and has six children and many grandchildren. To learn more about Jerry Spinelli's childhood, read his fascinating autobiography, KNOTS IN MY YO-YO STRING.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

About midway through high school, when my poem about a football game was published in the local paper.

Why did you choose to write for middle graders? What do you like about writing for this audience?

I didn't choose to write for them. My first published book was about a 13-year-old kid, so adult departments wouldn't take it. So I became a "children's writer" by accident. In my own mind, I write for everyone.

In your books, the theme of being different seems to be common. In WRINGER, Palmer didn't want to be a wringer like most boys in his town. In CRASH, John Coogan picks on a neighbor who he deems different. And Maniac Magee in the book of the same title is certainly a unique individual. Why do you like to write on this theme?

A simple answer to that is that "different" characters are more interesting than ordinary ones. They attract our attention and keep it and in the long run have much more to tell us.

Your recent novel STARGIRL is about a girl who is unusually different from all her peers in high school, or from anyone most of us have ever known. How did STARGIRL come about?

Back in 1966 I began jotting down notes about an unusual person. STARGIRL is the final incarnation of many since that time.

You've mentioned before that you were not an avid reader as a child. What do you think would have encouraged you to read more as a child? And what books do you read now?

If I hadn't been good at sports maybe I would have spent more time in the library. I read quite a variety of books now. At the moment I'm reading a murder mystery and a history of railroad dining cars.

Your autobiography, KNOTS IN MY YO-YO STRING, was a fascinating read. What experiences from your childhood come into play the most in your stories/writing?

I've found my grade school and junior high years especially fertile fields to harvest.

You wrote the book THE LIBRARY CARD, which tells the stories of four different kids and how a little blue library card affected their lives. Where did this idea come from? Where you ever affected by a library like any of those characters you wrote about?

The idea came from my editor at Scholastic. Of the four stories, I feel particularly attached to "Sonseray," though his kidhood does not resemble my own at all.

What inspires you?

What doesn't? At one time or another I've found myself moved by everything from the grandest pageants to the most ordinary gestures.

What's the best thing about being a writer?

Having readers.

What is your typical work day like?

Routinely, I work two hours each morning. I may or may not write for another hour or so at night.

What do you do when you're not working?

With six kids and 15 grandkids, there's plenty!

You started out writing for adults and received rejection letters. You persevered, and now you are a highly successful and well-respected children's writer. How did you find the drive to keep writing and submitting after receiving rejections?

I discovered that even after a day of rejection slips, the sun comes up next morning. And the stories were still in me. How could I not write?

What advice do you have for aspiring children's writers?

Write what you care about.

You have twenty-one novels published, including the Newbery Award winning MANIAC MAGEE. What can fans expect from you next?

Next will be LOSER (HarperCollins), out in spring 2002.

Do you have a website where fans can go?

There are web sites out there by way of publishers, etc., but I don't have one of my own.

[Editor's note: He does now: www.jerryspinelli.com.]

Interview © Copyright 2002, by Debbi Michiko Florence.
See also my follow-up interview with Jerry, in 2003.

This interview appeared in the January issue of Book Friendly,
a local Friends of the Library newsletter.

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what's new?

You can read more about Jerry and his books at his web site.

See also my follow-up interview with Jerry in 2003.