Made-up stories of real life

Interview with children's author Andrew Clements

Every day around noon (or at least almost every day), Andrew Clements heads out to his backyard, laptop in hand. In a back corner is a small shed. It has a red door, a desk, a cot, a tiny wood stove, and lots of quiet.

The cot was a present from his sons, who found him sleeping on the shed floor a couple of times. The stove keeps him warm in the winter (he lives in western Massachusetts). And the laptop, desk, and quiet are the tools the author of "Frindle" and "The Landry News" needs to write. (The red door serves no purpose beyond the usual, but is cheerful to look at.)

As for inspiration, Clements looks no farther than the mirror. All of his books, he says, begin as a "kernel" from his memories. "Writers end up mining their own lives" for events and people "that meant something to you," he says.

For example, this winter Clements published a six-part fictional story on race relations in The Boston Globe newspaper, called "The Jacket." It was based on something he remembered from his childhood. His older brother was at a junior high basketball game when an African-American boy walked by wearing a jacket he was sure was his. "My brother collared him," Clements recalled. "It was a situation where the boy's grandmother came by and helped my mom clean the house." His mom had given the jacket to the grandmother.

Clements says the event made an impression on him, as well as on his brother. So when he wanted to write about a moment where a person realizes, "Hey, I'm from the majority culture. There are different experiences than mine," that incident rose in his memory. It became the seed from which "The Jacket" grew.

As a result of drawing from life, "bits and pieces of me and my family" have ended up in his books, he says. Sometimes people might see a little more of themselves than is really there, though. His oldest son's friend Nick read "Frindle" and declared, "That's me, isn't it?" Well, no, it wasn't. (It didn't help that, through what Clements claims was a fluke, the cover art even looked like the real Nick.)

Clements sees some of himself in two of the teachers in his books. "There were days in my teaching career when I definitely felt like Mr. Larson," he says of the teacher in "The Landry News." Mr. Larson is so weary of his job at the beginning of the tale that he spends the school day reading the newspaper instead of teaching. "And there are days when I've been Mrs. Granger," Nick's nemesis in "Frindle," whose weapon of choice is the dictionary.

Indeed, Clements has been known to show up at book talks carrying a giant Webster's unabridged dictionary.

"Frindle" sprang from one of those talks, he says. "I was talking to a group of kids at an elementary school in Middletown, R.I," he says. He had his dictionary in hand, and "a little boy asked, 'Where do all the words in dictionaries come from?' " Clements tried to explain. Finally, he said, "Well, people made up all these words."

For example, people needed a word to describe something with four legs, a wet nose, and a wagging tail. They came up with "dog."

The children at the talk "didn't believe me," he says, "so I grabbed a pen out of my pocket and said, 'Say we're all going to call this thing a "frindle" ' - I just made it up on the spot."

If they got the kids in the next classroom to agree to call it a frindle, and then maybe the kids at another elementary school, and maybe another town, and so on, eventually, the people who write dictionaries would notice and include the word.

"They still didn't believe me," he says, and laughs. But a few years later, he was sitting down, thinking, "Well, what am I going to write?" The result - after many revisions - was "Frindle."

That book has inspired other students to try to make up words of their own. There's even The Frindle Project in Washington State.

Clements stumbled upon the project one day when he typed "frindle" into an Internet search engine. Rather than rename something, this group wanted to find something that needed a name. And they found it. You know how you can roll up a piece of masking tape to put a poster on a wall? They named that piece of rolled-up tape a "spinnop." They have besieged Merriam-Webster ever since, trying to get "spinnop" in the dictionary. They even began an e-mail campaign to try to reach the 15 million users necessary for a word to be considered by dictionary editors.

Tapping into his own memories doesn't mean Clements doesn't have to do research. For his third chapter book, "The Janitor's Boy," he needed a wad of the stickiest, smelliest bubble gum ever chewed. He knew the brand from his days of teaching: Bubblicious, but he wasn't sure how much gum it would take to cover the entire underside of a school desktop. After much scientific study, he came up with the answer: 13 pieces. "I grossed my family out, because I kept it in a plastic bag ... with an extra teaspoon of water." The water kept the gooey mess moist, he explains, grossing out a reporter.

'I was never one of those kids who wake up one morning and say, 'I know! I know! I'm going to be a writer,' " Clements says. But he was a reader.

He especially enjoyed adventure stories by Jack London and Robert Louis Stevenson. He also liked tales of Robin Hood, Thor Heyerdahl's "Kon-Tiki," and Perry Mason mysteries.

Clements didn't start writing right when he grew up. First, he taught school for seven years. Then he tried songwriting in New York. He also worked as a children's publisher. He wrote picture books for almost a decade before his first chapter book, "Frindle," was published.

His experience in the publishing industry led to his just-published book, "The School Story." In it, Natalie, a 12-year-old New Yorker whose dad recently died, tries writing a novel called "The Cheater." The writing part is easy for her, but she's sure no one will ever want to publish it. Her friend Zoe, however, is just as sure that she's wrong. She becomes Natalie's literary agent to push - er, help - her friend into print.

Think it's impossible for a teenager to publish a book? In May, Sahara Sunday Spain had her first book of poems published. She's 9. Michigan teen Amy Burritt published "My American Adventure" - about her family's cross-country trip in a mobile home - when she was 15. And when actress Ally Sheedy was 12, she wrote her first book, "She Was Nice to Mice." (It's a biography of Queen Elizabeth I as told by a court mouse.) A 13-year-old, Jessica Ann Levy, illustrated it.

In fact, "School Story's" Natalie is based on several students Clements had who were very good writers. "It's unusual, because writing usually requires life experience," he says.

Kids ask Clements, "If I write a book, can I get it published?" He replies that they'll be competing with the likes of Lois Lowry, Beverly Cleary, and Gary Paulsen. That said, though, "publishers are looking for good writing ... they're not going to care if you're 10, 12, or 45. All they care about is: Is the work good?"

Chapter books by Andrew Clements

These books were written for children aged 8-12 and published by Simon & Schuster. 'Frindle' and 'The Landry News' are available in paperback.

'Frindle' (1996)

Nick Allen isn't a troublemaker, he just makes things a little more creative for his teachers. For example, he turns his fifth-grade teacher's love of the dictionary into a real class project when he decides to invent his own word: frindle. (It's more commonly known as a pen.)

'The Landry News' (1999)

Fifth-grade is also the setting for Clements's second chapter book, in which Cara Landry's efforts to publish a class newspaper inspire a burned-out teacher - and a First Amendment fight with the school board.

'The Janitor's Boy' (2000)

Jack Rankin takes 13 pieces of watermelon-flavored Bubblicious (the stickiest gum ever) and smears the gooey mess on the underside of his desktop. It's not vandalism, in his mind - it's retaliation against his dad, the school janitor. But his punishment wasn't quite what he expected: spending two weeks after school helping his dad clean up.

'The School Story' (2001)

Zoe Reisman isn't about to let her best friend's work go unpublished, but Natalie Nelson, whose mom works in publishing, knows just how hard it is to get your work in print. Undeterred, Zoe enlists their English teacher and concocts a complicated scheme to sell Natalie's story - well, once she finishes writing it.

Excerpt from 'The School Story'

Then Natalie asked, "What's a school story?"

"A school story is just what it sounds like - it's a short novel about kids and stuff that happens mostly at school."

Natalie thought for a second and then said, "You mean like 'Dear Mr. Henshaw'?"

And her mom said, "Exactly."

Then Natalie said to herself, "Hey, who knows more about school than someone who's right there, five days a week, nine months a year? I bet I could write a school story."

And that was all it took. Natalie Nelson the novelist was born.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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