Get to know August's Author of the Month, Jeff Anderson, as he talks about the inspiration behind his first book for kids, Zack Delacruz: Me And My Big Mouth, how he got his start in writing and the power of keeping a journal.
Where did you get your idea for this book?
I was a teacher for over twenty years, so of course the conversations, the problems, and the hilarity I was exposed to on a daily basis fed my ideas. All writers do that. We look to our lives for conflicts, characters, and situations. At the same time, my ideas also came from what it felt like being a kid. Middle grade years are incredibly important and etch deeply into our memories: rejection and acceptance, fear and confidence, disaster and discovery. At this age, my parents divorced, we moved, and I went to four different schools. As a result of the divorce, we struggled financially. Even as a kid you notice things like not having a couch or any living room furniture—and you worry. My greatest flaw feed my ideas as well. I am a worrier. It was handed down to me in different ways from both of my parents. But if I need disaster looming in my books now, I can certainly imagine it with ease.
What was your favorite book when you were growing up?
It's a tie between Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective and Ribsy. If I must settle the tie, I'd go with Ribsy, but I am not sure I'd have made it to Ribsy without Encyclopedia Brown. My attentive teacher observed I shared a love of mystery TV shows with my mother. But I also struggled to read. I was placed in special education and learned to hate reading there. But Mrs. Myers, my fifth grade teacher, used my love of mysteries to match me with the right book. At the time I struggled through an adult mystery I'd gotten from the public library. The public library is free, and when you are struggling with money, it's a good place to shop for books. Mrs. Meyers didn’t say the Perry Mason book was too hard for me. Instead she showed me Encyclopedia Brown. I remember her walking me over to the shelves and showing me the whole series. I tried one and devoured them all before moving on to Ribsy as a much more fluent reader. My family had a dog (Spoiler alert: Ribsy is a dog) within a year, and as an adult I'm never without a dog. I blame and thank Beverly Cleary for Ribsy and for that.
How old were you when you started writing?
I always wrote, but the first thing I recall occurred in fifth grade. We cut pictures out of the newspaper and then wrote a news story we thought would go along with the picture. I may not have read a ton, but I watched a lot of TV. And when I was a kid, there were only three channels, so I watched the news more than I would have liked. As a result, I knew how the news sounded. Mrs. Meyers loved my writing that day. There's nothing better than someone loving your writing. To this day, it thrills me. The next big surge of writing hit in seventh grade: I started keeping journals. I learned the power of letting go when I wrote freely on those pages. I learned the flow and the freedom and the discovery in writing whatever I want. My wish is for every kid gets a chance to taste that power.
What is your favorite word?
Joy. I love the word joy because it is yellow and bright and bursts through clouds of sadness and helps me love my life—every day.
What is your favorite book about Chicago?
I love Esme Raji Codell's Sing A Song of Tuna Fish. It's set in Chicago and Esme is actually a school librarian in Chicago. And it’s dedicated to Chicago, so I think this one should count. What a writer and what a book! In its pages, Codell reflects a message all writers need to share with kids: "Maybe you can use my stories. Maybe they will help you pack your own more carefully, just in case the strange and improbable day should arrive that you forget what it’s like to be a child." So, start that journal. Chicago needs your stories. And so do I. Stories connect us and free us and help us find my favorite word: Joy!