Monday, December 29, 2008

If I Grow Up .... The VOYA review

A review of IF I GROW UP has arrived from VOYA. This YA novel is the American equivalent of GHETTO KIDZ, which was published in Germany last fall. IF I GROW UP is scheduled for publication here in February, 2009.

You are more nervous about this book than you’ve been about a book in quite a while. It is a story of a young African-American man growing up in an impoverished inner-city project, and of the forces that coerce him, and many young men like him, to leave school and join gangs.

Here is a highlight from the VOYA review:

“Strasser’s writing puts the reader in the midst of the projects and offers totally real characters…This reviewer found the superlative story riveting.”

So this is a source of some relief. Your editor had warned you that there might be people who would take exception to you writing such a story because you are not an African American.

You decided to write IF I GROW UP/GHETTO KIDZ after you were invited to speak at some inner city schools. You waived your normal fee because you knew that the schools couldn’t afford to pay what suburban and private schools could pay (Question: Why, in a alleged democracy like America, should who one becomes depend so much on where one is born and what schools one attends?)

You were shocked by the conditions in these schools. These were institutions of learning that could not afford full-time, and in some cases, even part-time librarians, music teachers, and art teachers. These were schools that could not afford the most rudimentary equipment and technology for teaching, or musical instruments, or adequate supplies for art classes.

Just as dismaying were the attitudes of the students. Many didn’t seem to care about your presentation. Some were absolutely determined to undermine your attempts to encourage and inspire them.** Were they testing you? Was this because you were white? Or a stranger? Or in some perceived position of authority? Some teachers helped to keep the students orderly, but other teachers stood by were no help at all. You wondered if they were thinking, “See? This is what I have to deal with every day. How do you like it?” Or perhaps even, “No one helps me. Why should I help you?”

You’ve been speaking before large audiences of students for more than 25 years, and have become reasonably adept at the tricks to keep students’ interest and attention, but these were some of the most challenging. You managed to complete the presentation, but it was painfully obvious that many in the audience had no interest in what you were saying.

And, perhaps they had a point. How much relevance do the messages “Keep trying and never give up,” and “be the best reader and writer you can be,” have in a world where more than half your classmates won’t even finish high school? Where a quarter of your friends will be dead by the age of 30, and another quarter will be in prison? Were the majority of kids not interested because they already knew that what you were saying would be utterly and completely irrelevant to their lives?

Right now, it seems, the answer is, tragically, yes. Ideally, the day will come when students everywhere will want to embrace the message that the better you can read and write, the more successful your life will be. But, as anyone who reads the newspapers knows, enormous changes must take place first. According to recent statistics, the only difference between 2001, when the No Child Left Behind Act was instituted, and now, is that now even more children are being left behind.

* One of the most troubling, and poignantly sad, parts of the experience could be seen on the faces of those students sitting near the front, and scattered here and there in the crowd, who really did want to hear what you had to say, but were too intimated to hush their fellow students.

Monday, December 22, 2008


Tennis is a big part of your life. You started playing at a very early age. You father played with the same group of 6-8 guys every Saturday and Sunday morning for nearly 40 years. Your mother, who is 85 and suffered a stroke four years ago, still plays once a week.

When you were young, your father wanted you to be a great tennis player, but you were neither physically, nor mentally, cut out for that role. You liked playing, but did not enjoy the competition he insisted you participate in. When you raised your own children, you encouraged them to play, but never pressured them or insisted they play tournaments the way your father had. Now both of them like tennis, and, you hope, will play for the rest of their lives (your son’s main job this past summer was teaching tennis). But if they decide not to play later in life, that’s okay too.

When you were 14, it was cool for kids to not wear socks when they played. In those days the insides of tennis sneakers were very gross. Around the age of 16 you stopped playing entirely. This was one of the many ways in which you rebelled as a teenager. But somewhere around the age of 22 you started playing again and have not stopped since, except when injured.

These days you play an average of two or three times a week in the summer and once or twice a week in the winter. You play with a group of about 8 – 10 guys, but at the core of that group is The Fab Four - Ron, John, Mark, and you.

The Fab Four have as much fun laughing and kidding each other as they do playing tennis. Tennis with them is a crazy mixture of jibes, jokes, jests, and rejoinders. Now and then one of you gets injured and can’t play for a few days or even weeks. It’s always a relief when you reunite and can talk in the past tense about your sore knees, bad backs, aching elbows, and other injuries.

You call these discussions “organ recitals.”

Tennis is not just a game for you and your pals. It is a chance to bond and escape (Oddly, tennis is so much a part of your life that when you go on vacation, you prefer not to play). It often feels like a separate part of your existence. You and your pals go out of your way to avoid talking about mundane or serious issues. Work is rarely mentioned, wives slightly less rarely, and children only somewhat more often.

Over the years, a number of guys in your group have come and gone. Most of them you liked a lot. Some had to stop because of injuries. Some turned to golf. But it is hard for you to imagine life without the Fab Four.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Angel Dust Blues and Ferdinand Monjo

Between 1973 and 1977, while in college and then working as a newspaper reporter, you wrote a novel called “Angel Dust Blues” about a teenager on Long Island who is arrested for selling drugs. Not even aware that there was genre called Young Adult, you were concerned that your story about teenagers lacked the components necessary to catapult it onto the best seller list.

At that moment in literary history, according to a then current issue of “Writer’s Digest,” those components included Nazism and cocaine. So you created a character, a Nazi, who escaped from Germany in a submarine at the end of World War II and sailed it to Colombia, South America. From there he smuggled cocaine, via his submarine, to Long Island, New York. And, to tie it into the story, you made him the uncle of one of your protagonist’s friends.

You wish you could say that you’re kidding, but you’re not.

An agent started to submit the manuscript and rejections quickly piled up from the first dozen publishers who read it. It was a tough time for you. Other than working as a part-time fact checker for Esquire Magazine, you had no income, nor any real hope of making a career for yourself as a writer. You’d even given yourself a deadline. If you couldn’t publish a book by the time you were 32, you’d chuck the whole deal and start over at something new, although you couldn’t imagine what that would be.

One day your agent called and said an editor named Ferdinand Monjo wished to have lunch with you. Were you interested? At the time you were working your way through a case of tuna fish, purchased in bulk, to save money. You probably would have gone to lunch with Charles Manson if he’d asked (and promised to come unarmed).

Mr. Monjo and his assistant, Jim Bruce, met you in the restaurant of a small, elegant East Side hotel. The editor was a refined, dapper man dressed in a sport jacket and tie. His wavy silver gray hair was combed back, his wire-rim glasses sparkled, and he smoked cigarettes in a long gold cigarette holder reminiscent of that well-known photo of a jaunty Franklin Roosevelt riding in the back of a car.

After graciously thanking you for agreeing to come to lunch, you sat down at a table covered with linens, crystal, and silver. During the conversation that followed, Mr. Monjo consumed two vodka gimlets while discussing theater, classical music, and opera with Jim (Clearly the least cultured person at the table, you mostly listened and sipped a Coke).

Later, having consumed a red caviar omelet, as well as a third vodka gimlet, Mr. Monjo got down to business. Would you, he asked, possibly consider rewriting your book? Your agent had already told you that this would be at the crux of the lunch, so you had an answer prepared. You would, you said. And did he have any suggestions?

Mr. Monjo seemed pleased that you had asked. “Yes,” he said. “In this business it is important to write about what you know. It is obvious that you know a great deal about being a teenager in the suburbs.” He paused to clear his throat. “I regret to also point out that it is equally obvious that you know very little about Nazis, submarines, and cocaine smuggling.”

Lunch ended. In the months that followed you would take Mr. Monjo’s suggestion to heart, and eventually produce a book that was driven much more by character, and much less by plot.

Like the editors at the other publishing houses, Mr. Monjo had found in your book a story that was neither plausible nor interesting. But unlike the others, he (perhaps because he himself was also a writer) had detected a potential which, given an opportunity, might eventually produce something decent. He offered $3,000 to see if his hunch was correct. While small by today’s standards, in 1978 this was not an inconsequential amount to pay on an unproven first-time novelist with only the promise of a story.

Today there are still many lovely and erudite editors, but you wonder how many would be allowed to gamble on a brand new author the way Mr. Monjo did.* The impression you have is that today’s editors are rarely allowed (or are even given the time) to speculate on what a manuscript might become, and must instead base their decisions on the manuscript they have in hand (provided the marketing and sales departments give them the green light. Many books today are purchased by committee. You cannot imagine any marketing or sales department approving of the manuscript Ferdinand Monjo read.).

You also wonder how many editors still have the luxury of time that would allow them to take a writer out to lunch merely to ask if he or she would consider rewriting a book.

Mr. Monjo (his full name was Ferdinand Nicolas Monjo III) was a well-known author himself, and was born into an old and well-to-do Connecticut fur trading family that, in the 1800s, had sailing ships all over the world. In 1974 one of his books won the National Book Award – a tremendous achievement for any writer. Sadly, he died in October of 1979. Angel Dust Blues was a few months later.

* Among the other YA authors who got their start thanks to Mr. Monjo is Robert Lipsyte, whose wonderful book, The Contender, came about when the editor wrote to him out of the blue and asked if he’d consider writing a novel about a teenage boxer. Before that, Mr. Lipsyte, a sports reporter for the New York Times, had never written fiction.

Thursday, December 11, 2008


Lieber Kursteilnehmer,

Each year I receive many e-mails with questions about my books. It is difficult for me to answer each question individually. Since questions often repeat from student to student and e-mail to e-mail, I have decided to list the common questions and answers here.

If you cannot find the answer to your question here, please e-mail me again so that I can answer it.


Why do you use the penname Morton Rhue and not your real name?

In 1981 I had two books coming out at the same time and my publisher asked that one be under a pen name. Todd in German is similar to the word for dead. Strasser in German means street. Dead Street in French is ..... Mort Rue.

Why do you write books specially for young people?

I have written books for people of all ages, but the ones I’ve written for middle-graders and young adults have been the best received.

Did you read some literature before writing these books? What kind of books?

If you mean, books related to the subjects I wrote about, the answer is yes. I also tend to do a lot of reading of other media as well, such a newspaper reports, magazine articles, on information on the Web.

Do you think that some of your books may still be some kind of risk, for example, to unstable kids who cannot talk to their parents about their problems? Thus, they may like and adopt the idea of living on the street or dealing violently with someone else.

I hope that my books would not be a risk. The messages should not encourage
students to do these things.

Do you think that these prefaces are sufficient to prevent or do you think that it´s better to read the books accompanied by teachers or parents?

I try to write the books so that they can stand alone. However, reading them with a teacher or parent would certainly enrich the experience.

You visited schools in Alaska, Iowa, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Colorado. Pretend that this fictitious project becomes reality: Could you imagine visiting a school in Germany?

I have visited many schools in Germany.

What do you intend to be the most important thing that the teenagers shall learn from your books, such as Asphalt Tribe and Give a boy a gun - for example: moral
education, foreign understanding, identity development, responsibility, aspects of literature - and in which way?

That's a very big question. I think one of the most difficult parts of being
a young person these days is being faced with choices that they have not
developed the judgment or had the experience to understand. In my books, I
try to present young people facing these choices, and then show what making
certain decision might lead to.

I read that you were a street musician to earn money. Is that right?

Yes, for a while when I lived in Copenhagen I was a street musician.


Why did you write a book about street kids?

They interest me. I often write about the plight of outsiders

What inspired you to write the novel?

I was out in Colorado speaking and my host asked if I'd mind stopping at a homeless shelter while she dropped off some food. I was surprised that it was a shelter for teens.

How did you come up with the names of the characters?

Some names were made up. Some were inspired by research

You seem to know a lot about New York City. Did you grow up in New York City?

I grew up nearby, and lived there in my 20s and 30s

Were you ever homeless or did you know any homeless people?

No, although I did spend some time hitch hiking around the US and met some homeless kids that way.

Wherefrom did you take the idea/experience of how the children (or the street kids from Asphalt Tribe) in your books talk, behave and 'live'. Did you study them or did you visit some organizations?

Yes, I both studied them and visited a homeless shelter for teens. I also found some websites with narratives by homeless teens. These were very helpful.

What message did you want to send with this book?

Living on the streets is dangerous and not cool

How long did it take you to write this book?

About 10 months, including research

Is the history of the book a pure fiction or reality?

This book is a work of fiction, based on reality

Do you fear that kids could adopt the language used in the book Asphalt

If you are referring to the German-language version, I can't answer, as I do
not read German.


Your novel is based on the teleplay by Johnny Dawkins (which is based on the article by Ron Jones from 1972). Was the movie already broadcasted when you started writing the novel?

No. I worked from the 45-page screenplay, the essay, and from my imagination.

Is the story of The Wave really true?

I have been asked this question many times. The answer is that I have no way of actually knowing, since I worked only from the essay by Ron Jones and from a short film about the experiment. I certainly believe that the experiment took place.

Do you know how to contact Ron Jones?

I have no contact info regarding Ron Jones. I believe he is the author of a book called The Acorn People. Whoever published that book might know how to find him.

Who engaged you to write the novel in 1981?

Delacorte Press

How long did it take you to write the novel?

4-5 months.

Can you provide a way to gain access to the article by Ron Jones that inspired the book?

Please go to There's a link to the original article on the home page near the bottom

What do you think of Ben Ross, the teacher, and of his idea ?

Given the memorable impact my book has had on so many millions of readers over the past 27 years, I have to be grateful that he had that idea!

Is this idea one of the best to make students understand what is Nazism ?

I can't judge where it stands compared to other ideas, but I do believe it is surely one good way.


Did you get the idea for this book from Columbine or another real life situation?

The book is based on a number of real school shootings that occurred in the 1990s.

What was your purpose for writing the book? We've considered it a cautionary tale, to open up discussions about important topics such as bullying and gun control.

That is certainly part of the reason I wrote the book.

What inspired you to write it?

Many things. One big reason was because my kids were in middle school at the time and I think it is insane when parents have to worry that their kids may be killed in school.

The book has been out for ten years. Are you aware of any similar situations, where a student has made a threat, and the family wanted to hold the availability of the book responsible for the student's actions? If so, has this happened often?

I've never heard of this happening. With all the violence in the media, I've always felt that any student who did something like this would have been motivated by something more
immediate and graphic. However, Millions of students are exposed to this type of media without resorting to threats. I believe that media alone cannot be responsible for these actions.

Are there any examples of positive outcomes from students reading the book that could be shared, to counter the argument that it promotes guns and school violence?

I do believe that one problem is that there are so many guns available in the US and around the world. To stop the violence children must be taught non-violent ways to settle problems at an early age.

Over the years I have received many, many e-mails and letters from students who found comfort in learning that they were not alone in being bullied, as well as a few e-mails from "bullying types" who,. after reading the book, expressed contrition for their actions.

Three things, I hope: 1) That we must continue to try to limit the number of guns that get into the hands of private citizens. 2) That we must make efforts to teach young people to separate the "pretend" violence of media entertainment from the reality of the lives we actually live. 3) That we must teach young people to respect human differences and try not to tease, taunt or bully those who are different or weaker.

By the way, my research for the book was entirely from secondary sources such as newspapers, news magazine, books and government studies and statistics. I realized very early that these rampage-shooting incidents were so sensational, and so well covered by the media, that any question I could have thought of had probably already been asked. Therefore I formulated a long list of questions I needed answers to, and hired a professional researcher to go through the existing stories to find these answers. Also
I believe my own experience as a picked-on and alienated teen helped me to understand what might drive a young man to such a desperate act. In that sense, there is no more direct research than experience.


Does Lake Harmony Boot Camp really exist?

I made it up, but it is based on real boot camps.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

How you became a newspaper reporter

You took six years to complete college -- with two years off to sell popcorn from a cart in midtown New York, then live on a commune in Virginia, then live for a longer period in Europe, and then hitchhike around the United States. After graduating in 1974 you decided you wanted to find a way to make a living as a writer.

Some choices that seem obvious now were not so apparent then. For instance, writing for television. Despite being 24 years old, you had yet to own a television set, and never watched TV. You did have a distant relative, Morrie Ryskind, who co-wrote many of the Marx Brother’s plays and movies, but it still did not occur to you to pursue screenwriting.

Instead, you believed the best path was a career in journalism. But finding a job as a reporter, you understood, would not be easy. The country had recently been captivated by the Watergate reporting exploits of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Thus becoming a newspaper reporter was a popular goal among many college graduates.

Having no formal education, or training, in journalism, it appeared that the odds were against you. Especially when colleges were busy producing thousands of journalism majors. Plus, a significant number of young people were getting masters in journalism from schools like Columbia. The desks of newspaper editors were awash with job applications and resumes from candidates far more qualified than you.

Given those poor odds, you were told by someone wise (you can no longer remember who) that your best, and possibly only, chance for finding a job was to show up at newspapers in person and attempt to talk your way into the office of someone – a managing editor? A publisher? – who was in a position to hire you. You were warned not to call and announce your visit in advance, as that would give someone the opportunity to say no, don’t come.

In order to accomplish this task in a somewhat orderly fashion, you took a map of New York and drew concentric circles at ten mile intervals emanating from New York City (you skipped the newspapers in the city itself, since they only hired reporters with many years experience). Then you started driving. First to every newspaper within ten miles of the city, then 20 miles, then 30, and on and on.

Remarkably, once you arrived at a newspaper office, you were often able to get into see someone, if only for a few minutes. The security measures that today prevent most people from getting through the front door did not exist then. But alas, not a single newspaper had a job to offer.

You then tried newspapers in the 40-, 50-, and 60-mile radius. Finally the day came, approximately a month and a half into your search, when you walked into the office of Glen Doty, the managing editor of the Middletown Times Herald Record, 74 miles from New York City.

Mr. Doty’s door was open, but you knocked anyway. He looked up from a pile of papers on his desk and asked who you were. You explained that you were looking for a job as a reporter.

“Do you have any experience?” Mr. Doty asked.

“I wrote for my college newspaper and was editor of the literary magazine,” you said.

Mr. Doty tugged at his moustache thoughtfully for about three seconds and said, “Can you start a two-week tryout tomorrow?”

The next day you returned to the paper and sat down at your assigned desk, where a pad of mostly illegible notes lay next to an ashtray half-filled with cigarette butts. A half typed story was in the typewriter beside the desk. Clearly, someone else had recently been using this desk.

You turned to the reporter at the desk next to yours. He had a beard and was busy typing a story with two fingers.

“Is this another reporter’s desk?” I asked.

He glanced up at me for a second. “Not anymore,” he replied.


“It’s Gil’s desk,” the reporter said as he began to type again. “But Gil got shot two days ago.”

Timing is everything. You got the job.

(It turned out that Gil was shot point blank with a shotgun by his wife for reasons that were never completely divulged. Gil lived because he held his hand up in front of the barrel just before she pulled the trigger. Charges were never filed because Gil told the police it was an accident. Gil eventually returned to the newspaper and worked as an editor because it’s hard to be a reporter when you only have one hand.)

Monday, December 1, 2008

Impact Zone, or the joys of vicarious living through fiction

Confession: you once wrote a three-book series knowing in advance that the chances of it being successful were less than remote. The series was called Impact Zone and it was about surfing. More precisely, it was about the friction between competitive surfing and what’s called “soul surfing,” (as compared to soul searching).

You had just taken up the sport of surfing and were in love with it. You daydreamed and night dreamed about it. You read surfing books and magazines and amassed a collection of surf videos. When you pitched the idea for a surfing series to your editor, you somehow failed to mention that you suspected there would be hardly any audience. The story didn’t have enough romance to interest girls, and most boys who surf may have many wonderful and endearing attributes, but, as a group, they are not known for their reading prowess (is the opposite of prowess prowless?).

But that wasn’t the point. It was winter and cold outside and you wanted to be surfing. So you wrote. Day after day you got to spend hours in a world where surfing was the only thing that mattered. And you loved it. In the pages of your books the sun always shined, the water was always 70 degrees, and you ripped up waves in ways you never could in real life. You had cool weird friends (pretty much like in real life), and were adored by many beautiful women (exactly like in real life!).

One amusing development came when the marketing department at the publishing company got hold of the manuscripts and realized what you already suspected -- that these books were simply not going to sell. In a desperate attempt to attract readership, they added sexy girls to the covers. Unfortunately, they added a girl wearing a bikini top to the book titled Take Off.

A “take off” is what surfers do when they catch a ride. They take off on the wave. Imagine your surprise a few months later when a school librarian told you she couldn’t put the book in her library because of the cover of the girl in the bikini and the title Take Off.

Mr. Bill says, “Now that REALLY took imagination. (Not the librarian, the part about Todd being adored by beautiful women).”

Thursday, November 27, 2008


It was the fall of 1964 and The Beatles were “taking America by storm” (a popular and ridiculously overused phrase at the time) with hit after hit. To you, they were okay, but not nearly as cool as when Doug’s parents bought him a brand new bright yellow go-kart with a two-cycle Clinton engine, drum brakes, and a centrifugal force clutch.

You’d never seen anything so beautiful. Or so fast. Doug took the kart over to the school parking lot. That engine whined like a chain saw (the Clinton company did indeed make chain saws), and when Doug took off he shot past you with bugling eyes and a look of frozen fear on his face.

It had to be the coolest thing ever. That night at dinner you asked your father if you could get a go-kart, too. “Sure,” he said. “If you can pay for it.”

You shoveled driveways all winter and, by the spring, had saved less than a quarter of what you would have needed to buy a kart like Doug’s. It seemed hopeless, but then, in the Pennysaver, you found an ad for a homemade kart that looked like it had been welded together out of spare pipe. It had two rear band brakes, and no engine. Worst of all, it was the color of cream of broccoli.

“You sure you want it?” Dad asked, clearly dubious, when he took you to see it. But you were sure (And why not? You couldn’t afford anything better).
(That's you, shoveling.)

You guess Dad felt bad for you after that, because he said you could have the Briggs and Stratton engine from your old lawn mower. You unbolted the engine from the lawnmower, drilled new holes in the engine plate on the go-kart, and mounted it.

Then you went to the store to buy a centrifugal force clutch, only to discover that you couldn’t afford one. But you could afford a sprocket and a chain. All you’d have to do was jump start the kart.

Your short driveway slanted down to the street. After making sure there were no cars coming, you crouched beside the kart like a bobsled driver and pushed. The engine caught and roared. The kart shot out of your hands, sailed down the driveway, across the street, crashed into the curb, and died.

In time you learned to push and jump on before the kart got away. You would ride up and down the narrow street in front of your house, lugging the engine on each tight turn, and knowing if you hit the brakes too hard she’d stall.

Jumpstarting is hard on an engine. The spark plug often got fouled and had to be cleaned. You fiddled constantly with the carburetor, and often burned yourself on the muffler. Cables snapped and had to be replaced. Brake bands wore out and had to be replaced. The drive tire went bald and had to be replaced. You did it all yourself.

(A home-made kart of similar vintage to yours).
While every kid around begged Doug to let them drive his kart,
you cannot remember anyone ever asking to drive yours. You don’t doubt that they regarded your broccoli-green machine as a joke and an eyesore. And yet, you can’t recall being particularly bothered or jealous.

You’re sure you spent far more time fixing the kart than driving it. At its best, it never went a third as fast as Doug’s. It would be too neat and easy to end this story by saying that Doug got bored with his kart, or never appreciated it. The truth is, you have no idea how he felt about his kart, or what he eventually did with it. All you know is you loved every second you spent with yours.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Help, I'm Trapped!

For whacky fun, there’s nothing better than writing for the Scholastic book clubs (except when you’re having battles with them,* which is not fun). Until recently** the clubs generally wanted one of two types of books from you: either funny books for boys, or funny books about school (most recently, funny books about school and pets ie, the Tardy Boys).

As best as you can recollect, this all began with Help! I’m Trapped in My Teacher’s Body. It was either 1992 or early 1993, your dalliance with soap operas was over, and you’d recently started working with The World’s Best Disappearing Literary Agent. One day the WBDLA sent you word that the Scholastic Arrow Club was looking for a funny middle-grade book (grades 3-6 ish) about school. You seem to have the impression that this mandate had gone out to numerous agents and authors. The race was on.

You’d recently met your daughter’s rather peculiar science teacher and it occurred to you that it might be amusing if you wrote a story in which he switched bodies with a student.*** You called the WBDLA and suggested the title Help! I’m Trapped in My Teacher’s Body. The WBDLA immediately called your Scholastic editor. The editor’s assistant said that your editor was, at that very moment, in a meeting with the other book club editors deciding on the fall’s books. The WBDLA instructed the assistant to go into the meeting and whisper the title of your book into your editor’s ear.

An hour later you had a deal to write the book.

Help! I’m Trapped in My Teacher’s Body was one of those books that just spilled out. You can’t recall now whether you even wrote an outline first. The main character, Jake Sherman, got his first name from the son of one of your friends, and his last name from one of your neighbors. The one question in your mind was how Jake would switch bodies with his peculiar science teacher, Mr. Dirksen.

The choices were: 1) Magic potion 2) A spell cast by some witch-like being 3) A machine.

You decided to let students choose. For the next few weeks, whenever you visited a school, you told students the idea for the book and asked them which mechanism for switching bodies they’d prefer. The majority seemed to favor a machine.

And thus was born the Dirksen Intelligence Transfer System (DITS for short). Followed soon thereafter by the more portable Mini-DITS.

Ironically, even though there are 17 Help! I’m Trapped in … books, all with the same basic cast of characters, the books are not considered a series*. Help! I’m Trapped in My Teacher’s Body was conceived as a one-off (a stand-alone book as opposed to a series). For the next book, your editor suggested you do a “Ground Hog Day” for students. You decided to make the story about a student who has to do the first day of school over and over until he gets it right (Just as Bill Murray does Ground Hog Day over and over until he gets it ”right.”). You wrote the book and were casting about for a title when you thought of Help! I’m Trapped in The First Day of School.

One day sometime later, your editor called and asked what else a boy could switch bodies with. Back in those days, Mac used to lie at your feet under your desk while you wrote. You looked down at Mac, and then said into the phone, “How about Help! I’m Trapped in a Dog’s Body?”

Your editor suggested the title have something to do with school. Mac was a recent obedience school drop-out****, so you suggested Help! I’m Trapped in Obedience School. While the first two books in the Help! I’m Trapped in Not-A-Series did well, Obedience School was the one that knocked the ball out of the park (mostly thanks to one of the funniest covers ever).

*see Tardy Boys

** Recently you wrote some mildly scary stories, the Nighttime series, for beginning readers.

*** For about ten minutes you thought you’d come up with something completely new. Then you remembered Freaky Friday.

**** You took Mac to obedience school twice. Not only was he impossible to train, but during the second class he decided to do his business on the floor in the middle of class. You cleaned up the mess and did not return.

Sunday, November 16, 2008


One day a few years ago, your editor at Simon Pulse asked if you would write a series about drifting. At the time you had no idea what drifting was, but as soon as you learned that it is a competitive form of driving that involves controlling a car that has lost traction, you were thrilled that she’d asked.

The idea of living vicariously in a racing car driver’s body was just as attractive as living vicariously in a good surfer’s body.

You were taught to drive when you were twelve years old. It was 1962, the United States was in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and within inches of getting into a nuclear war with Russia. Your father decided that if there was to be a war, it would be crucial for you to know how to drive. He took you to the parking lot at the Country Club (it was a country club called the Country Club. Imaginative, huh?) in his MG TF-1500, put a phone book on the seat so that you could see over the dashboard, and taught you to use a stick shift.

It wasn’t until many years later that you began to wonder where exactly he thought you’d go if the bombs did indeed fall. You lived on Long Island. At one end with New York City, which was sure to be completely demolished and rife with life-threatening radioactivity. At the other end of Long Island was the Atlantic Ocean (you were pretty sure that the MG, while great fun to drive, was not designed to float).

The Country Club parking lot was composed of loose gravel and so from the very beginning you were aware of the possibilities for a moving car to lose traction and slide. While it was your father’s intention to teach how not to do this, you secretly enjoyed seeing what happened when you did.

Once you had your license, you took great pleasure in what was then known as power-slides*—going fast and then turning the wheel just sharply enough to break traction and “slide” (skid) sideways through a turn. You performed some power slides on dry roads, but many more on snow or ice, and, now and then, by accident in the spring, on the sand leftover from the winter (before municipalities began to spread salt on icy roads, they often used sand). On several occasions you wound up on someone’s lawn, but never, luckily, wrapped around a tree.

Part of the fun of writing about drifting was learning about its fictional origins on mountainous roads in Japan, and reading the manga series Initial D, in which a young man, Takumi Fujiwara (coincidentally, also 12 when he first begins to drive), teaches himself to drift while dilvering tofu for his father. Currently, most drifting occurrs in the fictional realm of video games, although there is a small contingent of young men and women in this country, and in Japan, who do indeed drift real cars in parking lots and race tracks, and, to a lesser degree, illegaly on the streets.

Your days of power slides are thankfully over, but you have retained your interest in cars, and have a particular fondness for old automobiles, as well as some new German and Italian models.

The only car you ever really dreamed of owning was the 1956 Bentley S-1. It remains one of the most beautifully designed (and hand-built) cars you’ve ever seen. A close runner up might be the 1968 Mercedes 280-SL.

Wait! What about all those gorgeous Ferraris? And the Rolls Phantom 2s from the 1930s. And let’s not forget the Stutz Bearcat. And the old Land Rovers, and the original Toyota land cruiser? And how can you not include Porches? And … Oh, well, forget it. Too many memorable cars to name.

These days cars seem to fall into two categories for you – either they are works of design art and automotive history, or they are merely vehicles to get you from place to place. You have lost the desire to own any vehicle that you would have to worry about dinging, scratching, or being stolen. Most cars are pretty much like tubes of toothpaste. Use’em up and throw’em away.

Unless, of course, you could get your hands on a 1950s Bentley Corniche, or a classic 1950s ‘Vette, or a Jag XK-120 roadster, or …

*Power slides are a part of a drifting driver’s repertoire of moves.

Mr. Bill says, “I myself come from a long and distinguished line of land rovers.”

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Time Zone High

You once had the world’s best disappearing literary agent. She was funny and smart and came up with lots of great ideas for books. You would sit on the phone with her for hours and laugh. There was just one problem. Sometimes she would vanish. Months would go by and she wouldn’t answer phone calls, e-mails, letters, etc. You would speak to the other writers she represented and they wouldn’t have a clue where she was or what she was doing.

Gradually her others writers found more reliable agents, until the day came when you were the only one left. You couldn’t bear to leave her. It was during this time that you produced so many books – 36 in one two year period; mostly novelizations of movies -- that for her it was like representing a bunch of writers anyway.

But finally the day came when you, too, had to say good-bye. She still sends you a check now and then, and when she does you always write back to thank her and ask how she and her family are. She never replies.

During your heyday together, she once suggested you write a book with the title Girl Gives Birth to Own Prom Date. You loved the title so much that you did it. You had recently written a book called How I Changed My Life☺and you liked the characters and wanted to spend more time with them, so you brought many of them back to life for this book*.

Girl Gives Birth to Own Prom Date ☻ was published in hardcover and the publisher’s sales department soon began to report that many people thought the title was gross, disgusting, and inappropriate. Unfortunately, around that time there was a well-publicized incident in which a young woman actually did give birth in a school bathroom during her prom.

Your publisher asked you to come up with a new title for the paperback, and you chose How I Created My Perfect Prom Date. The paperback had just come out when Fox bought the movie rights. Fourteen months later the movie, Drive Me Crazy (a generic movie title if ever there was one), was released.**

Your publisher immediately published a movie tie-in book with the same title. Hence, in the space of less than four years, the book had three different titles - Girl Gives Birth to Own Prom Date, How I Created My Perfect Prom Date, and Drive Me Crazy.

*Some of the characters would show up for a third time in How I Spent My Last Night on Earth. Together, you call all three “How I…” novels the Time Zone High trilogy.

☺ The character of Jeff Branco in this book is based on your childhood friend Phillip. While Phillip never sold pizza out of the boys room at school, he did indeed scale a 15-foot-chain link fence topped with barbed wire in an attempt to break into a woman’s correctional facility on Long Island.

☻The idea for Wrong Way Ray came from the experience of an editor from the Middletown Times Herald-Record, who celebrated a promotion to a higher editorial position by getting so drunk that he drove nearly fifteen miles in the wrong direction on the New York Thruway before police were able to stop him.

** The premiere party for the movie was one of the first times you ever saw your daughter, then 15, dress up and wear makeup. The transformation from ponytail and sweat pants to blow-dried hair, short skirt, and spaghetti strap top was somewhat unsettling. And you weren’t the only one who noticed. Adrian Grenier (think Entourage***), the male lead in the movie, went so far as to suggest that she accompany him to “the party after the party” (wink, wink). She politely declined, explaining that she had school (Uh, like 9th grade, dude!) the next day. I give Mr. Grenier the benefit of the doubt and believe he did not realize how young she was (My daughter is almost 6 feet tall, and, when wearing makeup… Well, you know).

*** In the movie, Mr. Grenier played the role of Chase Hammond. In Entourage his character’s name is Vincent Chase. Coincidence?

Mr. Bill says, “This blog drives ME crazy!”

Friday, November 7, 2008

The Tardy Boys Not-A-Series

The Tardy Boys is not a series. The fifth book, IS THAT AN UNHAPPY LEPRECHAUN IN YOUR LUNCH? is supposed to come out next March, but it is still not a series. Nobody except you calls it the Tardy Boys not-a-series. In fact, nobody else calls it a series even though four books have been published and they all star the Tardy Boys.

This is not the first time you have written a not-a-series. You once wrote a 17-book not-a-series even though each book began with Help! I’m Trapped in… and the same characters appeared in each book.

When you asked your publisher why it wasn’t a series, you were told, “because it’s not numbered.”

You had to rewrite the first book in the Tardy Boys not-a-series about 150,000 times. Every time you though the book was done, your publisher would read it and tell you all the things that were wrong with it. For instance, originally you wanted to call the main characters the Pardy Boys, but your publisher said no. Here is a VERY partial list of other things your publisher said no to:

1) Giving the Pardy Boys first names of Disc O. and Hart T., and calling their little brother Pajama
2) Using the words underpants, underwear, and orifice.
3) Solving the world-wide energy crisis by harnessing a fantastic new source of renewable energy known as COW BUTT METHANE GAS POWER (CBMGP) and introducing THE COW CAR, which runs on CBMGP.
4) Mentioning Nelson Muntz from The Simpsons.
5) Asking if the naked eye is indecent.
6) Placing the Magic Toilet Bowl inside the Mysterious Toilet Stall at The School With No Name and sending the Pardy Boys back in time whenever they pulled a sheet from the Phantom Toilet Stall Dispenser.
7) Having the Pardy Boys travel back to the Revolutionary War to meet Timmy Meeker, Sarah Bishop, Johnny Tremain, and Willy Freeman.
8) Having Johnny Tremain put down Timmy Meeker because Johnny’s book won the Newbery Medal while Timmy’s book only won a Newbery Honor, and having Timmy put down Sarah Bishop because her book only won something called the Hans Christian Andersen Award.
9) What Germans say when they mean no.
10) Having them all put down the Pardy Boys because their book was only a paperback original.
11) Having the Pardy Boys put down all the others because they were stuck using chamber pots.
12) Having the Pardy Boys explain to Capt. John Parker of the Minutemen that a surefire way to “kick some limey lobsterback butt” at the Battle of Lexington Green was to have the Minutemen hide behind rocks and trees.
13) Having the Pardy Boys realize that they couldn’t use the Magic Toilet to return to the present because they would have to wait 97 years until Dr. Thomas Crapper invented the flush toilet.
14) Having the Pardy Boys meet your Russian girlfriend, Dr. Prada Nockoff, supermodel, brain surgeon, and director of research at the Harvard Center for the Study of Alien Abductees.

Mr. Bill says, “I’m surprised you didn’t mention your Russian tax accountant, Candice B. Writtenoff.”

Sunday, November 2, 2008

The Best Creatures on Earth

Back in the early 1980s your first three books for young adults had done well and your agent was able to ratchet up your advances to levels you would not again see for nearly 25 years. But then you produced a slew of books -- some real clunkers included -- that didn’t sell well enough to merit the advances you were receiving.

Worried that your future as a writer was at stake, you worked extra hard to create a new batch of proposals for really cutting-edge, hard-hitting YAs that, you believed, were sure to be newsworthy advance re-earning award winners. Then you went to your editor’s office (not Ferdinand Monjo, who had sadly passed away) and pitched the books passionately. You provided your editor with extensive outlines and sample chapters. You described key scenes and plot points. You put everything you could think of offering into this effort.

After listening to your proposals, your editor sat back in his chair and gazed at the ceiling. He pressed the tips of his fingers together thoughtfully for several moments. Then he leaned forward, looked you straight in the eyes and said, “Todd, I think you should write some books about dogs.”

This marked the beginning of the end of your first adventure as a YA writer. Soon thereafter, you would chuck the whole book-writing business and spend two years in the literarily (is this really a word? Spell check seems to think so) rarified world of daytime television drama. Close to fifteen years would pass before you would see, or speak to, that editor again.

Shortly after that editorial meeting, your daughter was born. If her first words were not, “Can I have a dog?” then they followed soon. You were living in New York City and pets weren’t allowed in your building, so you gave her Gund dogs, and promised that you would get her a real dog as soon as you “moved to the country.”

One day a few years later you moved to the suburbs. An adorable pudgy little yellow lab, Mac, arrived shortly thereafter. Mac grew to be 75 pounds and taught you many things. He taught you never to leave food on any flat surface less than 5 feet off the ground. He taught you to get him an extra-long leash so that when he took off after squirrels he wouldn’t yank your shoulder out of its socket. He taught you that a large dog can eat a pound of dark chocolate and survive (barely). He taught you that when you’re a dog, love is never conditional.

You had never had a dog before Mac, but you now believe they are the best creatures on Earth (Even better than YOU, Mr. Bill). Since then, you have written 13 books about dogs (The 3-book Furry Mason Mysteries was not published in this country). You hope to soon write more books about dogs. Even better, you hope that someday soon you will have another dog.

Mr. Bill says, “Arf! Arf! Hey, maybe I’m a bull dog!”

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Morton Rhue

In Germany, the most popular books for young adults (jungenbucher) are written by authors whose names are familiar to young readers around the world -- JK Rowling (author of you know who), Stephanie Meyer (currently the hottest YA author around thanks to the Twighlight Saga), Christopher Paolini (Eragon), and Philip Pullman (The Golden Compass). But among YA writers of supposedly German background, one of the best known is Morton Rhue.

Mr. Rhue’s first book, The Wave (Die Welle) was published in Germany in 1981 and quickly became required reading in many schools. It also sells well in the United States, and has been translated into more than a dozen languages. Since 1981, it has sold more than five million copies in Germany, and this past winter was released as a feature film Die Welle, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and was the number one movie in Germany for nearly two months.

Mr. Rhue is known to be a reclusive author who only makes public appearances for a few weeks every other year when a new book of his is published in Germany. When he does come out in public, he is featured on TV and radio, in newspapers and magazines, and draws hundreds of fans who come to hear him read in bookstores.

Other popular books by Mr. Rhue are Ich Knall Euch Ab!, Asphalt Tribe, and Boot Camp. Most recently, he toured the country to promote his newest book, Ghetto Kidz.

Some people have remarked on the remarkable physical similarity between Mr. Rhue and the American author Todd Strasser.

Mr. Bill says, "No way. Morton Rhue is much better looking."

Friday, October 24, 2008

Bob Dylan

Young people often ask who inspired you to become a writer, or influenced you early in your so-called career. You are always reluctant to tell them that Bob Dylan was a tremendous influence (not just on you, but on much of your generation, as well as on several generations to follow). Your reluctance stems from the feeling that the Bob Dylan young people think of today is not the same person you’re referring to.

Your memory of the 1960s is a bit hazy (as per the old nugget, “If you remember it, you weren’t there.”) But somewhere around 1967 you discovered Bob Dylan’s album, Blonde on Blonde, which had been released the previous year. Several of the tracks (“I Want You” and “Just Like A Woman”) had become radio hits, but you were mesmerized by “Visions of Johanna” and endlessly amused by “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again.” You’d never heard lyrics like these before, so absurdly visual and at the same time ringing with what you imagined to be authenticity, uncanny wisdom, and truth.

Each day after school you would sit on the Naugahyde couch in your white-washed wood-paneled den and listen to the record on your parent’s mono record player. You bought a harmonica and tried to play along (later you would pick the great blues harpist Paul Butterfield as a better model). You sensed, on some instinctive level, that you were listening to something remarkable, even if you couldn’t always figure out what Dylan meant. Soon you were the proud owner of his other two “electric” albums, “Highway 61 Revisited,” and “Bringing It All Back Home,” as well as albums by Judy Collins and The Byrds, who, along with Jimi Hendrix’s fabulous “All Along The Watchtower,” performed the best Dylan covers (in your humble opinion).

For you, Dylan’s alleged motorcycle “accident” was a personal tragedy. The artist who released John Wesley Harding a year and a half later seemed to be someone else, and you mourned the loss. For many years you would say that the Bob Dylan you knew had died in that crash (which Dylanologists doubt actually happened). But recently you’ve begun to imagine that you understand why he did what he did. Dylan started as a writer and singer of folk and protest songs. In fairly short order he wrote some of the greatest protest songs ever. Perhaps he sensed that he couldn’t top himself. Perhaps he was bored with that form. Perhaps he was fearful of becoming stale and repetitious. So he moved on to the more personal and idiosyncratic songs of his “electric period.” It’s only lately that you’ve begun to appreciate how amazingly brave (brazen?) this move was – utterly alienating his enormous “folksy” fan base (they booed him off the stage at the all-important Newport Folk Festival) to move into an area of music where, for all he knew, he might fail miserably (at least I assume he did not have a crystal ball predicting the future).

How many successful stars today would be willing to take such a risk and put their entire career in jeopardy for the sake of their “art?”? So perhaps that also explains the transition that followed the “electric” period. Is it possible that in the space of those three albums, he explored as much as he could, or cared to, explore? And felt he had no choice but to move on again?

All you know is that even today his songs and music remain an inexorable part of your life. And you are thankful for what he gave the world (and delighted that “the world” deemed it important to award him a special Pulitzer citation.)