Sunday, December 1, 2013

A Well-crafted Piece

     At a gathering recently someone asked me what I did for a living. I said I wrote books for young people. What followed was a conversation every writer of picture, middle-grade, and YA books has probably had many times. He asked if I had ever thought about writing for adults? I said I had and I have. He asked if I’d ever thought about writing for TV. Again, I had not only thought of it, but had done it. Then he asked if I’d ever thought about the big time? For a moment I thought he meant trying to write a best seller, but it turned out he meant writing for film.
      There too, I had both thought about it and done it, although I’ve never had anything more than the script for a made-for-television movie produced. In fact, in more than forty years of writing there probably isn’t much I haven’t done. Newspapers, magazines, advertising, public relations, poetry, song lyrics, short stories, novels, book series, TV and movie scripts, even fortunes for risqué fortune cookies (those were actually my first best sellers).
      In the process I have worked alone, in collaborations, and with teams of writers. And, as I’m sure many others have, I’ve pictured myself in “the big time,” writing bestsellers and blockbuster movies, giving lengthy interviews on radio and TV, appearing on the covers of magazines, and sitting at tables in book stores while long lines of fans waited for my autograph.
      Now that I’ve reached my 60s most of those fantasies have passed. These days, the idea of writing a movie script, of going Hollywood, and all that implies, doesn’t hold much appeal (except for the medical benefits offered by the Writer’s Guild of America). A bestseller would still be wonderful, of course, but in the meantime I find I’m content to work quietly and by myself in my “workshop,” feeling the way I imagine a craftsman must feel. Mostly, what I dream about now is producing a really good piece of work.
      Something akin to a handcrafted desk or dresser…
      Please allow me to explain the non-sequitur. For most of my life I didn’t pay a great deal of attention to furniture. It was there to put things on, or in, and I used it like everyone else. Even antiques and museum pieces held little fascination for me. After all, it was just … furniture.
      Then one day my wife and I took our children to colonial Williamsburg, Va. In one of the old shops I watched a cabinetmaker work on a replica of an antique desk, complete with inlay and beveling and all the other carefully added flourishes that perhaps only a handful of craftsmen have time for anymore.
      After a while the kids got impatient and my wife took them to see the wigmaker and the blacksmith, but I stayed and observed the care and precision with which this craftsman went about his work, the ultimate reward not being the opportunity to give an extended radio interview, nor appear on a magazine cover, but the simple pride and satisfaction that comes with having produced a really solid, sturdy, well-crafted piece.
      Even then I didn’t give up my fantasies right away. I had to sign books for long lines of fans, only to see some of those autographed books appear for sale on eBay the very next day. I had to give some long radio interviews and appear on television a few times to realize that so many people do these things now that it hardly makes a difference. I had to walk down the red carpet at the premier of a movie made from one of my books to find out that unless you are J.K. Rowling the paparazzi has no interest in the novel’s author.
      I’m glad I had those experiences, because – and I know this will sound clichéd – they helped me to focus on what I now believe are the important things in life: family, friends, and working patiently to produce something solid, sturdy, and lasting.

Monday, November 11, 2013

The New York Times Review of FALLOUT

On the first page of his exciting, harrowing new novel, Todd Strasser pulls his readers into a nightmare that almost came true. Scott Porter is a fifth grader living in a New York City suburb in 1962. One night his father shakes him awake, saying, “We’re being attacked.”  
Strasser has reimagined the Cuban missile crisis and set “Fallout” in a realistic John F. Kennedy America. Mickey ­Mantle plays hero for the Yankees. Nikita Khrushchev plays villain for the Reds. Dads go to work and read Playboy. Moms keep house and smoke. The one unhistorical detail is that in this story the Soviets don’t back down. They strike. 
The narrative that follows alternates between present-tense scenes of acute distress as the Porter family and six largely unwanted guests struggle to stay sane and alive in an ill-stocked bomb shelter meant for four, and past-tense scenes of the simple, everyday dramas of Scott and his pals in the lead-up to the bombing. Nothing so theatrically terrible happens inside the shelter, though there are some grisly arguments about reducing the number of hungry mouths. Yet as I read and suffered along with the characters, I kept thinking how comparatively pleasant it would have been for them to have faced one of those zombie apocalypses screenwriters are so fond of these days. The bomb shelter is a form of living death. No electricity, no privacy, enough food for only a few days and persistent questions about whether the occupants will starve or suffocate or kill one another before radiation levels fall enough for them to escape the shelter. And what will they find when they open that trapdoor? 
“There’s down here and up there,” Scott says. “The ones who feel like they’re buried are alive, while the ones who aren’t buried probably aren’t alive.” Personally, I’ll take zombies. At least with zombies you know where you stand (they want to eat you) and you can look up and see the sky in between attacks. 
By now you’re probably wondering whether “Fallout” is really appropriate for children. So let’s be clear. For all its horror, this is a superb entertainment suitable for any tough-minded kid over the age of 10. It thrums along with finely wrought atmosphere and gripping suspense. If the characters aren’t exactly overburdened with complexity, they’re better drawn than many of the people one bumps into in the average thriller. 
Strasser, a prolific writer for children and teenagers, writes with purpose and economy and structures his book intelligently: The scenes of prewar life give context and emotional weight to what happens in the shelter. Without the prewar material, the tension and misery of the drama in the shelter might be unbearable.  
My guess is that Strasser’s middle-grade readers know little about the Cuban missile crisis, and this exercise in “what if” should help them — in a way no textbook could — to understand a historical moment better known for what didn’t happen than for what did. By contrast, the author knows his material very well. He was 12 in 1962, and his dad built a bomb shelter in the family’s backyard. Given his experiences, it’s no wonder Strasser takes a strongly antiwar position, especially in an author’s note at book’s end. Thankfully, he had enough sense to leave most of the preachy tone out of his suspenseful

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Journal News Story

Long before he became a novelist, Todd Strasser was a 12-year-old boy whose father built a bomb shelter under the family’s Long Island home.

His latest book, “Fallout” (Candlewick Press, $16.99), set in 1962, takes a look at that era from the vantage point of an adolescent whose experience mimics Strasser’s — and whose father is equally prepared for disaster. Equal parts memoir and fantasy, it’s a page-turner aimed at the middle-grade crowd, with an appeal that extends to adults.

“The first fan letter I got was actually from an expat, an American in New Zealand, who said it really reminded him of how terrified we all were back in the Cuban Missile Crisis,’’ he says.

For Strasser, who’s come out with 140 books for young readers since 1979, “Fallout” represents a shift, of sorts, in subject matter. “My first original novel was probably the only other book I’ve ever written that was really, to a significant degree, autobiographical,” he says. That book, “Angel Dust Blues” — a coming-of-age novel set in the suburbs — was followed by bestsellers including the “Help, I’m Trapped In” series and such award-winning young-adult novels as “The Wave” and “Give a Boy a Gun.”

Strasser has lived in Larchmont since 1990. “Fallout” is his 100th original novel. Recently, he took a break from working on his first “science-fiction adventure story” to answer a few questions.

You are clearly one of the most prolific authors around. How do you motivate yourself to write?

It’s sort of the default activity of my life.

Why did you wait until now to write about a father who builds a bomb shelter to protect his family during the Cuban Missile Crisis?

For a long time I’ve been writing books about what’s going on now, or what I imagine will happen in the future, and I guess as I got a little older, closer to 60, I started looking back, and this amazing event in my life was just sitting there. I mean, in a strange way, my father gave me this amazing gift.

About a year ago, you got in touch with the family that now lives in your childhood home. The bomb shelter came as a surprise to them, right?

These people didn’t know about the bomb shelter until closing. You have to go through a trap door that was in a closet under carpet, and so the new owner went down there and found the cans of condensed milk and other stuff. There was a paper down there from 1962, a New York Times just lying there with headlines about the Cuban Missile Crisis.

What do you miss most about the 1960s?

The total innocence.

You recently returned from a book tour in Germany, where you are pretty much treated like a rock star. What’s that like?

I wouldn’t say I’m a huge celebrity, but certainly it is different there for me than it is here. I’m on TV and people take pictures and they bring these books that are 30 years old and ask me to sign them. It’s pretty bizarre.

You write under the pen name “Morton Rhue” in Germany. How did you create that name?

Todd is similar to the word “tot,” which means “dead” in German. And Strasser is like “street’’ in German. “Dead street” in French is “mort rue,” and somehow that became Morton Rhue.

One would think you’d be fluent in German by now, but you make all your presentations in English when you tour Germany. Did you learn any new words on your last trip?

Whatever I learned on this trip was what the German GPS said, like “Recchts abbiegen.” I can say “Right turn coming up, left turn coming up.” That’s basically my German: German directions.

You’re known to be quite a surfer, and yet you only started when you turned 52.

It’s not like the pictures you see on TV of people riding these monumental waves. I go out there and I ride these waves that are pretty small and manageable, and it’s really a wonderful experience just being out in the water and this sensation of gliding along on a wave. I love it.

Early in your career, you spent 12 years running the Dr. Wing Tip Shoo fortune cookie company, which you created with the money you made after you sold “Angel Dust Blues.” What did you like most about that experience?

It gave me the freedom to write each day until around 3 p.m., at which time I would switch hats and become a cookie purveyor. It beat having a real job.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

My Go-kart: A early-teenage reminiscence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In time I learned to push and jump on before the kart got away. I would ride up and down the narrow street in front of our house, lugging the engine on each tight turn, and knowing if I 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. I fiddled constantly with the carburetor, and often burned myself 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. I did it all myself. 

While every kid around begged Doug to let them drive his kart, I cannot remember anyone ever asking to drive mine. I suspect they regarded my kart as a joke and an eyesore. And yet, I can’t recall being particularly bothered or jealous. 

I’m pretty sure I 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, I have no idea how he felt about his kart, or what he eventually did with it. All I know is I loved every second I spent with mine.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013


Always an Original: SLJ Talks to ‘Fallout’ Author Todd Strasser

Todd Strasser has been on the children’s and YA literature scene for more than 30 years. His latest YA book Fallout (Candlewick, 2013) has received rave reviews from many outlets, including The Wall Street Journal. School Library Journal calls it “a well-written, compelling story with an interesting twist on how history might have turned out.” Publisher Candlewick has even developed a discussion guide for the book that has direct correlations to the Common Core. We caught up with Strasser to chat about the book, his distinguished career, and his latest project.
toddstrasser  Always an Original: SLJ Talks to Fallout Author Todd Strasser
Can you tell us more about your latest book, Fallout?
The book is part memoir and part speculative fiction, rooted in my experience as a twelve-year-old boy living through the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, when our family was the only one in town with a bomb shelter. Thus, I not only worried along with everyone else in our country about the very real possibility of a nuclear World War III, but I worried about trying to survive in our shelter as well.
Many of my anxieties concerned the possibility that a war might start while my father was off at work in New York City, and therefore too far away to get home. In that case: Would there be time for me to run home from school before the bombs fell? And since everyone in town knew we had a bomb shelter, would others get there first and demand to be allowed in? What if my mother, brother, and I got inside and our neighbors came and wanted us to let them in?
How does it feel writing a book that has a historical setting in which you actual lived?
It certainly stirs up long dormant memories and emotions—and it’s a bit of a reality check. When I revisited the bomb shelter 50 years later, it was a lot smaller than I remembered.
What are your memories of 1962?
It was a transformational year in terms of my awareness of the world. Before then, my world view was mostly school and my small neighborhood and friends. Not only was 1962 the year I became aware of the Cold War and the idea that a country thousands of miles away wanted (allegedly) to destroy us, but also that here in the US some people were willing to resort to violence to stop a black man, James Meredith, from enrolling at the University of Mississippi.

You have been writing for a long time. Have you seen many changes in what kids want to read and how books are published?
Fallout is actually my 100th book-length work of original fiction. My first novel, Angel Dust Blues, was published in 1979. It’s about a young man growing up on Long Island who’s arrested for selling marijuana and, like Fallout, is considerably more autobiographical than most of my books.
I came along in the valley between two mountains of series. You might call the first [mountain] “Mt. Stratemeyer,” after Edward Stratemeyer, the creator of Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, Tom Swift, and the Bobbsey Twins. The second [mountain] is more like a mountain range; some of the peaks might be called “Mt. Pascal,” “Mt. Martin,” and “Mt. Stine” [and] the tallest, certainly, being “Mt. Rowling.” But I was schooled in the valley of the one-off problem novel. There were hardly any series coming out at that time. And as far as how books are being published? The e-book, of course, which is a blessing for those of us with long lists of out-of-print books.

You have been nominated several times for the Edgar Award.  Are there a certain techniques to writing a good mystery?
Here are some that I’ve gleaned over the years: 1) Be stingy with information. 2) Create as many viable red herrings as possible. 3) At some point, dismiss suspicion of the main culprit.

One of your pastimes is surfing, and you came to it in your fifties.  Can you tell us more about how that happened?
FALLOUT COVER075 398x600 Always an Original: SLJ Talks to Fallout Author Todd Strasser
I’ve always been a water rat, and had always wanted to surf. My daughter and I went to Hawaii the summer after she graduated from high school and saw lots of “Learn to Surf” signs, so we tried it and loved it.

What book would we find on your nightstand?
The Son, by Philip Meyer. An extraordinary story extraordinarily researched.

As an author, how are you using social media?
I’m trying. I’m really trying! I am on Facebook, and have recently been posting photos and stories from the 1960s. On Twitter (@ToddStrasser) I have changed my photo to one that includes the Fallout cover, and I also have been tweeting about topics from the 1960s.

On what are you currently working?
A sci-fi adventure about life after the destruction of Earth’s environment. Working title: Moby Dick in Space.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

FALLOUT and Todd Featured in Publisher's Weekly

Q & A with Todd Strasser

Photo: Hollis Rafkin-Sax

Bullying, school shootings, and homelessness are some of the weightier topics Todd Strasser has tackled in his novels, but he’s also dabbled in more lighthearted fare, including his Help! I’m Trapped… series for middle-grade readers. The author drew from his own childhood to write Fallout, which Candlewick will publish September 10. The book marks a significant milestone for the author, as it is his 100th original work of fiction (his oeuvre also includes a number of novelizations). In the novel, set on Strasser’s Long Island, N.Y., childhood turf, Scott’s father builds the only bomb shelter in the neighborhood as the Cold War heats up in 1962. Strasser’s father did the same, but happily the family never had to take put the shelter to use. Scott’s family isn’t so lucky.

Obviously your father’s building of a backyard bomb shelter created an indelible memory. How did you come to write a novel based on that incident?
For many years, when I thought about what I wanted to write about, I took a look at what was going on in the present and took a look ahead to the future, but when I got close to turning 60, I started to look back. And the first thing I saw was this incredible experience of my father building a bomb shelter in case of nuclear war. The unintended consequence of that bomb shelter was that I was filled with anxiety about a nuclear war. What if I was in school when this happened? Would they let me run out of school to try to get home to my bomb shelter? This novel actually began when I was 12 years old, lying in bed at night wondering what I would do.
In 1962, was having a personal bomb shelter a rarity?
I do know that we were the only ones in our neighborhood – we lived in Roslyn Heights – who had a bomb shelter. I was known as the kid with the bomb shelter, and kids would tease me and ask if I’d let them in when the time came. I didn’t know it at the time, but after doing a lot of research for the book I realize there was a tremendous amount of publicity surrounding bomb shelters. There was a mass drive to build them in public places, and civil defense agencies put up those little black and yellow signs everywhere indicating underground shelters.

Would you say that this is your most personal novel yet?
Yes, it’s very much based on my own life as a boy, and much more autobiographical than most of my earlier books. Almost all of the characters are conglomerations of people I knew – kids I played with on my street, neighbors, and teachers – though no one character is exactly a real person.
Fortunately, Fallout isn’t an accurate portrayal of how the Cold War played out. What do you hope readers will take from the novel?
People who have written about the novel seem to be focusing on the idea of the Cuban Missile Crisis and these people stuck in this bomb shelter together. But to me, the book is about a young man’s growing awareness of the world around him, and the loss of innocence. Here Scott had this world of going to school and playing with friends on the block, and suddenly forces from thousands of miles away want to destroy him. This is really about a boy who had to grow up very quickly.
And I also bring in the Civil Rights Movement, because that same month in which the book is set, October 1962, there was a riot at the University of Mississippi when James Meredith became the first black student to attend the school. The other thing I wanted to include was the theme of the objectification of women. Scott’s friend Ronnie, who is fixated on women’s breasts – a condition at least partly fostered by the Playboy magazines his father leaves around the house – is constantly badgering Scott to share this fascination. But in the squalid conditions of the shelter, where he and Scott actually confront adult human nakedness for the first time, the mystique is dispelled by the reality that flesh is merely flesh.
Fast forward from 1962 – how did you discover you wanted to be a writer?
When I was in college in the early 1970s – first at NYU and then at Beloit, since I was on the six-year-plan – I had an opportunity to do an independent writing project for a semester. So I began what eventually became Angel Dust Blues, my first novel. When I graduated, there didn’t seem to be many “Help Wanted: Novelists” ads in the newspaper. So I went into journalism, which I think was a very beneficial thing for me.
How so?
Well, I learned a lot about research, and I do a lot of research for my books, so that was helpful. But journalism was limiting – you have to tell the truth and you can’t have happy endings. After I left journalism I spent a little time in advertising, and that was a disaster. All the while, I was writing short stories songs, poems, jokes – anything. I sold a piece of fiction to the New Yorker over the transom. Next thing I knew I had an agent, and Putnam published Angel Dust Blues in 1979.
And is it true that you were also trying your hand at some less conventional writing around that same time?
Yes! In 1978, a close friend and I began talking about how feeble the sayings in fortune cookies were. I’d just sold Angel Dust Blues, and had gotten a $1,500 payment for signing the contract. I’d hoped to use the money to start some sort of business that would provide income to live on while also providing more time to write than a regular nine-to-five job would. So my friend and I discussed selling specialized fortune cookies for niche high-income groups. Something like “No one will die on your operating table today” for doctors, “The jury will find your client innocent” for lawyers, and “There’s a hole-in-one in your future” for golfers.
Todd Strasser (l.) and his brother, Leigh, stand by the underground bomb shelter their father built in 1962.
So you ran with that idea?
Not exactly. One night at a party, I was trying to impress a young woman with my entrepreneurial prowess when she mentioned a different kind of fortune cookie that she’d just encountered at an East Side restaurant – let’s call them “grown up” fortune cookies. So we founded Dr. Wing Tip Shoo’s fortune cookies, with sayings like, “When in Rome, ask for Florence,” “Women who sleep with judge get honorable discharge,” and “Clairvoyant contortionist is one who can see her own end” – my personal favorite.
Did they catch on?
They were an immediate hit, and it wasn’t long before novelty representatives were selling them all over the U.S. The income supported my writing “habit” for the next 12 years, at which point I was doing well enough as a writer, and from school visits, to leave the cookies behind.
After Fallout, what’s next on your fiction agenda?
I have a YA novel coming out in January from Simon & Schuster. It’s called No Place and it’s about Dan, a boy whose family loses their home and has to move to a tent city. Dan was vaguely aware that things like that happened, but not to families like theirs. And I’ve signed a contract with Candlewick for another book, whose working title is Moby Dick in Space. I’ve done adventure and sci fi-ish books before, but this one is a bit different. It’s about the destruction of the environment on Earth and a number of other things. The problem is it doesn’t seem to be ending – it keeps going and going and going! I keep thinking this thing has to end but it seems to be endless. It’s an unusual experience for me.
Your novels span genres and age levels – is there one fictional space you feel most comfortable in?
I seem to bounce around, sort of at my whim. If I’ve worked on a realistic novel, I might want to do something kind of light and funny next. And I seem to be able to move back and forth pretty comfortably between middle grade and YA, depending on whatever the next idea is. I started writing middle grade when my kids, who are now 25 and 29, were middle graders themselves. Before that I did mostly YA, and now that my kids are older I’m writing more YA stuff again. But with Fallout, I honestly wasn’t targeting a specific age group at all. I was writing from the heart, and wanted to be as honest as I could possibly be. I truly wasn’t certain what audience it would be for – all I knew is that I wanted to write it.
And is it gratifying to have your 100th original novel published?
It’s funny. Since writing truly is my way of life, getting to a certain number of books doesn’t necessarily mean all that much to me. I plan to keep on doing what I’ve been doing. And who knows? Maybe I’ll find that the first 99 books were just practice! I do feel that it’s very nice that the 100th book happens to be Fallout, since this is such a special book to me.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

It Came Out of the Blue, and I'm Floored

  A Review of Fallout from the Wall Street Journal

It is all too easy, half a century on, to regard the coruscating terror of ordinary Americans during the Cuban Missile Crisis as a dry historical fact rather than a traumatic lived experience. The novelist Todd Strasser, who was a boy at the time, and whose family preparations for nuclear war included building a bomb shelter under their suburban ranch house, has evidently not forgotten the intensity of 1962. Memory here has given rise to a gripping and superbly constructed novel for sophisticated young readers ages 10 and older. In "Fallout" (Candlewick, 258 pages, $16.99), however, the Russians really do drop the bomb, and when the sirens wail, Scott Porter and his parents and little brother, rushing to their homemade bunker, are almost overwhelmed by neighbors frantic to gain refuge in the area's only fallout shelter.

There's not a word out of place in this evocative book, which toggles between the ever-more-dire predicament of the people in the overfilled bunker and the placid neighborhood during the weeks before the crisis. Mr. Strasser's skill at ratcheting up the tension is, if anything, exceeded by his ability to conjure midcentury ways of thinking—and a vanished culture in which aspirational fathers drank Dubonnet, beatniks were a present-tense curiosity, and children were amazed at the very idea of homosexuality.

Friday, August 16, 2013

The Height of the Cold War

It was a frightening time for everyone, and especially for one 12-year-old boy on Long Island.

Monday, August 12, 2013

FALLOUT Earns Starred Review From Publisher's Weekly

Strasser (Kill You Last) brings readers to the 1960s Long Island of his youth, with one crucial difference: in this story, the Cuban Missile Crisis leads Russia to bomb the U.S. The plot alternates between two threads set before and after the bomb drops; in the immediate aftermath, 11-year-old Scott, his family, and a handful of neighbors endure the increasingly difficult conditions in the subterranean bomb shelter Scott’s father built, waiting for radiation levels to fall. The format allows Strasser to have the best of both worlds. In the “before” chapters, he presents a vision of life during the Cold War that feels ripped from personal memory as Scott grows aware of racial prejudice, the prevailing “us vs. them” mentality toward Russia, and his own nascent sexuality (“You want to die without ever seeing a breast?” Scott’s snide friend Ronnie asks). Meanwhile, the “after” chapters are claustrophobic, heartbreaking, and at times ugly as civility breaks down among the few adult and children survivors. An eye-opening “what if” scenario about the human response to disaster. Ages 10–up. Agent: Stephen Barbara, Foundry Literary + Media. (Sept.)

Friday, August 9, 2013

Using FALLOUT in the Classroom

Fallout can be used to introduce the concept of embedded research.

Embedded research is information that is embedded so seamlessly into the story that it enriches the detail and realism in the story without seeming didactic.  Students might ask, "What is the difference between historical fiction and fiction with embedded research?" In answer to that question is that historical fiction has main characters, who actually existed in situations that really happened.  Stories with embedded research are about fictional characters in situations that really happened or involve accurate details about things that take place in the story. Todd Strasser's Fallout asks the question, "What would happen if a nuclear bomb was dropped and your family was the only one in the neighborhood with a bomb shelter?

Todd Strasser grew up in the 1950s and experienced the Cold War first hand.  His family had a fallout shelter and he has parlayed some of his own experiences into a story about a twelve-year old-boy named Scott whose family is ridiculed for building and stocking a bomb shelter. Then the Cuban Missile Crisis occurs and his neighbors are singing a different tune. In Fallout the author suggests that a bomb is actually dropped and  neighbors force their way into the bomb shelter which was only provisioned for a family of four. Without enough food, water and air for all of them, tensions break out.  But the biggest question is if they can survive until the radioactivity outside abates, what will they find when they get out?

Saturday, August 3, 2013


Wow! I loved Fallout by Todd Strasser! Judging from the reviews and press I've read about the novel, it seems like most people did as well. I don't know why I didn't make the connection when I started reading, but I realized on his website that Strasser also wrote The Wave, which I had to read in my 8th grade Reading class. I remember hating the teacher, but loving that book and its implications.

 I experienced something I don't often get to with novels: I felt like I was right there with the characters. The way that Strasser described the tension in the shelter and the anxiety of the neighbors made me really feel like I was living it with them - horrifying and intriguing.

 I also loved the way Strasser examined human nature - the way the characters changed from ridiculing Scott's dad's shelter to wanting in on it, and then once they were in, criticizing his hap-hazard gathering of items like food, water, clothing, etc. - the ultimate "looking a gift horse in the mouth," would have to be critiquing the man who saved your life. I really loved watching these changes unfold and seeing how unpredictable people can be when faced with catastrophic events. For instance, one of the characters, Mrs. Shaw, says she would never be able to sacrifice someone else's life to save her own. She's obviously shocked when she learns that her husband did just that: he helped Scott's dad keep too many people from getting into the shelter, essentially killing them.

Todd Strasser’s amazing book, Fallout, does not disappoint! Through 6th-grader, Scott, we experience the horror of 10 people trying to survive underground in an bomb shelter that’s only supplied for 4. Alternating chapters show us what led up to the Cold War nightmare. It’s the first middle-grade novel I’ve read in a while that had me biting my nails to the quick. Scary and fantastic!

I was hooked within the first chapter! What would have happened if the Cuban Missile Crisis hadn't been prevented? Not knowing much about this time period, I was intrigued by the angst felt within all households at this time. How do you prepare for the incomprehensible? Todd Strasser does a fantastic job describing what almost happened!

A fascinating--and terrifying-- re-envisioning of the Cuban Missile Crisis told through the eyes of a 12 year old whose father was the only one in the neighborhood to preparefor nuclear war.
What if the crisis wasn't averted?

The bunker scenes are frightening--they would make a great play--like ANNE FRANK or 12 ANGRY JURORS. Multiple personalities struggling in close quarters.
Great tie-in with Z FOR ZECHARIAH.  

Compelling chilling story.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Richie's Picks Gives Fallout Five Stars



Richie's Picks: FALLOUT by Todd Strasser, Candlewick, September 2013, 272p., ISBN: 978-0-7636-5534-1

"Yes we're gonna have a wingding
A summer smoker underground
It's just a dugout that my dad built
In case the Reds decide to push the button down."
-- Donald Fagan, "The New Frontier"

"The Russians were evil. Their chubby bald-headed leader, Nikita Khrushchev, had crooked teeth and an ugly gap between the front two, which showed that Russians didn't even believe in orthodontia. And if that didn't make him anti-American enough, there was the time he'd come to the United Nations and banged his shoe on the rostrum, which proved beyond a doubt that the Commies were unpredictable, violent, and crazy enough to blow us all up."

"We'll break down these walls with our music and our art"
-- from a prayer during the opening ceremony at the Enchanted Forest transformational music and arts festival

I pause from my reading to watch some of the more talented dancers gyrating amidst the redwoods. It's early evening but, being just days beyond the solstice, it is still quite warm and there will still be light for at least another hour.

From my perspective, this is a young crowd. You really need to scan the scene closely to see those who might have been alive during the Summer of Love, no less recall the days of the Cuban Missile Crisis. There's one. A couple more over there, but not many.

It's a really relaxed vibe at this weekend festival in the northern California coastal hills. Officially a no-alcohol venue, the vast majority here are blissed out on pot and redwoods, friendships and frisbees, marathon dancing to the electronic music, and a killer, thrumming speaker system that is shaking the ground under me.

And here I sit, amidst the peaceful play of a young generation, reading a tense story directly related to what was the scariest aspect of my childhood -- the threat of nuclear war, and those air raid drills where you'd duck and cover under your school desk as if that would mitigate the effects of a nuclear bomb attack.

The world has made it this far, thanks to the negotiations that ended the Cuban Missile Crisis of my childhood. But in the alternative world in which Todd Strasser's FALLOUT takes place, the Cuban Missile Crisis does, in fact, lead to nuclear war.

"The metal rungs hurt the bottoms of my bare feet as I lower myself. The dark air in the shelter is cool and damp and smells like mildew. Suddenly boxes and bags of things shower down, bouncing off my head and arms, and falling into the shadows below. I cry out in surprise, even though it doesn't really hurt. Already Mom's feet are on the rungs just above me.
"'Hurry!' Dad yells.
"'Ow!' Sparky cries, and I wonder if Dad accidentally banged him into something as he tried to lower him through the trapdoor.
"One of my feet touches the cold concrete floor; the other steps on a box that collapses with a crunch.
''In there!' a man's voice shouts.
"Above me, Mom yells, 'Careful, Edward!'"

I knew how good FALLOUT was going to be when I found myself toying with the idea of putting it down at the end of the first chapter. By that point, it was already making me feel incredibly uncomfortable. Queasy, in fact.

Scott's father had a fallout shelter built under the addition to their home. It's the only one in the American neighborhood in which they live. When nuclear war breaks out, and Scott, his parents, and his little brother scramble to get down into the shelter, some neighbors who know about it break into their house and force their way into the shelter. The door is sealed and time below ground begins.

But the supplies that have been stockpiled in the shelter are only meant to support four lives, not this crowd. Thus, the two weeks that need to be spent in the shelter -- while the radiation levels outside decrease sufficiently to permit going out without assuredly dying -- provide an oft-ugly look at human nature when fear, hunger, claustrophobia, prejudice, and survival instincts all set in.

Told from Scott's perspective, the chapters in FALLOUT alternate between the preceding months, where we get to know these characters in their more normal states of being, and the days in the shelter that get more and more tense as the lack of food and supplies force decisions to be hammered out and permit our seeing a very dark side of humankind.

And what I'm thinking about, as I gaze across this crowd of beautiful young people, and think about my own children who are part of this generation, is how, fifty-one years after the Cuban Missile Crisis brought us to the verge of nuclear war, there remain thousands of nuclear warheads in the world today. Sadly, the hatred in the world that divides countries and religious groups, combined with the existence of these weapons, assures us that the threat of nuclear war remains as ever-presently real now as it was back then.

"And when I really get to know you
We'll open up the doors and climb into the dawn"
-- Donald Fagan

Richie Partington is a well-regarded and influential blogger and I love the way he works the review into a time and place and Donald Fagen's (Steely Dan) lyrics. Thanks, Richie!


Monday, July 1, 2013

FALLOUT get starred review from Kirkus

Author: Todd Strasser

Review Issue Date: July 15, 2013
Online Publish Date: July 3, 2013
Publisher: Candlewick
Pages: 272
Price ( Hardcover ): $16.99
Publication Date: September 10, 2013
ISBN ( Hardcover ): 978-0-7636-5534-1
Category: Fiction
Strasser once again combines terrific suspense with thoughtful depth when the bombs really do fall in this alternate-history Cuban missile crisis thriller.
Eleven-year-old Scott’s family becomes the laughingstock of their neighborhood when, worried about possible nuclear attack, they build a bomb shelter. However, when the Civil Defense siren sounds, sending them to the shelter, they can’t keep their neighbors out, even though they have enough food for only their own family. In chapters that alternate between their time in the shelter and the weeks leading up to the attack, the story reveals the strengths and weaknesses of the characters. Scott and his friend Ronnie, the rather nasty neighborhood smartass, continue their friendly rivalry in the shelter, while their parents reveal much about their own personalities. The book examines racism; when Scott’s mother becomes so seriously injured that it seems she will not survive, their neighbor wants to put both her and the family’s black maid out of the shelter to die. The author peppers the narrative with tidbits from the early ’60s, such as Tang, MAD magazine and talk of “Ruskies,” “Commies” and duck-and-cover school drills. Scott’s believably childlike narration recounts events and adults’ reactions to them as he understands them.
This riveting examination of things important to a boy suddenly thrust into an adult catastrophe is un-put-down-able. (Thriller. 10-14)

Friday, June 7, 2013

“The realities of classroom teaching today,” i.e., the stranglehold of censorship.

An e-mail from a teacher who’s read the FALLOUT ARC and wishes she could use it in her classroom, but can’t.  Here’s what she says:

Dear Mr. Strasser,

 I am a sixth grade English teacher who just finished Fallout.  It was a compelling story and I must confess, I skipped the last three flashback chapters to keep reading about the shelter-ettes.
Selfishly, I am hoping you are hard at work on a sequel!  We have read The Diving Bell as a class in previous years and I initially thought I could use Fallout as a book club book. Simply loved the topic and how you write.

Here is my dilemma:  Thanks in part to a rabid Evangelical parent I had the misfortune to encounter two years ago,  our district now has a lengthy book approval process.  I fear the discussion between the boys about homosexuality will cause the book to be rejected. (not the Playboy mention, underage  drinking or nudity in the bunker, mind you.)

 Please know this does not reflect my personal views but rather the realities of classroom teaching today.   I would welcome your thoughts on how I could present this to the close-minded.

I wrote back:  Thanks for your note. I appreciate your kind words about the book and I am sorry about the situation you're in. The best answer that I feel I can personally give to your request comes in two parts.

 First, the book has been chosen by the Junior Library Guild (  As you will see from this link, they probably know as much as anyone about choosing age-appropriate books for readers.

In addition, how about taking the constitutional approach? Do the people involved in the book approval process believe in the rights granted under US Constitution? How would they feel about someone else deciding to take away their constitutional rights? Do they understand that the First Amendment also protects their right to practice the religion of their choice? How would they feel if someone came along and told them they could no longer practice their religion?

We believe in Freedom of Speech. It’s part of the foundation of our country. The people in question has every right to prevent their own children from reading a book. But under our Constitution they have no right to decide for others what they can read.

And she wrote back:

Re: Freedom of speech.  It's a great concept but does not really apply to teachers in the classroom.
(Believe me, I researched and met with ACLU lawyers at my own expense.)  As you are well aware, educators have been vilified in the media and are under attack. We are no longer entrusted as professionals to get the best, most thought provoking books into the hands of readers. It is a very
sad situation.  The overwhelming threat of ligation from lunatics trumps all. 

That last paragraph breaks my heart. Welcome to primary education circa 2013, where teachers’ hands are cuffed and censorship not only festers, but thrives.

Friday, May 31, 2013

BEA Buzz for Fallout?

I signed Fallout ARCs yesterday at BEA.  Candlewick provided four large boxes of galleys. What a pleasure it was to see that they’d printed so many.  The line for signatures was long. There were YA librarians looking for giveaways for summer reading programs, but also a number who said they’d heard good buzz about the book and wanted to take a look.  

What they're saying over at Goodreads:

"Although it’s historical fiction, it reads like survival/dystopian fiction and I found it to be very powerful."

 "I was absolutely riveted by the powerful bunker scenes - they convey humanity at its best and worst."

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Fallout Chosen as Junior Library Guild Selection!

While it won't be officially published until September, Fall out has been chosen by the Junior Library Guild.

Fallout is part memoir and part speculative fiction. It is rooted in my experience as a twelve-year-old boy living through the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.  What made this event unique for me was that our family was the only one in town who actually had a full-scale bomb shelter built beneath our house. 

This gave me a unique perspective in as much as I not only worried along with everyone else in our country about the very real possibility of a World War Three, but I had to worry about trying to survive as well. Many of my anxieties concerned the possibility that a war might start while my father was at work, and therefore too far away to get home before the bombs fell. In that case:  1) Would there be time for me to run home from school before the bombs fell?  2) Since everyone in town knew we had a bomb shelter, would others get there first and demand to be allowed in? 3) What if my mother, brother and I got inside and our neighbors came and wanted us to let them in? 4) How would we know how long to stay in the shelter? 5) What would we do when we got out? These worries mixed with and influenced many of the other insecurities – about girls, sex, athletics, school – that boys that age feel.

Thus the Bomb is partly the story of what really happened, and partly about what could have happened. As a memoir, it is a recollection of the affect such a dire world event had on an innocent young man who was growing up in a protected homogeneous middle-class environment. As speculative fiction it is an exploration of what very well might have occurred had there really been a war.

 And finally, I hope that, in its own small way, it is a celebration of life in the face of adversity.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Wish You Were Dead

"Today at school Lucy Cunningham looked at me like I was something the cat coughed up.  I don’t have to explain who Lucy is. You already know because there’s only one kind of girl who would look at anyone that way.   I’m going to be completely honest here because, after all, what’s the point of pretending? So here goes. It really hurts when Lucy looks at me that way.  But here’s what hurts even more. Sometimes when people look at me that way, I feel like maybe they’re right."

And so begins Wish You Were Dead,  Todd Strasser’s award-winning mystery about the unintended consequences of ill wishes.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Teacher Feels No-Fee Skype Was Very Valuable

Mr. Strasser,
Just a quick note say thank you for skyping with Maine East yesterday. The students are really enjoying your books and I think the Skype was a very valuable experience for them. The teacher was extremely happy and grateful, so thank you again. I have attached a photo of the class to this email.

Rika Ghorbani

Thursday, April 4, 2013

What Makes A Writer Feel Good

They read it with this cover!
Dear Todd,
I teach 8th grade Language Arts in southern Maine. Two boys in my class this year were really struggling with reading. They were at about third grade level.  "I HATE books!", "Books are STUPID!" were some of the milder comments I got from them.
I decided to pull them in for private reading work. It was just the three of us and I selected a third grade reading level book for us to read aloud together. They hated it.
Rummaging around in a school closet, I found three copies of "Friends Till The End."
"Why do we have to read this?!", "I hate soccer!", "It's prolly just about nerds!", "sounds like da Outsiders movie you made us watch, greasers and Socs!", "Dumb!"
That was a month ago. We usually cover about a chapter a day. Today one of my students, Nate did not show up for  SSR (sustained silent reading). The other student, Phillip, (who provided MOST of the comments I've quoted) said, "come ON! Let's get started, I LOVE this book!" I said, "really?" "YEA, it's not some nerdy, boring book. It's about real people that I can relate to. I LOVE this book! I'm gonna see if the author has any other books. Do you think he does?"
Well, I've googled you and was I happy to find that you do have a few other stories. ;-)
I just thought you'd like to know that you've made a tremendous difference in the lives of at least two young, now proficient and steadily improving, readers.
Thank you.
Kevin Neely  Sanford Junior HS Language Arts 
“Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful." -- Albert Schweitzer

Monday, April 1, 2013

2013 School Visit News

Please click on article

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Letter about Give A Boy A Gun

Mr. Strasser,
I can’t tell you how spot on your book Give a Boy a Gun is. What a riveting and horrifying piece. Most definitely “Nothing…and everything about it is real.”
We are going to discuss it tonight at my book club. Adults who will continue to take this book and this topic on to share with others.
I’m glad to have it in our high school library and will make sure that folks know it is there.
Thanks ever so much for your gift of writing.
Gail H. – teacher librarian