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.

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