Interview: James Patterson on Reading
James Patterson is an author who needs no introduction. Frequently on best-seller lists for both adult and children's books, he's known for writing great stories. But did you know about his efforts to get children reading? For the past decade, James has been devoting more and more of his time to championing books and reading --- from the James Patterson Pageturner Awards, to his website ReadKiddoRead.com, to his regular donations of hundreds of thousands of books to schools here in the states and troops overseas and more.
In this interview, Patterson talks about why he began writing books for kids, how reluctant readings can get hooked on reading and what books he's working on!
What inspired you to take on the mission of getting more kids to read?
When my son, Jack, was eight, he wasn’t excited about reading. Neither were many of his friends at school. I was thinking, well wait a minute here --- if one of the bestselling authors in this country has a kid who doesn’t enjoy books, what’s going on with our kids in general? Is this a problem we have to tackle? And of course, we quickly realized that was a resounding YES.
So that summer, my wife and I told him that he would have to read every day. We went out with him, helped him to find books we thought he would like --- and wouldn’t you know it, but by the end of the summer, Jack said, okay, I can get into this. And the next summer, he had warmed more to the idea of getting books together, and the following summer, he was really excited to do it.
That was why I wrote my first series for young adults --- Maximum Ride. Then came Daniel X, Witch & Wizard, Middle School, Confessions, and now Treasure Hunters. I also launched a website, ReadKiddoRead.com, which helps parents and teachers find the right books for the kids in their lives.
What have you heard as reasons that kids are not reading? And what is your answer when you hear those reasons?
There are a number of studies on this, and what I’ve found --- the number one reason kids don’t read very much ---- is that they can’t find books that they like. So come on, parents, let’s show them the light here. You know your kids better than anyone. What do they like? If they like sports, get them hooked on Mike Lupica’s books. If they like gross-out alien adventures, I’ve got a particularly grossed-out series called Daniel X. If they like facts and quizzes, there are some great nonfiction books they can pick up and leaf through. Everyone loves those Guinness World Record books. Meet your kids where they are with their own interests, take an active role in it, and you’ll see them start to change their minds.
From the notes you have received from reluctant readers, what are some of the books that they have enjoyed?
The Middle School series seems to be really clicking with just about everyone. A principal from an elementary school in Pennsylvania recently read I FUNNY with his son, and they concluded that it should be required reading for all the incoming students.
Look, I’ll be honest: I’m not really a crier. (Okay, maybe John Green will do it, or Lauren Graham in “Parenthood.”) But when I receive letters from parents telling me how much their kids enjoyed Witch and Wizard or Maximum Ride or Middle School or any of my books --- when they say thank you, you got my kids reading --- finally! --- I can’t help but tear up.
What do you think kids can do to encourage their friends to read?
Sharing books and talking about what’s good out there works wonders. Why is Facebook so popular? It’s a social thing --- people love getting these recommendations from their friends, starting conversations. “Hey, have you heard about this creepy Spiderwick Chronicles series...” I hear stories all the time from my readers that after finishing one of my books, they passed it on to a sibling or friend.
What do you think that public figures can do to come out in support of reading?
Kids need to see their stars reading and talking about books. Make it more visible. Talk about what they’re reading or what their kids are reading during interviews. If one of the morning shows did five minutes a week on kids’ books and families saw stars talking about the newest read on TV, it would make a huge difference. They’ll think, hey, this is actually something these guys do. They’re not putting me on just for some mandatory PSA.
We know that NBA All-Star and Miami Heat player Dwyane Wade has joined you in promoting reading. Who are some other celebrities, be they actors, musicians, sports stars or politicians, who you would you like to see campaign for reading with you?
I’ve talked with a few for ReadKiddoRead. Julie Andrews and her daughter have been fighting the good fight for years. I wish the Obamas would do more with it. Make a World Reading Day where kids could walk into any bookstore and receive a free book, like they do in the UK.
But the campaign is really open to everyone: what if every experienced parent, teacher, librarian and bookseller contributed one great idea and we pooled them together? How do we get our kids reading? “Well, I bring in two service dogs into my library, and kids get to cuddle with the dogs as they read. Huge turnouts.” “Last week we gave the kids an option to do chores or to read, and they chose the books… and it actually got them involved with a chapter book.” And on and on. Wouldn’t it be great if we had a master list of these and could work our way through it?
Which book was the book that inspired you to start reading or writing?
I worked my way through college working the night shift at a hospital. During these late nights, I started scribbling, started reading good books. The only thing that got me through were these books, my new writing habit, coffee and… more coffee. I did Jean Genet, Eugene Ionesco, James Joyce. This is when the love of reading really clicked for me. (To be honest, I wish I’d had it earlier.)
You have said that you started writing books for kids because you wanted your son, Jack, to find enjoyment in reading and you wanted to create books with the stories that he wanted to read like Daniel X, Maximum Ride, Witch & Wizard, and Middle School. What books besides yours has he enjoyed?
When he was younger, he loved the Warriors series, Alex Rider, THE INVENTION OF HUGO CABRET. And Percy Jackson --- for a moment there I thought I was going to lose him over to the Rick Riordan camp for good. Now he’s knee-deep in high school and off to the races --- he’s been reading nonfiction, more politically-tuned books lately.
What book or series for kids are you working on now?
I’m very proud of TREASURE HUNTERS --- it’s a funny adventure for middle schoolers. The Kidd siblings are professional treasure hunters, but when their mother is kidnapped and their father is lost at sea, they’re left on their own on the high seas. Jamie the sit-down-stand-up comic (he’s in a wheelchair) is back in I EVEN FUNNIER in December. There are lots of adventures on deck.