Hi guys! I am super excited to share today’s interview because the author I’m inviting today is super awesome and has inspired me to become more involved in the MG community (which is also very amazing). Jarrett Lerner is the author of EngiNerds, a book that is next on my to-buy list once I get out of my current buying ban, and he is also the co-founder of MG Book Village, a site dedicated to promoting and helping out the MG community. Please go check out his debut novel and the Village! We’d love to see new faces in the MG community!
About the Author
The battle between boys and bots is on in this funny, fast-paced novel.
Ken is an EngiNerd: one of a super-smart group of friends—all nerds—who have been close since kindergarten.
They may be brainiacs, but they’re just like everyone else: they fight with one another, watch too much TV, eat Chinese food, and hate walking their dogs. Well, maybe not just like everyone because Ken’s best friend Dan has been building robots. He then secretly sent one to each of the EngiNerds, never letting them know he’s the mastermind.
At first Ken is awed and delighted: what kid hasn’t dreamed of having a robot all their own? Someone who can be their friend, clean their room, walk the dog, answer homework questions…how amazing is that?
But be careful what you wish for: Dan’s robot, Greeeg, may look innocent, but his ravenous consumption of food—comestibles—turns him into a butt-blasting bot. And once the other robots ‘come alive’ it’s up to the motley crew of EngiNerds to not only save the day, but save the planet!
1. Your MG debut novel EngiNerds, which released last year in September, follows Ken and his group of best friends—the EngiNerds—as they fight against farting robots with insatiable appetites. Why do you believe it is important to instill into young readers a love for STEM using literature? How could adults such as teachers and parents help foster a love for math, engineering, and the sciences into their kids?
For a book to be worth writing and reading, I don’t think it has to have a mission beyond the basic, beautiful one of telling a good, gripping story. However, with kids’ books especially, there’s an opportunity to take advantage of a story’s specifics to teach young readers about various things outside of and beyond the book – STEM included.
More important than any one area of focus, though, is the lesson that books can be sources of ideas, inspiration, wisdom, and guidance. To teach a kid (or to provide the opportunities and careful input so that they learn themselves) that they can use a book to get new ideas, to find a new hobby, to gain vicarious experience, to meet people they otherwise wouldn’t, to guide them through a tricky or trying situation, to help them reflect on and reevaluate their behavior and beliefs and relationships – that is of paramount importance.
2. If you could build your dream robot, how would you design it? What would you program it to do?
My dream robot would take care of the two daily tasks that I dislike the most: shaving and cleaning the cat’s little box.
3. Why do you love writing? When did you first have a love for writing, and how was it formed?
I fell in love with stories before I fell in love with writing. Really, I’ve always loved them – listening to them and then reading them and then, eventually, telling them, too. Stories are, I believe, the closest things us humans have to actual magic. They can be exciting, entertaining, and enchanting. They can let you see through the eyes of someone whose life you otherwise might not get to know a single thing about. They allow you to experience things – distant lands, made-up lands, moments both painful and triumphant – by simply moving your eyes across a page and using your imagination.
I started making up stories of my own when I was fairly young, first making comic strips and then longer comic books. I also had this big thick notebook that I called my “world notebook,” and in it I’d draw different made-up planets and then list all the crazy creatures and weird plants you could find on it. It was a sort of atlas of my imagination.
Throughout middle school and high school, I always enjoyed my writing assignments, and outside of classes I often took on writing projects by myself or with friends. I wrote some plays and scripts, in large part because my brother, who’s seven years older than me, was obsessed with movies and doing the same. Despite all this, though, it wasn’t until college that I ever realized I could maybe one day become an author. All those years, I’d carried around this assumption that authors were a special sort of person, and that to become one took something that I didn’t, and never would, have. Which is ridiculous, of course. But it took the convincing of friends and professors – and my meeting some authors myself – to believe that.
This is why so much of the work I do outside of my actual writing involves connecting with kids and shining a light on the awesome things they’re creating. I want to demystify the idea of the author/creator. We’re just normal people who love stories and playing around with words – or, in the case of illustrators, who love playing around with colors and lines. Everyone, on some level, is an author, even if the only stories they tell are the ones about themself that, from one day to the next, constitute and further shape their identity. And everyone can, if they put in the work and remain persistent, become an author professionally.
4. Would you consider yourself to be a nerd? If you do, what would you say is the nerdiest thing about you? (Don’t worry, I consider myself one, haha! 😉)
Oh, DEFINITELY. I get nerdy about a lot of things, but the biggest one, without a doubt, is books. I spend a ton of time reading, of course, but I also spend nearly just as much time talking about books with fellow book nerds, browsing books in bookstores and online, reorganizing the books on my shelves, etc., etc.
5. Why did you decide to write each chapter very short? What effect does this have on both the story and the readers?
I both did and didn’t decide to write short chapters. The way you see the story is simply how it came out of me. There were, of course, dozens of drafts and loads of revision. But the relative shortness of the chapters remained the same throughout all that. Obviously, I could’ve changed that during revision, but I made a choice not to. And that’s because, while I hope my book can be enjoyed by any reader, no matter their age and interests, I wanted to make sure to reach those readers who are often called “reluctant.” Short chapters and lots of cliffhangers help make a book un-put-down-able. With my books, I want to show kids that reading can be a fun, fascinating, pain-free experience. There are kids out there who might pick up a novel and see that each chapter is a dozen or more pages, and then right away put the thing down again. Heck, there are adults who’d do that (sometimes I’m one of them!). I want my books to be approachable – and then, once a reader has picked one up, I hope to make it nearly impossible for them to put it back down.
6. Out of all the characters in EngiNerds, who would you say resembles you the most? How do you see yourself in him or her?
None of the characters are based on me directly, and I think, as their creator, I can empathize with them all. If I had to choose one that resembled me the most, however, I think I’d say Dan. The way he gets passionate about something and pursues it doggedly – I’ve got that in me, too. And that’s not me bragging. Because Dan’s dogged pursuit of his passions sometimes gets him into trouble, and so does mine.
I didn’t set out to write about this specifically, but I think EngiNerds can be read as a metaphor of sorts for the creative process – how, no matter how hard you work for it, you can never write the perfect story (or paint the perfect picture or build the perfect robot), but that sharing your work and seeking help from others (editors, friends) will help you get a little bit closer to perfect than you could get all on your own.
7. You are the one of the co-founders of MG Book Village, a site that connects authors and readers in the MG community. What inspired you to launch the site up, and what is it like being a part of the village? What about the Middle Grade age group, community, and audience attracts you as both an author and reader?
I launched the site along with Annaliese Avery, a writer and librarian in the UK, and
Kathie MacIsaac, a librarian in Canada. The inspiration for it came from some of the MG-themed hashtag events we hosted online. The first was #MGBooktober, which was all the brilliant idea of Annaliese. The month-long celebration of MG books really blew up, and Annaliese asked me to help her oversee things. Participants expressed such sadness at the event being over at the end of October that we decided to do another hashtag event in November. Toward the end of that month, there was more sadness expressed at things coming to an end – but also a lot of talk about the strong MG community that had formed over the course of those weeks. It was Annaliese, I believe, who first called it a little online “village.”
From there, we decided to make a website, an online destination that served as a sort of hub for the MG-book community. We are working hard to make it a place where anyone and everyone – educators, authors, parents, or just regular readers (especially kids!) – can come to find helpful resources and information, exciting news, interesting interviews and essays, and reading recommendations. We are also encouraging anyone and everyone to contribute to the site. The Village isn’t mine or Kathie’s or Annaliese’s – it is everyone’s, and if they have something to share or say or ask, the Village is a place where they are welcome to do it.
The Middle Grade community is one of the warmest, most supportive places imaginable. As an author, a reader, and, more basically, as a human being, it has done so very much for me. There are a tremendous number of kind, caring, passionate people here. All of us – educators, authors, parents, readers – help each other do our jobs better, because we never lose sight of the fact that we are doing what we do every day, first and foremost, for the benefit and betterment of the lives of kids.
8. What are your favorite books, genres, and authors? Which ones have impacted you and your writing style the most?
Picking favorites is just about impossible. However, any favorites list of mine would include Jerry Spinelli and his books. He can combine humor and heart, the silly and the serious, like no one else. And his sentences are the liveliest and most exciting I’ve ever encountered. His books helped me become a bigger, better reader, and were critical in inspiring me to write – and write the sorts of stories that I now do.
These days, I definitely read more MG than anything, and most of those MG books have a humorous aspect to them. But I think it’s important, as both a reader and a writer, to read outside of your comfort zone, and so I’m always doing my best to mix things up with some high fantasy, some historical fiction, or some gritty realism, whether it’s MG, YA, or adult.
9. What do you do when you’re not writing? Is writing a part-time or full-time job?
In addition to writing fiction, I do a bit of work as both an editor and a ghostwriter. The truth is that LOTS of authors have day jobs, even some very successful ones.
10. Since “What’s your cure for writer’s block?” is asked very frequently, what’s one “cure” you tried that did not work for you?
I’m not sure I believe in “writer’s block,” as it’s generally and traditionally known. Here’s what I think: the creative process is messy, full of ups and downs and detours and delays. One thing that often doesn’t work during it is trying the same old thing over and over again. In other words, if you’re feeling stuck or frustrated, shake up your process. Do you usually type your stories? Grab a pen and some paper and try writing longhand for a bit. Typically write in the morning? Make some time in the evening instead, and see what that does. Listen to some music if you usually like it quiet. Go sit in a café if you usually write at home. Get a book or search online for some creative writing exercises. Or – and here’s a lesson it took me a long time to learn, and one I still regularly forget – take a break. Sometimes, when you encounter a problem in your writing, it just needs time. Go for a walk. Read a book. Watch a movie. Call up that friend you’ve been meaning to call for weeks. Anything. An hour or a day or even a week later, when you sit back down to write, you might find that the problem you were banging your head against has magically solved itself.
11. What could we expect from the EngiNerds world in the future? Could you give us any secrets about your upcoming books?
The next book in the series picks up where the last one left off – but then pretty quickly veers into some new, and I think pretty surprising, territory. You can expect a lot of familiar faces – including Kitty, Ken’s dog, who seems to be everyone’s favorite – and also some new ones. One of those new faces belongs to Rebecca Harrington, a girl EngiNerd who joins the group and shakes things up quite a bit. There’s also a peculiarly shaped cloud that makes a rather dramatic reappearance. Readers of the first book will know what I’m talking about, and can maybe even guess as to what it means.
12. Before you go, would you like to share any advice you have to any aspiring authors or writers?
Read and read and read and write and write and write, then read some more and write some more and then do it all over again. But also make sure to share your stories with others, and find and befriend people who write the sorts of things you do, and reach out to authors to learn what they did in order to get their stories made into books.
Becoming a published author requires talent, certainly – but more than that, it requires a tremendous amount of hard work and persistence. You simply cannot give up, and cannot let a bad day, some negative feedback, or a rejection (or dozens and dozens of them) knock you down. Every success, big and small, is built upon a mountain (or at least a sizeable hill) of missteps, mistakes, and outright failures.
Thanks so much, Jarrett, for coming onto the blog! It’s so great to have authors like you to come onto the blog!
About the Author
Jarrett Lerner writes books about farting robots, belching knights, and other serious matters. You can find him online at jarrettlerner.com and on Twitter at @Jarrett_Lerner. You can also often find him hanging out at the mgbookvillage.org, which he cofounded and helps run. He lives with his wife, his daughter, and a cat in Medford, Massachusetts.
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