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Author Dan Gutman talks with Long Island kids

Author Dan Gutman with Kidsday reporters, from left,

Author Dan Gutman with Kidsday reporters, from left, Molly Matthaei, Emma Fox, Timmy Stoeber and Erin Austein at HarperCollins offices in Manhattan. Credit: Newsday / Pat Mullooly

We met author Dan Gutman, the author of “My Weird School” book series, which we all like a lot. We were all very excited to learn more about him, and he gladly gave us a lot of interesting information. Not only that, we were in the real HarperCollins offices. Dan’s favorite things to do are riding his bike (he rode his bike to our Kidsday interview), throwing Frisbees and bowling.

Where do you get your ideas for your characters?

Ideas in general, I would say all different places. You know I read the newspaper every day. And I watch TV. I listen to the radio. I do a lot of school visits where I talk to kids. I have two kids of my own who’ve given me lots of ideas. They’re hardly kids anymore now. My daughter is 22 now. And my son is 27. And when they were younger they gave me lots of ideas. As far as characters go, sometimes they’re based on real people. Other times they’re just invented, like, did any of you ever read my book called “The Kid Who Ran For President”? And I must confess that I also remember what it was like to be a kid. And that gives me a lot of ideas, too. And every so often somebody will give me an idea.

If the people who said they wanted more of the “My Weird School” books hadn’t told you that, would you still have made more?

Oh, the people like HarperCollins? If they had said they didn’t want it anymore, that would be the end of it. Actually, when I first started this series, I had no idea that it was going to extend past 60 books in 13 years. I just wrote the first one, “Miss Daisy Is Crazy!” because I thought it was a good idea. I didn’t even know it would become a series. But I submitted it to HarperCollins and they liked it, and they said, “How about doing four more?” Usually when a series starts, they’ll do like four books. And so those four books did well, and they asked me for another four. And another four. And another four. And now I have been doing it for a long time. And they keep asking for more. HarperCollins has already asked me to start another series, which is going to be called “My Weird School Year” and it will be at least six books in that series. So I’ve got you covered for at least another three years because four books come out every year.

Who is someone in your life who is inspiring?

Kids always assume that authors are inspired by other authors. And probably a lot of authors are inspired by other authors. I personally was not a big reader as a kid. I hated to read. I thought reading was boring and hard to do. So it wasn’t really authors that inspired me. And you could tell from “My Weird School” that what inspired me was funny things that I experienced when I was a kid like starting out with Mad magazine. It was a big influence on me because it was silly and crazy and funny. Then I graduated to National Lampoon, which was a very popular humor magazine. TV shows of my youth that were funny like “Get Smart” and “F-Troop” — things like that. Then Woody Allen, the movies of Woody Allen and Mel Brooks really made me laugh and made me want to make people laugh. “Saturday Night Live,” things like that, I’d say for me [were] much more influential than any authors that might have inspired me at all.

What is your writing kryptonite?

I’d say in my case it’s my attention span. I have a short one. And I can only spend about maybe two to three hours a day writing. After that my brain, it just doesn’t focus that well. But a lot of an author’s time is spent not on writing but on business stuff. You know, emails, phone calls, research, paperwork, communications with schools and editors and agents and things like that. So I only spend a very small part of my day writing, and after that I can’t do it anymore.

Why did you write about sports but never became a professional player?

I’m 5-foot-8. I weigh 145 pounds. So football and basketball are out of the question. I wasn’t good at them anyway. Baseball has always been my game. But I was not a good baseball player. I couldn’t hit the ball. I was really good at throwing, really good at catching and fielding, couldn’t hit the ball. So, baseball, I didn’t even succeed in Little League baseball as a kid. I played tennis in high school. I wasn’t very good at that. But they say, you know, if you can’t do it, write about it. So that’s what I did.

Would you ever want one of your books to be turned into a movie?

It hasn’t happened yet. I’ve had some nibbles over the years. There has been some interest. But my book “Honus & Me” was made into a TV movie years and years ago. It was terrible, don’t see it. But I’m hoping that someday somebody might do that. Unfortunately there’s not much an author can do to make that happen. It’s really up to somebody in Hollywood to discover a book and decide to make it into a movie or TV show.

How come all the titles in the “My Weird School” series rhyme?

I did it intentionally. I grew up on Dr. Seuss. He used a lot of rhyming in his books. And I know kids like rhymes. And what I did was, for starters, I made a list of words that mean crazy. You know, bananas, loony, out-of-your-mind. And then I tried to think of words that rhymed with those words that could be somebody’s name, like Bananas Hannah. Loony Cooney. Out-of-Your-Mind Hind. And that’s how I initially got the titles. At some point I ran out of words that meant crazy. So then I had to switch to things like “Mrs. Dole Is Out of Control.” “Mr. Harrison Is Embarrassin’!” Stuff like that.

Is it hard to make your books funny?

I would say no, not really. What’s harder for me is my books that are not so funny. Like I’m doing this series now called “Flashback Four.” It’s about these kids who travel through time with a camera to take pictures of things that never were photographed before. And they’re not funny. They’re not funny books. And that’s harder for me to do. It’s more natural for me to just write silly stuff to make you guys laugh than it is to write serious things. So I guess I like to tell people that I have the brain of an 8-year-old, so it makes it natural for me to write silly, funny stuff.

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