We met author Jerry Spinelli when he was visiting the Books of Wonder store in Manhattan recently. We all know him from the great book “Maniac Magee,” and his latest, “The Warden’s Daughter,” is excellent.
Who is your personal favorite character in “The Warden’s Daughter” and why?
It’s hard not to say that it’s Cammie herself. Of course, I like feisty characters, especially feisty girls. She’s not the first feisty girl that I’ve written about. But you know what, I really like her best friend, Reggie. Reggie seems like kind of not so nice in some ways, and spoiled brat in other ways. And yet by the time the story is over, we find out that she’s very forgiving. And she stands by Cammie through some tough times, so I kind of like Reggie, too.
What inspired you to write “The Warden’s Daughter?”
I met somebody once who was a real warden’s daughter, about 15 years ago. She lives in New Jersey. Her name is Ellen Adams. And she grew up in my hometown and she grew up in prison because her father is the warden and they lived in the prison, just like in the book. So she told me that one day, and I decided to. I mean, there’s a story, right? Girl grows up in prison, so I just cooked up some story to go around it, and the result is the book you’re holding on your lap.
What inspired you to make the cover look like this?
Nothing, because I didn’t do the cover. The art director in the art department did the cover. They sent me drawings of it before it was finished and, as I recall, I think they asked me my opinion and if I had any suggestions. I think I sent a suggestion or two that I think was incorporated into the final picture that you see there. But I can’t take credit for that cool cover.
What do your children get out of your novels?
I would hope what they get out of it is what I hope that any reader gets out of my stuff, and that is a good story. I try not to overwhelm my stories with meanings of the point where it seems more like a sermon than a story. For me, the main thing is the story. And so I would hope that they put the book down and say, “That was a good story,” and that’s good enough for me.
Where is your favorite place you have been in the world?
I liked Egypt. I left that place thinking that every school should have a course about Egypt. Venice is cool with all the canals and all, you know. Water where you are used to seeing asphalt, that’s pretty cool, too! And closer to home, I like where I’m living. We live on a lake; a lake is my backyard. I look out my office window and I see geese and deer and groundhogs, and stuff like that.
How many books have you published compared to how many have not been published?
Wow! That’s a great question because I’m often asked, you know, how many books do you have? Or how many do you have published? Or how many books did you write? And I don’t think a lot of people realize that there can often be a difference between how many books you wrote and how many books were published. Just to write a book doesn’t mean it’s going to get published, necessarily. Especially back before everybody can publish themselves online, you know what I mean? So, yeah. The first four books that I wrote, nobody published. So I wrote them, but nobody ever read them. The fifth book that I wrote was the first one that was published. And you know, honestly, I’m not sure of the number, I think it’s about 36. So let’s say about 36 have been published.
What book can you relate to the most?
You know what, the answer to that is almost kind of a trick answer because I wrote a book called “Knots in My Yo-Yo String.” And it’s the only nonfiction book I’ve written. And it’s based on my life as a kid in Norristown, Pennsylvania. So obviously, since it’s about my life for 16 years of my life, that’s the one that I relate to the most. In terms of the fictional stories, kind of hard to say. In some ways, some aspects of “Maniac Magee,” the character is like me. Some things about Jason in my first published book, “Space Station Seventh Grade,” are kind of like me. Some things about Jack in “Hokey Pokey” are like me. Fact is, you can go through every one of those 36 books, and I can show you little bits and pieces of me in most of the characters.
How did you react when you found out that your first book was rejected by the publishers?
I was not happy. But you know, a funny thing happens. You think the world is ending because you worked on it for a couple of years, and then you get a rejection slip telling you you’re no good. We think the world is coming to an end, and the next morning you wake up, and you raise the shade, and you can’t believe it, the sun has come up again. The world didn’t end, you know, just because you got a rejection. And so what do you do? You put it in the mail again and send it to another publisher. And then they send it back because they don’t want it. And you do that about 25 times. This is what I did to every publisher there is. You do the craziest thing of all, you write another one. You start all over and you write another one. I did that four times before, as I said, the fifth book was finally published. But you see writing those four failures, you call them failures, you call me a loser. Those failures were actually exercises by which I was teaching myself how to write. I didn’t know it at the time.
Who is your idol in writing?
My early idol, I might say, was the sports editor of the Norristown Times Herald, because that’s the only thing I read. I didn’t read — you guys read books, right? It’s crazy that I’m here as a writer of books because when I was your age I did not read, except for the sports page of the local newspaper. And so I read the sports editor and his column every night . . . . So he probably influenced me as much as anybody. Nowadays the person I admire most, a writer, is the person I live with, Eileen Spinelli. And if you haven’t read her books yet, you better.
Why was “Wringer” about a boy who couldn’t kill a pigeon like everybody else could?
He could, that’s the point. He could’ve killed the pigeon, but he didn’t want to. And that’s because he lived in a town where the boys, when they hit their 10th birthday, they were expected to become “wringers” and clean up the killing field, and he didn’t want to do that. And so it’s really a book about a kid standing up for himself and not caving in to the peer pressure.
What book are you most proud of?
Most proud of — oh boy, that’s a toughie. Well, if you pin me down, I might say “Maniac Magee” maybe, but I hate to do it. Listen, I have 30 grandkids, so you guys don’t scare me. And you wouldn’t ask me. I wouldn’t answer, “What’s your favorite grandkid?” because then the other 29 would kill me, right? So it’s kind of hard to answer that on a book. But I’ll say “Maniac Magee.”