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What inspires author Jerry Spinelli

Author Jerry Spinelli with Kidsday reporters Paul Ramnauth,

Author Jerry Spinelli with Kidsday reporters Paul Ramnauth, Elaine Tanel Laura Moon and Matylda Urbaniak, all from Forest Hills at the Simon and Schuster offices in Manhattan (Feb. 4, 2013) Credit: Newsday / Pat Mullooly

We met author Jerry Spinelli when he was in Manhattan recently. His latest book, "Hokey Pokey," is one of our favorites. Most kids love his novel "Maniac Magee," a book we think is a must read!

What was the inspiration for "Hokey Pokey"?

The inspiration for it, you might say it, was you guys. In other words, childhood. I kind of looked at it, but Jack and Jubilee will be identified, no doubt, as the main characters of the book, but in my mind the main character is kind of like childhood itself. That's what the book is about, it's a portrait of childhood. It's a portrait of a kid's own little world, which is how grown-ups are always describing you guys.

Can you relate yourself to any of the characters in your book?

There are bits and pieces of me probably in every one of my 35 or so books. Sometimes I'm not even aware of it . . . I made good use of my own memories of myself in my characters.

Who do you know who is most like Jack in the book?

In "Hokey Pokey," that's another example where there are parts of the book where Jack kind of resembles me. For example, he is teaching a kid to play baseball. That was kind of like me. He loved his bicycle and rode his bicycle everywhere, did everything but go to bed with his bicycle. That was me.

What advice would you offer for people who dream about becoming an author?

I would say if you want to write, write what you care about. I think that's the most important thing. I think if you write what you care about, you stand a better chance of having the reader care about your story.

What is the average length of time you spend working on a book until it gets published?

I would say about a year. I'm remembering one book that I wrote, "Fourth Grade Rats," that took a month to write, but most of them, full-length novels, I would say about a year.

Who is your favorite author besides yourself?

Actually, even including myself, my favorite author is Eileen Spinelli, who I happen to live with. She's a terrific writer and has written several of my all-time favorites.

Do you think you wrote the same way when you started being an author and now?

Good question. I would have to go back and maybe read all my books from the beginning, one at a time, to see if I could get any sense as to whether I've changed over the years. I certainly haven't done that so far because I don't even read my own books. When I'm finished with a book, I just get on to the next one.

Are going to write a sequel to "Hokey Pokey"?

I don't like to do sequels. I've written maybe two sequels, but usually I think the original is better than the sequels that follow it. And I don't want to fall into that trap. And I try to tell a story with a beginning and an end and bring it full circle, and I think I pretty much did that with "Hokey Pokey."

What inspired you to be an author?

I started out wanting to be a cowboy, then a baseball player and then in 11th grade I wrote a poem about a very exciting football game and it was published in the local paper. I began to think at that point I might want to be a writer.

What book are you going to write next?

I don't have a title for it yet. I might call it "The Storyteller," but I'm not sure about that. I have a chapter done.

What was in your opinion the scariest part of "Hokey Pokey"?

I suppose socks. Good grief, could you imagine being dumped in that mountain of smelly socks. That happens early in the book and the poor kid that's dumped into the pile of socks barely escapes with his life. That's a place you don't want to get within a mile of. The smell is so bad you can see the fumes coming off it. Don't let me anywhere near socks.

Do you want any of your books to become a movie?

I'm open to it, sure. It's actually a nice way even if the movie isn't very good. At least more readers will tend to buy the book and getting the book out there in the hands of more readers is always a good thing. "Maniac Magee" already is a film and we do have film deals for other books, including "Milkweed," "Stargirl" and a couple of others. So we'll see. Yep, that would be nice especially to have a good movie -- unfortunately the book is often better than the movies.

If you had a bike, what would you name it?

Good question. Maybe I would let myself be influenced by Jack and call it Scram Jack. I did have a bike as I mentioned and I loved my bike and it never occurred to me to give it a name. So Scram Jack would be as good as any.

Are you ever planning on writing an adult novel?

I don't plan to write an adult novel, but the other part of the answer is that in a sense I already have written 35 of them or so. In the sense when I sit down to write I'm not just writing for you guys, I'm writing for everybody. Sometimes people ask me what age level do you write for? I don't write for an age level. I just write the best story I can. So I'm hoping that adults read them as well as kids. As far as I'm concerned, I'm already writing for everybody.

When did you exactly know you wanted to become an author?

The beginning of it was that poem that I wrote about the football game in the 11th grade. And that got me thinking and I kind of put two things together. I figure, well it looks like it's something I'm kind of good at. Like I wasn't so good at hitting the curve ball in baseball, but I seem to be pretty good at this writing thing, so that was one. And two, I kind of like to do it. So I figured I'm good at it and I like to do it, Bam, that's me. That's what I'll do. By the time I got out of high school I had that figured out.

Out of all the characters you made in your books, which one do you like the best?

That's a lot when you figure 35 books or so. Hard to pick a favorite. I'm tempted to say Stargirl maybe or Amanda Beel, and Maniac Magee. I'd better stop there. I'm going to name them all.

What would your favorite "Hokey Pokey" flavor be if you were a character in the book?

Root beer. And in fact it was, because the "Hokey Pokey" man in the book was real and my hometown of Norristown, Pa, when I was growing up there was a "Hokey Pokey" man just like that. And when I would go an order a "Hokey Pokey" from him for a nickel, I would always say root beer.

Out of all the books you wrote what was your favorite?

My personal favorite. I might say the first one that was published. I wrote four books before anybody ever wanted to publish it. The fifth book became the first published book and that is called "Space Station Seventh Grade." And maybe there's something sentimental about your first one, but I think that is my favorite.

Why did you write your first book?

I'll tell you why I wrote the first one because I was mad and I was hungry, because I went down to my kitchen one morning to get my fried chicken to take to work for lunch. I had left it in the refrigerator the night before and I opened the bag and there was only chicken bones in it. Somebody had eaten the meat off the bones and put the bones back in the back and the bag back in the refrigerator. I had six sleeping angels upstairs, they hadn't gotten up yet for school and I knew one of them had stolen my fried chicken and I knew nobody was going to confess. So at work that day during lunch hour I started to write about a father who goes to get his lunch out of the refrigerator and it's nothing but bones. And to this day that is the first page of this book of mine. That's how it all started.

What is your favorite genre to write and why?

I guess I don't think of myself as writing in genre and so forth. Although I would say "Hokey Pokey" kind of began with my intention to finally write a science fiction story. I've been wanting to do that for years. And I thought I was on the road to doing that, but it really wasn't turning out right and then I found myself writing the first page of "Hokey Pokey" about that business in the sky. And suddenly I was writing something else. Most of my books probably would be called realistic, contemporary fiction. Obviously "Milkweed" is an exception. That takes place in the 1940s in the Holocaust, Second World War.

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