SUMMIT, NJ – Popular kids’ book author Dan Gutman left Jefferson School students with one very important message on Friday: never give up.
The bestselling author of “The Genius Files” series talked with different groups of Jefferson students about his books, the writing process, and why it's important to keep going even when you’re discouraged.
Gutman told the students about the beginnings of his “Baseball Card Adventure” books, which started with the book “Honus & Me,” based on the premise of a boy finding a rare Honus Wagner T206 baseball card in a dusty old attic. Subsequent books feature Jackie Robinson, Babe Ruth, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Abner Doubleday, Satchel Paige, Jim Thorpe, Ray Chapman, Roberto Clemente, and Ted Williams.
“Honus & Me” was rejected by dozens of publishers, and Gutman had a folder full of rejection letters with him. He talked about the process of sending the book to a publisher, then putting the subsequent rejection into the folder. After displaying each letter and reading some of the comments aloud (one publisher said the story was “predictable,” another didn’t like all the historical facts), Gutman asked the kids, “Did I give up?”
“No!” was their shouted response.
After enough rejections, he admitted he did feel like giving up, but he kept at it, and finally “Honus & Me” was published by HarperCollins.
There was no doubt as to Gutman’s ensuing success if the Jefferson School students were any barometer. At times he had to shush students who were so eager to talk about which of his books they were reading they were dangerously close to blurting out spoilers. Others couldn’t wait to tell him which were their favorites. As for the publishers who rejected him, well, let’s just say they might not be welcome at Jefferson School anytime soon.
“That’s just mean,” one student said indignantly, when he heard that a publisher had called Gutman’s writing “flat.”
The author used his experience with rewriting as another teachable moment, telling the students that when their teachers ask them to rewrite something they’ve done, they should do it without getting mad, and realize that their teachers, like Gutman’s editor, are just trying to help them improve their writing.
The students were eager to hear about “The Genius Files” books, and the “My Weird School” series, both very popular. Gutman used characters and storylines from “The Genius Files” to explain how to write a great book. The main characters, a boy named Coke and a girl named Pepsi, show the importance of memorable character names. Gutman illustrated how to “open with a bang” by talking about the first scene in one of the books in which Coke and Pepsi are being followed home from school by a bad guy in a golf cart before Maya, one of their protectors, throws a Frisbee grenade at the golf cart, blowing it up.
Gutman talked about setting, main characters, secondary characters, plot and “letting your imagination go wild.”
He answered lot of questions from the students, ranging from "How old are you?" (He's 57) to which sports teams are his favorites (He grew up a Mets fan in northern New Jersey but now lives closer to Philadelphia and roots for the Phillies - much to the students' chagrin), and which of his books has sold the best (that would be "The Kid Who Became President").
Gutman also spent time with first, second, third and fourth-graders, and signed copies of his books throughout the day. He also had lunch with 10 of the students. His presentation was sponsored by a grant from the Summit Educational Foundation.