In Charlie Joe Jackson’s Guide to NOT Reading, published by Roaring Brook Press in 2011, Tommy Greenwald introduced a feisty, book-hating boy. The character returned the following year in Charlie Joe Jackson’s Guide to Extra Credit, and again in this past May’s Charlie Joe Jackson’s Guide to Summer Vacation (like its predecessors, illustrated by J.P. Coovert), in which he tries to convince his peers at an academic summer camp to avoid reading and writing. That middle-grade novel is one of six featured on Charlie Joe Jackson’s Bookshelf, an online summer reading initiative that Macmillan has launched in partnership with Cinemark Summer Movie Clubhouse, a nationwide discounted film festival program.
Greenwald’s hero lends his voice – quite vociferously – to the Web site, announcing, “My name is Charlie Joe Jackson, and I hate reading.” Yet he does equivocate: “Sometimes it’s harder to get away with not reading than just giving in and reading. Trust me on this. That’s why I’m sharing these books with you. They’re not as terrible as most books. And coming from me, that’s really saying something.”
The other novels promoted on the Web site, which also showcases video clips of the authors talking about their books, are Justin Case: School, Drool and Other Daily Disasters by Rachel Vail, illustrated by Matthew Cordell; Potterwookie by Obert Skye; Doodlebug: A Novel in Doodles by Karen Romano Young; Janet Tashjian’s My Life as a Cartoonist, illustrated by Jake Tashjian; and Otis Dooda: Strange but True by Ellen Potter, illustrated by David Heatley.
“We realized that we have this list of titles that speak to a similar audience of kids, and we wanted to find a way to cross-pollinate the readership from one series to another,” said Kathryn Little, associate director of marketing, about the genesis of the online initiative. “All of these series have some key things in common: they use illustrations as part of the storytelling, they’re funny, and they appeal to the reluctant reader. By bringing them together, we’ve created a brand [that] booksellers, educators, and parents can look to for recommendations for kids who think they don’t like to read. And who better than reluctant reader Charlie Joe Jackson to represent a program aimed at kids who feel the same way?”
Little notes that propitious timing – and a common interest in engaging kids – led to Macmillan’s partnership with Cinemark. “Cinemark approached us looking for a sponsor for their Summer Movie Clubhouse at the same time that Charlie Joe Jackson’s Bookshelf was coming together,” she said. The Clubhouse is a 10-week discounted film festival program that the chain operates in approximately 300 theaters in 39 states. “Looking over their program, it seemed like a perfect match for a reluctant reader initiative, since the movies are a natural place kids gravitate to while school is out.”
In late June, Cinemark held raffles for signed copies of Charlie Joe Jackson’s Guide to Summer Vacation in all of its participating Summer Movie Club House theaters. At the end of July, Cinemark will distribute 80,000 bookmarks highlighting the CJJ Bookshelf titles.
“Cinemark’s Summer Movie Clubhouse continues to resonate with our customers more and more each year,” said James Meredith, Cinemark’s v-p of marketing and communications. “So adding in this partnership with CJJ Bookshelf and Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group is one more way to add value to our program.”
Perhaps no one is more thrilled with the summer reading initiative – and Charlie Joe Jackson’s prominent role in it – than Greenwald, who found his inspiration for the character at home. Despite his lifelong love of reading, and repeated visits to libraries and bookstores with his own sons (Charlie, Joe, and Jack, who now range in age from 17 to 19), they were not easily coaxed into reading. “I tried every trick in the book – even bribery,” the author said. “When that didn’t work, I started searching for a tongue-in-cheek book about a boy who avoids books. When I couldn’t find one, I decided to write it, based on my own experiences.”
He said he enlisted his sons to read an early draft of Charlie Joe Jackson’s Guide to NOT Reading, “so that they could tell me if something sounded silly, and tip me off to things that would compromise the authenticity of the story and characters.” The author seems to have gotten it right: the three Charlie Joe Jackson novels currently have an in-print tally of 150,000 copies. And the fact that letters and e-mails Greenwald receives indicates that the series has found an enthusiastic audience among avid readers and girls as well as hesitant boy readers “may be what I’m most proud of.”
Greenwald, who signed on with Roaring Brook executive editor Nancy Mercado for five Charlie Joe Jackson books, has written a spinoff novel, Jack Strong Takes a Stand, illustrated by Melissa Mendes and due in September. The eponymous hero, an overscheduled boy Charlie Joe meets at camp in the third book, becomes a local hero when he refuses to get up off his couch until his parents agree to let him drop some of his many extracurricular activities. “I was very careful to portray Jack’s parents as great people,” the author said. “They are trying their best, but it’s a fine line between giving kids the best opportunities to help them in this competitive world and overwhelming them.”
Greenwald says it’s “an incredible honor” to have Charlie Joe Jackson serve as spokesperson for Macmillan’s summer reading promotion, and applauds his publisher’s partnership with Cinemark. “It’s ingenious to go where kids are – movie theaters in summer – and let them know that reading is another way to have fun,” he said. “All the books on Charlie Joe Jackson’s Bookshelf are geared to kids who might not otherwise pick up a book, especially in summer when they don’t have to read for school. Getting the message out that books aren’t a chore, but can be pure entertainment, is such an important aspect of this initiative. It’s based on the same thing I do as an author: reverse psychology. Kids who may not like to read pick up a book about a kid who hates to read and end up reading a book for enjoyment. And that just may lead to reading another book.”