Bruce Coville, author of more than 100 books for children, is known for many popular middle-grade series including My Teacher Is an Alien, the Magic Shop books, and Moongobble and Me. Since the 1977 publication of his first book, The Foolish Giant, he has been entertaining young readers with his effortless humor and boundless imagination. In June, Coville will celebrate the release of two new books: The Enchanted Files: Diary of a Mad Brownie and Goblins on the Prowl.
Diary of a Mad Brownie kicks off a new series of diary-formatted books, all featuring the Enchanted Realm. The first book stars Angus, a Scottish brownie whose family curse requires him to serve Alex, a fifth-grader whose messiness is only matched by her sassiness. The two aren’t thrilled with the pairing until they realize that they must team up to stop Angus’s curse from ruining Alex’s family. Coville’s second release, Goblins on the Prowl, reprises oddball characters from Goblins in the Castle, which was published back in 1992. PW spoke with Coville about his latest releases and how he continues to find inspiration.
What made you want to be a writer?
The simplest answer is books. When I was a kid, I read books that made me laugh, but also made me shiver in terror. I wanted to make books that made other people feel the same way. By the time I was 15 or 16, I seriously knew I wanted to be a writer. And by age 19, I never looked back.
Can you tell us about your writing process?
Every book is like starting over again. I’ve written books every way possible – from using tight outlines to writing from the seat of my pants. Both ways work. What I tend to do now is work with an ever-expanding outline. I have a basic idea of what a book will be about; I outline the beginning and then say, “A bunch of cool stuff happens in the middle,” and here’s how it ends.
Diary of a Mad Brownie is written in a non-traditional format: diary entries, with interspersed letters, poems, curses, text messages, etc. Why choose to tell a story this way?
A quirk in my brain made me do that? [laughs] The idea of all these supporting documents… it just struck me as funny. I honestly don’t remember what I was thinking. I did realize after I’d started writing it, that it was tailor-made for the Common Core. Plus, it let me write in different voices. All of those voices amused me. Writing the bad poetry was especially fun, because I love writing bad poetry.
Angus, your main character, is a rather hotheaded little guy who also loves order. Then, he’s paired up with Alex, a girl who’s messy and also prickly herself. These are definitely not your average middle-grade heroes. Why put these two together?
Their oppositeness is what makes them fun – they bounce off each other. Really, they are the Odd Couple with a twist: a 150-year-old brownie and a 12-year-old girl.
In truth, this book is spun off of a short story I wrote many years ago called “Clean as a Whistle.” But as I started writing Diary, I realized I had to change almost everything except the basic nature of the characters. I’ve done this twice in my career – taken a short story and changed it to a novel. You have to let go of so much in order to let a book grow in its own way. It’s a fascinating but very difficult process.
This book is the first in a series. Can you give us a little bit of an idea what to expect as the rest of the series unfolds?
The books will all be told through the same diary format. Each will feature the Enchanted Realm, and have one magical character, but a new pair of main characters. For example, the second book features a griffin named Gerald. Really, these books are assembled as much as written. Because of the document format, I have to try to find alternate ways to provide information to the story, and to keep it visually lively.
But what has been exciting is how Random House has jumped on it as far as design work. I think I counted 15 different fonts in the first book alone!
So, let’s talk about Goblins on the Prowl… a 23-years-later sequel to Goblins in the Castle. Why return to a book two decades after those readers will have no doubt aged out of this genre?
Most of all, I love being a storyteller. And yes, I want to make a good living, but I’m not always driven by the best commercial sense. I love the characters in this book, and I wanted to revisit them. Igor, my half-mad twin brother, has always been a favorite of mine. My wife and I actually came up with the character of Bwoonhiwda together. It seemed like the right time to revisit them and see what story they had to tell.
Your characters in this book – Igor, Bwoonhiwda, and Bonecracker John – are unlike anything we might encounter in the real world, yet they are somehow familiar and instantly likable. What’s your secret for finding that balance between the weird and familiar?
Having been a weird kid – no, a truly weird kid… in fact, even today, I often give a speech called “Cherish the Oddballs” – these characters don’t feel that odd to me.
I also like performance. When I go into schools to speak, I am not giving a speech – it’s really a one-man show. I call it “didactic standup.” Acting is basically inhabiting a character. So these characters in my books, they feel real to me. It’s natural for me to write them down.
You’ve had some top-notch writing partners throughout your career. Can you tell us who you’ve gotten to write alongside?
Jane Yolen and I have known each other for 37 years. We met when I was brand-new and she was well established. But as my career rose, we were continually readjusting our relationship so that we were working at equal levels. We’ve edited each other’s work many times. And we wrote Armageddon Summer together – which was a blast to do.
Paula Danziger and I used to read our books aloud to each other. Liz Levy and I were Paula’s two best friends; in fact, we would refer to each as “The Other Best Friend.” When [Paula] passed away, it was important to us that we continue the Amber Brown books as a legacy to her. Writing them, it was like there were always three of us collaborating.
You’ve said writing is your dream job. Any challenges you didn’t expect?
The challenge with having 100 books behind you is keeping things fresh. I don’t want to repeat myself. I try to stay in the same vein, but each idea, each book should be fresh and new.
I think the really unexpected thing for me about writing is that it doesn’t get easier. In fact, it gets harder. The more you know, the more you want the books to do and be. You want to have each book be better than the one before. You ask, can I live up to what I’ve done before? I know that a writing career, any career, is not an upward march to glory. But I am always trying to push to a new level. I just wasn’t expecting it to get harder as I went along.
Which writers do you most admire?
Terry Pratchett – who in his later works, was not only funny but deeply wise and humane. My wife and I were in the car on a road trip listening to the audio version of one of his books. And I said to her, “I am going to fling myself out the window. I will never write anything this good.” There are no qualifications on my admiration for him.
If readers could know and remember one thing about you or your stories, what would it be?
I think one of the reasons my books work – even though they are these weird fantasy and science fiction stories – is that I am not afraid to show my heart. I am not afraid of emotion. Ten-year-old boys come up to me and say that they have read Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher, and it’s the first book that made them cry. The adventure is there, but I want both the adventure resolution and the emotional resolution, too.
I realized some time ago that the bringing together of two things that have been separated, making peace, that’s what the stories are about. Over and over again, that’s what good stories are really about.
Goblins on the Prowl by Bruce Coville. S&S/Aladdin, $17.99 June ISBN 978-1-4169-1440-2
Diary of a Mad Brownie by Bruce Coville, illus. by Paul Kidby. Random House, $16.99 June ISBN 978-0-385-39247-1