This fall, James Patterson adds two middle grade novels to his Jimmy Patterson Books imprint at Little, Brown. After folding earlier Patterson titles into the imprint as they’ve come up for reprint, the publisher now has a total of 44 million Jimmy Patterson titles in print. Due out this month with a 400,000-copy first printing is Max Einstein: The Genius Experiment by Patterson and Chris Grabenstein, illustrated by Beverly Johnson, the debut title of a series starring a homeless girl genius whose infatuation with Albert Einstein guides her critical problem-solving, which is especially useful when she’s recruited by an agency dedicated to eradicating global warming, poverty, war, and pandemic disease. In December, another series launch, Dog Diaries: A Middle School Story, written by Patterson with Steven Butler and illustrated by Richard Watson, will be released with a 225,000-copy first printing. This paper-over-board caper introduces an exuberant, fast-talking, and comically clueless rescue dog adjusting to life with the boy who’s his new “human pet.” We asked Patterson about these new ventures, as well as his ongoing efforts to increase childhood literacy.
First up: Max Einstein. What inspired creating this brilliant 12-year-old who knows nothing about her parents, her past, or the origins of her treasured suitcase filled with Albert Einstein memorabilia?
Actually, the managers of the Albert Einstein Archives, located at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, approached me a while back, saying they’d like us to create books that will introduce kids to Einstein’s science. They were very bright—no surprise—and said the books must be entertaining, because otherwise young readers won’t pay any attention to them. I insisted that the protagonist be a girl. Obviously, girls today are encouraged to be scientists and mathematicians, and women in these fields are in the spotlight, including two who just won the Nobel Prize [Donna Strickland for physics and Frances H. Arnold for chemistry]. But unfortunately, in some places in the world, they are still underrated. I wanted the series to include plenty of science, but also feature a character who readers can identify with, and who is making a difference in the world.
I also wanted to create some mystery behind where Max came from, which even I don’t know yet! There are a lot of wonderful possibilities—perhaps we’ll work in time travel or a little wormhole, or maybe Albert himself will make an appearance. Max’s past and her connection to Einstein is something we’ll keep playing with for now, while Max and her fellow kid geniuses solve problems in believable ways. I really believe Max Einstein is the most important book I’ve ever done. To write a page-turner that deals with Einstein’s science involved a degree of difficulty, but it was a wonderful challenge, and I’m thrilled that this first book in the series turned out so well.
In Dog Diaries, you are obviously, well, barking up a very different tree. What was the genesis of the feisty canine narrator, Junior, who has such an optimistic, if at times misguided, perspective on the human and dog worlds?
We had a lot of fun with this book! I wrote it with Steven Butler, who I’d never collaborated with before. He’s a British comedian and is a big fan of the Middle School series—and he’s very funny. It is fun to show Junior’s dog view of things—like being terrified by the vacuum cleaner, the “most evil creature” he’s ever met. Maybe in the next book, we’ll have him meet a leaf blower, another one of the most irritating things in the world! And speaking in Doglish, Junior tweaks names of things and people in a humorous way, like turning his boy’s name, Rafe Khatchadorian, into Ruff Catch-A-Doggy-Bone. The book pokes a bit of fun at dog obedience school and dog shows, without being super negative, and the unexpected happens—like Junior winning a year’s supply of dog food for being the worst-trained dog in the show.
How many Max Einstein and Dog Diaries titles do you anticipate adding to these series?
You never know with series, but right now we’re in it for three Max titles and at least three Dog Diaries. I think it’s harder and harder in the book world for stores to stock a large selection of titles, and to carry every book in a series. It can be frustrating for kids who want to read straight through a series—and for parents and other gatekeepers who want to keep their kids reading. I am always praying and hoping that parents become more involved in getting their kids reading and seeing that as an important part of their job—and not just their child’s teacher’s job.
Obviously, you have long been a crusader for children’s literacy and encouraging kids’ love of reading—which is the mission of Jimmy Patterson Books. What is it that continues to fuel that passion?
I am so concerned about the percentage of kids in this country who are not reading at grade level, and strongly believe that we have to do whatever we can to change that. The statistics are disheartening. In my home state of Florida, only 43% of fourth graders are reading at grade level. I have been working with the University of Florida’s College of Education to address the issue, and I think the biggest thing, based on observation—which is what Einstein would do—is that in Florida, most kids in preschool to fourth grade are taught reading by teachers who are not trained to teach reading.
Our James Patterson Literacy Challenge is partnering with the university’s programs to train educators in intervention strategies to prevent literacy problems and enhance reading education, especially in low-performing schools. To date, the university’s educator programs have had encouraging results—literacy rates have reached as high as 85%. We’re hoping to get many more teachers on board—this isn’t about “Gotcha,” it’s about “Help ya”—and so far, most teachers have reported that this training is very helpful. I believe we can get this done, and raise literacy levels significantly, which is tremendously exciting to me.
Max Einstein: The Genius Experiment by James Patterson and Chris Grabenstein, illus. by Beverly Johnson. Little, Brown/Jimmy Patterson, $14.99 Oct. ISBN 978-0-316-52396-7
Dog Diaries: A Middle School Story by James Patterson with Steven Butler, illus. by Richard Watson. Little, Brown/Jimmy Patterson, $9.99 Dec. ISBN 978-0-316-48748-1