The author of more than two dozen books, including Newbery winner Maniac McGee, Newbery Honor Book Wringer, childhood memoir Knots in My Yo-Yo String, and the bestselling Stargirl novels, Jerry Spinelli is further expanding his impressive children’s book catalogue. Today Knopf is releasing Dead Wednesday, his latest novel for readers ages 10 and up, with a 100,000-copy first printing. In the story, the lives of a shy boy and a deceased, charismatic girl collide—and connect—during an annual middle-school ritual. On Dead Wednesday, every eighth grader is assigned the name and identity of a local teenager who died a preventable death in the prior year, and everyone in town pretends they are invisible. Spinelli took a break from working on his next novel (about which he would reveal only the title, Phoebe) to speak with PW about creating Dead Wednesday, digging up book ideas, and the importance of “story.”
The premise of Dead Wednesday hardly paves the way to standard teen fiction fare. How did you happen upon it?
Sometimes the answer to that question is not so clear, but in this case it is, though unexpected. I got the actual title, not to mention the basics of the story idea, from a letter a teacher wrote to me, sometime in the neighborhood of 15 years ago. She apparently had a writer’s instinct for a good story, since she told me about this thing at her middle school called “Dead Wednesday,” when an eighth grader represents an actual kid who died unnecessarily. For a day, the student is totally ignored. The idea is to give kids a taste of what it would it be like to cease to exist, which could happen if they don’t smarten up and resist behavior like doing drugs and drinking and driving.
I took those basics and cooked up a story to go along with the premise. The most frustrating thing for me is that I repeatedly looked through my office for that teacher’s letter and I never found it. I knew I would never have knowingly thrown it out and I was desperate to find it, if only to thank her by name in the acknowledgements. I regret never finding it, but I kind of hope the teacher will run across the book and say, “Hey, that is me!”
Once you had settled on the concept of Dead Wednesday, did the story flow relatively easily?
It wasn’t hard to flesh out the story once I got over the self-imposed notion that I don’t do ghost stories. I had never imagined I would write a ghost story, but that was what this idea called for. I couldn’t argue about that, so I jumped in with both feet and suddenly I was a ghost story writer—and it wasn’t particularly difficult!
Your oeuvre spans picture books to novels for teens, with frequent forays into reading levels that fall between the two. Are you most comfortable writing for one specific age group?
Absolutely not. I always feel at home with the story and the writing, but I don’t write for different age levels. I let the publisher decide how they are going to steer a book. I don’t write for kids—I write about kids. I write for the story. I like to say that I take an idea out to lunch and ask it questions over our hamburgers: What makes you tick? Do you want me to write you in the first person or third? When I get an answer back, I know I’m on my way. I know my core audience is going to be kids, but it does not matter what age—I try to ignore that and avoid writing for any one group of readers. The story is paramount. If the story is a success and is a happy story it will take care of itself.
Speaking of “happy,” you manage to interject humor into stories that have decidedly dark underpinnings. Do you think that is an essential component of stories for children?
It’s interesting that you noticed that—it has only been brought to my attention a couple of times. I’m not sure I’m aware that I do that. On the one hand I’m simply revealing life as it is reflected in the story, and life happens on so many different levels simultaneously—there are so many fragments. Another thing that comes to mind is something I learned when I was attending the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins to get my master’s degree. The director, Elliott Coleman, liked to divide writing into two general categories, “yes literature” and “no literature,” which kind of fell in line with my world vision. I decided I did not want to go to my grave as someone who wrote “no literature.” I have an issue with the current major focus on dystopian fiction, where everything is out of whack and grim. Even in the darkest story—like my Holocaust novel, Milkweed—I will write my way out of the grimness of a “no” story and bring it to “yes” by the last page.
As the father of six and the grandfather and great-grandfather of many more, do you incorporate bits and pieces of your own life into your novels?
Absolutely. In fact, that is the exact wording I often use to describe my writing. I always say that there are “bits and pieces of myself” in just about every one of my books—in fact I will modify that to say every book. A lot of writers tell you it’s important to mine yourself—to get out the shovel and start digging. Sometimes you surprise yourself with what you come up with. The most obvious example of my kids inspiring a story was Who Put That Hair in My Toothbrush?, my second novel, which is a story of sibling rivalry based on two of our children. Still, I haven’t used my kids as much as people assume I do—I never spent time crouched behind the sofa taking notes. I think I’ve gotten more material from my own childhood memories. I am definitely one of my own best sources!
There is so much fodder for thought in Dead Wednesday—including the notion of connecting with the spirit of a deceased peer, and the dead and the living attempting to help one another. What do you hope that readers take away from the interaction between Worm and Becca?
I’m happy to say that I don’t give much consideration to that issue. I am a writer, not a preacher. If my main objective were to deliver a message, I would write a pamphlet, not a story. I like to think that whatever message I deliver I am not aware of. My goal is to write a good story so that readers want to keep turning the pages and are not bored. Sooner or later the messages will come—I just let it happen. In the case of Dead Wednesday, I started out with a quote by Emily Dickinson that I include at the beginning of the book: “That it will never come again/ Is what makes life so sweet.” I could not say it any better.
In the text of the book, I suppose the closest thing to a message is two words that are repeated several times: “Be bold.” I read that about 30 years ago in the obituary of an early designer of jet airplanes. That was his motto. It is so true that we writers will pick cherries from any tree!
Dead Wednesday by Jerry Spinelli. Knopf, $17.99 Aug. 3 ISBN 978-0-593-30667-3.