After chronicling the vicissitudes in the life of a down-to-earth boy in the 18-book Hank Zipzer: World’s Greatest Under-Achiever series and the 12-book Here’s Hank series, which have sold more than four million copies, Henry Winkler and Lin Oliver are launching a series starring a protagonist who hails from a distant planet. In his debut adventure, Alien Superstar, Buddy C. Burger lands his spaceship in the back lot of Universal Studios in North Hollywood, where (due to his six googly eyes and feet made of suction cups) he is mistaken for a costumed actor and is cast as a teenage alien in a TV show. Amulet will release the novel, illustrated by Ethan Nicolle, next month with a 100,000-copy first printing.
The authors, whose close collaborative process harkens from a pre-internet era—they literally sit on opposite sides of a desk as they compose, with Oliver typing their words on her computer—spent quite a bit of time deliberating about their next project after wrapping up their two series featuring Hank. “Lin and I put our heads together, thinking and talking about what we could do that would be completely different,” said Emmy Award-winning actor Winkler. “We know that children like aliens and we like aliens, and we both have extensive experience producing, writing, and acting.”
“Actually, only one of us has the acting experience!” interjected Oliver, who worked at Universal for 11 years, has written and produced TV series and movies, and is cofounder and executive director of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. “We’ve had good results drawing from what we know, with Hank Zipzer mirroring Henry’s experience living with dyslexia, and we’ve both worked in comedy and TV, so when we came up with the alien premise, we thought, ‘What if this character worked at Universal?’ We’ve both spent a lot of time on that lot, where you can see Frankenstein, Dracula, and Harry Potter characters without blinking. If an alien landed anywhere on earth, the place he’d be least noticed is the back lot of Universal Studios—so that idea was born!”
Adding Deeper Dimension to Comedy
Though Oliver emphasized the benefit of comedy in hooking kids on reading (“it’s a great gateway and it’s the underpinning of everything Henry and I write”), she also highlighted the importance of the underlying messages of Alien Superstar and her earlier books with Winkler.
“We always want to explore issues of the dangers of judging others by their appearances and body shaming, and the importance of being open and honest with friends,” she noted. “Kids are fascinated with Hollywood actors, and of course aliens, but with this new series we want to show the humanity behind both. Henry and I always focus on the value of the uniqueness of each individual, and the need to value that part of yourself that is different.”
That missive comes through clearly in Alien Superstar, noted Maggie Lehrman, Abrams’s editorial director for fiction, who edits the series. She praised the authors for being “entirely on the same page in their vision for the characters they create,” and for “integrating seamlessly both the humor and the difficulties that come with the universal sensation of feeling out of place or being in a strange locale and not understanding the culture.” Amulet has signed on Winkler and Oliver for three books in the series; the second, still untitled, is due in fall 2020.
As they did in the Hank Zipzer books, the authors tactically positioned Buddy C. Burger as what Oliver called “a fish-out-of-water.” “Buddy is looking at American culture from the perspective of one who has never experienced it," she said. “He might be confused and feel out of place, but he gives readers a chance to look at their lives from an entirely new point of view.”
Winkler, who knows well the value of appreciating the viewpoints and uniqueness of those who are different from oneself, added, “From my experience being dyslexic, I always felt as though I was on the outside looking in. That’s part of Hank Zipzer’s story, and in a different way it’s part of Buddy’s story. I’ve discovered that if you write the truth about life, with authenticity, you’re apt to hear readers say, ‘How do you know me so well?’ And to an author, that is beyond gratifying.”
Alien Superstar by Henry Winkler and Lin Oliver, illus. by Ethan Nicolle. Amulet, $14.99 Oct. 1 ISBN 978-1-4197-3369-7