BLOGS  >  FEBRUARY 20, 2024

An Interview with Author Dan Gutman

Dan Gutman is the New York Times best-selling author of the Genius Files series; the Baseball Card Adventure series; and the My Weird School series, his most wildly popular at more than 34 million books sold. Perfect for reluctant readers and all kids hungry for funny school stories, Gutman’s My Weird School chapter books have something for everyone. Below, the winner of 19 state book awards shares his inspirations for the quirky, much-beloved characters of Ella Mentry School, how he tackles writer’s block, and the honing of his self-taught style. In February 2024, Gutman published his 100th book in the series. What a milestone!

Can you believe it – 100 books?! That is a lot of weird stories. Do you have a favorite?

I do. I used to answer that question with Miss Lazar Is Bizarre! (She’s the school custodian.)  But that came out in 2005. Since then, I’ve changed my mind. In recent years, illustrator Jim Paillot and I have made three My Weird School graphic novels – Mr. Corbett Is in Orbit! (2021) Get a Grip! We’re on a Trip! (2022) and Dorks in New York! (2023). 

For these books, I didn’t write them on a computer, the way I write my other books. I drew pictures, with stick figures and cartoon balloons for Jim to work with. I have found this to be so different, fun, and challenging that the graphic novels are now my favorite My Weird School books. Probably Dorks in New York! is No. 1 because I live in New York City, and it was fun to scout the locations and take photos for Jim to use.

What gave you the idea for the very first My Weird School book?

Before My Weird School, I was writing for older kids, 11- and 12-year-olds. But I was doing a lot of school visits, and I didn’t have anything to talk about with the younger grades. 

My daughter Emma was in second grade at the time. She was reading the Junie B. Jones series, and I thought it would be cool if there was something like Junie B. Jones told by a boy. And My Weird School was born. Most of the books in My Weird School, you may have noticed, are dedicated to Emma. She was eight when the first book (Miss Daisy Is Crazy!) came out. Now she’s 28! 

By the way, I didn’t know My Weird School would be a series in the beginning. I knew it COULD be a series. But I had been rejected so many times before that, it would have been presumptuous of me to think any publisher would offer me a series. But HarperCollins really liked Miss Daisy. They asked for four more books like it, and then four more, and then four more. Somehow 28 went by, and now we’re up to 100 books. My Weird School is by far the most successful thing I’ve ever done in my career.

Are any of the weird scenarios you write about – including the wacky teachers or faculty administrators of Ella Mentry School – based on real-life situations?

Every author puts some of their own experiences into their books, I suppose. But mostly My Weird School is just invented silliness. My elementary school was pretty normal, and so is just about every school I visit. I just make up crazy stuff to make kids laugh. 

But I did get two of the NAMES from real life. When I was a kid, there was a girl in my class named Andrea Young, and she was a real smarty-pants know-it-all. That’s why Andrea is named Andrea. (I hope the real Andrea Young never reads these books!) And my son Sam had a friend named A.J., so that’s where I got the name for the main character. I like names that are initials.

Come to think of it, there was one book that was based on a real-life situation. I was visiting a school in Cos Cob, Connecticut, one day and having lunch with a small group of kids in the library. I asked them, “What’s the weirdest thing that ever happened in your school?” Somebody said that the previous week a dentist had visited the school to talk about dental hygiene.

Instantly, I thought, “That’s a My Weird School book just waiting to be written!” So I wrote Dr. Floss Is the Boss! and dedicated it to the kids at that school.

What character do you relate to the most and why? Do you put yourself into any one character?

People probably assume that I would relate the most to A.J., who narrates My Weird School. They probably think I was an obnoxious little boy like A.J. and that’s why it’s so easy for me to write the books from his perspective. But the truth is that I was more like Andrea as a kid. I was a good student, and I liked school. 

But really, of all the characters in My Weird School, the one who is most like me is Mr. Klutz, the former principal who recently retired and was replaced by Mrs. Stoker. Because we’re both sort of overgrown kids.

Have you ever had writer’s block, and if so, how were you able to get past it?

Sure. I’ve never heard of any author who didn’t struggle. Ernest Hemingway once said, “There's nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.” (Or something like that. It’s a matter of debate, apparently.)

But writer’s block is not a big problem for me because I don’t just start with a white piece of paper or blank computer screen. I outline my stories in advance. So if I’m stuck, it’s not because I don’t know what’s going to happen next in the story. It’s just that my brain is tired and can’t find the right words. 

If I’m working at my computer and the words just aren’t coming, I take a break. Break the rhythm. Do something different. Take a bike ride. Get some fresh air. Move my body. Have a bite to eat. Hopefully, when I get back to my computer, my brain is working again.

You have the amazing ability to start in one place at the beginning of any of the My Weird School stories, have the story meander in the weirdest and wildest of ways, and then you always come back to the beginning in some way. It’s so brilliant! Have you found that kids love this structure? Is it the way their minds wander to and from topics that inspired you?

Nope. I have no idea if kids even notice that stuff. But I do have the brain of an eight-year-old, so that helps.

I didn’t study writing in college, and I never took any writing classes. I’m self-taught. So I never learned the “rules” of how to write well, and I think that’s been good for me. If you don’t know the rules, you’re less likely to fall into the same old tried-and-true (but boring or predictable) story arcs. 

Even though I didn’t take any writing classes, I do know a little about human nature, and I certainly know what I like to read. So, I figure that if I like something, kids will like it too. And what I like are stories that grab the reader in the first sentence, and each sentence follows naturally into the next one. Each paragraph leads to the one after it. Each chapter is like a little self-contained story, and the ending of each chapter makes you want to know what happens next.

I think it’s human nature (or my nature, anyway) to like stories that come full circle. There’s something satisfying about a story that takes the reader on a journey and then brings them back home at the end.

Basically, I’m trying to send the reader on a roller coaster ride: Give them something exciting, then calm them down a little. Then give them something else that’s exciting, and calm them down again. And keep doing that. Human beings crave constant novelty. If a roller coaster didn’t go up and down, it would be just a subway ride.

And at the end of a roller coaster ride, of course, it takes you back to the place where you started.  I’ve also written a lot about baseball, and it’s a similar idea. The batter at home plate has the goal of making it all the way around the bases until he ends up back where he started – scoring a run at home plate.

To sum it up, I write stories that I’d like to read, and I hope kids enjoy them too.

Interview courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers

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