During school visits, students often ask why I dedicated MY LIFE AS A BOOK to Bill Watterson, creator of the legendary Calvin and Hobbes comic strip. Do I love Calvin and Hobbes THAT much?
Yes I do, but that’s not the only reason why. I dedicated MY LIFE AS A BOOK to Bill Watterson because he’s done more to teach boys to read than any children’s book author I know.
But what about Jack Gantos, you ask? Or Jon Scieszka? Jeff Kinney?
Those authors have written wonderful and beloved books for boys. But unlike those authors, Watterson didn’t write for children – kids just discovered his work and appropriated it as their own.
My young son Jake and his friends adored Calvin and Hobbes; they spent hours laughing and reading through all the different volumes. I found it strange that these boys who enjoyed reading would run screaming down the street as if on fire when they were asked to read for school. What was it about Calvin and Hobbes that made THAT kind of reading so different?
Well there’s a lot to like in those strips: Calvin’s many alter-egos, the sacred moments of communing with nature, the parents who never understand, the battle-axe teacher, the love/hate relationship with the girl next door, not to mention the stuffed animal-best friend who only comes alive for you. But apart from those kid-friendly features, Watterson makes children work for their enjoyment too. Consider the vocabulary from a random strip (February 22, 1990):
Words like progressing, abstraction, inadequacy, traditional, imagery, convey, abandoning, representationalism, interpretation, visceral, oeuvre, monochromatic – those words would be daunting on an SAT test! Yet these comics are cherished by elementary and middle school students too. Why did my son and his friends embrace these words in Watterson’s strips but reject them in novel form? The conclusion I came to was that humor and visual support lessened their fears of such a daunting vocabulary.
So I set out to write a novel with the same fast, comic energy as a Calvin and Hobbes strip, also utilizing visual support. To start, I went to the biggest expert I knew – my son.
Besides being a big fan of comics, Jake has been drawing his vocabulary words since third grade. He’s a visual learner and drawing was the only way he could remember the assigned words.
People who saw his work loved the deceptively simple drawings so I had him illustrate the tougher vocabulary words I used in the novel, the same way my main character did. When I submitted the first few chapters to my editor, she told me it was wonderful that I’d hired a cartoonist to illustrate the book. I told her afterward the artist was my teenage son.
Since then, Jake and I have talked to tens of thousands of students about MY LIFE AS A BOOK, MY LIFE AS A STUNTBOY, and the brand-new MY LIFE AS A CARTOONIST. We get letters every week from students who enjoy the books not just for their humor, but for how Jake’s illustrations have helped them learn new words. Teachers from around the country use the books in classrooms and have students draw their own versions of the vocabulary words. What started out as a homage to Bill Watterson ended up being something fun and educational on its own.
I’ll leave you with the Calvin and Hobbes strip I used at the end of MY LIFE AS A BOOK:
Concise. Funny. Relatable. How can you improve on that?Posted on July 23, 2013