“I Don’t Want to Grow Up”: Dave Barry on Writing for Children

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

Pulitzer Prize-winning humorist and award-winning newspaper columnist Dave Barry had booksellers laughing uproariously during his keynote speech, “I Don’t Want to Grow Up,” at last month’s ABC Children’s Institute in Orlando.

On Thursday, June 23, in a speech chock-full of entertaining anecdotes about the writing life, Barry told booksellers how he went from writing humor for adults to also writing for children.

Barry, whose The Worst Night Ever (Disney-Hyperion) for middle grade readers was released this April, said he would never have met Ridley Pearson, with whom he wrote the five-book middle-grade series Peter and the Starcatchers (Disney-Hyperion), had it not been for the all-author rock band The Rock Bottom Remainders.

The band, featuring a rotating roster of well-known writers such as Stephen King, Mitch Albom, Amy Tan, and Greg Iles, got started back in 1992 when a group of authors got together for a one-night performance to raise money for literacy causes, Barry said. After they became friends, Pearson asked Barry to join him in writing a prequel to J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, an idea that was prompted by a question from Pearson’s daughter, Paige, who asked him how Peter Pan and Captain Hook first met.

Barry, who started out as a reporter at the Miami Herald and is now the New York Times bestselling author of more than two dozen books for children and adults, said that writing the series with Pearson completely changed his life as a writer. Co-creating the series, which was also made into a 2009 Broadway play, was such a cool experience, he said, “partly because of the way you promote books when you are writing for kids as opposed to writing for grownups.

“When you are writing for grownups it is pretty straightforward: You write the book, you go on tour, you go to an independent bookstore, and you talk about your book, you read a little bit from your book, and then people ask you questions about your writing process,” he said. “That’s typically what happens. You don’t do any of that with kids. They are not interested in your writing process — that is the first thing. And they probably don’t know who you are, so you do can do more interesting things and be more theatrical.”

Thanks to the resources available to his publisher, Disney, one Peter and the Starcatchers signing in Orlando even involved a giant mock-up of a pirate ship and a fight between the Hook and Peter Pan characters, Barry said.

Writing the Peter and the Starcatchers series and then touring to promote the books afforded him many other experiences he never would have had if he had just kept writing humor books for adults, Barry said. He and Pearson were chosen to be the grand marshals of a Disney Main Street Parade, donning Mickey Mouse ears and riding around on an antique fire truck. Another time, astronaut Katie Coleman asked Barry’s permission to read Science Fair, his 2008 middle-grade novel with Pearson, to her child via Skype while she was on the International Space Station. Yet another experience — this one a little less benign — involved an encounter with a giant snake.

Barry said the infamous snake incident occurred at his local independent bookstore, Books & Books in Coral Gables, Florida, while he and Pearson (dressed as pirates) were giving a reading in a room packed with kids.

“What we typically do in our signings is we read a chapter from the book that has a lot of action,” said Barry. “This particular section in the book involved a humungous snake. The owner of the bookstore, Mitchell Kaplan, knew we were going to read that section and thought it would be fun to bring a real snake to the reading, so he got a guy to bring in a 10-foot, 90-pound Albino Burmese python. This sketchy-looking man came wandering up from the side with this huge snake, which he put up on our shoulders and then walked away.”

While kids love to see these kinds of wacky stunts, they also pay attention to the books they read quite deeply. When it comes to young readers, said Barry, it is the honesty of a child’s reaction that makes their interaction with a book so different from an adult’s.

“Kid readers are very different from adult readers in a good way. They are incredibly honest. If they don’t like it, they don’t read it or they tell you they don’t like it. They don’t care at all what a reviewer said about you; they don’t care what your process is; they don’t care if it is going to be made into a movie. They just want to know more about the story because they take the story very seriously. They believe in it.”

“Somewhere in their minds they know it is not real, but in a big part of their minds they are buying into it,” he added, “and so if they like what you’ve written, they immerse themselves in it, maybe more than you did as a writer, and they love it and they read it again and then they want you to write another one right away.”

Barry’s new book, The Worst Night Ever, is the second book in his middle-grade series about the hilarious mishaps of adventurous eighth-grader Wyatt Palmer, which began in 2015 with the New York Times bestseller The Worst Class Trip Ever. Barry said his new books are based on what he was like in middle school and high school.

“I was the little puny kid who wasn’t good at sports,” he said. “I learned to be funny so the other kids wouldn’t hold me upside down over the toilet, basically. I felt comfortable writing about that phase because I remember it vividly. It’s also been fun going around to middle schools talking to middle school kids.”

Barry ended his talk by reminding indie booksellers in the audience why authors love them so very much.

“There’s a big difference when you go to a city where you’re going to appear at an indie versus a chain bookstore,” said Barry. “We love you also for getting kids to read because I know that isn’t always easy. But just from talking to kids, once you get them going, as you know, they never stop for the rest of their lives.”