Happy October! Today, we kick off a new feature: Books for Boys. Approximately once per week, I’ll highlight a Book for Boys (or Boy Parents), a book I think your boys will love — or one that will make your job as a boy parent a little bit easier. Each Book for Boys day will include a Q & A with the author, providing you with a behind-the-scenes look at the book. (I sound like Dr. Suess there, don’t I?)
Today’s book is The Legend of Vinny Whiskers, which I previously reviewed in June. Author Gregory Kemp is kicking off a two-week blog tour today, and his first stop is Blogging ‘Bout Boys.
Where did you get the idea for The Legend of Vinny Whiskers?
GK: That’s a popular question people ask me, but I find it difficult to pin down. It probably came from a few different directions. I tend to give animals, like our dog, a voice. It’s not quite what you’d expect. Our dainty little Italian greyhound talks tough. She’s also interested in science and a fan of William Shatner. My wife thinks it’s pretty funny. I’ve given voices and personalities to the squirrels in the yard, animals in the zoo. So when I was entertaining the idea of writing a novel, an animal story seemed natural.
The other consideration was picking the right animal. In stories, I’ve always preferred underdog heroes over superstars. Secret agents, kid geniuses, knights—while they can be fun, they lack the depth and complexity that exists in the real world. Real people are fallible, yet real people can be heroes. A prairie dog hero offered a lot here. Turning a burrowing animal at the bottom of the food chain into a bona fide legend got me excited. Boomer Lookout, the protagonist of my novel, is not especially good at anything. And he’s got a lot of issues. To me, he’s the ultimate underdog. Plus he lives in the dirt which is funny.
Why do you think this book will appeal to boys?
GK: I don’t have to guess here. I’ve already heard from boys who identify with the main character, Boomer Lookout. Boomer is just a regular kid prairie dog trying to find his way. He doesn’t have any magic powers or special skills, yet over the course of the novel, Boomer finds ways to succeed. I’m very proud of this because I think it holds true to life. You don’t have to do spectacular things to succeed. I think if you give life an honest effort, everyone can find success.
I like the fact that you use big words, like conspicuously and ingenuity. Was that an intentional decision?
GK: Not at all. I originally wrote the book without thinking about the audience. I’ve since been told that books should always been written for a target audience, but I was just trying to write a fun book that might make you think when it’s all over. Hopefully the vocabulary is suitable for the audience. If kids find a tough word here or there, I’d just offer them this advice: don’t let it get in the way of enjoying the story. There are about 65,000 words in Vinny and if you don’t know a few that’s not bad at all! If you learn one or two, all the better.
What kinds of books did you like to read as a boy? How did your likes (and dislikes) then influence Vinny Whiskers?
GK: My favorite books growing up were Choose Your Own Adventures. You know the type, right? “You are stranded on a deserted island. Ahead on the beach you see a wooden chest. In the distance you hear the beating of drums. If you want to investigate the chest, turn to page 10, if you want find the source of the drums, turn to page….” These were fun for me. The plot took all sorts of sudden turns.
I also grew up reading Piers Anthony, the fantasy writer. The Xanth series was a favorite. His creativity is off the chart and I want my writing to be original and fresh.
What advice would you have for young boys who are interested in writing and storytelling?
GK: The boiler plate answer for this would be read, read, read. Okay, I can’t argue with that in principle because you can learn a lot by reading other people’s work. But I would qualify the advice by saying, “Read and think.”
Getting lost in a good book won’t help your writing. You need to stop and ask yourself what is good about the book? What makes you want to turn the page? A good story will have a clear answer for this.
At the same time, you’ve got to practice your writing. Start with a one page story, something like, young Jimmy wants to know what’s inside all the delivery boxes at his neighbor’s house. Put an obstacle in Jimmy’s way like the neighbors are out of town and he can’t ask them or they have a really big dog that Jimmy fears.
Lastly, deliver on the story. Jimmy sneaks over and peeks in a window. What does he find? Why all the boxes? Perhaps there are copies of The Legend of Vinny Whiskers in the boxes and Jimmy’s neighbor is my biggest fan. That’s a very good story if you ask me! When you think you’ve got the story right, go back and make it better. I wrote at least five major drafts of The Legend of Vinny Whiskers. I don’t claim it’s perfect, but it’s a lot better than where I started. And by golly, pay attention in English class!
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Jennifer L.W. Fink is the founder of BuildingBoys.net, a mother of four boys and an award-winning writer. Her work has been published by The Washington Post, Parents, FOX news, Parade and Boys' Life -- & she still spends a significant portion of every day trying to get her boys to put cups in the dishwasher.