Thursday, August 16, 2018

An Interview with Children's Author Fred Bowen

All week, I've been sharing reviews of the books by Fred Bowen that I have read. Today, I'm happy to share an interview I recently conducted with Fred over email.

Read-at-Home Mom: One of the things I admire about your books is the way each story teaches a character-building lesson without preaching at the reader. When you're writing, do you set out to tell a story with a particular moral, or does the lesson present itself as you go?

Fred Bowen: First, thanks for saying my books are not preachy!  I think that any heavy-handed message would turn readers away.

My sports books for kids ages 7-12 are a balance of three major elements.  First, I want to tell a good story.  If you don’t have a fast-moving, interesting plot with sympathetic characters the kids will put the book down.

Second, I want to teach the kids something about the sports they love.  That’s why I weave some sports history into the plot and always include a chapter of real sports history at the end of the book.

Finally, I definitely want to include a lesson that kids can learn from the story.  But the lesson is always an intrinsic part of the sport.  So in Outside Shot (Peachtree 2017), for example, Matt sees himself as a shooter, the kid who is going to score a lot of baskets.  The lesson he learns over the course of the season is to not define himself so narrowly.  He can be more than he thinks.  Matt learns that lesson through playing basketball.

When I start a book I have a good idea of what the history and lesson contained in the story will be.  As I work out the plot I am always thinking about how to emphasize (without preaching!) the history and the underlying lesson.

RAHM: Each of your books involves scenes where kids play in sporting events, requiring you to describe a lot of physical action very clearly and concisely. Do you have a particular method you use to organize all the logistics of these scenes? Are some sports harder to capture on the page than others?

FB: I outline my books extensively before I start writing.  First, I develop the “arc of the story” by figuring out what has to happen in each of the chapters (my books are usually 15-17 chapters and about 120 pages).  That arc is usually a few typewritten pages.

Next, I write out (in longhand!) a first draft of the book using two, 100-page (6” X 9”) notebooks.  This is where I work out the dialogue and the details of the action, including the action in the games.  I am not trying to be perfect in this draft.  I am only trying to figure out what goes where and who says what.

After I have worked out those details in my notebooks, I begin to type up on the computer the first “official” draft of the book.  I am trying to be as perfect as possible with this draft.

I should emphasize that things are always changing in this process.  I am adding and deleting scenes, emphasizing certain themes more, developing the characters.  It’s a lot of fun!

And yes, some sports are harder to describe than others.  Baseball is easy because you can summarize the previous action quickly and then “drop into” a dramatic moment in the game and describe it in more detail.  Basketball and football are similar in this way.

I find soccer the most difficult to describe because so much of the action does not lead to any significant result.  Many soccer games are 60-90 minutes of barely differentiated action punctuated by one or two goals.   I played and enjoy the game but it is hard to describe.

RAHM: Your books also always include interesting information about sports figures of the past. When you were growing up, which sports heroes inspired you?

FB: I didn’t really have sport heroes in the traditional way kids have heroes.  I had favorite players and favorite teams – go Red Sox and Celtics! – but I did not have sports heroes as such.

I think I sensed (probably through my family) that just because someone was great at sports this did not make him or her necessarily admirable in every aspect of their life.

I have written a weekly kids sports column for the Washington Post since April 2000.  I have often tried to convey this truth to my readers.  Just because LeBron James is a fabulous basketball player does not automatically make him a good father, person or friend.  He may be, but that is a separate inquiry.  I think this is an important point to make to kids in our celebrity-crazed culture.

RAHM: I heard you speak at the Gaithersburg Book Festival several years ago, and I remember you commenting on the number of names you need for all the teammates, coaches, and other supporting characters who appear in your books. How do you choose the names for all those characters? 

FB: I do several things to name the characters in my books.  First, I check the Social Security website to see what names were popular ten years before the scheduled publication date of the book.  Those names will be familiar to the kids reading my books.

My wife teaches at a school in our neighborhood.  So I look at the names in the student directory and mix and match first names with different last names.

I also put in names of friends, friends’ kids and grandchildren, as well as kids who write me fan letters and emails.  Finally, I am a big jazz fan so I will sometimes sneak in the name of a favorite jazz pianist, bassist or sax player in a roster or as an opponent.

RAHM: Finally, for readers who have read all of your books, which authors would you recommend for them to enjoy while they wait for your next book?

FB: I have written 22 chapter books for readers ages 7-12 and one picture book, so it is hard for me to believe that kids have read all my books.  But I know kids have because I have met some of them.  There have been times that I have met kids who knew my books better than I did!

What I would encourage all kids to do is to read as often and widely as possible.  If they like sports, they should read the sports section in their local newspaper.  Get a subscription to Sports Illustrated or ESPN the magazine.

I remember when I was young, my father encouraged me to read the sports section of the Boston newspapers.  But after a while, he would only give me the sports section after I had read the front pages.  This helped me develop a life-long interest in politics and current events.

Finally, my parents always encouraged reading.  They said we (the 7 kids in the family) should always be reading something.  If someone asked us what we were reading we should always have an answer.  Sure enough, we all turned out to be readers.

My point is that kids (and their parents) should make a habit of reading.  Find what you are interested in and then find a book about that subject.  It isn’t hard but it takes more effort than turning on the TV or checking your phone.  There are so many terrific writers for kids these days that if kids say they can’t find anything to read they aren’t really trying.

If they like my books they should know my next book – a football book – will be published in the Fall of 2019.

Thanks to Fred Bowen for these wonderful answers! I know I'll be looking for that football book next year! 

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