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Season 4, Episode 9

It's a Jungle Out There: a Conversation with Stuart Gibbs

March 10, 2022

Best-selling author, Stuart Gibbs, talks about his newest book, Once Upon a Tim, and shares his best advice for readers. Book recommendations for young adult and middle grade readers.

Titles Mentioned in This Episode

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Charity 0:01 Welcome to the Planet Book podcast. I'm your host Charity.

Jen 0:05 And I'm Jennifer.

Charity 0:06 And we're with the Springfield Greene-County Library District. On each episode, you'll hear us talking about our favorite tween and teen books. Thanks for joining us today. On this episode, Jen and I are so tickled to have a really special guest on the podcast today, and I know all of our readers out there, at least in 417 land and abroad, whoever's listening, you are going to know who this guest is. He is the author of so many middle grade favorites. He's written this Spy School series, the Fun Jungle series, which is Belly Up, Bear Bottom, the Moonbase Alpha series, the Charlie Thorne series, which is super popular. He's got more things coming up. And we are so excited to have Stuart Gibbs with us today. Welcome to the podcast.

Stuart Gibbs 1:02 Well, thank you so much for having me. It's a pleasure to be here.

Charity 1:05 We have just a few questions for you today. Stuart, thank you so much for making time for us. Jen, lead us off.

Jen 1:12 I want to tell listeners first thing first, if you haven't visited Stuart's website,, check it out, because he has a blog, and he also keeps everybody updated on when things are coming out. And so as I was looking at the stuff coming out, I was overwhelmed at just like what came out this year, and then what's coming out next year. And I was like, Stuart, what do you want-I'm gonna give you the opportunity to talk about the one you're most excited about promoting. This will probably be airing in January.

Stuart Gibbs 1:48 Okay, there's sort of two things coming that one thing that kids have been asking for, which comes out on February 1, which is the graphic novel of Spy School. And that was really just generated by kids saying, like, when is there going to be a graphic novel of Spy School? So my publisher listened, and we got an incredibly talented artist named Anjan Sarkar who has just done an amazing job, just telling the story visually. But then I actually have a whole new series I'm starting, that's a bit different than the other series I've done. It's called Once Upon a Tim. It's my first not animated, first illustrated series. And this just came from some talks with my publisher about, you know, maybe ways we could reach some other readers. And I've been kicking around this idea for a long time about Tim is basically like, he's almost like a, he's a peasant. But he's like, he's like, you know, every time you ever saw a Disney movie, or any animated movie it's always about a prince or princess in olden times, and you're thinking, but there's all these other people who are not the prince and princesses. And so Tim is just a peasant and he hates being a peasant because it's like the prince and princesses are always like, oh, woe is me, and he's like, we're peasants, we eat gruel, we have no bathrooms, you know. So the only way for any kind of upward mobility is to agree to become a knight and the series is very silly. But honestly, back then, like if you were 11, or 12, you really would go off and get a job. And so Tim agrees to become a knight. And his best friend, Belinda, who is a girl who has even less choices than Tim has to pretend to be a boy to also become a knight and they end up going on a series-this will be a series and then they go on many quests, which are all kind of never work out the way that they're hoping. It's all very silly. The illustrations are done by Stacy Curtis. They're hilarious. And so this is easily the most ridiculous thing I've written so far. But everybody who has test read it has said that they were laughing very hard when they were reading it so. So I'm very excited about this one.

Jen 4:03 That sounds really fun. And it makes me think of an interview I read or maybe it was a podcast I was listening to, no, it's on your blog. You say that a lot of people give advice to write what you know, but you tell the children write what you're interested in, and then that gives you a chance to research. What made you interested in this new series and, tell me where you went? Because you get to go to all these really cool places.

Stuart Gibbs 4:30 Yeah, this one I want to say is so like, I do a tremendous amount of research for my other for my series. This one is so unbounded by any kind of reality. It was actually a bit of fun for me to say like, oh, I don't have to get any facts right at all in this series. I can just make up whatever I want. But it really is sort of drawing on mythology and folklore and fairy tales and sort of all these stories that are kind of passed down through the generations. And just the idea that wouldn't it be like, just funny to just sort of mess them up and say that things couldn't possibly have worked out even the way they would in a fairy tale, right? That the basics of sort of what we take for granted in all these stories is just, you know, like, the tales get told one way, and you think but you know, if I had been in there, maybe it would have gone very, very differently. So like, if I were to, I don't know-like, one of the things I was thinking about it I actually haven't read it up yet is just like the riddle of the Sphinx that we hear about through all this mythology, and you know, that you would come upon the Sphinx and the Sphinx would say, okay, well what walks on four legs in the morning and two legs in the afternoon and three legs at night? And the answer is a human because you crawl when your kid and then you walk in, then you have a cane and it's Oedipus answers correctly and the Sphinx is so upset that the Sphinx kills itself. But basically, this is a terrible riddle. And so the real response would be like, that's not fair. Then it's like, you know, that's a human lifetime and it's not morning, afternoon and night and this is just wrong and it's not funny and you know. That's the proper response to that riddle. So thinking like if I had a character who met the Sphinx he wouldn't just get the riddle right and go on with his way. He would, you know, he would question the veracity of whether or not this was even a worthwhile riddle to be answering at all. And so that was, as ridiculous as it is, that was sort of like one of the starting places for this. And I couldn't even figure out how to put the riddle of the Sphinx into the story yet. But yeah, I was just sort of drawing on all sorts of fairy tales and folklore. So I did, I guess, some researching just like learning about all the different mythical beasts that would be fun to make fun of and those sorts of things.

Jen 7:09 So your characters are usually geniuses or close to it, or some of them, you know, Albert, Einstein level geniuses. Will Tim be a genius? Or is he just gonna be-being that he's a peasant you got to step away from that?

Stuart Gibbs 7:25 Well, he's not a fool. He's really smarter than most of the people around him. I mean, I like writing stories where the smart people are the heroes. Because I mean, that's why I like mysteries all along, because that's a story where the smartest person wins. And so as a kid, I loved Encyclopedia Brown, you know, who was respected for being really intelligent, and everybody came to him for help. And I liked all sorts of mysteries. Because, you know, I mean, if you look at Sherlock Holmes, that's the smartest person of his time period and so, you know, it's fun to write a story where somebody has this wealth of knowledge. Tim is-he's probably a bit more naive, he hasn't ever been out of his village. He doesn't really know what's waiting for him out there in the world, but I think he's coming to it with kind of a modern day sensibility. You know, he, the kid, who's, you know, saying to the family, like, you know, no offense, but I really am tired of eating gruel. And the family's like that's all we've ever eaten, like, why would you want to mix things up? So he's just looking for a little change, really.

Charity 8:34 I was looking at your website, and I once again, give a shout out If you're a fan, check it out. It's one of the best author sites that I've come across. But like Jen, I was also a little overwhelmed by just the sheer number of books that you've written, all of the books that are coming out next year. And so I'm curious what your writing process is like, if you can speak to that a little bit, and how you kind of keep straight all of these books? Because there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of downtime in between one book coming out, you know, and the next.

Stuart Gibbs 9:13 Well, I guess, I should say, I do really enjoy writing. So it's a joy to get to do this. I mean, I always tell-we're talking about like what I say to get kids excited about writing and I do encourage, you know, kids just to be curious about the world. And I think that I mean, kids generally are but and I try to keep holding on to that curiosity and talking to people who I find interesting and researching things that I find fascinating. And a lot of the time, you don't really know where an idea is going to come from. It's just sort of you're reading something or you're in a place or you're on vacation or you're at a museum or you're at the zoo and ideas kind of sparks. And you think like, oh, yeah, okay, that's like, that's a kernel of a story there. And so I even you know, I'm writing other things, but I'm constantly thinking about okay, what's the next story? It is one of the great things about doing a series is that you don't have to start over at square one. You say okay, I already have these characters. I already set up the world. Now what's the next thing I can move on to and what would be fun?

Charity 10:32 That makes sense. I'm also curious, I always love to know people's stories and how they figure out how they came to do what they do. So I did see on your website, where you say, you've always wanted to be a writer. When did you know or how did you know that you wanted to write for kids?

Stuart Gibbs 10:48 That actually came pretty late. I knew that I had always, as you said, there's no point in my life where I did not know that I wanted to be a writer. I was writing stories all the time as a kid, and then trying to get books published, you know, as early as, you know, elementary school and a pile of rejection. I didn't actually save them because they're awful. I don't keep my rejection letters. So I was, you know, but I was thinking all along. You know, when I was a kid, I probably was thinking like, I'll write for other kids. But as I became an adult I thought, okay, well, I'm gonna write for adults. I should note while I was getting all these books rejected, I found that there were other ways to work as a writer. So I started working for a newspaper when I was in college. I ended up moving out to Hollywood and working in writing movies and television. But the whole time, I was thinking that it would be nice to try a book at some point again, and I was represented by an agency for my screenwriting, my television, and asked if I could talk to an agent there in the book division. And that agent, who's still my agent to this day, this is about 13 or 14 years ago, called me up and said, you know, I've been reading all the screenplays you write and have you ever thought about writing books for kids? And I had really sort of put that on the back burner. Like, I really wasn't thinking about that at the time. And the moment she said that, I thought, oh, like, I have all these ideas, and they actually would really work well for kids. And the kids listening now might not recognize that, you know, like, there's just tons of middle grade books for them now, but this is kind of a new phenomenon. And when it was really-when I was approached by I was talking to agents, Harry Potter had been huge and Diary of a Wimpy Kid and, and Percy Jackson were sort of, you know, making publishers realize, oh, kids actually will read books written targeted to their age group. And so I like Belly Up, which was my first book. I knew I wanted to do a mystery set in the zoo. But in my original vision of that book, it was one of the veterinarians, it was an adult solving that crime. And it wasn't till my agent said, oh, could you do something for middle grade? I thought, it's a great crime for a kid to solve because he, you know, sometimes when you're reading a book where kids are in crime, you're like, why is this kid not calling the police? I thought, oh no, he would call the police. He'd say somebody murdered the hippo and the police wouldn't take him seriously and then he'd have to go off and investigate this himself. So that was sort of the beginning of this. And then once I had sort of done the first one, I thought, like, this is what I should be doing. I shouldn't be writing for adults, I should be writing for kids.

Jen 13:41 As he's talking about the kid getting to be the hero in his stories, as I read his books, I'm always like, are you inspired by some of the Malalas or Gretas or Daniels of the world that are out there, like fighting the fight and trying to make adults understand? Like, we have some really courageous youth right now.

Stuart Gibbs 14:04 Yeah. Well, I mean, you know, there is this thing, though that you know, people like Malala or Greta actually can speak to the world in ways that a kid really couldn't have maybe 10 or years ago, maybe even five years ago, to a certain extent. And I know that, my daughter certainly admires Greta, you know, as like a hero to her. So I yeah, I mean, I think it's, it's wonderful, that there are these kids out there who are speaking and giving a voice to this generation, and I think we could probably do well, if we would actually listen a lot more to what they have to say.

Jen 14:49 With the Charlie Thorne series I'm like, this is kind of like Greta getting to skateboard and snowboard. So it's so much fun that you let the smart kids have it all.

Stuart Gibbs 14:59 Well You know I should point out that Charlie was really inspired by me reading about a lot of great scientists and you know, recognizing that you know, I think kids and even adults tend to think of them as old people but usually they did their best work when they were young and if you read about them when they were young, they're not the way people generally think of as geniuses. They were-Einstein was actually quite an athlete and hung out with other physicists and they would go on long hikes and go skiing and Charles Darwin traveled all over South America and was really an adventurer. He was kind of like an Indiana Jones kind of guy. And so I wanted kids to sort of recognize that being smart doesn't mean that you're just, you know, locked up in a room with a computer all the time or that you're a social misfit or that you're not athletic. A lot of really really smart people were really adventurous and athletic and often very funny and you know they weren't social misfits at all. They were incredibly social.

Charity 16:10 I love that representation. I am also curious, so I would consider you-like you know, you're one of the top middle grade authors. I would put you right up there with Riordan and Rowling and you know. How was it for you? Well, can you talk about that time when you realized oh my gosh, my books are really popular. I'm gonna be able to make a living writing for kids. Like this is happening.

Stuart Gibbs 16:39 You know it's kind of been a very slow build. I think, you know, often kids they say, oh, like you've always been famous. I'm like no like really I got some attention but it was really kind of a long build which I'm okay with because, you know, I think there are people who just come out and and they you know hit one out of the park on their first book and now there's a lot of pressure on them to you know, what's the second one going to be? I didn't really have that. I got to kind of just play around and create things but so it wasn't like there was just one day. It's kind of been like this creeping thing of like, you know, there was a period when people would say oh, you know my kids are big fans of your books and I'd be like oh that's that's awesome. You know, that doesn't happen that much and then it's just kind of it's happened more and more and so now right there's a good chance that you know-my daughter's at a new school and all the other kids know who I am and which is, it's like it's a weird thing.

Charity 17:57 Yeah, how does she feel about that? Like all of her classmates know that her dad has written all these books.

Stuart Gibbs 18:04 Sometimes I think she's very proud of it. Sometimes she'll claim to be embarrassed by the whole thing. But I actually only got to meet a lot of these kids the other day because we were finally allowed on a campus for the first time as adults and I don't know it's sweet to have them come up. I mean, I guess there's a part of me that's pleased that you know, kids are excited about authors as opposed to TikTok stars or something like that. Which doesn't mean you can't like TikTok. I mean, I think a lot of the time what my kids are actually most impressed about is not so much me but the fact that I can get to other authors.

Charity 18:53 Oh, that's funny. Okay, so I have kind of a silly question for you. So we talked to Daniel Handler and he told us that he used to keep his manuscripts after he finished a book in the crisper in his refrigerator and I'm curious if you have any funny things or quirks like that as a writer?

Stuart Gibbs 19:13 Well I need my crisper. Is he not eating vegetables? I do think there is a thing about this fear like everything is so digital and you worry that it will be lost. So I do all these notes on yellow pads and I do have all my notes like stacked up. For what? I don't know. So someday I can go back through them.

Charity 19:43 So, wait, you just keep them like for all of your books?. You have all the notes?

Stuart 19:47 Yes, yes. I have stacks of notes. And right, why am I holding on to them? I don't know. They're not in the crisper. They're just piled up, right up there. Piled up on top of my desk.

Charity 20:04 Oh that is so great. You can leave them to like a university.

Stuart Gibbs 20:06 I guess so, right, yes.

Charity 20:07 The next generation will have them.

Jen 20:11 This question isn't as fun as that one but as you were talking as Charity was mentioning you know what a famous author you are. I was reading I think on your blog that you do read reviews and I loved that blog post. It's a recent one too guys, it's on the top, about your advice for writing reviews. So can you like-especially the no spoilers,guys?

Stuart Gibbs 20:40 Oh right, right. Well because I have all this interaction with-I mean, a lot of my blog posts are driven by like I'm getting the same response or input over and over from kids in the comments and there's nothing that drives them crazier than a spoiler. And people do just go onto websites and just bloom and just write the whole-and there's no reason for that. And I have this whole thing where I'll tell the kids like, you know, don't, just don't read them. Don't go on and like read the reviews because there's going to be spoilers. And like some kid will write and be like, there's this person and they spoiled everything. And then eight other kids will write, like, I wasn't going to read it but then I read it and they ruined everything. Well why did you read it? I have the same thing where I refuse to read movie reviews of movies that I want to see because even professional critics blow things all the time. I even don't read the flap copy on books because I am afraid that even the flap copy will ruin some of the surprises. So I know that this is something that just upsets my fans so much. But then kids were also writing comments where they were putting like, even writing spoiler alert, that doesn't count. Like, just don't write the spoiler. There's a thing, I guess, where, like, there are definitely people who go out and there are people who do it by accident because they don't know. And then there are people who blatantly go on-

Jen 22:18 The trolls.

Stuart 22:20 Right. I think like, they're just like, they want to be like, look, I read the book first and I finished it and so I'm telling you what the ending is. I actually went to a school once. And, you know, I was doing the signing afterwards. And the teachers came up and were like, give me this stack of books for kid who wasn't there. And I said, you know, is this kid sick? And they're like, no, he's not sick. You know, he's your biggest fan but he's not here today. I was like, why is he not here? And they said, because we told everybody you can't spoil the books for everybody else. Everybody's trying to read them. And this kid just blatantly like blew through the books. And so we punished him by telling me he had to stay home today.

Charity 23:02 Oh, wow.

Stuart Gibbs 23:04 And I was like, I think I agree with that. That kid is never gonna do this again.

Charity 23:12 Yeah, he will never do that again. So Stuart Gibbs' advice. Do not read the reviews. Yeah, I feel so vindicated, though, because Jen and I talked about this on a previous episode, neither one of us read reviews before we read a book because I don't want my opinion to be influenced by other people's. So I think that's great advice.

Jen 23:32 And a lot of times like if a movie's coming out and I've been putting the book off I'm like, oh, I've got to read this book real fast.

Stuart Gibbs 23:40 Yeah, right. Yes. So my own pet peeve that I go on about in that blog post is, which is not something kids do, it's something adults do all the time, because you only get five stars and they'll say like, four stars only right? Oh, but it's really four and a half. And I'm like, round up. It costs you nothing. Just round up.

Jen 24:00 Round up and then kind of probably more for the parents I'm guessing, if you don't like the subject matter, don't read the book and don't review it. Like review a book based on the book and the writing, not subject matter.

Charity 24:15 Yeah.

Stuart Gibbs 24:17 So those are-that's my pet peeve. But the whole spoiler thing I'm looking out for my fans.

Jen 24:25 That sounds like a good villain, like a villain in one of your stories.

Charity 24:27 That spoils the endings of things.

Stuart Gibbs 24:32 Yes, that'd be a great thing right? It's a great way to introduce a villain that they just post spoilers on websites all the time.

Charity 24:38 Well, we're gonna start wrapping it up. But I've got one more question. What are you reading Stuart Gibbs? Who do you like?

Stuart Gibbs 24:47 Now I have friends who write middle grade. I actually and often get to read things ahead of time. So right now, I'm actually reading a book that's not out yet. Called Area 51 Files by my dear friend Julie Buxbaum, who has written a lot of YA romance but now she's moving into Once Upon a Tim territory too. A girl who-I don't know how much of this I want to say but she basically ends up living at area 51 and it's just hilarious and a tremendous amount of fun. But you know, I count among my dear incredibly talented friends who write great stuff like James Ponti and Christina Soontornvat and Sarah Mlynowski and Karina Yan Glaser and Gordon Korman and Max Brallier who does Last Kids on Earth, just moved in down the street from me.

Jen 25:52 I bet you guys have fun parties.

Stuart Gibbs 25:53 We do, we do. We do have author hangouts these days. So yeah. So there's a great thing. But then I because I just read a book, I even think, you know, kids of a certain age, I just read this book called The third Pole, which is about, like, trying to solve a mystery about one of the first Everest expeditions. It's a true story involving finding modern technology and mystery solving. And actually, they're on Mount Everest so it's telling a mountain climbing story and telling history, and I was like, wow, this book is so much fun. Can I do something set on Mount Everest at some point?

Charity 26:35 Oh, that will be awesome. Well, Stuart, we just can't thank you enough for being with us this afternoon. This has been such an enjoyable and enlightening conversation. Thank you so much for being here.

Stuart Gibbs 26:49 Thank you so much for having me. Thank you for all the hard work you do getting kids excited about reading. And I know this isn't the easiest time. There have been some very tough times lately, you know, getting kids into libraries and providing access to the community so thank you so much for doing that.

Jen 27:11 If you want to escape all of the craziness, his books are funny, they're fast paced, their page turners, and basically thrillers.

Charity 27:20 They're great reads.

Jen 27:22 if you like one, you're gonna like the rest of them.

Charity 27:26 Exactly. And be sure and check out his website, where you can see everything that's getting ready to come out so you can stay on top of his new releases. You can see videos that he's done. And also you can get merch, which I think is super exciting. And so if you love the cover art for his books, which I do, you can get t shirts and tote bags and things. So check out his website for all of that good stuff. Thanks for joining us for another episode of the Planet Book podcast. Check out the library's website at for these and other great book recommendations. And follow us on Facebook for the latest news and events. This has been a production of the Springfield-Greene County Library District. Thanks for listening.

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