Season 4, Episode 15
The King of Middle Grade Thrillers: A Conversation with Alan Gratz
April 21, 2022
Alan Gratz, best-selling, award winning author, joins the podcast for an in depth conversation about his books, writing, and fandoms. 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 0:04 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. Jen and I are back with another great episode for you. And today we are super happy to be joined by popular, celebrated, award winning, best selling children's author Alan Gratz. He's the author of 17 novels for young people including Refugee, Allies, Ban This Book. His newest book is Ground Zero. He is the winner of all kinds of state awards. Welcome to the podcast Alan Gratz.
Alan Gratz 0:48 Thank you so much. I'm glad to be here, Charity, Jennifer. It's great to meet you guys.
Charity 0:51 When I was getting ready for this interview I went to your website. Planet Bookers check out his website AlanGratz.com. Find out all the latest and greatest that he's up to. It said that Refugee has been on the bestseller list for over two years. I looked at it yesterday. It is currently number five on the children's bestseller list. We're going on almost three years. What does that feel like to have a book that has been so well received and loved by so many readers?
Alan Gratz 1:18 It's really amazing. It's so gratifying, you know. It was my 13th book, Refugee. And I had never hit the bestseller list before that. And I felt like I was maybe close to that, you know. You can see a lot of the bookselling world is kind of a mystery like you kind of know how many books you sold in a week, but you kind of don't, and you only get statements every six months or so. So but but we kind of felt like we were close, you know, my publisher, and I thought we were close to me getting on the bestseller list. And I spent a lot of time that week that Refugee came out, traveling across my own state, North Carolina, to try and get the word out about the book, visiting bookstores and visiting small communities and talking about refugees, the current refugee crises in the world, but also this book. And I was super lucky that my book just peeked up on the bestseller list that next week, I think at number nine, and then it immediately dropped off. And I was like, well, that's it though, for forever. I am now a New York Times bestselling author, Alan Gratz, you can print it on every book, it doesn't matter how long you're on there, it doesn't matter how high you get, you hit there once and you're a New York Times bestseller. And so it stayed off for a little while. And then a couple weeks later, it popped back up. That was a surprise. Now I was doing a lot of school visits. So it came out over the summer, and then I started doing school visits again in that fall. And so that picked up and more attention brought more attention to the book. And then there was a time like starting the next January after that. It came out I think in July of the previous year, when it popped up on the list and kind of started to stay there. And it was amazing. I was still doing school visits. I'm still doing a lot of talking about it but I wasn't doing anything different really than I had been in the fall. And what was happening though, was that people were finding the book and they were talking about it and they were sharing it with friends. And they were sharing it with if they were teachers, their students, they were reading it in the classroom. And really, that book has really taken on a life of its own. I still talk about it, I still do presentations about it and talk to kids about it. But really, it's the people who've discovered that book and loved it. And who've said to their friends or family or students and they said you've got to read this, read this, read this. And so that's been the most amazing thing for me is that it's a ball that's rolling now without me pushing it. And I love that it's been so embraced by so many people. The whole reason I wrote that book was to try and open people's hearts and minds to the plight of refugees past and present and all over the world. And to me, its continual presence on that list and on state awards lists, as you mentioned at the outset, is just a testament to like I did it. Like, that's what I set out to do. And I think at least in that one respect, I've done it. People are talking about it and I think it's helping to change minds. And that's all I really wanted to do with it in the first place.
Charity 4:20 Did you have any sense when you were writing Refugee that there was something special about it? You know, was there anything that you thought, okay, this, this might really be a hit?
Alan Gratz 4:31 So yeah, sure. So as I was writing it, of course, there were a lot of timely things about it. The Syrian refugee crisis was in full swing. The Syrian civil war began a few years before I wrote that book, and I was watching on the nightly news every day the you know, about the plight of the refugees trying to get somewhere safe, whether it was within their own country, or leaving their country and trying to get across the Mediterranean or into Europe. And so I felt like it was certainly timely. But then it was so strange a lot of things about the other stories became super timely as well. So while I was writing it, so of course, it has three stories in it for your listeners who haven't read it. One of them is a story about the MS St. Louis, leaving with Jewish refugees in 1939, from Nazi Germany trying to get to Cuba. The second story is about a couple of Cuban families trying to leave Cuba in the 1990s on a border raft, to get to Florida. And the third story is about a Syrian family leaving Syria on foot due to the Syrian civil war, trying to get to Germany and freedom and safety there in what was then the present day and still kind of works for the present day. And to me, that was the one story that was the hardest, because that was the story that was changing, a real life event that was changing as I wrote the book. But then as I was finishing the book, all kinds of other things were happening. The wet foot dry foot policy that the United States has had in place for Cuban immigrants and refugees was ending. And so it didn't affect my story, which was set in the 90s but I was changing my author's note, like literally at the last moment to update that. And we also had the death of Fidel Castro and Raul Castro had taken control of the country and there was an opening of relations. We had airplanes and cruise liners stopping in Cuba and people visiting there for the first time in a long time and that was changing. So I'm rewriting that part of the book. And then the one part of the book I thought was never going to be changed, never gonna change the 1930s part, which I thought was a done system. It is that that moment was set in stone. But because the United States and Canada both turned away the MS St. Louis back in 1939. That's been a shameful thing that we have regretted ever since. And both the United States and Canada both formally apologized for turning the MS St. Louis away while I was writing this book. So all three of the stories felt incredibly timely. And of course, at the same time, we had a new president in the United States. And we had the election in November when I was finishing the book. And then the book was due to come out in October of what would this be, I guess, 2019. And Donald Trump had been elected president. And the very first thing he did in January was to forbid the immigration of anybody from like, he literally had a list of, of Muslim countries and said, we're not taking any more refugees or immigrants from these countries, the very first thing he did while he was in office. And so yes, as I was writing this book, all of these things were happening. And the book was originally slated to come out in October of that year, and we moved it up to September, and then we moved it up to July. And then I think we moved it up to June. I think it actually came to that coming out in June, because it just felt like a book of the moment. And we were so desperate to get the book out while people were talking about all this. And of course, it ends up that we're still talking about it. But we wanted to jump on all this in that moment. And so yeah, I didn't know if it would be a big book or not but it certainly was a book of its moment.
Charity 8:17 It's almost like the universe conspired to help you tell that story. You write a lot about real life events. So you know, so you've got the book about refugees, you've written about World War Two and concentration camps. And then your newest book is talking about Afghanistan, and 9/11. These are all really hard topics, and you write for kids, but what I've always loved about your writing is that you handle those topics so gracefully and authentically, but you never talk down to kids. And I'm wondering where that approach comes from, how you developed kind of that voice?
Alan Gratz 8:55 Sure. You know, for me, part of it goes back to when I was a kid, and I picked up books that were written for me. I always go back to one book that had a real big impact on me when I was in seventh grade. I read Natalie Babbitt's Tuck Everlasting and it was because it was for school. We were assigned it in class. But I read that book. And look, it's very different from the kind of books I write. Tuck Everlasting, for those who don't know, is a story about a family that lives forever. They've found a magic spring in the mountains, they drank from it, they didn't know what it was, and now they don't die. And there's a lot of conversations in that book about the cycle of life and how it's important for things to live and then die so that new things can take their place and that if everything lived forever that cycle would be broken. So to back up a little bit I as a kid, though, was scared to death of dying, if you'll forgive the pun. I was so preoccupied with my own mortality that I would not fall asleep at night because I was afraid I would die in my sleep and I was so scared of dying. Like as soon as I understood that I was mortal I was just like, nope, I'm out on that, like, I don't want to die. And so it was a frustrating thing for my parents who'd be like Alan go to sleep, you're not going to die asleep. And I'd be like, but what if, what if? I was super focused on this, and then I read this book, and it's all about the cycle of life and dying. Now look, Tuck Everlasting, did not change my mind, I still don't want to die. I'm still like, if anybody knows the secret of living forever, tell me. But it was the first book that I read as a kid that talked to me, not like it was an adult but talked to me in a serious way about a serious issue that I was dealing with. This was an author who said, I hear you, I see you, I know that you're struggling with this. And here's my take on it. Now, just because I didn't entirely agree with her take. But it was the first time that I read a book and said, oh, my gosh, somebody else is worried about this or is thinking about this as much as I am. And I've always remembered that feeling that she didn't talk down to me. She wrote that very straightforward. Here's the way things are, you know, she doesn't sugarcoat anything. And so I have really tried to be that same kind of writer for young people today as an adult. Look, I do write about a lot of tough stuff I've written about, as you say, the Holocaust, and refugees and, terrorism and war. And I feel like to sugarcoat any of those situations is to do a real injustice to the people who went through those things, whether they survived or whether they died. But also it does a disservice to the readers who want to know the truth about a situation. So I've always strived to be as honest about a situation in the past as I can for young readers. The only concession that I make knowing that I write for middle grade readers for ages eight, nine and up, is that I try not to go into the graphic details of some things. I try not to get too gory in the things where if I were writing for adults, I might go all in on that. And I might really lay out what you're seeing. But I already push things as far as I can. I don't shy away from that. But my editor and I work really carefully to find that really fine line between what's too much and what's too little. And to me, the way that works is if I tell you the bad stuff that happens and then the kids who are more mature, or more worldly, they can fill in the blanks. And a kid who's less mature, a little bit more naive, maybe not ready for that yet, can understand what happened without having to see the mental image of that. And then later as they get older and more mature, they can understand oh, okay, that's what that, like I understand the extent of that now. So it's always important to me to tell the truth and be as honest about a time and a place as I can. But I just-the one concession I make is to pull back a little bit on the details, so that it's not right there on the page, and that you have to read that part.
Jen 13:05 Fiction is a great way to digest history. Like I am not a history buff, though, as I mature, I'm more of a history buff. Reading his account of 9/11 I understood aspects-like there's a cave scene, and it allowed me to understand just how long Afghanistan has been dealing with some stuff. And I don't think I digested that. So fictional accounts of history can be a really good way for kids to be able to, like picture it, and hang on to it in a way that if they're just reading numbers and battles,--
Alan Gratz 13:41 I totally agree. And one of the things that I really think about when I write historical fiction is that I'm not writing a textbook, right? There's a part of me, that historian, part of me wants to put everything on the page, here's all the stuff you need to know. But of course, I can't do that and make it an entertaining and compelling story. So what I have to remember is to show just enough context to where you understand the history of the situation. But then it's really important for me to then focus on the characters and their independent struggles within that larger context. Here's a kid trying to help out at D day. Here's a girl trying to survive in her village when the United States and the Taliban use it as a battlefield. Here's a kid trying to survive in the Twin Towers after a plane hits it. And he may not understand the entire context. Most of us didn't that day, until days later did we really understand the whole context of what was going on. In the moment he's just trying to survive and to try and help his dad survive too. And so to me, part of what it means to write historical fiction is to take a time and a place, a historical event and separate it out from those, as you say, the dates and the numbers. You know, I can tell you that 6 million Jews died in the Holocaust but if I tell you the story of one Jewish kid, if I tell you the story of Yanek Gruener who survived 10 different Nazi concentration camps, which I do in Prisoner-B 3087, based on a true story of Yanek Gruener, then I can make you care so much more about that one kid than a number. And it helps you put that number into context and then care for the larger group of people who suffered or died in a situation. But it starts with caring about that individual character, putting a face and a name to statistics.
Jen 15:31 Would you mind because, again, the newest book, Ground Zero is so timely. I mean, even reading it, I'm crying in parts that I probably wouldn't have cried in, if I'd read it in January. Can you give listeners a brief description of that book, so maybe they'll go check it out and, and get to understand what's going on so much better?
Alan Gratz 15:55 Totally. So Ground Zero is the story of two different kids in two different times in two different parts of the world. It's first a story of Brandon, he's nine years old, and he gets in trouble at school. He got in trouble for defending a friend against a bully, and now he's suspended. So he has to stay home, but he can't stay home because he only lives with his dad. So he has to go into work with his dad that morning. And his dad happens to work at Windows on the World, the restaurant at the very top of the North Tower of the World Trade Center, and it's September 11, 2001. And Brandon is in the north tower, when the first plane hits the World Trade Center, and has to try and survive and like I said find a way to help his father survive too. The second story is the story of 11 year old Reshmina. She is an Afghan girl, she lives in a village in South East Afghanistan and she hopes to one day become a translator or perhaps a teacher, her English skills are really good. So she's excited when some American soldiers come to her village for the very first time. But then she encounters her own version of 9/11 when her village becomes a battleground between the United States and the Taliban. And she and her family ended up taking one of the wounded American soldiers into their home to protect him. But her brother, her twin brother, Pasoon blames the United States for their older sister's death and a drone attack. And he runs off to tell the Taliban that they're harboring an American soldier, and she has to go and try and stop him, or else the Taliban will come back and kill the American soldier and likely everybody else in the village. So and I weave both of these stories together so you get chapters from one, chapters from Brandon and chapters from Reshmina. So you can see the parallels in their stories. And then, of course, at the end, much like Refugee, I find a way to connect both of these characters across the decades that separate them and the 1000s of miles and separate them. I don't want to spoil that though. In case people haven't read the book, I want them to go and read it. But it was important to me to tell the story, not only of 9/11, so that young readers can understand what happened that day, but also to show something in the present day to show how the world has changed in the 20 years since then.
Charity 18:05 That book was so intense. I don't think I was ready for how intense some of the scenes are. And Jen and I were talking earlier that because of your approach, you don't talk down to kids, your writing feels really sophisticated for middle grade. So I feel like Ground Zero especially is one that even adults could read and get something out of it and participate in that story. One of the things I'm curious about you do write so much in your books about kids in other countries, other cultures, like Reshmina who's in Afghanistan in Ground Zero. How do you research that and do it justice? Because when we're following Reshmina in Ground Zero, like I feel-I've never been to Afghanistan, but I feel like I'm right there. How do you get that into your books?
Alan Gratz 18:59 Oh, cool. Thanks for saying that. And it is difficult anytime I write. And I've written about a lot of different kids from different places in different times. And it's always difficult to do that. Because no matter how much I read, no matter how much I learn, I will never know as much as a person who is from that community from that time and from that place. I go into every story that I tell knowing that I will never be an expert on this. I will never know as much as a person who's actually from this community. What I have to do is just do as much research as I can and go beyond the event. So I need to know about their religion. I need to know about what kind of food they eat. I know I need to know about what kind of clothes they wear. I need to know about what stories they tell. What kind of music do they listen to? In some ways it's a never ending rabbit hole that you go down and you want to keep learning more and more and more. And I have to stop at some point and say, that says I've got a book to write. I've got us and create this character in this world. And so I do as much research as I can on the front end to learn about a community. And of course, no one character can represent an entire community. So it has to just be a person who would exist within that world. Not an exception, and not the most stereotypical person who would be inside that community. So there's a lot of moving parts to this. In the case of Reshmina for example, I was watching documentaries that focused on the lives of kids in Afghanistan. And because we had been at war in Afghanistan, we were at war for almost 20 years, so there was a lot of information that was being brought back to the United States, through journalism and documentaries, and that sort of thing to talk about this place where we had been fighting a war for 20 years. So I had a lot of access to that because of my work with UNICEF, because of Refugee I work a lot with UNICEF. And because of my work with them, I was able to call them up and say, hey, do you have a team in Afghanistan? They were like, of course, and so they put me in touch with the team there and I talked via Zoom with the folks in Afghanistan who were on the ground helping young people like Reshmina. This was back when I was writing the book two or three years ago, but it was during the war in Afghanistan and during the moment that I was writing about this character would have been in my story. So I tried to get as much information as I can there, do my due diligence. Will I know everything? No. Will I make mistakes? Undoubtedly. I do my best. And then we have other readers come in on the back end, who are from those communities. And again, no one person, no one reader can know everything or represent everything about a community. So I'm not asking the you know, the the people we had who are Afghan who read the book to be like it, I can't, say like, if I got something wrong, well, I had one Afghan reader, and they said it was okay, like that doesn't count, you know, so I can't do that. But I get as much information as I can. On the front end. We try to talk to people from those communities and show them the book before it's published on the back end. And I take those notes, and I try to change things. You know, I learned in Refugee, one of the big nice things for me was, I read a ton about the Cuban refugees who'd come over to the United States, both in the 80s and the 90s and ever since then, of course, we have a lot of folks here in the United States to talk to because we have a lot of Cuban Americans who've made that journey. I listened, I read a lot of their accounts, I watched documentaries, we ran it by somebody else who was Cuban American afterward, and they said, oh, you've got them talking about going to America, but we don't refer to the United States as America. To us America is all of the Americas like we're America, North America is America, Central America is America, South America is America. They're like we call America or what you call America, either the United States, or more colloquially, El Norte. It's the North. And he said, sometimes we say El Norte for Miami, sometimes we say El Norte for the whole United States. But that's what we would call it, that's what people on this raft would call it. And so it was like, oh, my gosh, this is amazing. And I went back and I took out all the America references, and I put in EL Norte. Why did I not know that? Because all the dozens of books of documentaries and things that I'd watched and read, nobody said that. And so I'm going to miss things like that. It's me just trying to find as many different sources in as many different ways as I possibly can so that I get as much of that right. And then and then hope that I've done a service to that community. So far, I've gotten great responses from like the Okinawans who've read Grenade and the Cuban Americans who've read Refugee and from Afghan Americans who've read Ground Zero. So to me it's just trying to do my best to, and also this the big thing, separating myself from the character, not writing as a middle class white American guy, but instead taking a look at this character and saying, who is Reshmina and how would she really feel about the United States, for example? She has very complicated feelings about the United States as she should. Right and looking at my country through her eyes. It's not the same nearly as looking at it through my eyes. And so I have to be really careful to see the world through other people's eyes. And I hope that empathy that I put on the page is something that translates to the kids who read it.
Charity 24:30 I think it absolutely is.
Alan Gratz 24:32 And I hope that the kids, it's not just the kids reading it, I really do hope this is one that you say, hey, mom, dad, can you read this? Can we talk about this? I think you need to read it too.
Jen 24:46 And as Charity said, I do have a lot of adult readers, people who mostly come to the books through their kids or kids in their lives. I've had grandparents who come to me and said so my grandson brought me this book and said I had to read it or a parent who says that or sometimes teachers say I was introduced to your books through a kid who read it from the library and then said, you've got to read this. And that's been really amazing is that kids are reading my books and then recommending them to the adults in their lives, because they want to have conversations about them. And that's absolutely what I want. I want Ground Zero to be a conversation starter. It's not the final word on 9/11. My gosh, no way. There's no way. It's not the final word on the war in Afghanistan. I don't know everything. I pose more questions usually than answers. And so I'm hoping that those questions lead to a lot of really terrific conversations between kids and adults and that my books are as entertaining for adults as they are for young readers.
Charity 25:45 That's awesome. Yeah, I think you totally achieve that. Your representations never feel-they never feel stereotypical. They always feel really authentic. And that's just a testament to the work you're doing. I want to switch gears just a little bit because one of your other books, I guess I hadn't even heard about it until we had scheduled this and Jen was like, did you know that he wrote this? Ban This Book.
Alan Gratz 26:08 Yeah, my quiet little hidden book that not a lot of people don't know about.
Charity 26:12 And I love that one because as a kid, and I still love this book, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler is one of my favorite books of all time. And it's featured so prominently in that book. Why did you choose that book to feature?
Alan Gratz 26:29 First of all, Ban This Book just to give you a little bit of a story about how this kind of my secret book-
Charity 26:30 Yes, tell us all about it.
Alan Gratz 26:31 First of all, it's not from Scholastic and so it doesn't have a black and white and red cover the way that all of my Scholastic books do. And so if you're looking at a shelf full of Alan Gratz books, and you see all the black and white and red covers, it doesn't stand out to you. It stands out. But it doesn't match the others.
Charity 26:47 Yeah, it doesn't look like any of those books.
Alan Gratz 26:48 Right. And it came out from a different publisher, and it came out the same year as Refugee. This was a total accident, I did not intend that. I had sold Ban This Book to this publisher a couple of years before that, or a lot earlier than Refugee, but they worked at a slower pace than the publisher of Refugee, Scholastic. So it turned out that they were both on this collision course. At first to both publish in the same month, and I was like, no guys you're killing me. I can't I can't get out and talk about two books at once. It ended up as I said, that Refugee ended up getting moved up earlier into the summer anyway, but I think maybe Ban This Book came out in something like August, so it was just a month later or something like that. And it quickly got overshadowed by Refugee, which is, as we talked about at the outset, has just been this juggernaut all by itself. And so yes, Ban This Book is a story that's kind of near and dear to my heart. I loved the idea of trying to tackle censorship, but not in a-so a lot of my books, as we've talked about, my more recent books have a lot of really tough stuff in them, you know, the real big heavy life or death kind of stuff. And this is not a story with life or death situations. You know, nobody gets beat up. You know, nobody dies in this book, you know, it's not like my other books that have got all this harder stuff in them. I kind of call it a-whereas I call my other books, social thrillers, I call this one a social caper.
Charity 28:17 Oh, yeah, that's great.
Alan Gratz 28:18 Right? It's just kind of a little bit lighter. And it's the story of a fourth grade girl named Amy Anne Ollinger who goes to a school where a parent starts challenging, and then banning books, getting them removed from the library. And so as a protest, she takes those books and hides them in her locker and starts checking them out to other kids in secret as a banned book locker library, and then gets into a little bit trouble for that. And I had a ton of fun with this book. It celebrated a lot of the books that I remembered from my own childhood, like the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. That was a book I always loved partially because I myself, like I read that book and of course, in that book, the kids run away and they stay in a museum. I grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee. We didn't have a museum like that in New York. We didn't have public transit. So I was like, how could I do this myself? I was like, I'll have to take a taxi because there's no buses. And I was trying to figure out how much a taxi would cost and it was like, and I'll have to go to the mall because we don't have a museum like that and I'll sleep on the beds at Sears and I'll get food at the food court during the day. Like in my head as a kid I tried to imagine that I was those characters. But since I wasn't in New York City, like those characters, I didn't have public transit and these amazing museums I was like how would I translate that to Knoxville, Tennessee. Thankfully, I never tried to act on that, didn't try to get a taxi and go and try and hide out in the mall bathrooms overnight. That would have been a book all by itself. But that book stuck with me and it was one that I really loved. And then when I had read when I started thinking about how to tackle a book about censorship I actually wrote to the American Library Association. They do a whole bunch of amazing work every year to highlight censorship and to talk about books that have been banned, and to help educators and librarians around the country deal with those challenges and to overcome those challenges. And they put out every year, or maybe every couple of years, a big old book about banned books. And they list every book that they know has been banned since the beginning of books, basically, and how many challenges it's had and where it was challenged. And so I sent off for that book from the ALA, and I used a lot of its resources on how to combat censorship. And a lot of that stuff comes through with the librarian, Mrs. Jones in that book, but also, I used it as a resource to look at what books had actually been challenged. And so in Ban This Book, all the books that the parents are challenging and banning are books that were actually challenged and banned in the United States over the past 30 years, including From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, which was criticized for the gambling and the lying, like he gambles to make money on the bus, plays cards with some kids, they lie about going to the museum, they steal money from the fountain, you know, where people are throwing coins in the fountain. There were all kinds of reasons that somebody had challenged us like, oh, this is all really bad behavior on the part of kids. And one of the things that jumped out at me, of course, is that once you find something wrong with one book, once one person finds one thing wrong with one book and gets it banned, or challenged or banned, then that opens the door for everybody to find something wrong with a particular book they don't like and get it challenged or banned. And what's the end result? We have no books on the library shelves. And so it was, I say, fun. But it was a little fun to go through here and look at all these wacky challenges and say like, oh, like, how can I expose how wacky this is? How can I expose just how what a slippery slope this is that once you start banning one book, you can ban them all? And so I had a lot of fun writing that story. I set it here in North Carolina, which is where I live and again, nobody gets beat up, nobody dies.
Charity 32:08 Nobody dies.
Alan Gratz 32:09 Yeah, the stakes are pretty low. But it is about kids seeing injustice in their local community, and speaking up about it. And I think that that's something that no matter what the problem is, whether it's a huge, like climate change, you know, kind of like this is wrecking our world and our future kind of thing down to, like, we need more bins for recycling, you know throughout our school. What, no matter the scale of the problem we're seeing kids who are becoming activists today and speaking up and telling people, they're not going to take it anymore and they want changes and they want a better world for themselves. And so that book kind of taps into that spirit.
Charity 32:50 Yeah, that's such a great message, for sure.
Jen 32:53 And the way the kids get to see the humanity of the opposition. Yeah, such a great structure for how to solve something. This book is so good. And it's so funny.
Alan Gratz 33:07 Thanks. I was gonna say it was really important to me that the people who are challenging and banning the books are not mustache twirling villains. I'd like to think of people who ban books as villains, you know, I've written books about the Hitler Youth who were out burning books and I feel like it's kind of akin to that. So it was really fighting my own instinct to vilify these people entirely. But I think a lot of times, when you look at the motivations of some of the folks who are challenging and banning books, sometimes it really is villainous. And we've seen, like in Pennsylvania, where clearly that there were book challenges and bandings happening surely for racist reasons. I mean, that was very clear, when you looked at the authors and the subjects of those books. But a lot of other times somebody is genuinely thinking, I'm trying to protect children, like they read one, or maybe they read one of my books, and they say, oh my gosh, there's so much violence, and there's so much horror in this. I want to protect the innocence of children and not have them read this until they're older. Okay. So their intention is that they want to protect children. And I think that's a noble idea to protect children. I didn't want my daughter reading books that were too mature for her when she was younger. That was my decision. As I say in the book, nobody has the right to tell you what you can and can't read except your parents. That's totally a parental decision. It's when somebody else's parents start weighing in and telling my kid what they can and can't read that that problem happens. But so I wanted to make sure that I didn't just make it sound like every person who has a problem with a book is some awful villain. They need to understand that book banning and challenging is not the answer. They're still human beings.
Jen 34:47 The way that you also show that they want to ban these books to protect these children but those books are the ones that save certain children, and that's why they're out there.
Alan Gratz 34:58 Right and well and they don't even have to-and that was another thing I really wanted to get into the book. The book doesn't have to have a quality like there's always this argument that has to be a certain number of stars or won a Newbery and that's why we can't ban it. No, no, it doesn't matter. A book can just be totally fun and off the wall, it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter how many starred reviews a book gets, doesn't matter how many awards a book gets, no book should be taken off the shelf period. And we can't use like quality as a reason. Because who defines that? Who says that Captain Underpants, which hasn't won an ALA award, is any worse or any better than Charlotte's Web? I mean, they're both very different books and both great, but they're totally different. And if you say well, Gog Man has never won any awards, so we can totally get rid of that one. It's like well, but that's not its purpose. Its purpose is to entertain and make kids readers.
Jen 35:55 Yeah and the kids are reading it. And that's an important part.
Charity 35:58 Yeah, it's speaking to someone out there.
Alan Gratz 36:01 Right. Those books are some of the most banned books every year in the United States, the Captain Underpants books. So not Dog Man. I guess Captain Underpants I went a little too recent for Dave there. And I got to use Dave Pilkey in the book. I wanted to have some authors show up to talk about their books and to talk about book banning and challenging and I knew that Dave had gone through that a lot. And I've never met him in person, but I wrote him into the book and then we approached we knew I couldn't just use him without talking to him. So my editor found his editor and we started talking back and forth and Dave was super cool and let me use him as an actual character in the book which was just awesome because he's a hero.
Charity 36:43 That's great. Well I've always thought the funny thing about banning books is that once you ban it of course everybody's gonna go out and read it.
Alan Gratz 36:49 Right oh, that's the other side of it right which I play with that too. Of course once the community group starts to ban these books, every kid at school wants to read them. So there's one guaranteed way to get a kid to read a book and that's tell them they can't read it.
Charity 37:05 Absolutely. Well as we wrap up here, we wanted to again switch gears just a little bit so on your website AlanGratz.com you've got kind of all the normal things that authors do: your books and your bio, but then you have another section on there.
Alan Gratz 37:22 I know where you're going with this.
Charity 37:23 Yes, and you have this in common with Jen. You are both big fans of cosplay.
Alan Gratz 37:24 Absolutely. Yeah.
Charity 37:26 Jen, take it away. This is your wheelhouse.
Alan Gratz 37:28 No, go for it. What do you do?
Jen 37:30 So on AlanGratz.com you go to costumes, and oh my goodness, they are so impressive.
Alan Gratz 37:39 Thanks.
Jen 37:40 And it's so heartwarming to see you share your child Jo with us because you guys are adorable.
Alan Gratz 37:44 Thanks.
Jen 37:45 And explain to me, it's been hard for us cosplayers and us convention people the past two years, how have you weathered that? And your daughter's in college now, right?
Alan Gratz 37:55 Yeah.
Jen 37:56 At what age did she stop cosplaying with you or does she still do it?
Alan Gratz 38:03 She still does it. We just can't do team up stuff much anymore because she's got her own life going on which is all good. But my family cosplayed together since my daughter was very very small. And like one of our first things was we did a Samurai Jack and Aku from Samurai Jack cartoon which we loved. And one of the great things about that is Aku is this very towering demon, this really tall demon compared to Jack because it can shape change, Aku can. And so we dressed up my daughter. Gosh, I can't remember how old she was, five or six, something like that, maybe even younger than that, but we dressed her up like Samurai Jack and then I got into a very towering Aku costume so that the scale was right. We also used her scale to fun effect when we did Totoro for My Neighbor Totoro. We dressed her up as Satsuki and I was a 16 foot tall Totoro and the scale worked right so I kept trying to play with my daughter's height.
Jen 39:01 The height that Alan gets on these, I mean I had to get my dad to help our Chewbacca. I had my 60 year old something dad play like Force Awakens I think Han Solo. How did you move in that gear? It's so tall.
Alan Gratz 39:20 They were difficult and that one the Totoro was almost the costume that broke our back because like when we got it to the venue because we used to go to Dragon Con in Atlanta, which is a huge fan convention and it has an amazing masquerade contest on its last, next to last evening, I guess or maybe last evening. And the costumes there are amazing and part of the reason my family and I wanted to get involved with it was to be a part of that. We sat in the audience as fans watching these amazing costumes and said we want to be a part of this. We want to contribute to this and so we started coming up with our own costumes and getting up there on stage and performing. My daughter was onstage in front of, you know, 10,000 people at age 5 up there just dancing around in a costume. And she still doesn't love to be on stage. It's not like her number one thing but it really helped her develop those skills to be out in front and on display and to speak up in front of a large group of people. But we started doing that and having a ton of fun. With Totoro almost didn't fit through the door. We were in a huge ballroom, and they had the big double doors that would open and I almost couldn't get that costume through the door. And we had to rent a van just to get it to Atlanta as it wouldn't fit in any of our cars. And my wife told me after that she's like, you're not allowed to make any costumes that don't fit in the car.
Jen 40:38 Oh, that's great.
Alan Gratz 40:39 We would often forget-the first couple of costumes, I forgot to measure our own doors in our house. And I would fix up a costume in the room and realize I couldn't get out of the room.
Charity 40:54 Oh my goodness.
Alan Gratz 40:55 So these are like rookie problems you start to learn quickly, like okay, it has to fit through doors or be able to come apart. But that Totoro costume, I had it set up so that I would hold up a pole and carry it along so that it kind of wobbled and looked like it was walking. So I didn't have to carry that weight the whole time, I had actually built a structure of PVC inside, it was like a big cube so that when I released the weight, it would settle down onto that cube and hold the weight of it around me. So when I was posing for pictures in the hallways, I could just settle in and stand there and I'm not holding any weight, people just taking pictures of it. And then I would lift the pole and walk along whenever I was ready to keep moving.
Charity 41:35 You're also a little bit of engineer.
Alan Gratz 41:37 Yeah, a little bit of an engineer. My wife is a fabric artist. She has a website where she sells quilting and doll patterns. And this is her living and she loves to sew and is really terrific at it. So she would do a lot of the exterior sewing and like costumes if the thing had to have a costume and I would build the foam and the skeleton of it underneath and we made a good team.
Jen 42:03 Well this has been so much fun.
Charity 42:05 Yeah, you've got to go on his website and look at the costume section because they are super impressive.
Jen 42:11 And I just have to say there's a certain amount of irony that like the guy-because you're like one of the most serious in terms of subject matter of authors we've had on so far but you sound like the most fun.
Alan Gratz 42:26 It's tough, but I don't often get to use my sense of humor in my books, because I'm writing about really tough stuff. And so like in Projekt 1065, which is the one about the Hitler Youth that I was referring to earlier, it's about a kid who's aspiring to the Hitler Youth that when I actually got to put some jokes in. I actually got to have a little bit of humor. And I often cite that as my favorite book that I wrote-I love all my books, but I often think of that as my favorite book because I got to put a little bit more of myself into there. I already love history, and I love tackling the serious topics. But there's another side of me too, that likes to joke around and have fun. And so I got to do a lot of that. And I got to do all of that in Projekt 1065 where I don't usually have that chance.
Jen 43:03 You have some great jokes in Ban This Book.
Alan Gratz 43:05 Thanks. I tried to do that, too.
Jen 43:07 You were a middle school teacher. I can see that boy flipping his hair.
Alan Gratz 43:16 Yeah, flipping his hair back. I had that kid in my class who was so focused on his hair. And the girls just loved him.
Charity 43:20 Oh of course.
Alan Gratz 43:21 They were all over that guy. I mean and like nothing else mattered but the hair. I was like, man, I hope you don't end up like me bald one day.
Jen 43:29 Well, you know he will.
Alan Gratz 43:30 I know it.
Charity 43:31 Oh gosh, this has been wonderful. Alan Gratz this has been great. I hope you'll come back. Like if you ever want just want to chat with us again.
Alan Gratz 43:45 I'd love it. You guys are great. And thank you guys so much for sharing my books with young readers and their parents and teachers. That to me-I can write the books but without somebody like you guys to recommend them and to put them into kids hands, nobody would read them. So I really appreciate you guys. Thank you so much.
Charity 44:04 Yeah, thank you for the work you're doing. It's wonderful. Thanks for joining us for another episode of the Planet Book podcast. Check out the library's website at thelibrary.org 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.