If you were going to workshop an idea for a picture book, where would you do it? Maybe in a classroom full of 7-year-olds? This was the stage that author Jon Stahl found himself on when he taught elementary school for 15 years. He got a pretty good idea of what kids liked, but he didn’t actually try out his own ideas—at least explicitly—until he had sketched them out for his first picture book, Dragons Eat Noodles on Tuesdays, a story-within-a-story about two monsters trying to figure out how to tell a fabulous tale that may or may not end well.
“I never shared my writing with my students until this book—it seemed too abstract to just read the words without the images.” But when they saw his drawings, “in color and all!” he says, “they really got excited about it.”
Stahl has since left the classroom, but he continues to focus on literacy through tutoring—and by writing books kids will love.
Q | You taught for 15 years. Why did you go into teaching, and what made you decide to leave?
A | I got into teaching because I always loved elementary school—the colorful classrooms and hallways, the books, and, of course, the teachers. My fifth-grade teacher, Mr. Gosen, was singularly influential on me. He was so creative, so funny, and so smart, and he really let us kids celebrate being us. I tried my best to be an updated version of him when I was a teacher.
I taught fourth grade at a public school for five years and first grade at a private school for 10 years, and my experiences couldn’t have varied more: different ages, different populations, different parent interactions. Yet I value my experiences, students, and colleagues equally.
I left New York to pursue a screenwriting career in Los Angeles, but I taught first grade while making my film career a go. I ultimately decided to leave teaching when I became a stay-at-home dad, a role I couldn’t be prouder of taking on.
Q | You continue to work with kids. Can you tell us about that?
A | I work part time, several days a week, with a terrific nonprofit called Reading Partners. I am a literacy intervention tutor and I work one-on-one with elementary-age kids on their reading. It’s a great program.
Q | Dragons Eat Noodles on Tuesdays is your first picture book. Do you have plans to do more children’s books?
A | Oh, absolutely! I have written more than a dozen other books and am just looking for the right fit. And I’m always working on new stories. I’m also trying my hand at a middle-grade novel that I’m feeling really good about, so we’ll see what happens with that.
Q | How did working with first and fourth graders inform your writing, and vice versa?
A | In the case of Dragons, I used to do these little impromptu “puppet shows” with my first graders where my hands would be the puppets and I would make up a silly conversation or scenario. Like all the best teams (Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, Seinfeld and Costanza), it usually would entail the two characters bickering and arguing, and always—always—one would end up eating the other. Silly stuff, but a surefire hit.
Q | Is humor in storytelling one of the key skills to teach kids?
A | I wish I could say yes, but honestly, that probably would work against the teacher who takes that on. If a kid is a naturally funny writer or person, sure, have at it. But to intentionally try to teach a kid to “write funny” or even inject humor is likely to produce a lot of poop jokes and onomatopoeic sound effects without context.
Q | In Dragons, the characters are trying to figure out how to tell a good tale. How can teachers help kids start their stories?
A | Hmm, that’s a tough one. You want to know a secret? I never liked teaching writing. Eeep! Don’t turn me in! I mean, I loved when kids would write creatively—I always celebrated their writing, “good” or otherwise. But I never found it easy to try to teach kids how to write creative, well-told stories.
I think it’s because I honestly don’t know where a lot of my ideas come from. Don’t get me wrong: I certainly taught writing diligently and with serious purpose. But I just never found it easy or even that enjoyable.
Q | You upend conventions in the book by having a very smart damsel save the young knight. Plus, she’s a kid of color. How important is it to write diverse stories?
A | I want to spread around the credit on that one because having the damsel be a girl of color was my illustrator’s idea. But I loved it, and I think it’s extremely important for the book.
I try to be cognizant of having characters of a variety of backgrounds when I write. And that goes, as well, with having the damsel as the brave one and the knight as cowardly.
Q | The book’s illustrator, Tadgh Bentley, is also a former teacher. Did you two bond over that? Did you work together on the book?
A | I thought that was wonderful when I found out! We actually didn’t know each other prior to working on the book. We share an agent and he put us together. Tadgh is very talented, and I’d love to work with him again.
Q | You have made films as well, including some teacher spoofs and one about a little girl who thinks she is bigger than everyone and everything else. Tell us about that.
A | I am very proud of the films I have made: Bigger Than You was inspired by this precocious first grader I taught. I knew she’d be a good actress based on her wonderful inflection while reading aloud, so I asked her parents if they’d permit me to make the short with her and they said yes. It ended up playing on Channel 13 in New York City three times, which is the channel I grew up watching Sesame Street on!
My comedy, Teechers, was a dream project—a fun spoof on the world of elementary educators. It started as a short film (it won Best Comedy at the 2012 Super Shorts Film Festival in London), and then I shot some more footage and repurposed it as a Web series. I came really, really close to getting it sold, but for a variety of reasons it just didn’t happen.
Most of the Teechers episodes are not really based on my actual experiences as a teacher, but instead are more silly, goofy things I cooked up with my actor friends. It’s mainly for adults, but the episodes I put on my website are kid-friendly. If any educators want to see the episodes not on the website, they should contact me (through the site) and I’ll send them the link!
Photo: Wendy Stahl