The author was interviewed by Scholastic students.
How long have you been writing?
Well, I've been writing since I was sixteen. At first, I wrote mostly short stories and poetry. The first thing I ever had published was a poem about a football game. It was printed in my local newspaper.
What is your favorite book that you've written?
I guess that would be my first published book, Space Station Seventh Grade.
What inspired you to write Maniac Magee?
Actually, there was no particular inspiration – it was time to start a new book, and I thought I'd like to write a book about a kid who was a hero to other kids. That was the starting point. Then I shopped around in my notes and in my head for any ideas that seemed to fit into that original idea.
Will Maniac Magee appear in another book?
I don't have any plans for a sequel, but right now Maniac makes a one-sentence appearance in the early stages of a book that came out before Maniac Magee, called Dump Days.
How many books have you written?
At last count, I've written twenty books, but only sixteen are published. My first four books were not published because nobody wanted them. They were adult books, not kids' books. Now I don't really write for adults or kids – I don't write for kids, I write about them. I think you need to do that, otherwise you end up preaching down. You need to listen not so much to the audience but to the story itself.
Have any of your books ever been turned down by a publisher? What are their titles?
My first four books were never published. Let's see if I can remember their titles. One was called The Shoe, one was The End of the Golden Bears, and another one was called The Corn Goddess. I forget what the other one was called – mercifully.
What was your first book, and how long did it take you to write it?
Let's see – it took about six months to write. I had written three chapters when I got an agent. It took my agent about a year to find the first publisher.
What college did you go to? What did you major in?
I went to Gettysburg College, where the famous Civil War battle was fought. I majored in English. I would've liked to major in writing, but they didn't offer a major in that.
Did you think you would of win one of the Newbery Medals?
No, I can't say that I expected it. It's not something you expect. It's like a gift that's given to you. You don't try to win it.
Where is the one place you want to go the most?
I guess I've already been to the place on the top of my list – that was Egypt. I went to see the pyramids in Egypt, and I even walked in one. I also rode a camel for about twenty seconds! I'd also like to go to Norway. I've always wanted to see the fjords.
Did you ever know someone like Maniac Magee?
To some extent Maniac resembles myself, particularly in reference to his attitude to folks of different races getting along. And his athletic abilities were inspired by an old friend of mine that I grew up with. Basically he's a patchwork of memories and imagination.
What are some of the new books you're working on?
I'm not working on anything right now – I've given myself a sabbatical. I'm doing live chats, and answering mail, and editing manuscripts and speaking at schools. I'm taking a vacation. But there are a couple of books in the works at my publishers' that will be coming out soon. One is a sequel to Tooter Pepperday. It's a chapter book called Blue Ribbon Blues. That should be out next year. My next book will be out in the fall. It's a middle grade novel called Wringer.
Did you ever run away from home and if you did, where did you go?
No, I'm afraid I wasn't the type to run away. As a matter of fact, I got a little uneasy one night when I camped out in the backyard!
What is your favorite food?
Chocolate almond ice cream. Unfortunately, in the interests of health, I can't be eating it all the time!
Were you raised by a black family like the kid in Maniac Magee?
No, but I did play with a lot of African-American kids, and that was part of my inspiration for the theme of the book.
What made you grow up to be a writer?
I seem to have a natural tendency to want to share my own observations and feelings with other people, and writing seems to be the way I'm best equipped to do that.
How long have you been writing?
I started writing when I was sixteen, and I'm fifty-six now, so I guess I've been writing for forty years.
What book was a total breakthrough for you?
Well, I guess I would just say that the first book I had published, Space Station Seventh Grade, was the biggest breakthrough for me. It was just such a thrill after all those years, and having written four books that were unpublished. I was as happy about that first book being published as I was about winning the Newbery Medal.
What book was hardest for you to write?
Maybe my second book, Who Put That Hair in My Toothbrush. That book was inspired by two of our kids, Molly and Jeffrey, who were always fighting. It was difficult because I sometimes had a hard time figuring out how I was going to tell the story, since the chapters alternate back and forth from the point of view of the boy and the girl. It was hard to figure out how to keep the story moving when it was being told from two different point of views.
Besides yourself, who is your favorite author?
My favorite author now is Eileen Spinelli, who happens to live in my house here. She's my wife. I'm lucky enough to be the first one to read her books. My favorite of her books is Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatch.
When I was growing up, I didn't have much choice of favorite authors because I didn't read very much. But I did like an author named Clair Bee. He was a famous college basketball coach. He wrote a series of books about a high school athlete called Chip Hilton. I also had a subscription to Bugs Bunny comic books.
Now I tell kids to read a lot, though. I think that's why Maniac carries a book wherever he goes. It's my way of making up for not reading very much when I was growing up.
Have you ever wanted to change your career?
Not lately, since I've found an audience for my work. When I was the age of most of my readers I wanted to be a baseball player.
Are you going to write any more books in the School Daze series?
No, I think the School Daze series is over now. At least that's what my editors at Scholastic tell me!
What are your current pets, if any?
Sorry to say, I don't have any right now. For the first time in six or seven years, I'm petless. My rat died recently, and about a month ago my chinchilla, Chichi, died. So I don't have any office mates at the moment.
What interests you besides writing?
Oh, well, let's see. Astronomy, travel, and country music.