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Story Monsters Ink magazine
Story Monsters LLC, Publisher
Neil Patrick Harris
Creates a Magical Middle Grade Series
by Melissa Fales photo by Aaron Lippman/Netflix
Neil Patrick Harris is one of the most familiar faces in entertainment, renowned for his work on stage and screen. The Emmy and Tony Award-winning actor is also a consummate host, with numerous televised awards ceremonies under his belt. His 2014 autobiography, Choose Your Own Autobiography, and the premiere book in his new middle-grade book series, The Magic Misfits, were both New York Times bestsellers.
Harris says his first foray into children's books has been more labor-intensive than he anticipated, requiring serious deliberation and reflection. It's one of the side effects of being a conscientious father — his favorite role to date. "I felt such a sense of responsibility," he says. "You're creating a world of entertainment for kids who are starting to read. They're reading on their own for the first time and they're reading your words, your sentences. It made me more cognizant about the vocabulary and new ideas I was introducing."
Harris started out on TV as the precocious teen, Doogie Howser, M.D., but he avoided the pitfalls that snared so many other child stars. After Doogie came to an end in 1993, instead of burning out or fading away, Harris has remained popular and relevant.
Beginning in 2005, his portrayal of playboy Barney Stinson in the long-running show How I Met Your Mother successfully distanced him from the Doogie character, earning him a new generation of fans and multiple Emmy nominations to boot. Harris broke ground when he came out in 2006, not only for becoming one of the first openly gay actors in Hollywood, but also for his ability to continue to convincingly play staunchly straight roles, such as the serial womanizer Stinson.
Harris and his husband, David Burtka have twins — a daughter and a son. "I always assumed I'd have kids someday," Harris says. "Once David and I were solidified in our relationship, it seemed like something we should do before we got too old. We wanted to be able to keep up with our kids on a bike."
Becoming a father affected Harris implicitly. "Parenthood has unquestionably changed me," he says. "As they grow, they learn and they question. It's constantly shifting. You can't rest on your laurels because they're constantly changing, so you have to, too. Just when you've got it all figured out, it totally changes again. It's a constant ebb and flow. I love watching them learn."
Harris says he was inspired to write The Magic Misfits series for his children. "They're just starting to read on their own," he says. "Reading has been such a fundamental part of our daily routine. I wanted to write something they would appreciate as they grow older." He was also inspired to create the books by something else near and dear to his heart. "My love for magic is constant and unbridled," Harris says. "I thought it would be a good way to honor magic and teach magic tricks. Each book also has some hidden codes and other secrets within."
The Magic Misfits tells of the adventures of a young runaway magician named Carter who gathers a somewhat rag-tag group of fellow magicians together — a group of "magic misfits" to stop a gang of conniving carnival workers. "It's a book I would have liked to have read as a kid," Harris says. The second of the four books in the series, aptly called The Second Story, is due out in the fall.
Harris says he thinks most people can relate to the idea of not fitting in or being different in some way, and he hopes readers will discover that The Magic Misfits series is as much about friendship and celebrating differences as it is about magic. "Too often, the interests and differences people have are seen as deficits instead of strengths," Harris says. "I thought this was a nice opportunity to change that narrative. Our differences are powerful. That's what makes us unique."
Growing up, Harris says he had his own situations where he felt like somewhat of a misfit among his peers. "I wasn't the quintessential soccer or football guy," he says. "I was drawn to things like magic and carnivals and art. And thankfully, I had wonderful parents that believed in allowing kids to follow their own passions instead of forcing a social construct on them of what they thought they should be."
When Harris wrote The Magic Misfits, he had his children's future selves in mind. "I was writing hypothetically in terms of what they'll like when they're a bit older," he says. "It made me think of how I could make the story universal and timeless. That was the idea behind creating the sleepy town of Mineral Wells. I wanted it to feel normal and contemporary but also a little historical." Harris says he admires the way Daniel Handler (a.k.a. Lemony Snicket) can set a story. "He's so good at creating a period piece," Harris says. "He can make you feel that you're in a specific place without providing a particular location. He can make it feel familiar and strange at the same time."
Harris is currently starring as the malevolent Count Olaf in Netflix's series adaptation of Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. He was drawn to the role for the sheer challenge of it. "To play someone so much against your own type, that's the fun of being an actor," Harris says. "There's something challenging yet freeing about playing someone who is so unlike you, not only in their personality and actions but also in their physical appearance." Harris likes to test just how far he can stretch from himself for a role. Take, for example, his portrayal of German transgender rocker, Hedwig, in the Broadway revival of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which earned him a Tony in 2014.
For his next trick, Harris will host Genius Junior, a quiz show pitting teams of extremely intelligent kids against each other in a series of increasingly difficult challenges. Contestants will be asked to complete memory tests, spell long words backwards and complete complex math problems. "In my role as the host, I feel more parental than anything," says Harris. "It's a competition. Some teams will be moving on and others won't. I want to make sure that the kids who aren't moving on still have a positive experience."
Harris sees Genius Junior as part entertainment and part inspiration. "It's unbelievable to stand back and watch these kids doing the most phenomenal things with the knowledge they've acquired," he says. "I think they'll give kids watching at home something to aspire to because everything the contestants are doing is achievable. I hope it will encourage kids to study hard and try harder in school. My takeaway from Genius Junior is that it's a celebration of education."
For more information about The Magic Misfits, visit themagicmisfits.com.CHAPTER 2
Announces a Judy Moody Makeover
by Melissa Fales
photo by Michele McDonald
MEGAN MCDONALD OWES HER WRITING CAREER to a homeless crab. Working as a children's librarian at the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh, McDonald often led story time sessions, occasionally augmenting stories with props such as puppets. When McDonald couldn't find a book to go along with a particularly fantastic hermit crab puppet, she crafted her own story about a crab actively seeking a new home. She even came up with a fun refrain, "scritch-scratch," for the kids to repeat over and over when the crab was on the move.
When story time was over, parents clamored for the book. "I had to tell them I made it up," McDonald says. "Their response was tremendous. It really planted a seed. I realized that I might have something." The story would eventually become her first published book, Is This a House for Hermit Crab?
When a book festival drew esteemed children's author Richard Jackson to the library, McDonald approached him. "I wasn't trying to sell my story," she says. "It wasn't even finished. I just wanted to learn more about the process." Intrigued, Jackson invited McDonald to send her story to him. "I was just a kid," she says. "I had no idea what a golden opportunity it was. Later, when I learned how the publishing world works, I realized that I should have dropped everything in that moment and sent the story off right away!" McDonald eventually finished the book and sent it to Jackson. Is This a House for Hermit Crab?
"Kids have told me they want to sit next to her in class and be her friend. She makes a lot of mistakes, but she never lets that stop her and she's passionate about anything she's interested in. I think she seems so real to so many kids because they see themselves in her."
was published in 1990. "I'm so lucky he was willing to take a chance on me," says McDonald.
She went on to write a number of other books, including The Bridge to Nowhere and The Potato Man, which was based on her father's life growing up during the depression. "Family history and family stories run through a lot of my work," she says. "I grew up with four older sisters, so there's lots of material there." In her Sisters Club trilogy, McDonald explores the dynamics of how those relationships work.
However, McDonald has crammed her most authentic childhood experiences into her books about the unforgettable Judy Moody. "The Toad Pee Club was real," she says. "As the youngest, I wanted to belong to whatever club my sisters were in and do whatever they did. The moon rock was real. And the trick with the fake hand in the toilet really happened. That was the only time I can remember where I got to reverse everything and play a joke on my sisters." While McDonald borrowed many of her own stories for the Judy Moody books, she's put Judy in a totally different family situation. "I thought it would be way more fun to be the older sister instead of the youngest of five," she says. "And I decided to give her a little brother."
McDonald introduced Judy Moody to her editor through a collection of vignettes, but they were deemed too disparate and lacking the necessary continuity to become a book. At the time, McDonald was participating in a writer-in-residence program at an elementary school where the third-grade students were making "all about me" collages. "I took that collage idea and imagined that Judy was completing a similar assignment," says McDonald. "The stories were little snippets about her life. That became the unifying thread to take that bunch of individual stories and turn them into a novel."
The only problem was that McDonald's draft was a really long novel — hundreds of pages long. "My editor had to remind me that the book was supposed to be written for 8-year-olds," says McDonald. "She had to rein me in. I was so excited I couldn't stop. I'm a lot like Judy Moody in that way." Reluctantly, McDonald cut out a few chapters. "Later, they became the basis for my book, Judy Moody Saves the World," she says. "At that time, I didn't know it was going to be a series, so it was kind of painful to make those cuts."
The first book in the series, simply titled Judy Moody, was released in 2000. The entire Judy Moody collection, including the latest, Judy Moody and the Bucket List, is being re-released with new covers. "It refreshes everything," says McDonald. The original brown kraft paper covers are replaced with an eye-catching animal print, reminiscent of the tiger-striped pajamas Judy wears. "I thought it would be impossible to find something to match how much I loved that original cover, but I think it's brilliant," McDonald says.
The first brand new release to wear the new cover will be Judy Moody and the Right Royal Tea Party, due out in September. "When Judy is assigned to make a family tree, she uncovers some things that lead her to believe that she's related to the Queen of England," says McDonald. "So, naturally, she decides to have a tea party with crumpets and pinkies up and she holds it in the Toad Pee tent, which becomes — at least temporarily — the Tea Party tent."
After the third or fourth Judy Moody book, fans began asking McDonald when Stink would get his own book. "I'd be at a school visit or book signing and boys would say they wanted to hear more about Stink," she says. "So really it was my readers who gave me the idea, although Stink is near and dear to my heart because I know what it's like to have a bossy older sister." There are now 10 Stink books, including Stink-O-Pedia (volumes 1 and 2).
The Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer movie was released in 2011, introducing an even younger generation to McDonald's books. "Since they weren't old enough to read Judy Moody chapter books, I created the Judy Moody and Friends series for beginning readers," she says. The eight books feature the same cast as the Judy Moody books in a more compact formula. "Sometimes I have a really fun idea but it can't be fleshed-out into a whole chapter book," McDonald says.
The character of Judy Moody, however, has been fleshed-out so convincingly and authentically that children often believe that she's a real person. McDonald has seen children burst into tears when Judy doesn't show up at a book signing. "Kids have told me they want to sit next to her in class and be her friend," says McDonald. "She makes a lot of mistakes, but she never lets that stop her and she's passionate about anything she's interested in. I think she seems so real to so many kids because they see themselves in her."
For more information about Megan McDonald and Judy Moody, visit meganmcdonald.net or judymoody.com.CHAPTER 3
One to Read: Tony Abbott
by Melissa Fales
In his latest book,The Summer of Owen Todd, Tony Abbott keenly juxtaposes the carefree summer days of childhood and the bonds of friendship with the darkness of childhood abuse. Inspired by true events, Abbott's book fits into the nation's current narrative about rampant sexual misconduct and the "Me Too" movement, but is written from the perspective of an 11-year-old boy. "It's perfect timing in the sense that conversations are starting that we haven't had before about sexual abuse, but really, it's so far past time for this to happen," says Abbott. "Only when we start to talk about things like this openly does change come and the shame shifts from the victim to the abuser."
Set on Cape Cod, The Summer of Owen Todd features tween best friends Sean and Owen who are looking forward to long days of play during the summer before they enter the tumultuous world of middle school. Everything changes when Sean confides in Owen that he's being abused and swears Owen to secrecy. "It's a dark story, but it's illuminated with episodes of fun and lightness," says Abbott. "I wanted it to be as realistic as possible."
Abbott wrote the book at the request of an acquaintance of his wife, a woman whose son was molested as a child and eventually committed suicide. Abbott loosely based the book on her son's story. "It's as tragic as can be," says Abbott. "I immediately knew that the story I would tell would not be the victim's story, but the friend's." Since he hadn't endured anything like the trauma of sexual abuse himself, Abbott felt unable to craft the story from the victim's standpoint. "That's a story for someone who has been victimized to tell," he says.
Additionally, Abbott felt that, statistically, readers would have more ability to empathize with the friend than the victim. "I began to see and hear Owen pretty clearly immediately," he says. "My first impulse was an artistic one, in the sense of trying to create real life. If a writer can create real characters that live on the page, then they can take what happens in those characters' lives and make it potent for the reader. That was my goal." Abbott says he finds middle school characters endlessly fascinating. "There are so many things happening all at once and there are so many decisions to make," he says. "That's when you form the foundation of the person you will become. That makes for complex and interesting characters. Owen has a lot going on in his life for someone his age."