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Steven Banks Jumps All Over the Place Because That’s How His Mind Works, a guest post

I love monsters and they scare me. I wondered what would happen if the three classic “biters”; a vampire, a werewolf and a zombie, bit a kid the day before he started middle school. That became my book series Middle School Bites…Tom Marks is a Vam-Wolf-Zom. Any kid who felt different, strange, unique for any reason can identify with Tom. Book #3, Middle School Bites: Out for Blood comes out August 31. 

I don’t write for kids. I write for people. The majority of the people who read the books seem to be smaller and younger than I am. But I also wanted an adult to be able to pick up the book, read it and enjoy it. At some point they were eleven, right? Diary of A Wimpy Kid was originally conceived for adults looking back on their middle grade years.

It drives me crazy when kids don’t sound like kids in books. You must be true to your character’s age and background. I want to gently thrash authors who use sophisticated words and phrases that most kids (unless they were a genius) would never use, in dialogue or first-person action descriptions. It’s very difficult, I have to fight the urge to use more evocative words and phrases. Stephen Sondheim, to this day, regrets having Maria in West Side Story sing the line “It’s alarming how charming I feel” in the song l Feel Pretty. He said he cringes whenever he hears the line sung. She is a young, teenage Puerto Rican immigrant, she is not in a Noel Coward play. 

Big Fat Exception: To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. How old is Scout and how is she using all these big ol’ fancy words?…But…The book has sold 30,000,000 copies so maybe you should not listen to me.

I think on paper. What does that mean? I have to write it out to see if something will work or is funny or good. And sometimes the process makes me come up with an idea or phrase I could not have imagined in my mind. Weird. I also like to move around and write in different locations; outside in the garden, the kitchen, living room, bed. For some reason it gives me a “new” and clearer view of things that I wrote at my office desk on the computer. After many years of writing books and scripts, I’ve learned to write anywhere. I wrote some of the Middle School Bites series in my car mechanic’s waiting room, doctor’s office, in my car waiting to get my Covid vaccination shot and at The Hollywood Bowl as I listened to the LA Philharmonic rehearse.

You don’t have to write about what you know. Kazuo Ishiguro, who was born in Japan, wrote a first-person narrated book as a middle-aged English butler in high society pre-World War II in Remains of The Day. He didn’t live that life. He did his research. He imagined it.

Write about anything and anyone. Just make it good (the hardest part). Beverly Cleary wrote the first book I adored, Henry Huggins. It’s about a third-grade boy and perfectly captured a boy’s POV. She was not a boy, but she could imagine and write that character. Like JK Rowling did with Harry Potter, or S.E. Hinton did with Pony Boy in The Outsiders (when she was 14! And finished at 15!). Ray Bradbury was not a Martian, but he took us to Mars. Seeing the world through another’s person’s eyes is a great journey and life experience. 

Serious Middle Grade Fiction with heavy themes is terrific…But…There is a lot of it. My goal with my books is to write a fast-moving, entertaining and funny book, suck the reader in, but at the same time, slip in – judiciously! – in tiny bits – some serious ideas, thoughts, philosophy and history. Make ‘em laugh and trick them into thinking. I have Emily Dickinson and Vincent Van Gogh appear in my books, via assigned school projects. Tom imagines that if he had a time machine he would go tell them that they become world famous after they died. Tom then tries to buy a painting from Van Gogh, who now wants $85,000,000 for it.

I also slip in a message about doing life, not watching it. Tom goes to a dance and his Dad teaches him some simple moves and tells him to dance, as opposed to being the boys who just lean against the wall and watch, trying to be cool. Participate in life.

No big secret! I made a conscious decision to not have Tom hide the fact that he is a Vam-Wolf-Zom in the book.  Kids hiding their real identity, super power, etc., has been done to death. I thought…What if everyone knows Tom is a Vam-Wolf-Zom? The school’s motto is All Our Welcome and they announce Tom’s “predicament” at an assembly. However, some people do not treat him the way they are supposed to and tease him and make fun of him and call him names. That’s reality.

Why are people bullies? Tanner Gannt is the bully in my books. I wanted to explore the different sides of a bully. Why is he like that? Tom learns more about Tanner when he ends up in his bedroom, as a bat, hiding in his backpack. He also witnesses a poignant Christmas morning with Tanner and his mother. 

I was the head writer of SpongeBob Squarepants for six years. I did seasons 4 through 8. My mantra for the show: simple and silly. I oversaw six of writers and there were also the story board artists who wrote. We wrote what we thought was funny and amused us, but keeping in mind the show was predominantly for kids. It was a huge, collaborative group effort, with chances to “plus” or improve the episode at many different steps. Writing books is a solo flight. Very different. But…also rewarding. It’s a good thing to try different styles of writing, novels, non-fiction, poetry, short stories. You may discover what you’re really good at and you didn’t know it. Playwright August Wilson thought he was going to be a poet, but he became a playwright. And there’s poetry in his plays.

Superpowers! Because Tom is a Vam-Wolf-Zom he has super hearing, night vision, great strength, the ability to hypnotize people (if their wills are not too strong) and turn into a bat and fly or even turn into smoke…In a way, he is a superhero…But sometimes he hears and sees things using his powers that he would rather not…I also followed the “rules” of monsters and try to keep it “realistic”. Tom has to slather on sunscreen, wear hats and dark glasses in the sun, constantly eat to satisfy his zombie hunger (he does not eat brains) and blood, synthetic blood or raw liver smoothies seem to work.

A lot of “bad” things happen to Tom. Arthur Miller, the playwright, said that when he was writing Death Of A Salesman, would think to himself, each day, about his main character: “What can I do to Willy Loman today?” Poor Willy. Poor Tom. I would think the same thing. Get Tom into trouble. Have something bad happen. How does he react? There is your drama. Conflict. Humor. But Tom does have small triumphs along the way and learns things. 

Cliffhangers are cool. At the end of book one, on the last page, Tom meets the vampire that bit him. At the end of book two, he meets the werewolf who bit him and in book three he meets the zombie. 

I put stuff I like in books. I like Emily Dickinson, action figure toys, Monty Python, rabid collectors, good-bad movies and noir detective novels. So….Tom has to do a diorama for history class and uses an old action figure to be Emily Dickinson. He aims to impress a girl he likes, who loves Dickinson’s poetry. The action figure is from the worst super hero movie ever made called Vacuum Girl. She sucks baddies up in her vacuum, but it has to remain plugged in. The toy turns out to be valuable because the figure was a re-purposed toy (Big Jack Jackson) from an old TV show. It was dangerous for kids to play with, so it was recalled. The toy is stolen and Tom must track it in film noir / detective fashion. I wrote those chapters in a kid-styled version of Dashiell Hammet and Raymond Chandler. Tom also imagines the worker who had to re-paint the figure, complaining to his boss that it does not look like the actress in the movie and they are not fooling kids in a John Cleese / Michael Palin dialogue exchange. 

You can’t just put stuff in a book because you like it. You need a dramatic reason! I love Halloween…My brother, Alan, and I used to build a giant maze and walk through in his front and backyard. Filled with monsters (actor friends and neighbors in elaborate masks and costumes), special effects and very scary stuff.  We took three weeks to build it. We’d get over 1,000 people going through on Halloween night….So….Tom loves Halloween, but it is also a rare chance for him to go out in a mask and costume and be “in disguise”, so no one knows who he is. People don’t stare or ask questions. He can also ask other kids, “What do you think of that Tom Marks? So, that’s a good thing…But…Do you want to hear those answers? Meanwhile, the school bully, Tanner Gantt, dresses up like a Vam-Wolf-Zom, to make fun of Tom. 

I base some characters on real people. Abel Sherril is based on three people; My friend, Bill Prady, who co-created The Big Bang Theory, (the TV show, not the theory) read the entire World Book Encyclopedia when he was ten years old and was a Walking Google pre-Google. The fact that Abel wears a suit and tie to school every day is based on another friend, Mark Wheeler, (a geologist and a national champion fencer!) who wore a suit to kindergarten. And I used to bring my lunch to school in a briefcase. I love briefcases. Blame James Bond and Ian Fleming…Zeke, Tom’s best friend, is named after a nickname I called my dad and he is based on a good friend’s son, who is full of life, doesn’t get embarrassed, marches to his own drummer, is super enthusiastic and loyal…Good qualities in a human being. Tom sometimes wishes he was more like Zeke. So do I. 

I love libraries. You get to borrow books for free! The library I went to as a child is still there and not much has changed. It’s a little like going back in time when I go inside. Weird. I also wrote a great deal of a one-person show I did, that you can see on Amazon Prime “Steven Banks Home Entertainment Center” (Shameless plug). 

A good book is a good book, no matter what age it is written for. I pity the people who do not read YA or middle grade or even picture books. Where Is My Hat? by Jon Klassen is a masterpiece. I read the Ramona books as an adult. Ramona is a great American literary figure and I am being 100% serious. Beverly Clearly captured a child’s mind perfectly. 

Book you should read that you might not know about. One of the best new books I have read in the past 15 years is The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place by Maryrose Wood. A 15-year-old Victorian-era girl becomes a nanny/teacher to three children who were literally raised by wolves. An adult can enjoy this as much as any middle grader. It’s that good and that funny. The writing attains a P.G. Wodehouse level at times. It’s a series of 7 books. Also The Dead Father’s Club by Matt Haig, narrated by an authentic sounding (!) 11-year-old. It’s a modern-day version of Hamlet. You’re welcome. Wait…One more: I wrote a YA novel called King of The Creeps. It’s not about monsters. It’s about a 15-year-old in 1963 who decides to become a folk singer to impress girls, buys a cheap guitar in Greenwich Village, has one lesson, learns one chord and two days later ends up on a big TV show The Ed Sullivan Show.

In conclusion…There is no conclusion. Read!

Meet the author

Steven Banks is the Emmy nominated head writer of SpongeBob Squarepants and wrote on Jimmy Neutron Boy Genius and CatDog. He recently wrote the new animated series Stan Lee’s Superhero Kindergarten starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. Steven wrote and starred in the cult classic special, Home Entertainment Center, on Amazon Prime.  His books include the YA novel, King of the Creeps and New York Times Bestseller, SpongeBob Exposed. His new book series is Middle School Bites. TV appearances include Mom, Penn & Teller Fool Us, My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and The Jimmy Kimmel Show. Plays include Love Tapes, co-written with Penn Jillette, Looking at Christmas (NYC PBS) and Shadowland, which he co-created with the legendary dance/theater company, Pilobolus, which has been performed in 40 countries and seen by over one million people. Steven is a drop out of Los Angeles City College and a graduate of the Ringling Brothers & Barnum and Bailey’s Clown College.

Links:

Middle School Bites on Facebook 

@vamwolfzom 

middleschoolbites on Instagram

About Middle School Bites: Out for Blood

Tom the Vam-Wolf-Zom is back—and so is the werewolf that bit him—in this monstrously funny series about a boy who’s dying to fit in.

Eleven-year-old Tom was bit by a vampire, a werewolf, and a zombie right before the first day of middle school. It was a weird and crazy day. And he didn’t even get excused from sixth grade!

Now he’s being hunted down by the werewolf that bit him. Should Tom join a wolf pack? On the one hand, he could give up school and homework forever. (He really doesn’t want to do his history report.) On the other hand, he’d miss his band, his friends, and Annie, his maybe-possibly-someday girlfriend. He might even miss his big sister, Emma.

Then the vampire that bit him returns with a warning: the werewolf is dangerous. Perhaps Tom should stick with sixth grade—even if it’s mostly talent show disappointments, detention, and chicken-turkey-salami-roast beef sandwiches. 

Created by an Emmy-nominated writer for SpongeBob, The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron, and CatDog,this hilarious series is illustrated with clever, cartoon-style art on every spread. Perfect for fans of Diary of a Wimpy Kid and The Last Kids on Earth.

ISBN-13: 9780823446162
Publisher: Holiday House
Publication date: 08/31/2021
Series: Middle School Bites #3
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years

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