Sunday, February 15, 2015

A Visit from "Masterminds" Author Gordon Korman

Gordon Korman -- a.k.a "the G-Man" or "Special K" -- says he's been writing for more than three-quarters of his life. It's not that he's that old, it's just that he wrote his first book when he was 12 years old and in the 7th grade. It was published when he was 14 and a freshman in high school; by the time he graduated from high school, he had written and published five books.

Photo by Owen Kassimir

Now 51 years old, Gordon has published an astounding 85 books. More than 25 million copies of those books have been sold, and the books have been translated into nearly 30 languages. Gordon's trademarks as an author include writing fast-paced plots and creating believable characters with whom any young reader can identify. His books include: "Ungifted;" the "Swindle" series; the "Dive," "Everest," "Island" and "Titanic" trilogies, and books in the best-selling "39 Clues" series. (One of Gordon's early books also has my vote for one of the catchiest kid's book titles ever:  Nose Pickers From Outer Space.)

Gordon recently visited my library as part of our partnership with Politics & Prose, the premier Washington, D.C. independent bookstore. He was in town promoting his newest novel, Masterminds (Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins, $16.99, ages 8-12).  It's a page-turner of the first order in which five kids discover that their seemingly perfect town hides some disturbing secrets, some of which shake them to their emotional core. Gordon lets each character take a turn telling parts of the story, a device that adds both interest and suspense. I got an advance review copy of the book, and once I started reading it, I couldn't put the book down, and ended up reading it straight through -- something I rarely do. It's clear that this will be one of our most popular new books at the library, perfect for both kids who enjoy complex thrillers and for reluctant readers who will find themselves pulled into the story from the first page.

Booklist agrees, giving Masterminds a starred review and noting : "The compelling, twisty mystery has a truly gratifying payoff, and the emotional depth of the characters, not to mention the steadily building pace, will keep readers engaged to the final page, which happily lays the groundwork for a sequel." Kirkus, meanwhile, said of Masterminds: “A fresh premise, good pacing, surprising twists and engaging characters all combine to make this a series worth following."

 Gordon himself is an engaging speaker, and his presentation at the library drew a good number of both new and longtime fans. One adult fan brought her copy of one of the first books Gordon ever published, saying it still was one of her all-time favorites and asking him to sign it for her. Audience members were fascinated by the fact the Gordon published his first book at such a young age. He explained that owed it to the fact that his English teacher in the 7th grade was the school's track coach. The coach had never taught English before and, for a creative writing assignment, told his students: "Just work on whatever you want for the rest of the year."

The result was Gordon's first novel, This Can't Be Happening at Macdonald Hall!. Gordon just happened to be the class representative for the Scholastic Arrow Book Club "and so I thought I was practically an employee." Once he finished his manuscript (typed by his mother), Gordon mailed it to the same address where he sent the book order forms. Somehow, his manuscript found its way to the right person at Scholastic and "a few days after my 13th birthday, I signed a contract for my first book." The book was published a year later, and Gordon's career path was set, although he did take time to earn a degree in dramatic visual writing from New York University.

At the library presentation, Gordon spent time answering questions from the audience. As always, someone wanted to know where he gets his ideas. Gordon responded that one way he gets ideas is by "observing things." For example, Gordon said he observed that "a book with an award sticker and a dog on the cover means that dog is a goner." So he decided to write No More Dead Dogs, in which a student whose school essay pans a classic book in which a dog dies is punished by being forced to be part of the school play -- based on that classic book. In Gordon's usual style, however, the student has the final word and all turns out well, even for the dog.

Research also is important in developing ideas for his books, Gordon added. For example, he had the idea of writing a series about kids who were vying to be the youngest-ever climber on Mount Everest. Gordon was able to add even more drama when he learned through research that there's not enough oxygen at the highest reaches of Everest to allow a rescue helicopter if a climber gets into trouble. As he put it: "Writing adventure stories is the art of coming up with cool stuff that goes wrong."

 Finally, the question "What if?" provides many great book ideas, Gordon said, adding that's how he got the idea of Masterminds. Gordon started thinking about "whether people are good or evil as part of their nature or whether it's by experience." So he though, "what if there was an experiment that cloned exact copies of some of the worst people ever?" The clones would then be raised in a "perfect place," where they would be raised as regular kids by people they would think were their natural parents. For the experiment to work, however the cloned kids couldn't ever know about it. Of course, that's exactly what does happen in Masterminds, as the five main characters come to the realization that their town -- and the only life they've known -- is a sham.

"It was a challenge to write about these kids who are exact copies of some of the worst bank robbers and gangsters, but who are also real kids," Gordon said. But he wouldn't answer the question of exactly who the kids are cloned from, saying that revelation "comes late  in the series."

Soon enough it was time for the evening's last question, so Gordon would have enough time to sign everyone's books. "What author would you most like to meet?" asked a young audience member. Gordon was quick with his answer: Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling. Why? Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (the first book in the series) is a book that Gordon re-reads almost every year. "It is like an instruction manual for writing a great kid's book. It's got everything in it. So she is the one author I absolutely would love to meet."

END NOTES: Thanks to Kerri Poore of Politics & Prose for setting up the event with us, and to Caroline Sun of HarperCollins for sending me an advance copy of Masterminds, and all of the jpgs and info I needed to publicize the event and make it a success.

And thanks to Gordon himself for such a great presentation, and especially for signing my 24-year-old daughter's copies of the Everest trilogy -- a series that inspired her to become a rock climber.

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