Finding the right words
Apr 24, 2018 01:38PM
By Steven Hoffman
The spark of inspiration that leads to a well-told tale has been a constant in the life of John Micklos, Jr.
Today, as the author of more than 40 books for young readers, he can trace his whole career back to his childhood, when his parents took the time to read to him every day.
“My mom wrote a textbook, a history of Delaware, that was used in third or fourth grade in Delaware classrooms throughout much of the 1950s,” Micklos said during an interview at his Newark home. “My dad was an engineer, so he did a lot of technical reading and writing. I read everything I could get my hands on. I was a Civil War buff when I was a kid, and we lived in Pottstown, Pa. I remember going into the library, and I had read all of the children's books about the Civil War, so I got this big adult book and took it to the circulation desk. The librarian said, 'You can't read that.' So I went and got my mom, and she said, 'Oh, yes he can.'”
Micklos, of course, proved that librarian wrong. He credits his parents and all of his teachers with fostering his interest in reading, discovering and writing. His first literary effort was “Tubby the Pig on the Moon,” he recalled, laughing. That 20-page manuscript, written when he was about 8 years old, has been lost. But thanks to Ohio University, where he majored in journalism, and to professors Daniel Keyes (author of Flowers for Algernon) and Walter Tevis (author of The Hustler and The Man Who Fell to Earth), Micklos had plenty of inspiration.
In the creative writing class taught by Keyes, “I got a C-plus, which was the lowest grade I got in all four years of college,” Micklos said. “He was fairly pointed in his criticism of some of my work, which was really good for me, because I had thought I was a really good writer.”
While raising a family in Newark in the 1990s, Micklos worked with the International Literacy Association, a Newark-based non-profit organization for reading educators around the world. He was a staff writer and editor for the group, and made connections with many teachers. At one convention, he heard Judith Viorst, the author of the classic children's book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. “She held hundreds of teachers in rapt attention,” Micklos said. “Everything she said about writing, and working with children, fascinated me. That's when I decided I was going to focus on writing for children.”
His first published book was a biography, Leonard Nimoy: A Star's Trek, in 1988. Then a decade passed while his children were young. All the while, he and his wife kept up the tradition of reading aloud and sharing the magic of words.
“It's really important for dads to be involved in the reading, and they're not always as involved as moms,” Micklos said. “So I wanted to do a book of poems about dads and kids. From that came Daddy Poems. I contributed some of them, and others were collected from other poets.” His editor then wanted a follow-up. The series eventually grew to include every member of the family – Mommy Poems (2001), Grandparent Poems (2004), and No Boys Allowed: Poems about Brothers and Sisters (2006).
In his online blog, Micklos wrote, “When I left the International Literacy Association in 2011 to pursue life as an author, I set a goal of publishing 50 books before I retired. At the time, I had 15 books to my credit, and 50 seemed a long way off. I often wondered if I was being unrealistic. Entering 2018, I have 44 books either in print or in process, and it seems likely that I may reach 50 books well before I turn 65. I guess I’ll need to set some new goals!”
Throughout his career, Micklos has published several books each year. “Once you get your foot in the door, it's way easier to sell your second book than it is to sell your first,” he said. “And it's way easier to sell your tenth.” At this point, he submits ideas to his publisher and his editors also suggest topics to him. Many of his books are published for the education market, so they aren't found on store shelves, but that doesn't mean they are ignored. They find placement in classrooms and school libraries and get heavy use, focusing on topics that fit curriculums from elementary school through high school.
“I suppose 40 or 50 years ago, non-fiction was fairly dry presentations of facts and figures,” Micklos said. “But it's really evolved since then. Non-fiction is really an artform. One of the hardest aspects of doing books for third and fourth grades is that I do research and then absorb and condense the material in a way that's understandable for kids. Some topics can be fairly challenging. But I'm always looking for cool quotes, fun facts and neat anecdotes. I'm telling a story about something. I'm not just presenting the facts and figures. People think it's easy to write for kids. They say, 'It's only 1,000 words. How hard can it be?'” he said, smiling. “But it has to be the right 1,000 words.”
He has written short biographies of Alexander Graham Bell, Amelia Earhart, Muhammad Ali, Elvis Presley and Jennifer Hudson, along with contributing to books that are just fun – 125 True Stories of Amazing Pets, and 125 Cute Animals. There's a series on the Revolutionary War, as well as books about the 1918 flu pandemic, the Pony Express, the War of 1812 and the Civil War, among other topics.
Micklos also self-published two books, The Sound in the Basement (about a boy's exploration of “a chill-you-to-the-boney sound” coming from his cellar; and Beach Fun: Poems of Surf and Sand, that is a mainstay at shore gift shops.
His latest book is targeted at the youngest children. One Leaf, Two Leaves, Count With Me! was published in 2017 by the Nancy Paulsen imprint of Penguin Publishing. The charming book was inspired by two leaves that were hanging on to a tree outside a writers workshop that Micklos was attending.The text counts the leaves falling off the tree, then budding and growing again, tracing the cycle of the seasons.
“It was written in a day or so,” he said of the simple text, which had several revisions. The manuscript got high marks from a writers group Micklos is part of in northern Delaware, and his agent passed it along to Penguin Publishing. “Eight days later, Nancy Paulsen from Penguin wrote and said, 'I love this. Let's do it.' From then, it took another two and a half years,” Micklos said. “That's a fairly typical timeframe.”
The publisher found Irish illustrator Clive McFarland to supply the vibrant, colorful pictures, and the result is a book that succeeds on every level.
Since his books are widely used in classrooms, Micklos puts together school visits where he can tailor his presentations to all ages. He can come in to read poems to kindergartners, work on writing and revision with elementary age students, and talk about the life of an author to middle school and high school students. During his school visits, he gets to interact with his readers directly, and they share ideas for topics they'd like to read about.
And, inevitably, there are students who are growing up in homes without books. Many of them are beginning to give up on the idea that they could be writers. “I was at a school one time, and I had been warned that there was this one student who had a really bad temper and got bored easily,” Micklos said. “I asked the students to write a poem on their own. This one girl was glaring at her paper. I asked if I could help her, and she said, 'I'm thinking!' I left her alone. She came up with a shape poem that was written in the shape of an ice cream cone. It was a very clever idea. As the class was leaving, she looked at me and said, 'I thought poetry was going to be really stupid, but this was really kind of fun.' The teacher told me later it was the first thing the girl had voluntarily written all year.”
Getting words out of children who are not accustomed to writing can sometimes be a big job. “Sometimes it's just a matter of getting that first word or a topic sentence down,” Micklos said. “If they're just staring at the paper, I'll ask, 'What do you care about? What's important to you? Do you have a pet? What's your favorite food? Can you describe it? What's your favorite sport?' Bit by bit, they get started. More often than not, that works.”
Micklos also works with students on revising what they've written – a crucial skill for every student in later grades. And he makes sure that writing is fun, not a chore.
The importance of literacy is reflected in the work Micklos does for the Imagination Library, a book distribution non-profit that was started by country superstar Dolly Parton in her home county in Tennessee. “She grew up dirt poor in the mountains of Tennessee, and she always saw reading as showing her the wider world that she might one day be part of,” Micklos said. “She started the Imagination Library so that every child born in Sevier County gets a book a month from the time they are born until they turn 5. She's done this for over 20 years. Other communities got into it as well, and now the program mails more than 1 million books a month to children across the U.S., Canada and the United Kingdom.”
Micklos is on the committee that selects which books – all printed by Penguin Publishing – are given to the children. When his own One Leaf, Two Leaves, Count With Me! was up for consideration last year, “I had to sit out that discussion,” he said, smiling. This year, though, his vibrant, colorful counting book will be given to thousands of young children across the country.
To supplement his writing, Micklos has worked for the past couple of years with the Global Reading Network (GRN), a USAID grant-funded project which promotes early reading and book distribution in low-income countries around the world.
The group is also involved in the Enabling Writers Workshop Program, which uses Bloom book writing software, a series of templates that allow teachers and other writers to create books in more than 100 languages.
“It's in six pilot countries, and they've been getting teachers to write hundreds of books in local languages,” Micklos said. “The books can then be uploaded to the internet so that people in other countries can also read them. There's translation software, too. The advantage is that you get books that fit the local culture, and are part of what the kids know about.
“It's still in its starting stages. But it can only grow, and has the potential to be really wonderful,” he said. “All in all, I've been really fortunate to do the sort of writing and editing work that fits with my interests.”