Gordon Korman on his middle-grade heroes, Judy Blume, Farley Mowat and J.K. Rowling
Gordon Korman got his start writing novels in the seventh grade, when what started out as a school project, This Can't Be Happening at Macdonald Hall, became a Canadian classic. It was also the first title in a beloved series about private school heroes Bruno and Boots, and a lifelong career writing hilarious middle-grade novels. Now Korman sees the characters he created as a 12-year-old come to life in YTV's movie adaptation starring Jonny Gray and Callan Porter (watch the trailer below!).
"Visually, they've absolutely nailed it," said Korman, describing the two leads to CBC Books. To celebrate the April 1, 2016 premiere, we asked Korman for a list of books that have shaped his life and writing.
Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume
"I was in Grade 4 when that book actually came out. It was the first time, for me, that I thought, "there are books for people like me." It started a love affair with the middle-grade novel. My first book was my Grade 7 English project. It was really a mistake. The track coach had to teach English and he gave us all these months to write whatever we wanted. I could've written anything and what I wrote a book called This Can't Be Happening at Macdonald Hall, which was a really classic middle-grade novel. I think the reason it came out that way is because I loved them, going back to Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary."
Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
"I'm a huge fan of the original Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, which many of us had to read in high school. I love humour and I think that before Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, I was used to a certain kind of humour, coming from a certain kind of situation comedy. From my own childhood, it conjures up an image of a B-movie by Disney where Don Knotts ended up hanging from a flag pole outside the town square. But Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy showed me that really, really funny stuff can come in almost any form. It can get you in unexpected places. I think that was an 'aha!' moment for me, developing as a writer."
The Dog Who Wouldn't Be by Farley Mowat
"When I was in school, I don't think a single Canadian kid missed Farley Mowat and The Dog Who Wouldn't Be. He was really the canon for us. Having been in the kids' book world for a long time, there's an inevitability where you're going to read a book where the dog dies at the end. I even wrote my own take on the subject called No More Dead Dogs, maybe 15 years ago. But while Farley Mowat's The Dog Who Wouldn't Be is a dead dog book, it's just super honest, super funny. It does have that inevitable tragic ending, the Old Yeller moment, but the book is just... you don't put it down and think, 'this is a book about death and loss.' You put it down with an uplifting feel and the sense, as a comedy lover, that you really experienced a romp more than a tragedy."
Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by J.K. Rowling
"The first Harry Potter is still a book I re-read every couple years because it's like a template for humour and adventure together. People who have followed the series to the end, I think you forget how funny those first couple of books were, and how they were more like comedies than anything else. It's written by somebody who's going for laughs. At no point, reading that book, do you ever lose touch with how high the stakes are, or how great the danger is, or how vital the mission is. I did a series a couple of years ago called The Hypnotists. Fantasy and paranormal is something I have no experience with. For maintaining that balance between humour and suspense, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone was kind of my bible."
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
"The thing that I think was so powerful about Catch-22 by Joseph Heller is that a lot of it is nonsensical and yet, it still comes across as incredibly real. He manages to convey a sense of the insanity of war that is funny and crazy, moment to moment. The greater picture has a real truth to it that doesn't exist in any of the individual scenes. I don't know how much it affected my own personal writing, except it serves as a place that I'd love to be able to get to. I'm not sure I could necessarily do what he did in Catch-22. I think it's a rare accomplishment for any writer."
Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon
"I think my sentimental favourite of Michael Chabon's books is his first, Mysteries of Pittsburgh, which he wrote pretty young. I think sometimes as a writer, you look at another writer and think, 'this guy's better than me. I can't do that.' But he is someone who has been a favourite of mine, from the standpoint of a reader. The way he uses language without ever trying to get flowery; you just kind of take a step back and marvel at how this guy does it."
Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer
"When I was writing adventure series, like the Island trilogy and the Everest trilogy, I really discovered research for the first time in my career and found a bunch of nonfiction pieces that I think served as better adventure stores that any author could come up with. The one that really stands out is Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer. Absolutely, it's still the greatest adventure book I have ever read in my life. It's absolutely a no-holds-barred, thrilling, exciting, skin-of-your-teeth kind of adventure. He has a way of describing things that comes across as incredibly vivid. For instance, the ladders that they hack into the ice that you have to cross as a climber, over crevasses that could be 200-300 feet deep, and his description of them as 'sphincter tightening crevasses' — you just get this picture of a climber going over this bottomless pit, clenching his butt with every step. I just think that's an exceptional way to describe anything."
Slaves of New York by Tama Janowitz
"I've written a bunch of books lately that are narrated by a number of different characters and I think that's been popular in middle-grade these days, but it wasn't always. I remember reading Slaves of New York by Tama Janowitz and for the first time seeing that different characters were describing exactly the same events, and because of their perspectives and personalities, it may have been a completely different thing they were describing. It was at times tragic and hilarious and I loved it. I started trying it myself and it has become one of the major staples of my own writing career."
Wonder by R.J. Palacio
"Wonder by R.J. Palacio is a phenomenally successful book loved by kids and adults alike. It's about a boy who is naturally disfigured at birth and chronicles his integration into regular school for the first time as a fifth grader. It's a book that's at times funny, sad and heartwarming. It's a book that really has struck a chord and made a remarkable place for itself in the current canon of middle-grade book."