Children’s author Michael Buckley has spent a lot of time thinking about bullies. He’s the bestselling author of the NERDS series, which features a bunch of nerdy kids who deal with bullies during the school day and moonlight as top-secret superheroes the rest of the time.
“How hard it must be to be a teacher in the United States. Every four years some new knucklehead gets elected and then tells everybody that they’re doing their job completely wrong and we’re going to have to fix the whole educational system,” says Buckley. “So every four years I think writers for children have to evolve a little bit, too.”
Buckley spoke with StateImpact Florida about bullying, writing for school-aged children, how his son’s education is different from his own, and why Common Core emphasis on nonfiction in particular is changing expectations of children’s writers.
Your books deal a lot with school bullying. What has the response been from students reading this?
When I go to schools and I ask the kids, ‘who here thinks of themselves as a nerd?’—what I discover is that almost every kid is raising their hands.
Now that’s not something I would have admitted at all when I was a kid—I would never have confessed that I was a nerd even though I was a terrible nerd.
But today, to be a little different and a little awkward is almost like a badge of honor with these kids. And they really love the thing about them that makes them different.
And at the same time you hear a lot about bullying and adults being really confounded by what they see as an epidemic of bullying. So how do you square those two things?
Bullies have been around since the dawn of time. And it’s nice to see that people are starting to take it seriously. Because when I was a kid, if somebody picked on you, the entire staff of the school would say, ‘oh, that’s valuable learning experience.’ Like, ‘oh, he pushed you into a gutter? Well alright, good for you.’
Now people are taking it quite a bit more seriously.
I think what bullying was when I was a kid was very different than it is now where the bullying is almost anonymous because you have Twitter and Facebook and text messaging—and just the horrible, mean, nasty things that children can do to each other with electronic devices. I think what you see now more is a lot more social media bullying where everybody is bullying everybody.
So I’m glad that parents and teachers are starting to take this seriously. I honestly believe a Facebook account is something that no child should have until they’re, like, 17.
How does the way that books and children’s literature get taught in school affect the way that you think about writing for kids?
How hard it must be to be a teacher in the United States. Every four years some new knucklehead gets elected and then tells everybody that they’re doing their job completely wrong and we’re going to have to fix the whole educational system.
So every four years, writers for children have to evolve a little bit, too. Right now we have this thing called Common Core, which people are literally rioting in the streets about. One of the things that’s changing now is they want kids to read a lot more nonfiction. So I think some writers are scrambling because fiction is the bread and butter of most of us, and now they want us to write nonfiction, which I don’t know how I’m going to do that.
I mean, [the students are] way too busy taking tests. Like every kid has to be tested until they’re nearly dead… So there’s really no time for reading in school.
So I don’t even really think about it when I’m writing. I’m honestly thinking about the kid who’s sitting at the window, and it’s raining, and he’s got a book because it’s the only time he has to read. Teachers just don’t have the time for a novel anymore.
You have a six-year-old son. How do you think your experience of reading and writing in school is different than what his is or what he’s headed for?
Well, in some ways I think that he actually benefits from teachers who have a little bit more open mind. When I was a kid, the idea of a comic book or a graphic novel? That was just ridiculous.
But now my son has access to books that I think appeal better to a boy because they’re much more visual, things like Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Captain Underpants. These things appeal to him in much bigger ways than I think the traditional stories that we read at home. So, what I’m seeing is kids are seeing books in new ways, which I totally applaud.
What were the stories that you read as a kid the age of your audience now that have really stuck with you?
The truth is that—and I tell this to kids all the time—when I was their age, we didn’t have all these great kids’ books. We had, like, 10 kids books and nine of them were about shooting your pet. There was a bunch of kids living on the prairie and children living in boxcars, just like very sad things, you know?
I remember the book that really resonated with me was a book called The Mouse and the Motorcycle, which a librarian forced me to read, and I loved it. It had the three most important things a nine-year-old boy wants: it was funny; it was a big adventure; and it was completely pointless. There’s no heavy moral story in The Mouse and the Motorcycle, and that is what I wanted.
What else? James and the Giant Peach, which I just recently re-read. Any kind of Roald Dahl book, I was totally, totally into.