Photograph © Danni Lerner
Jarrett Lerner is the author of EngiNerds, Revenge of the EngiNerds, The EngiNerds Strike Back, Geeger the Robot Goes to School, and Geeger the Robot: Lost and Found, as well as the author-illustrator of the activity book Give This Book a Title. Jarrett is also the author-illustrator of the forthcoming activity book Give This Book a Cover and the forthcoming Hunger Heroes graphic novel series (all published by Simon & Schuster/Aladdin). He cofounded and helps run the MG Book Village, an online hub for all things Middle Grade, and is the co-organizer of the #KidsNeedBooks and #KidsNeedMentors projects. He lives with his family in Medford, Massachusetts.
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Q&A with Jarrett Lerner
Q: You have a new activity book coming out in May called, Give This Book a Cover. How do you go about brainstorming activities for these books?
A: I always tell kids that I get my best ideas when I make sure to make time to do three things: (1) read, (2) soak up the world around me, and (3) use my imagination. My ideas for stories and activities tend to come from one or another of those things, or some combination of them all. But ideas truly are everywhere—you just have to train your brain to find them. For instance, say I'm reading a book about some kids who get sucked up and stuck inside a book. How could I turn that into an activity? I could open the situation up, ask kids what book they might want to jump inside. Or say I'm out for a walk and I see a half-built house. I could make an activity for kids to design their own dream house. These are two pretty basic examples, but they get the point across. Essentially, my activities are all aimed at training kids to be curious, and then, further, to show them how they can explore and express what they're curious about using their creativity and imagination.
Q: What was your inspiration behind your EngiNerds middle grade series? We’re so excited that the third EngiNerds book, The EngiNerds Strike Back, just came out earlier this month. How does it feel to have completed the trilogy?
A: It actually all began thanks to a combination of the three things that I mentioned above—reading, soaking up the world around me, and using my imagination. One day, I was reading a book about a robot, and all of a sudden, there was a knock at the door. I opened the door and found a package on my doorstep. I hadn't ordered anything. But my name was on the package. And, of course, I wanted to tear the thing open right away and see what I'd been sent! But I was a good author. Sponge-like, I soaked up that experience, and thought about just how amazing the moment really was. We've all gotten packages on our doorstep—some of us probably get them every day!—but really, when you think about it, anyone can send you a package, and anything can be in it. It's a common moment, but absolutely PACKED full of potential.
Later on in the day, I made some time to use my imagination. Which may sound easy, but is really pretty tough. You have to eliminate all distractions. You have to clear your head. You have to give your imagination space—fresh air to do what it does best: wonder, wander, and ask, "What if...?" And that fateful day, the robot from the book I'd been reading and the box that had appeared on my doorstep slammed together, and all of a sudden I was wondering, "What if a kid got a box on his doorstep and there was a robot inside of it?" Well, that led to all kinds of other questions: Who sent him the robot? Why? What is the robot going to do? Why would it do that? How will the kid react? And in answering those questions, you develop the idea, and eventually build a whole world.
And how does it feel to have completed the trilogy? GREAT. Not because I want to be done with the EngiNerds. I don't. But because I've had these books in my head for about five or six years now. And of course, in the writing and revising (and revising and revising) of books, LOTS changes. But the big picture, the overall arc of these books—that has been in place since the get-go. So things I planted in Book 1, that sprouted in Book 2, fully bloom in Book 3. To mix metaphors, I've brought my readers on a wild and crazy ride, and it's nice to, here in The EngiNerds Strike Back, give them a satisfying place to land.
Q: In addition to your activity books and the EngiNerd’s series, you also write chapter books as part of Aladdin’s QUIX chapter book line. How do you adjust your writing to be accessible for younger readers?
A: Something I talk about a lot when teaching writing is the importance of never, ever forgetting your audience. I think it's one of the worst things you can do as a storyteller. And especially when it comes to kids, if you forget your audience, you risk losing them—and losing them for good! I'm fortunate to have a lot of awesome kids in my life—my own children, and also a niece, several nephews, boatloads of cousins, and lots of all those kids' friends. When I spend time with these kids, I try to listen. I try to learn from them. Kids have a lot to teach us if we'll only just give them our time and attention. And so, typically when I start a project, I'll think about how I might tell this story I've got in my head to this or that nephew or cousin of mine. Shortly after I get going, I usually stop focusing on a specific child. Once I've got a little bit of a story written or drawn, I'm typically able to "lock in" on the style and voice I want and that feels right for it. And if I slip up—well, that's what editors and the revision process are for!
Q: When the pandemic hit last year, you sprang into action to create virtual content for teachers, librarians, and parents. What challenges did you experience on this journey, and what was the most rewarding part of this work?
A: One of the biggest challenges, I suppose, was staying motivated—but one of the biggest rewards solved that problem on a daily basis. That reward was seeing what kids were doing with the activities. Witnessing their boundless creativity, not to mention their excitement at all the opportunities the activities were giving them to express and share that creativity with others. I made all those activities, the ones that appear in my books and the ones that are available for free on my website—at last count, over 500 different ones!—for the kids. Because I was worried, what with a combination of a sudden lockdown and a perhaps rocky transition to remote learning, that learning would become less joyful for them, and that their creativity would be included less and less in the learning process. I was blown away and overjoyed when so many educators, librarians, and parents started sharing my activities with their students, patrons, and children, and when they came up with such wonderful ways of using them—whether for daily "soft starts," choice activities during free periods of time, or even directly integrated into lessons and curriculum. And seeing the results, what kids did with the activities—well, that was a daily dose of inspiration and motivation to wake up the next day and make some more!
Spotlight on The Enginerds Strikes Back
Ken and his EngiNerds crew return in another nutty and nerdy adventure as they face down an alien to save the planet!
Alien invasion? At the end of Revenge of the EngiNerds an alien appeared and it turns out he’s the real deal. He explains he was sent to Earth as an envoy to scope things out for a planned massive, futuristic billboard—which will mean demolishing the planet! Here? On Earth? In their town? Not if the EngiNerds have anything to say about it. Time to save the day and the planet!
Download Activity Sheets and Comics to Share with Your Classroom or Library!
On Sale May 2021
From the man who brought you Give This Book a Title comes additional activities to entertain your students and patrons. Share some kindness with special gratitude activities, learn how to draw your favorite animals, and finish these quirky comics.
Downloadable Activities and Comics
Help your readers learn more about Jarrett Lerner with these interviews and videos!
Snack & Read Live with Jarrett
Jarrett’s YouTube Channel
Jarrett on Sammie Smiles Podcast
Jarrett on Mommy Loves Books Blog
Jarrett on Teachers for Teachers Blog
Make Your Own Character with Jarrett
Also by Jarrett Lerner