SELECTIONS FROM JEFF STONE’S LIBRARY
Monkey, Random House, 2005.
Tiger, Random House, 2005.
Snake, Random House, 2006.
Jeff Stone says he’s a dreamer. “When I was a kid, my parents told me to stop dreaming, but I’m glad I never did.” Stone believes there’s a time and place for everything, including dreaming. “It could lead to your dream job, which it did for me,” he says. Stone admits to making several big leaps in his working life, but each stop along the way involved writing—first as a marketer in the entertainment sector, then as a technical writer for an auto supply company and for an architectural and engineering firm.
As so often happens with children’s writers, Stone’s own children introduced him to the world of children’s books. “I never read much as a kid. I was involved in sports and never slowed down much to read.” But he’s read hundreds of books to his six-year old daughter and four-year old son. Stone appreciates the tight, concise writing that characterizes children’s literature. “As a technical writer, that’s one of the things you strive for,” he says.
Although it’s easy to see the relationship between Stone’s previous careers and writing, one needs to scratch beneath the surface to understand why Stone chose writing for children. “I was happiest when I was ten or twelve years old,” he says. “I could conquer the world at that time.” Even though Stone’s technical writing was for adults, it was geared for a fourth through sixth grade reading level, so the fit seemed natural for him.
When Stone came up with the idea for The Five Ancestors series, he was in the midst of two life-changing events that he decided to incorporate into the story. The first was the search for his birth parents and the second was his newfound interest in kung fu.
Adopted by a Michigan family as an infant, Stone became curious about his genetic history around the time he turned eighteen. Over the course of 15 years, he searched without success, but finally found his birth mother as he completed Tiger (Random House, 2005)—the first of seven books in his series.
The story opens in 17th century China at the fictional Cangzhen Temple. Five young monks, adopted by the Grandmaster, are the only survivors of a brutal raid on the temple. Their future success lies in understanding their varied pasts. The boys struggle with their own natural tendencies versus the teachings of their Grandmaster, mirroring the struggle Stone sometimes faced while he was growing up. Nature versus nurture is a common theme for adoptive children, and one that generates endless discussion among human behaviorists. In Stone’s opinion, nature will win out over nurture the vast majority of the time.
Stone has always been athletic, but when he began studying animal kung fu four years ago something clicked. The philosophies of harmony and graceful animal-like movements appeal to Stone in a way that his years of baseball, basketball, and volleyball couldn’t. In The Five Ancestors series, Stone’s young monks are also students of animal kung fu. In June 2005, Stone earned his black belt and tested at the Shaolin Temple in China—one of the settings in his series. Incorporating some of the Temple’s 1,500-year history and the movements of kung fu fight scenes, Stone weaves together a fast-paced plot filled with action and suspense, against the backdrop of his characters’ personal struggles.
The kung fu fight scenes are particularly strong in Stone’s books. He stages the scenes in his head—each twist, kick, roll, and punch. According to Stone, the way his characters move is integral to their personalities. Malao from Monkey is a lithe, quick jokester in contrast to Fu from Tiger whose movements are sweeping and aggressive. “I have to be [the characters] in my head,” says Stone. “I spend a lot of time in their shoes.” During his own kung fu classes, Stone tries on different animal personalities to test out the fighting techniques of his characters. For Snake, he purchased a pet python to study how it moved for his third character, Seh. Stone has already introduced his readers to all of the main characters—Hok (crane), Long (dragon), Ying (eagle) and Tonglong (mantis)—but the order in which their books will appear is still a secret.
Stone describes his writing schedule as “insane.” Before Tiger was released, he wrote for 14 hours a day, seven days a week in an office away from his Carmel, Indiana home. “It is an opportunity to hole up and write like a maniac.” Although Stone describes himself as obsessive, publication deadlines also nip at his heels. Charged with producing one book every six months, Stone has to write fast. But he also knows he has to write well. “I work extra hard to make my books extra clear and crisp. . .An adult will plow through 40 or 50 pages of book just because someone said it was good. Kids don’t tolerate that.”