Jerry Spinelli’s day job as editor of a design engineer’s magazine was a calculated risk. He needed to support his family, but needed to carve out some writing time, too. “I wanted a job that would let go at lunch and after dinner so I could write,” he says. He slaved over four novels for adults that didn’t sell, but ultimately a bag of chicken bones changed his life.
It all started with a midnight assault on the refrigerator. One of Spinelli’s six kids devoured several pieces of fried chicken in a brown lunch sack. The next day, Spinelli took that sack to work. When he unpacked his lunch, he found only bones. Since he had nothing to eat, he wrote about the incident, which later became the first page of his first published book,Space Station Seventh Grade (Little, Brown, 1982). “I had no idea I was writing a book at the time,” he says.
To Spinelli’s surprise, Space Station Seventh Grade found a home in the juvenile department of Little, Brown. “I became a children’s writer without realizing it,” says Spinelli. “When I sit down to write, I just write. . .My stories are not for kids, they’re about kids. . .I let my stories find their own audience and hope that the result is a story readable by adults and kids.”
After Space Station Seventh Grade, other book ideas about kids came along. Who Put That Hair in My Toothbrush? (Little, Brown, 1984) fell into place after observing two of his children fight day in and day out. There’s a Girl in My Hammerlock (Simon & Schuster, 1991) started with a Philadelphia Inquirer photograph of an eighth grade girl in a bikini on a scale in the boys’ locker room weighing-in for her first high school wresting match.
In Newbery Medal-winning Maniac Magee (Little, Brown, 1990), Spinelli combined various incidents from his life. For example, one of his childhood friends was Dennis Magee, whose last name Spinelli appropriated. Another friend was an orphan who ran everywhere he went, a quirky trait Spinelli assigned to his title character. Maniac’s friend, Amanda Beale, was modeled after a girl with whom Spinelli spoke while visiting a school. Like Amanda, she protected her valuable stuff from her brothers and sisters by keeping it in a suitcase and carrying it with her wherever she went.
Stargirl (Knopf, 2000) was a 34-year project begun in 1966 when Spinelli first conceived of a boy living underground in a sewer, but didn’t know where to go from there. After several changes in title, substance, and gender of the main character, Spinelli found Stargirl Caraway. She strums her ukulele while walking around the lunchroom and sets up a tablecloth and bud vase on her desk in each of her classes. She personifies nonconformity and performs original random acts of kindness daily, but her “more normal” classmates feel threatened by her. According to Spinelli, his wife Eileen (also a famous children’s book author) “resembles Stargirl more than any single person.”
Strong female characters appear throughout Spinelli’s work. Stargirl. Maisie in There’s a Girl in My Hammerlock. Dorothy in the Newbery Honor Book, Wringer (Harper Collins, 1997). Megan in Who Put That Hair in My Toothbrush? They wrestle, play trombone, and run. They are spunky and buck the stereotypes that tend to plague girls. They exhibit the strength of character and confidence that Spinelli would wish for any of his daughters.
In 1989, Spinelli left the design engineer’s magazine to make writing his day job. The cornerstone of his writing routine is an uninterrupted block of at least two hours every morning. Each day, he begins by reading the previous day’s work aloud before creating new material. According to Spinelli, the trick is to know when to stop. “It’s a good idea to stop while you’re still cooking because it’s easier to pick things up the next day.”
Spinelli remembers being a kid who didn’t want to grow up. In his autobiography, Knots in My Yo-yo String (Knopf, 1998), he recalls childhood stories which have significance to him, but may not seem particularly memorable to outsiders: wearing his complete cowboy outfit to school in the third grade, winning the school championship in the 50-yard dash, seeing his poem published in the local newspaper. He relished childhood and once told a reader that being a kid helped him become a writer. So it’s no surprise that Spinelli takes his inspiration from life itself. “We get so bogged down in details as we go from moment to moment. The sheer unnoticed and unpublicized drama of minute-to-minute daily life is inspiration enough if we just open our eyes and see what’s there.”