Monday, August 8, 2011

Part I: Interview with Alan Sitomer, award-winning author of NERD GIRLS

Alan Sitomer is California’s 2007 Teacher of the Year. In addition to being an inner-city high school English teacher and former professor in the Graduate School of Education at Loyola Marymount University, Mr. Sitomer is a nationally renowned speaker specializing in engaging reluctant readers who received the 2004 award for Classroom Excellence from the Southern California Teachers of English and the 2003 Teacher of the Year honor from California Literacy. In 2007, Alan was named Educator of the Year by Loyola Marymount University and in 2008 The Insight Education Group named him Innovative Educator of the Year.

Mr. Sitomer has also authored 11 books to date for esteemed publishers such as Disney, Scholastic, Penguin/Putnam, and RB Education. These include six young adult novels, three children’s picture books, two teacher methodology books, and a classroom curriculum series for secondary English Language Arts instruction called The Alan Sitomer BookJam. In the past he’s been honored by the American Library Association (the A.L.A. named Homeboyz a Top Ten Book of the Year 2008, receiving the prestigious ALA Quick Pick Recognition for young adult novel which best engages reluctant readers) and within the next 18 months Alan will have four new titles hitting the shelves.

Mr. Sitomer is currently on sabbatical from the classroom as he works to re-shape literacy education through policy dialogue, professional development workshops, and authoring new materials for classroom use. He was kind enough to fit an interview with Write On! into his very busy schedule to talk about his newest release, NERD GIRLS, released last month from Disney books.

Alan, it is truly an honor to have you here today! What inspired you to write Nerd Girls?

There are a variety of reasons why I wrote Nerd Girls. Number one, I’m sorta a dork. I mean, I like reading, I like writing, I like learning about things that interest me and I love teachers and librarians.

Plus, I’ve been known to embarrass myself now and then. For example, I once gave an oral report in front of an entire class with my fly unzipped. I thought people were laughing at my ingenious use of comedy. Instead they could see my tightie-whities.

Oy vey!

Of course, when I was a kid in school this made my life kinda tough but once I realized that I am what I am the world got a lot easier for me. I wasn’t cool, sexy, the class president, or voted most likely to conquer the planet. I was awkward with members of the opposite sex, laughed like a goofball, and there were times when I felt like the loneliest person on the planet.

Add it all up and I was a nerd.

Then I realized, once I got older, that there are more of “us” than there are of “them” anyway so I decided to channel my inner nerd and put some smiles on paper. The result was this book and it’s been received really, really well. (Hey, people like to laugh.) I’m very proud of the work and plan to do more.

Nerd Girls is your first comedy. How is writing comedy different than writing in other genres?

Writing comedy is very different in some regards and yet, writing comedy is very much the same as all other genres of writing. For example, when you write action adventure, you have chase scenes where the bad guy hotly pursues the hero in fast paced, breathless action. In comedy, somebody farts. Or bonks their head. Or farts while bonking their head while being hotly pursued by a bad guy in fast paced-breathless action.

As you can see, it’s an art.

However, the rules of good writing still apply. You must have a protagonist with a goal who wants something. And that protagonist must have stuff that gets in their way which prevents them from obtaining that which they want.

Stories are all about protagonists taking meaningful journeys. And we love stories so because all of us are taking our own journeys right now. We identify with people who get into trouble, people who have a crush, people who screw up BIG TIME and people who pull a rabbit out of their butt at the very last minute and save the day in a way that proves, “Ya know what, I actually have something good to offer this world after all. So NAH!”

And then they fart and then we smile and then we realize that the characters in the books we read and love are actually our true friends. They are people who understand us, people who inspire us and people who make us realize that doing good things and living in a good way makes us feel good on the inside.

Really, what beats that?

Where did the kooky characters in this book come from?

The first kooky character is probably me. I just love to laugh. Basically, my rule is, if the book doesn’t make me laugh, then why in the world should I expect that it’s going to make anyone else laugh, either? This means that while I was writing Nerd Girls, I was laughing a lot.

Out loud.

All by myself.

In a room with no other human beings. Just me sitting behind a desk laughing out loud with no one else around.

They lock people up for that kind of stuff.

Also, some parts of the book were written when I was sitting on airplanes on my way to go visit a school and talk with the kids. (I do that a lot.) This means I’m the loony guy chuckling out loud to himself on a crowded airplane where no one else ever gets to see the joke or learns what’s so funny.

I’m used to people staring. But hey, whatever works, right?

Of course I draw my inspiration from other people, too. Lots of real people. Real kids especially. Here’s a practice test.

1) Think of a dork you know.

2) Now think of that person doing something dorky.

3) Now think of that person doing something dorky while thinking to themselves that what they are doing is not dorky at all but rather totally normal behavior.

That right there is how my characters are born. Some people are just downright funny. I put those people in my books. See… simple.

I gotta admit though, I think I was born with a weirdo magnet in my body because kooky, nutty, dorky, oddballs just seem to find me. When I was a kid in middle school, I knew people who smelled their belly button lint. When I went to college, I knew a person that ate their cereal with Coca-Cola instead of milk. Now, as an adult, people who own hairless dogs sit next to me and just start conversations for no reason at all.

Like I said, it must be a magnet. But when you are a writer, it comes in handy.

Indeed, all of my characters are fiction. But really, they’re not. They’re just people I know or see or meet with a few name changes. After all, why invent dorks and nerds and doofuses when there are dorks and nerds and doofuses all around us?

In Nerd Girls the good guys win but also, they don’t. Why write a book for kids that is layered with complexity like this?

Look, kids today are smart. Wicked smart. And writing neat little sweet stories that wrap up like perfect little fairy tales is hardly the way the real world works.

Now, I don’t want to give anything away about the book for those that have not yet read it but are planning to, but twists are important to good books. It’s part of the magic that makes them memorable and while I wanted to write an LOL comedy – which I kinda believe I have – I also wanted to make sure today’s young readers didn’t feel as if I was writing down to them or not respecting their cerebral abilities. Like I said, kids today are smart and sure, they want to laugh, but they also want to be challenged and appreciated for being more intelligent than so many adults often believe they are.

Nerd Girls is layered and complex because today’s young people are layered and complex. But today’s young people also have a wonderful sense of humor. They love to laugh.

And so do I.

In a way, this laughter is where we all get to meet.

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Check back tomorrow for PART II of my interview with Alan Sitomer!

And in the meantime, for more information about Alan, please visit his official website at

1 comment:

Magdalena Ball said...

What a funny, high energy interview Alan. I totally agree that today’s young people (and yesterday's!) are layered and complex, and that books that speak to that complexity are the most powerful. Your book sounds terrific and I'll definitely be back for part 2 of the interview.