Courtney Lichtenberger, a sixth grader at Clarendon Elementary School, gives author Dan Gutman positive reviews. “He writes about things kids like. There’s a lot of action in his books,” said Lichtenberger last week. “And they’re fun and easy to read.” Gutman spoke last Friday at three assemblies for students from kindergarten through sixth grade. As a special treat, the 15 kids in third grade and up who wrote the most compelling reasons for wanting to have lunch with the author, got to do so at the school library. The Clarendon PTA sponsored the event and luncheon.
Getting into it
Lichtenberger and nine other sixth graders even helped out by dressing up as characters in Gutman’s books, such as the New York Yankees’ immortal Babe Ruth and Shoeless Joe Jackson of the 1919 Black Sox Scandal.
The students began each session by reading an excerpt from the book about the title character they were portraying.
The fifth and sixth graders, who started the day off with the 9 a.m. session, received a lecture by Gutman peppered with personal anecdotes about his books and writing methods, a slide show (mostly of Gutman’s life as a writer who works at home), and a Q & A period.
In Gutman’s books, he places an ordinary child in extraordinary circumstances. He includes historical and socio-economic elements, making the complex interpersonal relationships palpable to adolescents. Gutman said that a lot of times, the books don’t have happy endings.
“They’re exciting – especially Johnny Hangtime (a book about a teen who is a Hollywood stuntman),” said sixth grader Nicholas Podesta. “The books talk about exciting things people do. The stories are about life now.” In that book, which was Gutman’s and many students’ favorite, Johnny doubles for a despicable young star. There are also a teenage supermodel and movie director featured in the book.
The author first visited the Fifth Street school in 2001. School district Reading Supervisor Irene Dewland had Gutman come back to Clarendon School since his books are so popular with students. She said 350 copies of Gutman’s books were sold to third to sixth graders last Friday. The books are normally between $3 to 5, but the school was able to give a dollar discount.
“The kids are drawn to these books like magnets. They are sports-oriented and action-packed,” she said. “We’ll do anything to keep them reading.”
Don’t give up
Gutman, the author of 58 books and counting, told a group of fifth and sixth graders that when he was young, he did not like to read. He was a great fan of sports, especially baseball, but he wasn’t very good at it.
“I was the shortest guy of all my friends, and I wasn’t to good at the thing I loved,” said Gutman to a rapt audience.
That did not stop Gutman from pursuing an idea. In 1993, after his son Sam was born, he wrote his first children’s book, “Baseball’s Greatest Games.” He had written five adult books before that, but when Gutman found his genre, his books quickly became popular. Still, there were obstacles. Written in 1993, the baseball book was not published until 1997 by Harper Collins.
“I received hundreds of rejection slips (which can be viewed on Gutman’s website) – but did I give up?” he said “Noooooooooo,” roared the young audience.
Gutman read from a thick binder full of rejection letters from various prominent publishing houses for his book “Honus and Me,” the first of the Baseball Card Adventure Series. The book won eventually the California Young Readers Medal for 2000/2001, along with 11 other state nominations.
It received glowing reviews by the Chicago Tribune newspaper and Publishers Weekly magazine.
Just a Jersey guy
Gutman, 50, was born in Manhattan but moved to New Jersey when he was a child. As a young adult, he received a degree in psychology, which he said was a “waste of my time.”
After numerous failed attempts writing magazine articles and screenplays, he began a video games magazine during the Pac-Man craze in 1980. He eventually wrote columns about computers for various newspapers nationwide. He was able to parlay these assignments into magazine articles for major publications.
His first five books, from 1985 to 1992, were for adults. But in 1993, Gutman wrote his first children’s book. The first three children’s books were non-fiction. Besides the Baseball Card Adventure Series, Gutman has written four books in his “Million Dollar” series, where a teen gets to win a million dollars through a variety of sport contests, and the in-progress “My Weird School” series, books for first and second graders about the odd behavior of adults.
Gutman lives in Haddonfield with his wife Nina and their two children, Sam and Emma. Gutman said Emma, who is now 10 years old, inspired the “My Weird School” series when she was a toddler. “I write freelance full-time since I started writing for kids, and visit about 70 schools throughout the year,” said Gutman. “How else would I relate to a bunch of 10-year-olds?”
Persistence has paid off for Gutman. Currently his children’s books are put out by large publishing houses like Simon and Schuster, Hyperion Books, and Scholastic, as well as Harper Collins – some of whom initially rejected his work.