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An Alpaca, A Magic Pen, and a Stinky Sock: Middle School Misadventures with Jason Lady



Let's take a trip in the Way Back Machine, shall we?


You're 8-years-old, slumped miserably in the backseat of your mother's station wagon while she runs errands forever. You're definitely going to die of it. She's drinking a Tab or a Diet Pepsi or coffee, yelling at you to stop kicking the back of her seat. The car radio is playing NPR or classic rock or Enya, depending on what kind of mom you had. Next to you is a sibling you are ready to murder and, spilling out all over the floor, a giant tote bag filled with books from the library. Superfudge, Freckle Juice, Tales of a 4th Grade Nothing, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Ramona, Runaway Ralph, Junie B. Jones, White Fang, A Wrinkle in Time, Encyclopedia Brown, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Great Brain, Island of the Blue Dolphins, Goosebumps, Chose Your Own Adventure, A Series of Unfortunate Events. You are trapped in hell and there is only one way out. So you stick your tongue out at your sibling, give the back of the seat one last kick, and thumb through the nearest paperback for your favorite part.

There is a very good reason Writers of Cleveland asks every author we interview about their favorite childhood book. Try it sometime. Ask anyone what their favorite book was when they were nine and watch the years and composure fall away as they revisit, just for a moment, their middle school daydreams. I think we all collectively had to take a moment when Beverly Cleary died; her vast catalogue of middle grade books meant so much to so many. It's hard to imagine childhood without those stories.


How do you make a literate adult? How do you keep kids reading when they transition from picture books? The fact is, ages eight to twelve are vitally important years for literacy. And middle grade writers like Jason Lady are on the front lines of literacy in America, coaxing early readers along the path to becoming lifelong readers and learners.


It's a tough gig. Children know when they are being talked down to, so it takes a very special sort of author to write a story as whimsical, creative and unexpected as children that age can be. Middle grade writers have to be able to tap into that feeling of being trapped in the backseat of your mom's car, bored in your bedroom on a Sunday afternoon, friendless on the playground, stuck at Grandma's house with no WiFi, being told to sit still in a waiting room again. Jeez, Mom. They have to be able to capture the goofy euphoria of elementary school daydreams and schoolyard games. It takes a special kind of literary fearlessness to lock your adulthood firmly in a desk drawer and craft a story that a child would dream up.


A stinky sock, a needy alpaca, a magic pen, a mysterious crow, a gang of awkward middle school misfits. Jason Lady's stories gleefully dive into the small but important affairs of children, transforming them into hilarious superhero adventures on the middle grade level. Remember when you could dream up an entire adventure about an inanimate object, a cool rock or a perfect stick you found in the yard, a tape measure sword, or the clicky ashtray in the backseat of your dad's Buick? When you could create an entire backstory and crazy adventure with that thing, stories you could expand upon when you were bored, couldn't sleep, or in the longest line ever at the grocery store? Jason Lady's Monster Problems and Super Problems do just that, with one very special pen. A pen of destiny, if you will, that finds its way to the kid who needs it the most, be it the new kid in school or the kid who is sick of school. A pen that holds a special sort of magic that transports its owner somewhere incredible, only to leave them with the realization that their own reality, perhaps, isn't so bad after all.




Interviewer

How long have you been writing?


Jason Lady

I’m been writing in some form or another as long as I can remember. When I was a kid my parents would give me tablets of blank paper and I would fill them with my own hand-drawn comic strips. I was inspired by Calvin & Hobbes, Garfield, and Bloom County. Then I discovered the wide and wonderful world of superhero comic books. Favorites included Captain America, Spider-Man, The Avengers, Justice League International, and the X-Men. Then I was inspired to make up my own superheroes and supervillains and draw my own comic books. My dad was in the Army and our family moved around a lot growing up. At each new school, I’d draw myself and my new friends as superheroes and I’d put us in our own (usually ludicrous) adventure stories. Eventually I got too impatient to draw my stories, and in high school I started writing full-length novels in giant spiral-bound notebooks. The first one was a parody of Robin Hood that starred all my friends on the cross-country team. Through all these experiences I saw the other kids getting excited to read my work and passing it around on the bus and in class. I felt a lot of satisfaction entertaining my readers, making them laugh, and helping to building community. I still enjoy writing for those reasons!


Interviewer

What about your early life influenced your work or your journey toward becoming a writer?


Jason Lady

My parents were avid readers with tons of books in the house, so I was read to and encouraged to read from an early age. They were into fantasy and science fiction and that helped me get interested in those genres, too. When I got interested in comic books, my dad and I collected them together. My mom was always coming home with one book or another for me to try. We also watched lots of movies. I was that kid who took in tons of entertainment and got inspired to write my own stories. Of course, my parents encouraged me to draw and write. They were always getting notebooks, art supplies, and blank paper for me to use.



Interviewer

Tell us about your new book.


Jason Lady

My latest book is middle grade fantasy adventure novel Super Problems, published in December 2020. It’s the prequel to my first book Monster Problems, published in December 2019.


Interviewer

Let's hear the first line.


Jason Lady

“Every year the small town of Circleburg celebrates its Mismatched-Sock-Superhero Festival.”


Interviewer

That's hilarious! What is Super Problems about?


Jason Lady

Sixth-grader Scott gets a magic pen that brings to life everything he draws. Before he realizes the pen is magical, he draws himself and his friends as superheroes. As the Alpaca Defense Squad, they are tasked to protect their school’s talking pet alpaca Bruce, keeping him out of the hands of the nefarious Stinky Sock, a living evil sock who covets Bruce’s magic wool. The Stinky Sock raises a mighty sock army by bringing to life one sock from every pair of socks in town. Thanks to Scott and the magic pen, all of this becomes real, and the Alpaca Defense Squad must learn how to master their superpowers and work as a team, protect the annoying Bruce the Alpaca, and defeat the Stinky Sock before it’s too late! How will they solve their super problems?


Interviewer

What inspired you to write Super Problems?


Jason Lady

The characters in Super Problems are very much based on myself and my middle school friends. Being in a military family that moved around a lot, I was like the main character Scott, finding myself the new kid in town and making new friends by drawing other kids as superheroes in my hand-drawn comic books. My first book Monster Problems introduced the concept of the magic pen and how it brings to life everything you draw with it. Monster Problems took things in a different direction, but when it came time to think of a second book in the series, basing it on my middle school experiences seemed very natural!



Interviewer

How long on average does it take you to write a book?


Jason Lady

It can take me six months to a year to write a book. Time management and personal energy are two critical factors. I work a full-time job, so finding time and energy to write can be challenging. The key is to be patient and set realistic goals.


Interviewer

What does literary success look like for you?


Jason Lady

Literary success for me means entertaining readers, making them laugh, and hopefully igniting their imaginations. I read so many amazing stories growing up that exploded my imagination, and I want my work to do the same for young readers.


Interviewer

Do you want each book to stand on its own, or are you trying to build a body of work with connections between each book?


Jason Lady

My vision is for three books in the magic pen series. In each book, the magic pen is brought to a different middle schooler. The main characters change, but the rules of how the pen works stay the same. Some of the same supporting characters pop up in all the books. For example, there’s Mr. Octagon, the art teacher who appears in all the books, knows more than he usually lets on, and ends up being a mysterious mentor figure to the middle schoolers. My first book has a supporting character named Blue Hood who has a past with the magic pen and ends up helping the main character. My second book is a prequel that goes back in time and features Blue Hood as the narrator, telling us of her own magic pen adventure. Each book could be read separately with no problems, but if you read them all you get the fun of seeing the common threads and how different characters react to what the magic pen does.


Interviewer

What is a common trap for aspiring writers?


Jason Lady

A common trap for aspiring writers is a lack of focus. I’ve seen several writers who hop from project to project and not finish anything, let alone move it forward to a form where one project would be marketable and publishable. There is a time and a place to write different stories and explore different ideas, but at some point, a writer needs to knuckle down, pick a project with a good hook, and get it finished. I also see other writers trying to “go it alone” and that isn’t healthy. Getting a book published can be a long and challenging journey, so find friends, family, and fellow writers who can be your cheerleaders and supporters. Ignore the naysayers and seek out those who will read your work and offer advice, or just encourage you. I am fortunate to have an amazing writing support system that includes my awesome wife (she’s an avid reader who has no problem telling me when something in one of my stories isn’t working and has my back 110 percent) and a critique group of fellow writers (some of whom I’ve been friends with for over a decade) who help me refine my work—and gives me the opportunity to do the same for them.


Interviewer

What is your connection to Cleveland?


Jason Lady

My wife and I moved to Cleveland in 1999 for her to attend graduate school and we’ve lived here ever since. We fell in love with the area and don’t see ourselves wanting to live anywhere else. I enjoy the restaurants, rooting for the Cleveland Indians, and how unpretentious people are here. I love how diverse the area is. I find the city’s “I don’t care what you think about me” attitude and underdog status suit my personality.


Interviewer

What are the challenges specific to living and working in Cleveland or the Midwest? The benefits?


Jason Lady

A challenge to living and working in Cleveland and the Midwest in general is being out of the loop of the whole New York City publishing world. I don’t have an MFA and I went to a state school here in Ohio, so I don’t have any connections to that world. If you’re not of that world it’s very hard to get in with those large publishing houses. Fortunately, there are other options. Modern technologies and methods of delivering books are enabling smaller, independent publishers to emerge and seek promising writers that aren’t on the radar of the larger publishers. I tried to get published for 13 years and lost count of the number of times I was rejected. I am very grateful to my publisher, Black Rose Writing, for the opportunities they are giving me.


Interviewer

Do you believe in writer’s block?


Jason Lady

I absolutely believe in writer’s block! I’ve sat there many times staring at a blinking cursor on my laptop screen. Sometimes I can’t overcome it and I must walk away for a while. Other times, I overcome it by taking a stalled-out story idea and changing some elements—find a different setting, maybe swap out some of the characters—and that gives the story “fuel” and enables me to dive into it.


Interviewer

Does writing energize or exhaust you?


Jason Lady

When I’m on a roll, writing energizes me. I feel the character development and plot coming together and my instincts are telling me I’m on the right track. If I’m not at that point, and I’m struggling to get a story under way, it can feel like pushing a boulder uphill. The trick is to push when appropriate but also be ready to stop pushing and reassess what I’m doing.


Interviewer

What is your favorite childhood book?


Jason Lady

As a kid I loved The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and the entire Chronicles of Narnia series. I think what made it my favorite was how later books in the series were set in earlier times and explained how Narnia was created and where the wardrobe came from. That blew my mind reading that nonlinear storytelling as a kid.


Interviewer

What is your relationship to the finished product when you are working? Is it a thing you are building in real time or do you feel the thing is already in there and you are just clearing away the dirt?


Jason Lady

I feel like my relationship to the finished product is like I’m solving a puzzle without needing to use all the pieces. I have a box full of tons and tons of pieces, and it’s a matter of which ones in the right combination complete the picture. It’s also a voyage into the unknown. I’m not a writer who comes up with a super-detailed outline beforehand. I usually start with a general idea of how I want it to end, what the main conflict is, some major plot points, and who the main characters are. I then just start writing and see where it takes me. It can be exciting; I must be ready to backtrack and start over if I go down a road that’s a dead end.



Interviewer

Do you find that your work has a theme? Is there something about this theme that has particularly drawn you in?


Jason Lady

My work has themes of solving mysteries and discovering and experiencing the unusual and the unknown. I’d say a theme I always try to incorporate into my work is the main character discovering new things about themselves. Maybe they realize they have a bad behavior they need to change, a fear to overcome, or a relationship they need to repair. I always want their adventure to help them become a wiser or better person. I try to make this subtle; no one wants to be hit over the head with a giant ‘MESSAGE’ when reading the book. I want to treat my readers like the intelligent people they are and trust that they can pick things up without me spelling it all out for them in giant neon letters. I’d also say my work has a lot of humor and a lot of absurd stuff going on, like evil sentient socks and talking alpacas who love opera music. I love writing for the middle grade audience because they have a great sense of the absurd. Older people become very, very serious and sometimes lose that sense of whimsy and silliness, and all they want to read about is doom and gloom, and that’s just not me!




Jason Lady is the author of fantasy and science fiction for young readers. Monster Problems and Super Problems are published by Black Rose Writing and available across all major booksellers. You can follow him on Instagram , Facebook and Twitter. He will be signing books at The Learned Owl on June 5th, and Loganberry Books on August 14.



Dana McSwain is a bestselling author and principal at Webb House Publishing. @writersofcleveland is a project dedicated to amplifying the voices of Cleveland writers. 2021 All rights reserved.








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