Children's & Fantasy/Sci-Fi Books

Interview with middle grade and picture book author Bruce Coville

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Bruce Coville is the author of over a hundred books for children and young adults. Though he is mostly known for quirky science fiction and fantasy novels for middle grade readers – books such as MY TEACHER IS AN ALIEN and JEREMY THATCHER, DRAGON HATCHER – he has also written picture books, early chapter books, and young adult novels. In addition, he is the founder of Full Cast Audio, an audiobook company devoted to creating unabridged recordings of great children’s books using multiple readers.


For what age audience do you write?

In terms of age, I think I’ve covered about as wide a range as is possible, having written everything from picture books to early chapter books to middle grade novels to YA to one adult novel – and having been editor and lead writer for a magazine for retired people! That said, much the greatest portion of my work has been for the 8 – 12 age group, with most of the books being either fantasy or science fiction.

Henry: I love fantasy and science fiction, ever since reading WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE in elementary school. You know, you could further broaden your range by writing a story for the prenatal… 

Tell us about your latest book.

Through an odd confluence of what I call “calendar gravity” and the general strangeness of publishing, I have two “latest” books, published within two weeks of each other.

The first is GOBLINS ON THE PROWL (Simon & Schuster) which is a sequel to GOBLINS IN THE CASTLE, a book I published back in (ulp) 1992. Fortunately, that first one wasn’t a cliffhanger! The thing is, I loved the characters in that book, and always wanted to go back to them . . . most especially Igor, who is based on my “half-mad twin brother, who lives in the cellar beneath the cellar beneath the cellar in my house.”

At least, that’s what I used to tell my classes back when I was an elementary school teacher. Igor always showed up at the school for our Halloween party, leaping atop a desk and bopping all the kids on the head with his teddy bear. To my great delight, the first goblins book has been constantly in print for nearly a quarter of a century now, and I often hear from teachers that it is one of their essential read-alouds. That particularly pleases me, because I was reading it aloud to my own students back when I was writing the first version of it.

The second new book is called THE DIARY OF A MAD BROWNIE and it was a hoot to write. I spun it off from a short story called “Clean As a Whistle” that I wrote about twenty years ago. The main characters are a somewhat OCD brownie named Angus Cairns, who has a mania for tidiness, and the girl he is assigned to, a dedicated slob named Alex Carhart. It’s sort of like “The Odd Couple” with a 150 year old, foot-high magical creature as Felix, and a 12 year old girl as Oscar.

Aside from their prickly relationship, it turns out that Angus comes with a curse attached, one that afflicts all the males of a family. I don’t want to reveal the details of the curse here, so I will only say that the gods of comedy were smiling on me when I did my research for this one!

Henry: I’ve read THE DIARY OF A MAD BROWNIE, and it’s delightful. I’m hoping Angus will become friends with my upcoming picture book protagonist from WHEN YOU GIVE AN IMP A PENNY.

What do you hope readers will get from reading these books?

Delight. Pleasure. Joy.

Seriously, I don’t write to instruct. I write to tell a story. The thing is, I think if you are any kind of a human being, then what you believe and what you value will rise in the telling, coming from the story itself.

First and foremost I think of myself as an entertainer. I hope that I have, to quote Noel Coward, “a talent to amuse.”

Henry: I often amuse others, sometimes intentionally.

What aspect of writing do you find most challenging?

What surprised and dismayed me as I went along was the discovery that it doesn’t get easier. You would think that after 38 years and 105 books I would have a handle on this. But each book is its own adventure. And since you want to keep improving, you’re constantly raising your own bar, trying to top yourself. That doesn’t always happen, of course . . . it’s not one long upward march to glory.

Henry: Hey, I’m at the beginning of my writing career (I have one traditionally published book out, and two more under contract). Are you trying to be discouraging? 🙂

What is a powerful lesson you’ve learned from being a writer?

It is something that I believed even before I was able to publish, but that has been reinforced over and over again since then, and that is the profound effect your work can have on children, and therefore on the world.

I began working for children in part because it was the most radical thing I could think of to do. The main social currency in this culture is power. However, because we are also a short-term culture, people who work with and for children (the powerless) are often treated with disdain. But if you truly want to have an impact in the world, working with kids is the best way to do it.

I have a folder called “To Look at on Bad Days” and in it are a collection of the most wonderful letters, letters from adults telling me about the impact my books and stories had on their lives. “I joined the Peace Corps because of you.” “You redeemed my childhood.” “I was abused and found a safe place to escape in your books.”

What more could a person ask for?

Henry: A “To Look at on Bad Days” folder is a fantastic idea!

What has been a memorable experience that you never would have had if you had not been a writer?

For me, the truly unexpected aspect of writing has been the development of my side career as a speaker, which has taken me all over the world.

In choosing to be a writer, I expected to spend most of my work life hunkered down in my room, pounding away at the keyboard in isolation. And, indeed, that is a big part of my life. But I have also been blessed with the chance to travel the world, speaking in schools from Albany to Sacramento, from Brazil to Bangladesh.

What advice would you give to aspiring authors?

The first and most important piece is a slight paraphrase of a speech from Winston Churchill: “Never give up. Never give up. Never give up.”

I went to school with people who were better writers than I was. but who will never be published because they gave up. When I am asked the secret of my success, my first answer is always “Bone-headed obstinance.” I’m just too dumb to give up.

Henry: I’m relieved you said “obstinance” and not “abstinence”. Churchill also said, “When you’re going through Hell, keep on going!”

That’s a nice segue to our next question. Do you have any favorite quotes? 

I have a wall full of them! Seriously, I copy things out on index cards and tape them to the hutch above my desk to help keep me on track. I think of all the quotes there, the one that is most important is the one given to me by a friend when I was floundering around trying to make JEREMY THATCHER, DRAGON HATCHER work. My friend was a storyteller, and the quote came from a teacher she was working with, four simple words that I think every writer needs to remember: “Just tell the story.”

Do you have any strange rituals that you observe when you write?

Coffee! All right, I suppose that’s not that strange, and only slightly a ritual. But it’s as close as I have to an answer for this.

Henry: Coffee is more of a universal right than a ritual.

If you could have one superpower, what would it be?

To get stuff right the first time! It would save me so much time and agony! (Not to mention paper!)

Henry: That’s a unique answer. I’m not sure what perfection in an art form looks like, since each agent, editor, and reader can have a different take on the same work.

If you could have three authors over for dinner, who would it be?

Charles Dickens, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and J.R.R. Tolkien. Wow. I’m not sure how that would work out as a dinner party, but at various times in my life those were my favorite writers.

It was Burroughs, I think, who set me on the path with his JOHN CARTER OF MARS books. He was a terrible writer, actually, but a magnificent world builder and storyteller.

Then came Tolkien, who opened up new possibilities for me.

Dickens I came to later – it took about thirty years for me to recover from having him force fed to me in high school.

Hmmm. I just realized I might have to shuffle the cards and draw three, because I would also want to have the late and much-mourned Sir Terry Pratchett in that mix. His combination of hilarity and humanity is a model I can only aspire to.

Henry: I’m a Tolkien fanatic, and who could argue with Dickens. I reread JOHN CARTER OF MARS books as an adult, and found they’d lost their charm for me. So, I’m with you on Terry Pratchett.

What is your favorite creature that exists only in literature?

The unicorn, of course! Did you expect any other answer from the guy who wrote THE UNICORN CHRONICLES?

Henry: Ummm, also the guy who wrote THE DIARY OF A MAD BROWNIE?

What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

I love to read, and wish I had more time to do it! I also love going to the theater, especially musicals. I think the world would be a better place if more people would burst into song on a regular basis.

Henry: You clearly haven’t heard me sing…

What would you like it to say on your tombstone?

“He made a lot of children happy.”

Henry: Achievement unlocked.

Where can readers find your work?

In good bookstores everywhere! (Seriously, if a bookstore doesn’t have my books, then I don’t consider it a good bookstore. Of course, that’s kind of a personal judgment call.) The big online sites also carry them, of course. And if someone wants a personalized book they can order from my website called, oddly enough, www.brucecoville.com

Henry: I did not see that coming.

This interview is also posted on the San Diego Children’s Books Examiner.

Author: Henry Herz

Children's book author

One thought on “Interview with middle grade and picture book author Bruce Coville

  1. Bruce, you made me smile, as always. Thanks, Henry!

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