Jerry Spinelli, MA ’64, writes about children. In the more than 25 books he’s published, Spinelli has explored such topics as bullies, pimples, the perils of popularity, and the pain of sibling rivalry. Some of his books, like Maniac Magee (1990), have won major honors like the Newbery Medal. Others, like Stargirl (2000), have been translated into 40 languages and optioned into movies. And even though his books concern kids and are shelved in the young adults section of libraries and bookstores, Spinelli stops short of identifying himself as a children’s book writer.
“So many people when they hear the words ‘children’s author’ they think of ‘Dick and Jane’ and say ‘Isn’t that cute.’ That’s not really how it is,” says Spinelli. “I just write as well as I can. I don’t write for kids, I write about them.”
His books are a patchwork of personal memories, experiences, and imagination. They deal artfully with the quotidian of daily life and growing up, and his characters have an authenticity that speaks to readers, both adults and children. “The history of a kid is one part fact, two parts legend, and three parts snowball,” Spinelli writes in the opening pages of Maniac Magee. Read on and you’ll meet the title character, a boy who runs clear across the state of Pennsylvania and was inspired by a real-life childhood friend of Spinelli’s who used to run everywhere he went. And then there’s Stargirl, the eccentric nonconformist who serenades strangers in her high school cafeteria with her ukulele; somehow, she manages to inspire classmates not to care so much about what other people think.
His books never seem heavy-handed or too message-driven. “The story is paramount,” says Spinelli, who is 66 and has 16 grandchildren. “Sure there are obvious issues I’m dealing with in Stargirl and Milkweed and Maniac Magee but I like to think there’s enough story there to turn the pages. And there’s also some good stuff in there to think about.”
As a kid growing up in Norristown, Penn., Spinelli read the newspaper sports pages and the backs of cereal boxes but he wasn’t really much of a reader. “My dream when I was 12 was to be a major league baseball player,” he says. That dream changed when he was 16. Spinelli went to a football game that his high school won on a dramatic last-minute play. “While everyone else was going nuts kicking cans and screaming and celebrating, I went home and wrote a poem about the game,” he says.
He showed the poem to his father and promptly forgot about it. A few days later he turned to the sports page in the local paper and there was his poem. “I went to school the next day and everyone patted me on the back and told me how much they liked my poem—players, teachers, students, coaches,” he says. “I gave up baseball for a pencil and decided I wanted to be a writer.”
So he went to Gettysburg College and majored in English. And then in 1963 Spinelli entered the Writing Seminars at Hopkins, determined that he was going to learn enough about writing so that he could make a living at the profession. “That was a wonderful year,” he says. “It wasn’t a huge program and they didn’t load you up with tons of overwhelming courses. Instead they expected you to spend your time writing.”
Making a living at being a writer proved to be harder than Spinelli thought. After graduate school, he taught at a college for a semester, then took a job writing product descriptions for a trade magazine, working on his novels on his lunch hour, at night, and on weekends. They kept getting rejected. When he was in his 30s, he married writer Eileen Mesi and they became a two-writer (and eventually) six-child household.
Spinelli always wrote about what he knew, but he says that it wasn’t until he started writing about kids that he knew his luck had changed. One day at work, he reached into his brown bag expecting to find leftover fried chicken and instead found a handful of chicken bones. “I still don’t know which one of the kids did that,” he says. The anecdote made it into the opening of Space Station Seventh Grade (1991), Spinelli’s fifth novel and his first published book. He was 41. “It remains my favorite book to this day,” he says.
As more novels found their way into print, Spinelli was able to quit his day job and write fiction full time. His latest young adult novel Eggs is due out this spring. The sequel to Stargirl and a Stargirl journal are also forthcoming.
“Sometimes I pinch myself that I’m able to make my living as a writer,” he says. “I can write a pretty nice sentence but so can a lot of people. The phenomenon of popularity, I just don’t know,” he says. “It’s just a pleasant happy mystery to me.”