On the morning of graduation day at South Tahoe High School, and nearly six months after speaking with the Tahoe Daily Tribune about a promising children’s book, “Goodnight Already!,” which follows the failed attempts at sleep for a black bear, South Tahoe High graduate Jory John spoke about the quick rise in popularity his work has achieved.
Since then, John’s writing career has taken off. “Good Night Already!” and his newest book, “The Terrible Two,” received E.B. White Read-Aloud Honor awards for picture book and middle reader, respectively.
“I’m the biggest E.B. White fan in the world … I love his writing. I was actually in the middle of reading a book of his correspondence – just letters that he wrote – when I found out about that,” John said Friday.
“I got up and danced around the room for a while. I couldn’t believe it. My first children’s picture book out of the gate, for instance, getting that was incredible.”
John had heard something from the publisher, ABRAMS, of “The Terrible Two” possibly winning the honor award, but the award for “Goodnight Already!” was a surprise.
“I actually got this email with the list and I was looking through it and I saw ‘The Terrible Two’ and I thought, ‘yes! It was true!’ And then, under picture books, ‘Goodnight Already! was listed. And I didn’t know, that was a very thrilling morning.”
“The Terrible Two” also reached number six in the New York Times Middle Grade Best Sellers list, and stayed there for 15 consecutive weeks. Additionally, the book has been optioned by Universal for the rights to a movie, for which John and co-author Mac Barnett are set to write the script.
The book has also received a positive review by Herny IX of the London-based newspaper The Guardian, who wrote, “This book is really funny and exciting. In my top 10 of all my favourite books ever this would come about fifth, it is so good!”
The Washington Post placed the book in its “Fifty great books for kids to read this summer” list, and wrote, “far be it from us to condone pranking, but if we were to, we’d recommend this very funny manual on the art. Plus, there are cows, goofy drawings, shouting principals, and other stuff pre-teens will find hilarious.”
The book has also been translated to several different languages, including German and Greek, and is selling abroad.
“The Terrible Two” follows Miles, a prankster who finds himself in a new town and a new school. Miles thinks he will be the best prankster at his new school, but he finds his match in Niles, and prankster madness evolves after that.
The craziness from the new success, as John called it, started in January just after the “The Terrible Two” was released. John and Barnett first presented the book in Houston, where they visited 22 schools in five days. Their book tour then took them to Chicago; Wisconsin; Austin, Texas; San Antonio; Los Angeles; Tucson, Arizona; New York and back to the Bay Area, where he is based.
John and Barnett created a presentation that fit well with the theme of the book, with a prank.
The principal of the schools would start by telling the students that they read the book and found out it was about pranking, which is not allowed in the school, and would cancel the presentation. But luckily, as they were all already gathered, they would get a different presentation, one about nutrition.
“So, all the kids were like, ‘booo!!!’ And we’d come out wearing mustaches and doctor’s coats and we’d opened with five minutes on a PowerPoint on healthy eating choices,” John said.
“By the end of the five minutes they were against us.”
Then John and Barnett would move onto a section of the presentation about bread, and would tell the students the next slide would show them a picture of a stomach after eating bread. That’s when the surprise came. The next slide would actually be the cover of “The Terrible Two.”
“And then we asked, ‘who just got pranked?!’ And they all raised their hands and for the next 45 minutes we talked about how to be a prankster,” John said. The presentation would ultimately also become a book reading.
“It’s amazing going around now. We’re at the point where were getting letters from kids. We’re visiting schools where they know the book. It’s really fun now. We’ve worked so hard and were seeing it pay off where we see people actually reading the book,” John said.
John has been happy to work on comedy books, but he also enjoys other aspects of his writing.
“I like to write books that are humorous but also have some heart in there too,” he said.
John liked creating characters that are a little more complex, such as the principal, who is against pranking and a villain of sorts, but is also humanized in the book and likeable in his own right.
The book also has some autobiographical elements. The beginning of the book, where Miles, one of the main characters, moves to a new town, Yawnee Valley, with his mother, reflects John’s own move with his mother, Tahoe local Deborah John, from Santa Cruz to Tahoe when he was 10 years old.
Barnett also had a similar experience during his childhood.
Ultimately, Tahoe became a place John can call home, but it was initially a transitional time, and a lot of those feelings went into the book.
“It’s just figuring out who you are all over again when maybe you thought you had it figured out beforehand,” he said.
A lot of the time, as a child, John would come up with ideas for pranks, but he wouldn’t actually do them. In a way, the book gave him the opportunity to do something with those ideas, he said.
The book is also sprinkled with little references to Tahoe, such as the last name Bergner, which refers to a Tahoe family John knew during his time here, Coach O in the book also references a coach from his youth.
“It’s really fun to think of our friends reading this, and there will be things that mean something to them,” John said.
Barnett and John have been friends for more than 10 years, and the book first started taking shape when the two would have “workdays,” in which they would get together to work on their own separate projects. It was a ritual they got into where every Monday they had a “workday,” a time to work on individual projects with someone to keep them company.
One day, as they were taking a break and went for a walk, the concept for the book came about. The ideas started bouncing around and some of their individual experiences started clicking and they decided to collaborate on a book.
“The very beginning … the most fun part was probably – we were sitting across from a table, we had two laptops open and we were both working on [the same] Google doc … and there were actual times where he would start a sentence and I would finish the sentence,” John said.
With the illustrator, Kevin Cornell, the situation is similar to how he worked with the illustrator of “Goodnight Aleready!” they haven’t met. However, Cornell has been able create illustrations that fit well with the characters.
John and Barnett will be working on three more sequels for “The Terrible Two,” which are set to be released during the next three Januarys.
John will also be releasing his picture book, “I Will Chomp You,” illustrated by Bob Shea, on Aug. 4. For more information about John’s work visit joryjohn.com.