James Patterson on Bullying and Preaching Politeness With Bill O’Reilly
James Patterson, creator of the Alex Cross series and author of innumerable children’s books, has a new title out. Pottymouth and Stoopid, like all of Patterson’s children’s books, has a message. As per the dedication, it concerns “the insidious nature and dire consequences of bullying boys.”
The book is written in the same breezy style as Patterson’s wildly popular Middle School series but the subject matter is dystopic. David and Michael, the book’s protagonists, are word-bullied by a girl named Kaya Kennedy, who dubs them Stoopid and Pottymouth, respectively. The boys are subsequently let down by their teachers, including the frizzy haired Mrs. L. Rabinowitz and Mr. Chaffapopoulos, and by their parents. Michael/Pottymouth, who is African-American, is in foster care. His foster parents, depicted in illustrations by Stephen Gilpin, are sweatsuited slobs equally guilty of vulgarity and sloth. But the real villain is David’s “Ex-Dad,” a frustrated writer who exploits the misery of his estranged son and his friend as fodder for a television show.
Though the book functions as a cautionary tale against word-bullying there are other messages being communicated as well. It seems strange, for instance, to bestow such clearly ethnic names on the villainous teachers, to cast a little girl as a bully, and to caricature a writer as an intellectually dishonest crumb-bum. This is not to say there aren’t dismissive Jewish preschool teachers or ill-tempered Greek math educators or that girls can’t be vicious or that African-American kids aren’t in foster care or that no writers are self-involved.
In concert, these character work to creative a narrative that reinforces a deeply conservative worldview. And this isn’t Patterson’s first foray into politically strident children’s literature. He is also the author, with shouty, gropey, and disgraced Fox host Bill O”Reilly, of Give Please A Chance, a preachy pamphlet on the virtues of politesse. Curious to understand Mr. Patterson’s personal and political agenda as well as his choice of collaborators, Fatherly spoke to the celebrated author..
How does your process change between writing kids books and adult books?
One difference is that, in my adult books, people get killed. In my kid books, I’m allowed to be funny. Alex Cross really isn’t that frickin’ funny, but this stuff is funny and I enjoy that. Also, with children’s books, I can actually save lives.
What do you mean?
It’s a chance to give at-risk kids the opportunity to become readers. If they don’t become competent readers somewhere in elementary or middle school, it’s very difficult for them to get through high school. And that’s huge. Right after the elections, I talked to the librarians from Kentucky and Indiana. It was a morgue to walk into after the election.
I said, ‘Look, I’m here to save lives.’ Because I think that’s what this is about, saving lives.
Let’s drill down a little bit into Pottymouth and Stoopid. You dedicate it to the authors of Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys and clearly there’s a strong anti-word-bullying message in it.
Yeah, I got criticized about that by Kirkus Reviews. But messages aren’t necessarily the worst thing in the world. If you get rid of messages you have to get rid of every war novel that’s ever been written.
Why word-bulllying, as opposed to physical bullying?
Word bullying is really really dangerous and bad, and it scars kids for life. I still remember when I was growing up. My mom was a teacher, and I was the top of my class. It was a problem. I had curly hair so I was “the Kink.” Also, Floyd Patterson was the heavyweight champion of the world so there was all this crap that kids could play around with. Most of us go through it to some extent.
Why have a girl as the bully?
Because girls are bullies, especially word bullies. And they’re especially word bullies with other girls, or with boys they think are a little freaky. If a kid’s too fat or he has braces or his hair is wrong, or he wears the wrong kind of clothes or whatever the heck, they builly. That’s just not good. It’s really damaging
— JIMMY Patterson (@jimmy_books) June 11, 2017
Why did you make Michael’s parents foster parents?
I don’t remember exactly why except that I wanted to. You know it’s been a while now, it’s been a year and a half since I wrote the book, so I don’t remember, you got me on that one. But the overall message of the book is about good parenting and I wanted to show the importance of that.
There seems to be some overlap between Pottymouth and Stoopid and the book you wrote with Bill O’Reilly, Give Please a Chance. They both insist on the on the power of words.
A piece of it is politeness, and a piece of it is understanding that you don’t have a right to things, that there’s somebody on the other side of the equation when somebody gives you something. A lot of kids now think they’re born with the right to iPads and iPods and that’s not really true. There’s a new book coming out Give Thank You a Chance.
Is that also with Bill O’Reilly?
No, Bill is not involved in that one. It’s obviously way too loaded right now.
It was kind of loaded when Give Please a Chance came out, too, right?
A little bit. I never met O’Reilly, but I knew he had a big audience and I liked the idea. I’m considerably to the left of where Bill is. I got the number from his producer and said I had an idea, then he called up about 20 minutes later and I told him the idea for Give Please a Chance and he said, “I’m in, have your people call my people.’ I said, ‘Well, I am my people.’
As it pertains to O’Reilly in particular I wonder if the message that is ultimately communicated when he writes a book called Give Please A Chance is that you can not trust adults. He seems like the last person to preach politeness.
I don’t think kids know who Bill O’Reilly is or care, but it certainly raises the issue for adults to be thinking about ‘OK, does this guy really believe it?’ I think he does. Though then you get the weirdness of the fact that he doesn’t really practice that.
There’s two sides of the politeness issue. On one hand, you have the sense of gratitude, that nothing is free. On the other hand, you can see that message from a deeply conservative way. That it is a nostalgic look back for this romanticized but very unequal world, and it’s kind of like ‘Just be grateful for what you have.’
That’s kind of cynical but that’s OK. I don’t want to throw away everything that was around. I don’t want to throw out the cathedrals of Europe and the museums, I’d like to keep some of that, I think some of that stuff is pretty cool.