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Hooked on books: Author James Patterson wants kids to share his love of reading

  • Zion Hines, left, Lia Johnson, Shanya Walker and Kayla McMillian read from “Treasure Hunters” before a speech by author James Patterson at Stuart Hobson Middle School in Washington.  Illustrates KIDSPOST-BOOKS (category l), by Marylou Tousignant, special to The Washington Post.  Moved Tuesday, December 10, 2013. (MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Bonnie Jo Mount.)

    Zion Hines, left, Lia Johnson, Shanya Walker and Kayla McMillian read from “Treasure Hunters” before a speech by author James Patterson at Stuart Hobson Middle School in Washington. Illustrates KIDSPOST-BOOKS (category l), by Marylou Tousignant, special to The Washington Post. Moved Tuesday, December 10, 2013. (MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Bonnie Jo Mount.)

  • Author James Patterson at Stuart-Hobson Middle School in Washington in November. Patterson has sold more than 295 million books and has given thousands of books to schools.  Illustrates KIDSPOST-BOOKS (category l), by Marylou Tousignant, special to The Washington Post.  Moved Tuesday, December 10, 2013. (MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Bonnie Jo Mount.)

    Author James Patterson at Stuart-Hobson Middle School in Washington in November. Patterson has sold more than 295 million books and has given thousands of books to schools. Illustrates KIDSPOST-BOOKS (category l), by Marylou Tousignant, special to The Washington Post. Moved Tuesday, December 10, 2013. (MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Bonnie Jo Mount.)

  • Zion Hines, left, Lia Johnson, Shanya Walker and Kayla McMillian read from “Treasure Hunters” before a speech by author James Patterson at Stuart Hobson Middle School in Washington.  Illustrates KIDSPOST-BOOKS (category l), by Marylou Tousignant, special to The Washington Post.  Moved Tuesday, December 10, 2013. (MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Bonnie Jo Mount.)
  • Author James Patterson at Stuart-Hobson Middle School in Washington in November. Patterson has sold more than 295 million books and has given thousands of books to schools.  Illustrates KIDSPOST-BOOKS (category l), by Marylou Tousignant, special to The Washington Post.  Moved Tuesday, December 10, 2013. (MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Bonnie Jo Mount.)

James Patterson didn’t plan to become a famous children’s author. He wasn’t even a big reader when he was a kid, despite having a teacher for a mom and a grandmother who was a librarian.

“I didn’t read as much as I should have,” he admits. “I read what I had to.”

It wasn’t until college, when he could read what he wanted, that he grew to love books.

“I just couldn’t get enough. And it got me scribbling,” he says. “I really liked scribbling. I like telling stories.”

A glance at the “P” author shelf in any library proves it. Patterson has written more than 100 books, about a fourth of them for kids. His latest, I Even Funnier: A Middle School Story, came out Monday.

Patterson’s interest in children’s books traces back to when his son, Jack, was 8. Like his dad, Jack was a good student but a so-so reader. That summer, Patterson and his wife made a deal with Jack: He could skip some chores if he agreed to read every day. “Aw, do I have to?” Patterson recalls Jack saying. Jack’s parents told him they would help find books he would really like. “By the end of the summer, Jack had read a dozen books, 10 of which he thought were terrific.”

Patterson loves telling this story when he appears at schools, as he did last month at Stuart-Hobson Middle School in Washington, D.C. Every student there had been given one of his books beforehand, so the auditorium was buzzing when he got up to speak.

The great thing about reading, Patterson tells kids, is it’s fun right from the start.

“A beginning guitarist? That’s painful,” he says. “But as a reader, you can get cool stuff right away” and learn about different people and places.

He also stresses why reading matters. If you don’t read well, he says, “you’re going to be lost in high school. And what are you going to do in life? Be a pro athlete? A rapper?”

While that might sound good to some kids, the chances of it happening are slim. So that makes reading – and doing well in school – a big deal. “Reading will give you a lot of choices,” Patterson says.

Who or what inspires James Patterson?

The author says he has “a very active imagination” and keeps a folder full of ideas. At any time, he has 45 to 55 projects going, including movie scripts.

“I study, study, study” before writing, he says. “Then I write seven days a week . . . for five, six or eight hours a day.”

To hold readers’ interest, “I pretend there’s a person sitting across from me, and I don’t want him to leave until I’m finished with the story,” Patterson says.

Because he’s not superhuman, many of his books have co-authors. “I’ll have an idea and will write an outline” of 60 to 80 pages, including ideas for drawings. The co-author writes the first draft, which Patterson checks often “to keep it on track.” Then he buffs up the final version.

His children’s books aren’t sugar-coated. There are kids with disabilities, kids without parents, kids being bullied.

“Yes, there is a dose of reality” in them, he says. “I think that’s good. These books are not softballs. Readers love them because they show kids taking responsibility for their own actions, for their own lives, at a young age.”

A children’s book takes six to eight months to complete; an adult book, about twice as long.

Patterson, who is 66, shows no signs of slowing down. “I am a crazy person, totally crazy,” he tells the 400 kids at Stuart-Hobson. “ I can’t stop writing, and I can’t stop reading.”

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