August 07, 2020

Gordon Korman

Writing to keep kids hooked
Share this Article:

Bestselling author Gordon Korman’s latest middle grade novel, War Stories, tackles a serious subject, juxtaposing a boy’s admiration and belief in his great-grandfather’s heroism and valor with the gritty and morally complex reality of war. BookPage spoke to Korman about his turn to historical fiction, the ambitious structure of War Stories and how he keeps young readers turning the pages in book after book.

You’ve written so many books on so many different subjects over the course of your career. What drew you to writing about a story about World War II?
Even though I’m probably best known for writing humor, I might be even more proud of my work in the adventure genre, stretching back through my books in The 39 Clues series all the way to my Island trilogy from the early 2000s. Later on, the Titanic trilogy showed me how much fun it could be to merge adventure and historical fiction. That’s when I knew that one day I would write a World War II novel.

I’d love for you to talk about the way you’ve structured War Stories, the way it unfolds from multiple perspectives, in multiple moments in history. Did it have this structure from the very beginning of your writing process? Why did you decide to tell the story this way?
It actually took a long time to get this exactly right. My original vision was straight historical fiction—perhaps kids during the London blitz or fighting with the Resistance. It was my editor, the amazing David Levithan, who first suggested a multigenerational story. I realized I could craft parallel arcs for a contemporary seventh grader and his 93-year-old great-grandfather.

Jacob, Trevor’s great-grandfather, is a fascinating character. His willingness to share exciting and heroic stories of the war with Trevor sets him apart from many veterans, but he’s also unwilling to revisit and confront memories that are more troubling. How did you go about crafting and balancing this tension in him as you told his story?
It’s true that many veterans of World War II don’t like to talk about their experiences, which is too bad, because we are losing the generation who represent our last direct connection to that time. Jacob was at least partly inspired by my own grandfather, who was a great storyteller. He was older during World War II, so he served in North America, freeing up men closer to Jacob’s age to do the actual fighting. Perhaps that’s why he was so willing to share—he never saw the awful cost of war firsthand. In that way, it makes sense that Jacob, who loves to talk, clams up when forced to confront certain memories. 

The young reader I imagine is always just a little bit bored and on the verge of losing interest. So I write to keep that kid hooked, and the choice of genre—every choice, really—is based on making the best call to create an engaging story.

What kind of work and research did you do to be able to represent Jacob’s experiences on the page? Did you learn anything that surprised you?

It sounds cliched to say my research taught me how awful war is—that’s something we all know. But until I rolled up my sleeves and did the digging, I don’t think I fully understood the extent of it. Did you know that the Allies accidentally killed more French citizens in the process of liberating them than the Nazis killed British citizens in the entire war? You become desensitized to statistics about entire towns reduced to rubble. Most of France was rural, so the smell of hundreds of thousands of farm animals slaughtered by shelling was a constant. I relied largely on reporting from journalists embedded with Allied units, such as Ernie Pyle and A.J. Liebling.

Trevor glorifies what he believes to be true about World War II because of the stories he’s heard from Jacob and because of the video games he plays. How can we tell more honest stories of heroism and war, particularly for young readers? Why is telling these stories important?
One of the reasons I called the book War Stories is that stories can reveal deeper and more complicated truths because they’re populated by real human beings. Video games do a great job of creating exciting and challenging gameplay scenarios based on the appearance of reality, but they aren’t very good at exploring truth. No game, no matter how realistic, will ever be able to portray the tragedy of a single loss of life.

I don’t mean that video games are terrible. My own kids are gamers. Trevor will always enjoy video games. But in France he learns that games are exactly that—games, not truth. And it’s important for us to keep telling these truths so that future generations of leaders can make the momentous decisions of war and peace with their eyes open.

One of the first books I can remember reading and connecting with as a young person was your 1988 book, The Zucchini Warriors. I’d love if you would talk a little bit about writing in so many different genres—humor, sports, action, suspense, historical, mystery—over the course of your career. Is there a genre you haven’t tried that you’d still like to tackle? Do you read as widely across genres as you write?
Thank you for that! I’m a great admirer of Avi; his ability to skip effortlessly among genres astounds me. But the truth is, I don’t think about genre all that much when I’m in the middle of a book. The young reader I imagine is always just a little bit bored and on the verge of losing interest. So I write to keep that kid hooked, and the choice of genre—every choice, really—is based on making the best call to create an engaging story. Reading widely is vital. You can’t internalize how to make a genre yours until you’ve seen how the greats have made it theirs.

PS: I’m less known for my novels in the paranormal genre, but my series, The Hypnotists, is still one of my all-time favorite writing experiences.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read why BookPage reviewer Kevin Delecki says War Stories “strikes a perfect balance between compassion and honesty.”

You’ve written series as well as stand-alone stories, like War Stories. How is the process of writing a stand-alone novel and a book in a series similar? What do you think young readers enjoy about each type of storytelling?
It wasn’t too long ago that I was immersed in a total series world. I was in the middle of Masterminds and The Hypnotists; Jingle (the last installment in the Swindle series) had just come out; and I was touring for Flashpoint, my final contribution to The 39 Clues. Now I’m several books into a run of all stand-alones (with a couple of sequels in the mix).

I love the challenge of creating a whole new world for every novel, but I’d be lying if I said there isn’t a kind of security-blanket comfort to being in that series zone, where you finish a book and instantly know what comes next.

You’re well-known as an author who enjoys visiting schools and meeting readers (in fact, your website says you’ve visited 49 states, 9 Canadian provinces and 11 countries in Europe and Asia—what’s the missing 50th state?). How does spending so much time with your readers influence you as a writer?
I did my first school visit when I was 14 years old, and meeting my readers has always been a big part of my writing career. To me, it’s pure win-win. It’s excellent promotion and at the same time, it’s the kind of research you can’t get any other way. You hear what gets the big laugh, the introspective chuckle, the “You think that’s funny? That makes one of us.”

That missing state? Hawaii.

Your first book, This Can’t Be Happening at MacDonald Hall, was published when you were in the ninth grade. What writing advice would you give ninth-grade Gordon if you had access to a time machine and could find a way to give it to him without interfering with the space-time continuum? What advice do you think ninth-grade Gordon would give you in return?
Obviously, I was thrilled about the publication of my first novel, but when I think back to that time, I mostly remember being incredibly impatient. The book was written for a seventh-grade assignment, yet by the time it hit the shelves, more than a year and a half had gone by. That’s not terrible by publishing industry standards, but to a middle-schooler’s sense of time, it’s forever. So my main advice to my much younger self would be to chill out.

In return, ninth-grade Gordon might remind me not to lose my joy in a really cool twist, a great scene or a hilarious one-liner. I can’t ever forget that the writer I was then is much closer to the age of my readers than the writer I am now.    

Author photo by Owen Kassimir.

Get the Book

War Stories

War Stories

By Gordon Korman
ISBN 9781338290202

Sign Up

Stay on top of new releases: Sign up for our enewsletters to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres.

Trending Interviews

Sign Up

Sign up to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres!