Steven B. Frank
When I was growing up, I always looked forward to the holidays. What kid doesn’t look forward to the holidays? I couldn’t wait to open presents and see if, maybe this year, my family would finally get me something different.
The gifts you get say a lot about how people see you. My brother Michael, a big reader, would unwrap The Complete Novels of Charles Dickens or The Norton Anthology of English Literature or Balzac: A 6-Volume Set
All that reading paid off. Mike grew up to be just what the family expected: a writer.
Dan, the middle child, loved science and electronics. He would unwrap a Home Chemistry Set, an Erector Set, or a Heathkit, Jr. Deluxe Electronic Workshop. His gifts would take over the floor of the room we shared. Sometimes he’d let me into the mad science he was performing—by telling me to run downstairs and get him a screwdriver.
All that tinkering paid off. Dan grew up to be just what the family hoped for: a doctor.
And then I would open…a can of tennis balls. Every year. Every holiday. A new can of balls. Usually Wilson
I loved playing tennis. It gave me a special bond with my dad and, later, a solid bond with other kids my age. But sometimes when you’re pegged as the “athlete in the family,” nobody sees who else you might want to be. In my case, I was curious too about stories and science. But those identities were already taken.
I didn’t grow up to be a professional tennis player. I grew up to be a teacher. And then I grew up some more to be a writer.
It's good to be grateful for the gifts you receive. But it can take a lifetime to unwrap the ones you already have.
Q & A
Steven B. Frank
- The book/person/thing that inspired me to be a writer is:
I grew up with two very different role models of how grownups were supposed to work. One was my dad, an entrepreneur who, like Charlie's dad in ARMSTRONG & CHARLIE, had his own medical equipment business. My dad had to answer the phone at all hours, solve crises, and carry his work around with him all the time. (There was literally an oxygen tank in our garage in case he had to make an emergency delivery.) I saw how hard he worked, heard how hard he slammed the phone down, and wondered if he'd rather be doing something else. Whenever he'd talk about handing the business to one of his three sons, I privately prayed that it wouldn't be me.
On the other hand and just around the corner, there were my aunt and uncle, Hollywood Screenwriters. They worked in secret every weekday from nine to one. "Writing Hours," they told us, and we, their energetic, loving nephews--they had no kids of their own--were not to come around during that sacred time. But all the the rest of the day and evening, and all weekend long, they were available for outings to the bookstore, dinners at the Farmers Market, and afternoon swims in their sparkling pool. Somewhere in my subconscious mind, I must have thought, a writer's life for me!
The irony is that a writer's life is mentally just as hard as an entrepreneur's. Your characters never leave you alone, so you'd better enjoy spending time with them.
- What will middle grade readers like about your books?
I hope they'll see the right mix of humor and heart. My students often ask me to recommend books that are both funny and "mean something" too. I give them books like DEAD END in NORVELT, OKAY FOR NOW, HOOT, WONDER, and THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN. If they like ARMSTRONG & CHARLIE even half as much as they love those books, I'll feel lucky to have reached them as I hoped I would.
- My least favorite subject in school was:
Sewing. In 7th grade at Bancroft Junior High, we had to take sewing. I was terrified by the teacher, Mrs. Jitlov, who had been tough enough to flee the Soviet Union. She wore a denim house dress with flowers she'd embroidered herself, but you had to take her advanced class to learn how. One day she gave us a test: use a sewing machine to follow the lines on a piece of notebook paper. Most of the kids produced straight lines of thread in perfect rows. Mine looked like a lie detector test for Pinocchio, or the seismograph of the Great San Francisco Earthquake. "Your sewing is crrrooked," Mrs. Jitlov said. On my report card, she gave me a D, my first ever in any class.
At the end of the semester I went to her and said, "Mrs. Jitlov, it's not my fault I got a D in sewing."
"Whose fault it is?" she said. "Mine?"
"No, not yours either. It's the Board of Education's fault. They cut back on funding, so you had too many kids in class. I really needed your help, Mrs. Jitlov. But you never had time to give it."
She rubbed the fabric bouquet on her house dress. "This is true," she said. "Too many students. I change your grade to C."
For our final project, we made aprons. Mine was perfectly straight after Mrs. Jitlov ripped out the hem and resewed it for me.
- The best thing about my job is
the fun I have with my students, like the time I brought in my old manual Smith-Corona typewriter so they could type up their poems. They approached it with the curiosity kids bring to dusty relics in their grandparents' closets, or dead things by the side of the road. They poked it, sniffed it, peeked under it, and searched in vain for the "on" switch. When I showed them how it works, they were hooked. The next week one of them called to me from across the yard, "Mr. Frank! I bought a typewriter! On E-Bay!"
- One piece of advice for your middle grade self:
Keep your wallet in your front pocket. People have asked me how much of ARMSTRONG & CHARLIE is real and how much is made up. I'd say it's 15 percent real and 85 made up. Here's a story that's part of the 15 percent. I really did ride my bike down Laurel Canyon Boulevard with a neighborhood kid. (His name was Mike Maniskas and he lived up the street.) And we really did fake out our moms. This was back in the 1970s when moms didn't hover. As long as we were home by dark, they assumed we were alive. One Saturday Mike and I told my mom we'd be riding our bikes on the vacant lots in our neighborhood. We told his mom that my mom could give us a ride down to Studio City with our bikes in her trunk so we could ride around in the flats, but we needed his mom to give us a ride home. Since our moms hardly ever talked, chances were good we wouldn't get caught.
We took off along twisty Mulholland Drive and down dangerous Laurel Canyon. High speed. Heavy traffic. Tons of curves. Near the bottom, where it straightens out, I popped a wheelie onto the sidewalk. The rest of the ride was safe. We messed around for a few hours, browsing at the pet shop and the toy store and riding our bikes on the flat, tree-lined streets of Studio City. Mike's mom met us at Baskin-Robbins ice cream parlor like we'd planned. She treated us to hot fudge sundaes, threw our bikes in the back of her Buick, and drove us home. At dinner, I could hardly concentrate on my peas, my mind still buzzing from Our Great Deception.
Then the phone rang. My mom answered. I could see her face get all crinkly as a voice on the other end asked for "Mr. Frank."
"This is Mrs. Frank," I heard her say. And then, "Where?" And then, "That's not possible." And then, "Really?" And then, "Okay, we'll come pick it up tomorrow."
She hung up and announced that a man on Laurel Canyon Boulevard had just found a wallet on the sidewalk. There wasn't much money in it, but there was an I.D. card in a kid's handwriting that said, "Mr. Steven Frank."