Accepting your friends for who they are

by Stephanie Greene on March 9, 2014

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Odd Weird & Little, by Patrick Jennings (Egmont, 2014) Woodrow has always born the brunt of the bullying from Garret and Hubcap, two boys in his fourth grade class. Until the day that Toulouse arrives, that is. Toulouse is little. Very little. He wears suits with vests and big glasses over his huge round eyes. He’s, well … he’s weird. All the kids in class think so. But Toulouse doesn’t care. He acts like himself and says what he thinks until before long, he has turned their opinions about him around. When Woodrow stands up for him one day, confronting his own cowardice in the process, the beginnings of  a great friendship are formed. So who cares, if Toulouse is an owl? Learning to be who you are and accept your friends for who they are, no matter how weird or different, come across loud and clear in this delightful, delightfully weird, middle grade novel.

ReaderKidZ talked to author Patrick Jennings about how he came up with the idea, and what were the challenges he faced in writing a book about a most unorthodox friendship.

READERKIDZ: The new student, Toulouse, is an owl. It’s the perfect device because it allows him to remain remote and exotic (the bullies call him “weird”) but it never gets in the way of the story. Where did that come from and how difficult did you think it was going to be to write?

PJ: I got the idea in 2003 while reading Edward Lear, who wrote “The Owl and the Pussycat,” of Patrick Jenningscourse, but was also a esteemed painter of birds, including owls. It was the odd pairing of the owl and the cat that inspired a picture book story of a new kid at school who happens to be an owl. Being a story for preschoolers, the class was filled with cats, not kids. I named the owl Toulouse after Toulouse-Lautrec, due to Toulouse’s attire and shortness, and because it sounded like an owl’s exhortation. Years later, after an editor said she felt the classroom felt more middle-grade than preschool, I changed the setting to a fourth grade class, and the cats to kids. Casting Toulouse as an owl did allow me to show the extraordinary gifts he had, while showing his extreme oddness. That’s the thing about “nerds.” They’re different because they remain themselves; they’re picked on because they don’t conform. That individuality is their strength. To disparage someone simply because of their appearance is unfair and shortsighted. My hope was that Toulouse would illustrate this clearly. When I do school visits, I often ask how many of the kids in the audience think they are weird. Without fail, nearly every hand goes up. “So weirdness is normal at this school,” I say. All kids understand their uniqueness; sadly, most try to conceal it to fit in. But not all.

READERKIDZ: I admire the deft way Toulouse moves between saying his owl-like “Who?” and speaking short sentences in French-English like a human. Also, between his actions as an owl and those of a human ten-year-old. You move easily back and forth between it all, again and again. It strikes me as a very challenging balancing act to pull off. Did you get it right from the start, or did it require much re-writing?

PJ: I’ve known Toulouse a long time. By the time I sat down to write his story, I understood him pretty well. I know his back story and his family’s. I’m quite fond of him. I imbued him with some of the qualities we project onto owls: wisdom, patience, eeriness. Those are some powerful attributes for a fourth grader. It’s what makes Toulouse both odd and impressive. I enjoyed watching him make his classmates both wince (at the pellet, e.g.) and gasp (at his painting).

READERKIDZ: Some reviewers commend it for being a good story about bullying without being pedantic, but I saw it more as a story about the difficulties of making friends and being who you really are. Or, as Woodrow said, “Trying to be something you aren’t is such a drag.” Woodrow’s weird but Toulouse is weirder. What parts of that stem from your own childhood?

PJ: I didn’t set out to write a book on bullying. Confronting bullies is just one part of defending your right to be yourself, which is Woodrow’s struggle. My goal was to portray the kids as realistically as I could, based on my experiences growing up, watching my daughter and her friends growing up, and spending years in classrooms and in the writing group I host in my home (writers aged 10 to 15). Many of my books have had bullying characters. I often write school stories, so they naturally appear. I’ve been bullied in my life, and can testify that it is terrifying, suffocating, demoralizing. It is something we need to be vigilant about. The way Garrett and Hubcap treat Woodrow is cruel and relentless. Bullying begins when a person decides another person is inferior, abnormal, and vulnerable. To me, Odd, Weird, & Little is about the importance of going beyond surfaces, of digging deeper with people, of finding out who (or what) they really are. One of the things I love about fiction is the way it guides readers into the minds of others, how it can create empathy. Toulouse is a real challenge to his classmates. He is genuinely odd, more so than they realize. Woodrow sees what’s special about him, whereas Garrett only sees weirdness. My hope, of course, is that readers will empathize with Woodrow.

READERKIDZ: You have so many distinctive and unusual little details, particularly about the people. Woodrow likes to tie flies and carry around duck tape and read. His mother is a tree surgeon and doesn’t look anything like your “normal” Mom. Mr. Logwood keeps his students in line by threatening to break out into the song “Respect.” The music teacher has the kids learn “Dona, Nobis, Pachem” in lieu of the expected Christmas songs. Time and again, however small, you insert quirky details. Were the people really like that in your small hometown in Indiana?

PJ: A teacher friend of mine once started describing to me the wide variety of things his son carries in his pockets, including many different kinds of duck tape. My daughter’s elementary school choir teacher was much like Mr. Weldon (see the O-W-L?): enthusiastic, strict, passionate, and prone to unconventional musical selections. A female tree surgeon would not be unheard of in the small Olympic Peninsula town where I live. A lot of women here wear Carhardtts and drive pickups. I take notes as I move about my days, and fold these qualities into my characters.

READERKIDZ: The ending. It was a complete and wonderful surprise. I won’t give a spoiler here, but was that the ending you always imagined, or did that arise somewhere along the way? It makes Woodrow’s final epiphany so much more legitimate and heartfelt than if you’d ended it another way. Where did it come from?

PJ: I knew, vaguely, that after they had become friends, Toulouse would show Woodrow what he was. I also knew Woodrow would be terrified at first, then accepting. Really, what does it matter to Woodrow what Toulouse is? He likes him. Toulouse is his friend. Certainly we all know friendship transcends species. Thanks very much for being our guest author, Patrick. Congratulations on a wonderful book.

Barbara Younger March 10, 2014 at 3:38 am

What an intriguing interview. I must read the book!

Stephanie Greene March 10, 2014 at 3:40 am

Patrick Jennings did a terrific job, Barbara. You’ll love it.

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