Take Two for September 25, 2012

Bob Balaban introduces kids to 'The Creature from the 7th Grade'

Cover for Bob Balaban's book "The Creature from the 7th Grade."

Cover for Bob Balaban's book "The Creature from the 7th Grade."

Actor Bob Balaban is recognizable for his roles in films such as "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "Waiting for Guffman," and "Moonrise Kingdom," but did you know he's also an accomplished writer of children's books?

A Martinez talks to him about his latest work, "The Creature from the 7th Grade," about a nerdy kid by the name of Charlie Drinkwater, who suddenly finds himself resembling a giant mutant sea creature.

Interview Highlights

On how he got into writing children's books:
"About 10 years ago I wrote a treatment for a movie about a little boy and his bionic dog, and that's how it started. I sent the treatment to Scholastic publishing because they have a movie-making dept. and they said, 'We don't want to make this into a movie, but we think it might be a cool series of kids books, would you like to write six of them?' I said yes, so I wrote six of them and we sold a few million of copies. A few years went by and I thought I must do this again, I must think of a new series."

On the main protagonist of the series, Charlie Drinkwater:
"Charlie is 12, [he] is the smallest, skinniest, dorkiest kid in middle school, 7th grade. He's always getting beaten up by the bigger people, he's not good at sports and he's really smart ... It is now 7th grade and Charlie is having an upsetting day of school, it's first period english class and he noticed his hands are turning into giant claws, his feet are turning into flippers. He's trying to hide it from everybody and by the end of class he has to race to the room and complete his transformation into an 8 1/2-foot mutant dinosaur. So he's transformed from the dorkiest little tiny kid in 7th grade to the largest monster in 7th grade, but he's still not popular."

On why he chose to place Charlie in the 7th grade:
"The real year of change is 7th grade, first of all you're going through puberty and everyone's kind of going through it around the same time, and it's a unique experience nobody really talks about it. You literally wake up one day and your molecules are rearranging themselves and you're expected to be kind of an adult with no authority to do anything without asking your mother. So its really challenging. Also people are comparing themselves to the other kids around them because you so intensely want to fit in, you intensely would like to be normal. His mother says, 'Look how special you are, Charlie, nobody else in your class is anything like you.' He's like, 'Mom I just want to be normal.'"

On how the character of Drinkwater is partially based on Balaban:
"He does have my middle name in the book, which is a plot point he's terrified that people will find out his middle name and I actually don't like to say my middle name in public, but it's Elmer. It's pretty bad, but I gotta get used to it."

On how Balaban's experience in 7th grade shaped the character of Drinkwater:
"There's an ongoing through-line with the principal who gets a case against Charlie, and the principal when I was in 7th grade was my advisor and he came in one day and said, 'Well, boys, something new is happening I've decided to make football mandatory for the 7th grade.' I raised my hand, 'I'm 4-foot-10 and a half, I weigh like 61 pounds, you can't make me go on the football team.' He did and he really made a big case out of it and I got my shoulder pads and got the whole thing. I guess I bought it or whatever, it did turn out that I was the fastest kid on the football team, but unfortunately I was so afraid of being tackled that I tended to run in the opposite direction. There is a lot of stuff like that in it, I was the smallest kid in my class and would continue to be if we still had a class."

On what he loves most about writing children's books:
"I love connecting with kids, I love the mail I get, I read everything. On my first book I had some pretty fascinating kids writing me. It really makes you aware, you're sitting alone in your room all alone and you're communicating with sometimes hundreds of thousands of kids around the country. It's a responsibility, but its also nice to think you're helping kids learn to love to read. You're providing something that might actually set them off on a path that will make them happy for the rest of their lives. You're not who you look like you're who you really are, everybody is not staring at you so get over it now. Most people don't get over it until they're about 50 years old, but still its worth knowing. Your true friends are the people who really care about you, don't be friends with somebody because they're tall and they're on a sports team."


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