26 May 2007

My Teacher Is Bruce Coville

One of the main speakers at last weekend's SCBWI New England conference was Bruce Coville, and I was delighted. Not just because I'd heard him speak before, at a main SCBWI conference in LA, so I knew how entertaining and encouraging he was. I also greatly admire him as a writer, and here's why.

(I'm going to tell this story as I understand it from my memory of speeches and articles. If I get little details wrong, I apologize and welcome corrections. If I get big details wrong, I'm going to sulk because I want to preserve my illusions.)

In the late 1980s Byron Preiss, the visionary book packager, approached Bruce with a proposal that he write a middle-grade novel called My Teacher Is an Alien. Bruce was then a struggling children's writer who'd shown a knack for fun science fiction and fantasy stories, and he had also been a struggling schoolteacher. So he was a good candidate for turning Preiss's title into an actual book.

In Hollywood terms, My Teacher Is an Alien is "high concept": all the information you need to grab readers is in that five-word title. Clearly, the book was shaped for maximum market. It was paperback product. Writing to fit a packager's title is the children's-literature equivalent of, say, basing a movie on a theme park ride.

Bruce made My Teacher Is an Alien into a fun, tight little story, not only giving us the entertainment we wanted but also the surprises we might have had no reason to expect. And readers responded. My Teacher Is an Alien was a hit. So Preiss asked Bruce to turn that one book into a sequel. I'm not sure whether that offer came with the implication that if Bruce didn't want to, Preiss would find another writer who did. The company owned the book's copyright, not the author.

And this is where I stop admiring Bruce Coville's luck and talent and start admiring his values as well. Because he didn't want to write the same teacher-is-an-alien plot over and over. He wanted to find more meaning in the situation he'd set up. And he did.

For each of the three sequels--My Teacher Fried My Brains, My Teacher Glows in the Dark, and My Teacher Flunked the Planet--Bruce chose a different narrative voice. He addressed different personal issues. He took us out of the classroom into alien cultures, and then back to Earth to view it through alien eyes.

Furthermore, the series gains depth with each volume. It gets into questions of bullying, intelligence, education and moral guidance, war and peace, responsibility for other species, and whether human nature is inherently good or destructive. All without ever leaving behind the humor and neat stuff that filled the first book.

According to Bruce's essay in Something About the Author, reprinted here, this series

remains a secret between me and the kids, since not many adults have paid attention to it. Indeed, a startling number of teachers and parents have told me they had not read My Teacher Is an Alien specifically because of the title or the cover, and were startled to find, after a child had urged it upon them, how much they actually enjoyed it.
Yes, this series is the equivalent of a movie based on a theme park ride and its market-demanded sequels. But some movies based on theme park rides are very good movies. (Well, so far one has been.)

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