No doubt you know Michael Northrop’s books: the Tombquest series, Trapped, Surrounded by Sharks, Plunked…these are just a few of his award-winning titles. His latest book, Polaris, which was given a “highly recommended” rating by our reviewers, is sure to be a hit as well.
It never gets old talking with the people who write books for children. They are definitely a special breed: witty, charming, sometimes eccentric, intriguing, and just plain nice folk. To me, one of the most interesting aspects of their personal lives is seeing the paths that led them to writing; Michael Northrop’s story is a case in point.
Let me put you on the spot right off the start: Your bio on your website mentions that you’ve moonlighted as a standup, tell us something funny.
That was years ago and a big part of my act back then was about how bad my neighborhood was. (Sample Bit: “When I moved in, I asked my landlord what the zip code was. He said, ‘In this neighborhood, it’s 9-1-1.’ I was like: That’s only three digits. What happened to the other two? He just looked at me: ‘They was stolen.’”)
That neighborhood? Bushwick, Brooklyn, which is now full of hip bars, expensive restaurants, and multi-million dollar condos. I don’t know if that’s funny or just ironic.
Here’s an old picture of me at Caroline’s comedy club on Broadway. I don’t know if that green suit is funny or ironic either.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, when did you know you wanted to write children’s books?
That was a pretty roundabout journey for me. I was an English major at NYU, but I was still all about poetry when I started. I got into journalism by dumb luck (and crushing debt). My best friend worked part-time at The World Almanac, and when he graduated two years ahead of me, he recommended me for the job. I became that one kid wearing a tie to class. I worked like 20-25 hours a week, answering mail and doing little baby editorial tasks. I did a lot of work on the sports section, and that led to a job at Sports Illustrated Kids magazine after graduation. That’s where I learned to write for younger readers. Really, after four years of English major obfuscations, it was where I learned to write clearly, period.
I was writing and editing short sports pieces all week, and I began writing short fiction on the weekends. Those stories got longer until I was ready to write a book. Young readers seemed like a natural fit from the start, based not only on my professional experience, but also on the range of things I like to write about. One of my favorite things about writing for young readers is that you aren’t really beholden to any one genre.
Do you have a favorite librarian or teacher who inspired you?
OK, so remember when I said that writing was a roundabout journey for me? I am dyslexic and got a late start on independent reading. (I am still a slow reader—though I now prefer the term meticulous!) It took a lot of amazing teachers, librarians, and assorted bookish people for me to go from repeating the second grade and struggling with picture books to writing for a living. Naming a favorite seems unfair, and listing them all seems daunting—like one of those Oscar speeches for a movie with 36 executive producers.
I’ll just pick one as an example. Mr. Michels was one of a string of excellent English teachers I had at Housatonic Valley Regional High School in northwestern Connecticut. The theme of our class was “Man’s Inhumanity to Man.” We read Lord of the Flies, Hiroshima, etc.—really dark, powerful stuff. He let us delve into some heavy concepts and really get into the weeds of human nature.
At this point, I had gravitated toward poetry, because it’s short and you have to read it slowly and carefully. Again, I’m dyslexic. Slowly and carefully is really the only way I could read. So when Mr. Michels sat on the corner of his desk one winter’s day and told us he was going to read a poem, I perked right up. The poem was “Hawk Roosting” by Ted Hughes.
It is written from the point of view of a hawk, and it completely blew me away. To me, a hawk was something you might see flying by in the distance, a peripheral detail of small-town life. It had never occurred to me that it might see itself as the absolute center of the world. But it’s an apex predator, incredibly fierce and single-minded—why wouldn’t it? The storytelling implications of that were immediately obvious to me. I realized that it mattered less how the world saw a villain, for example, than how that villain saw the world. It was a real “ah-ha” moment. A lot of things that I’d sort of suspected or vaguely sensed about stories clicked into place for me over the course of one short poem. I was already writing poetry at that point, but I honestly think that was the moment I became a writer.
What do you hope readers get from your books?
Well, first of all, I hope they enjoy them. If they’re reluctant readers, I hope reading and enjoying one of my books will make them a little more likely to pick up that next one. I am a big believer that once I finish writing a book, it belongs to the reader. Each reader’s interpretation is just as valid as my intention. With that in mind, I don’t try to give them specific messages as much as ingredients. Empathy, courage, mystery, a big idea or two, things like that. I try to give young readers a sense that, even when the world is very dark, they are never powerless.
What do you enjoy most about school visits?
I love school visits. I love seeing how readers respond to my books, which characters and scenes resonate with them, what questions they have, and so on. It really feels like a privilege to be allowed into these little communities of learning and growing. If I was driving by on the highway, I would have no idea these schools were even there, but with a few quick turns and maybe a side road or two, I get to meet all of these amazing students, dedicated teachers, and creative librarians, and encounter a whole hidden world of kids doing incredible things.
Keeping in mind that we’re a magazine for K-12 school librarians, is there anything you’d like to add that we haven’t touched on?
Just a general thank you. I have visited a lot of schools and the library is at the heart of so many of the best ones. It is amazing to me how much goes on there now, from story times to makerspaces to navigating the ever-changing environments of technology and media. Of course, with that said, my favorite part is still the discovery of just the right book for just the right reader at just the right time. That part played a huge role in my education and my life, and it is inspiring to see so many librarians working so hard to do the same for their own students.
You can learn more about Northrop and his books at https://michaelnorthrop.net/