MERIDEN — Mega-bestselling author James Patterson isn’t sure he can make a dent in some of the world’s bigger issues, but when he hears that 50 percent of American students do not read at grade level, he believes he can help.
“It was just kind of automatic. In terms of getting kids to read, I can do a lot,” said Patterson, who pulled himself away from some pages he was editing for a recent phone interview.
Patterson, the bestselling novelist in the history of the world, spoke to students from Washington and Lincoln middle schools on June 9 as part of the school district’s Celebration of Readers, a partnership with R.J. Julia Booksellers. Previous speakers include Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor and actor Nick Cannon.
About 200 students participated in the event, asking the author questions about his work and listening to his thoughts on the importance of reading. The students prepared in advance of Patterson’s chat, reading some of his middle school books and getting acquainted with his prolific career.
“He was wonderful, just great with the kids. He was personable and down to earth,” said Susan Perrone, Meriden public schools’ supervisor of curriculum and accountability. “He had a sense of humor with the kids.”
Patterson’s event isn’t the only cause for celebration. Perrone said that the district has been making strides in students’ overall literacy, according to state test scores and the schools’ own assessments. “We keep working at it. We keep trying better ways to do things,” Perrone said.
Patterson has devoted a good part of his considerable fortune to literary causes. He funds scholarships for 400 students at 30 universities who wants to become teachers. He donates books. He lends his prestige and resources toward supporting bookstores, libraries, and schools.
“I think the problem (of student reading under grade level) is correctable,” he said.
Patterson himself didn't grow up as a huge reader. He had books he liked and as valedictorian of his senior class, he was certainly academically minded. But the books taught at his high school just didn't hold his interest. “It wasn’t grabbing me,” he said.
It wasn't until he worked the overnight shift at a mental hospital while he was in college that he became a voracious reader and writer.
Speaking to young readers
Because of his experience, Patterson believes that educators miss an opportunity when they introduce students to books that are too esoteric for where they are. To that end, he introduced his middle school imprint, called “Jimmy Patterson Books” as a way of making page-turners and, hopefully, more readers.
“When a kid finishes a Jimmy book, they say please give me another,” Patterson said.
Apparently, so does the rest of the world. Patterson has sold over 300 million copies of his books. “When I am sitting down to write, I imagine there is another person there and I don't want them to get up until I’ve finished,” Patterson said.
Patterson said he has about 30 projects, many of which he works on with co-authors, in varying stages of completion. He has delved into non-fiction, working on biographies of Jeffrey Epstein, John F. Kennedy, and John Lennon. He has also recently finished an autobiography.
“My grandmother used to have a saying. Hungry dogs run faster. I’m still a hungry dog,” Patterson said.
Simply put, he never gets writer’s block. When the idea for a particular project runs dry, he moves on to the next one. Each project helps to feed the others. “I don’t work for a living. I play for a living,” he said.
By Steven Scarpa, Special to the Record-Journal