The Indubitable Dweeb
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July 31, 2013

The Winter of the Robots by Kurtis Scaletta


I was about 10 years old when my brother and I went to see the original Back to the Future. It may seem like a relatively harmless movie, but it warped our minds. Not due to all the Oedipality, mind you. No, it was because we returned home convinced we could build a time machine. Out of a model train. All we had to do was get it chugging, zap it with an electric current, and bingo, bango, next stop Mesozoic Era. Of course, a few hours later, tangled up in wires and scratching our heads, we learned that our goal was a bit too lofty. But it was a pleasure to have those warped minds, if only for a short while.

Young readers of Kurtis Scaletta’s latest novel, The Winter of the Robots, will find their minds similarly warped. It’s a book where kids build robots that battle each other, and it will surely inspire tinkerers and dreamers to build similar robots in their garages. And maybe a few industrious young folks will actually accomplish their goals, but I suspect most will simply muse over the possibilities. Sometimes that’s equally fun.

Kurtis Scaletta has a voice. In the marketplace of middle grade fiction where there are far too many coattail riders, it is refreshing to stumble upon an author crafting distinct stories that are personal and nostalgic, but also contemporary and slightly magical. Scaletta specializes (at least for now) in tales of boys who live in worlds that are almost like ours. But there’s always a slight bend in those worlds. A town where it always rains. A boy who is like catnip to deadly snakes. An invasion of glowing fungi. In the case of The Winter of the Robots, it’s those kids building those robots, obviously. These things aren’t walking, talking C-3POs. They’re more of the Battlebots variety, but they’re also more sophisticated than what most adults are capable of creating. They’re programmed to react in clever ways, and if the book is about anything, it’s about reactions.

There are any of number of things that inspire reactions in the main character, Jim. The attention of a smart and attractive girl. The emotions that arise when that girl starts dating the school tough. The exploits of a mischievous but loyal sister. The mysteries of a rough-and-tumble family. The yo-yo-ing friendship with a brilliant boy who has lost his father.

Jim is a good kid but, like any kid in the throes of puberty, some of his programming is a bit faulty. His reactions run the gamut from foolish to callous. At the same time, he’s trying to negotiate the reactions of others, most importantly those of his father. This relationship is a small part of the story, but an essential one. Jim’s father has a temper and the tiniest things can set him off. Since his father has been programmed to attack (verbally, at least), Jim has programmed himself to defend. It’s what Jim is best at, but it requires deception and flight more often than not. He needs to find an even better way to deal with this, his biggest of problems.

So while the tinkerers and dreamers will be drawn into the book by the robots, it’s the kids who are constantly on the defensive who will find the strongest emotional bond with it. And while it might warp some young minds into believing that garage robotics are as easy as Legos, it will also remind some young minds that relationships can be as hard as anything in life. There are no easy answers about how best to deal with human reactions, but Scaletta provides something as important: the hope that as we all grow and learn, our reactions will change. Unlike robots, we can reprogram ourselves.

July 23, 2013

The Riverman, a Novel

It’s been almost two years in the making, but I can finally reveal more about my latest book, The Riverman. It won’t officially bust out into the world until March 2014, but a few advance reader copies have escaped their cage and if you find one, hogtie it and read it, then shout your opinions about it from the mountaintops (or from a blog or social media platform of your choice).

For the rest of you, here’s a teaser:

“To sell a book, you need a description on the back. So here’s mine: My name is Fiona Loomis. I was born on August 11, 1977. I am recording this message on the morning of October 13, 1989. Today I am thirteen years old. Not a day older. Not a day younger.”

Fiona Loomis is Alice, back from Wonderland. She is Lucy, returned from Narnia. She is Coraline, home from the Other World. She is the girl we read about in storybooks, but here’s the difference: She is real.

Twelve-year-old Alistair Cleary is her neighbor in a town where everyone knows each other. One afternoon, Fiona shows up at Alistair’s doorstep with a strange proposition. She wants him to write her biography. What begins as an odd vanity project gradually turns into a frightening glimpse into a clearly troubled mind. For Fiona tells Alistair a secret. In her basement there’s a gateway and it leads to the magical world of Aquavania, the place where stories are born. In Aquavania, there’s a creature called the Riverman and he’s stealing the souls of children. Fiona’s soul could be next.

Alistair has a choice. He can believe her, or he can believe something else…something even more terrifying.

And here’s a blurb from the inimitable, incredible, award-hoarding author of Dead End in Norvelt, Hole in My Life and the Joey Pigza series:

“Every culture has a magical river story. Some rivers promise the pleasures of eternal youth, while others promise the paradise of eternal salvation. The Riverman promises a more exhilarating alternative. Dive into this book and you may never resurface.”Jack Gantos

And here are the cold hard facts:

The Riverman was edited by Joy Peskin. It is represented by Michael Bourret at Dystel & Goderich Literary Management. It will be published on March 18, 2014 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux Books for Young Readers, a division of Macmillan. Without these dedicated and talented people, it would not be the book that it is. In fact, it would not be a book at all.

Finally, here’s the cover, designed by Beth Clark and illustrated by Yelena Bryksenkova:

riverman cover

June 15, 2013

School Visit: Learning Community Charter School of Jersey City, NJ


Do you see that picture? Seriously, folks, do you understand the ridiculously awesome thing you’re looking at there? Click on it for closer inspection. That, my friends, is the blood, sweat and tears of three classes of 5th Graders at LCCS in Jersey City, NJ. These kids were kind enough to not only read DWEEB, but also create some amazing artwork based on the book. You are looking at movie posters! Cereal boxes! Comic strips! Character profiles! And hamburgers of all shapes, sizes and dimensions! Amazing? You better believe it.

I had the distinct honor of visiting these young readers and artists last Thursday. They welcomed me into their school with kindness, questions and pizza. A special thank you goes out to the teachers and staff who invited me, especially Ms. Litman, a friend from the days of yore. LCCS is a wonderful school with kids so smart and audacious that they are demanding a sequel to DWEEB (Random House, are you listening?) and a 150-million-dollar movie based on the book…starring them:

LCCS kids

P.S. One of these kids was wearing a Keith Richards T-shirt. He should probably be cast in the role of Elijah.

May 25, 2013

Hoboken Public Library Book Festival: Saturday, June 8


For years, I’d been hoping that my hometown of Hoboken would hold a book festival. Of course, I could have organized one myself. But such things require gumption, which is usually in short supply after a day of writing and chasing freelance projects. Luckily, the Hoboken Public Library has bucketloads of gumption, and they probably also have some sort of mind-reading technology, because they’ve taken my idea and run with it. They’re holding their inaugural book festival to kick off the summer and I will be there reading, signing and selling The Only Ones and DWEEB. Here are the details:

  • When: Saturday, June 8, 11am-5pm (my readings: 11:15am-1:00pm; signing and selling: 1pm-3pm)
  • Where: Church Square Park in Hoboken
  • Who: Me! and these other wonderful local authors.
  • How: By hook or by crook

I hope to see you all there!

May 10, 2013

Tachair Bookshoppe Reading: Sunday, May 19


For years, Jersey City, a place with a population of nearly 250,000, didn’t have an independent bookstore. Tachair Bookshoppe filled the void last year and is already a fixture in the downtown community, a place where you can go to read, drink coffee, catch a musical performance, and see paintings from local artists. Tachair is Gaelic for a meeting place and I hope you will meet me there for some readings from DWEEB, The Only Ones, and (possibly), The Riverman.

  • When: Sunday, May 19 at 5:30 PM
  • Where: Tachair Bookshoppe at 260 Newark Avenue, Jersey City, NJ
  • How: Drive or take the PATH train to Grove Street and walk northwest on Newark Avenue until you reach 2nd Street
  • Why: Because it will be fun!

This world needs more places like Tachair. Like them on Facebook for even more information. And please come out and support them…and me!