By Oscar Wolfe
Let’s be honest, way too many kids’ books are about kids behaving badly or, well, wimpy— if you catch my drift.
Sean Jensen decided to write a different kind of book series for kids. He used to be a sports writer for the St. Paul Pioneer Press and Chicago Sun Times and now he teams up with professional athletes and writes about their stories in his series, Middle School Rules. Most books about athletes tell about their high school, college, and professional careers. Middle Schools Rules tells about athletes’ elementary school and middle school years. Middle School Rules gives kids role models to look up to.
It’s called “Middle School,” but I would actually suggest these books for elementary aged kids. If you like a relaxing but fun read, then this is for you. Also, if you like sports, then these stories are definitely for you.
I talked to the author, Sean Jensen, about how he does it.
Why did you start writing the Middle School Rules series?
When I was reading to my son Elijah, who’s now 9 years old, I felt like the books he liked were books that were really inappropriate for him. The books were really negative. They weren’t making him better. I started thinking, what would I be happy to have him reading? My son loves sports; I love sports. When I worked at the Pioneer Press, I really enjoyed writing the long feature stories and the profiles on athletes. When I wrote those, I’d always start late in high school, when they were getting to be known in the community, or in college or the pros. So I said, well, I never used to focus on what the athletes were like when they were little kids—before anybody knew who they were. So that’s the idea of Middle School Rules. My son says he wants to be a professional athlete, and I know how hard it is to become a professional athlete. I wanted to focus on some of those athletes and talk about the journey, challenges and obstacles they had to overcome to achieve that dream.
When you were a kid, did you want to be a writer, or an athlete, or something totally different?
I wanted to be an athlete. That was my first dream when I came to the United States from Korea—I was adopted. First, I wanted to be a professional bowler. My dad loved bowling, so I was at the bowling alley a lot and joined the bowling league. Then I wanted to become a professional baseball player, then professional basketball player, and a professional tennis player. I played some of those sports in high school, but it was very clear to me in high school that there was no way I was going to be a professional athlete. I had to start thinking about something else and I enjoyed writing, so I decided I’d become a sports writer.
How do you choose the athletes who you write about?
I try to focus on athletes who I think are good examples. It’s not just about who is the most famous athlete I can get. Also, athletes I have some connection to. The first two, Brian Urlacher, and Charles Tillman (former Chicago Bears players), I covered when I was at the Chicago Sun Times. WNBA player Skylar Diggins was someone I didn’t know—I had to figure out how to get in touch with her. Football player Jamaal Charles heard about Middle School Rules and reached out to me.
For Skylar, you said you didn’t know her. Why did you think she was a good example?
After doing two male athletes, I really wanted to to do a female athlete. I really like Skylar’s story. She’s obviously a very popular WNBA player, but I don’t think people really knew about her childhood. She’s kind of short for a WNBA player, and even though she’s really, really good, I felt like she was relatable to more people. The other thing that really impressed me, Skylar is very engaging on social media. Fans interact with her all the time and she responds a lot. She hosts basketball camps for kids. I just think she’s really cool that way.
What is it like working with athletes?
I did it for so long. I covered the NFL for 16 years so it’s not very different for me. I don’t approach the athletes like I’m a fan. I’m a professional. I try to treat them like real people, like I treat everybody else. My job is, I’m a storyteller. So I want to sit down and I want to hear their stories. All of them have told me stories that have never been published before.
What’s it like writing books vs. writing in the newspaper?
Really hard! With newspaper articles, even a really long newspaper article, it might be a couple thousand words. With a book, it’s tens of thousands of words. On top of that, it’s just a different structure. They say that journalists typically write at an 8th grade level, but my books are really for elementary and middle school level, so I have to write in a way that I can’t presume things. Like, Jamaal Charles—he was very into track and field. I can’t presume that a third grader is going to know what a relay is and what a baton is or a counter play in football. I really try to seize the opportunity to educate as I write. To explain some complicated things that kids can understand.
Did your son give you any feedback on the books?
Yeah, he did! He got to see the first drafts, he gets the first copy. He loves sports, so he really likes the stories. He likes to watch players on NFL films. Elijah loves, loves, loves football, so these books give him the chance to see what childhood was like for Urlacher or Tillman
How did you get all the dialogue?
It’s not like people recorded all those conversations. To best of my ability, I have to recreate those stories and bring them to life.
I’m just curious, why was it written in present tense instead of past tense?
I would love your feedback on that, Oscar! Do you like that it’s present tense or do you think it should have been past tense?
Well, I think that it should have been past because it did take place in the past. I’d be fine if it was present, but the thing that got me, when it was a flashback, it was still present, and that confused me.
That’s really good feedback, Oscar. And that’s something that we as a team have been really debating. I’ve been the one who pushes for present tense. As you can tell, the stories are chronological. I felt that was the best format for Middle School Rules, especially because younger kids were going to be reading it. We start early and build toward high school. I want students to feel like they’re going through the journey right now. I think it’s more engaging to write in present.
What’s next for Middle School Rules?
I hope I can keep doing it! I’m having fun with it. I want to continue sharing the stories. I recently talked to North High School (in Minneapolis) after winning their second state basketball championship. I talked to them about not being afraid to fail—you’re not always going to win. I was able to pull lessons from the books.
Okay, it’s time for the rapid fire round.
Favorite sports team: Boston Celtics
Favorite sport to watch: Football
Favorite sport to play: Golf
Favorite word: Awesome
Favorite athlete: As a kid, Larry Bird of the Celtics
Favorite book: The Bible
Favorite Movie: Naked Gun
Favorite food: Korean BBQ
Favorite emoji: The two hands up
Last question: What advice would you have for someone who wants to be an athlete, a writer, or just wants to do something great?
I would tell them that nothing worth having comes easy.
Check out Middle School Rules and watch for more books coming soon!