Vol. 22
Derek Taylor Kent Typography Portrait

Developing Readers with Derek Taylor Kent

November 2016

Storyteller, Writer, Performer, Puzzle Maker.

Author of the popular children’s book series Scary School (as Derek The Ghost), Derek Taylor Kent fashioned a career in writing from a performance background. His early love for picture books and a passion for making reading appealing to children forged a style which add a twist on reality, humour and a little bit of spookiness to his books. Derek understands the importance of introducing young minds to books that they will enjoy by making them fun in order to shape their futures by encouraging a positive outlook on reading. Derek's ability to engage with this audience when promoting his books has allowed him to find opportunities to push the boundaries, including releasing bi-lingual books to be more inclusive. His latest work, Kubrick’s Game is a new adventure for Derek, a very detailed puzzle book for an older demographic, but one that still stays true to the same sentiments of fun that he is known for.

Derek Taylor Kent--- 29 September 2016

By Lorenzo Princi

What do you do?

I have been a children’s book author for almost my whole life it seems. I started writing children’s books when I was just fifteen years old. Started off writing picture books, almost in a Dr. Seussian style-- I became just obsessed with Dr. Seuss, again when I was fifteen years old and I started writing middle grade novels right after college. After Dr. Seuss I went through a Harry Potter phase-- I became obsessed with Harry Potter.

I was having trouble, I couldn’t get picture books published and I realised that’s what I had to be doing, is writing novels that didn’t need illustrations [laughs]. So, that was a big problem for me because I’m not an artist. So I started writing the novels and I spent about two years on the first one which did not get a book deal but got one publisher interested enough that they wanted a different kind of lighter take on it which became the Scary School series which pretty much became my whole life from for five years. I was writing and promoting the Scary School series-- that’s for ages seven to twelve. I finally got my first picture book published last year! El Perro con Sombrero and the my new obsession after that-- I seem to get obsessed with a genre and then I became-- into puzzle adventures. I become--like Ready Player One kind of triggered it. I’d always been in-- like I’d read all the Dan Brown books and Michael Crichton books. I’d always enjoyed them but I thought I saw the full potential when I started reading Ernest Cline books which I-- got me interested in the idea of writing a story just based completely on my biggest passions which were-- the biggest one that came to mind way (Stanley) Kubrick, so that plunged me into years of research and story plotting before the book was finally ready.

Before settling into writing you studied at UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television and were. What were your original aspirations for doing the course?

I was an actor coming out of high school-- I wanted to be an actor and a playwright, I was also-- I was super into movies, I did film-school in high school and I sort of had a plan-- was to transfer into the film school as a junior at UCLA because they don’t accept you until you're a junior for film-school there. So I did two years of theater and I applied at the film-school and I ended up not getting in so I ended up focusing on playwriting [laughs] and I’ve always just-- that’s always just been a big part of my life; performing, acting and I kind of spent a long time doing it, especially in my early mid-twenties and then sort of in my late twenties I started focusing more entirely on writing and directing and after doing that, acting wasn’t as appealing to me anymore, I like being the one making decisions [laughs] after going to auditions and being rejected all the time!

Your performance piece Michael Jordan’s Magic Shoes shows both your writing and performing skills and you spent some time touring it. How did you get into that and how did you find it?

That was a-- that was an interesting-- that was kind of the first thing I became famous for, kind of… I did that as just a funny thing-- I’d written that as a children’s book originally. I thought, “oh that would be a fun little children’s book” but it couldn’t; you had to get Michael Jordan’s approval which we couldn’t get [laughs]. So I turned it into a funny show that was kind of joking off the fact that we couldn’t get his approval and I did it just for fun, as kind of a lark at UCLA for-- they have something called Theater Fest where all the students can kind of put up their own productions and it just became like a big hit. Everyone came to see it, even the Dean of students came and they loved it so much they had me perform it for the entire school for the orientation and then the popularity of it had spawned sequels which I did at UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) when I graduated. I turned it into a trilogy which I kind of toured around with for a bit.

It was an interesting way, the way I ended up combining theatre and writing which ended up playing a huge part in my whole life now because most of my time is spent promoting my books. A lot more so than I have time to write. You have to promote so I have to-- two, three days a week I have to be out doing school visits, promoting my book for which I have to-- I’ve created an entire show centered around each of my books. So I’m still a performer, that’s still my performance outlet, except it’s-- I’m kind of more a children’s theater performer now which I didn’t know I’d ever be.

"I ended up combining theatre and writing which ended up playing a huge part in my whole life now because most of my time is spent promoting my books."
Caffeine & Concrete Vol. 20

In a world where it seems no one is reading, why did you choose the be a writer and what are the challenges?

It’s a good question, I-- what’s interesting is while books are-- perhaps sales are declining over the years for adults, for children and middle-grade readers they’ve actually grown and grown. Especially the YA (Young Adult) market. That’s why they happen-- that’s why almost every writer out there is coming out with them and competing against us. James Patterson has to write middle-grade books now [laughs]. You know, and every celebrity has to write picture books, so I guess that’s where the strongest sales happened to be because parents always want their kids to read and will always buy them books.

So I think that that’s-- that has always been my niche, I haven’t had trouble finding an audience there, this-- Kubrick’s Game is a risk because I’m expanding beyond that for the first time but I think that I went into an arena where their are a lot of readers, which is like my geek audience. You know, Ready Player One (Ernest Cline cult puzzle book which references retro gaming culture) definitely found it’s audience and these are people who love absorbing any kind of good story content, whether it’s TV, film or books. I think they especially love books because they love being ahead of the curb [laughs]-- being the ones who read-- appreciating that more before the other derivatives have to come out.

So, I think it’s harder to find an audience these days, it’s just unfortunately the reason is because the bookstores have gone away. I talk about it in my book (Kubrick’s Game) a little bit how like ninety percent of the book stores just in Los Angeles have closed down. All we have are a few independents and a few Barnes & Nobles. It used to be that you could guarantee a certain amount of sales even with a big publisher because they’d all match one another's orders; Borders would have to match Barnes & Noble’s and as soon as they went away, suddenly even if you have a big book deal with one of the big publishers, there’s still a questions if you’re going to get any orders. So, it’s definitely a lot riskier and not as lucrative as it was but ones that do find their audience can still do very well and markets are expanding the areas of audio and ebooks. So, it’s still there-- people-- I’m-- I’m optimistic about it, it’s just… yeah...

"It has to be fun for them at that age because that’s when they’re kind of deciding whether they’re going to enjoy reading for the rest of their lives."
Caffeine & Concrete Vol. 20

You’ve got a natural ability to engage with a young audience, going as far as having one of your books bilingual. Why do you think it’s important to create imaginative stories aimed at children?

Great question, so the picture books are-- there’s picture books and my middle-grade books, so you’ll have stuff like El Perro con Sombrero which in my time touring my Scary School series I happened to visit a number of dual immersion schools which happen to be a hot new type of school that’s-- that are expanding more everyday where they actually teach actively in Spanish and English and so-- and there was-- they had told me that there was a shortage of books, bilingual books for their kids to read and so I, I thought of that and I happen to get a dog around the same time that was going on and the idea kind of sprung for El Perro con Sombrero [laughs]. Kind of comes back to my Dr. Seuss fascination with The Cat In The Hat, so why not a dog in the hat? [laughs].

But it’s crucial-- then when we get onto my middle-grade readers you have to make books fun, like, I think that’s what the question was, how do you make the books fun? It has to be fun for them at that age because that’s when they’re kind of deciding whether they’re going to enjoy reading for the rest of their lives or it could just be those first few books that they read. If they’re-- if it’s something boring, something they don’t relate to it could just put a sour taste in their mouth and give them a bad connotation about reading that could last the rest of their lives and affect the through schooling and everything else. But if they get that-- the feeling of excitement and enthusiasm, they’re learning something and being excited about reading for the-- at that age it kind of creates a domino effect where they enjoy reading the rest of their lives. That’s just-- I see that happen so directly, I mean I have to credit the Harry Potter series because every kid who was around that age when Harry Potter was at it’s height continued reading, no one stopped reading and said, “oh, I liked Harry Potter and then I don’t-- but I don’t really read much any more beside that.” They just are avid readers now looking for the next story and they haven’t stopped.

So I-- I make books fun by, I think, I actually just kind of a book where I contributed a prompt about, for writers, about exactly how to make books fun and one little trick I use is making the characters themselves have fun, kind of going off plot and have the characters do something fun that’s the time of their lives that’s nothing to do with the story. Because when characters are having fun, that’ll usually mean the readers are having fun. That’s one little trick that I use to engage my young audience.

"I’m kind of more a children’s theater performer now which I didn’t know I’d ever be."
Caffeine & Concrete Vol. 20

Real world reference plays a part in your work, Michael Jordan, Stanley Kubrick, even a younger version of yourself in Scary School. Why do you insert real-world figures as central part of your work?

I think I just get excited about, as I’m writing, I really enjoy bringing things from my real life into a fictional world and playing with them and tinkering with them. It’s just something I find just very interesting. Like there’s, yeah, there’s a version of myself and I put my sister in it and sometimes I just-- a little nod, it’s sort of my way for me to show my appreciation to people. Some of my teachers from my Scary School books are in there and it may seem like I’m making fun of them but I really felt like I was honouring them in a way. People who have been influential in my life, for instance I have a few of my cousins are in the Scary School books and the reason I wanted to put them in is because they were my first readers who read my book and were my test audience and were really helpful in giving me-- and getting me notes when I was kind of teaching myself to make the jump from picture books to middle-grade books.

For Kubrick’s Game yeah there’s some real life figures in there which I felt-- I didn’t really have an intention of it other than it made sense to the story. Like, you couldn’t do it without those people in there or else if this were-- I have to put myself in the reality of the situation-- like, if this were really happening, how would it be setup and how would it work? What would Kubrick had done? And all of those elements came into play including the real life figures who would’ve definitely just made sense for their involvement.

"I really enjoy bringing things from my real into a fictional world and playing with them and tinkering with them."
Caffeine & Concrete Vol. 20

While I was reading Kubrick’s Game I noticed that a lot of the characters with varied ethnicities weren't in any way stereotypical but simply "are who they are" and I found that very interesting and refreshing. Was this at all intentional?

I think that kind of comes back to what I had said earlier as being in the reality of the-- of my world. So, in the reality of my world as I said before I felt like Kubrick would have involved people like Steven Spielberg, Malcolm McDowell who he had very strong relationships with and in-- so I’m creating the reality of my setting. UCLA happens to be a very diverse campus. The character of Wilson, he’s-- he’s actually another who’s based on a real person [laughs] I thought it might be obvious who it was but he is someone who is a well known child actor who happened to be at film school with us at the time and that was the reality of the situation and there was a lot of diversity at the school in general. I was a little-- there was one subtle reference to his ethnicity to begin with, I had mentioned he’d won a BET (Black Entertainment Television) award when we were introducing him and that’s about it until like probably farther into the book. Before that, that wasn’t even in there and-- I always thought that would be obvious through actions or the character-- I don’t-- a lot of times I don’t like to put that on the unless it’s important for the character for some reason but I did get a note from my editor that it should-- that I needed to drop more hints. People were reading, getting, “oh, look wait” they’d had one picture in their head for a long time and suddenly they had to change it all. I-- I don’t think that’s a good thing.

Lorenzo: I found that it didn’t matter and probably what I liked about it! It was just like “oh, yeah, why not?”

You do travel and have done events in bookstores etc, as a writer: you are the brand. What are your thoughts on the Social-Media and the part it is playing. How are you finding that side of things - that is, promoting yourself?

It’s good and bad, I was just on a panel last week where there were authors were-- couldn’t stress enough the importance of having your platform out there for when you’re out there trying to get book deals. It’s-- unfortunately the publishers will look at your social media presence and-- because it’s some indication of future sales and-- and that’s not just for writers that for everyone these days. It’s true for actors-- actors are getting cast based on their social media presence now not because they’re the best actor for the role. Because producers think they’ll bring in a certain amount of people and that’s the reality we live in right now and I-- I dislike it because it’s so easy manipulated, it’s not-- you know nothing-- just because they happen to have a large social media presence, that doesn’t mean that they truly have that big audience or that they’re all fans. It’s hard to know for sure what’s true and what isn’t but I guess it’s one-- I don’t know a way around it on the other hand, like I have to use it to my advantage at the same time. So, I try and be as accurate as I can; yeah, create the brand. I feel like I’m at a bit of a disadvantage because I’m so diverse in my projects, I can’t brand myself as a picture book writer, a middle-grade author or a YA writer anymore, like I have to somehow appeal to all of them at once right now.

So-- but I have to follow what stories are in me and what I want to tell-- what’s making-- what I’m most inspired and excited to tell and if it happens to be a picture book that’s fine and if it happens to be a middle-grade book that’s-- that’s fine but I can’t write unless I’m excited about something and I can’t control that. But I know other authors who are amazing at sticking to their brand, pushing it-- are-- get a lot out of it which-- so, for any other writers out there I think I’d say, yeah it is a crucial thing that you know your brand and that you create that platform and engage with your audience. So, I’m trying to do it as much as I can, I don’t know that I’m doing it the right way or most effective way but it’s sort of [laughs] the best I can do with the projects I’ve chosen I feel.

"It is a crucial thing that you know your brand and that you create that platform and engage with your audience."
Caffeine & Concrete Vol. 20

Self publishing has become a serious entity. What implications do you see, good and bad?

I think publishing and the publishing industry left writers no choice but to do-- to rely on that. It’s almost impossible to get an agent and without an agent it’s almost impossible to get a good book deal. So-- and it’s not that someone’s writing may not be up to par, it’s just that there’s so much out there and so many other factors go into it. In terms of the marketing, you have to get approved not only by the editors but by the marketing departments and if you are left with no option I think self-publishing is a great decision if you’re willing to the work and effort into it. I have self-published several books that-- myself, ones that happened to not get book deals for whatever reason and put them out there because I just-- I need that-- to have have my stuff out there. If something is-- I’ve created something and I need it to be available to people, I can’t just have it sitting here or it’ll drive me crazy.

So there’s-- what’s great is that there’s so many tools out there right now that self published authors can really do well and if they put the effort and perhaps the investment into it there’s you know, they can make millions [laughs] and thousands of people are doing that successfully and of course there’s probably a lot more who are having a lot tougher time and that’s just going to be the way it is for them but that’s the same for every author even if you are published. It’s like any other thing where the vast majority does somewhere from mediocre to not so well and if you hit it big-- that’s sort of the way it is with every medium, yeah, published or unpublished.

So, I think that’s just-- it used to be very difficult to self-publish or even-- when you didn’t have the ebook market because you had to put thousands or tens of thousands of dollars into printing them yourself and going out and physically selling them. But now with print on-demand and selling ebooks, your investment is a few hundred dollars. So I think that’s-- I think that’s a great thing for authors who want to get their work out there.

You're passionate about storytelling and I see you are now exploring VR in that context. What are your thoughts on the future of storytelling with the advent of these technologies? How far away are we from holodecks?

[Laughs] I think we’re getting closer and closer. Yeah, I got very into virtual reality that-- I’ve gone to a few conventions and I’ve-- I play with it a lot myself and I think that it’s going to be interesting to figure out how it fits in. It took a while for people to figure out how TV would gradually transfer to being on your computer right and there was just a lot of resistance to it. People didn’t realise how advertising would work, how anyone would make any money but they figured it out right [laughs]. So I think that’s what’s going to happen with VR, like at the moment the way the headsets work is-- you can’t really sit down and watch a full movie on without getting a horrible headache within ten minutes so-- but those few minutes are really cool and you get really absorbed into it until you-- you just can’t take anymore. So, they are figuring, “ok, we're just going to have to-- VR content is going to have to be divided up into shorter segments.” So that’s one thing they’ve figured out right now unless the technology progresses enough where they solve that issue.

I-- I think that it’s going to be best for gaming which is where it already is in very active use, for gaming. But I think Ready Player One had the-- a pretty good idea of the future, like once you get-- where steps occur where you have haptics, where you feel things in a virtual world and manipulate them with your hands in a detailed and specific way it’s going to take-- then people are going to realise, “oh! Yeah, this is going to change everything” and I think it’s going to be especially important for things like education. It’s going to take over because at the moment, especially in Los Angeles and other big cities, your geo-- your geography defines your future to an unfair degree. If you happen to be in a area with good schools or bad schools and that’s completely unfair. So if you have virtual schools where you could have every kid in the world logged in and learning from the best teachers in the world, that creates a completely even playing field for education and that’s just one-- that’s one area where I see that it’s going to be incredibly important and useful.

So Kubrick’s Game just dropped, it’s a great book! What’s next?

Kubrick’s Game has been so all consuming-- I’m just completely absorbed. I’m finishing the audiobook editing right now which has taken the entire month [laughs]. We just finished recording that with Jonathan Frakes as I’m sure you all know him there as Commander Riker on (Star Trek) The Next Generation… So we’re finishing that up and then I’m going to be still probably for the next month-- it’s going to be almost full time promotional work for it. I’m going to be travelling around, going to San Francisco for a Kubrick exhibit they have-- the exhibit they have in the book is actually in San Francisco right now. So you can see a lot of the elements in the book-- I’m going to go back there and do a little visit there and travelling around a little bit more-- I have a few more shows.

For the future of the series, I do really love it and I love these characters. I could see them coming back, I think it will depend on how this book does. This book has been about a solid two year investment of my time and-- so if it-- if this book does well enough and I could see the investment being worth it for a sequel I’ll definitely work on that. I have-- I have kind of story outlines for it already done. Or I’ll be-- I still have middle grade books that I have-- I’m working on finishing up. So I am-- I’m always doing my middle grade books where I’m sort of most well known at the moment [laughs] or picture books so I’m always working on those and I have a movie that is in pre-production at the moment now, little horror film. That’s getting going right now, so-- I like having my-- a lot of irons in the fire. I always have like fifty irons in the fire so things kind of pop up at any one moment that I have to focus on and I’m also going to be running the real life game! I don’t know if you saw anything about that?

Lorenzo: Yes! I’m deciphered the written stuff, so I’ll see how I go with the next challenge that’s a bit more practical.

Derek: That’s what I’m kind of exciting-- I hope that people like your readers are probably geeky like me-- I have a lot of-- I like doing puzzles and it’s a fun little thing we included with the book that they’ll be able to, over the course of the next six months to a year be on this real life puzzle adventure to really challenge their puzzle solving prowess and see if they can win the prizes at the end.

Find Derek at derektaylorkent.com and on Twitter @DerekTaylorKent.

Proofreading by Cinzia Forby. Photography used with courtesy by Derek Taylor Kent.