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Novelist James Patterson preaches the power of kids' books

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James Patterson has written so many books, he's lost track of the exact number. Ask him how many novels he's penned for 2012 alone and he shrugs, then guesses: "Twelve or 13?"

Often derided as a "factory" for being so prolific, Patterson has written more than 70 novels and sold more than 260 million copies — far more than any living writer. And at 65, he shows no sign of easing up. If anything, his pace seems to be quickening, especially with children's books, which he began writing in 2007 after more than 30 years of producing adult thrillers.

This year has already brought new installments of his bestselling children's series, "Witch & Wizard" and "Middle School." In August, he'll publish the eighth and final book in "Maximum Ride," which has spent 128 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. But that isn't all. Before the year is out, he'll launch two entirely new series for kids, the illustrated middle-grade reader "I Funny," about a wheelchair-bound, wannabe stand-up comic, and "Confessions of a Murder Suspect" for young adults, centering around a girl accused of her parents' murder.

All five children's book franchises are in various stages of development for film and TV.

"The best stuff I do are the kids' books," said Patterson.

Patterson isn't only a novelist. He's an evangelist for reading who believes in the power of books to improve the school experience and transform kids into better citizens leading quality lives. He founded the ReadKiddoRead website to offer book suggestions and reading tips to parents and educators. He gives away thousands of educational and college-book scholarships to university students each year and donates countless books.

Last week, every high school and middle school in the L.A. Unified School District received books from Patterson, including Venice High School, which scored 800 copies of "Maximum Ride: The Angel Experiment" and a guest appearance by the author, who introduced himself to the audience as Stephen King.

As a speaker, Patterson demonstrated the same strategy he employs with his books — continuously surprising and relating to his audience to keep them interested. He admitted it took him a while to get into Shakespeare. He told them how he grew up poor and was never given a single book to read by his parents but now makes $90 million a year.

Part back story, part inspirational talk, his prepared speech was only 10 minutes but yielded a lifetime of wisdom, encouraging the students to dream big (but also have a backup dream), to keep their brains open and, most importantly, to find cool books and read for fun.

How many of the kids had heard of Patterson, let alone read any of his books, was unclear, but the crowd was enthusiastic. They laughed with Patterson at his candor and lobbed dozens of far-flung questions about his childhood, his inspiration — even his eyesight.

"If you can't read, it's a real problem," Patterson said, moments after squeezing into a desk-chair combo in a Venice High classroom behind the stage.

Ironically, Patterson wasn't much of a reader himself as a kid. He grew up on a steady diet of comics in his hometown of Newburgh, N.Y., and only learned to love reading as an adult when he worked the night shift at a mental hospital.

"The school here, you'll have a lot of kids who've never read one book they love," said Patterson, who is tirelessly working to change that in fast-paced books that marry humor, narrative power and emotion with colloquial, accessible writing.

Whether it's a 14-year-old tomboy who's able to sprout wings and fly with her friends in "Maximum Ride" or the super-strong "Daniel X" able to conjure objects and individuals with his mind, Patterson writes with strong characters and an emotional urgency designed to "grab people and keep surprising them."

Patterson said he had no problem transitioning from murderous adult fare to children's books. In fact, he writes books for both audiences at the same time.

"If you go to my office, you'll see a room surrounded by shelves and on every shelf you'll see nothing but stacks of manuscripts. All of those are alive," said Patterson, who tries to live by the credo, "work hard, play hard, rest hard" and mostly succeeds. He writes from 5:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. seven days a week, taking breaks only for golf and lunch with his wife. "I'm a sick puppy, but I'm not a factory."

Patterson often works with co-authors, but he said "every character, everything" in his books are his idea, with two exceptions. The adulterous romp "The Quickie" was conceptualized by co-author Michael Ledwidge. The idea for the upcoming "Honeymoon 2" came from co-author Howard Roughan.

Patterson said he writes extensive outlines of at least 50 pages for every book he writes, after which he sends the outline to a co-author who submits pages to Patterson every two weeks and reworks copy at Patterson's request.

"My stuff is very plotted, very emotional," Patterson said. "If I ask for rewriting along the way, I'm not feeling the scene at all."

It isn't only in his books that Patterson expresses strong feelings. Over the course of a 90-minute interview, he laid into Justin Bieber (for declaring his disinterest in reading), the school system (and its incessant testing of useless facts), parents (who don't think it's their job to find books their kids will love) and the media (for reviewing books that no one reads).

"As individuals, we can't solve healthcare. We can't solve the economic situation. We can't solve global warming. But it's individuals who can get the kids in their house reading. They just have to commit to it," said Patterson, who'll continue demonstrating his own commitment. Somewhere on one of his office shelves, there are outlines for a new novel-graphic novel hybrid and books that he says will help fill the void for young Latino and African American readers.

susan.carpenter@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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