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Sunday, December 25, 2011 - Page updated at 05:30 a.m.
The Force is with 'Origami Yoda's' creator
By KAREN MACPHERSON
Scripps Howard News Service
Growing up in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, author Tom Angleberger says he was a "nerdy kid."
"I was a very awkward kid, very lonely, stuck way out in the country," Angleberger said in a recent interview before appearing at Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C.
Angleberger also was a major "Star Wars" fan. He saw his first "Star Wars" film at age 6. While he didn't quite understand it, Angleberger says the movie still thrilled him, and sparked his lifelong "Star Wars" passion.
That passion, plus his memories of being "the weirdest kid in the class" in middle school, has helped Angleberger become one of the country's hottest children's authors in the past two years.
Kids and critics alike rave about his two "Star Wars"-inspired books: "The Strange Case of Origami Yoda" and "Darth Paper Strikes Back" (Amulet, $12.95 each, ages 8-12). They detail the emotional heights and depths of middle school in an entertaining, yet honest, way that resonates with young readers.
Both books are "hybrids," a mix of text and illustrations. Hybrid books are hugely popular with young readers: Just look at the best-selling "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" series by Jeff Kinney. Like Kinney, Angleberger both wrote and illustrated his books.
In his first book, "The Strange Case of Origami Yoda," Angleberger describes how Dwight, one of the weirdest kids at McQuarrie Middle School, uses a finger puppet shaped like Yoda, the beloved "Star Wars" character, to dispense wise-sounding advice to his peers.
Dwight's story continues in "Darth Paper Strikes Back." This time, Dwight and Yoda are challenged by Harvey, a student who hates Yoda and creates his own Darth Paper finger puppet, modeled after "Star Wars" arch villain Darth Vader. Harvey also mounts a campaign to force McQuarrie officials to expel Dwight for allegedly giving potentially dangerous advice to another student.
Angleberger says it helps that he still vividly recalls his difficult middle school years.
"It was like a three-year-long car accident,"he says. "I relive it over and over."
When he speaks with young readers, Angleberger often asks them: " 'Can you guess why I write about the weirdest kid in middle school?' " Then I tell them that the weirdest kid in school is here with us today, and ask who that is. About 20 percent of the kids raise their hands! ... That's just awesome, even though I bet the real weirdest kid isn't one of those raising their hands."
Angleberger eventually made it through middle and high school, and majored in art at the College of William and Mary. He worked on the art staff for the college paper, where he met his wife, children's author/illustrator Cece Bell. Her picture books include "Bee-Wigged" and "Sock Monkey Boogie-Woogie."
The two are working on their first book together: "Cranky Doodle." Angleberger is the writer, Bell is the artist, and both are having a blast, according to Angleberger. A comic riff on the traditional song "Yankee Doodle," the book's main idea is that Yankee Doodle is out of sorts, and just doesn't want to go to town.
Angleberger's "Star War" books almost didn't happen. After the publisher accepted "The Strange Case of Origami Yoda," concerns arose about getting permission from LucasFilm Ltd. to use its "Star Wars" characters. So Angleberger sent the manuscript to LucasFilm's legal department to try to get permission to use the images.
Fortunately, the son of a LucasFilm executive loved the book and strongly urged his mom to recommend that the company give Angleberger permission.
"I finally got to meet him and thank him in person," Angleberger said, noting he included the boy's name in the "Origami Yoda" book, in a hidden way, as a thank you.
Angleberger is working on the series' third book, which he said was inspired by young adult author Jay Asher.
"His suggestion about a title for this book lit off a fire in me, and the whole thing just exploded," Angleberger said, declining to give more specifics.
His books' financial success has allowed Angleberger to quit his columnist job at the Roanoke (Va.) Times. Now he spends his days writing books and doing school visits, in which kids revel in his dry wit and quickly created Origami Yodas.
Angleberger says he's still a bit dazed at his good fortune: "I'm having so much fun that I don't want it to stop."
Karen MacPherson, the children's/teen librarian at the Takoma Park, Md., Library, can be reached at Kam.Macpherson@gmail.com.
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