A Mother-Son Book Bake-Off
Hyatt Bass wrote a novel, The Embers. Her 5-year-old son wrote a book from a kit, The Super-brothers. And when both books launched at once, chaos ensued in their home.
Up until a few months ago, our son Jasper spent his time like most of his pre-K peers: constructing rocket ships and submarines out of blocks, crates, and cardboard boxes, and “acting out” superhero and Star Wars movies he’d never actually seen. In fact, it should be said that for all his tough-guy bravado, he recently deemed both Mary Poppins and a TV episode of Hello Kitty “too scary” to watch. This is a great source of amusement to our friends, especially because my filmmaker husband recently wrote Shrek 4—the ultimate daddy-job, presumably, for the myriad of children out there who have watched the first three Shrek movies over and over, and would give anything to know what happens in the next. Jasper couldn’t care less.
When People magazine featured my novel, Jasper gazed at the photograph with confusion and dismay. “Oh!” he cried out. “That’s not fair! Why can’t my book be in the magazine?
And so it is ironic that the particular havoc in our home at this very moment comes from Jasper’s sudden need to make his own film. But before the film, there was a book. Two books, actually. His and mine. Mine, a novel about a family, took seven years to write, and is being published this month. His, also about family in a sense, is the product of a make-your-own-book kit he got for Christmas—the perfect gift for a boy who asks us every night to make up a bedtime story, and then interrupts us to explain how the story should be different. On the box, there was a picture of a boy holding up a book with his own illustration, and the title and his name professionally typeset on a hard, red leather cover. Jasper and I dove in right away.
He decided his main characters would be two Super-brothers: Jasper and Hayden (his real-life younger brother), who have a favorite book about a magical forest. One day, they jump inside the book, where they discover that by pressing a magic button on a machine, they are able to get any kind of food they want, “hot dogs, spinach, ice cream, anything!” When the machine breaks down, and there is no food for anyone, the super-brothers come to the rescue with their incredible battery, which is “thirty hundred times powerful.”
After we’d mapped out his story together, Jasper faced the task of getting it down on the pages provided. I figured his interest might wane after the first page or two, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Any afternoon that my own writing schedule allowed, he insisted on working on the book. I would take dictation, writing in the space provided, and would then pass him the paper so that he could draw a picture.
Several weeks later, we packed the finished manuscript into an envelope and mailed it off to the book kit’s “publisher.” What we got back had us jumping around the kitchen for nearly an hour: twenty beautifully bound copies of The Super-brothers by Jasper Bass-Klausner, with his cover drawing of two boys in red-and-black capes. At this point, my book was still in galley form. So, not only had he gotten to make a book like me, but his was even more real-looking than my own. For a boy bordering on age 5, what could have been better?
And then the first week of June, People magazine chose my novel, The Embers, as one of its “Get Set for Summer” books. I already had a few good early reviews, but somehow, seeing my book stacked alongside upcoming releases by authors like Pat Conroy, Lisa See, and Carlos Ruiz Zafon evoked a whole new level of emotion for me. People magazine! Are you kidding me?
“Look!” I said to the kids later, “Look what’s in this magazine!” Jasper gazed at the photograph of the The Embers' spine with confusion and dismay. “Is The Super-brothers in there?” he asked quietly. “No,” I said, wrapping my arm around him. “These are only grownup books.” His mouth turned down, and he stomped his foot. “Oh!” he cried out. “That’s not fair! Why can’t my book be in the magazine?” I said that maybe when he grew up, he’d write a book which would get the same kind of attention as mine. But he was inconsolable. Alarmed by the crying, my husband came down from his office. “What’s going on?” he asked. I told him, and he thought for a moment. “Jasper, you know what?” he said. “We could make a movie of your book. And we can put it on the internet for everyone to watch.” The sobbing stopped. “The Internet?” Jasper said, as if his father had invoked the name of a magical land. “Really?”
The next afternoon, he had a prop for the film—the book about the magical forest, which he’d constructed so that it could be opened up for the moment when the Super-brothers step into the book. We would make the movie that weekend, he declared. “OK,” Josh said, “on Sunday, we can make the trailer.” First thing Sunday morning, Jasper had us all hard at work—costuming, set-dressing, prop-mastering… and when all was ready, we shot the trailer on our Flip camera.
Once the trailer was finished, Josh and Jasper emailed the link to friends and family. The next morning, they got their first responses from people who had watched the trailer, and Jasper basked in their praise. After that, the first thing he wanted to do every morning was check out his latest reviews: “Let’s watch it again and eat some food!” (Devin, age 3) “It was really cool! How did he do that noisy thing?” (Carys, age 4).
I admit I would kill for such enthusiastic reviews, but it concerned me that Jasper was interested in his reviews at all. I didn’t want him to care what other people thought. I wanted him to write his books and make his movies and play regular 5-year-old games for the sheer pleasure of it.
But I realized that for Jasper, maybe seeing The Embers instead of The Super-brothers in People magazine wasn’t the real cause of his meltdown. As a 5 year old, he dreams of being all-powerful. But just as he knows he’s not really a Super-brother and can’t really make ice-cream magically appear, he also knows he’s not really a Super-author. Sometimes life for a 5 year old just isn’t fair. And sometimes life for an author isn’t fair either. Like Jasper, there are summer reading lists I’ve been excluded from, and quite frankly it’s made me feel bad at times. But I’m also not a Super-author. In fact, I’m not so sure there is such a thing as a Super-author. Ultimately, writers are just ordinary people who love to write. And for me and my son, I don’t think there’s much more to it than that. I can’t wait to start work with him on his next book. And while I’m on book tour this summer, I’m sure he and his dad will be making The Super-brothers Movie.
Hyatt Bass is the author of The Embers, published by Henry Holt.