Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Books We Love: “The Templeton Twins Have an Idea” by Ellis Weiner

Book Review and Author Interview
When I was a kid, I loved vintage Bugs Bunny cartoons, mostly because Bugs was sarcastic in what seemed like a grown-up way. As I read The Templeton Twins Have an Idea, Ellis Weiner’s first children’s book in a series for Chronicle Books, I was transported back to my own childhood, laughing out loud at Weiner’s clever send-ups of … well, everything. My husband kept asking what I was laughing at. I found myself reading aloud to him—a lot. Your delighted kids will read aloud to you, too.

Author Ellis Weiner
The Narrator of this story is just that: another character who identifies himself (herself?) as The Narrator. This additional character is a bit of a know-it-all with the voice of a smarty-pants tween, a Bugs Bunny for the 21st century. The Templeton Twins are twelve-year-old John and Abigail. John plays the drums and Abigail loves cryptic crossword puzzles. Their dad Elton is an inventor and college professor; you’ll see depictions of his clever contraptions in every illustration. A disgruntled former student—Dean D. Dean—will try and blackmail the professor, leading to a kidnapping of the twins. Then we learn just how clever and resourceful the twins really are. And like Abigail’s beloved crosswords, the book is filled with wordplay, such as Professor Templeton’s appointment to Tickeridge-Baltock Institute of Technology, better known as Tick-Tock Tech.

An interior illustration
The relationship between John and Abigail is enviable, the perfect illustration of why it would be great to be a twin. And their relationship with their father is touching, respectful, and loving in both directions. The illustrations and look of the book—by Jeremy Holmes—incorporates Professor Templeton’s world of engineering and technical design. And The Narrator poses very funny “questions for review” at the end of each chapter. Spoiler alert: my favorite is “True or false (circle one): This is the best book I have ever read.” The only choice available is “T” for true. Well played, my friend.

We’re giving away an autographed copy of The Templeton Twins Have an Idea. Just leave a comment to this story with a way to reach you (email preferred).

Author Ellis Weiner kindly answered a few questions for us:

Vintage The Bobbsey Twins
Media Darlings: Your humor writing going back to your SPY Magazine days often includes that “second voice,” the witty asides, the second opinion asserting itself. In The Templeton Twins, it’s the voice of the narrator. Is that second voice essential to you as a writer? Is that perhaps why you wanted to create a story about twins?
Ellis Weiner: To answer the second question first: No. The idea of twins came as I thought of the books I read in childhood, some of which were about The Bobbsey Twins (which included two sets of twins). I don’t remember a thing about them, but I did read four or five in the series. At that moment, the idea of writing about twins appealed to me because I could split my interests between the two of them.

But the first question is more interesting. The narrative voice is essential to everything I’ve ever written, which includes numerous parodies, mock-hardboiled detective novels, faux how-to manuals, etc. None of those, however, involved what you call “the second voice,” that comments via asides. They’re all unself-conscious and “sincere,” however absurd or extreme the things they say.

The Narrator is therefore different than anything I’ve done before—now that you mention it. (This hadn’t occurred to me until now.) Because he has to convey a “straight” narrative as well as asserting/indulging himself to the reader.

Bear in mind that the only way I can write, and know that I like what I’ve done, is by making myself laugh. I don’t know if I could create a “naïve” or straight narrator, with no personality, and tell a comic story (for children) that would make me laugh.

Then again, what you don’t know is that I originally decided who the Narrator was, and what his back-story was, so that informed much of the narration of the book you’ve read. But by now he’s assumed a much larger role in all this, and has become his own man, so I’m pretty sure I’m going to abandon that original conceit. I may think of a new back-story for him, and bring that out in subsequent books.

MD: You poke fun at the culture of testing with the “questions for review.” Do you think our culture has become overly concerned with testing young people, specifically the age group for whom The Templeton Twins was written?
EW: I have no opinion. My kids are in their twenties, and when they were young it never occurred to me that they were over-tested. So no, the Questions for Review are not there to make a political or cultural point. They’re there because I knew my readers would be STUDENTS, who presumably would be very familiar with end-of-chapter questions. Plus, as a lifelong parodist, I was immediately pleased by the opportunity to manipulate and rough up this kind of pedagogical convention.

I look forward, maybe in book 3, to using line graphs and other math conventions in order to ask questions that a) will have nothing to do with graphs or math and, ideally, b) have nothing to do with the story.

MD: This is your first children’s book, but how different is this experience from writing for children’s television? Or for that matter, in writing a humorous book for a general (grown-up) audience?
EW: Almost all the television scripts I wrote were for viewers ostensibly between 2-6, which we really assumed meant something like 3-7. But pre-school. In retrospect I think I may have written a bit “old” for them, but most of the scripts were for puppets, and puppets can sell anything. Obviously there was no opportunity for wordplay, big emotions (other than hurt feelings and being-sorry), or many abstractions, for that audience.

The audience for the Twins, in contrast, is 9-13. (When I said to someone that that struck me as a pretty broad age range, they agreed, but said that reading abilities were widely distributed among those ages.) As I say in every interview, the revelation to me as to what I could get away with came when I read Lemony Snicket. (I owe Daniel Handler more than one drink.)

October, 1980 Mad
I decided I was writing for brainy kids who wouldn’t mind being abused by the Narrator, and who were just this side of puberty, so I wouldn’t have to deal with sex, romance, heartbreak, etc. I also was pleased to discover that I could indulge my (apparent inborn) tendency to pedantry, and have the Narrator explain things, while simultaneously having fun by smacking around the process of “explaining things.”

This differs from writing adult humor books in that, writing for adults, I can be absurd, but not silly. For kids, I can be both.

MD: Are any of the characters in The Templeton Twins taken “whole cloth” from people you know?
EW: Yes. One. Cassie, the white smooth-haired fox terrier, is based on a dog I used to have—a white, smooth-haired fox terrier named Cassie. Their personalities are identical. Otherwise, no.

MD: Who were your comic influences when you were a kid (perhaps the same age as John and Abigail; or even younger)?
EW: First, Mad Magazine. Also Danny Kaye and, a little later, James Thurber. I don’t remember reading any books that really made me laugh, although I may have.

In terms of books, I loved science fiction, and read all eight Tom Corbett, Space Cadet books, and Tom Swift, and other s.f. (Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein). I also loved Sherlock Holmes. I don’t particularly remember loving tv shows although I certainly watched enough (except for Danny Kaye, who my parents also liked). I never read comics except in summer camp, when I borrowed those of other kids.

One of Weiner's favorites
MD: What was the first book you remember really loving?
EW: That’s a good question. I can’t answer it. I can remember the first time I was blown away by a literary device, though. It was in Rocket to Limbo by Alan E. Nourse. It started out with a Prologue. Then the story itself began, and at the climax, what had happened in the Prologue re-appeared and had a decisive effect. I was astounded and delighted by this. It seemed like a magic trick to me.

I also remember the first book I consciously disliked. It was The Fountainhead. I remember reading it on the beach, on summer vacation in Atlantic City with my family. I had gotten maybe a third of the way through it (I was, say, 14 or 15), and suddenly looked up and thought, “This is terrible!” To be able to deliberately, knowingly reject a book was thrilling and liberating.

The source for "There's no
crying in baseball."
MD: Who is your favorite fictional character from kid’s literature, tv, or movies?
EW: One? Oy. I have to give you several: Hazel from Watership Down. Lyra from the His Dark Materials trilogy. The Kid from John R. Tunis’ baseball stories about The Kid from Tomkinsville. Mr. Bass from the Mr. Bass’s Planetoid series.

MD: Which famous fictional character’s motto or iconic line do you wish you wrote?
EW: “There’s no crying in baseball.”


  1. This is a splendid interview--not for the self-serving, boastful comments of Mr. Ellis Weiner, but for the wonderful book covers used to illustrate his semi-interesting answers.

    It's more than he deserves, of course, but it's everything *I* deserve, so it all works out in the end.

    The Narrator

  2. Looking forward to picking this up... and giving it as gifts in the new school year of birthday parties. My boys are a little younger (7,8) but definitly stretch their reading goals. As a bedtime and car read-aloud, I look forward to laughing outloud together!


  3. i would love to win this book for my little cousin, Jennifer!!!

    cyn209 at juno dot com