Author Interview and Giveaway: James Kennedy

As part of the All Male Review Challenge, today I have a special guest – male author extraordinaire James Kennedy. James wrote the fantastical and funny book The Order of Odd-Fish, and I have had the distinct pleasure to hear him read from it. I can guarantee that you will never hear a better reading than one from the exuberant James Kennedy! If you don’t believe me, read on to hear about his wacky exploits starting mock fights with Neil Gaiman, encouraging children to battle-dance in a “Dome of Doom,” and creating a film contest where Newbery winners are presented in 90 seconds or less.

1) Since this is a male-centric event, let’s just cut to the chase: What’s your beef with Neil Gaiman?

No beef! I admire Neil Gaiman and I love his books. My “feud” with Neil Gaiman is purely fictional.

It started in 2009, when I wrote a blog post about the American Library Association Midwinter conference. It was a surreal short story in which I characterized the ALA as a bloodthirsty cult of illiterate troglodytes. (Well, naturally. They had neglected to give me the Newbery award for my novel The Order of Odd-Fish). In a throwaway aside, I claimed that Neil Gaiman was only two millimeters tall, and that all his books were written by bees. (You can read the story here.)

Neil Gaiman found out about the post. He thought it was funny. So he linked to it. This was very gracious and sporting of him. It sent a ton of his readers my way. So when I was invited to speak at the ALA conference that summer, I decided to take the joke a step further.

I was supposed to speak at the ALA conference about the genre of fantasy. Instead, I showed up soaking wet, missing a tooth, barefoot, in a poofy pirate shirt and unspeakable blazer, and went on to castigate the hundred-or-so librarians there for giving the Newbery medal to Neil Gaiman, and not to me.

Midway through the speech, a friend dressed as “Neil Gaiman” sprang up, holding the Newbery. I tackled him and wrestled the award away. Another friend came in dressed as the head of the ALA, and she put â??Neilâ? and me through a series of mental and physical contests to see who really deserved it (thumb war, fifty-yard dash, fencing, handsomest face, tag-team wrestling . . . )

I lost every contest. Thus, by the ancient rules of the ALA, I was sacrificed on an altar using a knife â??forged in the flames of the burning of the library of Alexandria.â? But then â??Neil Gaimanâ? wept over my corpse, announced that I deserved the Newbery after all, and led one hundred librarians in chanting â??Give Kennedy the Newbery! Give Kennedy the Newbery!â?

You can find a transcript of the speech and complete video here. Hereâ??s the part where I challenge and fight â??Neil”:

Again, Neil Gaiman kindly linked to that, too. (Like I said, he’s a good sport.) And with that, I decided to stop my career of Gaiman-baiting.

But I got dragged back in! This spring, Neil Gaiman’s great Neverwhere was selected for the Chicago Public Library’s “One Book, One Chicago” program. I live in Chicago, and the librarians running the program remembered my ALA antics, so they asked me to do a 10-minute introduction of Neil Gaiman when he came to speak in person at the Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago.

This was a chance of a lifetime! To meet the man himself? (And indeed, when we were hanging out backstage beforehand, although Neil was very friendly he seemed slightly waryâ??or perhaps embarrassed on my behalf that I was about to make an ass of myself.)

I am proud to report I did not make an ass of myself (I think). This final video is of when I confronted the real Neil Gaiman in person. In it, I bring the “feud” to a close, revealing the true origin of Neil Gaiman (spoiler: we grew up together in Saginaw, Michigan), the real reason I have a beef with him (it has to do with his luxurious hair), and our emotional reconciliationâ??culminating in me serenading him with Katy Perry’s “Firework.” I think you will agree I have a beautiful singing voice, but here’s the complete transcript if you don’t want to watch the video.

For those of you who love my beautiful voice, here’s the video of me confronting Neil Gaiman in person:

After the introduction, Neil kindly said, “I’ve been introduced many times. That was the best.”

And I think any Gaiman-feudery after that would be way too much. As my wife said, “If you keep doing this, you’ll become the Rupert Pupkin of children’s literature.” That stings!

2) As one of the lucky people privileged enough to have seen you do a reading, I can say that you have quite the frenetic energy. Where does all of that passion come from?

Thanks! I think The Order of Odd-Fish is a book that naturally lends itself to being read aloud. (Indeed, Jessica Almasy does a great job with the audiobook.) When I was writing it, I would act out the parts myself to see if they would perform wellâ??I’ve found that if something reads well out loud, it works well on paper too, but not necessarily the other way around. So I think the passion and energy come from the book itselfâ??it’s an ebullient, raucous, ranting romp of a novel, and it deserves to be read in that way.

3) Your book has really connected with an army of young fans. Tell us a little bit about your art events and how they developed.

Not long after The Order of Odd-Fish came out, I learned that artists all over the country were spontaneously doing fantastic fan art based on the book. I started to get in touch with them, encouraging their work. Soon the trickle became a deluge!

Here’s a few examplesâ??for instance, a grotesque cake depicting the scene where a giant fish vomits out the Odd-Fish lodge:

Or a home-brewed beer based on the book’s villain, the Belgian Prankster:

And more! A homemade gun, Japanese-style dolls, a stained glass window . . . Max Pitchkites, a high school student from around Indianapolis, even did a stunning series of 28 mixed-media illustrations, one for each chapter:


I was already featuring Odd-Fish fan art in a special gallery on my blog. I had an idea: why not put on a real gallery show of Odd-Fish fan art, right here in Chicago? But not only an art show: a real spectacle, an all-night costumed dance party. And thus the idea of The Dome of Doom was born.

I worked together with the Chicago theater group Collaboraction to pull it off. I put a “Call for Submissions” post on my blog, giving a deadline and a date for the Odd-Fish art party.

But I didn’t just wait for people to find out about it. I made a profile at and searched for those artists who listed The Order of Odd-Fish as one of their favorite books. I got in contact with those artists and invited them to submit. I also put the word out on the network of children’s literature blogs.

Not only teens, but also adults got into the act. Here’s a picture by Teddy Bihun, of when the main character, Jo, fights a monster called the nang-nang:

And this one, by Dawn Heathâ??an illustration of the scene when Jo and her new friend Ian ride an elephant into Eldritch City (this one was featured on the cover of VOYA, a trade journal for young-adult librarians whose cover story in December 2010 was about the show):

And much, much more! The gallery show ended up having over 100 pieces of Odd-Fish fan art. Many of the young adult artists attended, some from many states away. But it was more than just a gallery show. It was also a spectacle that recreated a pivotal scene of the book, the “Dome of Doom.”

Party guests were encouraged to come in costume as a fighter of some sortâ??lion, gladiator, computer virus, etc. We seeded them in tournament brackets and then pitted them against each other in the “Dome of Doom” (a dome we built out of PVC pipes). Contestants had to battle-dance against each other (no touching) in the ring while the audience hooted, made their bets, and went nuts.

Three god-judges (I was one of them) decided who won each fight and proceeded to the next round. After the final fight, we put the ultimate champion on an altar, tore out her heart, and fed her to a giant snake-monster. It was a raucous, unforgettable night. Circus marching bands! Ritualistic parades! Unhinged dancing!

This recap on my blog, with its pictures and video, might make it all clearer. But if you just want to see two people in costume battle in a dome, I can give you that too:

The “Dome of Doom” event went so well that I’ve worked with Collaboraction to do versions of it in Chicago parks. Check out this video where we lead a costumed parade, complete with marching band, through Logan Square, and pull children out of the crowd, stick them in costume, and encourage them to battle-dance in the ring:

This Odd-Fish fan art show thing might become an annual event. On April 2 of this year (2011) we put on the art show again, but this time at a creepy, eccentric old mansion in rural Illinoisâ??an experience every bit as satisfying as doing an all-night dance party.

4) Self-promotion is an area where a lot of authors falter. What inspires you to keep going?

My bottomless sense of entitlement. The fact that there is even one person in the world who hasn’t read The Order of Odd-Fish fills me with cold fury.

Seriously, though, I think it’s because of this grass-roots fan love Odd-Fish has received that keeps me going. I am so thankful and appreciative to them for all the hard work they’ve done in co-creating the world of Odd-Fish with me.

5) Tell us about your plans for the future. Any new books coming down the pipeline?

Yes! I have finished and I’m in the middle of editing my second novel, a sci-fi comedy called The Magnificent Moots. It’s about an Interplanetary Olympics. It’s like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy meets A Wrinkle in Time meets Ender’s Game meets The Royal Tenenbaums meets “Battle of the Network Stars.”

I also have another project that I’m very excited about called the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival. It’s a video contest I’m curating with kidlit superblogger Betsy Bird, children’s librarian at the New York Public Library.

Participants (of any age) are challenged to make videos that tell the story of a Newbery Medal (or Honor) winning book in 90 seconds or less. (No book trailers! The idea is to ridiculously compress the entire story into a very small amount of time.)

We’re showcasing the best entries at a star-studded 90-Second Newbery film festival at the New York Public Library on November 5. Former National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature Jon Scieszka will co-host it with me!

To get an idea of what we’re going for, here’s the inaugural entryâ??A Wrinkle in Time IN JUST 90 SECONDS:

Already this video has gone semi-viralâ??it’s been viewed over 80,000 times, and Madeleine L’Engle’s granddaughter Charlotte Jones Voiklis even contacted me, asking how she could help! (Actually, I had feared it would be a cease-and-desist notice!) To bring everything full circle, good old reliable Neil Gaiman even tweeted about it . . .

Anyway, this is a great opportunity to get people reading, thinking and discussing Newbery award-winning books. Figuring out how to communicate important plot and character points in 90 seconds is a real challenge and should spark some heated debates among readers. You can find out more about the contest, including rules, due dates, and other stuff, at the official 90-Second Newbery site.

6) Finally, do you think male authors or protagonists are underrepresented in YA fiction? Why is that?

Wait a secondâ??Neil Gaiman, M.T. Anderson, John Green, Philip Pullman, Rick Riordan, Philip Reeve, Louis Sachar, Darren Shan, Neal Shusterman, Lemony Snicket, Jonathan Stroud, Scott Westerfeld, Markus Zusakâ??

What was the question again?

Thank you, James, for visiting the blog today! It would be a travesty to expose you dear readers to this infectious wit without giving you the opportunity to indulge in it, so I am giving away a signed copy of James’ book, The Order of Odd-Fish, to one lucky winner!

This contest is open to ages 13 and up with a U.S. mailing address. To enter, leave a comment about your favorite James Kennedy antic detailed above, along with an email address where I can contact you. The contest will close on May 20, 2011 and the winner will be announced on the 21st. Good luck!