John Grisham Tackles Writing Suspense For Kids In Theodore Boone: Kid Lawyer, the best-selling author writes about a 13-year-old amateur attorney. Grisham says writing his first book for young readers was a challenge because he didn't want to talk down to his audience. He tells NPR's Michele Norris that kids are "a tougher crowd" than adults.

John Grisham Tackles Writing Suspense For Kids

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From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Michele Norris. If you're looking for a new summer thriller to put into the beach bag, here's one for you. It's actually for your kids, but it's a taut legal drama that adults will enjoy, too.

The book is called "Theodore Boone: Kid Lawyer," and get this, it's written by bestselling author John Grisham.

The central character is 13-year-old Theo Boone, who loves everything about the legal system, loves it so much that when there's a murder in his town, he makes sure his class is able to attend the trial.

Earlier today, I spoke with John Grisham, and he told me that Theo's world is defined by his parents.

Mr. JOHN GRISHAM (Author, "Theodore Boone: Kid Lawyer"): Theo's an only child, both of his parents are lawyers. They practice together in a small office called Boone & Boone, and so all they do is talk about the law. The law is all Theo has ever known.

And for fun, as a family, they watch "Perry Mason" reruns, and they talk about the law over breakfast, lunch and dinner. And, you know, it's just what Theo has grown up with. He loves the courtroom and the courthouse. He knows every lawyer, every judge, every clerk, every policeman.

He actually has an office at Boone & Boone, a little, small room that he calls his law office, and that's where he does his homework in the afternoon. He actually sees clients there. He gives legal advice to his friends, and he gets into all kinds of trouble because of this.

NORRIS: How to you calibrate the use of suspense and fear in a children's novel because you want to I guess titillate a child's senses, but you don't want to scare the bejesus out of him.

Mr. GRISHAM: Well, I'll tell you. It's something I think I'm still learning. The first draft of Theo, I was very hesitant to place Theo in actual, physical danger, and so I toned down the suspense. I wanted some fear because, obviously, you have to be realistic, and then once I started working with the editor at Penguin, she said look, you know, we need some more - it's okay in kid's books, it's okay to have the kid in danger.

And I remember thinking back, my favorite book as a kid was, you know, "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer." And I love that book, and I loved it when I was 12 years old. And Tom was always, Tom and Huck, you know, were always in trouble, often in danger, and it made the story that much more entertaining.

And so I went back through Theo the second and third and fourth times and kept tweaking it to add a little more suspense, a little more fear, a little more danger, and you know, again, I'm learning. This is all something new to me.

And it's not necessarily any easier than adult fiction. It's easier in that it's shorter. The plot is not nearly as complicated. There are certain things you can't do in a kid's book. But the challenge, the biggest challenge I found was the ability - or trying to tell the story without talking down to kids because they just - they, you know, that's what I think a lot of writers do, and they don't like it. Kids don't like it. They want, you know, they want you to treat them as your equal and tell them the story.

NORRIS: Do you mind, since we're talking about how you build suspense, I would love if you would read a portion of this, and I was thinking about page 110.

Mr. GRISHAM: I can set this up for you.


Mr. GRISHAM: Julio is a kid from El Salvador who is in Theo's school, but Julio has a cousin who works at the golf course where this murder occurred. And there's a very good chance that this cousin, who is an illegal immigrant, saw something that maybe he was not expecting to see at the time the murder occurred. And this is when Julio and Theo are talking.

You see, Julio said, he was working on the day of the murder. He was eating lunch. His lunch break starts at 11:30 and goes to 12. He's very homesick, and on most days, he sneaks away from the others and eats alone.

He carries a family photo of his mother, father and four little brothers, and while he eats, he looks at the photo. It makes him very sad, but it also reminds him of why he's here. He sends them money every month. They're very poor.

Where do they eat lunch, Theo asked? But he already had a clue. Well, my cousin was sitting under some trees in a dogleg, sort of hiding because his lunch break is only - is the only time he can be alone. And he saw this man in a golf cart going really fast down the path along the fairway.

The man had a set of golf clubs on the back of his cart, but he was not hitting balls. He was in a hurry. Suddenly, he veered to his left and parked the cart near the patio of the house where the lady was murdered.

NORRIS: I asked you to read this passage because there's so much going on there. There's obviously the suspense and the tension. You can just - you feel that tension right along with Theo. But there's something else going on there, also. You're painting a picture of a world that children might see but not really think about.

Mr. GRISHAM: Yeah, and again, as I wrote the book and as I write the next one, I have to be - have to constantly remind myself of the world I'm portraying and who's going to be looking through it. And who am I writing for?

I've never had to think about that before. With 24 books now, I've never thought about who the audience is. It's always been, you know, the audience, adult fiction. This is a lot different. I think this is a tougher crowd.

NORRIS: Is there something in that writing about characters, a world that children know, that lives maybe just down the street or, you know, the law is something that is real. It's not like writing about vampires or dragon slayers or something that is the stuff of fantasy.

Mr. GRISHAM: Yeah. And, you know, one day, sometime, somewhere, they're going to have an encounter with the law, and we all do. Hopefully, it's pleasant, but it may not be. And look at the number of, you know, foreclosures and bankruptcies that families are going through now, and the number of people who are unemployed, and maybe kids, maybe 13-year-old kids and 12-year-old kids are more exposed to the law than we realize.

NORRIS: John Grisham, it's been a pleasure to talk to you. Thanks so much.

Mr. GRISHAM: A lot of fun, we'll do it again.

(Soundbite of music)

NORRIS: John Grisham's new novel for kids is called "Theodore Boone: Kid Lawyer."

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