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Author Talk: Jerry Spinelli, Author of HOKEY POKEY

In Jerry Spinelli's most recent novel, HOKEY POKEY, he explores the inevitable transition from childhood to adolescence. Set in Hokey Pokey, a place where only kids live, one of the oldest boys' bikes is stolen...and by a girl. After that, everything begins to feel strange. What is happening? In this interview conducted by Times For Kids, Spinelli explains his strategy behind naming characters, what he hopes readers will take from the story and why Hokey Pokey seems like the old west.

Why did you choose the old west as the setting for HOKEY POKEY?

Ultimately, it came from my own childhood watching western shows when I was six or seven years old, and wanting to be a cowboy. It just seemed like a good fit. Also, it helped create a sense of adventure. For example, all the children in Hokey Pokey ride bicycles. I described the bicycles as if they were wild horses in the southwest and gave them a life of their own. Bicycles in Hokey Pokey, like horses, travel at high speeds in herds.

Hokey Pokey is a world with no adults. How does this independence affect the characters?

The entire story occurs in one day that begins differently than any other day in Hokey Pokey. The main character, Jack, wakes up to find his precious bicycle missing and sets off to find it. It has been taken by Jubilee, the female protagonist. Both characters are among the oldest children in Hokey Pokey. The story follows Jack and Jubilee through their last day in this dreamland, because they are about to grow up and leave Hokey Pokey for good..

How do you choose character names for a story?

When I choose names for my characters, I base my choice simply off feeling. Whatever looks right and feels right is what I go with. Jack just felt like the right name for this character, as common as it is. I like to play around with girl character names because I can make more colorful
choices, like the name Jubilee. Her name just struck me as having the right sound. How they sound for me as well as how they appear on the page is equally important when naming characters. I think a story gets its drive equally from how it sounds and how it looks.

Children in Hokey Pokey all belong to different groups with unusual names, like Gappergums, Snotsippers and Sillynillys. What do these groups mean?

I wanted to come up with an entertaining way to define age groups amongst the children characters rather than just classifying them by age numbers. I tried to think of ways kids might differentiate themselves from one another, and which characteristics would identify one age group versus another. Gappergums, for example, are like six-year-olds about to go into first grade who have just lost their two front teeth. Inventing creative names for groups rather than just using ages is way more fun.

Why did you title the book HOKEY POKEY?

I actually didn’t even know the Hokey Pokey was a popular circle dance and song until I was an adult. In my hometown growing up, our favorite summer treat was flavored water ice. The person who sold the water ice was called “the Hokey Pokey man.” He was such a big part of my childhood, that when I wrote a story about a world ruled by kids, Hokey Pokey seemed like an appropriate title.

How do you hope readers will connect with this book?

I hope readers will find themselves in the story or that they see something of their own little world in Hokey Pokey. It’s possible to be so young that you don’t even know what tomorrow is, and that kids live a today that never ends. I tried to take the concept of childhood as a time of life and transform it to an imaginary world. The result of that transformation is HOKEY POKEY.