You put your right foot in, you put your right foot out ... chances are you know the rest. But in Jerry Spinelli's latest book, the Hokey Pokey is much more than a children's song and dance. Hokey Pokey is the name of a magical universe where kids are in charge — no adults in sight. There are herds of bikes, endless cartoons, a cuddle station and dessert for lunch every day.
But one morning a boy named Jack wakes up and something is different. His bike is gone. His best buddies seem baby-ish. Even girls, which every boy in Hokey Pokey knows are gross, maybe don't seem so bad anymore. Off in the distance, Jack hears a train whistle. It's coming to take him away.
Spinelli, the Newbery Medal-winning author of Maniac Magee, Stargirl, Wringer and many other books for kids and teens, joins NPR's Rachel Martin to discuss his latest, bittersweet story about growing up and leaving childhood behind.
On what the world of Hokey Pokey looks like
"I'm not sure why, but for some reason it felt to me that the right kind of landscape for this place where kids live has a kind of Old-West feel to it. So you have items like the Great Plains and bluff; it has a definite feel of the Old West."
On the significance of Jack's bike
"It's his identity; it's kind of like his horse. In the old Westerns, where the movie ends not with the cowboy kissing the girl, but with kissing his horse and going off into the sunset. So I decided that, not only should there be one bike, but that there should be a herd of them. In Hokey Pokey, bikes are kind of more than bikes alone. They become mustangs, they become creatures that rip up the dust as they gallop across the Great Plains."
On the key to writing a good kid insult
"[The key] is putting yourself in the place of the insulter and the insultee, and thinking what's going to bother them the most. In one of those exchanges I wound up with them calling each other the ultimate bad word, and that was him calling her a 'girl' and her calling him a 'boy.' "
On the 'otherworldly' setting of Hokey Pokey
"It's otherworldly from our point of view. As I see it, through the eyes of a kid, it's certainly not otherworldly at all. This is the real world to these kids, as expressed by the father of Jack toward the end of the book when he says, 'Kids live in their own little world.' Who hasn't said that? And that kind of got me thinking, and one thing led to another until we have this little book here called Hokey Pokey."
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Hokey Pokey is more than a children's song and dance. It's the name of a magical universe where kids are in charge and there is not an adult in sight. It's the creation of Jerry Spinelli, and the setting of his new book titled exactly that - "Hokey Pokey." In this universe, there are loads of bikes, endless cartoons, a cuddle station even and dessert for lunch every day - a kid's paradise - until one morning a boy named Jack wakes up and something is different: his bike is gone. Jerry Spinelli joins me from WHYY in Philadelphia. Welcome to the program.
JERRY SPINELLI: My pleasure. Thank you, Rachel.
MARTIN: So, you have invented this magical place called Hokey Pokey. What does it look like?
SPINELLI: I'm not sure why but for some reason it felt to me that the right kind of landscape for this place where kids live has a kind of Old West feel to it. And so you have items like the Great Plains and Bluff and so forth. And it has a definite feel of the Old West.
MARTIN: The whole book, the whole narrative takes place in one day. And, as we said, it opens when the main character, Jack, wakes up and realizes that his bike, which is his most precious possession, is gone. It's been taken by a girl. Why is this devastating for Jack to have the bike stolen?
SPINELLI: Because it's his identity. It's kind of like his horse. In the old Westerns, you know, where the movie would end not with a cowboy kissing the girl but kissing his horse and going off into the sunset. And so I decided not only that there should be one bike but that there should be a whole herd of them. And so in Hokey Pokey, bikes are kind of more than bikes alone. They become mustangs. They become creatures that rip up the dust as they gallop across the Great Plains.
MARTIN: When kids first arrive in Hokey Pokey, they each get half of a walnut shell in their pocket. It just kind of appears. And the shell tells a story that every kid in Hokey Pokey knows. What is that story?
SPINELLI: That story is the tale of the kid. There is a statue in Hokey Pokey of a kid with a baseball cap and he's pointing to what appears to be the far horizon. In one sense, no one is sure where it comes from but in the other sense, there is the story, the myth. And it tells the story of the kid and the time that he discovered that he was going to leave Hokey Pokey. And the other little kids couldn't abide that possibility, and so they kidnapped him and slathered him with mud that dried and now there he stands, a dried mud statue forever in the center of Hokey Pokey.
MARTIN: Could I ask you to read from page 149? This is a little bit more about that statue and the story that all the Hokey Pokers know.
SPINELLI: (Reading) Big kids know something little kids do not. The story ends not with a period but with a question mark. It's as if there's an ending beyond the ending, a suspicion that there is more to the story than the walnut shell is telling. The older you get, the closer you feel to the real ending. But you never quite get there.
MARTIN: There's something a little sad about this idea. I mean, the kids in Hokey Pokey don't want to grow up. And it's inevitable in life and in the book, it starts to happen. And it's not considered a big grand adventure to grow up. It's something to be avoided.
SPINELLI: It kind of has that feel to it, yes. But not in the sense that they're not open to more possibilities and that they don't envy all the privileges of adulthood. It's that they really can't think beyond today. Every day is today in Hokey Pokey. And they have their own problems. And among them are kids who do not necessarily have their own best interests in mind. And so Albert the Destroyer sort of represents that element.
MARTIN: I mean, he's essentially a bully. I mean, at the...
MARTIN: ...beginning of the book, he dumps one of the littlest kids into this huge dirty sock pile and stands there and laughs while the little kid is crying. What made Albert mean?
SPINELLI: In Albert's past was an incident when he found himself riding his tricycle and some big kids grabbed him, turned him upside down, broke his tricycle. And he's been wounded ever since.
MARTIN: There are some really great insults in this book - very kid insults. Nothing like being called donkey lips or watermelon head; pimple brain is another good one. What is the key to writing a good insult?
SPINELLI: Putting yourself in the place of the insulter and the insultee, and thinking what's going to bother them the most. One of those exchanges, I wound up with them calling each other the ultimate bad word, and that was him calling her a girl and her calling him a boy.
MARTIN: Nothing like the truth.
SPINELLI: It doesn't get worse than that. Yeah.
MARTIN: Is Hokey Pokey the way you remember the world as a child? I mean, it's such a fantastical place. Is this a product of your own childhood imagination?
SPINELLI: Well, it's otherworldly from our point of view. As I see it through the eyes of a kid, it's certainly not otherworldly at all. This is a real world to these kids as expressed by the father of Jack toward the end of the book, when he says kids, they live in their own little world. Who hasn't said that? And that kind of got me thinking, and one thing led to another until we have this book here called "Hokey Pokey."
MARTIN: Jerry Spinelli. His newest book is called "Hokey Pokey." He joined us from WHYY in Philadelphia. Mr. Spinelli, thanks so much for talking with us.
SPINELLI: My pleasure. Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.