PENINSULA PROFILE: Children’s author encourages students to find their muses

Patrick Jennings brings a satchel full of his books

Patrick Jennings brings a satchel full of his books

PORT TOWNSEND — Beware Bat and Rat. They just might have you wishing you were a small child.

That way, you could be among the school kids who gasp, right out loud, when you see Bat swooping down, down, all the way down from the tip-top of a Manhattan skyscraper to join his best friend, Rat.

Yes, here’s the story Patrick Jennings has been waiting for: Two best friends living in the city, playing music together, having ice cream together — even after a messy mishap — and who discover that friends are the sweetest thing in life.

Jennings, a kid from Crown Point, Ind., who wound his way to Port Townsend, has found the sweet life, too. He’s published 17 children’s books since 1996 — highly portable paperbacks such as Faith and the Electric Dogs, The Lightning Bugs, Out Standing in My Field and the latest set in Port Townsend, Invasion of the Dognappers.

And Jennings, now an overgrown kid of 50, has just cleared a hurdle he set for himself a long time back.

He’s published this book for even younger kids, a picture book about the joys of finding your best buddy. With laugh-out-loud-inducing illustrations by Matthew Cordell, it shows how your bestie doesn’t have to be just like you — let’s face it, Bat and Rat come from very different backgrounds.

This spring, Jennings did a kind of barnstorming book tour, with Bat and Rat and Invasion of the Dognappers. He went to classrooms all around Port Townsend, and of course to the sweet downtown spot called Elevated Ice Cream.

You could say it was a triumphant tour. Jennings had desperately wanted to do a picture book because, the author said, he used to be a preschool teacher. He knows what the younger set likes. It’s the same thing he likes: A twisty, turny story, suspense, great pictures.

For years, though, Jennings was known to publishers as a writer of books for 9-, 10- and 11-year-olds: chapter books about pets and sports and aliens. Many of these, such as Guinea Dog, are about a kid who is faced with an apparently wretched situation. In Guinea Dog, for example, our hero Rufus’ parents won’t let him have a dog. After a while, they allow a guinea pig — and said critter arrives acting exactly like a dog.

This story is classic Jennings: A kid is faced with a situation he thinks he will detest. Life seems to be quite lousy at this point.

But then, as the tale unfolds, our young hero finds that the situation isn’t at all what he thought. In fact, it’s great! Guinea Dog is a lot of fun — he romps in the park, he runs with sticks, he catches Frisbees on the fly.

Anything in possible

Anything is possible in a Jennings yarn, especially for kids and animals. One of his short stories, “Odd, Weird and Little,” published in Scholastic’s Storyworks magazine (Storyworks.Scholastic.com), is about the new kid in school, which might sound run of the mill. But he’s an owl.

“He dresses really funny,” Jennings deadpans. “The other kids don’t realize he’s an owl.”

He’s also working on a novel about an insomniac cat. And then there’s Not My Dog, the one about a boy whose dad is determined to get him a dog, though his son doesn’t want one.

These stories pour out of him, just as inspiration springs from time spent with kids. The idea for Invasion of the Dognappers came from hanging out with Logan, a friend who was 8 at the time.

“Give me two words, and I’ll tell you a story,” Jennings told him. To which the boy said: Dogs and aliens.

Jennings went on to make Logan the protagonist of Invasion of the Dognappers; Logan’s mother, Port Townsend life coach Heather Flanagan, has marveled since at how the novelist fully “got” this young boy.

Jennings hangs out with about 35 other youngsters on a regular basis in the writing group he hosts in his studio and backyard. The after-school sessions bring together kids age 9 to 14 for short-story and novel writing; one 10-year-old girl is writing a 200-page book.

“I’m giving her notes, which is exactly what my editor does for me,” Jennings says.

The book is a comedy-fantasy novel she hopes to publish online, while another student, a 14-year-old boy, is at work on a trilogy of fantasy novels.

“I put out tea and crackers and apples. They’re always hungry,” Jennings says.

But once the kids finally settle into their writing, everything else falls away. The sound of youngsters writing, he says, is one of the best he’s heard.

In the wake of Invasion and Bat and Rat’s release, Jennings made a trip to New York City to learn a bit about social media marketing. There, 20-somethings sat him down and said, “OK: Twitter. It’s called a Tweet.”

New social media world notwithstanding, Jennings still enjoys the good, old-fashioned classroom visit. He reads aloud, chats with students about just about anything under the sun and listens delightedly to their story ideas. He does not, as fifth-grade teacher Jordan Henrichs reports, use a PowerPoint presentation.

It’s just “Patrick Jennings and an easel,” Henrichs writes on the author’s website, www.PatrickJennings.com. At her school in Cedar Falls, Iowa, he stayed after he was supposed to, having hit it off so well with the kids.

When asked how he gets into the head space of a child, Jennings smiles and says it’s more of a question of how he gets out of there. Contrary to popular belief, he says, kids these days are reading a lot. The ones in his after-school group carry their Harry Potters and Eragons with pride. They don’t want e-reading devices, Jennings adds. They want the big, real thing in their hands.

“It’s adults who don’t have the time to read,” he says.

And when grownups do pick up a book, it’s often because it’s the flavor of the month, while kids read for joy, not to be fashionable.

Jennings’ writing groups, at $65 for four 90-minute meetings, are also hits with the young crowd. He’s starting two summer sessions this month; both are filled to capacity.

“At school, they don’t have a place to just sit and talk about the books they’re reading and what they’re working on,” he says. “I encourage them to run around [in the backyard], but they sit; they want to talk . . . these are literary kids.”

There are times when Jennings gently steers the students away from gossip or discussions about the latest electronic gadgets. And 20 minutes of each session is spent in silence. This can lead to that golden time, Jennings says, when the kids lock in to their writing. Once they’re in the zone, they don’t want tea or snacks anymore. They just write like the wind.

Also in Jennings’ writing group, the youngsters see what an author’s life is like. They see up close how a book takes shape, through editing, frustration and repeated revisions — and, some day soon, they might even watch a movie grow from a book.

Jennings’ novel, Faith and the Electric Dogs has been adapted for the big screen and is making the rounds in Hollywood; Lawrence Guterman, the man behind 2001’s “Cats and Dogs,” has expressed interest in directing it. The process of financing and casting the project is under way, Jennings reports.

Meanwhile, he’s enjoying the summer with Odette Jennings. She’s a publicity photographer — the portrait on Jennings’ website is her shot — as well as a pianist and composer. She and her band have played on KPTZ-FM, and Odette herself provided “Favorite Favorite,” the musical accompaniment for the Bat and Rat promotional trailer on Jennings’ website.

Odette is also a seventh-grader, Jennings’ daughter and bicycling companion all around Port Townsend. Jennings doesn’t own a car — hasn’t for years and years — so Dad and daughter pedal in all weather. And even at times when he admits it would be nice to have a car, Odette says, “It’ll be fine!”

Thanks to people like Odette, Jennings feels young. He’s just plain playful, whether you meet him in person or on his website, where he informs readers that when he was a boy, his nickname was Tiger.

Oh, OK, it wasn’t really. He knew another boy who was called Tiger and always wished he could be so named.

There’s that anything-is-possible thing again.

Yes, life is good for this Port Townsend writer — especially since he gets to spend so much of it around the kids he adores. Jennings admits that he feels more himself around them than he does with grownups.

“A lot of stuff happened to Tiger during his life,” Jennings writes on his website, “including growing into an adult, though not expertly.”

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