Tell us about yourself!
My name is J.J. Johnson. I live in Edmond, Oklahoma. My wife and I have been married for 17 and a half years.
Tell us about your middle grade books.
I’m the author of the award-winning middle grade series Iggy & Oz. Currently, there are three books in the series and a fourth one that is sort of a side story.
Iggy & Oz: The Plastic Dinos of Doom is the best starting point. When a twelve-year-old boy discovers that his old plastic dinosaurs have come to life, he and his friends must find a way to stop them before they destroy the neighborhood for good.
Book 2 is called Iggy & Oz: The Soda Pop Wars. It basically asks the question: What if you found soda pop that gave you superpowers?
And book 3 is the gross book: Iggy & Oz: The Living Snot. What if your snot came to life and grew into a giant blob?
What kind of child are you trying to reach with your books?
My stories have two types of audience. One, I try to write for reluctant readers. A.k.a. boys who don’t enjoy reading. Think a cleaner version of Diary of a Wimpy Kid. I’m trying to address things kids deal with. Bullying, thinking less of others, ego, sharing, showing kindness even if it’s to the bully, etc. In every story, Iggy needs to learn a hard truth about himself.
The second audience I’ve found is in trying to recreate those family reading times. Everything I’m trying to do—from the pacing, short chapters, and even the shortness of the book—is for the purpose of creating a fun, clean bedtime routine.
Give us a little flavor of some great characters or the setting.
Here is a short excerpt . . .
This story starts one week after my little brother Oz accidentally set the tail of Mrs. McKenzie’s cat on fire. Please don’t ask. I understand you want to know, but it’s a different story, for a different time. All I can say is Whiskers flew down the street and hid under McKenzie’s back deck for about three days. Man, Oz felt bad. He did, but as I said, it was an accident.
By the way, my name is, Iggy. And I’m twelve.
Yeah, that’s my real name. It’s okay to laugh. I’ve heard all the jokes one can toss around. You could say my parents are a little strange. I know what you’re thinking, whose aren’t? But I promise mine are a tad bit stranger.
Take my nine-year-old younger brother for example. Mom and dad brought him back from China when he was a baby and named him, Oz.
Did you hear me? They named him Oz!
So like I said.
I’ve racked my brain trying to come up with a good story as to why Oz and I have to live with such cursed names. The name Iggy hasn’t earned me many friends on the schoolyard playground, that’s for sure. Seems my strange name is the only way people remember who I am.
I once asked Mom about our names. She smiled and said she just enjoyed the names. So, we’re forced to come back to, strange.
Oz hasn’t had it so bad. He learned a bunch of card tricks and nicknamed himself the Wizard. I contribute this as to the reason he’s able to avoid the bullying and teasing. The big gorillas at school (like that big hairy Todd Sterns) don’t try to mock Oz. At least not in front of people. He has this unique wit along with his bag of card tricks to show how much they lack in the smarts department.
I’m a little jealous of Oz and his talents. Just don’t tell him.
I suppose now’s as good a time as any to explain why I’m writing this. Well, like my parents, the neighborhood we live in is rather odd. A sprawling gated community called Whispering Pines.
On the outside, Whispering Pines looks like every other suburban neighborhood in the country. Green lawns. Calm two-story houses. Oak trees. Shrubs. Flower beds. All carefully maintained. But don’t let that fool you. Strange things happen here all the time. Especially after Mr. Chesterton’s estate sale. That’s when things took a turn for the worse.
But there is a little problem. You see, parents being parents don’t ever seem to believe us kids and our stories. It’s like they are blind to the truth staring them right in the face. I’m pretty sure if a gargantuan Gormagog was standing in our backyard, Mom would stare right through the big ugly thing. Until it sneezed and covered all us kids in slimy snot! Even then she would tell us to hop in the bath and wash off.
Mom thinks I enjoy making stories up. So she gave me this notebook and suggested I write them down. The problem is, my stories are true. So it might be a good thing none of the parents believe them. I mean, us kids all care about our parents. But if they saw what we kids saw, they wouldn’t be able to handle it.
Let’s face it. Mom and Dad’s lack an imagination. Sorry, mom. It’s true.
Okay, where was I. Oh, yeah. This story starts the night Oz woke me up in the middle of the night claiming he heard a monster in the attic scratching around. Sweat creeping down his bangs, he’d hidden in his closet under a blanket for a few hours until he swore, a claw poked through the ceiling.
What inspired you to write this series?
In July of 2018, I attended my fourth year of the Realm Makers writing conference in St. Louis. I had published some short stories and a few novellas at that point. But, I didn’t feel my stories were connecting with readers. I also had a strong desire to write a book for my kids.
So, I did what every writer shouldn’t do. I tried to force an idea into existence. After about an hour of sitting in the living room with wads of yellow legal tablet sheets collecting at my feet, I was ready to give up.
My kids were three and six at the time, and they were playing in the living room with their toy dinosaurs. There were literally hundreds of them spread out over the floor. I asked a simple question to the kids. I said, “What if your dinosaurs came to life and started tearing up the house?”
Immediately, they pretended it was happening.
After about twenty minutes of playing, I sat down and wrote out a sentence. A 12 year-old-boy discovers that his dinosaurs have come to life, and he and his friends need to find a way to stop them.
I wrote the first draft in one month and published it a year later, in September of 2019. I found a nice audience and went on the win the Realm Award in 2020 for middle grade.
How did you know you wanted to be an author?
Probably since I was a little kid. I used to make up stories instead of doing homework. In junior high, I started writing short stories. None that were good.
I got away from it in college and was doing youth ministry for awhile. During a rough tenure with a church, I picked up the pen and started writing again. Mainly as a distraction from everything else.
After several years of studying craft books and reading, I published a short story titled “Compulsion” in 2012.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
This is a marathon. Not a sprint. It’s easy to want to write something and publish immediately. It’s very tempting. But take time to learn the craft. Read everything you can get your hands on, and read wide and outside your genre.
My second piece of advice is don’t listen to the rules. There isn’t one way to tell the story. You should know the rules, absolutely. But you’ll find creative ways to break them and make them work.
My third piece of advice is to ignore the voice of discouragement. It’s easy to give up. I’ve sat at a booth and had only one person buy my book—and I think it was a pity buy. I’ve sat at booths and sold out and signed more books than I can count. Success is not in the number of sales or in how many show up for a book signing. What is success for you?
What formats are your books available in?
Find them all here.
What’s next for the Iggy & Oz series?
I’ll be running a kickstarter in the summer of 2023 for the next three Iggy & Oz novels. So new books will probably come out soon after that wraps up.
If you’re in the market for chapter books, I’d love to share my series with you! Collar Cases is a Christian mystery series for readers 7-12.
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