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Robin Friedman : author and journalist

Author has fun with 13-year-old’s tale

By Lorraine Ash | Daily Record | June 25, 2000

Jackie Monterey, the 13-year-old hero of author Robin Friedman’s first novel, is cranky a lot.

He’s annoyed by his granola-eating, green tea-drinking, pill-popping parents. By his buddies Garus, who constantly puts on an English accent, and Nick, who combs his hair and cruises for babes.

Jackie doesn’t like distractions. Except maybe for the beautiful Kelly Phillips, the daughter of the intimidating coach of his swim team. And, by the way, he’s not wild about swim team practices either.

Jackie — or Hemingway — as his friends call him, just wants to be left alone for one summer so he can write the great American novel.

HOW I SURVIVED MY SUMMER VACATION…AND LIVED TO WRITE THE STORY is the story of how he doesn’t write one. It is a middle-grade novel that hit bookstores June 1.

This funny, vivid book follows Jackie’s escapades in the fictional town of Frog Hollow, some inspired by childhood antics of Friedman’s husband, Joel, a lawyer. Not all of them, though. An adventure in a sewer pipe, a search in the woods for a beat-up copy of PLAYBOY and a swimming coach who is rough around the edges are true to life.

“But my husband never aspired to be a writer,” Friedman said. “His parents weren’t editors. A girl wasn’t his best friend. I learned real things can be inspirations for fiction, but when I stayed too close to what really happened, the writing is too shallow. Even though you have a few true ideas, you still have to add a million more to make a story work.”

And work it does as, through all his distractions, Jackie tries to write, complaining as he does to his pet fish Mark Twain, Isaac Asimov, and Dashiell Hammett. So named for inspiration, of course. Jackie never produces a HUCKLEBERRY FINN or MALTESE FALCON of his own, but he does come up with some killer opening lines:

The only trouble is that Jackie can never get to the second sentence.

Those opening lines still make Friedman, a first-time novelist at 31, smile. She got the idea for the first lines from a magazine ad publicizing a writing contest offering a prize for the best opening lines for a novel.

Even in his misery, Jackie proves to be funny as he decides to switch from genre to genre. Film noir one day. Westerns or science fiction the next.

Even in his escapades, Jackie is amusing.

When the swim coach walks up and down the line of swimmers, he inspects them while chomping on a banana. “I’d never seen anyone who could make eating a banana seem so scary,” Jackie writes.

Ever embarrassed by his parents, he relates: “Actually, I was born in India. My parents were in the Peace Corps there. They say living in India changed their lives. I guess it changed mine too. Maybe we should have stayed in India, where everyone meditates and drinks tea and has friends who say, ‘The body knows.’”

Friedman’s affection for Jackie and children in the age group her novel targets – 12 through 14 – shines through her prose. Before her fingers touched the keyboard, she deliberately chose her audience, which is a wide one. A total of 120,244 new books were published in 1998, 9,195 of them for children, according to PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.

“My first decision was in choosing children’s books over books for adults,” she said. “Children’s books are just so delightful. I sometimes prefer to read them to adult books. They’re funnier.”

She opted against so-called “young adult” books, which deal with serious, heavy themes including abuse, rape and drugs, and are aimed at readers 15 and older.

Similarly, she decided against writing “chapter books,” for very young readers.

Friedman’s master’s degree from Rutgers University is in elementary school education, and for a couple of years after graduation she worked in the children’s department of Walker and Co., a book publishing company. It was there she developed enough of an affinity for the middle-grade age group to stick with HOW I SURVIVED MY SUMMER VACATION…AND LIVED TO WRITE THE STORY through seven drafts and four years of writing sessions.

“Kids in this age group are old enough to understand certain things and young enough not to have been corrupted by certain real-world events,” said Friedman, a freelance writer for a number of New Jersey publications, including the DAILY RECORD.

Eventually, Jackie finds a way around his trouble with a little help from what he thinks are unlikely sources.

At the story’s end, he finds his writerly voice, learns something about the opposite sex, and knows who his true friends are.

He also learns that even Hemingway didn’t write a novel at age 13