Seeing James Patterson on the New York Times bestseller list is nothing new — the multigenre novelist actually holds the Guinness World Record for landing the most books there. This time, though, he’s brought a Vermont co-author with him. Chris Tebbetts, who lives in Hinesburg, has his name on the cover of Middle School, the Worst Years of My Life along with Patterson. Aimed at middle-grade readers, the book, illustrated by Laura Park, is in its sixth week on the NYT list of Children’s Chapter Books, where it recently fell from No. 1 to No. 3.
While Patterson’s “brand” has name recognition, it’s not hard to see why kids would pick up Middle School on its own merits. Beyond that title, which pretty well encapsulates the middle school experience, they’re likely to relate to the narrator-hero, Rafe, who has a good heart and a bad attitude. Feeling anonymous at school, he sets out to break every rule in the official regulation book, abetted by his only friend, “Leonardo the Silent,” whose irreverent, cartoon-style drawings adorn the pages.
Patterson concocted the story and characters, says Tebbetts, and passed him a 30-page outline to flesh out. “I take it from there,” he explains. “I offer [the manuscript] in pieces, and he and I will confer each step along the way.”
Tebbetts, 47, has been writing for kids since 2002. The Ohio native had a background in children’s theater and started taking writing classes when he moved to Vermont. Eventually “something clicked for me,” he says. “I wasn’t just writing for a hobby; I was trying to get published.”
Tebbetts began “showing up for the business of writing,” as he puts it, and at a workshop, he “met a particular guy, who knew a particular editor.” That led to a gig writing a four-book middle-grade series called The Viking, published in 2003. Tebbetts also cowrote (with Lisa Papademetriou) M or F?, a young adult novel that plays with the scenario of gender bending in a chat room.
For the past six years, Tebbetts says, he’s divided his time between his own work and ghostwriting for a living. Then Patterson got his name from the book packager of The Viking and asked him to send some sample chapters.
Working with Patterson, who hires multiple cowriters and has been described as a one-man industry, has “been a wholly positive experience for me,” Tebbetts says. “He’s creatively generous. He gives me the space to do my thing, but he apparently also has great instincts for every genre he’s been in. It felt like great luck for me to really click with him on that.”
Tebbetts is almost done with the sequel to Middle School, which will follow the hero through eighth grade. He’s “working on a castaway story in my quote unquote spare time,” he says, and plans to stick with middle-grade fiction, “my favorite age to write for.”
The author is happy with his career so far: “I’ve managed to write for a living and work at home, which I love,” he says. With his name on a bestseller, will he get a chance to bring more ideas of his own to the page? Middle School “gives me a level of exposure I’ve only dreamed about before,” Tebbetts says. “If people know my name, that’s great, but I still need to write something they want to publish.”