Rodman Philbrick, of Kittery, Maine, is a talented and experienced author whose topics in this e-book range from bullying to an artist’s determination to fantasies of fame. Just like his fiction, “Listening to Kids in America” is funny, smart and deeply touching. Prompting Philbrick’s frank and earnest discussions are the letters he receives from his young readers. The questions the letters pose are personal and his answers are personal, too.

"Listening to Kids in America: How a Middle-Aged Author Discovered the Meaning of Life — or Something Like it — in Letters from Kids," by Rodman Philbrick. Available in Kindle and Nook editions on Amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com and via Philbrick’s website, RodmanPhilbrick.com


There’s a lot to be had from reading “Listening to Kids in America: How a Middle-Aged Author Discovered the Meaning of Life — or Something Like it — in Letters from Kids.”


Like Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet,” “Listening to Kids in America” covers a lot of territory in a back-and-forth conversation between an author and his correspondent. Rilke had one. Author Rodman Philbrick has many.


Philbrick, of Kittery, Maine, is a talented and experienced author whose topics in this e-book range from bullying to an artist’s determination to fantasies of fame. Just like his fiction, “Listening to Kids in America” is funny, smart and deeply touching. Prompting Philbrick’s frank and earnest discussions are the letters he receives from his young readers. The questions the letters pose are personal and his answers are personal, too.


We learn that when author Rodman Philbrick wrote “Freak the Mighty” in 1993 his life changed just as his young editor predicted it would. Already a working author, Philbrick was well acquainted with the consequences of publishing. He’d already published more than a dozen mysteries and thrillers, and he’d won serious critical acclaim for his work.


But nothing prepared him for what happened when “Freak the Mighty” came out. Besides walking down the red carpet at the West Coast premiere of the movie “The Mighty,” starring among others Sharon Stone and Meatloaf, he began what has developed into a lifetime correspondence with children of all ages. And he’s gone on to produce a number of award-winning books for young readers at the same time that he continues his genre fiction writing. In 2010 he received a Newbury Honor award for “The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg.”


For most working authors, the writing life is not especially lucrative. A spouse who works is more than an asset. It makes writing possible. But the “genteel poverty” of life in a one-bedroom apartment in Kittery, Maine, was wearing on Philbrick. Though his wife, Lynn, worked to help pay the bills, Philbrick could only envision more of the same. At 42, with lots of talent and energy, he didn’t give up. Philbrick had been writing books since he was a boy and receiving rejection slips since he was a boy. He would keep writing because that’s what he wanted to do though he states (rightly, I believe) that receiving rejection slips is simply a bad experience and has few if any character-building qualities.


On a drive back from a meeting in NYC with his editor, a meeting in which he had to work hard to disguise his frustrations with publishing, the first line of “Freak the Mighty” popped into his head. By the time he got to Kittery, he had the entire book roughed out.


The importance of tenacity and drive rings out in “Listening to Kids in America” as one of the book’s key messages. Whether it’s Kevin, the clumsy giant of a boy who loses his best friend in “Freak the Mighty” or Philbrick, whose award-winning mystery series gets cancelled before he even has a chance to accept the award, you learn that good things are more likely to happen if you persist, if you defy the despondence that threatens to bring you down.


“Listening to Kids in America” is a wonderful book for children and adults. If your kids have read “Freak the Mighty” or one of Philbrick’s other books in school, as many have, it would be the perfect book to read aloud to each other. Among other things, the book provides a valuable reality check in hard economic times. It’s about an author’s long hard struggle to find his voice as a writer and perfect his skills. It’s not about being “discovered.” It’s about making yourself heard.


It took many years and many books to get it right, says Philbrick. The book is about education and creativity in the United States, and it’s about children and the extreme struggles many of our youth face growing up.


Children for whom “Freak the Mighty” most resonate are those who’ve suffered themselves. Some of the letters they write to Philbrick, many of which are published here, are heartbreakers. Others are hilarious. Kids pull no punches. If you win with kids, you win with life.


Rae Padilla Francoeur’s memoir, “Free Fall: A Late-in-Life Love Affair,” is available online or in bookstores. Write her at rae.francoeur@verizon.net. Or read her blog at http://www.freefallrae.blogspot.com/ or follow her @RaeAF.