Lin Oliver, Children’s Book Author

Lin Oliver

Photo: Sonya Sones

Lin Oliver is a children’s book author and film producer. She currently heads her own production company, Lin Oliver Productions in Los Angeles. Her work has included the best-selling children’s series, Hank Zipzer, which she co-wrote with actor Henry Winkler from the television show Happy Days. Her television and film productions have won multiple industry awards, including the Parent’s Choice Gold Medal and the Cine Golden Eagle Award. She has written and produced children’s television shows for major networks and studios such as Showtime, PBS and Saban Entertainment/Fox Kids. She also has an academic side and has earned a Master’s degree in Educational Psychology from University of California at Los Angeles. Lin, who currently lives in Los Angeles with her husband and sons, recently spoke to Lunch Ticket editor Helen Akers about what’s important to her as a writer and her journey of becoming the writer, film and television producer she is today.

Helen Akers: What or who inspired you to become a writer?

Lin Oliver: I’ve always found writing interesting. I have wanted to be a writer since I remembered. In kindergarten I wrote a poem that got some attention and was put on the bulletin board. For me it was a foregone conclusion. I’ve always loved books. I read a variety of media—magazines, novels, books for adults, intergenerational sagas. I can’t imagine my life without books, and writing became a natural cropping from that.

HA: Is YA fiction something you felt compelled to write? Why?

LO: No, when I was younger I thought I would be a journalist. In high school I was an editor. In college I thought I wanted to write deep, dark, depressing, feminist poetry. I got a comedy writing fellowship to write situational comedies and got validated as a comedy voice. I was then hired to write a series of children’s books. I developed a love and discovered it as an open channel, with an audience that is responsive and filling.

HA: What advice would you have for emerging writers?

Don’t separate your writing life from your reading life. Follow that impulse and whatever field(s) you read in, try to master those types of writing.

LO: The most important thing is to try to determine what you yourself like to read and channel your efforts into writing what you read. Judy Blume told me that “you should write the kind of book you’d like to read.” Don’t separate your writing life from your reading life. Follow that impulse and whatever field(s) you read in, try to master those types of writing. Read like a writer by taking on the role of the writer. Try to figure out why they’re doing what they’re doing. Not so much in the sense that you’re analyzing it, but figuring out what did you love about the book and trying to capture that essence. Try to approach writing like its fun and not torture. One of the great fun things about writing is that you can do it anywhere—in your PJs, at Starbucks, or outside where you can entertain your own thoughts. Don’t approach writing like it’s something fearsome or aversive. Sometimes we think we have to suffer or procrastinate. Jump into it happily and focus on the parts that make you happy.

HA: You’re Executive Director of Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). Tell us about what the organization does for the YA writing community and your role.

LO: SCBWI is a writing community for all people who write, publish and agent children’s books or intend to devote themselves and their work to the children’s’ field. SCBWI helps maintain and promote the community’s careers. We have 22,000 members with chapters in every state and around the globe.

HA: Are you working on any new projects?

LO: I’m working on Here’s Hank—it’s an extension of the Hank Zipzer series. It starts when Hank is in the 2nd grade and explores some of his problems in schools. Here’s Hank prepares younger readers for the novels in the Hank Zipzer series because it’s written in a simple style. I’m also working on a series called Almost Identical. It’s six novels about middle school girls. They’re identical twins in the 7th grade and the series explores how they’re growing up and growing apart. They’re each seeking their own identity, even though they look alike. It’s set in Southern California near the beach. I’m enjoying it because I feel that middle school is an important and challenging time for girls since they’re searching for their identity, body image, and who they are in relation to boys, their friends, parents and other girls.

HA: In the Hank Zipzer series, you and your co-author Henry Winkler explore dyslexia and how it affects Hank’s life and his choices. In what ways do you feel Hank’s journey is inspiring to other children (who may be alike or different)?

LO: The series was developed from Henry’s experience. He didn’t know he was dyslexic until he was an adult and got diagnosed. We get a lot of heartfelt letters, over a hundred a month. The series is easy and fun to read. Someone with dyslexia or without dyslexia can read it. Many kids tell us that “this is the first book I’ve finished.” Hank is a responsible, positive kid. He’s not a victim in any shape or form. In the series, Hank faces learning challenges. We show a sense of compassion and empathy and anti-bullying. There’s a bully and nothing good happens to the bully. We hope to show that there are lots of ways to achieve your goal and everyone has different talented abilities and they’re all equally valid. He’s a role model for friends of kids who have learning challenges and kids who have challenges.

HA: What led you to choose the series slogan “The World’s Greatest Underachiever”?

LO: Because that’s what [Hank] is. He’s great at it. He’s a positive kid. He’s a great, good kid, who’s not good at school.

HA: Which one of the books in the series do you feel is most inspiring or insightful?

LO: Number One—Niagra Falls—because it lays out the problem of Hank’s dyslexia. At the end he finds out what his learning challenge is. Also, number seventeen—Brand New Me. We follow Hank’s transition from graduating elementary school and entering middle school. That’s a time where there’s a lot of pressure to find yourself and be accepted. Hank finds and goes to a performing arts school where he finds what he’s good at and he is valued for it. So, if you can figure out how to navigate the system, you’ll be okay. If you hang in there you’ll be okay. It’s a matter of finding what you’re good at.

HA: Which book in the series did you enjoy writing or creating the most?

LO: They’re all fun to write. Henry experienced it firsthand. I don’t have dyslexia so I get to walk in his shoes and experience how he never felt adequate. I get to broaden my experience. We have a lot of fun, we laugh. We both came from television backgrounds. I wrote TV for fifteen years, so it’s a collaborative experience. The process is enjoyable.

HA: After working as a Senior Vice President at MCA/Universal, what drove you to start your own production company?

I worked in television development for twelve years. I was a writer first and missed writing. Universal allowed me to switch over to the producing side, which in television is writing.

LO: I worked in television development for twelve years. I was a writer first and missed writing. Universal allowed me to switch over to the producing side, which in television is writing. When you’re a producer, you’re really the Head Writer. I wrote the pilot for Harry and the Hendersons, which sold seventy-two episodes to Fox. I slid naturally into it and I stayed with it. I wanted to be able to translate literature to film and television. I then wrote Courdory for PBS, Wayside for Nickelodeon, Trumpet based on E.B. White’s book. The BBC is also airing the Hank Zipzer series. With my own projects, I like to help popularize children’s literature.

HA: What do you think has attributed to your production company’s success?

LO: I work really hard. I don’t think you can underestimate the value of a work ethic. I love my work. I’ve set up my life so that my work and home life are weaved together. I’m married with 3 sons and it’s allowed me to still focus on my career. I feel lucky because I didn’t struggle with my career versus my home life like many women have to. Loving what I do is important to me.

HA: What do you feel was the most significant moment or project in your writing career? Why?

LO: Loving what I do. It’s work where the highest authority is myself. I’m allowed to be true to myself, true to my own voice. I’m not a great follower. I love being able to follow my natural, intuitive voice. That’s very satisfying. Most writers want to assert independence—their own voice—and I’m able to do that. Some people can be an employee and follow someone else, but I enjoy working hard. My motto is “you can’t make me.”

HA: Are there any themes that you try to consistently explore in your writing and productions?

LO: Friendship is one—being a good friend. Also, empathy, which is one of the biggest things. It’s the most important thing we can teach our kids. To assume someone else’s shoes, to know what it feels like to be someone else. It goes hand in hand with the issues of gun violence and bullying. If you know what that feels like (to be on the receiving end), you won’t do it. Another theme is rewarding kids who follow their own path—finding your own identity and claiming it. Finding your own unique expression, in whatever ways you are diverse. Whether that’s your interests, your personality, in whatever way you’re unusual, to put it out in the world and know that whoever you are is valid. Express who you are without fear, you’re entitled to be who you are. It’s about authenticity.

HA: What’s involved in starting a production company? Successes? Failures? Would you do anything differently?

LO: My situation is unique since I was an executive working for Universal and I switched over to production, so my production company was kind of already set up. Most others have a much harder road. You develop things that you want to make into media—DVD, Internet, etc. You acquire or create the intellectual property and then find the financial and creative packaging.

HA: Most people who want to do something with writing and production worry about making connections, starting? Any advice?

LO: In terms of children’s books, organizations like SCBWI and conferences are helpful.  While you’re learning, you can reach out and make connections. The children’s’ book community is unique because most everyone wants to extend a helping hand and bring up and develop the next generation. I’ve found that show business is a little different. It’s more high stakes and cut-throat competitive. It’s more difficult to get someone to read your material or return your calls. When you get into children’s’ literature, you’re a certain kind of person who wants to lend that helping hand. It’s a community of people who are kind, generous and understanding.

HA: What’s your perspective on the relationship between movies and YA books?

LO: I’m a lover and consumer of all media—stories, series, films, etc. I love the narrative process and I think books feed media and media feeds books. There’s a proliferation of storytelling in our society. I think it’s great the kids are watching YouTube. I’m not a purist in the sense that I think you have to read the book first. It’s important that kids learn literacy, but you can learn from reading, from playing games, from seeing the movie and then reading the book or reading the book and then seeing the movie. They’re all valid forms of learning. They’re all platforms for storytelling. We’re surrounded by so much of it, so much narrative. Even if it’s shooting videos with a phone. I think transmedia is great. It all contains human understanding.

Helen Akers is a recovered sales representative and former MBA, who found herself pursuing a writing career after following her heart and a little synchronicity. When she’s not writing or fixing computers, she dreams of palm trees and the ocean. She lives in Northern Colorado with her dog, Scruffy.