Smart is Cool: An Interview with Author Dom Testa

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Good Reads with Ronna is all about reading and expanding the mind. Well, today we promise your mind will indeed be full of new and inspiring information as you read Debbie Glade’s interview with YA author and dynamic radio personality Dom Testa.

Dom Testa has been an award-winning morning radio host for Denver’s Mix 100 for nearly 20 years. He’s also the author of the YA novels, The Galahad Series. The first book in the series, The Comet’s Curse won the EVVY Award for Best Novel. In addition to his radio and literary achievements, Dom is the founder of the non-profit foundation, The Big Brain Club. Let’s find out what it’s all about.

You have said you knew you always wanted to be in radio. How did you get started at the young age of 16?

It sounds hard to believe, but I actually just walked in and asked for a job. It was a case of being in the right place at the right time, and because they were desperate for help (especially at ridiculously low wages at the time), they were willing to teach a kid how to do it. What makes it funny is that I was a pretty shy kid at the time. I really stepped outside my comfort zone by applying for a job in broadcasting.

That was really courageous and inspiring! Can you tell us a little bit about your current radio show, The Dom and Jane Show on Mix 100 in Denver?

I’ve hosted the morning show at Mix 100 for almost twenty years, and in early 1999 Jane joined us from a station in Columbus, Ohio. We’ve been the top-rated morning show in Denver for quite a few years, and I think it’s because we talk about relatable – and fun – topics. Many of the things we discuss come straight out of our personal lives, but there’s a good chance that our listeners have dealt with exactly the same issues.

Besides Jane and me, we have a couple of producers (Jeremy and Emily) who are on the show with us, along with Kris, our traffic diva. It’s an interesting mix of personalities.

Is it difficult to come up with fresh material for the radio show day after day?

No, not really. Real life is full of material, whether it involves spouses or significant others, career, family, pets, day-to-day observations, and anything else that occurs to us. You can listen to our show anywhere in the world, at www.Mix100.com. Plus, we have a ton of free podcasts available on iTunes. Just search for Dom and Jane on Mix 100 in Denver.

I am certainly going to listen! How did you get started writing for middle grade readers and young adults?

I’ve been working with students for about twenty years, visiting classrooms and hosting writing workshops. After a few years of that I realized that it made sense to write something for that age group. Up to that point, most of my work had been short fiction and essays, all aimed at adults.

I was inspired as a young reader by action/adventure series, like The Hardy Boys, and I wanted to create a series of books that got kids interested in reading. I like the idea of books that are gateways into reading, something that first attracts a student to books. Plus, when I was a student I was constantly reading science fiction classics (Asimov, Clarke, Bova), so it just felt right to create a contemporary sci-fi series with characters that today’s students could relate to.

You have penned the Galahad Series of books, containing 6 titles. The first book in the series, The Comet’s Curse, won a national book award for YA novels.  Can you briefly tell us the premise of this series and what inspired you to write these books?

It’s the story of a group of 251 bright teenagers, assembled from countries all over the world, and explores a theme of how they would handle being sent away on their own to colonize a new world – with no adults around.

There are multiple books about “troubled kids,” and that’s fine. But I wondered how the world’s best and brightest would fare in an extremely challenging situation. Obviously there are problems along the way as they journey to their new home, and that creates the backdrop for the six-book series. And, because they come from nations all over the world, it’s truly a melting pot aboard the ship. The series grows and develops, with several surprises at the end. Some authors are sad when a series ends, but I was very, very pleased with how it all came together.

That certainly is a unique and fascinating premise for a book series. Is there another book or series for you in the near future?

Yes, and yes. I’m just now finishing a non-fiction book that examines a rarely discussed issue with today’s students. The book is called Smart Is Cool, and is based on the work I do with my non-profit foundation, The Big Brain Club. I’m also working on the second book in a new mystery series for students. I’m waiting until I finish the first three before I sell the series. I’m actually very excited about this project!

What is The Big Brain Club, and what inspired you to create it?

We’re concerned in America with the state of education, but the majority of ideas to “fix” the situation come from above (the government, school boards, unions, etc). I’m convinced that the most important work we have to do with education is to improve the students’ attitudes about academic achievement.

Way too many young people throw away their education in some misguided attempt to be “cool.” For students, image is everything, and if doing well in school brands them as a nerd, or a dork, then no matter how much money we spend on education, it will be wasted. If a student believes it’s more important to be cool than to do well academically, then we’re lost.

My foundation, The Big Brain Club, helps young people recognize that Smart Is Cool. It’s the only cool that lasts. They’re quick to ignore their education for the sake of fitting in with some cool clique for five or six years, and then they regret it for the rest of their lives. We visit schools and host presentations that help students see the actual repercussions of the choices they make today. Teenagers often have a hard time visualizing how their choices in school today affect them tomorrow, so we help them to connect the dots.

I love the fact that you not only encourage middle school students to write, but you also publish their stories. Where are they published, and what has been the reaction of the students who have been published?

We professionally publish the creative writing of middle school students, generally grades six through eight. The writing includes short fiction, poetry, and essays. Not only does this make stars out of the students – they are truly the big shots on campus – but it opens their eyes to the fact that they have real talent. It gives them a shot of confidence that they truly can achieve so much if they stay focused.

And beyond that, you should see the reaction of the parents. At some of the assemblies where we’ve unveiled these books, the parents come up to me afterward with tears streaming down their faces. It’s very moving, and probably the most satisfying thing I’ve ever done.

Have you seen any children involved with The Big Brain Club drastically turn their love of reading and writing around for the better?

The stories we hear from the teachers and media specialists are so inspiring. Several teachers have told us about students who had never before participated in anything involving creative writing, or creative expression, and how they came out of their shell with this program. And it’s so cool to hear of students who intend to use their new publishing experience as a note on their college applications. I love that! Overall, the schools tell us that The Big Brain Club’s message and programs really do reach what were previously considered to be “unreachable” students.

How do you convey the message to children that reading is cool?

A lot of what we do involves profiles of young people who have achieved astounding success through using their brains. As a nation we tend to obsess over athletes and so-called celebrities, but we have such an incredible pool of talented thinkers that never get enough attention.

We don’t focus simply on reading, but rather on an overall well-balanced education, including math and science. We’re closely involved with several STEM school programs. We stress that Smart Is Cool; that doesn’t have to mean straight “A”s, or honor rolls (although we love those). Instead, we help young people to become the best version of themselves, whatever that may be. It almost always begins with a good education.

Your message to those students is wonderful. What can American schools do better to help struggling readers and prevent them from slipping through the cracks?

I know there are a lot of people who urge parents to continually read to their kids, and I’m a fan of that. However, I think we often neglect to recognize that we’re role models in many other ways, too. What’s the attitude around your house regarding education? I was doing a book signing about a year ago when a young man, maybe around eleven or twelve years old, stopped and looked at my book series. He held it up to his dad to get his opinion, and the dad said: “Don’t look at me, I haven’t read a book since I was ten. But get it if you want.” Are you kidding me? The boy put the book down and walked out of the store with his father, likely to never again consider the idea of reading.

I’m aware that a lot of people reading this already get it – in essence, I’m preaching to the choir – but there are millions upon millions of households where reading and education are not only on the back burner. The children are actually discouraged.

I think schools are only one part of the equation. I’m much more concerned about how pop culture informs a young person’s attitude toward education, along with that student’s experience at home. We place an exorbitant amount of pressure on teachers to solve the entire crisis, while the students themselves get a hall pass. I think that’s wrong.

What are your thoughts on the shift toward e-readers and e-books rather than traditional paper books, with more and more physical bookstores closing? And how do you think this affects the youngest generation of readers?

I look around and see some people who are devoted to their electronic readers, and I see people who will never put down traditionally published paper books. Perhaps I’m naive, but I think we make much too big of a deal out of the “differences” between them. They’re both books! They both involve creative and inspiring writing, and I think they both have their place. Personally, I use both, and I enjoy both. I think I speak for a lot of people who don’t see it as a divide; instead, we see it as yet another option to enjoy something.

As for how it affects young people: I’m concerned with simply getting them hooked on reading, one way or another. If that means paper books, great. If it means e-readers, terrific. If it means blogs or ezines or old-fashioned pen-and-paper, great. It’s all about the content, I believe, more than the delivery vehicle.

That’s a very positive way of looking at it. What advice do you have for someone who wants to start a program for children to encourage the love of reading and writing?

I say (and this isn’t very popular) quit focusing exclusively on “classics,” and let a young person find out what turns them on. We also tend to follow the herd in our society, focusing exclusively on the handful of book titles that are deemed “hits.” That’s too bad. An awful lot of fantastic books fall through the cracks because they’re not vampire novels or dystopian nightmare tales. Reading groups are fine, but they assume that everyone’s taste is the same.

I found my favorite books as a kid by wandering through the library for hours at a time. Sure, I didn’t have the same distractions that young people have today, but I wasn’t steered to some NY Times bestseller list. Today we seem to pick five books that EVERYONE must read. I don’t get it.

As for writing, the same thing applies. I visited a school that assigned subjects for all of their creative writing. I even asked one of the teachers about that: “How is it really creative writing if you tell them everything they’re supposed to write?” Writing, like reading, is about exploration. We find what excites us, and go from there. And there’s no shortage of outlets for any kind of writing. If a students are into sports, or horses, or science fiction, or unicorns, or whatever…they’ll be able to find an almost limitless supply of examples to study.

More than anything, students often come to look upon writing as a school assignment, rather than something they can do for their own personal enjoyment. It’s maybe why a simple journal can be a gateway to expressing themselves.

Thanks so much for the opportunity to visit with you about all of this!

Dom thank you for answering our questions so thoughtfully. Your perspective is truly refreshing and enlightening. Please stay in touch and let us know when your next book comes out. We wish you continued success in all your endeavors.

Readers, for more information about The Big Brain Club, click here. To listen to Dom and Jane on Mix 100, check out the website and click on the “Listen Live” link. To purchase Dom’s books, click here.