By Paul Duckworth, MLS
The name R.L. Stine may be quite familiar to librarians, but what about the man behind the books? Those of you with only a passing familiarity of the author have likely asked at least one of these questions:
“R.L. Stine? Who was he? Whatever happened to him, anyway?”
“He’s not a real person. It’s like the Hardy Boys series, all those books have been churned out by a team of writers.”
“Oh, he was that nerdy guy who wrote all those scary little books for kids, wasn’t he?”
“Isn’t he dead?”
“I feel like I ought to mark a pathway on the floor of the Children’s Department so kids could just follow it to find the R.L. Stine books, instead of asking me again, and again, and again!”
Stop right there! Are you talking about the R.L. Stine that I’m talking about? Let’s look at the facts. First of all, he is not dead. But, if you thought he might be, you’re not alone. He recently turned 76 and, as we all know, that’s pretty old (no offense to the septuagenarians reading this). At a book signing a couple years ago, a teacher approached him, phone clutched in hand, and said, “Can I have my picture taken with you? The kids all think you’re dead.”
And to tell the truth, despite the fact that he makes his living writing children’s horror stories, he doesn’t look at all like a horror storyteller. I know, that begs the question, “What’s a famous horror writer supposed to look like?” I don’t know…why not go ask Siri or Alexa?
Stine has often joked about the local newspaper in Ohio describing him this way: “In person, R.L. Stine is about as scary as an optometrist.” Stine then goes on to say, “I’m basically a jolly guy who likes to sit at a keyboard all day and write things to frighten children.” Then he shares the anecdote about the time he was outdoors, walking toward the conference center where he was going to speak, when a woman stopped him and said, “Did anyone ever tell you look a lot like R.L. Stine? No offense.” And, of course, he never hesitates to tell people that a magazine once described him as a “training bra for Stephen King.”
Robert Lawrence Stine was born in Columbus, Ohio, on October 8, 1943, the first of three children. He grew up in Bexley, an old, tree-lined suburb of Columbus. His father was a warehouse clerk, his mother a homemaker, and the family was poor, quite poor (no offense to any penurious people reading this). As Stine relates, “I had to wear my cousin’s old clothes to school. I think it made me very shy. It’s one reason I liked staying in my room and writing.” And he really did like to stay in his room. His mother would often try to coax him, unsuccessfully, to go outside and play. “What’s wrong with you?” she would blurt out. Lucky for his future fans, Stine didn’t budge from his room. He was an avid reader and began writing when he was nine. He recalls, “I was this weird kid. I found an old typewriter in the attic and I dragged it into my room and I would just stay in my room, typing — typing out funny stories and little comic books.” And he has never stopped writing since. When he turned 13, his parents asked what he wanted for a bar mitzvah gift. Guess what he chose—a new typewriter! “They bought me an office-type machine. We’re talking a heavy-duty typewriter here. It was perfect. I used that typewriter for years.” Just imagine—all those books he’s written on that typewriter, and all of them using one finger at a time—he never learned how to type.
After high school, he attended The Ohio State University, where he majored in English. His freshman year he had to borrow the money needed to pay his tuition. He graduated in 1965, after having been the editor of the school humor magazine for three years. In an August 2018 Wall Street Journal article, Stine describes what happened next:
After graduating from Ohio State, I drove to Manhattan in my white Corvair. I sold it for $400 as soon as I arrived and moved into an apartment in Greenwich Village. My first job was writing fake celebrity news for a woman who published six movie magazines at her townhouse on West 95th Street. I never saw her out of her brown bathrobe. Three of us came each day to write. She’d tell me to write an interview with Jane Fonda or Diana Ross. There never were any interviews. We were expected to make it all up. After a long string of writing jobs, I wound up at Scholastic. The publisher had launched Dynamite, a magazine for kids. It was so successful I was asked in 1975 to launch Bananas, a humor magazine for teens.
He adopted the name Jovial Bob Stine and remained Bananas’ editor and chief writer for 10 years. Then, Scholastic went through a major reorganization and Jovial Bob lost his job with the company. Soon afterwards, he found himself desperately doing all kinds of work to survive financially. One day, he remembers, “I was having lunch with an editor, a friend of mine. And she had had a fight with somebody who was writing YA novels, horror novels. And she said ‘I’m never working with him again. You could write a good horror novel. Go home and write a book called Blind Date.’ She even gave me the title.” He did a name switch from Jovial Bob to R.L., since that made him sound like a more serious author of horror. The book was released in 1986 and was met with success. So, as fate would have it, Stine turned from his first love of writing humor to writing horror. Millions of children who like to get frightened are glad that he did.
In 1989, he created the “Fear Street” series for teens, which led to more than 100 titles. Stine’s wife, Jane, had recently co-founded Parachute Publishing, and “Fear Street” found a home with Parachute. Jane became Stine’s editor, which she has continued throughout his career. And yes, all of his books are written by Stine himself, the “one finger wonder.” Unlike so many other authors, he does not use ghostwriters. Three years later, Jane and her business partner at Parachute suggested to Stine that he create a horror series aimed at kids between seven and 12, which was an untapped market. He was somewhat reluctant, but told them he would give it a try if he could come up with a good name for the series. Soon afterwards, Stine was reading TV Guide and saw an ad that proclaimed, “It’s Goosebumps Week on channel 11.” This was 1992, and as it’s often said, the rest is history.
Now, after more than 125 “Goosebumps” titles, two wildly successful “Goosebumps” movies have been released, which has generated renewed interest in the book series. A new movie is coming out next year based on his Fear Street series. Stine has also written two well-received picture books, both illustrated by Marc Brown. He has sold over 400 million copies of his books and they have been translated into 35 languages. He is one of the best-selling authors in history, has achieved incredible success, and is estimated to be worth about $200 million. He modestly attributes his success to the fact that kids like to be scared and the books are very easy to read. He and his wife Jane live in a large apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. They also have a home in Sag Harbor, NY, at the eastern edge of Long Island, where Bob likes to barbeque. So, given his age, what do you suppose he is doing with his time, aside from grilling meat? One might assume he is kicking back and enjoying his golden years with his family. After all, he and Jane have one son and a grandchild. Coasting along? No way! Relaxing is not how he’s spending his days, other than participating in the beloved rituals of the barbeque.
Who is this person? What makes R.L. Stine tick? He is a humble, gentle man with a huge sense of dark, dry humor. He loves horsing around with his jokes and… he loves making kids frightened. Ask him what his proudest accomplishment is, and he shoots back, “Getting kids to read.” He is intensely curious, loves being entertaining with people, and although a natural introvert, has honed the extroverted skills needed to connect with others. He has an active mind that never seems to stop—perhaps as a result of his voracious reading habits. He keeps up a dizzying schedule of book conferences, bookstore signings, media interviews, and school visits. When I contacted him recently, he messaged back, “Wish I had time, but I’m traveling now, Paul.” He seems to get genuine pleasure from connecting with children, librarians, teachers, and the adults who were his fans 20 or 30 years ago. In response to repeated questions from kids about his writing techniques and his awareness of today’s distractions that keep children from writing, he created a 16-page writing program for teachers to use with their students. Also, no doubt in response to thousands of requests, his website offers a package of images that children can download for school reports (including his and Jane’s wedding photo).
He’s often asked where he gets his ideas and what advice he would give to young writers. “People always say do I have advice for young people and generally I don’t give advice for young writers at all,” Stine says. “[But] I never said no to anything when I was starting out as a writer. Just say yes. Say yes to everything.”. R.L. Stine is a man with a passion, and not just about scaring children. His devotion shows through in the introduction he wrote to teachers for his writing program. He is outspoken about the benefits children receive from reading and writing. Last year, Mental Floss published a list of 12 quotes from him in honor of his 75th birthday, clearly revealing Stine’s firm belief in the value of being a literate person.
In a 2015 interview, NPR’s Michel Martin asked him, “Since the ‘Goosebumps’ series started, there have been a number of children’s books series that have also been successful, but none like yours. I just wondered if you—you know, what—of all the things that you’ve done, what do you want your legacy to be?” Stine replied, “My legacy? Oh, I don’t know. I guess on my tombstone: He got boys to read.”
Jovial Bob has indeed turned boys—and girls—into readers, and sparked their imaginations. Chances are good that right now he is planning or participating in another public appearance where hundreds of his young, excited fans will delight in his storytelling, humor, and passion. At 76, he shows no sign of winding down—or giving up writing his scary stories. Like the Energizer Bunny, he is still going. Nothing outlasts R.L. Stine.
Thank you, R.L. Stine. Countless kids, teachers, and librarians adore you. Your contributions to spreading the values of reading and writing are colossal. You can be certain your legacy will be long-lasting. And… maybe someday… you and I can have that chat by phone before you head out to barbeque some chicken. You’ve got my number.
Nothing brings a smile to Paul Duckworth’s face quite like a good book, a long walk, and the unmatched beauty of country life. Click here for more.