The Pencil Bandits: NHS senior publishes second book in series

  • Northampton High School senior Henry Reade, co-writer of The Pencil Bandits series. “The Castelli Curse,” (shown at right) is the second book in the series. Photo by Shell Lin

  • Prize winners at “Liar’s Club,” the contest held recently at The Parlor Room in Northampton to celebrate the new Pencil Bandits book. Photo by Shell Lin

  • Books and gear for sale at The Parlor Room for the release of the new Pencil Bandits title. Photo by Shell Lin

  • Henry Reade, left, and his father, Nat Reade, second to left, take part in a reading at The Parlor Room for the new Pencil Bandits book. Photo by Shell Lin

  • “The Castelli Curse,” (shown at right) is the second book in The Pencil Bandits series. —

For the Gazette
Saturday, November 25, 2017

Two weeks ago, Henry Reade, a senior at Northampton High School, launched “The Castelli Curse,” the second of his young-adult book series The Pencil Bandits, a comedic and satirical account of three fictional teenage brothers and their adventures. The debut came at The Parlor Room in Northampton, where slices from an enormous pizza were for sale and Henry’s mother, Michaela O’Brien, staffed a table of new books and caps printed with the book’s logo.

As some 25 teenagers, parents and other guests enjoyed pizza and soda, they watched six eighth-grade students from John F. Kennedy Middle School pair up on The Parlor Room’s modest stage to compete in the night’s featured activity — Liar’s Contest.

“One of them will tell a story that happened to them, and the other will have to tell the same one as if it happened to them,” said Henry, 17. “So it encourages people to think about how to make their story more compelling, as lying and storytelling is a theme in writing.”

Stories ranged from writing an anonymous love letter to a classmate and dressing as UPS drivers, to slam-dunking basketballs and firing Nerf guns at a neighbor who drove by. “I just thought about [my story] when I was coming out of the car to here,” said 13-year-old Charlie Horton after he came down from the stage. He later won the first prize of the contest: an ad-hoc sculpture of plastic foam, glitter paper, building blocks and pencils.

“We were really tricked by the second pair of students,” said Kate Parrott, one of the judges of the evening’s contest. She’s a JFK science teacher who has taught both Henry and his younger brother, Charley.

“I love the creativity part of it and having the kids think quickly and off-the-cuff,” Parrott said, adding that in every class of the school, there are four or five kids who had already read Henry’s first book.

Henry said Liar’s Contest seemed a natural extension of his book series, which he started writing five years ago with his father, Nat Reade, because “I feel that middle school students are underserved — in books and in entertainment events in general.”

A father and son project

 As Nat explains, when his son was younger, he had a hard time finding books that seemed genuinely funny and interesting. One of the few that appealed was Jon Scieszka’s “The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales”; Henry also enjoyed movies by the Marx Brothers and other absurdist takes on life.

“He felt most of the books that were available and offered to him were too moralistic, too namby-pamdy,” Nat said.

For example, books in which “characters have epiphanies where they grow and learn in the end” just seemed “lame,” Henry said. “That’s not what usually happens to people. So I would like to do the opposite of that — have things not necessarily work out.”

So starting in the summer of 2012, Henry and Nat began to create their Pencil Bandit stories from scratch (in addition to the two published titles, two other books are finished). They would go on walks, talk about what was going to happen in the next chapter, and come back to their basement to write on Nat’s computer. At the beginning, Nat, the more adroit writer, would do the typing, but as Henry grew older, he took over.

Once a book was finished, they would start outlining the next title in the series, talking it over through winter and spring. When summer arrived, they would put their brainchild onto the page.

“There were moments when we got stuck, and there were definitely conflicts,” Henry said. “Every once in a while, we have to take a step back and talk about the overarching plot.”

That process lasted for five summers. “It was always the two of us side by side,” Nat said. “It’s incredible he would spend five summers of his youth in his basement writing with his father.”

When it comes to writing, Henry is the one with ideas, Nat the facilitator who helps him flesh them out.

“There were times when I had to pull some of the details out of him and say, ‘Henry, it’s not enough for the scene. We need to know more. What does this place look like? What does it smell like? What does it sound like?’ ” said Nat, a longtime magazine editor and writer who’s written for many publications including Playboy, GQ, and The Atlantic.

“But all the ideas were his from start to finish,” added Nat. “He knew what he wanted these characters to be, what he wanted to happen, and how he wanted it to be different from most books.”

For example, Henry parodied The Hardy Boys, the venerable mystery series about two teenage brothers and amateur detectives, by toying with the series’ style in his own writing. “One of the big themes in my books is me making jokes about things that I read and thought were funny, like tropes,” said Henry.

A hyperbolic system

The basic plot line of the series concerns three brothers — “The Castelli Curse” introduces a fourth character, their cousin — who live in what Henry calls “a hyperbolic system. They are really poor, so they decide the only way [for them to thrive] is to become criminals. It’s definitely a satire, but also I felt like in the post-recession climate — not that I think people should become criminals — it was sort of a rational choice for kids to make in that political climate.” 

The series has become more complex as the author has grown up. “The first book is the most accessible. As [the books] go on, the plot line becomes a little hard to follow. That’s something kids can struggle with,” Henry said. At its heart, he says, it’s a comedy that also offers a satirical and political message. 

His father stresses that though the books are aimed at teens age 13 and up, they can also entertain older readers. “There is slapstick stuff that works for younger kids, but then there’s really sophisticated stuff that older people and adults can laugh at.” 

For Nat, writing with Henry has been a great ride: “Writing humorous comic adventures with my son was the most fun project for me, ever.” 

Henry, who’s submitted an early application to Wesleyan University in Connecticut, may be ready for his next adventure. He’s interested in film studies and in particular with integrating his writing style, which he calls “very visual and dialogue-based,” with film. He’s also interested in history, social sciences and economics; he’s currently taking an American history class at Smith College, and at Northampton High he’s part of the Model UN Club.

“I’m a pretty political guy, and that’s where I’m headed in college,” he said.

More information on The Pencil Bandits can be found at www.pencilbandits.com.