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​Dr. Peter M. Johnson

English Professor's Novel Selected to Represent R.I. at National Book Festival

A novel written by Dr. Peter M. Johnson, professor of English at Providence College, was selected by the Rhode Island Center for the Book to represent the state at the Library of Congress’ National Book Festival in Washington, D.C., on September 22 and 23.

His book, The Amazing Adventures of John Smith Jr. AKA Houdini (HarperCollins, 2012), will be displayed as the Rhode Island submission in the festival’s Pavilion of the States.

The novel focuses on Houdini, a middle-school student from Providence, who chronicles his life as his friends and he start a leaf-raking business, befriend Old Man Jackson, a Vietnam War veteran, and get even with the neighborhood bully, Angel.

However, Houdini finds it difficult to write about his dad losing his job and his brother, Franklin, who is first reported missing in action in Iraq and then still seems to be missing when he comes home.

“Johnson expertly handles middle school relationships and doesn't avoid tough contemporary issues,” said Kate Lentz, director of the Rhode Island Center for the Book.

This will be the 12th annual Library of Congress National Book Festival. President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama will serve as honorary chairs. Last year, it was estimated that the crowd at the festival totaled more than 100,000.

Other Rhode Island authors who have been selected to represent the state at this event in recent years include Chris Van Allsburg, who won the Caldecott Medal twice for Jumanji (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1981) and The Polar Express (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1981), both of which he wrote and illustrated; Natalie Babbitt, whose novels, Tuck Everlasting (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1985) and The Eyes of the Amaryllis, (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1986), were made into films; and Mark Peter Hughes, whose novel Lemonade Mouth (Delacorte Books for Young Readers, 2007), was adapted for the Disney Channel last year.

Life as an author at PC

Johnson earned his doctorate in creative writing at the University of New Hampshire. He teaches Introduction to Literature, Creative Writing Fiction, a seminar on the prose poem, and a seminar on black humor in contemporary poetry courses at PC.

In addition to teaching, he has published award-winning novels and poems. Johnson also served as editor of The Prose Poem: An International Journal for nine years.

After he won The James Laughlin Award in 2001 for his second book of poems, one of the judges suggested he try writing for young adults.

“I'm moving toward writing just middle-grade novels now with boy protagonists. We need good books for boys, and I'm hoping I can write a few,” said Johnson. 

Johnson won the Creative Writing Fellowship from the Rhode Island Council on the Arts in 2010 and 2002, the Creative Writing Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1999, and his novel, What Happened (Front Street, 2007), won The Paterson Prize and “Book of the Year” for Rhode Island secondary schools in 2008.

His other publications include Rants and Raves: Selected and New Prose Poems (White Pine Press, 2010), Loserville (Front Street, 2009), and Eduardo & I (White Wine, 2006), a book of prose poems.  

Johnson also has two forthcoming novels, Out of Eden and The Life and Times of Benny Alvarez, Mr. Negativity, a middle-grade novel.

Johnson’s inspiration for his characters is rooted in his background of Christian humanism, a discipline implicit in PC’s mission, he said. 

“All my characters are decent people. All of them are hard-nosed and sometimes even tough, but they are decent and see that the world doesn’t just revolve around them,” Johnson said. “To whom much is given, much is expected. That’s always been my mantra, and my characters share it.”

— Genevieve Marie Ilg ’14


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