“When I first began teaching, I was doing a lot of talking to my students about writing, challenging them to do certain things and even to feel certain ways, but I wasn’t doing any of it myself,” says Rob Buyea ’99, G’00, reflecting on his journey out of the classroom and toward publishing award-winning middle grades novels.
“Simply put, that didn’t sit well with me, so I got started. I said to myself, ‘You can talk the talk, but can you walk the walk?’”
These days, Buyea doesn’t so much walk as run. The former Orange wrestler, elementary and high school teacher, and wrestling coach is now the Penguin Random House author of two popular book series—Mr. Terupt and The Perfect Score—and the stand-alone novels, What Comes Next (2021) and The Daredevils (2022). Much in demand, Buyea visits schools across the country and—virtually—throughout the world.
Despite his success—which includes numerous accolades for his books—the Massachusetts-based Buyea, who studied biology and elementary education at Syracuse University, remains humble about the origins of his vocation: “I began writing so that I could become a better teacher of writing, and that happened because of my students. They were my inspiration.”
With his inspirational students and inquisitive readers in mind—and with a little help from his books’ memorable characters—Buyea put aside his latest manuscript to discuss “creative concoctions,” why he prefers not to physically describe his characters, and whether Mr. Terupt will ever star on the big screen.
Q: After challenging yourself to write more while still a teacher, how exactly did you start to “walk the walk” as an author?
A: I got in the routine of crafting short stories that I would share with my students as examples. But more than that, I was building energy, excitement, and community around writing. Doing that work required I spend time thinking about stories more and more.
Eventually, there came a day when I got hit by an idea that grabbed hold of me like never before and that put me on the path of writing my first novel, Because of Mr. Terupt (2010).
Q: You have said your books are “loosely based” on your experiences in school—can you elaborate on this?
A: Having been a teacher for many years, I met many wonderful students, tried a lot of projects, and shared many unforgettable days and twists and turns along the way. As a result, I’ve been left with a trove of classroom memories that have inspired characters and ideas.
I should make clear, when slipping these memories into my stories, I add plenty of imagination to make it better. That’s the fun. For instance, I had a great time with my students during our biology plant unit. I will never forget the creative concoctions they invented when given the freedom to feed their plants their own special potion. That experience came in handy when writing Because of Mr. Terupt …
I felt everyone gather behind me as I began mixing my substances together in a bowl, but before I could feed my plant, something happened. First the bowl started feeling warmer—then hot. The potion turned dark green—then gray. It started bubbling—first slowly, then rapidly. I knew this was bad.
“Back up! Everybody back up!” Mr. Terupt ordered.
Smoke started billowing from my concoction. Then the screech of the fire alarm pounded against my ears. The only other thing I heard was Peter laughing. “This is awesome!” he yelled. “Way to go, Lukester!”
“Outside! Everybody outside!” Mr. Terupt ordered.
I was done for. I was sure of it.
Because of Mr. Terupt p.30 (Luke)
Q: How does what you learned while working toward your master’s degree at Syracuse University School of Education inform your stories?
A: What you read in my books is a reflection of my classroom, which certainly goes back to what I learned at the School of Education.
My undergraduate degree is in biology, and that was the extent of my reading until my master’s degree in elementary education. One requirement in Professor Donald Leu’s literacy class was to read a hefty number of books. I loved it. The idea of talking with students about the texts we were reading and pushing their thinking got me very excited.
It should be no surprise that my teacher characters are often book lovers. Any book they share is a book I’ve read and loved. Passionate readers like to talk about their reading …
Mrs. Woods knew something about saving the best for last, because she waited until the end of the day to dim the lights and sit on the front table. “Ladies and gentlemen, there’s one thing I can promise you this year,” she said. “You will get to enjoy a number of wonderful books. You’re growing up in a fast-paced world driven by tests and more tests, and sadly, because of that the magic of a read-aloud is being lost. But not in here. And not on my watch. We’re going to settle in and get lost in stories together.”
The Perfect Score, p.28 (Scott)
Q: You have mentioned that your books—especially the Mr. Terupt series—are sometimes used with student teachers. Why is that the case?
That is partly because Mr. Terupt is a brand-new teacher, which excites Peter, the class prankster in the book series …
It’s our bad luck to have teachers in this world, but since we’re stuck with them, the best we can do is hope to get a brand-new one instead of a mean old fart. New teachers don’t know the rules, so you can get away with things the old-timers would squash you for. That was my theory. So I was feeling pretty excited to start fifth grade, since I was getting a rookie teacher—a guy named Mr. Terupt. Right away, I put him to the test.
Because of Mr. Terupt, p.1 (Peter)
But Mr. Terupt is far more than just a rookie teacher. He isn’t perfect, but he is passionate—about his teaching and his students. He tries a number of creative and fun projects, and not all go as planned, like the plant concoctions. But in the end, it’s the relationships he’s developed with his students that makes him so special.
Striving to be a teacher like Mr. Terupt is a good goal for any educator.
Mrs. Woods, from The Perfect Score series, is different from Mr. Terupt. For one, she’s old. Real old. Which is something that does not excite Gavin …
Let me tell you, the ugly started with Mrs. Woods. One look at my teacher and I knew she wasn’t headed for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, but for the graveyard over on Nelson Road. This was gonna be awful. I was already looking at the clock, wondering how long till the end of the day—till the end of sixth grade.
The Perfect Score, p.21 (Gavin)
But like Mr. Terupt, Mrs. Woods is passionate about her students. Like Mr. Terupt, she cares about them and makes a difference.
Q: How do values—such as diversity, inclusion, and equity—infuse your books?
These values are definitely buzzwords—for good reason, as they are important.
My characters often come with complex back stories that touch on many different areas of life. In addition, when reading my books, you’ll notice I rarely tell my reader exactly what my character looks like. That hasn’t changed. It’s up to my reader to picture them any way they want. Trust me, they are visualized in all sorts of different ways. It’s fun for me to see the many different sketches and drawings students make for my characters.
It’s also extra special when I hear from readers …
I would like to take the time to tell you how much I love your Mr. Terupt series. I’ve read all of the books in the series many times, because I love them and can relate to all of the characters. (Chloe)
Creating characters that young readers connect with and see themselves in is of the utmost importance. This is how diversity, inclusion, and equity infuse my writing. It also speaks to the vital importance of books.
Q: You obviously enjoy receiving letters from your young readers …
A: I’ve been receiving letters from readers for more than 10 years now—and it never gets old. Some make me laugh …
We are desperate for you to write a fourth book! And, in case you don’t know what to write about, we have been discussing about what the plot should be. (Meghan and Dakota)
I was wondering if you could write the fifth book in the Mr. Terupt series. I’m not an author so I don’t know what to put inside the book, but please make it. (Fouzan)
Many ask, “Will there be a movie?” Producers and agents have expressed serious interest in Mr. Terupt for the big screen or TV, but there is nothing definite in the works. So if anyone reading this is in the movie business, my readers would like you to make Mr. Terupt your next blockbuster—I wouldn’t mind, either!
Q: Those letters are adorable, but do you ever receive more poignant notes?
Yes, there are also letters that hit hard …
Even though I’m a little mad at you for making that last book of the Mr. Terupt series a goodbye, I still admire you. So, Mr. Buyea, thank you for inspiring me to be something greater than I had first imagined. (Isabella)
In a year with such heaviness all around, your books have been such a shining light for us all. They are real and raw, opening up so many deep conversations … and truly inspirational. (Lisa, a teacher)
The book really taught me that everyone is fighting their own battle, and to be kind, because you do not know what people are going through. Thank you for helping me feel less alone. (Natalie, after reading The Perfect Score)
If you asked me way back when I was first interviewing for a teaching position, why I wanted to be a teacher, it was to make a difference in the lives of my students. To be doing that as a writer is incredibly humbling and rewarding. To hear that my books have helped change lives is no small thing.
It’s still hard for me to believe.
I’m lucky to be doing something that I love, and I hope to continue.