Children aren’t always easy to entertain. But alumnus Derek Taylor Kent has had years of practice.
His latest foray into the world of children’s entertainment is “Scary School,” the first in a planned trilogy of young adult novels, set to be released June 21. Told from the perspective of a ghost who patrols the school grounds, the book describes a group of elementary school students of humans and monsters as they try to work toward both survival and good grades.
“The story ends up revolving around Charles Nukid, this skinny weakling of a kid who loves following the rules more than anything,” Kent said. “I wanted to create a character who would have the least chance of survival at Scary School and figure out a fun way to survive.”
Kent has been writing since the age of 15, creating various forms of amusement with premises not quite as spooky. For one free-form assignment in a UCLA astronomy course, Kent penned an interplanetary-themed story aimed for a younger audience, using his professor, Simon Balm, as the main character. After some tweaks and some illustrations, Kent had “Simon and the Solar System,” his first book aimed for younger children.
As an undergraduate student in UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television in the late 1990s, Kent produced a short musical called “Michael Jordan’s Magic Shoes.” With just a boombox and other minimal props, Kent told a story centered around the famous basketball player’s discovery of sneakers with mystical powers.
During one of Kent’s first performances in the Murphy Sculpture Garden outside Macgowan Hall, the show caught the eye of Gary Gardner, the vice-chair of the theater department at that time. Gardner asked Kent to perform it at orientation for all the incoming members of the theater program.
“I was dumbstruck; it was so sweet,” Gardner said. “It was the most wholesome, obviously crowd-pleasing piece, and it showed the best of young people.”
As his tenure as a college student was winding down, Kent began to tour the country, performing “Michael Jordan’s Magic Shoes” and its sequels at schools and other venues.
After graduation, Kent kept up his undergraduate love of sketch writing and music-themed skits. He also managed to pick up a slightly different demographic along the way, training through Second City as a writer and fine-tuning his own comedic sensibilities doing musical improv.
Through his production company, Sad Ninja Comedy, he and a few friends created “Rock Obama: The Barack Obama Musical,” a comedy chronicling the president’s life up through the 2008 election. Kent also wrote a musical comedy called “King Kalimari,” set in a medieval kingdom under siege from evil squids.
“It was very silly,” Kent recalled.
With some of his Sad Ninja cohorts, Kent has also produced music videos and commercials and is currently working on a feature-length film.
As his products have expanded to other media, Kent hasn’t lost sight of his first love of children’s writing. He has also helped others in their paths to get published, even if they’re reaching a different audience than his. Cavanaugh Lee, one of Kent’s friends as a fellow acting student in TFT, was the recipient of some helpful advice. Kent guided her through the process of publishing her first “chick lit” book, “Save as Draft,” which was released this past February.
“When you’re a first-time writer, the formula is the same, no matter your audience,” Lee said. “It definitely helps that we write different styles, but he was vitally instrumental.”
Whether depicting invading cephalopods or detailing the exploits of a school with a vampire as a teacher, Kent said it all comes from the same place. He even wrote his senior thesis about using theater in his works for children.
“When I was 11 years old, I was just writing funny poems or working on books with my friend. I still feel like that 11-year-old kid when I’m writing,” Kent said.