Eating Contests, Birth Order, and How They Fit Together to Become Slider by Pete Hautman
A Game of Dogs
On July 4th, 2017, at the Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Contest, Joey Chestnut won for the ninth time by gobbling down 72 hot dogs in 10 minutes.* It was grotesque, it was disgusting, it was hard to watch, it was impossible to look away. It was magnificent.
Kind of like A Game of Thrones. Kind of like prizefighting.
Last year I was talking to a room full of sixth graders, and one of them asked me what my next book would be about.
“Eating contests,” I said.
“Joey Chestnut!” one of the boys yelled. The class erupted. They all knew about Joey Chestnut.
It’s not hard to see why the sport** of competition eating is fascinating to kids. Eating is something they all know how to do. They might not yet be able to drive a race car, dunk a basketball, kick a field goal, or climb Mount Everest, but they sure can eat. Also, eating fast is kind of gross, and that’s a big plus.
Like most of my books, Slider comes out of my own childhood. I may twist things, turn them inside out, and lie a bit (or lie a lot), but the emotional core of the story always resides in my memories. I suspect that most children’s book writers would say the same.
I grew up the eldest of seven kids in a safe, loving, chaotic environment. Each child who came into our family had to figure out how to live, how to be an individual, and how to be noticed.
For me it was pretty straightforward. I was the first-born, and I would always be the first. All I had to do was show up for meals and stay out of serious trouble, and when I failed at either of those things (as I often did), I knew I would be forgiven and given another chance. My youngest sibling, Jim, was born when I was twelve years old. As the “baby” of the family, he had a relatively easy gig too. Everything he did was cute, our parents’ disciplinary teeth had been worn smooth, and his older siblings provided a surplus of examples on how to behave—and misbehave.
My five middle siblings traveled a more intricate path, but they all found their way. Each of them discovered ways in which they were special, whether it be academically, artistically, socially, athletically, or in other areas. There was more to it, of course. The point is, every one of them learned how to stand out, how get their strokes.
(Nearly half of American children are first-born. That’s the exact same percentage of kids who are last-born.*** Middle kids comprise less than a quarter of the population.)
Birth order supposedly influences everything from intelligence to sexual orientation. But does it really? Most of the literature is highly speculative or downright bogus, and the numbers are inconclusive—but the idea that birth order matters has a gut level appeal. Is “middle child syndrome” a real thing? Maybe, maybe not—but it seems like it should be.
I decided to write a book about a middle child, an “ordinary” kid who is struggling not to be squeezed into invisibility by his older and younger siblings.
Welding the Bun Together
In Slider, the incredibly ordinary David Miller has an older sister, Bridget, who is an academic whiz. His younger brother Mal is nonverbal and autistic—although their mother forbids the use of that label. Mal needs near constant supervision. David is saddled with more than his share of responsibility for Mal, and gets far less recognition than his overachieving sister.
I try to avoid using labels in front of Mom. But I use them all the time when she’s not around. I label Bridgette an overachieving priss-butt, I label Arfie a dog, and I label myself the beef in a Sooperslider. You know what a Sooperslider is, right? It’s like a White Castle. We don’t have White Castles in Iowa, but it’s the same thing: a greasy wafer of pulverized cow in a squishy bun half the size of your palm—a two- or maybe three-bite hamburger. Being the middle kid of three is like being the beef in a Sooperslider—you’re just there to weld the bun together.
Most people don’t think about what’s inside the bun. They’d rather not know. But it’s important. It’s what puts the slide in slider.
The only thing David knows how to do really, really well is eat a lot of food fast. He wins a bet by eating a sixteen-inch pizza in four minutes thirty-six seconds, and manages to impress his friends Cyn and HeyMan, but beyond that his talent isn’t particularly useful…
…until it becomes the only thing that can save him.
* As recently as 1999, the eighty-third year of the annual competition, the winner was able to eat *only* 21½ hot dogs in 12 minutes, an average of 1.79 dogs per minute. Joey Chestnut averaged 7.2 per minute. That’s one dog every twelve seconds.
**Yes, it’s as much a sport as boxing, synchronized swimming, or football. Competition eating requires speed, skill, training, stamina, and heart.
*** Note that “only children” are both first- and last-born.
Pete Hautman is the author of more than twenty novels for adults and teens, including the 2004 National Book Award winner Godless, Los Angeles Times Book Prize winner The Big Crunch, and three New York Times Notable Books: Drawing Dead, The Mortal Nuts, and Rash.
His “young adult” novels range from science fiction (The Obsidian Blade) to mystery (Blank Confession) to contemporary drama (Godless) to romantic comedy (What Boys Really Want.)
With novelist, poet, and occasional co-author Mary Logue, Hautman divides his time between Golden Valley, Minnesota, and Stockholm, Wisconsin. His latest books are the YA novel Eden West, the story of a boy growing up in an isolated doomsday cult in Montana, and the middle-grade novel Slider.