By Kelli Gile, Walnut Valley Unified
About 180 Walnut Elementary students got a special visit from Jeopardy! champion and New York Times bestselling author Ken Jennings on Feb. 14. Jennings holds the record for the longest winning streak on the popular game show hosted by Alex Trebek.
He told the Walnut students they wouldn’t remember him because he was on Jeopardy! a decade ago. But their principal did.
Principal Janet Green said she watched Jennings on the show for weeks and weeks and weeks and could not believe how phenomenal he was.
“He is like the Kobe Bryant of Jeopardy!,” she told the students.
Jennings stopped by the Walnut school to visit with the excited group of third to fifth graders during his book tour for his brand new series, Ken Jennings’ Junior Genius Guides.
Kids can earn whiz-kid status with the Maps and Geography and Greek Mythology books. The popular series helps them become experts and learn how to wow their friends and families with clever facts and the best stories.
“I’m always exciting to be at an elementary school and see your happy, smiling faces. And I’ll bet you guys are excited too because you got out of class for this!” he joked.
The children giggled at his silly stories and jokes
“Ten years ago I was on Jeopardy!, but now I write children’s books,” he shared with the group assembled in the multipurpose room.
He told the students they tape the show months and months in advance. And they tape five shows in one day.
Jennings played the game on 75 shows. He was on Jeopardy! a total of six months. He flew from his home to Los Angeles for the tapings.
“I would play for two days and ten shows and win a crazy amount of money,” he said.
“And I couldn’t tell anybody where I was because they didn’t want to ruin the surprise,” he said. Only his boss and wife were in on it. Jennings couldn’t share his big news his parents, friends or co-workers.
“I had this totally excited secret double life and I couldn’t tell anyone!”
After each show his head hurt from all the thinking, his feet hurt from standing, and even his thumb was sore from the clicker.
“It was very intense,” he said.
Jennings even had to find a way to borrow 75 ties on the sly from his friends.
“It was the most fun I’ve ever had. I’ve always been a huge fan of Jeopardy! because knowing stuff equals success,” he stated.
As a child, the author loved to read crazy facts books and delighted in sharing quirky tidbits with his family. And he also watched game shows every day.
“They had smart people who won fabulous prizes,” he said.
At age 10, his family moved to Korea where there was only one English language television channel on the American Army base. He began watching a lot of Jeopardy!.
“I just loved it. I just thought they were the smartest people I had ever seen,” he said.
Jennings decided that’s what he wanted to be when he grew up.
“You don’t have to have a super brain to be on the show,” he said. And he told the kids they are so much better at learning things than adults.
“I always wanted to be a writer. First I wrote books for grown-ups about maps,” he said.
Jennings said he became a children’s author when he realized kids would be more interested in learning about them. He also couldn’t find books full of crazy facts for his own kids.
“I had a hard time finding them, so I thought what if I just wrote them?”
Jennings said there’s going to be a bunch of other Junior Genius Guides too.
“The idea behind these books is learning stuff is fun if you’re learning about it in a fun way,” he said
He said even if a map seems boring, there’s always something cool like the names of the weirdest towns like Monkey’s Eyebrow, Kentucky; Accident, Maryland; Ding Dong, Texas; and Burger Town, North Carolina. The kids howled at the silly names.
He shared some fun facts about the Statue of Liberty, Mount Rushmore, volcanic heads on Easter Island, the Great Sphinx of Giza, and the Little Mermaid statue in Denmark.
“I totally thought old-time statues would be boring, but it turns out that there are lots of cool secrets that I didn’t know,” he said.
And that’s idea behind the Junior Genius books. The series slogan is “it’s much better to know something about everything, than everything about something,” he said.
He encouraged the children to enjoy their classes.
“Everything is interesting if you look at it the right way. You should like every subject and learn about everything. And that’s a little tricky,” Jennings said.
“It means it’s better to know a little about every subject, not just having one favorite subject,” he explained.
Jennings told the kids that what they’re learning in school is actually going to pay off later.
“Maybe you’ll be more interesting, or a better person, or maybe you’ll go on Jeopardy! and break my record!” the author said.
Jennings answered several questions from the audience and then played a round of Jeopardy! with Walnut Elementary students Jeremy Cai – third grade, Daisie Leng – fourth grade and Jimmy Wu- fifth grade. The topics were geography and Greek mythology, of course.
The assembly was presented through Mrs. Nelson’s Book Fair Company.