OREM — Ken Jennings grew up with a unique love for learning. Now, with two books he's written that are targeted at middle-grade readers being released this week, he hopes to share that love with a new generation of young learners.
The two new books, titled “Maps and Geography” (Little Simon, $7.99, ages 8-10) and “Greek Mythology” (Little Simon, $7.99, ages 8-10), are Jennings’ first books for children and the first in a series of what he calls Junior Genius Guides.
“The whole point of the books is that any kid can be a Junior Genius,” Jennings said. “It’s just a matter of liking to know weird stuff — being curious about the world around you. I definitely believe that. It’s a way of thinking. It’s not necessarily an IQ level.”
His historic run on “Jeopardy!” in 2004 earned him a permanent spot in American pop culture, but Jennings attributes much of his vast knowledge to his childhood.
“I was already the kind of kid that just comes out of the box, you know, full of annoying facts from the ‘Guinness Book of World Records,’ ” he said. “It just used to be a personality type — a certain type of kid that’s just an information sponge and can’t wait to tell you how long a giraffe’s tongue is.”
When Jennings’ father, who served a mission to Korea for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, got a job as an international lawyer, the family packed up and moved overseas.
Jennings spent 15 years in Korea and Singapore, spanning the entire 1980s and part of the ‘90s. While there, he had only one outlet to American pop culture — “Jeopardy!” which was aired daily on the Armed Forces television station. He remembers running home from school to watch it religiously.
“It’s funny,” he recalled. “I would watch the show as a kid and think, ‘Oh, these people are so smart!’ But it never really occurred to me that it was something you could actually do.”
During his college years, Jennings traveled around competing on the Quiz Bowl team at Brigham Young University, which established itself nationally as a top-10 team in the late ‘90s.
“I started to see people I knew from the Quiz Bowl world showing up on ‘Jeopardy!’ and ‘Millionaire’ and ‘Win Ben Stein’s Money,’ ” Jennings said. “These are actual people that I saw on weekends, and here they are paying off their student loans. I was like, ‘Wow, this is really something that you can do.’ ”
His curiosity eventually landed him a spot on “Jeopardy!” in 2004. Jennings won 74 straight games and amassed roughly $2.52 million during that time, earning him a worldwide reputation. Slate.com once dubbed him “the Michael Jordan of trivia, the Seabiscuit of geekdom.”
Jennings, now 39 and living in the Seattle area, said that his time on the show was not quite what he had expected as a kid.
“It’s so different than watching from your couch,” he said. “It’s so much more intense. It moves faster. The game literally goes so fast that your brain can’t keep up with the stress of it. It’s almost like before you know it, the show is over, and you’re just blinking at the scores. It’s a real crazy adrenaline rush. I really got addicted to it, actually.”
Jennings said the secret to “Jeopardy!” is knowing a little bit about everything.
“You’ve got to know everything, even if it’s just a millimeter shallow,” he said. “It’s a way of living your life where you’re curious about everything. When you meet someone new and they’re telling you about nuclear physics or opera or whatever it is, instead of being like, ‘Wow, that sounds like it’s not very interesting,’ or ‘Wow, I don’t know anything about that,’ you’re actually curious.”
Being successful on “Jeopardy!” was not always the goal for Jennings, who graduated from BYU in 2000 with a double major in English and computer science. “I really wanted to write,” he said. “I sort of thought I would teach and write. That was what I wanted to do, (but) I didn’t know if there was a career in it.”
Jennings spent several years working at a friend’s Internet startup before he got his break in the world of television trivia. Thankfully, a considerable amount of TV face time helped land him the job he’d been hoping for.
“If I hadn’t gone on that game show, I would probably be in some unhappy IT office job today, sort of idly thinking, ‘Well, maybe I should just go to law school,’ trying to figure out what I was going to do,” Jennings said. “I’d be having a midlife crisis right now, but instead of a midlife crisis, I had ‘Jeopardy!’ and I’ve lucked into a job that I love. Thank you, ‘Jeopardy!’ ”
Jennings said that he used his own kids as his “test audience” for the books.
“As a dad, you’re constantly having to keep your kids entertained. That’s sort of your job. Things go wrong in the car if your kids are not entertained,” he said. “Writing these books is just sort of doing that on a larger scale. I want these kids to learn about why I think space is cool or why I think that Greek mythology is cool.”
Jennings is scheduled to be at the Orem Barnes and Noble store on Feb. 10 and is looking forward to meeting with a young new fan base.
“I’ll probably read some facts from the book and talk about how my weird childhood actually paid off later in life,” Jennings said. “And I think we’re going to do a little trivia contest. We’ll have a little game show of our own.”
If you go ...
What: Ken Jennings book signing
When: Monday, Feb. 10, 6 p.m.Comment on this story
Where: Barnes and Noble, University Crossings Plaza, 330 E. 1300 South, Orem