Tag Archive for Craig Walker

Poster In the School Lobby . . . and a Quick Memory of Craig Walker

Here’s a quick snap of a poster in the lobby of our local middle school:

 

photo-22

Since the time I wrote Bystander, I’ve been invited into many middle schools. Often the funds for my visits have come out of a school’s “anti-bullying” budget, or some similar cookie jar. After a series of sensational tragedies involving bullied children became public, various government agencies got involved. Legislation was passed, and many schools attempted to address the core issues.

They felt compelled to . . . do something. Or in the most cynical reading possible, administrators at least recognized the need to protect themselves from lawsuits. A kinder and generally more accurate take is that the extra attention, the extra funds, gave the good people in those schools the opportunity to do something meaningful, to make a difference in the lives of these young people. They care. Because I’ll tell you, I’ve met the best of these folks, I’ve spent time with them, and I am awed by the goodness in their hearts — their motivations and intentions. I’m honored to play a small role in their larger mission.

Witness the flowering of hundreds of bully-prevention programs throughout the land.

At the same time, yes, I know there are teachers who roll their eyes, check the clock, and wonder when they can get back to teaching. There’s a curriculum to be covered and, ultimately, tests to be given, results to be measured.

On the whole, not perfect, it’s a multi-faceted issue, and we’re all trying to figure it out. But a good process, I think.

I’ve seen that the more progressive schools have gradually moved on from that narrow (and sometimes too negative) focus to address the larger issues covered under the umbrella of “Character.” I’m glad about that.

Best of all, I am seeing a greater emphasis on kindness.

Wedding, Walker 2My old pal, Craig Walker, used to joke that everything you ever wanted to know about love was on the Supremes “Greatest Hits” LP. And by that he meant, there’s nothing earth-shatteringly new that anybody can possibly say on the topic. There will be no new revelations forthcoming. We’ve heard it all already, and so often that it comes out like a tired cliche. No, you can’t hurry love. And you do keep me hanging on.

220px-Supremes_Greatest_HitsWhen it comes to the bad behavior associated with bullying, we can ask those involved, “How would you like it?” “How would it make you feel?” And maybe we can say something about doing unto others. Or being kind. Or a dozen other fairly obvious things that remind us how to be a good (read: caring, compassionate, thoughtful) person in this world. We can also tell them, in clear language supported by real consequences, that bullying is unacceptable.

I do believe that it’s part of every school’s mission to reinforce these messages, every day, in a thousand small ways. I’m glad that sign is in our lobby. It’s a minor thing, sure, easy to dismiss or ignore, but it’s still a signal amidst the noise. A lighthouse visible from the stormy sea.

All and all, not a terrible question to ask ourselves before we act, speak, or post:

Is it kind?

Memories: Working at Scholastic, 1986.

That’s me with the antenna. Wait, no, I’m in the middle.

I started at Scholastic as a Junior Copywriter for $12,500 a year, hired partly because of a writing sample, an opinion piece I wrote about the subway shooter, Bernie Goetz (no lie), and also because I was the first young, heterosexual male to enter the building in the last six years — besides the mail room guys, of course. There were three other copywriters working on the book clubs: Bill Epes, Karen Belov, and Cynthia Larkins. I may have muffed those spellings. My primary responsibility was the K-1 SeeSaw Book Club. I sat in a cubicle and banged away on a typewriter. Computers came in less than a year after I arrived, a transition that caused great upheaval. We threw away our little bottles of liquid white-out, learned how to boot up with an MS-DOS 5 1/4 floppy disk, and so on.

An aside: I just breezed through the brilliant biography, STEVE JOBS, and it so captured the changes of technology through my life. If you are around my age (51 yesterday), or maybe any age, you’ve got read it. The author, Walter Isaacson, also wrote the biography, EINSTEIN, that I raved about previously.

At Scholastic, in the old 730 Broadway location, I worked in-house for almost five years, rising all the way to lower-middle obscurity. Another memory: I remember when they instituted a new policy no longer allowing people to smoke at their desks. Suddenly you had to go down to the 8th floor to the “smoker’s lounge.” Many of us feared that our old-school copyeditor, the chain-smoking Willie Ross, would lose her mind completely. Such a violation of personal liberty, an outrage perpetrated by the PC police, and I was  sure the laughter I heard came from the belly of Big Brother.

I continued on with Scholastic as a consultant and favored freelancer. Launched and ran the Carnival Book Club out of my home in Albany, as both editor and promotion manager. Wrote some books, started doing Jigsaw Jones in 1998, and on and on. I assumed my time at Scholastic would go on forever. But not quite. I used to really, really love that place, and I know I’m not alone in that regard.

The man on the left of the photo is my great pal Craig Walker. In life you don’t get to know too many people who become mentors, people you respect and admire and love, and for me Craig heads that very short list. He was one-of-a-kind. There was a long stretch of about 15 years or so when we were really, really good friends. We probably ate lunch together three times a week for four years, usually in the cheapest, no-nonsense dives we could find. Or was that the bars we frequented? The truly remarkable thing about Craig is that so many people felt that way about him. Our relationship was special. Our friendship was unique and powerful. Dozens upon dozens of people could make that same claim — and they’d all be correct. He was just one of those guys that made you think, “I wish I could be more like him.” Craig is gone now, but as I’ve written before, I try to remember everything.

1986, the day we watched Game 6 of the 1986

World Series at Brenda Bowen’s parents’ summer

place. Me and Craig.

Let’s see, yes, that’s art director Scott Hunt next to me. I thought of Scott a few days ago when, reading the book, I LOVE IT WHEN YOU TALK RETRO, the author Ralph Keyes explained the origin of one of Scott’s go-to words, “skosh.” As in, “Let’s move that type down a skosh.” Confusingly, it came from the Korean War, but was adapted from a Japanese word, sukoshi, meaning “a small amount.” Reading about those origins, I wondered if perhaps Scott’s father spent time in Korean conflict, hanging out with Hawkeye, Trapper John, Hot Lips, and the gang. Scott used to complain that his father was a gung-ho outdoors type, always taking the children on camping trips and forced hikes up impossible mountains. Scott would say, “I hated those hikes. I just wanted to stay home and watch movies!”

And to the right, that’s Cynthia Maloney, a Kansas gal. Cynthia used to wear a deerskin vest the like of which you have never seen, in Manhattan, no less. She had the messiest desk on all three floors. I’d ask her about something, an important memo or whatever, or a mechanical board she had to review and sign, and she’d turn to this tilting mountain of paper and, after a considered time, miraculously extract the key document from the perilous pile. Cynthia was older than I was, married with children, but I always had a secret crush on her, the way you do in office life, ten cubicles down, a world away. She might have been the nicest person in the place.

Anyway, we started a preschool book club, called it FIREFLY, and as far as I know it’s still going strong today, 25 years later. I wrote all the promotional copy, including every book description, for several years. At the time, it was a big, risky project. Craig’s editorial meetings were hilarious and legendary. Scholastic of that time was led by a supremely talented trio: Jean Feiwel in editorial, Barbara Marcus (my first real boss) in marketing, and wise old Dick Krinsley, steering the ship. Around then I had the honor of writing their first hardcover catalog — it included a total of four books by, um, Harry Mazer, Anne Mazer, Julian Thompson, and somebody else. Oh, what was it? Something about child safety, I think. A book cover that Craig likened to those Heimlich posters you’d see in restaurant bathrooms. He’d say something along the lines of, “I don’t know if it’s a good thing that every time I look at the book cover, I think of choking victims.”

Jean Feiwel, do you remember that book?

Ah, forgive me, memory lane.

This is an advertisement  I wrote at that time. A full-page ad was a huge extravagance, and you wouldn’t believe how many people fussed over this, and revised it, and changed it again and again. That was my line, “Because Growing Up and Good Books Belong Together.

POSTSCRIPT:

Jean wrote and gave me the name of that elusive title, CLOSE TO HOME by Oralee Wachter!

Craig had a flare for exaggeration, but the point stands:

James Preller Interviews . . . Lewis Buzbee, Author of “Bridge of Time”

Lewis, I was just so impressed with your new book, BRIDGE OF TIME (Macmillan, May 2012). Congratulations. When I was reading the Advance Reader’s Copy, I wished I could talk to you about it, ask questions, dig a little deeper. Then I realized: Hey, I operate my own fully-licensed blog right here in America. I’m kind of a big deal. So I figured I’d invite you over and we’d talk it out. (Besides, Vonnegut is not answering my emails.)

That’s odd. Kurt and I were just talking the other day. So it goes.

I mentioned Vonnegut almost randomly, since as a matter of policy I drop Vonnegut’s name as often as possible, but thinking of it now, old Kurt dabbled quite a bit in time travel himself. Billy Pilgrim — of Ilium, New York –- tumbling from past to present to future. And it seemed totally natural, not science fiction –- that yes, life is like that, we’re constantly traveling through time in our heads.

“Unstuck in time” is the phrase Twain used here to describe Time Travel, and I lifted unapologetically from SLAUGHTER-HOUSE FIVE. Vonnegut is too important, I agree, to overlook, especially today. But it also seems to me that Vonnegut is a direct heir to Twain. In the book, Twain makes a passing reference to his friend Kurt, whom he met while unstuck in time, and it was Kurt who coined the phrase.

That’s a wonderful detail, Lewis. In my upcoming Young Adult novel, BEFORE YOU GO, one of the central characters just finished reading BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS. There’s really no big reason for it, other than to tell you something about that character’s likes and interests. Frankly, I loved the idea of four teenage boys in a car, talking — however briefly — about Kurt Vonnegut — and it leading to a minor argument. That’s Kurt, always stirring things up. We do what we can to pay homage to our heroes.

Writers, for the most part, become writers because they started as readers. We’re nothing without those who came before us. We owe them all the props. Especially Vonnegut for me. When I was sixteen, I read SLAUGHTER-HOUSE FIVE, and my world was never the same.

This is the third book in what I like to think of as your “Dead Author” trilogy, following STEINBECK’S GHOST and THE HAUNTING OF CHARLES DICKENS. In this story, we meet Sam Clemens, who later goes on to fame and fortune under the pen name, Bret Easton Ellis.

I prefer to call these “literary mysteries.” And no, not Bret Easton Ellis. Some of Twain’s writings are actually in the more advanced past tense.

Oh, wait, you’re right. My bad. The girl who usually comes in to shuffle my note cards has been out sick. Hold on, give me sec.

Color coding, my friend, that’s what it’s all about. Works for socks and other underthings as well.

Ah-ha, Twain! That’s it. Um, okay, each book is thematically linked, but not at all formulaic. Reading one tells you nothing of the others.

I really didn’t want to write the same book with plug-in characters. And I tried to offer different aspects in each book. Steinbeck has a male protagonist, Dickens a female, and with Twain, one of each. I also tried to look at different aspects of a writer’s life. In Steinbeck, the writer himself is dead and remains as a spirit, in the form of his books. With Dickens, I was looking at The Great Man as a living author, but a fully successful one. With Twain I focused on that crucial summer when Twain made the jump from journalist to fiction writer, when Clemens really became Twain.

To me, that decision was central to the book’s success. We meet Sam Clemens, struggling writer, not “Mark Twain,” established literary lion. Clemens, like the main characters, Lee and Joan, is still unformed. We can relate to him. All three main characters are poised on the verge of becoming. The future awaits them, exciting and terrifying. I love that about your story, and really it’s what I love about children’s literature in general. There’s this beautiful sense of self-realization, of youth unfurling, of learning how to be. Your book celebrates the cusp of life.

This is one of the reasons I love to write for middle grade readers, because that’s what their whole lives are about, bidding farewell to childhood and entering into the murkiness of the grown-up world, with just enough awareness to be both brilliant and naive in their choices. I remember that so much from my own junior high life, how much I tried on different costumes and personae, trying to see what fit, and all the while watching the adults around me and trying to figure out how they became who they were now.’

I’m fascinated by middle schoolers, it’s such an age of transition, false starts and new beginnings. Filled with self-doubt and uncertainty. Who am I, where do I belong? Everything is up for grabs, which is tremendously exciting, because it’s also a time of great possibility. As you know, I have a 7th grader in my own house, and as maddening as he’s become –- and I confess to sometimes wanting to strangle him, his eye-rolling impatience — I often feel great sympathy for my son: the hormones, the emotions, the explosion of brain cells in the frontal cortex. It’s a wild ride. The saddest aspect about middle school life is their desperate desire to fit in, their longing to belong, and that often manifests itself in dull conformity. Everyone wearing the same clothes, worried about what everybody else thinks.

That’s the great conflict, isn’t it? Wanting to fit in, yet dreaming of being your own self. My daughter is in 8th grade — more eye-rolling than 7th — and I see her working hard at both. I do think this is one thing that the best middle grade novels — heck, any of the best novels — can do, give the reader permission and courage to find themselves in that grand sea of confusions.

By the way, “This American Life” did a brilliant episode on Middle School –- so insightful and entertaining. Please, by all means, check it out. You know I wouldn’t steer you wrong. You can access the full transcript, too.

You did steer me wrong once, but I called AAA and they got me out of that ditch.

Back to the main river: I think if you wrote about the later Mark Twain, it could have easily led to a tone that was too reverential, all hail The Great One, full of wisdom. But this way, Sam is as flawed and vulnerable –- as human — as Lee and Joan.

I love that Twain here frequently says to Joan and Lee, listen, I’m new to this whole time-travel thing, too, and I’m as clueless as you are. That’s a great thing to hear from an adult. I think it gives you more confidence in yourself at that age, and it also makes you feel like less of a freak. If I’d gone for full-blown Twain, the white-suited figure we all know, it would have become, I think, an exercise in bad down-home imitation. In early drafts of the novel, it was that, to an extent, and I had to work hard to resist it.

The book also serves as a love note to San Francisco. The city itself stands as an essential character.

I end up writing about San Francisco over and over again, and it’s always a love note. I’ve lived here twenty-six years now, and not a week goes by that I don’t look up and thank my lucky stars. But San Francisco is also a perfect setting for this book in particular because it’s a place people have always come to in order to become who they most want to be. There’s that freedom here, that license, if you will. It’s not a mistake, really, that it was here that Clemens found his Twain.

Yes, exactly. In the book, Miss Greta speculates on the question of why San Francisco? Why are these time-traveling incidents –- where some select few travelers get unstuck in time — — happening here, in this city, of all places. She tells Joan:

There are other places we’ve heard about. But San Francisco’s a good one. Very popular that way. People come here to find their futures. You can be who you want to be here. Keep a remember on that.”

Keep a remember on that. Very nice. You love this city, don’t you?

I do love it, for its natural beauty and for the freedom of it. It’s been a true gift to raise my daughter, now 13, in this city, and see how that’s worked out for her personally, and how she views other people. Everyone here is a freak, in some way, an eccentric, which means of course that everyone is an individual and treats others with the same respect.

Obviously, you must have done a lot of research.

One of the great things about writing these books has been able to say, “Oh, I have to go work now,” and then settling down to read Steinbeck, or Dickens, or Twain. I mean, really, Work?

I was happy to come across a video interview with M.T. Anderson. He was asked about his typical workday and he talked about the importance of exercise –- that it was a perfectly valid, essential part of his day as a writer. And I need to be reminded of that permission, you know, that it’s okay to do yoga or take a walk or whatever, that it’s part of my job. So, thanks for that, M.T. (By the way, did I say “do yoga”? I meant, “lift enormous amounts of heavy weights.” I don’t want my Nation of Readers to get the wrong idea; I’m a very tough guy.)

Hey, for some of us, doing yoga is lifting enormous amounts of weight. Listen, writin’ ain’t coal-mining, let’s be clear on that. But it’s true, so much of a writer’s job — at least in my experience — takes place away from the desk. Staring out the window, taking walks, whatever. Writers are, Stein said, “those upon whom nothing is lost.” It’s part of the job. You look at everything, are interested in everything.

Huh? What? Are you still here?

Focus, focus. You take your ritalin this morning?

Look: a bird!

I’ve also become a rather devoted historical researcher — histories, biographies, fashion, technologies, and my favorite of all, maps. Whenever I’m working on a new novel, I’ve got tons of old maps pinned up over my desk, as if they were blueprints and I were just the contractor on the job. Building a whole city in your head and populating it. Work, indeed.

Joan discovers that taking a bath in 1864 was a major hassle.

Listen, no one really wants to go back into the past. Even for the wealthiest of the wealthy, they were mean and dangerous times. A simple infection could kill you, if you made it past childhood. These issues rarely come up in time travel, so I wanted to touch on that. The past? Great place to think about, but no thanks. I’ll stay here with hot showers and antibiotics. It’s silly to romanticize the past, which, at one time, of course, was the absolute present. One of the things Joan notices about SF in 1864 is how new it looks. To her 2012 San Francisco is sort of old and falling apart.

You take delight in the language of the times. “Sorry don’t milk the goat, “ Miss Greta says at one point.

I may have stolen that from Dr. Phil, I’m afraid.

Ha! We stand on the shoulders of giants.

But it also comes from steeping myself — again and again — in Twain, whose language just pops all over the place. I’ve got notebooks filled with expressions and words I just couldn’t fit in. My two favorite Twainisms that made it into the book — he uses these in both Huck and Tom Sawyer are, “Honor Bright,” a mild oath along the lines of “I’ll be,” and “Hang fire,” meaning it’s time to chillax.

Literally, to hang the lantern on a hook. Settle in. Hang fire.

I also had fun teaching Twain — who would have been curious to learn it — about the slang of Joan and Lee’s time. Lee teaches him how to say ”Dude” at one point, and “Freak out.”

You write powerfully about the discrimination experienced by the Chinese residents in San Francisco during the 19th century. The so-called “Chinese Menace” or “Yellow Peril.” For Joan as a fully assimilated Chinese-American to see it, and feel it, and by frightened by it, well, I just thought you brought that period home in a very real, hard-hitting way. Joan was the key to telling that part of the story.

San Francisco was a horrid place to be Chinese, for long, long decades, but now the Chinese community in SF is very powerful and very much the majority. These are my neighbors I’m talking about, my daughter’s schoolmates. This goes back to what I was saying about the past. Things have gotten better — slowly, slowly, but better.

In each of these books I’ve tried to bring in really urgent social issues: racial discrimination and violence in both Twain and Steinbeck, child labor in Dickens. It seems a disservice to any reader — young or old — to overlook these matters. And besides, that’s one reason we still turn to these three writers, their concerns for social justice, their unflinching attitudes toward our cruelties.

The book is also, at its heart, an old-fashioned adventure. Amidst all the research and big ideas, it’s important to remember that.

In the first draft, it was all adventure, all chase and struggle. My editor, Liz Szabla, told me time travel was really hard and I needed to be careful. I came to discover, through Liz’s editing, that I’d used time travel as a gimmick, when what I really wanted to do was write a book about time. That was hard. The adventure has to serve the bigger concerns of the book; a book that’s just car chases and gun fights is really only a lousy movie.

I think far too many books today aspire to only that, the dream that somebody in Hollywood will turn it into a lousy movie. Ca-ching!

I’m not saying I’m not interested in a movie deal. No chump, me.

No, of course, we’d all love to pay off the mortgage and get college squared away. Fame and glory on the red carpet with Brad and Angelina. However, there seems to be an increasing amount of books written as if, well, they were not intended for readers. Plot, plot, plot; frantically paced. I decided that, for me, the ultimate reader is someone who isn’t afraid of being bored. Like a baseball fan. That is, I have to trust that the reader is going to hang with me a little bit, because I’m not really set up to write every story like it’s a roller coaster ride. Does that make sense? I don’t plan on boring anybody, exactly, but I can’t be overly worried that I need a car chase in the next three paragraphs or my readers won’t turn the page.

I write, I believe, for people who like to read, who want to see the world in a slower, more engaged way. We have enough “fast” media in the world. Books are meant to be slow, which of course, takes away nothing of their excitement.

Lewis, don’t tell my wife, but I think I’m falling in love with you. Anyway! Almost midway into the book, Joan and Lee realize that this fellow they’ve been hanging around with, this Sam Clemens guy, is actually . . . Mark Twain, the famous author. I wondered about that a little bit, how many typical middle schoolers would know about Twain. Or care. And the great thing about BRIDGE OF TIME is that it’s incidental: Twain, the great author, doesn’t really matter. A reader doesn’t have to know a thing about him to enjoy this story.

Lots of middle schoolers will have read Tom or Huck already, though not most. However, when I visit middle grade classrooms I always ask about Twain, and most know something about him, or at least about Huck. The interesting thing about these writers — especially Twain and Dickens — is if you haven’t read the work you still know about them because they are such a part of the cultural currency. Yes, even in this iMac iMad world we live in. Bah Humbug. There you have it. I also chose each of these writers, however, with the hope of getting that one interested reader to move on to Steinbeck, Twain, or Dickens. This is the age, really, when kids will begin to read their first adult books, and these writers are perfect for that time.

Yes, we’ve touched on that topic before. How for readers of our vintage, there was no “YA” exactly, we just merrily went on to Steinbeck or Bradbury or Vonnegut or Brautigan. Then I guess S.E. Hinton came along, Paul Zindel, and others who became intensely interested in those earlier stages of life, the teenage years, and the publishers figured out there might be a market for it.

When I think of the best MG and YA writers, I don’t make any distinctions in age groups. For example, I’d put Virginia Hamilton’s PLANET OF JUNIOR BROWN up against any “adult” novel, and the adult novel would pale. Good writing is good writing: period. Alas, much of what gets published in the MG and YA niches is just dreck, plain and simple. But in this way, it resembles most of what gets published in the adult trade, pure dreck. This is as old as publishing itself.

I identified with an aspect of Sam Clemens, the part of him that was fearful, that lacked self-confidence, doubted if he was good enough. You know, I’ve really felt that all my life –- I feel that right now with the book I’m writing — and I’d bet that most artists have experienced those same doubts. Clemens is scared out of his mind, paralyzed, that he’s not up to the task of becoming the writer he always wanted to be. Is that something you’ve felt?

I feel it every day. I mean, no matter what I’m doing, I still feel a fraud, and that I might get caught out at any moment. Don’t we all feel that way a bit? And kids especially. But I never feel it more intently than when I sit down to write. From having read so many journals and biographies and letters, etc., of other writers, I’m convinced this is true of all artists. No matter how much I’ve written, when I sit down to begin a new project, I think, I have no idea what I’m doing. And this is good. If you set out knowing exactly what you’re doing, well, then you’re probably going to write something stale, without surprises. The poet Richard Hugo put it so gracefully: “Hope hard always to fall short of success. It’s the doubt that makes you work harder.

Finally there comes a time when Sam must face his own future –- which is what the book is about, for all of us, daring to become our very selves. There’s a lovely scene between Joan and Sam. She recognizes the fear he’s experiencing. And Joan tells him what she believes Twain would say to him (Sam), if he (Twain), only could: “He would tell you that you must try. That you should cast off.”

Sam would not look at Joan.

“I am afraid to even try,” he said.

It was strange to see Sam this way, all the brash taken out of him. Deflated. But oddly reassuring, too. It made Sam seem more real.

“I am afraid of trying,” Sam said, “because I want so badly to be who I think I might one day be. And if I fail . . . I’ll have no future at all.”

We’re back to the doubt. You can be paralyzed by it, or you can recognize it and make the big leap forward. Kids, too, know that adults are often full of b.s., and can see through facades like x-ray machines. It’s just better for them to have it acknowledged. Sam’s doubt does paralyze him for a while, but in the end, it’s his doubt that propels him forward.

I have to say this. As a rule, I hate time travel. It never makes sense to me, and too often it’s handled crudely, non-sensibly. I mean, yes, there’s a conceit, as readers we have to take that leap of faith and go with it. But, but, but. It still has be remain credible –- the reactions, the motivations, even the science, to a degree — and I think you achieved that in the best possible way.

Time travel — which we believe to be impossible — is mostly a wish-fulfillment fantasy. If only I could have saved Lincoln . . . But I don’t believe the world can be changed that way. I do believe, however, that our awareness of time — through history and literature and other media — can give us a much clearer sense of ourselves. In the end, this is what I aimed for.

But, my goodness, it must have been complicated to write. No? I mean, just keeping it straight, keeping the internal logic in line with some kind of familiar reality. Was there a lot of revision?

Oh lord. There were long chapters in the early drafts — I did five MAJOR revisions of this book — where Lee and Joan and Twain just sat around talking about time and how it worked. It took me forever to get it down to just what I wanted. And finally the answer came from Twain. In the book, Sam talks about the Mississippi and how sometimes it’s so large, you think you’re still on the river but you’ve really gone into a side channel and you’re away from the main current, often for miles. That’s what Sam says to Joan and Lee about Time Travel — it’s just a diversion, one that gives you a better view of the real thing, and in the end, you’ve got to go back to the main current. That’s where life happens.

I see that you dedicated the book to your editor, Liz Szabla.

Liz took a huge chance on me with STEINBECK’S GHOST, buying it on a proposal, and then when that was done, took another chance on these ideas about Dickens and Twain. Really did change so much for me. Not only is she a brilliant editor — meaning she see through to the essential heart of a story and leaves behind the silly “market” questions, she offers what writers really need, the sense of support. Publishing a book hardly ever “changes” your life in some miraculous way, but it does give you the support you need to go on, write the next one. She’s the rarest of editors.

Agreed. We’re very, very lucky to have her on our side. You know, my hair bristles when I hear complaints about messages in books. As if that’s a bad thing, or an avoidable thing. I contend that you can’t tell a story without values and messages embedded throughout. The issue is one of craft –- how artfully these messages are delivered. And in this book, one message can be reduced to two words: CAST OFF. “Have fun. Look around. It’ll be okay.” Dare to dream. Or as Maurice Sendak ended his recent interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air, “Life your life, live your life, live your life.

There’s a huge difference between a message and a moral. Messages are deeper, more subterranean, closer to the heart, unsaid. Yes, Twain does come out and say it, but it seems almost frivolous at the time. What better message could there be? It’s what friends do for one another, offer that permission and challenge.

Good distinction. Joan again seems to get the deepest thoughts:

“Joan no longer believed what Sam had said, back on the Paul Jones, about lessons and morals and how they could ruin an exciting adventure. She now firmly believed, from her own experience, that the best adventures offered you lessons, no matter what. If not, an adventure was just a roller coaster ride. An amusement. A true adventure, Joan realized, took you places –- or times –- you could not have begun to imagine. Always something to be learned in the unknown.”

If a book is true to life — and not just some pre-fabbed fantasy world—then there have got to be lessons — or messages. A book is a way for the reader, I think, to examine the world deeply and courageously. Or at least a way of finding that courage. I read books because they talk about the world, and when I’m done, they make me want to go out into it.

Do you have a favorite part of the book?

There’s a scene where Lee and Joan and Twain, while being chased, take a small sailboat out onto San Francisco Bay, and I think it’s my favorite bit of prose ever. The danger of the pursuit has passed, but the danger of the black water is still there. I like that.

While the flames from the Paul Jones licked into the night sky, Sam unfurled and hoisted the sail, and a soft southerly breeze caught and inflated it. The boat jerked once, then set off gliding over the black water.

Lee stared forlornly after the Paul Jones.

The waning moon offered enough light to enchant the night. The bay was black but visible. It was perfectly quiet out here, and Lee was happy with that.

They emerged from their sheltered cove into the open bay, and a stiff wind caught the sail. It felt to Lee as if a hand was pushing the boat from behind.

Up ahead was the black silhouette of Yerba Buena Island, partway between San Francisco and Oakland. Where the Bay Bridge and the man-made Treasure Island was supposed to be.

As the boat came even with the southern tip of Yerba Buena Island, a sharp hissing noise filled the air. But before Lee could turn, three sleek sails hove into view on their starboard. The three boats were longer and thinner than Sam’s old clunker, and their sails were enormous. The boats rode low in the water, the sails tipped so far over they etched the surface of the bay. One dark shape manned each tiller.

You write beautifully, Lewis. And readers should know that the above passage came on the heels of a tumultuous scene with butchers, cleavers, shotguns and burning ships (are you listening, Hollywood?!). The veritable calm after the storm: Expertly paced. My old friend, the great Scholastic editor Craig Walker, used to say that the best thing Twain ever did was get Huck out on the water. Because then it was all there, the physical liquid space, sliding through the solid world, but also floating on literature’s richest metaphor: water -– of consciousness and time, currents and dangers, life’s eddies and so on.

That’s why Huck is Huck. He’s out on the water, watching the placid, unchanging towns go by. You get a better view of the world from there, and you’re going some place, changing with the world as it changes you.

Lewis, thank you for giving us this beautiful, inspiring book. Look, as you know from my private complaints, I’m often brutally dissatisfied with children’s books. There are so many that I find to be cynical, commercial, copycat, disappointing. And, yes, the counterpoint holds true: many are rich and wonderful, the best books imaginable. With the BRIDGE OF TIME, I declare you on the side of the angels. I respect and admire what you’ve achieved here. Because you wrote an adventure, a fun story, but also a story that is deep, that has meaning, and heart, and enduring value. It’s the genuine article. I wish for this book to find the audience it deserves –- and earn some starred reviews in the process. Good luck to you, Lewis. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I must . . . cast off.

James, all I can say to such praise is, “the check’s in the mail.”

Forget that, Lewis. My dream is to make it out to the Left Coast someday. Catch a baseball game, watch Timmy pitch, and chat our way through nine innings.

You’re on. We have the best garlic fries in the league, and Gulden’s Spicy Brown mustard for our dogs. Or we can even go for free. Part of the right field fence at AT&T has a clear view from outside the park, and anyone can go there and watch the game in what we call The Arcade. I think that’s where writers belong anyway, outside looking in.

—–

If you enjoyed this interview, please check out my 2009 interview with Lewis, back when he was a hirsute middleweight, boxing under the name Louie “The Buzz Saw” Buzbee. The interview is in three parts, it’s lively and fun and features a taser.

Want to see Lewis on television? Sure you do! Click here for a nice interview, based on his wonderful book, THE YELL0W-LIGHTED BOOKSHOP.

The Ultimate Dad is an Adoptive Parent . . . and Wears a Yellow Hat

As a kid I loved Curious George and nothing’s really changed about that, despite a slew of less-than-stellar books published after the passing of H.A. Rey in 1977. There was a particular series done in the late 80’s, early 90’s — cheap 8″ x 8″ books based on grainy filmstrips — that was especially loathsome. I hated to see them monkey around so with my literary hero.

Best to stick with the seven “Original Adventures” produced during the lifetime of Hans Augusto Rey in partnership with his wife, Margret: Curious George (1941), Curious George Takes a Job (1947 ), Curious George Rides a Bike (1952), Curious George Gets a Medal (1957), Curious George Flies a Kite (1958), Curious George Learns the Alphabet (1963), and Curious George Goes to the Hospital (1966). After those titles, the quality slips badly. It’s just not Curious George anymore.

Here’s the man, H.A. Rey himself. And friends.

But I digress. My great pal Craig Walker, a late, beloved editor at Scholastic, once explained to me the appeal of Curious George in this way, and I’m paraphrasing:

“No matter what mistakes George makes, no matter how much trouble he gets into, at the end there’s always the Man with the Yellow Hat who forgives him, who loves him, who makes it all okay. Kids respond to that, and I think that’s part of the reason why those books are so popular.”

Isn’t that what a father is supposed to be? The safe place you can always come back to, the place where — no matter what — you’ll always be loved?

In related news, don’t miss the Curious George Campaign (click here for more details):

The Library partnered with the Ad Council, Universal Partnerships & Licensing and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company to develop public service announcements featuring the iconic characters from the Curious George series to encourage parents to read with their children. The television, print and outdoor PSAs feature George and his best friend and mentor, “The Man in the Yellow Hat” reading books together asking parents to “Read to your child today and inspire a lifelong love of reading.”

NOTE: The trouble with two blogs is sometimes a given post could sit snugly in either location. I put this one here for two reasons: 1) Right now, more eyes land here; and 2) I’m trying to keep “James Preller,” the personal stuff, out of Fathers Read, or at least on the fringes. Basically, I say less over there, and want the pictures to speak for themselves. But by all means, please swing by and check it out. I’m proud of what’s up there, and grateful for the support it’s gotten from folks both famous and far-flung.

As always when it comes to Curious George, lets try to stay legal, shall we, because heaven forfend:

Fan Mail Wednesday #89: Book Dedications

I recently got a note from a fifth-grade teacher who has not only given me guidance and support over the years, she’s become a friend. She recently sent  a query about book dedications (below), and I thought it was an interesting subject, so decided to share it here. It got me thinking about all the great dedications (East of Eden by Steinbeck, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis; Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne; the Lemony Snicket dedications in the books for “A Series of Unfortunate Events”; Harry Potter #7, and many more.

Here’s A.A. Milne’s lovely dedication to his wife:

Do you have a favorite? Care to share it?

No, I guess not.

But anyway! We begin . . .

Hi,

We are publishing our hard cover books and I am getting ready to have the students write their dedications.  It occurred to me that I teach them the how to’s of this process, but not really the whys.  So, I’ve done a bit of research and found out why and how dedications first began.  My question to you is, as an author, how do you decide who to dedicate each book to?  What goes into your decision?  If you have a second to let me know, I’d appreciate it.  I thought it might make for a nice connection I could share with the kids.

Hope all is well.

Thanks,

Chris

I replied:

Chris,

I guess I’ve never really thought much about dedications, since they tend to rise up from the book itself.

For example, I know that I’m going to dedicate my next book to my wife, Lisa. It’s a book that’s taken me a long time to write, so I don’t feel like I’ve been that great a provider lately. Meanwhile, Lisa’s hard work as a midwife — all the many sacrifices she’s made for our family — has truly made the book possible. Without her support, I could not have done it. And sometimes it’s important to say those things out loud.

At the same time, that’s almost always true, and I can’t dedicate every book to Lisa. She’d get a swelled head.

With Six Innings, an important person in my life had recently passed away after a long illness. He was a children’s book editor, Craig Walker, and had taught me a lot about books and writing and life — plus we had seen a lot of baseball games at Shea together — so it felt natural to dedicate the book to him. Funny, but looking back, I assumed that I had dedicated it to my mother, since I closely connect baseball with Mom because she’s such a huge fan.

Um, sorry Mom!

I’ve dedicated books to ideas. For Along Came Spider, “For the evens, and the odds.”

For Bystander, I wrote that book with my brother John very much in mind. Amazingly, he died the day after I handed in the first draft to my editor, so he became like a ghost haunting the pages; I had to dedicate it to his memory and the two boys he left behind.

You can never, ever go wrong dedicating a book to your parents.

I’ve sometimes had someone who specifically helped me with the book, either through inspiration or assistance, so I’ve dedicated books to teachers and classrooms that I’ve visited. I’ve thanked editors and friends; I’ve noted poems and baseball teams (see: Mighty Casey); I’ve celebrated new births and ex-wives (though not at the time!); and I periodically dedicate books to my children, when the book seems like a good fit.

And lastly, with Jigsaw Jones, and 40 books in the series, I’ve gotten a little silly at times. I dedicated The Case of the Food Fight to “Hostess Cupcakes.” A little frivolous, I suppose, but beneath that I thanked a teacher, Ellen Mosher, who talked me through a couple of plot points. Her thoughts and suggestions very much shaped the story I would write, and I wanted to show my appreciation.

A dedication is an opportunity to thank someone. It’s a chance to say something nice, without the mushiness of actually having to stand there and say it. A dedication can be serious, thoughtful, sad, or funny. It depends on you, the author. In the best world, it is appropriate to the book, a beginning of sorts, cohesive with the story. It should all hang together as a whole.

But really, it’s not that complicated. The answer is in your heart.

Hey, a bloggable topic!

JP

P.S.: I remember a dedication by Johanna Hurwitz, I can’t recall the book, but it went like this: “To Robert Redford. He knows why.”

For an interesting article on dedications, which quotes the Bloomsbury Dictionary of Dedications with this withering line, “Dedications really do bring out the worst in authors,”  click like a maniac right here.

Collecting Children’s Books by Peter D. Sieruta has a nice blog entry about intriguing dedications from children’s books.

Here’s the Mamas & Papas with “Dedicated to the One I Love.”

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