Story Behind the Story #12:
Sometimes I Think I Hear My Name

Sometimes I Think I Hear My NameMy eldest son had a classmate, a good friend. We’ll call him Toby. A likable, polite, full-of-fun kid, Toby was around our house often. I didn’t know much about him, save one thing: he lived with his grandparents, not his parents. I believe it was my son who told me that. It was nothing I pursued, but at school occasions I had the opportunity to meet these nice grandparents, where we exchanged pleasantries about our two boys.

One day, as spring break approached, my son was making preparations for a week of Boy Scout camping. Toby was at our house. “Toby,” I asked. “Have plans for spring break?”

He said, “I wanted to go visit my parents, but my grandparents said I couldn’t. So I’m just staying home.”

That gave me pause. I decided I needed to know a little more.

What I learned was not much, but a lot. Via the parents of another of my son’s friends-who knew Ian’s grandparents far better than I did, I learned that Toby’s parents had been divorced, that they lived in different parts of the country, and had been deemed “unsuitable” as parents, and that Toby’s grandparents had been named guardians by a court. That’s all I learned, and it was made clear I would not learn more. I had no particular desire to pursue it.

These circumstances, however, became the basis of my book, Sometimes I Think I Hear My Name. It tells the story of Owen, who lives with his aunt and uncle in St. Louis, but runs away to track down his parents in New York City. With the help of a secretive girl, Nancy, a girl with a butterfly tattoo (this was published in 1982) he finds his parents. The results are devastating.

Curiously enough, perhaps a year later, the real Toby did have a chance to visit with one of his parents. As I would learn, what happened was, alas, very much like the plot of my novel. Sometimes I Think I Hear My Name, is, I think, the saddest book I have ever written.

Story Behind the Story #11:
Who Stole the Wizard of Oz?

Lots of people are fascinated by maps. I knew a serious book collector who built a large library of books which specifically had maps in them. For example, Treasure Island, famously, has a map in it. Indeed, it’s said that Stevenson drew the map for his step-son first, and then wrote the book.

Atlas of FantasyI too like maps and so, back in the day when I working as a librarian, I was intrigued when a new atlas came into the reference collection. Moreover to my great delight it was an atlas of fantasy lands. A wonderfully clever idea, it was such fun to see maps of, not just Treasure Island, but the lands of Oz, the Thousand-acre Woods, and so on. Much fun.

As I was going through the book I realized an important map was missing: the chessboard from Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll. That was the beginning of my thinking of the book which became Who Stole the Wizard of Oz?

Through the Looking Glass

Who Stole the Wizard of Oz?My notion was to write a mystery in which the essential clues were to be found in the maps of well-known children’s books—books which had been stolen from the Checkertown, Ohio Library. When an innocent Becky has been accused of stealing the books, she and her twin brother, Toby, need to track down the real thief, and find a hidden treasure, using the maps as essential clues. (Hint: a checkerboard and a chessboard are identical.) And, if it brought my readers to The Wind in the Willows, Winnie-the-Pooh, the Oz books, Treasure Island, and Through the Looking Glass, better yet.

In short, Who Stole the Wizard of Oz? is a book about books brought into my head by yet another book. That’s what happens when the writer is also a librarian.

Story Behind the Story #10:
A Place Called Ugly

A Place Called UglyMy parents had a retirement home on Shelter Island, a quite enchanting and rather unusual island (wild canaries, bamboo groves, and bays filled with oysters and clams) at the end of Long Island, New York—about a hundred miles from New York City.

It was around Labor Day one year that I, along with my family, had been visiting my parents. My youngest son was endlessly grumbling about the fact that he was about to end his summer vacation and needed to return to school. Could he not, he constantly begged, just stay with his grandparents in this idyllic place? Well, no.

The car was packed. We had said our good byes. My wife was in the car. My oldest son was in the car. I was in the car. It was necessary that we leave quickly so that we could catch the last ferry to the mainland. But—my youngest son was nowhere in sight.

The thought suddenly struck me: could he have run off and hid so as to avoid going back home and skip returning to school?

In the instant I thought about this possibility I had the plot of A Place Called Ugly. Sometimes, if a writer is lucky, the idea for a story fairly well leaps at you, whole and breathtakingly complete. It has happened a few times, but not often. This was one of these times.

As for my son, he popped out of the house. He had merely been to the bathroom.

We drove off, made the ferry and continued on home … and to school.

But I had the plot of my next book in my mind and, during that long drive, I worked out the details.

That said, when I submitted the book to my editor he turned it down. “Not good. Something is missing,” he said. “Find it.”

It was rather like my missing son.

I searched and found the missing piece.

Second submission. “Terrific,” said my editor.

So there it was, A Place Called Ugly. One of my favorite books.

Story Behind the Story #9:
The History of Helpless Harry

The History of Helpless HarryBooks evolve in curious ways. Consider The History of Helpless Harry. Or, to give it its full title:

The History of Helpless Harry
To which is added a Variety
Of Amusing and Entertaining
Adventures

I had written, or so I thought, a realistic tale about a boy—in an historical context—who was being pushed about, and generally bullied, until he turns things around and comes out unscathed and triumphant.

I sent the manuscript to my agent. She gave me a call and suggested we have lunch to talk about the book. Of course I met with her.

Lunch was a genial affair, with chit chat about family, publishing, and the like. Not a word about my book. Until she said, “What was your intent with your story?”

“A serious study of how a boy is mistreated, but, with struggle, sees his way to a good end.”

“Serious? In what way?”

“A realistic, and hopefully moving, novel.”

She hesitated a moment and then said, “What would you say if I told you I thought it was very funny?”

“Funny?” I said, shocked.

“Very funny. I suggest you take another look at what you’ve written.”

Rather shaken, I went home and went over what I had written—her words in my head. And “egad!” as they say in old-time melodramas, I had to admit that what I had written was absurd, and yes, possibly a slapstick farce.

I set back to rewriting, and added a variety of amusing and entertaining adventures.

With pictures by Paul O. Zelinsky it worked well. And was quite funny.

Story Behind the Story #8:
Man From the Sky

Man from the SkyOn November 14, 1971, a man who came to be known as “D.B. Cooper” hijacked a Boeing 727 aircraft when it was flying between Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington. It was the first plane hijacking in the US. The man leaped from the plane—when it was flying—and parachuted somewhere with a mass of stolen money. It is not known if he survived, who he really was, or what happened to the money.

All those unknowns did not keep any number of people from investigating the event, and trying to find out—or invent—what in fact happened. I can recall talking to a crime reporter who told me he knew the whole story, having “just interviewed” D.B. Cooper. But the reporter would tell me no more. “Saving it for my newspaper,” he said. Oh, sure.

One of those people who used the story was me. It appears in the short novel, The Man from the Sky which was first published in 1980 by Knopf, then republished by Morrow.

While the hijacking is very much part of the story, that was not the essential part of my book. I was much more interested in my hero, Jamie Peters, aged eleven. He is dyslexic, and since he cannot read well, he reads the sky, in particular, clouds. In so doing, he invents stories, which he is happy to share, though understandably no one believes his tales to be true, certainly not his friend Gillian.

It is while Jamie is watching the sky that he sees a man parachuting down to earth. Does anyone believe him? In a cops and robbers plot, this man from the sky captures Gillian, and seeks to use her as a hostage. Gillian, however, manages to leave a note for Jamie, saying where she is being taken. Jamie finds the note—but, being dyslexic—he can’t read it. Or can he?

For that is what I was most interested in relating; Jamie’s dyslexic struggle to read that note.

Sorry, I won’t reveal the whole plot here.

I came to write the book shortly after I learned that I had dysgraphia. It has some of the same symptoms of dyslexia, but the problems have more to do with writing, not reading. I had been severely frustrated by this condition ever since I began school, but did not know why I did so poorly, such that my high school English teacher informed my parents that “I was the worst student he ever had.”

Man from the Sky was subsequently rewritten under the title Reading the Sky, and widely serialized in newspapers by Breakfast Serials.

As I write this, a publisher is seriously considering reissuing the book.

Story Behind the Story #7:
Encounter at Easton

At the end of my book, Night Journeys, the two runaway indentured servants, Elizabeth Mawes and Robert Linnly, manage to escape, and flee north. True, Elizabeth was wounded, but she was free, and the protagonist of the book, young Peter York, comes to an understanding with his master, the pious Quaker Mr. Shinn.

But then something happened in my head once the book had been completed: I began to worry about the fate of those two young people. Were they truly free? Did Elizabeth survive her wound? Where did they go?

Easton, PAIn short, I had created fictional characters who had become so real to me that I wanted to know what happened to them. I even did some research about the area to which they presumptively would have fled, Easton, Pennsylvania. In so doing I learned about an outcast woman who, in Colonial times, lived in a cave in the woods near Euston.

I am not one who dreams much, or at least, I don’t remember my dreams very well. Nonetheless, one night at that time I had a dream which, as it were, informed me what had happened to my young characters in Night Journeys. That is to say, I dreamed the whole plot of Encounter at Easton.

Encounter at EastonWith that gift in hand (and mind) I wrote the book. It is the only time I have ever dreamed a book.

One curious aspect of the book’s publication was that from the time I first started to write it, until I had the published book in my hand, it took only eleven months. Never before or since have I published a book so quickly. The normal publication time is at least twice that length.

Another odd thing about the book: When it was done, I realized that the boy in the story, Robert Linnly, could have easily become the main character in an earlier book, Captain Grey. All that was required was to make a few changes in Captain Grey when that book was reprinted. Thus I created a series of four books, but, alas, I never wrote what should be book number three.

That’s the trouble with dreams: you wake up.

Encounter at Easton went on to win the Christopher Award for that year.

Story Behind the Story #6:
Night Journeys

Night JourneyI spent the summer of my 16th year at a work camp run by the Society of Friends (Quakers) on a Cherokee reservation in North Carolina. There, with other teenagers, I labored with the local people, doing farm work, helping to clear wooded areas to bring in electricity, rebuilding homes, plus a great variety of useful community tasks. I also had many talks with the camp head, who provided me with an introduction to the Quaker faith, which made a strong impression on me, and about which I would subsequently read a great deal.

Years later, I was living in Lambertville, New Jersey, on the banks of the Delaware River, right across the way from Pennsylvania. My boys came to attend the Buckingham Friends elementary school, a Pennsylvania Quaker school, which had a number of quite beautiful 18th Century structures. By way of coincidence, the headmaster of the school was the same individual who ran that work camp to which I had gone.

It was a combination of my interest in Pennsylvania Quakers, colonial American history, and the place where I was living, that led me to write the historical novel, Night Journeys.

The Quaker religion, like all religions, is complex and, again, like all religions, theory and practice is full of contradictions. I recall reading about the wealthy Pennsylvania Quaker farmer who, being opposed to war, refused to pay a tax levied for what we call The French and Indian War. But, not wishing to go against the law, he left the right amount of tax money on a log where the tax collector could “find” it.

It is just this kind of moral predicament which lies at the heart of Night Journeys, when Peter York, an orphan boy, is taken into the home of Everett Shinn, a deeply religious Quaker. What law (sacred or secular) should be followed when two local indentured servants run away to seek their freedom? In the book I wrote one of my favorite sentences, the one from which the title of the book derives: “Roads at night are always new.”

In which I show improvement

It is not usual to suddenly come upon information about yourself when you were five years old. Adult son Shaun was going through old family papers when he found my report card for my AM kindergarten. As I say, I was five years old.  S=satisfactory. I=improvement. U=Unsatisfactory. I like to think things have gotten better.

Avi report card

Avi's kindergarten report card

Story Behind the Story #5:
Emily Upham’s Revenge

Emily Upham's RevengeEmily Upham’s Revenge, or, How Deadwood Dick saved the Banker’s niece.
A Massachusetts Adventure by Avi
Pictures by Paul O. Zelinsky
William Morrow, 1979

If you have read one of the previous Stories about my Stories, in particular, how The End of the Beginning came about, you’ll find reference to me visiting my good friend, Avon.

Avon and his wife lived in North Brookfield, Massachusetts. Artists, they purchased North Brookfield’s old railway station, and converted it into their working studio. In this studio hung a large, old sign that simply read “George P. Upham.”

Even as I knew about this charming place, those were the years when I was an avid collector and reader of old children’s books. I would, in time, amass more than three thousands of them. [They are now part of the University of Connecticut’s research children’s book collection.] I combined my knowledge of North Brookfield and those highly morally charged and absurd Nineteenth Century tales to create this book, the title, plot and style of writing imitative of children’s books of the period.

There was another element. At the time my mother was quite ill. At some point she said to me, “I’d wish you would write something that would make me laugh.” That request was part of my creative process.

The book was also the first children’s book illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky. As for the original illustrations, I was told that they had been left on the publisher’s desk where, one evening they fell to the floor. That night they were scooped up by the cleaning staff and all tossed away.

The book went on to become nominated for “Best Children’s Mystery of the Year” by the Mystery Writers of America.

Story Behind the Story #4:
Captain Gray

The College of New JerseyIn the summer of 1975, I was working as a librarian, and trying to write. My first two books had been published. But, still needing to work full time at something other than writing, and having worked at the New York Public Library for about ten years, I took a librarian’s job at Trenton State College (now The College of New Jersey) where I was hired as a reader’s adviser, with a focus on the arts and literature. It was a somewhat unusual position insofar as I was a member of the faculty which, among other perks, meant I would have my summers off—to write, of course. That’s why I took the job.

Being in New Jersey I did what I always did when in a new place: read some of its history.

I don’t know if I was required to join the (state-wide) faculty bargaining agent, the American Federation of Teachers, or joined on my own. In any case I was a member of the union. What I did not know was that there was on-going contract dispute. In the spring of 1976, a strike was called. That was a new one for me, but I went along. The first day of the strike was exciting in its way: mass picket lines, camaraderie, hopes for a quick positive resolution. In fact, there was no quick resolution and, after the first day, I was given a one hour picketing assignment—for two weeks.

For the first time as an adult I was not working full-time. For a day I was perplexed, and then I realized I could stay home and write. That too was a first.

Captain GreySo it was that I sat down and began to write what would become Captain Gray, a novel set in New Jersey history, a sea-faring tale, if you will. [It was also the novel that in some fashion or other, the publisher forgot to send out for reviews.]

As for the strike: It was settled in NYC by Al Shanker (anyone remember him?), the head of the national union, and someone representing the state of New Jersey. The leadership of my union was not even at the table. The result: I (and all librarians) lost our faculty status, and our summers off.

Great labor victory!

Curiously, the word to strike derives from the nautical term, “to strike one’s sails,” which is to say not go anywhere.

But I did have my first historical novel.