Listening to Kids In America
A year or so ago a teacher wrote to me. You don't know me, she began, but there's no one else I can turn to. She went on to describe an eleven-year-old-boy who suffered from a rare, debilitating brittle bone disease. Touch him and his bones shattered. His dad was in prison, his working-class mom was struggling to support him, and the kids in school, and the school itself, had no use for him. 'Daniel' was more than difficult, he was impossible. Too angry, too outrageous, too ill-behaved to be tolerated. He'd been banned from class, sent home to stew in his own juices, and his only contact with the outside world was through a young, impassioned tutor who was desperately trying to get through to him.
I read him your book, she wrote to me, and he likes it. He wants to know what happens next.
There is no greater compliment for a writer than to have pleased a troubled child. So I wrote to Daniel and he wrote back, enclosing a photograph of himself. I pinned it above my desk. In the picture Daniel is smiling. He has very round cheeks, a very round body, and round glasses. He's reclining in his wheelchair, and his left arm is in a sling. I know from what his tutor told me that there's scarcely a bone in his body that hasn't been fractured. But in the photograph he's smiling quite blissfully. Why is he smiling, this boy with brittle bone disease, this boy who has been exiled from school, deprived of a normal life?
Daniel is smiling because he's covered in kittens. A kitten nestles in the sling that supports his damaged arm. Another crouches on his shoulder. He holds another kitten with his good hand, and if kittens could smile, that kitten would. There's another kitten crouched above his head. Kittens all over him, from head to foot. Kittens so soft and light they can't possibly hurt him, or break his delicate bones. Kittens placed there, I'm certain, by his long suffering mother, as a gift, a reminder that there are soft things in his life, and creatures that love him exactly as he is.
That photograph of the boy who was covered in kittens got me thinking about what had happened, to put me in a position where I got letters and pictures from kids like Daniel and from many other children as well, most of them happy and healthy and enthusiastic about life, if not about reading books.
As a young, ambitious novelist, writing for kids never crossed my mind. Why would it? If the world of authors was reduced to a classroom, the children's writers would be in the corner, wearing goofybut- cute dunce caps, passing notes to the similarly despised writers of comedy. My models were 'difficult' authors like Joyce and Faulkner. Undisputed geniuses who wrote tough, demanding stuff that fit into what my college professors called 'literature of the highest level.'
That was thirty years ago, but not much has changed. Mark Twain hasn't been elevated into that pantheon, and neither has Kipling. Both wrote popular books intended for kids, and if that wasn't bad enough, Twain sometimes tried to make his readers laugh. I mention Twain and Kipling because they were two of the 'popular' storytellers who helped illuminate my childhood, and stimulated my desire to become a writer.
In those early days, writing draft after draft on my ten dollar Underwood, I knew no other published writers. I'd written to novelists I admired, and to numerous editors, but none had ever written back.
Over the years I wrote and submitted eight or nine novels and never got more than a standard rejection letter. But eventually, in my late twenties, an agent took pity on me, and finally one evening the phone rang, and he said: 'They like your book.'
All writers dream of that moment. It's what sustains us through the embarrassment of failure and the daily despair of repeated rejection. We survive by dreaming of fame and fortune and seeing our books displayed in bookstore windows. We dream of big checks and gleaming limousines, and charted flights to Stockholm to receive the Nobel Prize. We dream of being stopped on the street and asked for autographs from beautiful people we don't know.
Almost none of that dream ever comes true, even for quite successful writers, but thankfully I didn't know that at the time.
I did get an inkling of how little being a published author would actually change my day-to-day life when I called my long-suffering parents with the news. My mother, bless her, was over the moon. My father said it was good news I'd sold a book at last, and then in the very next breath asked if I would mind stopping by the house: they were having a problem with the septic tank and I was, as he said, always good with plumbing.
It's true. I've always been good with plumbing, and was more than familiar with that particular septic tank, which had a habit of backing up when the ground froze. So, the day after my 'first' novel was accepted, I arrived, somewhat under the weather from celebrating, and was soon hard at work, using a chainsaw to chop through the frozen waste, unblocking the discharge pipe.
I remember thinking, get used to it pal, this is what life is all about: one day you're on top of the world, and the next you're cutting through frozen turds with a chainsaw.
There's only one sensible response in a situation like that. I laughed like hell, finished the job, and then went home to write my pages.
Over the next dozen years I wrote a lot of mystery, thriller, and suspense novels, and managed to publish fifteen of them, several under a pseudonym. In all of this I was supported, every minute of every day, by my wife Lynn, who always worked, and who for many years never earned less than I did.
Then one day, while on a long, boring highway trip, I began daydreaming about a character who would be the unlikely hero of a book for young readers. A smart-alecky kid with a body so small and bone-crippled that he needed the help of a friend to get around.
The idea didn't come out of ether-it was right there in my own experience. Lynn and I had known a kid in that situation, a boy born with Morquio Syndrome, a rare and debilitating form of dwarfism. Like the character I was imagining, the real boy was exceptionally bright, physically courageous, inexhaustibly curious, and possessed of a vocabulary that far exceeded my own.
I'd known the kid for years, had seen him grow up (his mother and stepfather were friends of ours) but the idea of using him in a story had never occurred to me until then. It was his life-his body-and he'd have been profoundly embarrassed, if not offended, to see any part of himself in print. The only reason the notion ever entered my head at all is because the boy-a young man by then-had died the previous year, and somehow that made it okay. As if death freed me to borrow an ember of his unique personality, and use it to light a fire under my own imagination.
Even at the moment of conception, before I'd formulated the story, already there came a persistent twinge of guilt. What right did I have to appropriate part of someone else's life and turn it into a book? Death didn't make it okay. The only thing that would make it okay-or so I rationalized-was if the story itself was completely fictional, in the sense that all of the events in the narrative would be invented by the author, without encroaching on the actual events of the real boy's life.
If you're troubled by that rationale, so was I-but it didn't stop me from inventing a narrator who was naive enough not to understand that 'Freak' was a cruel nickname. That gave me a title, too, because I knew my narrator would somehow help my little hero overcome the demeaning cruelty of that nickname, and transform it into a chivalrous, knightlike hero called 'Freak The Mighty'.
Bonnie Verburg, the young editor who bought Freak The Mighty , told me that writing for kids would change my life. I chuckled and said, 'oh sure', but didn't believe it for a second. Books and stories had given me a life, for which I was grateful, but it seemed impossible that one particular story could change my life. At the time I hadn't the faintest idea of what it meant to publish a book for kids. It certainly never occurred to me that kids would want to write to the author, and talk to him.
And never in my wildest imagination did I think some of them would assume I really was Maxwell Kane, a boy their own age.
Soon after publishing a book for kids, my mailbox began to fill with letters from children all across America. Not because my novels for young readers are bestsellers -they're not by a long shot-but because today's kids love to write to authors.
Most of the letters make me smile.
Dear Mr. Philbrick, your book was phenomenal. Also very interesting. It made no sense at all. Other than that, it was an awesome book.
Dear Mr. Philbrick, your book made our teacher Mrs. Troxell cry at the end, which the whole class thought was funny. Thanks.
Dear Mr. Philbrick, my opinion of your book is fantastic because the book is great. I would give it four thumbs up.
Dear Mr. Philbrick, your book was very suspended, it had me on the end of my seat.
Dear Mr. Philbrick, We just read Freak The Mighty. There were some parts that made our entire class laugh. Then there were parts that made them fall asleep.
Dear Mr. Philbrick, your book was kind of long but you had some good words.
Dear Mr. Philbrick, why did you have to pick a crippled kid when you could have picked anyone to be in your book? What were you thinking?
Dear Mr. Philbrick, thanks for visiting our school. I thought when you came I would be nervous like before a football game when sometimes my stomach makes me throw up. But when I met you, I didn't throw up.
With kids, there's no higher compliment than not making them throw up. In fact I recommend it to writers in all genres, including the most literary: try to not make your readers throw up. This is, I believe, very sound advice, and possibly more helpful than anything taught in creative writing classes.
Your book was really funny especially the part when Max tried to sneeze a hotdog through his nose. I have one question was this book a true story that Max wrote and gave to you? sincerely,
Is Max related to you or how did you find a pretty good brain to write such a long book? Yours truly,
Okay, I'm aware that kids are taught to use the phrase 'your friend' as the closing of a letter, but there's something about seeing it hand-printed in pencil that makes you think they mean it. That, having read a book, they consider the author a friend.
One of the things that most impressed me about the kid letters that started arriving was how deeply some of these kids thought about books, and not just my books but all books.
A seventh-grader from Portage, Indiana wrote at length, trying to explain exactly what parts of my story appealed to her. Finally it boiled down to this : In most stories people have a big house to live in, but in your stories (at least the ones I have read) they live like real people do, in an unknown city that you could name yourself if you wanted to.
Yes, exactly. That was my intention, and twelve-year-olds are just as capable of 'getting it' as graduate students.
Not all the letters I get are complimentary, of course.
A kid from Indiana wrote to let me know that your book had a big impression on my life, because it made me no longer want to be a writer.
And the boy who wrote from Petoskey, Minnesota was probably trying to be nice when he wrote I enjoyed your book. It was filled with action, sadness, and stupidity. Then again, when another, slightly older kid sends me an e-mail stating that 'your book doesn't suck as bad as most books, but it still sucks' I'm pretty sure it isn't exactly a vote of confidence.
Some of the kids who write me are doing so at the behest of teachers, as in Dear Mr. Philbrick, my English teacher wants me to write you a letter. She said you would take this seriously, so you better for her sake.
I'm fortunate in that my books seem to attract as many boy readers as girl readers. This is considered important nowadays because so many boys are categorized as 'reluctant readers'. This distaste for reading is not always the result of a learning disability. Boys who are asked to empathize with characters in a book often do so with great reluctance. Boys know they're supposed to be tough and unemotional (a hour on the playground teaches them that) and the characters I write about tend to be demanding and needy, even if they, like the boys who read the stories, won't admit it.
Here's a letter from a fifth grader in Meredith, New Hampshire: I felt bad for Kevin because everyone at school made fun of him. Don't think I am a sissy. I just felt bad for him, even if he's just a character. Hmm. I read that letter and thought, right, you're barely ten years old but already you're expected to react like a mini-version of Clint Eastwood, studying human misery with a squinty gaze.
Some things have changed since I was in fifth grade, but that part hasn't.
Dear Mr. Philbrick, Hi, I'm Megha Ghia. I'm in the sixth grade and in Ms. Gauweiler's class. She made us read your book. I saw the cover and thought it would be boring, but later I started to like it. How did you become a writer? Was it because you were forced to write in school and then you began to like it?
Well no. I was never forced to write. At least I was never forced or even encouraged to write fiction. Creative writing wasn't in the curriculum at my school when I was in sixth grade. I had a wonderful teacher we all loved-Mrs. Bowditch. Mrs. Bowditch instilled in us a love for books and for being curious about the world. She encouraged us to think and to use our imaginations, but the idea that sixth graders might be able to write fiction never occurred to her because it never occurred to much of anybody in 1962. Writers of fiction were adults, and adults became writers because they had been forged in the fires of adult experience-Hemingway, James Joyce, Pearl S. Buck-all became writers because of experiences that changed their lives, and sixth graders simply didn't have the experience to even think about writing fiction. In those days almost nobody seriously believed creative writing could be taught to children.
Schools and teachers get a tremendous amount of scrutiny and criticism these days. For all I know, some of it may be deserved. But one thing I do know: today teachers all across the land are encouraging their students to write, and the students are responding. We're educating and encouraging and guiding a whole new generation of writers. Not all of them will become professional authors, chain-sawing their way through the frozen sewage of a writer's life, but from what I can see, those who do emerge as writers may well be the finest generation of writers that the human race has ever produced.
This is cause for celebration. Kids in America almost never ask me if I'm going to write another book. They ask if I'm going to 'make' another book. They think of it that way because in 5th grade they've already made books with their own hands. As a former boat builder and carpenter, who made boats and houses with his own hands, and who yearned to make books, I say hurray, hurray, hurray.
A postscript: last spring I finally met Daniel, the boy who was covered in kittens in that photograph I hang above my desk. I'd dedicated a book to him, and wanted to give it to him personally.
He and his mother and I agreed to meet at a shopping mall. Daniel was back in school and doing reasonably well, considering all the time he missed with broken bones and hospital stays. He lived in a motorized wheelchair, but it didn't seem to bother him-having a souped-up motorized wheelchair meant he could out-race everyone, zooming around and honking his horn and creating as much havoc in a busy shopping mall as a whole gang of teenagers. His mother and I had to chase him around the mall, and we were both out of breath by the time we caught up.
I asked his mother if he was like that all the time and she said yes, except when he was asleep. Then I asked if it wasn't dangerous for a boy with brittle bone disease to be racing around a mall in an electric wheelchair. She looked at me and said, 'Everything is dangerous for Daniel. He just wants to run with the other kids.'
If you think about it, isn't that what we all want?
This article is taken from an address that Rodman Philbrick gave as part of the Author Strand workshop at the NCTE convention in Milwaukee, in November, 2000. He is the author of award-winning books for young people, including The Fire Pony, Freak the Mighty, and Max the Mighty, and The Last Book in the Universe. Max the Mighty was made into a 1998 Miramax feature film, The Mighty; it stars Sharon Stone. An audio version of The Last Book in the Universe is now available through Listening Library.
Reference Citation: Philbrick, Rodman. (2001) "Listening to Kids In America." The ALAN Review , Volume 28, Number 2, p. 13.