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My Childhood Literary Influences

I always wanted to be a writer. I was a voracious reader, from the moment I first picked up a book. I still remember going to the old Annandale Library, before they built the shiny new George Mason Regional Library. Some of my fondest memories are of going there every few weeks, often with my best friend Jeff Amann, and replacing one pile of books with new ones. Unlike a lot of kids, I eagerly awaited the end of school year summer reading list, and tried to read the recommended books.

Some of my earliest favorites were the Henry Huggins series by Beverly Cleary. Like most children I adored the classic fairy tales by the Grimm Brothers and Hans Christian Andersen, and still enjoy them. I read a lot of biographies written for children, for historical characters like Abraham Lincoln, Babe Ruth, Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie. I recall having a great debate with myself over who really was the last to die at the Alamo, Bowie or Crockett. Starting a lifelong fascination with Alfred Hitchcock, I gobbled up the short stories in his anthologies for young readers, like Monster Museum, Ghostly Gallery and Spellbinders in Suspense. A few years later, I would devour his detective series of Three Investigators books; the early ones were written by Robert Arthur, one of my favorite short story writers and someone who deserves more acclaim, in my view.

I became a huge fan of the Hardy Boys mystery books, written by a variety of authors, under the Franklin W. Dixon pen name. I loved the Chip Hilton series of sports books even more. They were written by Clair Bee, a former college coach. Back in the late 1990s, I exchanged a few emails with Bee’s daughter, Cindy Farley, in which she gave me a bit of background information about the characters and story lines.

My favorite childhood author was Edward Eager. I read and re-read all seven of his books, especially the ones I consider his essential four (Half Magic, Magic by the Lake, Knight’s Castle, The Time Garden). I loved the fact Eager wove the characters from his first two books (which were set in the 1920s) into the other books, with the children in the first books being the parents of the kids in the later books. The illustrations, by N.M. Bodecker, were outstanding and complemented Eager’s writing perfectly. I also emailed the son of Bodecker, in the hope he had some information about the elusive Eager, of which very little is known, but he really had nothing to offer. I’ve had a notion to write a biography about Edward Eager for quite some time, but it seems impossible to find any information about him, which is strange considering he died in 1964 and was a fairly renowned literary figure.

Any story about magic appealed to me. Thus, Edward Eager begat the works of E. Nesbit, written at the beginning of the twentieth century, which had deeply influenced him. Nesbit’s Five Children and It, The Phoenix and the Carpet and The Story of the Amulet were more detailed, and longer, and evoked an era that I found exotic and exciting. Other favorite books along this line were Steel Magic by Andre Norton, The Peculiar Miss Pickett by Nancy R. Julian, and in a slightly different vein, the wonderful Mary Poppins series by P.L. Travers. Walt Disney’s version, with Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, is in my all-time top ten list of films, but nothing could compare to the books.

Another enduring theme that still intrigues me is time travel. I read several of the Danny Dunn books, written by Raymond Abrashkin and Jay Williams, but my clear favorite was 1963’s Danny Dunn, Time Traveler. I still think the best time travel story I ever read was Danger: Dinosaurs, by Richard Marsten, whose real name was Salvatore Lombino. He had quite an interesting career as a screenwriter, using the better known pseudonym Evan Hunter, contributing the screenplay to the movie The Blackboard Jungle and, more impressively from my point of view, the original script for Hitchcock’s classic The Birds. The short story that movie was based on, written by Daphne Du Maurier, was far different from the movie Hitchcock directed, reminding me of how Pierre Boulle’s novelette Planet of the Apes was nothing like any of the movies later released under that name.

I found the Moffats series of books, by Eleanor Estes, strangely fascinating. They were illustrated by the distinctive drawings of Louis Slobodkin. I think Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking character was one of the most original in all of children’s literature. I was awed by her independent, highly unconventional lifestyle. As a huge sports fan, I read all the baseball fiction produced by authors like Matt Christopher and Robert Bowen. I really enjoyed Keith Robertson’s Henry Reed books, especially Henry Reed’s Journey, since I only had one family vacation as a youth. They were illustrated by the wonderful Robert McCloskey, who also wrote books like the charming Homer Price and Centerburg Tales. 

I supplemented my reading with regular doses of comic books. I was a DC guy- loved Superman and Batman, and whenever I had an extra 12 cents, I bought the latest World’s Finest or Jimmy Olsen, or better yet, some Superman-themed 80 page Giant, an incredible deal for only a quarter. I went through many of the Classics Illustrated comics, which were exceptionally well done and nurtured a love of the real classics, at least for me. David Copperfield was my favorite Classics Illustrated, and after I read the actual novel by Dickens, I instantly considered it the most impressive piece of literature ever written.

My favorite book of all during childhood was Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time. The first chapter, from the opening line, was gripping and still the best ever written, in my opinion. It was one of several books that clearly inspired my own later fiction, especially my 2007 novel The Unreals.  Like Lewis Carroll’s timeless Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, it has an enduring appeal to adults as well as children. I feel fortunate to have established a cyber relationship with Lena Roy, Madeline L’Engle’s granddaughter. She is an accomplished author herself; her acclaimed young adult novel Edges was published in 2010.

 I think one has to love reading to become a writer. I even liked the smell of books. As a child, I would bury my nose in them and inhale deeply. I learned the differences between the way a paperback and a hardback smelled, to recognize the musty scent of an older book, versus the fresh ink of a recently published one. One of the greatest thrills of my life was holding a copy of my novel The Unreals in my hand, and looking at the cover intently, with my name printed there, then turning it over and looking at the back, placing it on a shelf and staring at the spine. I’m sure that’s a surreal experience for every writer.

Ironically, while I read as much fiction as I possibly could as a child and as a teenager, my adult reading has gravitated almost exclusively to nonfiction. Once I started writing seriously, I found it hard to read fiction written by someone else, unless it was Charles Dickens or some other legendary figure. But I can still pick up some of my old childhood favorites, and recognize the brilliance, and be captivated once more by the same characters and the same stories, a child again in a more interesting world.