The Whipping Boy


Photo credit: Kevin O'Malley

Photo credit: Kevin O'Malley

At almost exactly nine o'clock on a crisp blue Monday morning in January momentous news was on its way to me. The phone rang. I was in the shower. When I stepped out, my wife, Betty, said, "You had a call from Chicago." And I said, "I don't know anyone in Chicago." 

Betty handed me the name and phone number. Trev Jones? I shook my head, not yet recognizing it as the Trevelyn Jones of School Library Journal. "She wanted to know how long it takes you to shower." 

I thought the question, coming from a stranger, a bit impertinent. I wandered downstairs to my office, returned the call, and heard a voice as bubbly as champagne ring out the news. A book I had struggled with for almost ten years had won the Newbery Medal. 

I don't happen to believe in levitation, unless it's done with mirrors, but for the next few days I had to load my pockets with ballast. The Newbery Medal is an enchantment. It's bliss. It should happen to everyone. 

And it set up a Pavlovian reaction. Every time I take a shower I expect the phone to ring. 

Your timing, I must tell you, was impeccable. I had been deeply immersed for a number of months in a complex and difficult piece of work, finishing it up the Saturday before. Had the call come a week earlier, I can almost see myself turning to my wife to say, "That's all I need - one more interruption." 

18 year old Sid, professional magician.

18 year old Sid, professional magician.

Chinese wisdom tells us that a long journey begins with the first step. My journey to this room tonight began with a misstep. For a writer I started out in the wrong direction. Instead of reading the classics, or even the Hardy Boys, I spent my adolescent years practicing card tricks. I intended to turn myself into a magician. 

It never occurred to me to become a writer. First, my fingers got tired. And I had never seen a live author. They seemed as remote and mysterious and invisibile as phantoms. I subscribed to the childhood folklore that all authors are dead. Or ought to be.

My years in magic were a happy detour, and perhaps not a misstep after all. The crystal ball doesn't exist that could have foretold that I would become a writer of children's books. But it's easy to glance back at the conditions and accidentals that made it possible. 

My father unwittingly laid the groundwork. Like most Europeans, he had a zest for storytelling. With his natural sense of timing and eye for detail, he could make a trip to the barbershop sound Homeric. And although no Chesterton, he left me with a single piece of fatherly advice that allowed me to pursue a career of my own quirky choice. "Stay away from doctors," he warned. "They make you sick." 

So there was no pressure on me to become a doctor. He had the same scorn for lawyers, sparing me a career in torts and contracts. 

Like Jemmy in The Whipping Boy (Greenwillow) I was a free spirit, left free to roam the streets of San Diego - they were safe then - and dream my boyish dream. Thurston, not Thackeray, Houdini, not Hemingway. 

My search for secrets led me straight to the public libraries. I'd make a beeline to the shelves where the magic books sat. I hopped streetcars to the outlying branches. I'd take the nickel ferry across the bay to Coronado to check the shelves there. I was dimly aware that there were other books in the stacks, but in those days I had tunnel vision. I taught myself sleight of hand out of library books. In short order I became the boy pest of the Western world. If you have ever had an aspiring magician in the family, you will know what I am talking about. My mother and two sisters were wonderfully indulgent, but I could see them blanch as I approached with a deck of cards in my hands and the line on my lips, "Here. Take a card."  

I became fairly adept, and soon I was creating new tricks. I can see now, in that random activity, that I was becoming a writer, I just didn't know it. 

I needed to put my bafflers on paper. I sat down at the family typewriter, the old Remington with the faded, tenderized blue ribbon, and began rattling away. The pages stacked up. I had a short book. In literary style, it was on par with the instructions you get with a digital clock. But it was published. I was nineteen. 

The day those printed and bound volumes landed on our doorstep, and I saw my name on the cover, I was bedazzled. My aspirations took a tentative shift. What were all those other books in the library? 

I wondered if I could write stories. But how was it done? Were there books on it? I moved to another part of the library. Behold! I had been through this before, and I knew exactly how to proceed. But now, perhaps, just maybe, I could become a self-taught writer. 

And as a writer, I am almost entirely a product of the free public library system. I'd like to take this opportunity to express my gratitude. 

My turning from adult to children's books was the result of a chance remark. My daughter Jane came home waving a slip of paper that Leo Politi, on a visit to the children's room of the Santa Monica Public Library, had been kind enough to autograph. We crowded around to look at it, and my wife, quite innocently, remarked, "But you know, Daddy writes books, too." 

It was Jane's answer that did it. "Yes," she said. "But no one reads his books." 

Never underestimate a father scorned. Some months later a stretch of free time opened up for me, and I decided to write a novel for the amusement of my three children. I put them in the story, of course, and read them each chapter as it came hot out of the typewriter. It was fun. At the time it seemed to be only family fun. But it proved to be much more. 

I had written comedy lines before, but until I sat down to Mr. Mysterious & Company I had never done any sustained humorous writing. And with the publication of the novel by The Atlantic Monthly Press, I wandered into the field of children's books. It was as if I had found myself - and I didn't know I had been lost. 

I would like to pay homage to my first editor, the beloved Emilie McLeod, who became a pal through the years. 

Soon I was asked to speak at schools and libraries. Like Leo Politi, I found myself signing slips of paper in a Santa Monica library. I looked up, and there in line stood my younger daughter, Anne, age seven, with a slip of paper in her hand. She wanted my autograph, too. I knew I had arrived. 

I've had a glorious time writing for children. And unlike adults, they write back. Quite often their letters start out, "Dear Sid." It delights me that they regard me as a friend. They send handmade birthday cards. Around Valentine's Day we are ankle deep in glitter. Their letters abound with unconscious humor. A ten-year-old girl in Tennessee wrote, "My interests are reading, artifacts and cosmetics." Another, from Wichita: "When did you start writing? When are you going to STOP writing?" But almost always they ask, "Where do you get your ideas?" 

It's not an easy question to handle. I recall a letter from a boy in Michigan who made a list and then added, "Please answer these questions to the best of your ability." 

To the best of my ability, then. The problem for the writer is not in finding ideas. They are as common as weeds. What to do with the idea that touches you and excites the imagination - that's the writer's problem. I stumbled across the catapulting idea for The Whipping Boy while researching historical materials for another project. I checked the dictionary. "A boy," it confirmed, "educated with a prince and punished in his stead."  

My literary pulse began to pound. The common phrase as historical fact. What an outrageous practice, I thought. Here was a story I wanted to write, and with two main characters already provided, I'd make quick work of it. 

It was as if history had set a trap in its pages, waiting for me to step into it. 

After about eighteen months, I was still trying to get to the bottom of page five. More than once I thought of Fred Allen's imperishable line: "I can't understand why a person will take a year or two to write a novel when he can easily buy one for a few dollars." 

I shelved the project. It wasn't yet a story, for I don't plot in advance. It doesn't worry me that I don't know where I'm going. But I know I'll know it when I get there. Writing for me, like life itself, is a daily improvisation. Who knows what surprises lurk in the typewriter! It may seem highly eccentric, but I have read that Tennessee Williams worked that way. Both Jill Paton Walsh and the late Ellen Raskin told me this was their writing method, and I'm certain there are others. And while it may appear to be a death-defying high wire act, it is not as risky as it seems. In all the years I have been writing, I have lost only two or three books. And I probably would have abandoned them anyway. 

But I was losing The Whipping Boy. I recall hearing Eudora Welty in a television interview say that, "each story teaches me how to write it, but not how to write the next one." 

From time to time I'd take The Whipping Boy off the shelf and give it one more chance. During these years Clyde Bulla was a sustaining force. We live at opposite edges of the vastness of Los Angeles, and we often meet at a midway point for lunch. I must have sounded like a broken phonograph record as the waitress carried off the menus. "Clyde, I've definitely abandoned The Whipping Boy. This time I mean it." 

And Clyde, a veteran of so many books, would fix me with those kind, compassionate eyes and give his head the barest shake. "But I like The Whipping Boy," he's protest. It just needs to simmer a while longer. You'll get it." 

In the end, Clyde was right. I got it. 

Looking back, it's easy to see what it was that froze my imagination. My original concept for the story was wrong. Wrong, at least, for me. I saw The Whipping Boy as a picture book story. 

A picture book must have the gift of simplicity. Simplicity is the most demanding and elusive of disciplines. Not long ago, my son, Paul, who has a Newbery Honor Book himself, said with characteristic whimsy, "I can't seem to write a sentence without four dependent clauses." 

Writing as sparely as I could, it nevertheless took me the first five pages to open up the relationship between Jemmy and Prince Brat. That left only a few pages to spin a tale. Impossible! 

I'd make cuts one day - mortal wounds - and restore them the next. I shunted aside the temptation to let the story run, I had a fixed idea that this was a picture book, and that was that. 

I can't say it was a work in progress through those years - there was no progress. It was more a scornful presence sitting on the shelf, taunting me from time to time. A writer learns a mulish perseverance early on, but this was becoming folly. I had abandoned ideas before. Why not this one? 

Every time my thoughts strayed back to Jemmy, that innocent caught up in a demented, institutionalized injustice. I simmered. And I had an affection for Prince Brat, as much a victim of his station in life as Jemmy. Both were being denied their childhoods: the prince by a smothering excess of privilege, Jemmy by none at all. I couldn't walk away from them. 

I don't keep a journal, so I don't know the exact date. But it must have been on a January morning in 1985 that I again took the few manuscript pages off the shelf and read them over. In films, amnesiacs conveniently get hit by a taxi and regain their senses. Nothing as dramatic as that ocurred. But something clouted me on the head. I looked up and said to myself, "Gaw. It's not a picture book." 

Once I took the shackles off, the story erupted. Scenes, incidents, and characters came tumbling out of a liberated imagination. Within a few months I had it all on paper. Susan Hirschman, that gem of an editor, accepted it overnight. Peter Sis delivered his exquisite illustrations. Ava Weiss conceived the beautiful book design. And here I stand. 

I feel the joyful presence of three old friends, Don Freeman, Ezra Jack Keats, and Paul Hirschman, who would have taken a cheering delight in tonight's celebration. 

I'm grateful to my wife, Betty, who never doubted. I'd like to give my children, Jane, Paul and Anne, a public hug and a kiss for starting their father off in the right direction. 

I'm certain that every author who has preceded me to this dais has gone thumbing through the thesaurus looking for other ways to say "thank you". I have never had any luck in the thesaurus. But I, too, went searching for a word with bells and whistles on it. Again, Roget let me down. "Thanks! Many thanks! Gramercy!" The best of the lot seems to be "much obliged" but somehow that doesn't quite fill the bill. 

So imagine the bells and whistles. Thanks, Susan, and my friends at Greenwillow and Morrow. Thanks, Clyde. Thanks, Pearl and Honey. Thanks to each of you in the American Library Association. And gramercy, thanks to the Newbery Committee for putting your gold seal on The Whipping Boy.