The Magical Book

When I was a second grader, my school held a fundraiser to fill some empty shelves in the school library. Rather than just asking parents for money, the school had each child select a volume from a table filled with new books, take it home and ask Mommy and Daddy to puhleeeeze buy their sweet little offspring a book. After reading their new acquisition, the child would to donate the book to the school library so it could be enjoyed by all.

As class 2-A herded past the book tables, my ADHD brain locked on to a book wearing a bright yellow dust jacket with the title in bold red letters:100 Pounds of Popcorn by Hazel Krantz.

The cover illustration closed the deal: Four kids making a huge mess while popping mass quantities of popcorn. The random messiness made those kids seem more like me, and the fun they were having made me want to be more like them.

Sold.

However, when the day arrived when we were to donate our books, it became apparent that I hadn’t been properly briefed on the etiquette of school fundraising, for I committed the mortal sin of refusing to surrender my book to the librarian.

I’d already developed somewhat of a reputation by then (in 1962, ADHD was still known as “Rotten Little Brat Syndrome”), so when I made a bit of a scene over the librarian attempting to steal my book, the case was automatically escalated to the principal’s office. I’d already spent so much time there that I wouldn’t be surprised if even today there’s a chair in the waiting area bearing a brass name plate in my memory.

When my case came up on the principal’s docket, I stated my position in clear and certain terms: It was my book. I’d chosen it from the book table with my own grubby little paws. I paid for it with cash my mother gave me to buy a book. I’d even written my name inside the cover with a red pencil (though I don’t recall if I wrote it before or after they pressed me to donate it). I loved my little book, and the librarian couldn’t have it. End of discussion.

The battle escalated, as such battles are wont to do. When gentle reasoning failed, the principal hinted at the possibility of eternal damnation (being a Catholic school, they  could get away with that), and when all else failed, she pulled out the biggest weapon of all: a call to my parents. That threat almost worked, but one glance at my book’s cover renewed my resolve to endure any punishment required to win my case. After the threatened call, my father grudgingly agreed to buy a second copy for the library. He later extracted the price from my hide.

What drove me to fight so stubbornly for that book?

Reading 100 Pounds of Popcorn had revolutionized my eight-year-old life. Before that book, I thought everyone in the world was just like me. I had no idea that other families were different. In the pages of 100 Pounds of Popcorn, Hazel Krantz transported my tender heart to a world very unlike the one in which I lived.

To most, the Taylor family would seem unremarkable. A father, a mother, eleven-year-old Andy and his eight-year-old sister Sally Jean. On the way home from the beach, they see a huge bag of popping corn fall from the back of a truck, and being a moral, law-abiding type Mr Taylor tries to return it to its rightful owner. The owner isn’t able to retrieve the bag before it would spoil, and offers to let the Taylors keep it if they would like. Andy sets out to start a popcorn business with the help of his kid sister and several friends, and they all learn the hard way that there’s a lot more to selling popcorn than they thought.

Okay, so it’s a nice little story. How did that revolutionize my life?

The first time I read that book, I waited with tense anticipation for what I knew would happen. I waited, but what I expected never came. I read it again, just to make sure I hadn’t missed something. Then I read it again just because I didn’t want to leave the magical world.hidden in those pages, a world  where Andy’s father never yelled at him, never threw things in anger, and never once hit his wife or either of his children. Andy made some mistakes and learned lessons the hard way, but his father never called him stupid or any of those other names I’d expected. And Andy never once had to stop and discern whether his father was drunk or sober and adjust as needed to avoid his wrath.

In the pages of 100 Pounds of Popcorn, Hazel Krantz gave me a most wonderful gift. A glimpse of a world where children were free to be children, to learn and grow and live with all the hope and possibilities they could handle. I couldn’t explain it then as I can now, but that brief visit to normality changed me. It awakened my ability to dream, to imagine, to envision a better world than the one in which I’d existed.

Is it any wonder I fought so hard to hold on to such a magical book?

When God started talking to me about writing for children and young teens, I didn’t want to discuss it. I didn’t want to go back and revisit the wounds of my childhood. A dear friend and mentor (and highly successful children’s writer) finally took me aside and told me that those wounds equipped me to write things that nobody else can write, not even her. She then gently but firmly kicked my backside and asked me to quit making excuses and start doing what only I can do. (Thanks, Nancy. I needed that.)

Shortly after I returned home from the conference where that discussion occurred, I spotted my ragged, dog-eared copy of 100 Pounds of Popcorn on my bookshelf, took it down and read it again, just as I’ve done hundreds of times before. And I remembered the magic.

And then I started writing for tweens and early teens—because somewhere out there, there’s a boy or girl who needs that magic.

Reccommended: “On Writing” by Steven King

A few minutes ago, I closed the cover of a book. Big deal, right?

Not such an unusual thing to do, I suppose. As I writer, I’m a reader; the two are so tightly intertwined that they’re inseparable. I’ve got a big pile of books here waiting for me, some that I paid for, and some that I received as review copies. I’m horribly behind on that reading pile, because of late I’ve been abiding in the land of obsessive writing, doing a rewrite on a novel that I’ve been working on for what sometimes seems like forever.

I wanted to enter that novel in a contest. The entry consisted of the first fifteen pages (or less, my choice) and a single-page synopsis. The first fifteen pages were easy; I’ve had them for a long time. However, since the story changed somewhat with the rewrite, I couldn’t do the synopsis until I saw where the rewrite went. I still haven’t finished the rewrite, but I got far enough along to produce a reasonable single-page synopsis–though I know the story will probably end up a little different.

With that project finished (more or less) on time, and a day and a half before the contest closed, I took off with a wild haired idea I’ve been kicking around, and wrote the first chapter and a rough but plausible synopsis for another novel. I surprised myself with this one; it flowed freely and the result may be even better than my first entry.

Yes, I entered it. A ten page first chapter with a rough but plausible synopsis. And at the risk of sounding prideful and self-impressed, the second entry might have a better shot at winning than the first. Yaneverknow. 🙂

On Writing With those entries complete, I accepted the reward I’d promised myself earlier in the week: A couple of days of no writing, when I could read a good book and not feel guilty for taking time away from my projects. But, I was a bad boy–I bypassed several books that had been waiting longer to read the one most recently added to the queue: Stephen King’s On Writing. It might just be the most profitable bit of non-writing I’ve done in a long, long time.

I’ll admit that this is the first Stephen King book I’ve ever read. I’m just not into blood and horror. However, it was one of the best books on the craft of writing that I’ve read, and I’ve read a bunch. I like King’s no-baloney approach to the craft of writing, even if he’s given to vulgarity–and make no mistake about it, the book contains a measure of vulgarity, perhaps even a measure and a half. If you’re the kind who is easily offended by vulgar language, don’t even pick this book up, and if you do, please don’t blame me, You’ve been warned. I can deal with it; I work in a place where vulgar language is sometimes uttered, and I’ve learned to look beyond. That, and I grew up with it–my father could have out-vulgared ol’ Stevie without breaking a sweat.

Once you look past the language and a situation or two, this is a very honest book, a very real viewport into what made one of the most prolific writers of our times the writer he is. King provides some wonderful insights into his own creative process, and in more than one place stands firmly against some highly-regarded instruction I’ve received that, to me, never seemed quite right. Steven King and I write in much the same way, starting with situations, creating characters, and transcribing what they do on our mental stages. We’re not alone, by the way; some mof my favorite writers do the same thing.

King is a passionate advocate of writing for the sheer love of the creative process. He’s been fortunate to have made a few bucks in the process, but I sincerely believe he’d still write even if he’d never sold a single novel, just to feed his creative passions. I understand that on a level that defies verbiage. He also comes down rather hard on some of the things we tend to do to learn the craft; one of my favorite quotes from this book is:

“It is, after all, the dab of grit that seeps into an oyster’s shell that makes the pearl, not pearl-making seminars with other pearls.”

I’ve invested a good deal of time and money on those seminars, and the best thing I learned at any of them is a sentiment expressed by Stephen King. The best way to learn writing is to write, write some more, and the write some more. Closely allied with that is a proven reality: great writers are great readers. I could almost feel the slap pf King’s hand when he said:

“If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

Ouch. Makes me wish I’d spent less time obsessing over that rewrite and more time reading.

Bottom line: If you’re an aspiring writer and you can cope with some vulgar language, I’d recommend you read On Writing by Stephen King. If the vulgarity bothers you, I’d suggest developing a thicker skin. It’s one tool every writer needs to cope with criticism and rejection.

Now, speaking of tools, I’m going to go read a book.