Youngsters Read This Writer Loud and Clear : Tom Bethancourt Persuades Them to Be Authors at Annual Reading Conference

March 19, 1986|JOHN DREYFUSS | Times Staff Writer

If you want to know what a writer looks like, look at the person next to you, Tom Bethancourt advised the 41 people in his audience.

An hour later, all 41 believed him. Each of them said he or she will write a book. Their average age hovered somewhere around 10, and their average ambition hovered somewhere around the stars.

Roomful of Kids

Bethancourt, an unlikely successful author of children's books, had done what he set out to do: persuade a roomful of kids at Saturday's 21st Annual Reading Conference for Young People at Claremont that they not only could but also would write books.

When he was the age of his audience, Bethancourt lived in the tough Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, where, he said, even the teachers played hooky.

"I thought all writers went to Harvard or Yale, wore jackets with leather patches on the elbows, smoked pipes, worked in book-lined studies with dogs on the floors and had rich families," Bethancourt said.

He paused, and spoke his next, one-word sentence with power and conviction: "Wrong!"

Dressed in Jeans

Tomas Ernesto Bethancourt hadn't attracted his audience's full attention when he began talking. Small wonder. Dressed in jeans, a bright green sweater that emphasized his big belly, an Adidas jacket and a baseball cap covering white hair that snowed over his ears, the bearded writer looked more like a construction worker than a man who claims 22 books for teen-agers among his credits.

But the youngsters in the room hadn't come to learn how to hammer nails or build skyscrapers at this reading conference sponsored by Claremont Graduate School in conjunction with the George G. Stone Center for Children's Books, and the Alpha Iota chapter of the Pi Lambda Theta educational honor society.

By the time Bethancourt said, "Wrong!" the kids were listening as if every word was magic.

"I wish I could tell you I got out of my bad neighborhood by being a writer, but that would be a lie," continued the 53-year-old American of Puerto Rican descent. "I was too nervous to steal, too skinny to be an athlete, too passionate to be a priest and too honest to be a cop. So I became a jazz musician."

He adopted the name Tom Paisley, and rode it to a successful folk singing and jazz guitar career that included nightclubs and coffeehouses, television, records and appearances at political rallies.

Along the way, Bethancourt attended City College of New York where he took mostly English courses, wrote some songs, was a singing busboy at an Irish restaurant on Coney Island, wrote record jacket biographies and criticized guitar for a couple of music magazines.

In February, 1974, when Bethancourt was 41, his first child was born. "I got a late start," he said. Because of that late start, the new father worried that his daughter, Kimi, might never know his background. He recalled thinking, "When Kimi gets to be about 14 and wants to know about her old man, I might be dead. Or, worse yet, I might be one of those old people who lie to kids."

To be sure Kimi got a straight story, Bethancourt began writing his autobiography. He wrote it between his performances in a New York nightclub. After the first show one night, as he sat at a table by the wall printing his life story on yellow legal pads with a felt tipped pen, a customer asked if she could read his manuscript.

She read 15 pages and announced she worked for a book publisher. Six weeks later she returned with John H. Briggs Jr., president of the Holiday House Inc. publishing company.

"He offered me a book contract," Bethancourt told his young audience.

"I said: 'People from my background don't write books.'

"He said: 'I'll give you money for it.'

"I said: 'How much?'

"He said: '$1,000.'

"I said: 'I'll write a book.' "

Signed Contract

Bethancourt borrowed a pen and signed the contract in red ink then and there in the nightclub. Two years later he was showing friends his name on the cover of "New York City Too Far From Tampa Blues." It was a volume for teen-agers, as are all Bethancourt's books.

After relating how his first novel progressed from felt-tipped pen to print, Bethancourt changed the subject.

"How many of you speak a language other than English?" he asked. Between one-third and one-half the children raised a hand.

Most of the second languages were Spanish, but one child spoke German, another Danish, a third Taiwanese.

Bethancourt is a passionate man. He speaks with almost theatrical emphasis. He is fiercely proud of his Latino background. Never is he more passionate, more proud or more convincing than when he tells children, "Don't think you can't write in English if English is not your first language." Joseph Conrad's native language was Polish, he informed them. Thomas Mann grew up speaking German. "And I spoke 'Spanglish' on the streets of New York."

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