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Youngsters' Books Not Child's Play, Author Says

July 26, 1987|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN | Times Staff Writer

Sid Fleischman was a successful screenwriter and the author of such decidedly adult titles as "Blood Alley" when he began writing for children.

"I backed into the field," said the prize-winning writer of more than 30 children's books during an interview in his Santa Monica home, where he works.

Fleischman's 1986 book, "The Whipping Boy," recently won the John Newbery Medal--the Oscar of children's literature. As a result, Fleischman, 67, has been inundated with requests for interviews and invitations to speak.

"The Newbery is a full-time job," he said, as he fielded yet another phone call.

Amusing His Children

Inevitably asked how he came to write for young people, Fleischman explains that his first children's tale was concocted almost three decades ago to amuse his three now-grown children. His son, Paul Fleischman, a writer in Northern California, has also won a Newbery.

As writers will, Fleischman wrote himself, his wife, his offspring, their friends, even the family dog into his first book for children, "Mr. Mysterious and Company," then sent the manuscript off to his New York agent.

"I seem to have written a children's book," he wrote. "If you're not interested, just drop it in the waste basket." The book was published by the first firm that read it.

Fleischman was amazed when letters began to arrive from children responding to his work. "Adult readers never write," he said. "It was the first time I ever felt in touch with my audience."

"Their letters are wonderful," he said of his young fans. They make you feel like Shakespeare must have felt when he heard the applause."

'Dear Sid' Letters

The writer relishes the candor of his readers, who write "Dear Sid" letters telling him exactly what they think of such Fleischman books as "The Ghost on Saturday Night" and a series of tall tales featuring farmer Josh McBroom.

"They keep my hat size where it was," Fleischman explained.

"When did you start writing? When are you going to STOP writing?" one letter asked.

Other favorites: a missive assuring Fleischman his "was the second-best book I've ever read" and one that ended "Better luck next time."

One of the pleasures of writing for young people, Fleischman said, is that fine children's books endure. "Adult novels are as ephemeral as newspapers," he said. "Children's books stay in print for decades."

More important, children's books stay forever in the minds of those who love them. Fleischman suggests that few activities are as satisfying as writing a book knowing it might have the impact of Margaret W. Brown's "Good Night, Moon" or E. B. White's "Charlotte's Web."

'Doing Something Important'

"For the first time," he recalled, "I felt I was doing something important."

People seem to think that writing for children is easier than writing for adults. Not so, Fleischman said. A person writing for children must find a way to express himself simply as well as richly.

And children are ruthless critics. "They won't indulge you if you bore them," Fleischman said. "As an adult I'll give a writer 50 pages. If the book doesn't interest me in 50 pages I'll say the heck with it--there are just too many other things to read. A child won't give you 50 pages."

Fleischman's first ambition was to be a magician. Born in Brooklyn, Fleischman grew up in San Diego, where he haunted the public libraries, reading everything he could find on sleight of hand. He was a professional conjurer, working in vaudeville and night clubs while still in his teens.

Today, when he addresses audiences of school children, he likes to warm up the crowd by sawing a young volunteer in half with a ribbon before he starts talking about books.

Fleischman's passion for magic led him to writing: His first book was a collection of magic tricks he had invented.

Published at 19

"I needed to put my bafflers on paper," he recalled in his Newbery acceptance speech. "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 a par with the instructions you get with a digital clock. But it was published. I was 19."

Why mess around with rabbits when you can pull characters out of a typewriter?

Fleischman finds he writes more slowly now than he did when he was first teaching himself to craft stories and novels. He finished his first novel, a mystery, in just 2 1/2 weeks. "Now it takes me 2 1/2 weeks to write a note to the milkman," he said. "The less you know, the easier it is."

"The Whipping Boy" gestated for almost a decade. Fleischman discovered in the course of researching an earlier book that it was the custom in some royal courts to raise a boy as a companion to a prince who was punished in his highness's stead (princesses had whipping girls).

"It was the injustice of it, the lunacy of it, that got me," he said.

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