"My greatest fear is to bore a child," says Sid Fleischman, Newbery Medal winner and author of the swashbuckling new novel The Giant Rats of Sumatra: or Pirates Galore. Boredom isn't likely to be a problem for Fleischman's young readers, since he has infused the novel with his trademark blend of humor and derring-do, plus a dash of suspense, a bit of romance and some hard-earned wisdom.
"An adult will read 50 or even 100 pages of a book that's boring them to death," Fleischman says in an interview from his California home. "Kids are far more demanding, and should be. It's my job to hold and entertain and inform them as deftly as I can." Luckily for his readers, this talented author possesses not only a finely honed sense of humor but also a lively life story that often serves as inspiration for his books. He has worked as a magician, vaudeville performer, screenwriter and reporter, served in the Navy and written dozens of children's books during his long career.
"When I was in fifth grade, in San Diego during the Depression, I saw a magician and was absolutely dazzled," Fleischman recalls. How did he learn the smooth sleight of hand, the dramatic emergence of a rabbit from a hat? "I went to the library," he says. His studying paid off; he garnered an audience for his performances, and later invented and wrote about tricks.
"It didn't seem like writing to me," he muses. "I was published at 19. When I saw the book with my name on it, that was my epiphany: I went from wanting to be a magician to wanting to be a writer."
And how did he inform himself about the writer's craft? "Back to the library," he says.
Fleischman put his learning to good use as a writer of novels and screenplays; when a 1960 writers' strike put him out of work, he decided to try children's books. "I had three young children, and they didn't understand what I did except that I typed a lot." Mr. Mysterious and Company, about a traveling magician and his family, was his first; he's been writing books for kids, including 1987 Newbery Medal winner The Whipping Boy, ever since.
His latest is a tale of adventure on land and sea during the 1840s Gold Rush era. The Giant Rat of Sumatra is the third in a trilogy of California novels that explore the state's history during the 1840s, including "the darker side of the Gold Rush, [such as] the way minorities were treated, particularly Mexicans."
The year is 1846 and the story's protagonist, 12-year-old Shipwreck, is an American boy lost at sea who is saved and taken on as cabin-boy by Captain Gallows, a daring Mexican pirate intent on returning to San Diego to establish a rancho and find the girl he last saw when he was 12. Deckhands Sam'l Spoons and One-Eye Ginger do their best to cause all sorts of trouble while the ship's figurehead, the eponymous giant rat, leads the way with bared teeth and empty eyes. The amusing chapter headings and illustrator John Hendrix's line drawings firmly bolster the hilarious goings-on.
Since he finished the novel, he's been working on his upcoming book, a biography called Escape! The Story of the Great Houdini. "It's a labor of love," he says.
That characterization is true, too, of writing for children. "If a book turns a child on to reading . . . that is a very important reward for those of us who write for kids," Fleischman says. "And I absolutely feel a sense of responsibility, too," including that of providing a source of humor and fun for his readers.
Says Fleischman, "Kids love to laugh, and you find [humor] in nursery-rhyme books, but when you get into books for older readers, you're supposed to take life seriously. Books get a bad reputation with kids." But, he says, "If you can't laugh in childhood, you never learn to. Laughter needs practice. I want kids to know that when they open those covers, they'll find laughter inside."
Linda M. Castellitto writes from Rhode Island, where she practices laughing every day.