I’ve been having a grand year celebrating my 50th year as a published children’s author. But today, October 1, 1969, is when A BOY WITH A DRUM was published. My thanks to more than 2,000,000 people who bought a copy. Today it’s official.
My heartfelt gratitude to you, my friends, readers, supporters, and mentors, for continuing to make me gloriously happy. I’m still following that little boy and marching to his music.
Yesterday afternoon Robin, Tim, and Kris came over for a dip in the pool and kabobs on the grill. While we were in the water I noticed a spider slipping into the track around the top of the pool where the liner is attached. It’s a narrow space that often spells doom for beetles, crickets, ants, spiders, and other small creatures that slide two and a half inches down the face of the deck and manage to grab onto the track and climb in. Once there, they have nowhere else to go; can’t climb back up the smooth surface and a watery grave awaits them a few inches below. I often find tiny things flailing away in distress when I’m wading around the pool and return them to the deck so they can get on with their lives. I usually do this by coming up under them with the back of my hand and quickly shaking them off onto safer ground. The day before, I rescued a cricket and set it down beside the base of a geranium pot. It calmly cleaned its antennae by pulling them through its mandibles, stretched its legs as if checking for injuries, and eventually crawled into a small dark opening at the base of the pot and disappeared. Mission accomplished.
But the spider yesterday was different. It was a wolf spider and a big one. These are solitary hunters who usually seek their prey at night. It’s a poisonous creature although its venom won’t kill you. Still, I pointed out its hiding place to everyone in the pool so they wouldn’t accidently put a hand too near it. Then I removed the top of the drain trap as a tray, found a dead hibiscus blossom, and used its protruding stamen to tease the spider until it leaped onto the tray. It took one look at me and jumped into the pool, so pumped it practically ran across the water. Talk about fast! I finally managed to scoop up the wolf and get it onto the deck where it immediately climbed up the side of the same geranium pot and stopped to figure out what to do.
Sandy, who doesn’t care for spiders, splashed water in the spider’s face. In a flash it disappeared around the back of the pot. It then reappeared and came rushing back toward us. At the last instant it paused to look us over and weigh its chances. Then, reluctantly I thought, it backed up and crawled into the dark opening under the pot — the same one where I last saw the hapless cricket the day before. If that cricket was still there when the wolf joined it, I’m sure it isn’t now. My assumption is that the cricket had escaped during the night before the wolf came along. But if it didn’t, there’s one less voice in the choir now. It’s always fascinating to catch a glimpse of nature at work.
1969 was the year of Woodstock. Richard Nixon took office as president. John Lennon married Yoko Ono. Neil Armstrong took a giant step for mankind on the moon. And I took a giant step for me. On October 1 of that year my first book for children, THE BOY WITH A DRUM, was published by Western Publishing and went marching off into my future as a children’s author. I’ve been holding my own private celebration all year and though I meant to wait until October 1 to mark the precise date of my 50th anniversary in this wonderful business, I can’t wait any longer to share.
Half a century in the business. Can this be? I remember so clearly the thrill of holding my first book. We lived in Kansas City. I was either the product manager for children’s cards or had just been promoted to editorial manager for all Hallmark and Ambassador cards by then. I was married to this wondrous woman. We had two beautiful, loving children, Robin and Jeff. We could finally afford two cars. We had great neighbors. And I — after ten years of trying various genres in search of who I was or might become as a writer — was finally holding in my hand the solid evidence of sweet success. I had no idea how lucky I was to have Eloise Wilkin for my illustrator. I had been trained as a scientist. I knew nothing about the world of publishing. All I knew was this book in my hand changed everything.
Our friends Larry and Maryann Wakefield drove up from Springfield. From the $350 I had received (for outright purchase of my story) I treated us to lobster dinners at the Savoy. Sandy presented me with a Steuben Glass brontosaurus in honor of the occasion. She told me that if I needed to quit my job to pursue my dream, we could tighten our belts and live on her salary for a year while I gave it a try. I couldn’t accept, but I’ll never forget what she offered to do for my sake.
The years have passed swiftly. These days I’m often saddened by the losses of old friends and acquaintances even as we welcome strong new voices to the choir. In May of this year I held my 96th book, AND THE BULLFROGS SING. It was a great thrill. But I will never again feel the giddy kind of joy reserved for the first, first book an author sells. With all its oops and downs, writing for young people is the best ride in town. I’m happy to report that I have a fistful of tickets left.
These nights we usually eat by the lake and enjoy the entertainment. Last evening before birds packed it in for the night, we were treated to the sight of four young martins that paused to rest on the top of a retaining wall.
We’re accustomed to watching martins swoop and dive across the lake but in thirty years we’ve never had them visit our yard. I’m guessing these were youngsters fresh from fledging. They flew off now and then to chase a bug but quickly returned to the wall to catch their breath. Marvelous.
Yesterday Sandy called me to join her on the patio. I got there in time to watch our fledgling wrens leaving their nest hidden in our flower pot. They came out one at a time, like feathery little explosions from a Roman candle. Each flew in the same direction, toward the kitchen door and upper deck where their parents waited to greet them. We’re not sure how many there were. Wrens can have from 3-10 eggs. I accounted for four. Even named them. World, meet our newest additions to Goose Lake!
In order of their appearance, I give you Clueless, Edith Ann, Peeping Tom, and Scaredy Bird.
When they start eating on their own, we’ll have fewer bugs around here.
While the excitement was going on below, above their heads the night crew rested. A few hours later their competitors for insects came on duty. By then the fledglings had settled down to spend their first night alone, without the comforting warmth and protection of mom on top of them.