Remembrances

The Magic of Children's Book Author Clifford B. Hicks (1920-2010)

When I was a kid, I was obsessed with the books of a children’s book author named Clifford B. Hicks. Among other books, he wrote a series of books about a kid named Alvin Fernald, who was sort of the MacGyver of the kid world. With a toothpick, a piece of string, and leftover jelly sandwich, Alvin could build a contraption to save the world. 

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Each book was constructed around a central mystery that took place in Alvin’s small, semi-suburban town in the American midwest. Alvin tackled issues that seem so grown-up in retrospect, but Hicks somehow managed to make them seem “safe” and accessible to kids: corruption in city hall, kidnapping and extortion, stolen industrial plans, and water pollution. Always, in the end, Alvin managed to save the day with the help of his pal Shoie, his kid sister Daphne (aka the Pest), and an arsenal of kooky inventions.

These books enchanted me. More than anything, they seemed to radiate a gentler, more affectionate tone than many of the other books I was reading at the time. The Alvin stories were longer and more sustained than the Encyclopedia Brown mysteries.

Alvin’s world of the ‘60s and ‘70s seemed more modern and realistic than the world of the Hardy Boys’. And unlike the Hardy and Nancy Drew books, the Alvin series was written by a single, real-life author, not a committee of ghostwriters. Hicks seemed to care deeply about the little town of Riverton, Indiana, he’d created, and even cared about the quite serious issues he was writing about. The Wonderful World of Disney, the old Sunday night TV series, once adapted one of the books and brought Alvin to a wider audience. 

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The books inspired me to try to build my own inventions. They were the first books I ever asked a local bookstore to special order for me. After finally locating the seminal book in the series, The Marvelous Inventions of Alvin Fernald (1960), I set about creating my own inventions, just like Alvin, using items from my carefully assembled “inventing box.” You’ll be relieved to know that nothing I ever created has ever made it to the U.S. Patent Office. There’s a reason I’m a writer and not an engineer.

Once, in the mid-1970s, I wrote to the author in care of his publisher (Scholastic pubbed the paperbacks). “Can you send me the plans to a Sure-Shot Paper Slinger?” I inquired. I told him that my brothers and I had a newspaper route, just like Alvin, and that we would love to be able to shoot rolled-up newspapers from the rear of our bicycles onto a customer’s lawn.

To my delight, Hicks wrote back from his home outside Chicago:

“Gosh, Joe, I’m sorry I can’t tell you how to build [one]…When I was a kid, my friends and I made up almost all the other inventions, but I just dreamed up the Paper Slinger without ever building one. If Alvin is clever enough to build it, I’ll bet you are too, Joe! Let me know when you make it work. CBH”

I was over-the-moon-amazed to receive a response from Hicks. It was the first time I’d ever gotten a letter from an author. I have carefully preserved it all these years.

Years later, when I myself was working as an editor at Scholastic, I tried to locate fresh copies of the books and was surprised to find that they were out of print. That bowled me over. If kids were flipping over Harry Potter, why wouldn’t a publisher like my own employer reissue books that followed in a similar vein, about plucky kids with unusual talents who saved the day?

A little digging revealed that the Alvin series ended abruptly in the mid-eighties with the publication of Alvin Fernald, Master of a Thousand Disguises. Used books proliferated on the Internet, with diehard fans rhapsodizing about how much they enjoyed them. Clearly, I was not alone in my affection. Here are some of the tributes, er, reviews I located on Amazon:

“I am 45 years old...my 44-year old-brother came over and talked about how this book changed his life. He read it as a kid and became an inventor of sorts himself...a perpetual tinkerer.”

“The Alvin books were my favorites as a kid. I checked them out from the library repeatedly and devoured them. As a 10 year old, I wanted to hang out with Alvin and Shoie. The books are full of laughs, adventure, and great storytelling. They take us back to small town America, before kids had to deal with grownup problems. If you have a kid, buy this book for him. Buy it used, buy it on eBay, buy it at a used bookstore!”

“When I was about 11 years old, I read many of Alvin’s adventure stories. This book in particular inspired my imagination. I have vivid memories of trying to copy Alvin's inventions! One summer while staying at my grandparents’ camp, I rigged a security device similar to the one in the book so that no one could enter my bedroom. I have been looking for this book for a very long time, as I seem to have lost my copy. It thrills me that these books are listed by Amazon. This book is without a doubt my favourite and I would love to share it with my daughter.”

Some years later, I read that two small publishers were beginning to bring out the old books. I found a website put up by the author’s son and discovered that Clifford Hicks was not only alive and well—now in his late eighties—but living not far from where I’d once lived in the mountains of North Carolina! 

I wrote a second fan letter—thirty years after the first one. I told Hicks that I’d lived for a short time in his neck of the woods, but had moved away, and was now thinking of moving back. A few weeks later I received an email in my inbox. The voice was the same as I remembered from childhood: warm, avuncular, friendly.

“Hi, Joe!

What a lift your letter gave me! I’m delighted, and proud, that you liked my Alvin books so much that you were inspired to become Alvin Fernald.

When I was about 12 years old I became enamored of the Tarzan books, and quite definitely made up my mind to run away from home, go to Africa, and learn to swing from the trees. My three sons have known of this dream for years, and a few days ago one of them gave me a copy of Tarzan of the Apes that he located on the Internet. With some regret I turned the last page of that book this afternoon, just before writing this note to you. The book was just as exciting as it was the first time I read it. A magnificent story—but badly written!

...

In any case it’s incredible that you kept my letter all these years, dragged it to college with you, and still have it.

In a way, I’m flattered that you went into journalism, Joe. You can’t keep me hanging like this. Send me a list of your children’s books, including the one the illustrator is currently working on. Here we are, our paths crossing at least twice in our lives, yet separated by only 20 miles.

Come back to Hendersonville, Joe, so we can actually meet…I’ll never answer another reader’s letter without thinking of you!

I finally did move back. Hicks and I exchanged a few emails but kept postponing our meeting. He was ill for a little while, then entered rehab. He phoned one day to apologize for not being able to meet. And then, before I knew it, he passed away in September of 2010. I was deeply saddened to hear of his passing. He was 90 years old.

Mr. Hicks

Mr. Hicks

I see that you can still link to his old website via the Wayback Machine. I bought a couple of the newly reissued books for one of my nephews, who loved them. The Alvin books marked a turning point in my life as a reader. They were among the last kids’ books I read before making the switch to predominantly books written for adults. In a sense they were the literary dividing line between the adult and the kid world. Hicks’s stories whetted my appetite for mysteries in general. And you could say that when I was through reading his books, I was well prepared for the larger world of adult mystery fiction. 

But, as it turns out, I’m not through with Alvin Fernald. The year before he left us, Hicks published a brand-new Alvin Fernald book, entitled Alvin Fernald’s Incredible Buried Treasure. That title rounds out the Fernald books to a perfect 10. I think of it as a parting gift from the magical Mr. Hicks. And I can’t wait to dig in.

2019 Update: This post appeared on my old blog on August 26, 2011. I’ve since located a couple of other articles about Hicks and his work, here and here. Frankly, the books are still a challenge to find. Amazon carries four or five of the new reissues, but you need to dig for used copies to read the others.


Yes, I am trying to post here more often. Thank you for noticing. If you want to sign up for my newsletter and claim your free ebook, go here. Thanks — Joseph D’Agnese

Remembering Puppeteer Richard Hunt

“I like puppets a lot. I call myself puppet crazy.” So wrote a goofball by the name of Joe D’Agnese, back when he was in elementary school. I can’t actually remember how long that particular obsession lasted, but I know that for a while there every birthday or Christmas meant the addition of a new puppet to my collection—hand puppets and marionettes mostly, culminating with a ventriloquist dummy. (I still have the marionettes. The dummy was probably buried in the Meadowlands by one of my brothers because it kept him awake at night.)

I know I’ve lost most of you but I hasten to point out that puppetry is an ancient performance art that is a honest-to-god career path for many people, even to this day. I learned that to my delight when I was only in second grade, thanks to a man who is no longer with us.

His name was Richard Hunt, and he would have been only about 20 years old when he first visited our classroom in the 1970s to introduce us to his puppets and tell us about his cool new job working for Muppets creator Jim Henson. I can’t recall how Hunt transported his puppets to our school in New Jersey, but I can still picture him sitting on a table against the front windows of our classroom. His hands disappeared for a second into a bag, carrying case, or trunk, and when they emerged they had been transformed into a living breathing character with a personality. We were enthralled.

To us Hunt was a genuine local hero. Unless I’ve got the facts of his background wrong, he’d grown up largely in our hometown. He’d gone to our very own school. He was friends with our teacher, Mrs. Stampa, and I still wonder if she’d been one of his teachers when he was growing up. All of this added up a potent role model. Richard Hunt was a hometown kid like us. He loved puppets! And he had the coolest job ever!

Hunt, via  Muppet.fandom.com

I have racked my brains over the years trying to recall exactly which puppets he brought to our class. I feel like one was called Hairy or Harry, but I can’t know for sure. (I do know that it was a Muppet. The character had that cuddly fabric look all us kids knew from watching Sesame Street in the early ‘70s.) What is less hazy in my memory is how Hunt made each of those characters come to life with a few simple gestures—head shakes, hand movements, a certain twist of the mouth, and Hunt’s own voice. It was magic of the highest order.

The next time I met Hunt he was performing at a friend’s birthday party in our town. Apparently he’d earned money for years doing kid’s parties. And then, one day, while on a visit to New York City, he phoned Henson’s office from a payphone and asked if they could use a puppeteer. As luck would have it, auditions had just opened. One visit to the studio and he was in.

I remember how excited I was to watch The Frog Prince when it aired on TV. It was Hunt’s second Muppet special. Shortly after, he performed in another special, The Muppet Musicians of Bremen. Mrs. Stampa told us all to watch, and we did.

For decades, long after my puppet obsession waned, whenever I watched a Muppet movie or TV show, I’d always scan the credits, waiting for the name of “our” Muppeteer—Richard Hunt, the local boy made good—to appear on screen. I was never disappointed. Hunt’s career with the Muppets was lustrous; he breathed life in so many of the characters we all know and love, like Scooter, Janice, Beaker, Statler, Sweetums, and many others.

And then one day his name disappeared from those credits. Richard Hunt died in 1992 at age 40 from complications related to the HIV/AIDS virus. I don’t think I learned of his passing until many years later, when I saw his name mentioned in a playbill by TOSOS, New York City’s oldest LBGTQ+ theater company. Someone had mounted a tribute to Hunt, who was openly gay.

I had to basically wait until the Internet was a thing before I could easily learn more about his life and career. Only then did I learn that Hunt had more than 60 credits to his name on IMDB. And that his memory was being kept alive by legions of puppetry and Muppet fans in articles such as the ones found here, here and here. By far the richest vein on Hunt’s work comes from the pen of Jessica Max Stein, who is currently at work on a Hunt biography. She’s posted excerpts of the work in progress on her website, and shared interviews with Richard’s Mom, and posted other pieces here and here. I also found a sweet remembrance by Hunt’s work colleague, Kermit the Frog, that brought a smile to my face.

That’s the beautiful thing about puppets, Muppets in particular. They are eternal. They enter our lives when we're young and impressionable, and never quite leave, though the people who brought them to life—Henson, Hunt, among so many others—may have left us. Until Hunt's biography is published, I’ll content myself with stories like these, and the memories of the day I learned it was okay to be puppet crazy.


Yes, I am trying to post here more often. Thank you for noticing. If you want to sign up for my newsletter and claim your free ebook, go here. Thanks — Joseph D’Agnese