writers

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

Two I'll Miss

Two more authors we lost in 2013 that meant something to me.

Elmore Leonard (1925-2013)

I discovered his books when I was just out of college, broke, living with my parents, and working at a crappy magazine company. I picked up a paperback of Glitz, his breakout bestseller, and it was a revelation. I had never “heard” characters talk this way. They seemed familiar, yet wholly original. I would later read an article by Gregg Sutter, Leonard’s researcher, whose job it was to track down and interview people like the ones Leonard wanted to feature in his next book. Leonard insisted that Sutter type up interview transcripts word for word so Leonard could ape the speaking style of his subjects. That’s one aspect the year-end tributes to Leonard rarely mentioned: the almost journalistic, nonfiction reportage that went into his thrillers. Looking back, I realize that Leonard was the first author who taught me the meaning of third-person limited voice. I can’t believe I graduated as an English/journalism major, took a slew of creative writing classes in college, and didn’t know this terminology. In j-school we just said we were “writing from inside the subject’s head or POV.” I loved a lot of Leonard’s books, though I never did get around to reading them all. I was sad to hear of his passing. 

Barbara Mertz (1927-2013)

She wrote mysteries under a number of pseudonyms, the most famous being Elizabeth Peters, but I first discovered Mertz’s nonfiction writing when I was researching an aspect of ancient Egypt for a book I did this year. Professionally she was an Egyptologist, and she wrote with casual confidence of scientific findings in such a way that you felt as if you were on an archaeological dig with a fascinating, elderly aunt of yours. I picked up a number of nonfiction titles about ancient Egypt in the course of my research, but none of them made those long-dead citizens of the Nile come to life as Mertz did. I’m glad I discovered her books. I don’t know that I could have written those few critical chapters of my character’s backstory without the vision of that world which she brought to life for me. Oddly, I remember thinking, “Geez, this writer’s really good. Who is she?” I looked her up online, and checked out her website. A few weeks later I learned that she had died.

Denise Kiernan. That's me.: Happy Pub Day

A post from my wife, Denise Kiernan, whose book, The Girls of Atomic City, is out today.

denisekiernan:

Happy Pub Day

It’s here—that day all authors wait for which, when it finally dawns, is one of the most anticlimactic career events ever, no matter how many times you go through it. Pub day.

Books are a long haul. You get a kernel of an idea, do a little digging and try to decide whether this is a topic you want to live with for years. Then of course there’s the business end of the entire endeavor which, if you’re like me, can’t be ignored if you want to make a living: Can I sell this to a publisher and can that publisher sell it to readers? 

So the kernel sprouts and you decide that you do want to live with the idea until you don’t and then until you can’t live without the idea again. Then there are the proposals and the meetings and all the while you’re trying to keep researching and come up with a clear vision for this project that you’ve already told major publishing corporations you really do have a vision for. Then you get the deal. Relief. Deadlines. A schedule. Sort of. An end date? In a sense, sure. 

You write. You rewrite. You keep researching. You turn in the first draft, which is maybe the most anticlimactic of all the anticlimatices. (New word! It’s one of those vertices you think you’ve reached but feel underwhelmed when you actually do.) You’re still so far from done and you know it. You wait for your editor. You already want to make changes the minute you hit “send” and your manuscript went out into the ether on its way to your editor. That’s fine. Changes are coming.

Your changes. The editor’s changes. Changes from those trusted colleagues you allowed to see your ugly, ugly first draft. Revisions and more drafts follow. The end is so much closer and you know now that the time to really whip things into shape is shrinking fast.

A first look at your cover blows a little wind up your skirt and you get excited again. A cover! It’s real!Do you like it? they ask. You do! You really do! You’re not just saying that to avoid sounding like a moody, picky writer with no design experience. Everyone weighs in. Then polite “suggestions” from the real power-wielders at any publishing house: sales. They don’t like the cover. Am I OK with that? Absolutely. After all, there are bigger fish in this fry-daddy.

First pass pages! Am I done? No. The copy editor has seen it, maybe a proofer.Only make necessary changes…Necessary. Never do writers have more trouble defining such a two-cent word than when they are instructed to make only “necessary” changes.

Pencil marks. Post-its. Use this pencil, not that one. You finish…sort of. You mail it in. You’re done!

No, you’re not.

Promotional materials. Second pass pages and galleys. The book is in print…sort of.Ugh..I could invent a drinking game based on the number of times I used the word (insert favorite adjective here)…I can’t believe I….Can I still change…? Your editor is about to hop on a plane and pry the pages from your cold dead hands. Promotional materials again. Web sites. Meetings. Lists of people you hope will give this book a second look. Finally, there are no more changes to be made. The book is off to the printer.

But you’re still not done. Wrangling for press, emailing, tweeting. Yay! I got a piece in yadda-yadda magazine! Boo! Whozeewhatsit doesn’t want to have me on their show! Yay! Boo! Wine.

Then, finally, on a rainy Tuesday, the book is officially out in the world. Sort of. Actually there has already been press. People have already been tweeting pics of the book after purchasing it BEFORE the pub date from stores that ignore those sort of contractual restrictions. Emails from friends and people I haven’t heard from in a while are, by far, the best part of this day, and I will answer every single one.

However, I’m still not done. I have talks to give, traveling to do, presentations to prepare (clothes to buy…) I open my laptop and try to get back to work. The inter-web sink hole drags me down into the neuro-pacification that is KenKen and I wander over to…

Hang on. What’s that a picture of…? Who isthatShe looks fascinating. She didwhat? When? Huh. You know what would be a great story…

And another kernel sprouts in the dark. Happy pub day.

***

I’ve been watching Denise’s march through the trad pub world with interest, comparing it to my own experiences in self-publishing. I’ll do a post on this shortly. I just want to collect my thoughts on it all.

Denise Kiernan. That's me.: The Next Big Thing

denisekiernan:

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Recently, my husband, author Joseph D’Agnese, “tagged” me in his “The Next Big Thing” blog post. “Next Big Thing” works like this: one writer answers some questions about her next book and then passes that blog post along to other writers she knows, “tagging” them. (See end of this post for…

My Handmade Standing Desk (with thanks to Emily St John Mandel)

After hearing so much about standing desks , I built one out of two wine crates and a set of quaint books I don’t use that much anymore: dictionaries.  I saw that the author Emily St. John Mandel built her own standing desk using cardboard boxes, and I couldn’t resist trying something similar.  I will probably need to raise the screen a little higher.

After hearing so much about standing desks, I built one out of two wine crates and a set of quaint books I don’t use that much anymore: dictionaries.

I saw that the author Emily St. John Mandel built her own standing desk using cardboard boxes, and I couldn’t resist trying something similar.

I will probably need to raise the screen a little higher.