Deem, James M. 1950–
Deem, James M. 1950–
Born January 27, 1950, in Wheeling, WV; son of James M. and Mary Virginia Deem; married Susan Brontman (an elementary school librarian), May 27, 1978; children: Anna, Rachel, David, Chloe. Education: University of Kansas, B.S., 1971; University of Michigan, A.M., 1975, Ph.D., 1981.
Detroit Institute of Technology, Detroit, MI, director of Learning Center, 1976-78; Mohawk Valley Community College, Utica, NY, assistant professor and department chair of developmental studies, 1979-84; John Jay College of Criminal Justice, New York, NY, associate professor of communication skills; full-time writer, 2003—.
Jules and Avery Hopwood Award for writing, University of Michigan, 1975; Outstanding Book for Middle-School Teens, Voice of Youth Advocates, 1994, Books for the Teen Age designation, New York Public Library, and Notable Book in the Language Arts selection, National Council of Teachers of English/Children's Literature Assembly, both 1995, all for 3 NBs of Julian Drew; Honor Book in Science selection, Society of School Librarians International, 1996, for How to Make a Mummy Talk; Washington Irving Children's Book Choice Honor Book, Westchester County, NY, Public Library Association, 1998, for The Very Real Ghost Book of Christina Rose; Nonfiction Honor Book designation, Voice of Youth Advocates, and Notable Book for Children and Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers selections, American Library Association, all 1999, all for Bodies from the Bog; Outstanding Science Trade Book for Students, Na-
tional Science Teachers Association/Children's Book Council, 2005, and Best Books for Young Adults designation, American Library Association, 2006, both for Bodies from the Ash: Life and Death in Ancient Pompeii; the Maricopa County Library District, AZ, project featuring The Mystery Club of Luna Drive was awarded the 2004 Highsmith Library Innovation Award and the 2005 John Cotton Dana Library Public Relations Award.
Frog Eyes Loves Pig, Crosswinds (New York, NY), 1988.
Frogburger at Large (sequel to Frog Eyes Loves Pig), Cora (Hamburg, Germany), 1990.
3 NBs of Julian Drew, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1994.
The Very Real Ghost Book of Christina Rose, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1996.
The Mystery Club of Luna Drive (e-book; online), Maricopa County Library District (Maricopa County, AZ), 2003.
How to Find a Ghost, illustrated by True Kelley, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1988.
How to Catch a Flying Saucer, illustrated by True Kelley, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1991.
How to Hunt Buried Treasure, illustrated by True Kelley, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1992.
Ghost Hunters, illustrated by Michael David Biegel, Avon (New York, NY), 1992.
How to Travel through Time, illustrated by Valerie Constantino, Avon (New York, NY), 1993.
Study Skills in Practice (college textbook), Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1993.
How to Read Your Mother's Mind, illustrated by True Kelley, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1994.
How to Make a Mummy Talk, illustrated by True Kelley, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1995.
Bodies from the Bog, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1998.
Zachary Taylor, MyReportLinks.com (Berkeley Heights, NJ), 2002.
Millard Fillmore, MyReportLinks.com (Berkeley Heights, NJ), 2003.
El Salvador, MyReportLinks.com (Berkeley Heights, NJ), 2004.
Bodies from the Ash: Life and Death in Ancient Pompeii, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2005.
Primary Source Accounts of the Mexican-American War, MyReportLinks.com (Berkeley Heights, NJ), 2006.
Primary Source Accounts of the Revolutionary War, MyReportLinks.com (Berkeley Heights, NJ), 2006.
Bodies from the Ice: Melting Glaciers and the Recovery of the Past, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2008.
Contributor to books, including Classroom Practices in Teaching English, 1980-81: Dealing with Differences, 1980; contributor to periodicals, including Reading Instruction Journal, Journal of Basic Writing, and College Composition and Communication.
James M. Deem is the author of a number of works of nonfiction that have definite kid-appeal due to their intriguing topics. "I have chosen to write about nonfiction subjects that interested me as a child: ghosts, UFOs, treasure, ESP, and mummies," Deem explained on his Home Page. "I've also written about subjects that I discovered as an adult: bog bodies and castles and caves." Among Deem's titles are How to Make a Mummy Talk, Ghost Hunters, and How to Read Your Mother's Mind. In addition to his nonfiction efforts, Deem has authored several novels, among them 3 NBs of Julian Drew, in which he recreated the coded diary of a troubled and abused teen. The work uses what Booklist contributor Karen Simonetti described as an "unusual language that gives the story its power; the words evoke … the courage, hope, and tenacity needed to survive" parental abuse. In Horn Book, Maeve Visser Knoth praised Deem's young adult fiction debut as "a memorable, challenging look at a disturbed, abused adolescent."
Born in 1950 in West Virginia, Deem began writing in the fifth grade. He wrote throughout his school career, working on school newspapers and yearbooks. Deem later became a teacher at the college level before ultimately returning to his passion for writing. When he decided to try his hand at writing for children, he began with ghosts, "because I was petrified of them when I was little," he explained on his Home Page. In books such as Ghost Hunters and How to Find a Ghost, Deem helps kids overcome the fear of ghosts that he himself had as a child. Containing true stories culled from the experiences of professional ghost-finders, Ghost Hunters focuses on cases of hauntings all over the world. The companion volume, How to Find a Ghost, helps aspiring ghost hunters learn where specters are most frequently sighted, describes six different types of ghosts, and details how to go on a ghost hunt and document their findings. A detailed bibliography is also included.
In addition to nonfiction about ghostly visitations, Deem has also published a fictional work in which two young people battle an otherworldly presence. The Very Real Ghost Book of Christina Rose is the diary of a ten-year-old girl who, along with her twin brother and father, moves to an old Victorian house in the small town of North Klondike, California, several years after her mother dies in a plane crash. While continuing to be visited by her mother's ghost, Christina now believes she is being haunted by several otherworldly tenants at her new house. Fortunately, Christina's new neighbors include a psychic and a professor of paranormal activity, and the diary in which she writes down all strange activity is the result. Praising the novel's intriguing plot in a review for the School Library Journal, Darcy Schild added that the author "does a marvelous job of creating and sustaining believable and unique voices for the characters." Noting that Deem "leaves several loose ends for readers to ponder," Kay Weisman praised the novel in her Booklist review, noting that its "generally humorous tone" would make it popular with young readers.
Another childhood interest that found fruition in Deem's written work is flying saucers. In How to Catch a Fly-ing Saucer Deem teaches readers to distinguish alien communications from radio static, learn about actual UFO sightings made around the world, and also become reliable UFO witnesses by learning to describe and draw the strange objects they see in the sky.
Praised by a Kirkus Reviews critic as "an entertaining and informative treatment of a fascinating subject," How to Read Your Mother's Mind focuses on the so-called "sixth sense" of extra-sensory perception, or ESP, which many young readers who have anticipated the call "Clean Your Room! Now!" can identify with. Including accounts of reported ESP experiences, Deem also provides readers with experiments to test the ESP abilities of friends and family. Reviewing How to Read Your Mother's Mind for Booklist, Ilene Cooper praised Deem's approach as "extremely evenhanded." The book provides "opposing viewpoints and experiments that allow kids to test their own ESP powers and draw their own conclusions," noted Cooper.
Although How to Travel through Time provides accounts of people who claim to have had time-travel experiences, Deem has turned to the study of history as a way to examine the past. How to Make a Mummy Talk discusses the way different cultures have preserved their dead—including ice, bogs, and sand—and uses an indepth discussion of Egypt's mummies to change readers' perspectives of these bandage-wrapped bodies from "being gross curiosities to being witnesses of past history," according to Booklist contributor Mary Harris Veeder. Praising the book for sparking interest in "budding Egyptologists and physical anthropologists," Veeder also commended the use of line drawings by True Kelley rather than photographs to accompany the text. Deborah Stevenson also remarked upon the illustrations in her Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books review, calling the combination of text and drawings "lively and illuminating" and predicting that readers will be "tickled by this trip to the tombs." In School Library Journal, contributor Cathryn A. Camper praised How to Make a Mummy Talk as a "thorough, not-for-the-squeamish portrait of what it takes to become mummified."
Bodies from the Bog, called "fascinating, if gruesome" by Horn Book contributor Elizabeth S. Watson, examines the intermittent discovery, over the last four centuries, of preserved corpses dating from 4500 B.C. in peat bogs located throughout the British Isles, Scandinavia, and Western Europe. Deem discusses not only the forensic investigations that have determined the cause of death of these individuals as everything from stabbings to sacrifice, but also reveals a good deal about the science of peat bogs and the region's ancient cultures by explaining the significance of items found near the graves. Calling Deem's text "exceptionally well-organized and riveting," Cooper noted that "leathery faces staring eyelessly over the centuries are the images that will stick with young readers."
Bodies from the Ash: Life and Death in Ancient Pompeii is a history of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79 and an account of the recovery of the artifacts and remains that were unearthed beginning in the eighteenth century. The book explains how scientists have been able to reconstruct the bodies of people whose skeletons have been exhumed by filling in the spaces between the hot ash that covered them and their bones. Plaster molds reveal what these people may have experienced in their final moments and provide a clearer understanding of the tragedy. School Library Journal contributor Jodi Kearns wrote that "with incredibly engrossing images and narrative, this is a powerful and poignant piece of nonfiction." Kathleen Baxter, also writing for School Library Journal, felt "Deem shows us these unfortunate Romans, and gives us a little frisson of horror as we gaze in fascination at these ancient bodies." Margaret A. Bush of Horn Book called Bodies from the Ash a "handsome introduction to the destruction of Pompeii."
Deem's The Mystery Club of Luna Drive was commissioned by the Maricopa County Library District in Arizona to be available only online. Tim Wadham, who is the children's services coordinator for the library, wrote in Horn Book that "it wasn't enough to publish any story online. It had to be something appropriate to the online format and also something that would keep kids wanting to come back over a period of time." Wadham commented that they decided on a mystery featuring Arizona kids and had a general idea of how the story would be written. He had met Deem, who lived in Arizona, and the author agreed to work on the project. A grant was secured to fund the project and a format was selected that worked well online. Links were added for children and teachers, including one that describes how the award-winning project was created. Wadham concluded by saying that "there is a great deal of potential in the online format, both for the kinds of stories that might be best told and read on a computer screen and for the ways that digital technology can influence how a story can be created and presented. And this is only the beginning of the possibilities to explore."
Deem followed this experience by working with MyReportLinks.com to produce two books of primary source documents, each with supplementary online material: Primary Source Accounts of the Mexican-American War and Primary Source Accounts of the Revolutionary War. The books in the series, made available through the publisher's Web site, offer a short overview of the war, integrating journal entries, letters, and recollections into the text. "As primary sources are continually given more importance in classrooms across the country, informational books will need to keep pace, and these titles are solid additions," Jody Kopple wrote in School Library Journal.
In researching his books, Deem has been surprised at the lack of first-hand records of significant occurrences in the past, that "few people—especially children— wrote down their observations about daily life," he once commented. "One of the historical events I read about was the opening of the longest suspension bridge in the world (at that time) around 1850, in Wheeling, West Virginia. It took years to build. For the opening ceremony, the bridge was specially lit by 1,000 oil lights; it was lined with horse-drawn carriages carrying thousands of people. Famous politicians came to talk to the people gathered there, and a fancy banquet was held. And it appears that not one person wrote about this experience, except the reporter for the local newspaper."
Deem explained to Juanita Havill in an interview published on Underdown.org the difference in how he approaches his fiction and nonfiction. "When I think of an idea for a book, I know immediately whether it will be fiction or nonfiction. I suppose that initial determination depends on whether I want to stick to the facts or rely on my imagination. For example, when I get a nonfiction idea, I usually have come across some information that is so compelling I must share the entire truth of it with children. By information, I mean a true story that completely fascinates the child in me." He went on to say, "With fiction, my ideas also tend to begin with a true story … but my interest is not the facts of the story itself, but the feelings and emotions that the characters bring to the story and that the events of the story produce (both in the characters and the reader). My fiction is much more about emotion and tone than it is about plot."
Regarding his chosen vocation, Deem once offered this advice to young people: "I think it's important to decide, as I did, that you are going to be a writer. Don't worry about whether you will get published or not, just start writing. Keep a daily record of writing. Don't write down what you do, write down what you think, what you feel, what you see, what you experience. Don't ask your parents for the latest game or video, ask them for a blank book with pages meant to be filled with your writing. If one child who was at the opening of that suspension bridge had written what he or she had seen, it might have helped people have a better sense of history."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Booklinks, January, 2008, Isabel Schon, review of Primary Source Accounts of the Mexican-American War, p. 50.
Booklist, September 15, 1992, Carolyn Phelan, review of How to Hunt Buried Treasure, p. 143; March 1, 1994, Ilene Cooper, review of How to Read Your Mother's Mind, p. 1256; October 15, 1994, Karen Simonetti, review of 3 NBs of Julian Drew, p. 418; September 15, 1995, Mary Harris Veeder, review of How to Make a Mummy Talk, p. 155; May 1, 1996, Kay Weisman, review of The Very Real Ghost Book of Christina Rose, p. 1506; May 15, 1998, Ilene Cooper, review of Bodies from the Bog, p. 1624; November 1, 2005, Ilene Cooper, review of Bodies from the Ash: Life and Death in Ancient Pompeii, p. 39.
Book Report, September-October, 1994, Allison M. Smith, review of How to Read Your Mother's Mind, p. 57; March-April, 1995, Ruth E. Dishnow, review of 3 NBs of Julian Drew, p. 35.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, October, 1995, Deborah Stevenson, review of How to Make a Mummy Talk, p. 50; June, 1998, Elizabeth Bush, review of Bodies from the Bog, p. 357.
Horn Book, March-April, 1995, Maeve Visser Knoth, review of 3 NBs of Julian Drew, p. 199; July-August, 1998, Elizabeth S. Watson, review of Bodies from the Bog, p. 508; September-October, 2005, Tim Wadham, "Online Intrigue in an Arizona Library," p. 537; January-February, 2006, Margaret A. Bush, review of Bodies from the Ash, p. 99.
Kirkus Reviews, March 1, 1994, review of How to Read Your Mother's Mind, p. 302; March 1, 1996, review of The Very Real Ghost Book of Christina Rose, p. 372; October 15, 2005, review of Bodies from the Ash, p. 1135.
Kliatt, September, 2004, Myra Marler, review of 3 NBs of Julian Drew, p. 19.
Language Arts, November, 2006, review of Bodies from the Ash, p. 203.
Publishers Weekly, October 24, 1994, review of 3 NBs of Julian Drew, p. 62.
School Library Journal, November, 1988, Elaine E. Knight, review of How to Find a Ghost, p. 119; September, 1991, Leslie Chamberlin, review of How to Catch a Flying Saucer, p. 263; October, 1992, Suzanne Lippencott, review of How to Hunt Buried Treasure, p. 126; July, 1994, Patricia A. Sarles, review of How to Read Your Mother's Mind, p. 106; October, 1994, Kathy Fritts, review of 3 NBs of Julian Drew, p. 142; September, 1995, Cathryn A. Camper, review of How to Make a Mummy Talk, p. 207; May, 1996, Darcy Schild, review of The Very Real Ghost Book of Christina Rose, p. 112; April, 1998, Patricia Manning, review of Bodies from the Bog, p. 144; December, 2005, Jodi Kearns, review of Bodies from the Ash, p. 164; March, 2006, Kathleen Baxter, "I See Dead People," p. 51; April, 2007, Jody Kopple, review of Primary Source Accounts of the Revolutionary War, p. 156.
Science Books and Films, January-February, 2007, John E. Dockall, review of Bodies from the Ash, p. 28.
Voice of Youth Advocates, February, 2007, Angela Carstensen, review of Primary Source Accounts of the Revolutionary War, p. 557.
Washington Post Book World, December 11, 2005, Karen MacPherson, review of Bodies from the Ash, p. 13.
James M. Deem Home Page,http://www.jamesmdeem.com (May 6, 2008).
Underdown.org,http://www.underdown.org/ (May 6, 2008), Juanita Havill, interview with the author.
James M. Deem
James M. Deem contributed the following autobiographical essay to SATA:
The Many Lives of James M. Deem
When I was little, I had no idea that people could grow up to become writers. I wanted to be a cowboy or a police officer and later an astronaut.
As my childhood progressed, many mysterious and sometimes unexpected things happened that changed my outlook on life. Looking back now, I can see that these childhood events pushed me towards a writing career. But my story is not an easy one to tell, and it is best told in different ways.
A Short Summary of My Life
I was born in Wheeling, West Virginia, and raised there for the first eleven years of my life. My mother, Mary Virginia, had wanted to be Shirley Temple when she was little but went to secretarial school instead. She dropped out after a short time and became a 1950s housewife, eventually having four children, two boys and two girls; I was the oldest. My father, James Sr., enlisted in the Navy near the end of World War II and used his skills to land a post-war job with the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. He worked nights as a dispatcher, communicating with train engineers by telegraph, telling them when to pull off on a siding or when to speed ahead.
The first house I knew was on Leatherwood Lane. It was a roomy (and sometimes scary) old place with a large attic and a secret passage between my closet and my parents' closet. It featured an impressive stairway leading to the second floor. Every night at bedtime, my parents would tell me, "Time to climb the golden stairs." Somehow that made bedtime much more appealing, and I gladly ascended the golden stairs each night. Then we would gaze out my bedroom window, looking for stars. When we found one, my mother would sing what became a lullaby for me, "When You Wish Upon a Star."
We moved to Pleasant Drive when I was five. It was a smaller house, built just for us, in a Wheeling neighborhood called Dimmeydale. Although the house itself was much more ordinary, the neighborhood was larger and offered more places that I could explore with my friends: a large wood, a creek, a city playground, and a huge cemetery with acres and acres of tombstones and tombs. It was on Pleasant Drive that my father taught me to garden, growing gladiolas and watermelons. It was on Pleasant Drive that my mother cooked all of my favorite foods: potato salad, deviled eggs, baked beans, and chocolate cake. It was on Pleasant Drive that I marched in the annual Fourth of July costume parade with my little sisters and brother.
Other than my parents and my siblings, the most important people in my young life were my grandmother and great-grandmother, Ardis and Merley, on my mother's side of the family. Although they lived ninety miles away in Parkersburg, they visited frequently, bringing us toys and treats and clothes that were much too fancy for children. Sometimes they would accompany us on family vacations to Myrtle Beach or St. Augustine. Though they weren't rich, they helped my parents buy our two Wheeling houses. We often went to their house, spending occasional weekends and sometimes entire weeks there in the summer. When we were in residence there, my grandmother and great-grandmother received frequent visits from their relatives and friends, from sniffling, squeaky-voiced aunts who baked bread from scratch to history-loving neighbors who helped us hunt for arrowheads and other treasures. I learned a lot about people whenever I was there.
When I was eleven, we moved to Arizona where I encountered new neighborhoods and friends. I went to college, earned three degrees, and eventually became a college professor. I married my wife, Susan, and we had four children, two at a time. After our first set of twins was born, I published my first book in 1988, How to Find a Ghost, with Houghton Mifflin. That led to my career as a children's author.
But, of course, there is much more to the story of my life.
Childhood, Part 1: A Haunted Imagination
One of the things that steered me toward a career in writing was that old house on Leatherwood Lane. It ignited my overactive imagination. Once that fire was lit, it was never extinguished.
As soon as I was old enough to understand such things, I came to believe that I was being raised in a haunted house. Not only did it have a large and scary attic, my bedroom had a secret passage. It didn't matter that the small door in my closet (just tall enough for me) led to the back of my parents' closet; it was the idea that some short, unknown creature could steal into my bedroom at night from the dark recesses of my parents' closet and … I had no clue what the creature would do, but it scared me just the same. I spent a great deal of time worrying about the passage and why it was there. What short creature had it been built for? And was that short creature still lurking in the shadows of my house?
Although our new house on Pleasant Drive was completely safe, my imagination could conjure all sorts of dangers creeping after dark. Soon after we moved in, I began a nightly "ghost check." I had to look behind my bedroom door, beneath my bed, and in my closet. My mother hung extra dresses and overcoats in the back of my closet, so I had to bend down each night and make certain that no ghostly legs stood behind the clothes. Once I had observed that the closet was safe, I shut the closet door tightly, making certain that it would not pop open in the middle of the night and scare me to death. Often, I would sleep with the light on as my imagination contemplated the awful ghosts that might haunt my room.
No matter what precautions I took, mysterious and scary things still happened to me. One of the worst was my encounter with aliens from outer space. It happened like this:
When I was seven, my grandmother gave me a Victrola, an old-fashioned wind-up record player that also housed a broken radio. I didn't care about the radio; I just wanted to play my favorite 45-rpm records. I loved "How Much Is that Doggie in the Window?" by Patti Page and "Tiger Rag" by Spike Jones. I played them over and over again, much to my parents' dismay.
One night, after I had checked for ghosts and my parents had tucked me into bed, I began to hear murmurs. At first I thought it was the reassuring voices of my parents watching television downstairs. Then, as my ears strained to make out the words, I realized that the murmurs did not belong to my parents at all. I was hearing voices all right. They were faint and odd and very low—and they were coming from somewhere in my room!
I could barely breathe. I threw off the covers, jumped out of bed, and opened my door. I almost slipped on the carpeted stairs as I raced down to the den.
"It's … something … from … outer space," I told my parents breathlessly. "It's in my room."
"There is nothing from outer space in your room," my father said, as if he had experienced this scene many times before.
"But I heard it! It's more than one. I can hear them talking!"
"Go back upstairs," my mother said patiently. "I'll tuck you in. Now march up those golden stairs!"
When she had put me back to bed, she sat beside me quietly.
"See? There's no noise," she reassured me.
I strained to hear anything, but the room was quiet.
"Now go to sleep," she said, kissing me on the cheek. "You let your imagination scare you."
Then she left, and all was silent. I got comfortable and took a deep breath. Maybe, I thought, I could fall asleep after all. My ears remained on high alert, but I couldn't detect any further strange sounds. After a few minutes more, I began to relax and feel safe.
Then the invisible voices started again. I rushed back downstairs. I don't know how many times the scene repeated itself that night. I was put to bed again and again, only to return when I heard the voices. Eventually, with every light illuminated in my bedroom, I fell asleep exhausted by my constant state of panic.
The next morning, as bright daylight streamed into my bedroom, I finally discovered what had made the noises. The radio that was part of the Victrola had somehow begun to work; I had heard the low, murmuring voices of people talking on the airwaves. I was relieved, but only temporarily as other imaginary ideas filled my mind.*
Perhaps the scariest place of all was the house where my grandmother Ardis lived, not only because of the appearance of the house but also because of the events that had happened there.
She lived in an unusual old house built on the side of a steep hill. Although it was two-stories tall, the front door was on the second floor. That's where the living room, the always dark and spooky back living room, and the three bedrooms were located. Downstairs were the only bathroom, the dining room, the kitchen (with a dungeon-like cellar behind it), and the always-closed room at the bottom of the stairs.
Her house made noises. It ticked with the sound of antique wind-up, pendulum swinging clocks in almost every room. Tick tock. Tick tock. Each room had its own ticking sound, like a special heartbeat.
Her house also made other sounds. Because it was so old and built so differently than houses of today, the furnace was about six feet below a large grate near the bottom of the stairs. The blue pilot light was on all year, looking up at me like a Cyclops every time I walked to the kitchen or dining room. In colder months, the furnace clicked and roared and sighed when it kicked on. The hot air that it produced would rise up through the grate, up the stairwell, to the second floor. There was no such thing as central heating; the only heat came from the furnace and gas fireplaces in almost every room.
By nightfall in fall or winter or spring, the ticking and clicking, the roaring and sighing, made the house seem very alive. Too alive for me, especially when I had to go downstairs to use the bathroom at night. There was only one light at the top of the stairs and only darkness at the foot of the long and very narrow staircase. This was the most terrifying place in my young imagination.
With every step that I inched closer to the bottom of the stairs, all I saw, all I could think about was the closed door directly ahead of me. Behind it, I imagined that there must be a swarm of ghosts and monsters, waiting to grab me and pull me into an unknown world. From the next to last step, I would jump to my right, into the bathroom. I would run to the center of the room, pull the cord on the overhead light, quickly shut the door and bolt it. Then I could heave a sigh. I had made it past the closed door one more time.
When I was finished, I would unlatch the door and open it. I would grab the cord from the overhead light with my right hand and walk toward the bathroom door. At the same time I would reach over with my left hand until I felt the flush lever on the toilet. Then, at the same time, I would flush the toilet and pull the light cord. Next I would scramble up the stairs as fast as I could before anything behind the closed door could grab me.
It was no wonder that I liked one of my grandmother's holdovers from her ancestors. They had emigrated from England sometime in the 1700s, bringing with them many business and agriculture skills—and chamber pots. By the time I was born, the family no longer owned any business or farmland, but the antiquated chamber pots were still around. Knowing what lay in wait for me at the foot of her stairs, I was thrilled that my grandmother still employed chamber pots during the night. There was one under her bed and one under my bed whenever I came to visit. Besides being saved from nighttime terrors, the next best part of her chamber pots was that she didn't mind cleaning them the next morning.
One day to my surprise, my grandmother opened the forbidden door downstairs. As she stood there, guarding me from monsters, I poked my head through the opening and saw boxes and boxes stacked from the floor to almost the ceiling.
"What's all that?" I asked, surprised to see something so ordinary.
"My parents owned a millinery shop for a time. They made hats. This is the merchandise they had when they closed it up." Then she lifted the lid of a box and
showed me the spools of ribbons inside. "This is the trim they used to make hats. It's all that's left."*
One mystery was solved but one more was about to begin.
The second scariest place in her house was the back living room, where the shades were always drawn. The room was dark because that was where the television was. I would only let myself watch TV in that room, though, if my grandmother was upstairs. Otherwise, the darkened room was too scary, with its framed portraits of old, dead relatives hanging on the walls, gazing down at me.
One day when I was visiting, I was seated on the green damask sofa in that shadowy room, watching television and feeling perfectly safe as my grandmother read the paper in the next room. For some reason, she got up and walked in to the back living room. She took a careful look at me and announced, "That's exactly where your great grandfather was sitting when he died."
Panicked by her news, I forgot all about the television show I was watching.
"What do you mean?"
"He had a heart attack and died in that very spot. One night after dinner he wasn't feeling well, and he came upstairs. That's where we found him a while later."
I looked around, scanning the dark corners of the room, as if he might still be there.
"Then what happened?"
"Why, we called the undertaker. He prepared the body right here and put it in a coffin in the center of this room for the funeral."
"You had a funeral in your house?"
"It was a long time ago. That's how things were done then." She pointed to a place where an innocent coffee table stood. "That's where his coffin rested."
In my mind, I could picture the coffin with my great-grandfather's body as if it were actually there. I knew I would never be able to fall asleep that night … or many other nights if I let my imagination begin to wander. Of course, I couldn't stop it. What if my great-grandfather's ghost haunted the house? That night I slept with the light on, facing the doorway, my ghost radar on high frequency.
That experience had a profound effect on me. I realized that my grandmother liked to tell stories, a trait that she passed on to me. I also realized that the past is always present, even if you'd rather not think about it.
Childhood, Part 2: A Writer's Beginnings
I didn't begin to write stories until the fifth grade, and that came as quite a surprise to me.
My elementary teachers would never have picked me to become a writer. I wasn't a particularly good student during my early school years. I hated reading in first grade because it had to be done out loud. I was a shy child, and the thought of reading aloud in round robin style petrified me. I was in the Bluebird Reading Group
at school. When it was my turn, I would stutter and stumble and make so many mistakes that I am certain my teacher thought that I couldn't read at all. Still, I progressed to second grade, where I was forced to read aloud for another year.
Then came third grade and silent reading, the year in which I truly learned to love reading. I discovered mystery books, starting with the Hardy Boys, and began to read as many as I could. I could finish one in an afternoon. Before long I had collected every Hardy Boys book available and proudly displayed them on shelves in my bedroom bookcase.
Writing, though, did not interest me in elementary school. Writing meant handwriting until the fourth grade. My early schoolteachers spent a great deal of time teaching the Palmer Method of Penmanship. We bought special pens and used wide-lined paper and practiced longhand O's until we could make chains of them running from one margin to the other. For me, writing was boring.
In fourth and fifth grades, teachers began talking about grammar and sentence diagramming. We did plays in class about the parts of speech (I was the preposition one time), and we learned to deconstruct sentences in elaborate charts. This new type of writing was too much work.
The only other type of writing that we did up through fifth grade was copying. I had a copy notebook into which I would write every perfect sentence and every perfect paragraph that the teacher wrote on the board.
"This is an example of a wonderful paragraph," my fifth-grade teacher told the class one day. "I hope you will be able to write a paragraph as good as this one day. Now write it in your copy notebook please."
I sighed and began to copy.*
My thoughts about writing changed halfway through fifth grade, around the time that I turned ten. The transformation had nothing to do with my teacher or any assignment that she made. Instead, it had everything to do with my imagination and my need to use it. Sometime that winter, on a cold and snowy day, I was inspired to try writing my first story—just for my own pleasure.
Every Saturday morning, no matter what the weather, I would go out to play with my friends. Our neighborhood bordered a large wooded area, which was our favorite place to play. We had built a fort from a fallen tree that had been hit by lightning. Termites had invaded it, making its core soft and pliable. We carved its insides into rooms and played imaginary games there.
That Saturday morning, a light snow had fallen the night before, and the ground was covered with a few inches of fresh powder. I ran to the edge of the woods where we would meet. All of my friends were there, except John, the biggest jokester of us all. As we waited for him, I noticed a set of footprints—what I thought were footprints—pressed into the snow, heading into the woods. Those were John's footprints, I reasoned, and I knew just what he was up to: he had arrived first and gone into the woods where he was planning on jumping out to scare us.
I pointed out the footprints and told my friends of my suspicions. We devised a plan to surprise John by sneaking up on him and then, stealthily, began to follow the tracks into the woods. That's when I took another look at the footprints and realized that they weren't human at all. For a few moments, I considered the possibility that they were animal tracks, but they didn't look as if any animal that lived in our woods had made them. So my imagination veered to one startling conclusion: an alien from outer space had made them.
Such an idea may sound a little strange now, but at that time in my life news reports were filled daily with information about the first satellites and astronauts circling Earth. Every night I would hear more accounts on the TV news about the possibility of life in outer space, and every weekend a new movie about creatures that invaded planet Earth would open at my neighborhood movie theater. As soon as I took a hard look at the tracks in the snow, I knew I was right.
I told my friends what I thought: a creature from outer space was heading back to his crashed spaceship. We inspected the line of strange tracks heading for the furthest part of the woods, the part we weren't supposed to go to, the part that was too far from home. Our mothers had made it clear that we weren't to go there, for reasons they never explained. In the summer, on bright sunny days, we had ignored their advice and played there anyway. But on this gray, dark, and dismal morning—faced with the possibility of an alien encounter—we weren't about to go any farther. Suddenly, it was time to go home for lunch or appointments.
But the experience had triggered something in my mind. For the short time that we had followed the tracks, I had realized that this had all the makings of a good mystery, a mystery that I would have wanted to read. I also had another thought: I could write that story because it was happening to me. Suddenly, a title for the mystery flashed in my brain as if it were lit by neon lights: "The Strange Tracks Mystery." I didn't dare tell my friends about any of this, because they wouldn't have understood. I didn't really understand it myself, since I had never done any real writing at school. I only knew that this idea was too good to ignore.
When I went home that day, I pulled out a new spiral notebook and began to write a chapter book. I wrote to the bottom of the first page; I seemed to know exactly what I wanted my story to say. Then I turned the page and ran out of words at the top of page two. I knew I had a good idea, but I had no way of writing an entire story. I gave up and threw the notebook under my bed.
I didn't try to write any further stories until I was almost finished with sixth grade. I completed two stories then. One was about monsters from outer space, but the subject of the second story would be quite different.
Childhood, Part 3: A Swimming Pool Day
Sometimes life changes unexpectedly.
On the first day of summer vacation after fifth grade I had planned to go swimming at the city park with my friends. I wasn't much of a swimmer then, but we never swam much anyway. Mostly, we played catch in the shallower part of the pool. That day, when my friends headed to the snack bar at one point, I decided to see how far I could walk into the deep end. At first it was easy, then I stood on my tiptoes and inched into deeper water. The problem was that I was well away from the pool's edge—and safety. In a careless moment, I took another step, and my mouth filled with water. I was too afraid to sink back to the bottom and push myself up and back into shallower water. I sputtered and swallowed water, at the same time realizing that I was going to drown. I flailed my arms in panic and hit someone's shoulder. I grabbed it and pushed myself toward the edge of the pool where I was gasped for breath. I looked for my friends. They were leaving the snack bar. The clock above them read 2:30.
I pushed myself out of the pool and walked over to them. I told them that I had almost drowned, but they didn't take me seriously and quickly jumped into the pool. I followed but stayed in the shallow water. Everything went back to normal. We crushed up a Dixie cup and played catch again.
And then time stopped.
John's mother was unexpectedly standing at the edge of the pool wearing street clothes, waiting to take us home. We didn't understand. We were supposed to be at the pool all day. It was still early. I wondered if something was wrong, but no one asked any questions, and John's mother didn't offer any explanation.
At home I went upstairs to hang up my towel and swimming suit in the bathroom. Then I walked into my bedroom. My father was sitting on my bed, waiting to tell me that my mother was dead.
My mother died of colon cancer on June 1, 1960; that date was also her thirty-fourth birthday. I found out that she had taken her last breath around 2:30 that afternoon, the same time that I had almost drowned. Somehow my mind interpreted the two events in the only way it could: I had escaped death by causing my mother's death. If she had lived that day, I surely would have drowned in the city park pool.
In the days that followed, as friends and strangers filled our house to talk about my mother, they seemed to watch me wondering how I felt. The more they observed me, the more I couldn't talk at all. It was too painful to even pronounce the word "mother." For reasons that I never understood, I had developed a strong sense of privacy. I knew how I felt, but I knew that it wasn't anybody's business, no matter how well intentioned they were. I tried to tell a few people that I had almost drowned that day but no one seemed to understand. I stopped trying.
One of the most distressing parts of her death was that I had not been told that my mother was dying. As was customary at the time, that fact was kept from my siblings and me because the truth might be too upsetting. I knew that my mother had had two operations over the span of a year. I knew that she had gone to the hospital, and each time had come home looking very frail. After the last operation, during Christmas vacation of fifth grade, she had stayed in bed for weeks. Then she began to get sicker, especially after eating. She would vomit almost anything she ate. I didn't understand what was happening, but I knew I didn't like it. More than anything, I didn't like the sound of retching, and if I were nearby when she asked for the metal washtub, I would run into another room and cover my ears and pray that she would stop making that terrible sound.
During my entire fifth-grade year, I was told that there was nothing to worry about. Now I know that it's no wonder I invented the story of the alien in the woods sometime that winter, as my mother vomited in her bedroom. My imagination took me away from the terrible reality that no one would share with me.
Childhood, Part 4: A Royal Typewriter
My imagination couldn't help me much in the months immediately after my mother's death. That summer, I retreated from life. Nothing was the same, not even
playing with my friends. They all knew my mother had died, and I sensed that they were treating me differently. Playing had become hard work, and it was no fun. I stayed indoors and watched a lot of television.
In early September, as sixth grade began, my grandmother gave me a gift of an old Royal typewriter so that I could impress my teacher with typed reports, the first real writing assignments that I had in school. I wasn't very good at typing for a long time, but that typewriter would become my most valuable possession.
Not long after, my father announced that he was going on a date. It was the night of the Miss America pageant, a show we had always watched together as a family. My father left, and I watched it with my babysitter, Pam. A week later, he asked how I would feel if he married the woman. She had two children younger than me and two white cats. I didn't like the idea at all, but I said, "I don't care." I sensed that it didn't matter what I said.
Within another month, they were married. None of my mother's relatives were invited, including my grandmother and great-grandmother. They no longer got along with my father; they weren't happy that he had chosen to get married so soon after my mother died. Only a few people attended the small ceremony, includ- ing my sisters and brother, my new stepbrother, stepsister, and stepgrandmother. The only good thing about it was that I got out of school early one afternoon.*
Daily life went haywire. My stepbrother became my roommate; my stepmother established new rules about bedtimes and meals. New vegetables began to appear on my dinner plate: Brussels sprouts, squash, kale, Swiss chard. My stepbrother had a very clever technique for dealing with unwanted produce; he would put the hated vegetables in his mouth and then excuse himself to the bathroom where he would spit them into the toilet. I wasn't that clever; I simply refused to eat certain foods that revolted me.
The new rules, according to my stepmother, stated that any child who did not eat all of the food served him would be sent to his room for the evening. I was shocked that she insisted on punishing me for not eating something on my plate; this had never happened when my mother was alive. At first, I stubbornly refused. When my stepmother insisted that I go to my room, I cried and pleaded with her. But my stepmother would drag me upstairs. Often my father was at work. Even when he was there, he sat silently, allowing her to have her way.
One night, as I sat in my room after failing to eat my Brussels sprouts or fried cabbage, a man came to visit. I could hear him walking through the house, as he looked at each room. Suddenly there was a knock at my bedroom door. I was embarrassed for anyone to see me, since my room had become more like a jail cell. My stepgrandmother opened the door and let the man peer into the room.
"Don't mind him," she told the man. "He's being punished."
The man smiled at me.
I stared back at him, my eyes imploring him to rescue me from the insanity.
"This is a nice bedroom," the man said.
Then he left, and my stepgrandmother shut the door. Later, after the man had gone, when I tried to leave my room to find out what was happening, I couldn't open the door. My stepgrandmother had tied a rope around the doorknob and secured it to another door across the hall. No matter how hard I pulled, I couldn't get the door open. The next day I found out what my father and stepmother were planning. The railroad was leaving Wheeling, and my father would have to find a new job. Instead of finding one in Wheeling, he and my stepmother had decided to move the family to Arizona. They were trying to sell our house and had never even told us.
We were warned not to tell anyone that we were moving. We were also told that we would not be able to bring much more than our clothing. This meant that my prized collection of mystery books would have to be left behind. Reluctantly, I typed up a list of my books and took it to school, circulating it among my classmates. BOOKS FOR SALE, the heading read. Whenever anyone asked why I was selling my books, I replied that I didn't want them anymore.
On the day of our secret move, my father brought home a large U-Haul trailer. He and my stepmother had been filling boxes for weeks. Now they began to pack the trailer with furniture and belongings. By the time we were ready to leave that early April night, the trailer was full, and the curb was lined with the possessions that wouldn't fit. The garbage truck would pick them up in a few days. Strewn amid the old clothes and toys and pictures were family photo albums and books that had belonged to my mother. There seemed to be more things left behind than packed, but I couldn't do anything about it. I was lucky that I managed to talk my father into taking my typewriter. Within a month, it was going to save my life.
Childhood, Part 5: Food for Thought
As we drove across the country, my sense of disorientation grew. All we children knew was that our destination was Tucson, Arizona. When we arrived two weeks later, we stayed in a motel. After a week or so, we moved into a three-bedroom house and enrolled in school.
Our new house was much too small. My blended family was overflowing. My brother, my stepbrother, and I shared one bedroom; my sisters and stepsister shared another. My father and stepmother were in the third bedroom. When he was born in July, my half-brother was placed in the family room with my stepgrandmother.
From the start, my father's new job required him to travel. He left on Monday mornings and rarely came home until Friday evening. This left my stepmother and stepgrandmother completely in charge of the house and the children.
Because my father's salary had to feed ten people, portions for the children were small, and my stepbrother and I were often hungry. I had always been allowed to have as much food as I had wanted before; now we were rationed to one small serving. Sometimes dinner would be pancakes; sometimes it was beans cooked with a hambone. When I was hungry, I would put a spoonful of sugar in my mouth and savor the sweet taste as long as I could. My stepbrother had a different approach. Late at night, he would sneak out of our bedroom after everyone had gone to sleep and take food from the kitchen. No one seemed to notice.
One weeknight, while my father was away, he took a bag of chocolate chips and ate them.
The next morning my stepmother discovered that the chips were missing. Without a moment's thought, she named me as the thief. I told her that I hadn't taken them. When she kept accusing me, I confessed that my stepbrother had taken them. She refused to believe that her son had stolen the chips.
That night a lock was installed on the outside of our bedroom door. When it was bedtime, my brother, my stepbrother and I were locked inside our room with an empty three-pound Maxwell House coffee can for a toilet.
I was so shocked by this punishment that I didn't even bother to argue. This was a time well before 911 calls and child abuse hotlines. This was a time when children did what their parents said to do without questioning. And yet, inside I was questioning everything.
One question that kept coming to mind was why my stepmother hated my little brother. She had taken a particular dislike toward him. He was a lively five-year-old, and she made certain that he knew who was boss. She gave him the least amount of food and punished him severely for any minor infraction. If he dared to use a bad word, his mouth was washed out with soap. No matter how many times I tried to talk to my brother and warn him not to do certain things that enraged my stepmother, he was too young and too impulsive to stop himself.
That Friday when my father came home, I called him into our bedroom where my brother and I were waiting.
"She put a lock on the door," I told him.
"You were stealing food," he countered.
"It wasn't me," I said.
"It doesn't matter who it was. One of you was taking food."
Then I told him how badly that she treated my little brother. "Can't you do something? She's like an evil witch."
My father left the room without saying a word.
Shortly after, my little brother told my stepmother that I had called her an evil witch. She sent me to bed without dinner, and my father let her. As soon as I went into my bedroom, the door was locked behind me.
At that point, I knew that I was going to have to take care of myself, that I could count on no one for support. And it was around that time that I took out my old Royal typewriter and began to write my first two complete stories. It was the only way that I could escape my surroundings.
The first story, "The Green-Eyed Monsters," was sheer fantasy. It began this way:
It was a cool, summer morning in Longbranch, Missouri on the first of July. A great crowd was gathering on the lawn of the Chemical Corporation to watch an amazing experiment about to take place. The Chemical Corporation was testing a new substance which would, if successful, be more powerful than dynamite. The substance was to blow up a shack right beside the Chemical Corporation. The Chemical Corporation was made of bombproof material when it was built so there would be outdoor tests made like this one. The great moment now came. The people waited anxiously for the experiment to take place. The last five seconds came. "Five, four, three," came the voice over the loudspeaker, "two, one, POWER!" As the words were spoken, the shack blew up, but something more fantastic happened. The Chemical Corporation blew up too! Everyone was dumbfounded.
Reading it now, I can see how terrible the story is; yet it was my first whole story, and I was thrilled with it. Then I began to write another, much more realistic story about a mother's unexpected death. No matter how tempted I was to escape into fantasy, I was brought back to the reality by my mother's death.
Over the next few years I rewrote the story a hundred times. Sometimes I changed to story to be about a father's death. But the facts of the story were pretty much the same. Early versions of the story began like this:
School closed the first day of June that year. That morning, my sixth grade class celebrated. We played kickball and had a spelling bee. We ate cupcakes and drank Cokes. By eleven o'clock, we had all said goodbye and left for the summer.
To celebrate, the gang and I had decided to go swimming at the city park cool that afternoon. It wasn't really a gang. It was just Brad Thomas, Teddy Greenhouse, Harry Nichols, and me. Sometimes we let Billy Daniels tag along, but not that day.
On our way to the pool, we passed through Hedgewood Cemetery. You could always find the gang and me there picking flowers off the graves or watching funerals. As we went across the cemetery that day, we passed the tomb that the high school kids had broken into. My baby sitter told me how she and some other kids had gone up there one night and opened the coffin in the tomb. One day she even took me there. When we got there, the iron door was open and inside the casket I saw some old bones and a piece of blue cloth which especially scared me, since blue was my favorite color at the time. I thought that at any moment the person's ghost would come back to haunt me and for months I was scared of that opened tomb.
No matter which version of the story I worked on the same thing always happened at the swimming pool: the narrator would almost drown. Then there would be a scene when the narrator arrived home to find his father (or his mother, depending on whom I chose to die) in his bedroom. In early versions, the story ended shortly thereafter. By high school, the story had grown much longer; I even outlined an idea for turning it into a novel. Here's the ending to an early version:
… my father took my little sister and me to a private showing of the body. I didn't want to see her dead, but I went anyway. I saw the wood coffin, when I entered the room. She was lying there sleeping. She was wearing one of her nicest blue dresses and immediately I thought of the opened tomb in the cemetery that my babysitter had shown me. My sister asked if she could touch her, and my father agreed. She felt the grey skin and pulled her hand back, laughing that she felt cold. My father asked if I wanted to touch her, and I said no.
We went swimming afterwards at the country club, just the three of us. I tried to have a good time, but I couldn't. I kept seeing my mother and the blue dress and the tomb. All the time at the pool, she stood beside me smiling as she always had. I wanted to reach out and touch her, but I knew her hand was cold.
The punishment that motivated me to write my first two complete stories probably stopped in six weeks, but it left an indelible impression on me in terms of how severe and unreasonable it was. It also provided one more firm push in the direction of becoming a writer.
From that time on, I was hooked on writing. Sometimes I invented fantasy stories about flying saucers or monsters; other times I wrote serious stories about my dreams and nightmares. With the continuing help of my maternal grandmother who kept in touch with me even when my father disapproved, I graduated from the Royal to a sleek, new powder blue Olivetti typewriter. I joined my eighth-grade newspaper and enjoyed the experience so much that I decided I might want to be a journalist and write the stories of other people's lives. In high school, I worked on the newspaper. I wrote articles and branched out into humor columns and movie reviews. But I continued my creative writing on the side.
Childhood, Part 6: A Wandering Imagination
When I was in high school, I secretly began to write what was to become some twenty-seven years later a novel eventually entitled 3 NBs of Julian Drew. The first draft of that novel, which was an untitled stream of consciousness narrative, is nothing like the novel that was published, but it was the beginning of a story that I knew I had to tell.
Divided into three notebooks (or NBs in the special abbreviated and coded language of the narrator), the book tells the story of an emotionally (and sometimes physically) abused teenager who addresses his NBs to a per- son named U, a person he has not seen for four years. The reader senses that Julian is in great pain because of U, and his memories of U spur him to begin keeping the notebooks. As he does, he invents a code to keep some of his innermost (and most disturbing) thoughts safe from the prying eyes of two people that he labels 43 and 543.
I don't like to describe events in my books that are better left to readers to discover on their own, so I cannot say much more about 3 NBs. Still, I have been asked many times if the novel is autobiographical. My answer is always a carefully qualified "yes." The book was based on some of my childhood experiences, but I did not live the life of Julian Drew.
For example, at one point Julian writes "The Story of His Life" for an assignment in his English class. The facts that he relates include these: he was born in Wheeling, West Virginia; his mother died a few days after fifth grade ended; three months later his father remarried a woman who had two children; his father and stepmother began to treat Julian badly in West Virginia. After the family moved to Arizona, he was treated badly there as well.
Although these facts are also true about my own life, I allowed my imagination to wander freely beyond those factual boundaries. I created U (a different U than my own U), the NBs, and many other parts of the story about Julian. Just like our similar initials, our lives shared certain events, but our behaviors and outcomes were very different. I had been writing stories since the sixth grade; Julian didn't like to write or even speak. That change alone made us very dissimilar people. My own teenage years were also not as poignant as the life I devised for Julian. By reinventing the facts of my life for a character, I was able to tell a better story.
I used the same technique in my novel, The Very Real Ghost Book of Christina Rose. I created twin characters (Christina and Danny) that faced an unexpected, tragic loss when their mother died. Then I let my imagination loose; it began to create all sorts of ghost stories that belonged in the book.
Initially, writing the book was a challenge for me. I thought at first it would be narrated by Danny, but Danny didn't like to speak, and I knew that he wouldn't want to write … so that left me with Christina to tell the story. I had no idea how to write a book in the voice of a ten-year-old girl, until I began to hear my own daughters' voices in my head; as soon as I imagined that they were telling the story, the book began to write itself.
My First Nonfiction Books
I became a high-school teacher in 1971, a job I swore I would never have. One of my high-school teachers had
predicted that I would make an excellent teacher. Nothing could have been further from my mind. But when faced with the choice of being a penniless, unpublished writer … or a financially solvent teacher, I chose teaching. I figured I would do it for a few years until I became a successful author. Little did I know that I would be teaching for over thirty years.
My first book was haunted, in a way. An artist I knew asked if I wanted to write a book that he would illustrate. He had been doing a series of ghost-story books when the author died. Now he was wondering if I could come up with an idea and fill in for the deceased author. Since we were living outside New York City, I learned that the best place to research such a book was the American Society of Psychical Research (ASPR), which was housed in an old brownstone on Central Park West. The second floor held a large library containing what seemed like every book ever written on the subject of ghosts. It also had a lateral file collection full of ghost stories that people had sent into the society.
As I began to read various ghost stories, I came across notes that had been written by the dead author I hoped to replace. In one book he had left an index card marking a story he had retold in one of his earlier books. In another book, I found a similar index card beside another story. I felt as if the author was communicating with me. In the end, the publisher was not interested in having me replace the deceased author, and the book was never written.
But something remarkable happened. On one of my visits to the ASPR brownstone, I asked a staff member if many children wrote letters to the society.
"Of course," the woman replied. "Children want to know how to find a ghost."
In that moment, I knew I had just heard the title for a book; with more research, more writing and revision, How to Find a Ghost became my first book. That title seemed to be a perfect fit for the strange (and sometimes imaginary) events of my childhood. Of course, the book wasn't written overnight, and even when I did complete it, twelve publishers rejected it (some called it too scary) before Houghton Mifflin accepted it for publication.
After How to Find a Ghost, I wrote How to Catch a Flying Saucer and four other "how-to" books. My how-to books were a pleasure to research. I didn't just read books to find information; I went in search of interesting places: houses or churches that were said to be haunted, sites where UFOs had reportedly landed, woods or riverbanks that were said to hide buried treasure, battlegrounds and palaces where tourists had traveled through time, museums and backrooms where mummies were stored. Whenever possible, I took at least one of my children with me: Anna saw bog bodies in Denmark, Rachel visited Egyptian mummies in England, David and Chloe toured Pompeii.
Not only did my wife Susan and I want our children to see the world, we wanted them to have some interesting, educational, and unusual experiences as well. In that, we were successful. My personal wish for them was not to be afraid of ghosts. Unfortunately, that was less of a success story.
One year near Halloween, I was asked to read some of my ghost stories at the local public library. I chose one that appeared in my book, Ghost Hunters. Anna and Rachel, then age seven, sat proudly in the front row as their father, the author, read "The Mummy's Eyes." In this story, a young girl awakens one night and glances out her bedroom window. There, staring at her, are the eyes of a person with a bandaged face. Later at home, Anna and Rachel told me how much that story had scared them. They both slept with the lights for a long time after that and stopped looking out their window after nightfall.
The Living Dead
My last how-to book led to my current series: Bodies from the Bog, Bodies from the Ash, and Bodies from the Ice. Since I had spent so much time researching mummies for my book, How to Make a Mummy Talk, it seemed only natural to write a picture book about bog bodies.
Although such bodies had been discovered when I was a child, they weren't widely publicized outside of Europe. In fact, I had never heard of them until I saw one in the British Museum in 1990. That chance encounter with the exhibit of Lindow Man led to another moment of inspiration; I knew that I had to write a book about bog bodies. I learned a great deal about the mummification process that takes place in a bog; I also learned that these bodies had many stories to tell about their lives and deaths.
My next book was about the victims of Pompeii and Herculaneum who died when Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD 79. I had been fascinated with Pompeii from my childhood, when I saw a movie in which bolts of fiery lightning, a pillar-destroying earthquake, and volcanic debris destroyed Pompeii. Those vivid images stayed with me. As an adult, when I read a few short accounts about the plaster casts that had been created by archaeologists, I knew I had to write a book about them.
Bodies from the Ash was a pleasure to research. I was fortunate enough to travel to Pompeii five times and walk the ruins many times. I was given special tours of the houses that are now closed to the public. But gaining access to the photographic archive in the basement of the administration building was a problem. It took me many emails and many personal visits before I was allowed to visit the archive. Even then, getting permission to use the photos (many of which had never been published) was challenging. With the help of many people (including the Italian managers of my Pompeii hotel who helped me write some compelling Italian sentences), I was able to get what I needed to produce a striking and truly memorable book.
Most recently, I have worked on Bodies from the Ice. In the beginning, this book was going to explore the mummified bodies and artifacts that have been found in glaciers, but I began to discover how much glaciers have changed in the last century. Once they were popular tourist attractions; now they are in the process of disappearing from the face of Earth. So the book became a memorial to glaciers as much as to the fascinating
people and objects that have been found in them. Hopefully, the book will convince many children to see a glacier while they still can.