For Love of the Written Word
READ ALL ABOUT MICHAEL CART
I was born on March 6, 1941 in Logansport, a small town at the confluence of the Wabash and Eel Rivers in northcentral Indiana. While it’s not true that I was born with a book in my hand, it is true that I could read before I started school – or so I’m told — and that by the time I was in the fourth grade at Columbia Elementary School I was telling my teacher, Miss Helen Beatty, that I wanted to be a literary critic as an adult. My bond with books only became stronger as I grew up, reinforced by my first part-time job, working as a teenage page at my hometown public library. The library – the Logansport Cass County Public Library to give it its formal due – was more than a place of employment, though. It was a sanctuary, one of the few places where I felt I belonged. After all, above the entrance were carved in Indiana limestone the words “Free to All.” Certainly I was the odd man out at both home – where my high school football hero father complained loudly about my constant reading (“Put that book down and go outside and do something!”) – and school where Mr. Kimmel, my sixth grade teacher wistfully said his heart’s desire was to find a reason to give me less than an A in deportment and who promised that if only I would go out for football, he’d put me in the starting lineup. Just what I wanted . . . not! Needless to say I demurred, though I often found myself dragged into playing pick-up basketball and baseball games, because my neighborhood was filled with boys who, wanna be jocks all, grew up to be three or four lettermen in high school. Since I was never going to letter in a sport (I had neither the interest nor the necessary hand to eye coordination), I lettered in the only thing I was good at: getting As on my report cards. In fact I had only one B in four years of high school: I got a B+ one grading period in geometry, being hopeless in math. As further proof of that, there was the memorable quarter in college when I had to take a course in basic math. That would be the quarter I got 3 As and a D; guess what course the D was in . . . Nevertheless, despite that B+, I finished first in my class of 289 when I graduated in 1959 and copped a fat McCormack scholarship to Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. My chosen major was evidence of my (to that point) life-long desire to become a writer. And I think that four years of journalism helped me along the way to that goal, training me in expository prose writing. Which didn’t mean I wanted to become a journalist. It had taken about two minutes for me to realize that I didn’t have the moxie necessary to become a newsman, because the working journalists I encountered at Northwestern were all men with granite jaws who ate railroad spikes for breakfast. (I had cream puffs). But what career to pursue if not journalism? The answer was obvious: I would become a librarian. After all, I loved books and I had continued working every summer at the hometown public library and, additionally, I was working twenty hours a week in the Rare Book Room at Northwestern’s Deering Library, a building Frank Lloyd Wright once described as looking like a pregnant pig on its back! In due and deliberate course I earned a federal fellowship and headed off to New York and Columbia University’s Graduate Library School. Columbia University. Hot dog! The Big Apple. Hotter dog! I loved being in New York, which I had previously known only through the pages of The New Yorker, seeing my first Broadway shows, strolling through the lobby of the Plaza Hotel (I didn’t see Eloise, though, darn it!), haunting the glorious gallimaufry of used book stores that then graced the city, knowing that this was the capital of the book publishing business and that people I saw on the street might be editors or publishers, and being surrounded by the wonderful diversity of New York City, an at-first bewildering experience for a boy who had grown up in an all-white, Wasp-populated world but one I grew to treasure. Nevertheless, it was – too soon — back to Indiana for me. My fellowship required that I return to my home state to work in a library serving a rural population. The Logansport Cass County Public Library fit that bill and accordingly I became its assistant director following a three year hiatus in the Army where I served for two years as a professional librarian in the U. S. Army Armor School Library at Fort Knox, Kentucky and a year as a military historian in Thailand. Subsequently, after a year as Assistant Director of the Library, I became Acting Director when my boss, Mary A. Holmes, who had been the Director for a full fifty years, fell ill. A year later, when she passed away, I became Director. The job was a sinecure but after six years, I became restless and decided that I had had enough of small town life and, so, moved to Southern California where I had secured a job as a Branch Librarian with the Pasadena Public Library. I arrived just in time to learn that the city had put a freeze on hiring and I was, thus, without a job. Instant panic! I immediately began applying for another job but in the meantime took a position clerking at a B. Dalton Bookstore in Beverly Hills, my first experience of the relentlessly bottom line world of chain bookstores. The job was not without its charms – my favorite customer was the actress Julie Christie who always asked me for assistance – and the comedian Marty Allen used to come in and tell us clerks jokes – but I continued to apply for library jobs until I finally secured one as public relations officer for the Pomona Public Library, Pomona being the goddess of fruit and nuts!. After three years there – about which the less said, the better (my boss was certifiable) – I found myself back in the Hills of Beverly working as the Assistant Director of the Beverly Hills Public Library. Three years later I became Director of Library and Community Services or Czar of Culture, as the then Mayor proclaimed (I liked to think of myself instead as Librarian to the Stars. One reason: I was working the Reference Desk one quiet afternoon when a diffident, middle aged man approached me asking for a copy of Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, which he couldn’t find listed in the card catalog. Since patrons often overlooked titles in the catalog, I said (smugly), “Let me have a look.” And we walked together to the catalog. Son of a gun! He was right. I turned to apologize for our not having such a standard title and to offer to get it for him on interlibrary loan when something clicked and I realized I was talking to the actor comedian Bob Newhart. Be still my star struck heart). One of the other perks of being Director was doing a weekly cable television author interview program called “In Print,” which started as a show on the City’s public access channel but which, in short order, became nationally syndicated and I found myself interviewing the likes of Gore Vidal, Joseph Heller, Margaret Atwood and such other lofty likes, one of whom, significantly, was the head of children’s publishing at HarperCollins (then Harper & Row) Charlotte Zolotow, who changed my life. Happily we hit it off as interviewer and interviewee and Charlotte invited me to have lunch with her the next time I was in New York. I did and the result was a contract for my first book What’s So Funny: Wit and Humor in American Children’s Literature. Fortuitously the contract arrived near my fiftieth birthday and sparked the realization that I was then old enough to retire, which I did, in 1991, beginning a new life as an author. Twenty five years and twenty three books later, I still am.
In that context it’s important to know that until I turned forty-seven (that would make it 1988), I was a passionate devotee of children’s literature. That all changed in that signal year when, out of the blue (I now consider “the blue” to be fate), I received an unsolicited invitation to serve on the Young Adult Library Services Association’s Best Books for Young Adults Committee. I reluctantly accepted (what did I know about young adult literature?) and, in short order, discovered what that gaping hole in my life had been: the missing piece was young adult literature with which I was instantly smitten. Because I believe the best way to learn about a subject is to write a book about it, I penned a critical history of young adult literature in 1996. It’s titled Young Adult Literature: From Romance to Realism and it’s now, these twenty years later, going into its third edition. In the meantime in 1994 another bolt came out of the blue: I received a phone call from Bill Ott, Editor and Publisher of Booklist magazine inviting me to do a monthly column. Well, I had wanted to write a column ever since I was a kid when I faithfully read the pseudonymous Burton Hillis’s column “The Man Next Door” in my mother’s copies of Better Homes and Gardens (in those days I would read anything that didn’t get up and walk away). I accepted the offer immediately and, hey presto, I was a columnist and still am these twenty-two years later. I also review six to eight books a month – both YA and adult – for Booklist.
What else should you know about me? Well, my service on the Best Books Committee was my entree into the world of the Young Adult Library Services Association, which I served as President in 1998-99. That offered me an important opportunity. For years people had been calling for a YA book award like the Newbery (the author Avi waggishly suggested such an award could be called the “Elderberry!”). I was able to seize the moment, appointing and chairing a Task Force that, in due course, created (with the sanction of the YALSA Board) the Michael L. Printz Award, which became a reality in 2000 with the presentation of the very first Printz Award to the late Walter Dean Myers for his signal YA novel, Monster. I’d like to think the Printz has been the reason for a new age of literary YA fiction and has spurred authors and publishers to strive for further excellence in the field.
Speaking of fields: it was around 1997 that I first heard of ALAN, the Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the National Council of Teachers of English. Since any organization that dealt seriously with YA literature was automatically dear to my heart, I quickly joined and before you could say “What have I gotten myself into?” became its President in 2003 , thus becoming – to my knowledge – the only person to have served as President of both YALSA and ALAN.
It’s now 2016 as I write this, and it occurs to me that my first career as a library administrator lasted for twenty-five years; my second career as a writer has now also endured for twenty-five years. Does this mean it’s now time to launch a third career? Perhaps. But I doubt it; I’m simply having too much fun being a writer.
So that’s my story, folks. And I’m stickin’ to it.
SOME OF MY FAVORITES
The Friends of Freddy
Founded in 1984, the Friends of Freddy is a 501c3 nonprofit organization whose members, both children and adults, are devoted fans of the famous Freddy the Pig books by the late Walter R. Brooks. The Friends’ original, lighthearted mission was to spread the name and fame of Freddy the Pig throughout the known universe. More soberly it was to see all 26 Freddy books returned to print, a goal that has since been realized with the Overlook Press’s reissue of the entire series. The Friends hold a convention in the fall of even numbered years in the Catskills Region of New York State, where Brooks made his home. The 2016 con will be held in Round Top, New York, at the historic Winter Clove Inn, October 14-16. For more information visit the Friends’ website: www.freddythepig.org For what it’s worth I’ve been President of the Friends three times and counting…
The Arne Nixon Center
The Arne Nixon Center for the Study of Children’s and Young Adult Literature is a department of the Henry Madden Library at California State University, Fresno. The Center is one of North America’s leading resources for the study of children’s and young adult literature. Its growing collection of 60,000 books, periodicals, manuscripts, original art, and papers of authors and illustrators has an international and multicultural emphasis. Its materials are freely available to anyone for use in the Center’s Reading Room. I’m honored to be a Founding Member of the Center’s Governing Board. See www.arnenixoncenter.org/
One of America’s premiere sources of book reviews and features, Booklist is a longstanding publication of the American Library Association. Its online incarnation (www.booklistonline.com) offers access to more than 170,000 reviews of books and media. I’ve served as a columnist and reviewer for the magazine since 1994 and I have no intention of stopping any time soon!