Friday, March 17, 2006

Thanks for the Inspiration, John Reynolds Gardiner

I was saddened to read in yesterday's paper that John Reynolds Gardiner died March 4th. He was only 61. He wrote two of my all time favorite children's books: "Stone Fox" and "Top Secret". Actually, he only wrote one other, "General Butterfingers". Yes, a three-book career...his second career. He worked as a contract engineer specializing in thermodynamics for such aerospace corporations as Rockwell International and McDonnell Douglas. His brother got him to enroll in a television writing class, taught by an instructor who didn't give a hoot about spelling and grammar. He had always wanted to write and had lots of "creative ideas" but was afraid they wouldn't be accepted if they weren't in the correct "format".

He didn't like to read when he was young and hadn't read an entire novel until he was 19. He didn't like being read to either and would pretend he was asleep when his mom would try. He got his master's degree in engineering but his writing skills lagged. At UCLA he was in the "dumbbell English" class. ESL kids got better grades than he did on the required compositions.

He loved to tell stories to his own kids, three girls, and his grandchild. He was concerned about quality stories for children and spent many years traveling to schools speaking to kids about creative writing. He sometimes invited them to stand before the class and finish a sentence he gave them. "If only I could..." Overcoming obstacles can make for a good story. His books were geared for readers in the 4th, 5th and 6th grades. (my specialty)

His first story, "Stone Fox" was actually first written as a screenplay for TV. He was told to write it as a book. After it sold more than 3 million copies they made a TV movie of it. Buddy Ebsen played the Grandfather. Willy, a little boy had a faithful dog he called "Searchlight". Granddad was very sick and hadn't paid the mortgage on the farm. Little Willy and Searchlight had to "save the farm"...and granddad, by entering and winning(?) the local, annual dogsled race. It was an insurrmountable problem because "Stonefox", an old Indian, always won with his champion dog. There's where the plot thickens... I read it to my class many times, once a year at least. I'd always have trouble getting through the "tear-jerking" conclusion.

"Top Secret" is just the opposite. ie "tongue-in-cheek" humor about "Mandatory School Science Fairs" and a boy who, with his "experiment" turns himself into "a plant" and wins the prize. It is almost believable. Lots of insights into all the things that can and do happen at these fairs. I ran many of them and "Invention Conventions" too. Parents can get overly involved and teachers can become to "officious". Here again, in this story, his grandfather is the only one who really inspires him and listens to him. "General Butterfingers" has a simular theme. Gardiner had three daughters and a granddaughter...hmmm. I've read these books now to classes at which I volunteer. Kids still seem to like them...hmm. Gives me some ideas...Thanks, for the inspiration J.R. R.I.P. Bob!


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