Jerry Spinelli will admit that he was not a reader as a kid.
“I wasn’t reading, I wasn’t writing. I wanted to be a cowboy, then I wanted to be a baseball player. I have a curious background for someone who turns out to be a writer.”
Now 71, the father of six and grandfather of 22 has published 30 books for young readers featuring such marvelous and memorable characters as the orphan who never stops running and who brings healing to a racially divided town in Newbery Medal-winning “Maniac Magee” (1990); an odd newcomer who carries her pet rat to high school and leads cheers for the opposing team at basketball games in “Stargirl” (2000); and a nameless orphan who answers to “Stopthief” as he scraps for survival in the Warsaw Ghetto in the searing Holocaust tale “Milkweed” (2003).
Now, just out from Knopf, comes “Hokey Pokey” (272 pages, $18.99), a marvelous, bittersweet tale about childhood and growing up, set in the land of Hokey Pokey. On this fateful day, a boy named Jack wakes up to discover his beloved bicycle and baseball glove are missing ... and everything is changing.
The idea of childhood as not a time but a place is brilliantly done, with such landmarks as Doll Farm, Thousand Puddles (for stomping in and riding through), Trucks, Cartoons, Snuggle Stop (comfort available 24/7); Socks, a pungent, dirty gray mountain; Tantrums, a soundproof dome where “fitpitchers” emit “tantrum exhaust” through a pipe; and Great Plains, where bicycles roam in a herd like wild mustangs. Newbies enter a “tattooer” where “your diaper is whipped off and catapulted through a hole in the roof” and a newly minted “kid” emerges with an eyeball tattoo. When the tattoo fades, it’s all aboard for the end of childhood magic and onward into the tantalizing, if slightly terrifying, promise of adulthood.
While Spinelli has been a successful children’s author for more than 30 years, he said he never set out to write for kids. “In my mind, I’m writing for everybody,” he said.
In a recent phone interview from the Wayne, Pa., home he shares with his wife, writer Eileen Spinelli, Spinelli recalls that his first piece of writing was a poem about Mexico for a sixth grade project. In 11th grade, a poem he wrote about a football game between his Norristown, Pa., High School and rival Lower Merion High School was published in the local paper. From then on, “I began to think of myself as maybe I’ll become this writer thing.”
The road to success was a rocky one, with repeated rejections for many years.
“I was very naïve, and I thought it was just a matter of writing my first book and sending it in and for the rest of my life I would be writing books and collecting royalties,” he said. “Nobody told me how hard it was going to be to get published. I wrote four novels that nobody wanted, sent them out all over, collected hundreds and hundreds of rejection slips.”
He had already celebrated his 40th birthday when he finally published “Space Station Seventh Grade” in 1982. “I imagined I was writing an adult novel. I was imagining people like you and me looking back on those days when we were 13. Who doesn’t enjoy looking back?”
But the publisher felt “ ‘this is a story about a kid. Grown-ups won’t read a story about a kid. Show it to the juvenile department.’ That’s what my agent did. I’ve been identified as a kids’ writer ever since.”
“Hokey Pokey” took about a year to write, he said. He had been trying unsuccessfully to write a science fiction book when “out of the blue” he found himself “describing a fanciful night sky with the constellations and stars,” which became the first page of “Hokey Pokey.” Other inspiration came from overhearing a little girl ask: “Daddy, what does tomorrow mean?,” as well as “an idea that came to me of a new way perhaps to dramatize something we all go through and that is, growing up. And I sort of decided to dramatize it by kind of making it happen all in one day. That idea of compressing things must have led to the notion of, how about if I recast childhood from a time to a place where it’s always today? Let’s create a kids’ little world where it’s always today, there’s virtually no such thing as time, until it’s time to grow up.”
The Hokey Pokey man, who makes an appearance once a day at high noon selling flavored ice in “Hokey Pokey,” was a real character from Spinelli’s childhood in Norristown (documented in his amusing 1998 childhood memoir, “Knots in My Yo-yo String”).
“As I was growing up, that’s how I knew Hokey Pokey, as the Hokey Pokey Man with a cart who sold what we might call snowballs in little white paper cones. He would shave the ice block that he covered with a towel and dump a square of slushy shaved ice into the cup, and like a barber sprinkling a kid’s hair, he would dump whatever flavor you wanted, from his battalion of bottles there, lining the sides of his cart and there you had it. It probably cost all of 5 cents.”
The childhood evoked in “Hokey Pokey” – a world of Tarzan calls, of beloved bicycles and exploring, of seesaws and pickup baseball games – might seem more like the world of Spinelli’s own growing up years than of 21st century American childhood, with computer games, close parental supervision and adult-managed sports.
Jack’s fierce attachment to his bicycle, even a phrase like “the sweet peppery cloud of cap powder,” would seem more likely to resonate with Baby Boomers than children of 2013.
But Spinelli is confident that childhood hasn’t changed that much. “Kids still can be said to live in their own little world. Even if their parents are helicoptering around them, assigning play dates and so forth, I think they’re still living in some sense of their own little perceptual worlds. Kids have changed a lot, but there’s a sense in which they have not changed at all.”
He recalled a letter from a young fan of one of his earlier books, who wrote: “ ‘Gee, it’s like you were inside my head or hiding in the closet in my house. How did you know what my life was like?’ I was simply remembering what it was like when I was a kid. What that tells you is, even though they may have keys to the front door because their parents are both working, their haircuts are different, their sneakers are more expensive, there are still fundamental things about being a kid that a kid will recognize as himself or herself from generation to generation.”
While he is doing some touring to promote “Hokey Pokey,” Spinelli has severely cut back his school visits and other appearances. “You don’t find me on the road so much anymore,” he said. “Once I was out of the house 93 days in a year. I was missing grandparents’ days at schools and kids’ birthdays and Valentine’s Day, not to mention the fact that when you’re on the road you can’t get anything done. I had to learn to say no, cut back on travel. I spend more time being what I am, a writer, not the visiting celebrity.”
Later this month he’ll head by train, a three-day trip, to Seattle for the American Library Association midwinter conference. “I like to go by train,” he said. “I’ve done that a number of times.”
He and his wife spend summers at Chautauqua Institution, which they discovered through weeklong writers’ workshops held there mentoring aspiring writers.. “We got to like the place so much that we decided to get our own place there,” he said.
This spring the Malvern, Pa., People’s Light & Theatre will stage “Stargirl” at the same time a stage version of his 1996 novel “Crash” will open at the Seattle Children’s Theatre.
Asked if there are other children’s writers he admires, he quickly responds: “Eileen Spinelli.”
He adds: “I know I’m not taken seriously. A spouse’s opinion of a wife’s work is never taken seriously because it’s always assumed that such a person cannot possibly be objective.
“She’s a great writer.”
And his favorite of her books is “When You Are Happy,” a 2006 picture book that, he says, “hits the top of the trifecta” with its text, message and illustrations.
“It’s really a masterpiece. And it deserves more attention than it’s gotten.”