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Michael O('Grady) Tunnell (1950-) - Sidelights

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Michael O. Tunnell is the author of several picture books, including the award-winning Mailing May, and of nonfiction works and novels for middle-grade readers. A professor of children's literature at Brigham Young University, Tunnell thoroughly knows the terrain of which he writes, yet when he came to creating his own stories and novels, it was as if he were in uncharted territory. "I discovered critiquing someone else's work is an entirely different process than creating your own stories," Tunnell once told Something about the Author (SATA). "Perhaps I was simply too close to my own work, which made applying what I thought I knew about quality literature difficult. In any case, I had a lot to learn (and the learning has just begun!) about the creative process. I guess writers are born perhaps more than they are made. (I feel the same way about teachers.) So, part of the challenge has been to find and cultivate any spark of literary creativity with which I might have been blessed."


Born in Texas, Tunnell was raised in Canada by his grandparents, and his love affair with books started at a young age. "My grandmother . . . would read to me every day," the author recalled. "Fairy tales, comic books, and wonderful picture books like Caps for Sale and Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. I soon discovered that books were the world's best teachers and entertainers. I grew up wanting to spend my life working with books." He was at college studying for a career in law when he rediscovered this early commitment. Working part-time for an automobile dealer in Salt Lake City, Utah, he was sent to deliver a car to a customer at a nearby elementary school. "The second I walked through the school doors, I was flooded with the strangest feelings. I remembered my favorite books and my magical childhood years. The next day I changed my major to education. Since then, I've completed several degrees, all relating to reading, children's literature, and teaching." A classroom teacher and media specialist for several years, Tunnell eventually wound up teaching children's literature at the university level.

Tunnell's love of books and language encouraged him to try writing short stories as a child, and in his twenties he wrote his first novel, one that was rejected by over twenty publishers. Tunnell then channeled his literary efforts into educational books and journal articles, though his desire to write children's books remained strong.

In 1993 he published Chinook!, his first picture book. For the work, Tunnell harkened back to some of his own childhood memories of growing up in Alberta, Canada, and the warm, dry wind—the chinook—that blows off the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains. The result is a book of original tales narrated by old-timer Andrew Delaney McFadden to two ice-skating children. Out ice-fishing, McFadden pulls the children into his boat that sits on top of the ice, warning them about the possible dangers of being stranded far from shore should the weather suddenly change because of a chinook. He relates the story of one such chinook which swept down in 1888 and quickly melted the ice, explaining why he prefers to sit in a boat while ice fishing on a frozen lake. Other tales follow as McFadden gives these newly arrived siblings a taste for Western weather: tomato seeds sprouting in February; apple blossoms and fruit in winter. A cautionary tale, Chinook! was dubbed a "fine picture-book debut with some nicely understated tall tales" by a Kirkus Reviews contributor. "Few tall tales focus so intently on weather," Deborah Abbott concluded in her Booklist review, "and this one, with its flamboyant shift from winter to summer, radiates a gentle warmth."


The Joke's on George, Tunnell's second picture book, again employs historical situations in an amusing manner. Taken from the eighteenth-century journals of Rembrandt Peale, the book deals with an incident involving Peale's father, painter and museum keeper Charles Willson Peale, and George Washington. Visiting Peale's Philadelphia museum, the president—renowned for his courtesy to all—is fooled by one of Peale's trompe l'oeil paintings. He politely bows to two children on a staircase, but oddly they make no reaction, no response. Only when the children in question turn out to be paintings on a wall does President Washington realize that he has been fooled. Deborah Stevenson, writing in the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, called The Joke's on George "an entertaining tale that shows Washington in a different light," and added that the book could lead to "some entertaining artistic discussions." A critic in Kirkus Reviews described the book as "a delightful vignette" and a "handsome, entertaining glimpse of times past."

Tunnell turns a traditional fairy tale on its head with his what-if rendition of the Beauty and the Beast. In Beauty and the Beastly Children he imagines what might have happened after Beauty married the Beast. Beast—aka Auguste—regresses to ale drinking and darts while Beauty gives birth to rather horrid beast-like triplets. Auguste finally accepts his parental responsibilities, however, and helps to bring the unruly children around. When he does, the witch lifts the spell on the children, and finally there is a "a happily ever after" ending. Tunnell related his tale in "colloquial, sassy prose," according to Susan Hepler in School Library Journal.

Returning to history for inspiration, Tunnell relates the actual story of a girl sent by parcel post to visit her grandmother in 1914. With a mailing label and fifty-three cents worth of stamps stuck to her coat—she is luckily under the fifty-pound parcel-post limit—May sets off one morning for her visit. Her cousin Leonard mans the train's mail car, so she accompanies him on the journey. Seventy-five miles later, having passed through the mountainous terrain of Idaho, she arrives safely at her grandmother's.


Mailing May earned high critical praise. Carolyn Phelan noted in Booklist: "Told in the first person from May's point of view, the story has a folksy quality and a ring of truth that will hold children's interest beyond the central anecdote." Applauding the "childlike understated quality" of Tunnell's story, Betsy Groban observed in the New York Times Book Review that Mailing May "is a heartwarming period piece based on a true incident, lovingly told, beautifully illustrated and extremely well produced in an oversized format." Pat Mathews concluded in the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books that "May tells the story of her bygone journey with homespun perfection, so stamp this one 'First Class' and make a special delivery to a storytime in your area."

Determined to achieve historical accuracy when compiling Mailing May, Tunnell not only rode on the rail line which May followed, and but also found and interviewed May's son—May herself died in 1987. Additionally, he used a two-page account of the trip written by May's cousin Leonard, the postal clerk in charge of the girl on her trip in February of 1914. However, for his nonfiction book on Japanese-American internment during World War II, The Children of Topaz, the research was much more extensive. There was library work and also the tracking down of primary sources. "I was privileged to run on to the story of Lillian 'Anne' Yamauchi Hori and her third-grade class, who were interned during World War II in the Japanese-American relocation camp at Topaz, Utah. These children and their young teacher appear in no history textbooks, yet they are the ones who experienced firsthand the fallout of decisions made by well-known personalities such as Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Their illustrated class diary, an integral part of The Children of Topaz, helps us see and feel the effects of war hysteria and prejudice on a personal level." Tunnell and his coauthor, George Chilcoat, located the widower of the teacher as well as several of the men who, as boys, had been interned in the camp and interviewed them for the book. Female students were harder to track down because of name changes with marriage. After publication of the book however, several of the other former students contacted Tunnell and in 1996 a reunion of the class was held in Berkeley, California. "Fifteen of the twenty-three Japanese-American students, now in their sixties, attended," Tunnell recalled to SATA. "It was one of the most moving experiences of my life."

About a third of the class diary was used in The Children of Topaz; each entry is further annotated by "well-researched commentaries explaining the children's allusions, expanding upon the diary text, and placing events in socio-historical perspective," according to reviewer John Philbrook in School Library Journal. "Here readers are exposed to nine-year-olds writing as it happened," Philbrook concluded. Booklist's Hazel Rochman noted that "the primary sources have a stark authority; it's the very ordinariness of the children's concerns that grabs you as they talk about baseball, school, becoming Scouts and Brownies." A critic in Kirkus Reviews commented that "Tunnell and Chilcoat provide a valuable, incisive, comprehensive text," while Elizabeth Bush concluded in a review for the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books that "the ingenuous testimony left by Yamauchi's third-graders may make the Topaz story accessible to an audience slightly younger" than those for whom other such internment books have been written.Tunnell's first novel for young readers, School Spirits, likewise deals with history. Set in a small town in 1958, the book is a ghost story; its writing thus combined two of Tunnell's favorite themes: history and fantasy. School Spirits tells the story of Patrick, whose father has just become principal of Craven Hill School, a castle-like building and scene to the twentieth-century gothic tale Tunnell weaves. Though reluctant to move, Patrick quickly becomes involved in the new town, becoming friends with Nairen, the girl next door, and encountering the ghost of Barney Dawe, whose disappearance in 1920 has gone unexplained. Patrick and Nairen soon take up the investigation, which involves researching in the town library and time-traveling down a tube-like school fire escape. Molly S. Kinney observed in School Library Journal that "this fast-paced story" has "solid writing and doesn't rely on buckets of blood or hacked bodies to entice readers." Writing in Booklist, Susan Dove Lempke noted that "the 1958 setting is a change of pace from contemporary horror tales."

Tunnell's 1997 mystery centering around a schoolboy's disappearance finds friends Patrick and Narien determined to solve the decades old crime in the hopes that it will let a young ghost go to its rest. (Cover illustration by Barbara J. Roman.)

In Tunnell's 1999 picture book Halloween Pie, a group of frightening cemetery creatures, including a banshee, a ghost, a ghoul, a skeleton, a vampire, and a zombie, steal a freshly baked pumpkin pie from Old Witch's house. What they don't know is that Old Witch has cast a spell on the treat, and after the six fall asleep, they are transformed into the ingredients Old Witch needs to bake another pie. Though a Publishers Weekly reviewer felt that Halloween Pie "provides only tame surprises," Booklist critic Kay Weisman believed that the creatures "are just creepy enough to delight children who beg for a scary story."

Brothers in Valor: A Story of Resistance examines a little-known slice of history: the methods by which German youth actively opposed Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party during the 1930s and 1940s. Based on a true story, the novel follows Rudi Ollenik, Helmuth Hubener, and Karl Schneider, three friends from the Mormon church in Hamburg who become increasingly disturbed by the persecution of the Jews. After war breaks out, Hubener illegally obtains a shortwave radio and the trio begin to monitor BBC broadcasts. They also create and distribute a series of flyers critical of Hitler's policies. In 1942 the boys are arrested, tortured, and put on trial; Hubener is executed, while the others receive prison sentences. In Brothers in Valor Tunnell "convincingly demonstrates the pervasiveness of Nazi propaganda," noted a contributor in Publishers Weekly. "The research, however, feels stitched together and the characters are underdeveloped, with the result that suspense never builds." Hazel Rochman, reviewing the work in Booklist, offered a contrasting opinion, stating that the author "does an excellent job of dramatizing the ordinariness of the boys, their teasing friendship and mounting terror, the sense of what it was like to be young at that time."

In 2003, Tunnell reworked his 1989 publication, The Prydain Companion: A Reference Guide to Lloyd Alexander's Prydain Chronicles, so that it would appeal to younger fans of the perennially popular novel series. In Alexander's foreword to the book, he calls Tunnell "a friendly guide who well knows the country and its inhabitants." Reviewing the book for Voice of Youth Advocates, Hillary Crew wrote that The Prydain Companion "should provide much pleasure and interest to Alexander fans and serve as a rich resource for discussions with young people and for those teaching and studying children's literature."

Tunnell's young-adult fantasy novel Wishing Moon was described as a "captivating original sequel to 'Aladdin'" by a Kirkus Reviews contributor. In the work, fourteen-year-old Aminah, an orphan who survives by begging on the streets of al-Kal'as, ventures to the royal palace to ask Princess Badr for work. The disdainful princess, the wife of Aladdin, responds by tossing an old lamp at Aminah's head, not recognizing that the lamp contains magical powers. Aminah learns how to summon the genie, who must grant her three wishes each time the moon is full, yet surprisingly Aminah uses the genie's powers to improve not only her own life but the lives of the poor. In time, Princess Badr realizes her mistake and uses every method at her disposal to recover the lamp, creating a perilous situation for Aminah. Wishing Moon received generally strong reviews. Claire Rosser, writing in Kliatt, praised the author's style, remarking, "The desert, the bazaars, the narrow streets are described vividly by Tunnell, to make an exotic story." School Library Journal contributor Miriam Lang Budin called the work "a satisfying fairytale elaboration," and Booklist reviewer Anne O'Malley applauded the "strong, suspenseful plot worthy of the Arabian Nights." In fact, Tunnell visited the Middle East and engaged in other sorts of research in order to accurately recreate the ninth-century Arab world in which this story is set.

Whether he is writing a picture book, an information book, or a novel, Tunnell approaches each project with enthusiasm. As he once told SATA: "I enjoy trying my hand at the various genres and formats of literature. The economy required by the picture-book format makes that sort of writing a challenge. Naturally, nonfiction books demand careful attention to factual detail, but the biggest challenge is writing nonfiction with flair. . . . The novel, however, I find the most challenging. Writing novels requires sustained imaginative output unlike picture or informational books. Creating and developing believable characters who are doing things worth reading about for one hundred pages or more is difficult yet extremely fulfilling business."

Biographical and Critical Sources

PERIODICALS

Booklist, October 1, 1993, p. 349; August 15, 1993, Deborah Abbott, review of Chinook!, p. 1524; December 15, 1993; July, 1996, Hazel Rochman, review of The Children of Topaz, p. 1818; August, 1997, Carolyn Phelan, review of Mailing May, p. 1908; February 15, 1998, Susan Dove Lempke, review of School Spirits, p. 1012; September 15, 1999, Kay Weisman, review of Halloween Pie, p. 270; May 1, 2001, Hazel Rochman, review of Brothers in Valor: A Story of Resistance, p. 1676; August, 2004, Anne O'Malley, review of Wishing Moon, p. 1921; September 15, 2004, Jennifer Mattson, "You Say Genies, I Say Djinni," p. 233.

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, October, 1993, Deborah Stevenson, review of The Joke's on George, p. 60; September, 1996, Elizabeth Bush, review of The Children of Topaz, pp. 34-35; October, 1997, Pat Mathews, review of Mailing May, p. 69.

Horn Book, July-August, 1993, p. 451; September-October, 1997, p. 564.

Kirkus Reviews, February 15, 1993, review of Chinook!, p. 235; July 1, 1993, review of The Joke's on George, p. 867; December 15, 1995, review of The Children of Topaz, p. 1777; June 15, 1997, p. 958; May 15, 2004, review of Wishing Moon, p. 499.

Kliatt, May, 2004, Claire Rosser, review of Wishing Moon, p. 14.

New York Times Book Review, Betsy Groban, review of Mailing May, March 15, 1998, p. 24.

Publishers Weekly, March 15, 1993, p. 87; July 12, 1993, p. 80; June 9, 1997, p. 45; December 8, 1997, review of School Spirits, p. 72; September 27, 1999, review of Halloween Pie, p. 47; May 28, 2001, review of Brothers in Valor, p. 89.

School Library Journal, June, 1993, pp. 91-92; January, 1994, Susan Hepler, review of Beauty and the Beastly Children, p. 100; August, 1996, John Philbrook, review of The Children of Topaz, pp. 161-162; March, 1998, Molly S. Kinney, review of School Spirits, p. 224; July, 2004, Miriam Lang Budin, review of Wishing Moon, p. 113.

Voice of Youth Advocates, December, 1996, p. 292; August, 1997, p. 167.

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