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Tor Seidler (1952-) - Sidelights

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Tor Seidler mixes elements of fairy tale and realism in his highly imaginative novels for young readers. Fate and chance, and the personal risks that people sometimes take when their way of life is threatened, all figure prominently in his books, which include The Dulcimer Boy, A Rat's Tale, and the whimsical The Wainscott Weasel.

Seidler lived in Burlington, Vermont, before moving with his mother and stepfather to Seattle, Washington. Because his parents were divorced when he was very young, he recalls growing up in two different families, with two different sets of rules. Seidler's mother was an actress; his stepfather was very interested in the stage and established theatre groups in both Vermont and Seattle. Tor's childhood memories with them include watching rehearsals of such productions as Shakespeare's Richard III, rich with language, duplicity, and mystery.

Although an early introduction to Thorton Wilder's The Bridge of San Luis Rey convinced Seidler that he wanted to be an author, he never actively pursued writing during his school years. Instead, he studied math and science at Stanford University while competing in sports. After graduating from Stanford in 1972, Seidler moved to New York City and accepted a position with a publishing company that would finally inspire him to begin writing with an eye to publication. "I started trying to write children's books after working on elementary school readers for a language arts program at Harcourt, Brace," he once explained to SATA. "I always liked children's literature. My stepfather used to tell terrific bedtime stories to my older brother and me. He made up 'episodes' which featured animal characters whose foibles were, in fact, ours."

Seidler's first book, The Dulcimer Boy, is a fantasy set in New England. The story follows the adventures of William, whose life has an unusual beginning: he is placed, with his twin brother Jules, in a basket outside the door of some distant relatives—Mr. and Mrs. Carbuncle—before his widowed father goes off to sea. The only other object the father leaves in the basket is a dulcimer, which William eventually learns to play quite well, using its tones to entertain Jules, who cannot speak. Unfortunately for the boys, the Carbuncles are very selfish people. They mistreat the twins for many years and finally attempt to take the dulcimer and sell it. William, with the dulcimer, runs away in search of his father and of answers to who he really is and how he can rescue his brother from the clutches of the Carbuncles. A Junior Bookshelf reviewer hailed The Dulcimer Boy as "exquisitely formed, with a fine irony of style, trenchant and economic yet also poetic," noting that Seidler's work incorporates more than a little social satire. Zena Sutherland of the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books noticed the same theme, commenting that in his debut novel, Seidler makes the "Alger-like adventures of the dulcimer boy almost believable and certainly touching."

Seidler's next work of fiction, Terpin, tells the story of a U.S. Supreme Court justice who returns to the town where he was raised, after a thirty-year absence, to attend a celebration in his honor. The trip back home brings to mind an event from the distant past that had formed the crux of Terpin's personal philosophy: he recalls an incident from his youth where he told a lie that he believes led to a tragic suicide. A dream occurring shortly after the incident reinforced the young Terpin's decision: always to live and speak the truth. This way of life, of course, made the young man unpopular with both family and friends, in whose opinion his penchant for truthfulness became annoying. Terpin was not viewed by critics as a simple story, but rather, in the words of Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books reviewer Sutherland, a multi-layered tale containing "a wry commentary" on failing to reach one's potential and the superficiality of interpersonal relationships, as well as a "rejection" of several commonplace ethical and moral standards in place in modern society. "The trouble with Terpin," thought a Junior Bookshelf critic, "is that at the end one wishes there were much more of it."

In A Rat's Tale, Seidler tells the story of Montague Mad-Rat the Younger, a sleek, frisky fellow whose habits are not those of his friends. Instead of the usual rat pursuits through the sewers in his Central Park home, Montague enjoys helping his mother make feathered hats, watching his father build mud castles, and painting. Realizing that he scuttles to a different drummer, Montague ventures outside the park and meets up with the Wharf Rats, who are trying to scout up enough lost loose change to pay off the wharf owner before he hires an exterminator to rid the area of their kind. Here Montague's talents can ultimately be of some use, as his paintings—detailed miniature drawings done on sea shells—prove popular with buyers and bring in the much-needed cash. Noting the satire that runs through A Rat's Tale, Horn Book critic Ann A. Flowers commented that the story is "clever in its use of language" and called it "a study of the problems and rewards of nonconformity." Lyle Blake Smythers also noted in his School Library Journal review that "although seemingly light entertainment, the novel tackles such topics as death, strength of character, and self-acceptance, and handles them well."

Seidler waited over fifteen years before publishing The Revenge of Randal Reese-Rat, a sequel to A Rat's Tale. This time around, the author focuses less on Montague Mad-Rat and more on his rival for Isabel's hand, Randal Reese-Rat. Accused of setting fire to Montague and Isabel's home on their wedding night, the innocent Randal vows revenge on the rat community, which has turned against him. "As in the first title," wrote Booklist's Gillian Engberg, "Seidler creates an elaborate world with a skillful mix of fantasy and realism." According to School Library Journal critic Eva Mitnick, "the simple, yet evocative language and warmly depicted characters make this fantasy a delight."

Anthropomorphized rodents also serve as the protagonists of Seidler's Wainscott Weasel and Mean Margaret. In the first title, which takes place in the wooded areas of eastern Long Island, readers find Bagley Brown, Jr., whose amorous interests are seemingly misplaced when he falls for a green-striped fish named Bridget instead of the smooth-coated weasel Wendy Blackish, who is also an excellent dancer. Although Bridget rejects Bagley's advances, she finally agrees to friendship, although her destiny will be to go out to sea with the rest of her kind. Comparing the author's warm-hearted approach to that of E. B. White in the classic Charlotte's Web, New York Times Book Review contributor Karen Brailsford noted that Seidler "is prodding young readers [toward] tolerance and cooperation with the environment—and with themselves." Praising the author's imaginatively plotted story, Stephen Fraser added in Five Owls that Seidler's "language is elegant without sounding high-minded, creating a sophisticated yet wholly engaging read."

Horn Book commentator Martha V. Parravano also praised Seidler's prose in a review of his well-received Mean Margaret, a comical tale of woodchuck newlyweds whose lives are completely disrupted by the arrival of a human toddler named Margaret who has been abandoned near their burrow. Margaret quickly turns the woodchucks' quiet home into an uninhabitable mess in what Parravano described as a "very funny commentary on the demands and rewards of parenthood." "This witty novel about a cranky toddler and her adoptive parents slyly reverses the people-pets dynamic as it comments on modern relationships," wrote a critic for Publishers Weekly.

A bird-loving heroine is presented in Seidler's 1998 book, The Silent Spillbills, a "highly imaginative novel [that] offers suspense and offbeat humor," according to a reviewer for Publishers Weekly. Thirteen-year-old Katerina Farnsworth is on a crusade to save an endangered bird, the spillbill, whose habitat is threatened by the corporate maneuverings of her grandfather. Katerina, who suffers from stuttering, must learn through the course of the book to speak up for herself. Booklist reviewer Ilene Cooper praised the "deceptive effortlessness" of Seidler's writing, which she found "easy to respond to." "Young nature enthusiasts will likely want to see more of Katerina and her eccentric family," concluded the critic for Publishers Weekly.

Sibling rivalry is at the center of Brothers Below Zero, but "Seidler takes on an age-old story line . . . and spins it into a survival story with a soft mystical edge," explained a Kirkus Reviews contributor. Tim is constantly outshone by his younger brother, John Henry, until his beloved Great-aunt Winnifred brings out Tim's hidden talent for painting. Jealous, John Henry defaces one of Tim's paintings, sending Tim on a blind rush into the frigid winter night. The suddenly remorseful John Henry goes after him, leading to an "exciting, satisfying climax" which "blends family dynamics and intense action," Janet Hilbun wrote in School Library Journal.

Focusing his attention on computers, Seider published Brainboy and the Deathmaster in 2003, a novel featuring Darryl, a twelve year old suddenly orphaned after his parents perish in a fire. Placed in a shelter, the young boy takes advantage of the computer equipment and online games placed there by Keith Masterly, a giant in the world of computer gaming. Sensing the boy's talents, Masterly adopts Darryl and places him with the other computer prodigies he has "rescued." In Masterly's sprawling compound, the drugged children work on a sinister plot and are kept out of contact with the rest of the world. His suspicions raised, Darryl attempts to find a way out of his adopted father's complex and save his fellow imprisoned child researchers. Though finding some of the plot elements a bit far-fetched, a Publishers Weekly critic nonetheless thought that "the language, invariably crisp and bright, makes for a quick read." Writing in Horn Book, Susan P. Bloom predicted that the novel would appeal to a wide audience, claiming "everyone . . . will want to play this thrilling, hightech game of cat and mouse."

Despite the praise that his fiction has received, Seidler remains modest about his accomplishments as a writer. "I've been writing pretty much regularly for [several] years," he once told SATA, "and every once in the while I think I'm beginning to get the hang of it, but most of the time I really wonder."

Biographical and Critical Sources

PERIODICALS

Booklist, December 1, 1992, Carolyn Phelan, review of The Steadfast Tin Soldier, p. 665; November, 1993, Janice Del Negro, review of The Wainscott Weasel, p. 519; December 1, 1997, Michael Cart, review of Mean Margaret, p. 619; December 15, 1998, Ilene Cooper, review of The Silent Spillbills, p. 750; September 1, 2000, Barbara Baskin, review of The Silent Spillbills, p. 142; October 1, 2000, Rod Reid, review of Mean Margaret, p. 367; November 1, 2001, Gillian Engberg, review of The Revenge of Randal Reese-Rat, p. 479; January 1, 2002, Todd Morning, review of Brothers Below Zero, p. 845.

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, February, 1980, Zena Sutherland, review of The Dulcimer Boy, p. 118; December, 1982, Zena Sutherland, review of Terpin, p. 77; February, 1998, Deborah Stevenson, review of Mean Margaret, p. 218.

Childhood Education, winter, 2002, Timothy W. Easter, review of Brothers Below Zero, p. 111.

Five Owls, February, 1994, Stephen Fraser, review of The Wainscott Weasel, p. 62.

Horn Book, March-April, 1987, Ann A. Flowers, review of A Rat's Tale, p. 212; March-April, 1993, Ellen Fader, review of The Steadfast Tin Soldier, p. 192; January-February, 1998, Martha V. Parravano, review of Mean Margaret, p. 80; January-February, 2004, Susan P. Bloom, review of Brainboy and the Deathmaster, p. 92.

Junior Bookshelf, October, 1981, review of The Dulcimer Boy, p. 217; June, 1984, review of Terpin, p. 144.

Kirkus Reviews, December 1, 1998, review of The Silent Spillbills, p. 1740; August 15, 2001, review of The Revenge of Randal Reese-Rat, p. 1221; January 15, 2002, review of Brothers Below Zero, p. 108; September 15, 2003, review of Brainboy and the Deathmaster, p. 1182.

New Statesman, November 27, 1987, Marsha Rowe, review of A Rat's Tale, p. 35.

New York Times, November 30, 1982, George A. Woods, review of Terpin, pp. 23, C16; December 3, 1992, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, review of The Steadfast Tin Soldier, pp. B2, C19.

New York Times Book Review, December 5, 1982, review of Terpin, p. 22; January 25, 1987, Kenneth C. Davis, review of A Rat's Tale, p. 23; October 18, 1987, Francine Prose, review of The Tar Pit, p. 38; December 20, 1992, J. D. Landis, review of The Steadfast Tin Soldier, p. 19; November 14, 1993, Karen Brailsford, review of The Wainscott Weasel, p. 52; November 16, 1997, M. P. Dunleavey, review of Mean Margaret, p. 34; November 18, 2001, Nora Krug, review of The Revenge of Randal Reese-Rat, p. 52.

Publishers Weekly, November 19, 1982, review of Terpin, p. 77; October 31, 1986, review of A Rat's Tale, p. 68; June 22, 1990, review of Take a Good Look, p. 46; November 2, 1992, review of The Steadfast Tin Soldier, p. 81; September 20, 1993, review of The Wainscott Weasel, p. 73; August 18, 1997, review of Mean Margaret, p. 93; November 16, 1998, review of The Silent Spillbills, p. 75; July 30, 2001, review of The Revenge of Randal Reese-Rat, p. 85; January 14, 2002, review of Brothers Below Zero, p. 61; March 4, 2002, review of Terpin, p. 82; May 19, 2003, review of The Dulcimer Boy, p. 76; October 13, 2003, review of Brainboy and the Deathmaster, p. 80.

School Library Journal, March, 1983, Trev Jones, review of Terpin, p. 197; February, 1983, Linda Boyles, review of The Steadfast Tin Soldier, p. 68; January, 1987, Lyle Blake Smythers, review of A Rat's Tale, p. 79; December, 1993, Cheri Estes, review of The Wainscott Weasel, p. 116; November, 1997, Carrie Schadle, review of Mean Margaret, p. 99; July, 1998, Stephanie G. Miller, review of A Rat's Tale, p. 57; April, 1999, Susan Oliver, review of The Silent Spillbills, p. 142; December, 2000, Carol Robison, review of Mean Margaret, p. 79; October, 2001, Eva Mitnick, review of The Revenge of Randal Reese-Rat, p. 170; April, 2002, Janet Hilbun, review of Brothers Below Zero, p. 157.

ONLINE

East Hampton Star Web Site, http://archive.easthamptonstar.com/ehquery/(September 17, 1998), Joanne Pilgrim, "Tor Seidler: A World That Mirrors Our Own."*

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