(W.) Rodman Philbrick (1951-) Biography
Personal, Career, Honors Awards, Writings, Adaptations, Work in Progress, Sidelights
(William R. Dantz, Chris Jordan, W. R. Philbrick)
Born 1951, in Boston, MA; Hobbies and other interests: Fishing.
Writer, 1987—. Formerly worked as a longshoreman and boat builder.
Best Novel award, Private Eye Writers of America, 1993, for Brothers and Sinners; Judy Lopez Memorial award honor book, 1994, Nebraska Golden Sower Award, Wyoming Soaring Eagle Award, 1997, California Young Readers Award, Arizona Young Readers Award, Maryland Children's Middle School Book Award, Charlotte Award, New York State Reading Association, Best Young-Adult Book of the Year and Recommended Book for the Young-Adult Reluctant Reader designations, both American Library Association (ALA), all for Freak the Mighty; Best Science-Fiction selection, Voice of Youth Advocates, 2000, and Best Young-Adult Book of the Year selection, ALA, 2001, both for The Last Book in the Universe.
NOVELS; FOR YOUNG ADULTS
Freak the Mighty, Blue Sky Press (New York, NY), 1993, published as The Mighty, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1997.
The Fire Pony, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1996.
Max the Mighty, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1998.
(With wife, Lynn Harnett) Abduction, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1998.
REM World: Where Nothing Is Real and Everything Is about to Disappear, Scholastic (New York, NY), 2000.
The Last Book in the Universe, Scholastic (New York, NY), 2000.
The Journal of Douglas Allen Deeds: The Donner Party Expedition (historical fiction), Scholastic (New York, NY), 2001.
The Young Man and the Sea, Blue Sky Press (New York, NY), 2004.
Philbrick also adapted Freak the Mighty as one-and two-act plays.
"HOUSE ON CHERRY STREET" SERIES; FOR YOUNG ADULTS
(With Lynn Harnett) The Haunting, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1995.
(With Lynn Harnett) The Horror, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1995.
(With Lynn Harnett) The Final Nightmare, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1995.
"VISITORS" SERIES; FOR YOUNG ADULTS
(With Lynn Harnett) Strange Invaders, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1997.
(With Lynn Harnett) Things, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1997.
(With Lynn Harnett) Brain Stealers, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1997.
"WEREWOLF CHRONICLES" SERIES; FOR YOUNG ADULTS
Night Creature, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1996.
Children of the Wolf, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1996.
The Wereing, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1996.
Brothers and Sinners, Dutton (New York, NY), 1993.
Dark Matter, Xlibris (Philadelphia, PA), 2000.
Coffins, Forge (New York, NY), 2002.
MYSTERY NOVELS; UNDER PSEUDONYM W. R. PHILBRICK; FOR ADULTS
Shooting Star, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1982.
Slow Dancer: A Connie Kale Investigation, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1984.
Shadow Kills: A J. D. Hawkins Mystery, Beaufort (New York, NY), 1985.
Ice for the Eskimo: A J. D. Hawkins Mystery, Beaufort (New York, NY), 1986.
The Neon Flamingo: A T. D. Stash Crime Adventure, New American Library (New York, NY), 1987.
The Crystal Blue Persuasion: A T. D. Stash Crime Adventure, New American Library (New York, NY), 1988.
Tough Enough: A T. D. Stash Crime Adventure, New American Library (New York, NY), 1989.
Paint It Black: A J. D. Hawkins Mystery, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1989.
The Big Chip, illustrated by Bruce Jensen, Microsoft Press (Redmond, WA), 1990.
Walk on the Water: A J. D. Hawkins Mystery, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1991.
UNDER PSEUDONYM WILLIAM R. DANTZ
Pulse, Avon (New York, NY), 1990.
The Seventh Sleeper, Morrow (New York, NY), 1991.
Hunger, Tor (New York, NY), 1992.
Nine Levels Down, Forge (New York, NY), 1999.
Author of unproduced screenplays The Fire Pony, Stop Time, and Nine Levels Down, based on his novels.
The motion picture The Mighty was adapted from Philbrick's novel Freak the Mighty and produced by Miramax, 1998.
Work in Progress
The True Tales of Homer Figg, a young-adult novel set during the U.S. Civil War; Taken, an adult thriller to be published in 2006 under the pseudonym Chris Jordan.
Rodman Philbrick, a screenwriter as well as a novelist, started his career as an author of adult thrillers before shifting his interest to young-adult fiction. Gaining national accolades for his debut novel for teen readers, Freak the Mighty, Philbrick has gone on to lead a double life, continuing to pen adult mysteries while also adding to the body of fiction available to younger readers, sometimes in collaboration with his wife, journalist and author Lynn Harnett. Among Philbrick's novels for teens are The Fire Pony, The Last Book in the Universe, and The Young Man and the Sea, while his works for adults include Dark Matter and Brothers and Sinners, the latter a winner of the Private Eye Writers of America's best novel award in 1993.
Born in Boston, Massachusetts, Philbrick grew up close to the New England coast, where one of his hobbies, fishing, is a prominent regional industry. Although he had completed a novel-length work by the time he was in high school, adulthood for Philbrick meant focusing on the day-to-day necessities of earning a living. Drawing his livelihood from the sea in traditional New England fashion, he worked as both a longshoreman and a boat builder, but still found enough time to complete several novels. Unfortunately those works were not accepted for publication. In 1982, however, the author made his literary debut with Shooting Star, published under the name W. R. Philbrick.
Philbrick's Slow Dancer, the first of two novels featuring female sleuth Connie Kale, was released two years later, and by 1987 the writer had left his other occupations behind to devote himself to novel-writing full time. Working out the twists and turns of plots to mysteries and detective novels now became his stock in trade, with some of his work published under the pseudonym William R. Dantz. The prolific Philbrick would write more than a dozen mystery novels for adults before moving into the young-adult market in the early 1990s.
The move from adult whodunits to teen fiction happened, as Philbrick recalled, "more or less by accident." It was inspired by a boy from his own neighborhood, the novelist once explained. "I used to see two kids walking down the street near our apartment. One of them was a big guy and he sometimes carried the small kid on his shoulders. Later my wife and I became friends with the small boy's mother. We discovered that the small boy had Morquio Syndrome, which meant he would never grow to be more than three feet tall. He was extraordinarily bright, had a love for words and books, and an interest in sci-fi and Arthurian legends. About a year after his tragic death, I got an idea for a story inspired by his very special personality. The story is fiction, but I never would have written it if I hadn't known the boy himself."
Inspired by the imagination and courage of his young neighbor, Philbrick penned Freak the Mighty, an award-winning work that has been translated into numerous languages and is read in classrooms throughout the world. The novel is described by School Library Journal contributor Libby K. White as "a wonderful story of triumph over imperfection, shame, and loss." In the book middle-school narrator Maxwell Kane feels doubly cursed. Not only is he clumsy, big boned, and condemned to an academic life of torment as a learning-disabled kid, but his dad is in prison for killing Maxwell's mom and the whole town knows about it. A loner, he spends much of his time in his room in the basement of his grandparents' house. Then something happens to change the dull despair of each passing day: a new boy moves in next door whom Max recognizes from his day-care days. The new boy, Kevin, is wheelchair-bound due to a birth defect that has prevented him from growing physically; however, he has an imagination and an energy that allow him to soar mentally. Soon Max and "Freak"—Kevin's name for himself—are the best of friends. With Kevin sitting astride Max's broad shoulders, the two dub their joint self "Freak the Mighty," channeling the one's strength and the other's intelligence to confront the taunting of other children and get out and explore the world. Caught up in the legend of King Arthur and his noble knights, the two boys search for causes to battle, one of which proves scary: "Killer" Kane returns and kidnaps Max, who escapes only with Kevin's help. Sadly, the effects of Morquio Syndrome begin to overtake Kevin, and he finally dies. Left to continue on his own, Max "is left with the memory of an extraordinary relationship," as well as a heightened sense of his own worth and a more optimistic outlook on his future, according to White.
The winner of numerous awards, Freak the Mighty has been lauded by reviewers for its sensitivity and ability to appeal to more reluctant readers. Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books reviewer Deborah Stevenson praised Philbrick's novel as "a sentimental story written with energy and goofy humor instead of sentimentality," while Horn Book, contributor Nancy Vasilakis called the novel "a fascinating excursion into the lives of people whose freakishness proves to be a thin cover for their very human existence." Stephanie Zvirin, meanwhile, labeled it "both riveting and poignant, with solid characters, brisk pacing, and even a little humor to carry us along" in her Booklist review.
In addition to inspiring a feature film, Freak the Mighty also sparked a sequel, Max the Mighty, which was published in 1998. Reuniting with narrator Max Kane now that he is on his own, readers are introduced to Max's new friend, Rachel, a pre-teen who has escaped so far into her hobby of reading that fellow students now refer to her as the "Worm." What prompts Rachel's reading is her need to mentally escape from the abusive household in which she has found herself since her Mom's remarriage. Unfortunately, books cannot save her from her unstable stepdad, dubbed the "Undertaker" because of his creepy demeanor. The much older Max, now aged fourteen, eventually agrees to help Rachel run away and find her real father. On their way to Chivalry, Montana, in search of Rachel's real dad, the pair encounter a colorful cast of characters ranging from wild dogs to con artists, and have numerous adventures, all the while trying to elude both the Undertaker, who follows in pursuit, and the police, who are hunting Max in response to the kidnapping charges filed by Rachel's stepfather.
Noting that the ending of Max the Mighty is filled with "surprises" and is "more upbeat" than Philbrick's previous YA novel, a Publishers Weekly reviewer called the book a "rip-roaring, heartwarming escapade." Although Nancy Vasilakis noted that several of the story's zany characters "sometimes threaten to stretch the reader's sense of reality to its limits," she concluded in her Horn Book review that Max and Rachel "grab our attention and engage your heart."
Fire Pony also uses Montana as its setting and features a young man as its narrator. In the story, half-brothers Joe and Roy Dilly are on their own, having fled from ranch to ranch after the habits of arsonist Joe put an end to job after job. Now Joe has found work at the Bar None Ranch, where the owner, Nick Jessup, raises Arabian horses. The older of the two brothers, Joe has a talent for both blacksmithing and saddle-breaking horses and soon becomes a prized employee. Meanwhile, eleven-year-old Roy, while remaining concerned that his older brother's fascination with fire will ultimately force the two to go on the run again, begins to settle in at the ranch. Trying to follow in Joe's footsteps, he attempts to break a palomino filly named Lady Luck, which Jessup has promised to Roy if he is successful. Ultimately, Roy rides Lady Luck to glory at a rodeo, despite the efforts of another man named Mullins to thwart the boy's success and get the horse for himself. Older brother Joe, angered at Mullins, first accosts the man, then goes into a hay field and sets a fire which quickly grows out of control and ultimately threatens the life of Roy and Lady Luck.
Noting the complex personalities of the two brothers, Horn Book contributor Martha V. Parravano commented that Philbrick's portrait of "the scarred but spirited Roy is near flawless"; likewise, Joe is "loving and funny and talented even as he is scary and unpredictable and disturbed." Praising Joe's rescue effort as the high point of the novel, School Library Journal contributor Christina Linz noted that The Fire Pony "has plenty of action and suspense and is a good choice for reluctant readers."
"The idea for The Fire Pony came while Lynn and I were driving across the Southwest," Philbrick once explained. "I loved the landscape, and when we got to California the state was suffering from a rash of fires. The two ideas combined into a story about a boy and his older brother, who is not only a talented farrier, but a sometimes arsonist. The idea from that part may have been inspired by my love of Faulkner, in particular his story 'The Barn Burner.'"
While The Fire Pony, Freak the Mighty, and its sequel are very "issue-oriented" novels—learning disabilities, single parenting, and family violence are just a few of the subjects covered—Philbrick's more recent books for younger readers, particularly those written with his wife, Lynn Harnett, are fun reads which also contain a salting of typical teen concerns in their plots. Because of the fast-paced action and the relatively simple vocabulary in such books as The Haunting, Abduction, and Children of the Wolf, they have been praised for their ability to motivate even reluctant readers to turn the page and see what happens next. Part of their success may be credited to Philbrick and Harnett's ability to devise a system of working together that seems to work well. As Philbrick explained, "Lynn and I discuss story ideas. Then I write an outline and Lynn does all the heavy lifting, writing the first draft of the chapters. After more discussion we polish up a finished draft."
"I don't have any 'lessons' in mind when I write about adolescent kids," Philbrick explained in response to a question regarding his opinion on the importance of inserting a "message" in books for young adult readers. "Most of what I write, and the first person 'voice' I use, comes out of my own memories of being that age. The books Lynn Harnett and I collaborate on are intended to be easy-reading mass market paperbacks. My own work might be considered slightly more 'serious,' but, I hope, still entertaining enough to hold a reader's attention. For the most part I find that all young readers really want is a good story, of whatever type." However, Philbrick also expressed delight that the techniques he uses in creating his adult mysteries—"how to keep a reader turning pages to find out what happens next," for example—have been of value in his YA projects.
Philbrick returned to solo projects with The Last Book in the Universe and REM World: Where Nothing Is Real and Everything Is about to Disappear. In the latter novel ten-year-old Arthur Woodbury has a weight problem that makes him the object of his classmates' jokes. He buys a weight-loss device from the REM World Products company, which promises that the contraption will help him slim down while he sleeps. However, Arthur does not follow the instructions for the new gadget properly, and is instead transported to REM world, with little hope of getting back home. Arthur's arrival in REM world also disrupts the laws of the magical universe, placing its existence in jeopardy. In order to save the REM universe and return to his own world, Arthur embarks on a series of adventures involving a diverse group of fantastic creatures. With the help of these beings, Arthur is able to accomplish his twin goals, and in the process loses weight and develops courage. A Publishers Weekly reviewer praised the novel, noting that its "imaginative characters" make it a "fun and fast-paced read." School Library Journal reviewer Nina Lindsay found the plot a bit thin, but praised the book for its "action-packed, cliff-hanging chapters."
The Last Book in the Universe is a science-fiction novel set in a dystopic future, where civilization as we know it has been destroyed by a major earthquake. A few people have created a new, better, isolated society called "Eden"; the unlucky remainder face deadly pollution and rule by brutal gangs. Many of those who live in the "Urbs," as the non-Eden part of the world is known, escape from reality through virtual-reality movies inserted directly into their brains via mind probes. The book's protagonist, Spaz, does not have this option—his epilepsy (the source of his nickname) prevents him from using them. A reluctant gang member, Spaz ends up befriending an old man named Ryter whom the teen was sent to rob, and together the two set out on a quest to save Spaz's critically ill foster sister, Bean. Their party picks up several other members along the way, including Lanaya, a resident of Eden; and Little Face, an orphan.
"Philbrick has created some memorable characters in this fast-paced adventure," Debbie Carton declared in Booklist, adding that The Last Book in the Universe "will leave readers musing over humanity's future." School Library Journal reviewer Louise L. Sherman also noted the "strong and provocative messages" in the book, while Kliatt contributor Paula Rohrlick thought that "Spaz's adventures and moral dilemmas in a strange and scary setting, vividly told from his viewpoint, make this an absorbing story with some depth to it." A Publishers Weekly critic praised other aspects of The Last Book in the Universe, noting that "Philbrick's creation of a futuristic dialect, combined with striking descriptions of a postmodern civilization, will convincingly transport readers to Spaz's world."
Philbrick branched out into historical fiction with The Journal of Douglas Allen Deeds: The Donner Party Expedition. While Douglas Allen Deeds was an actual member of the Donner Party, the infamous group of pioneers who were stranded in the Sierra Nevada mountains during the winter of 1846-47, the diary Philbrick creates for the fifteen-year-old orphan is fictionalized. Philbrick relates the well-known calamities that struck the party, including illness, starvation, and eventually cannibalism, but he also "show[s] the changes in people brought about by incredible hardships," Lana Mills wrote in School Library Journal. The author generally "shows the action rather than merely telling about it," Kay Weisman commented in Booklist, with the exception of the incidents of cannibalism—Deeds, disgusted at the thought, heads off into the forest so that he will not have to watch while the others "take advantage of what has been provided."
The Young Man and the Sea is "a rousing sea adventure with plenty of heart," Peter D. Sieruta declared in Horn Book. The young man of the title is Skiff Beaman, a twelve-year-old resident of the Maine coast. Skiff's mother has recently died, and his father, formerly a fisherman, now spends all of his time watching TV and drinking, while his neglected boat finally sinks next to the dock. Skiff makes raising and repairing the Mary Rose his mission, but fixing the waterlogged engine will cost over 5,000 dollars. The quickest way to make that much money is by catching just one of the massive, prized bluefin tuna that live in the ocean off Maine, so Skiff sets off in a tiny boat, seeking one of the 900-pound fish.
Skiff's hunting of the tuna is related "in a 70-plus-page action sequence that inspires awe for both man and nature," noted a Publishers Weekly reviewer. Philbrick's "excellent maritime bildungsroman has all of the makings of a juvenile classic," Jeffrey Hastings wrote in School Library Journal, citing the novel's "wide-open adventure, heart-pounding suspense, and just the right amount of tear-jerking pathos."
The Young Man and the Sea has clear parallels to early twentieth-century writer Ernest Hemingway's classic The Old Man and the Sea, including its spare language and reliance on inner dialogue. "I haven't read the Hemingway story since I was in high school," Philbrick told Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy interviewer James Blasingame, "but obviously it made a big impression."
As a writer, Philbrick remains constantly busy, reserving his mornings for his craft, and rewarding himself with a chance to go fishing in the afternoon. A voracious reader for many years, he counts among his favorite authors suspense novelist Elmore Leonard, as well as writers Mark Twain and Joseph Conrad. Perhaps because of his roots in the seafaring culture of the New England shoreline, Philbrick also enjoys the sea-going fiction of Patrick O'Brien. He and his wife divide their time between their home in Maine and the Florida Keys.
Biographical and Critical Sources
Philbrick, Rodman, The Journal of Douglas Allen Deeds: The Donner Party Expedition, Scholastic (New York, NY), 2001.
ALAN Review, winter, 1999; winter, 2001, Rodman Philbrick, "Listening to Kids in America," pp. 13-16. Booklist, December 15, 1993, Stephanie Zvirin, review of
Freak the Mighty, p. 748; June 1, 1998, Susan Dove Lempke, review of Max the Mighty, pp. 1749-1750; December 15, 1998, Ilene Cooper, review of Freak the Mighty, p. 751; May 1, 2000, review of REM World: Where Nothing Is Real and Everything Is about to Disappear, p. 1670; November 15, 2000, Debbie Carton, review of The Last Book in the Universe, p. 636; August, 2001, Anna Rich, review of The Last Book in the Universe, p. 2142; January 1, 2002, Kay Weisman, review of The Journal of Douglas Alan Deeds: The Donner Party Expedition, p. 859; March 15, 2005, Patricia Austin, review of The Young Man and the Sea, p. 1313.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, January, 1994, Deborah Stevenson, review of Freak the Mighty, p. 165; July-August, 1996, p. 383; April, 1998, Deborah Stevenson, review of Max the Mighty, p. 291; March, 2004, Elizabeth Bush, review of The Young Man and the Sea, p. 291.
Childhood Education, winter, 2000, Barbara F. Backer, review of REM World, p. 109.
Horn Book, January-February, 1994, Nancy Vasilakis, review of Freak the Mighty, p. 74; July-August, 1996, Martha V. Parravano, review of The Fire Pony, p. 464; July-August, 1998, Nancy Vasilakis, review of Max the Mighty, p. 495. review of Freak the Mighty, p. 165; March-April, 2004, Peter D. Sieruta, review of The Young Man and the Sea, p. 187.
Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, March, 2004, James Blasingame, interview with Philbrick, p. 518.
Kirkus Reviews, February 15, 1998, review of Max the Mighty, p. 272; January 15, 2004, review of The Young Man and the Sea, p. 87.
Kliatt, March, 1999, review of Abduction, p. 26; May, 2002, Paula Rohrlick, review of The Last Book in the Universe, p. 29; January, 2004, Claire Rosser, review of The Young Man and the Sea, p. 12.
New Yorker, December 13, 1993, pp. 115-116.
Publishers Weekly, January 26, 1998, review of Max the Mighty, p. 91; March 27, 2000, review of REM World, p. 81; November 27, 2000, review of The Last Book in the Universe, p. 77; January 14, 2002, review of Coffins, p. 46; February 16, 2004, review of The Young Man and the Sea, p. 173.
School Library Journal, December, 1993, Libby K. White, review of Freak the Mighty, p. 137; September, 1996, Christina Linz, review of The Fire Pony, p. 206; April, 1998, Marilyn Payne Phillips, review of Max the Mighty, p. 136; July, 1998, Brian E. Wilson, review of Freak the Mighty, p. 56; May, 2000, Nina Lindsay, review of REM World, p. 175; November, 2000, Susan L. Rogers, review of The Last Book in the Universe, p. 160; July, 2001, Louise L. Sherman, review of The Last Book in the Universe, p. 60; December, 2001, Lana Miles, review of The Journal of Douglas Allen Deeds, p. 142; February, 2004, Jeffrey Hastings, review of The Young Man and the Sea, p. 152; October, 2004, review of The Young Man and the Sea, p. 54; April, 2005, Larry Cooperman, review of The Young Man and the Sea, p. 76.
Voice of Youth Advocates, April, 1994, p. 30; October, 1996, p. 212; June, 1998, p. 124.
Rodman Philbrick Web site, http://www.rodmanphilbrick.com (July 6, 2005).
SeacoastNH.com, http://www.seacoastnh.com/ (1999), interview with Philbrick.
TeensPoint.org, http://www.teenspoint.org/ (May 17, 2005), Scott Phillips, "Rodman Philbrick: The Writing Life."