Bruce (Farrington) Coville (1950-)
Personal, Addresses, Career, Member, Honors Awards, Writings, Adaptations, Sidelights, Autobiography Feature
Born 1950, in Syracuse, NY; Education: Attended Duke University and State University of New York at Binghamton; State University of New York at Oswego, B.A., 1974. Politics: "Eclectic." Religion: Unitarian.
Agent—Ashley Grayson, 1342 18th Street, San Pedro, CA 90732.
Author. Wetzel Road Elementary, Liverpool, NY, teacher, 1974-81; Full Cast Audio, Syracuse, NY, founder, president, and publisher, 2002—. Co-host and co-producer of Upstage, a cable program promoting local theater, 1983. Has also worked as a camp counselor, grave digger, assembly line worker, and toy maker.
Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Authors Guild, Dramatists Guild.
California Young Reader Medal, 1996-97, for Jennifer Murdley's Toad; Knickerbocker Award, New York State Library Association, for entire body of work, 1997; over a dozen Children's Choice awards from various states, including Arizona, Hawaii, Maryland, and Nevada.
The Foolish Giant, illustrated by wife, Katherine Coville, Lippincott (Philadelphia, PA), 1978.
Sarah's Unicorn, illustrated by Katherine Coville, Lippincott (Philadelphia, PA), 1979.
Sarah and the Dragon, illustrated by Beth Peck, Harper (New York, NY), 1984.
My Grandfather's House, illustrated by Henri Sorensen, BridgeWater, 1996.
The Lapsnatcher, illustrated by Marissa Moss, BridgeWater, 1997.
The Prince of Butterflies, illustrated by John Clapp, Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 2000.
Space Station ICE III, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1987, revised, Archway, 1996.
Monster of the Year, illustrated by Harvey Kurtzman, Pocket (New York, NY), 1989.
Goblins in the Castle, illustrated by Katherine Coville, Pocket (New York, NY), 1992.
The Dragonslayers, illustrated by Katherine Coville, Pocket (New York, NY), 1994.
The World's Worst Fairy Godmother, illustrated by Katherine Coville, Pocket (New York, NY), 1996.
The Monsters of Morley Manor, Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 2001.
Thor's Wedding Day, Harcourt (Orlando, FL), 2005.
"I WAS A SIXTH-GRADE ALIEN" SERIES
I Was a Sixth-Grade Alien, illustrated by Tony Sansevero, Pocket (New York, NY), 1999.
The Attack of the Two-Inch Teacher, illustrated by Tony Sansevero, Pocket (New York, NY), 1999.
I Lost My Grandfather's Brain, illustrated by Tony Sansevero, Pocket (New York, NY), 1999.
Peanut Butter Lover Boy, illustrated by Tony Sansevero, Pocket (New York, NY), 2000.
Zombies of the Science Fair, illustrated by Tony Sansevero, Pocket (New York, NY), 2000.
Don't Fry My Veeblax!, illustrated by Tony Sansevero, Pocket (New York, NY), 2000.
Too Many Aliens, illustrated by Tony Sansevero, Pocket (New York, NY), 2000.
Snatched from Earth, illustrated by Tony Sansevero, Pocket (New York, NY), 2000.
There's an Alien in My Backpack, illustrated by Tony Sansevero, Pocket (New York, NY), 2000.
Revolt of the Miniature Mutants, illustrated by Tony Sansevero, Pocket (New York, NY), 2001.
There's an Alien in My Underwear, illustrated by Tony Sansevero, Pocket (New York, NY), 2001
Farewell to Earth, illustrated by Tony Sansevero, Pocket (New York, NY), 2001.
YOUNG ADULT NOVELS
Fortune's Journey, BridgeWater, 1995.
(With Jane Yolen) Armageddon Summer, Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 1998.
YOUNG ADULT SHORT STORY COLLECTIONS
Oddly Enough, illustrated by Michael Hussar, Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 1994.
Odder Than Ever, Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 1999.
"CHAMBER OF HORROR" SERIES; YOUNG ADULT NOVELS
Spirits and Spells, Dell, 1983, revised edition published as Bruce Coville's Chamber of Horror: Spirits and Spells, Archway, 1996.
The Eyes of the Tarot, Dell, 1983, revised edition published as Bruce Coville's Chamber of Horror: The Eyes of the Tarot, Archway, 1996.
Waiting Spirits, Bantam, 1984, revised edition published as Bruce Coville's Chamber of Horror: Waiting Spirits, Archway, 1986.
Amulet of Doom Dell, 1985, revised edition published as Bruce Coville's Chamber of Horror: Amulet of Doom, Archway, 1996.
"A.I. GANG" SERIES
Operation Sherlock, NAL (New York, NY), 1986, revised, Minstrel, 1995.
Robot Trouble, NAL (New York, NY), 1986, revised, Minstrel, 1995.
Forever Begins Tomorrow, NAL (New York, NY), 1986, revised, Minstrel, 1995.
"CAMP HAUNTED HILLS" SERIES
How I Survived My Summer Vacation, illustrated by Tom Newsom, Pocket (New York, NY), 1988.
Some of My Best Friends Are Monsters, illustrated by Tom Newsom, Pocket (New York, NY), 1989.
The Dinosaur That Followed Me Home, illustrated by John Pierard, Pocket (New York, NY), 1990.
"MY TEACHER" SERIES
My Teacher Is an Alien, illustrated by Mike Wimmer, Pocket (New York, NY), 1989.
My Teacher Fried My Brains, illustrated by J. Pierard, Pocket (New York, NY), 1991.
My Teacher Glows in the Dark, illustrated by J. Pierard, Pocket (New York, NY), 1991.
My Teacher Flunked the Planet, illustrated by J. Pierard, Pocket (New York, NY), 1992.
"MAGIC SHOP" SERIES
The Monster's Ring, illustrated by Katherine Coville, Knopf (New York, NY), 1982.
Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher, illustrated by Gary A. Lippincott, Harcourt, 1991.
Jennifer Murdley's Toad, illustrated by Gary A. Lippincott, Harcourt, 1992.
The Skull of Truth, illustrated by Gary A. Lippincott, Harcourt, 1997.
Juliet Dove, Queen of Love, Harcourt (Orlando, FL), 2003.
"NINA TANLEVEN" SERIES
The Ghost in the Third Row, Bantam (New York, NY), 1987.
The Ghost Wore Gray, Bantam (New York, NY), 1988.
Ghost in the Big Brass Bed, Bantam (New York, NY), 1991.
"SPACE BRAT" SERIES; CHAPTER BOOKS
Space Brat, illustrated by Katherine Coville, Pocket (New York, NY), 1992.
Blork's Evil Twin, illustrated by Katherine Coville, Pocket (New York, NY), 1993.
The Wrath of Squat, illustrated by Katherine Coville, Pocket (New York, NY), 1994.
Planet of the Dips, illustrated by Katherine Coville, Pocket (New York, NY), 1995.
The Saber-toothed Poodnoobie, illustrated by Katherine Coville, Pocket (New York, NY), 1997.
"ALIEN ADVENTURES" SERIES
Aliens Ate My Homework, illustrated by Katherine Coville, Pocket (New York, NY), 1993.
I Left My Sneakers in Dimension X, illustrated by Katherine Coville, Pocket (New York, NY), 1994.
The Search for Snout, illustrated by Katherine Coville, Pocket (New York, NY), 1995.
Aliens Stole My Body, illustrated by Katherine Coville, Pocket (New York, NY), 1998.
"UNICORN CHRONICLES" SERIES
Into the Land of the Unicorns, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1994.
The Song of the Wanderer, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1999.
"MOONGOBBLE AND ME" SERIES
The Dragon of Doom, illustrated by Katherine Coville, Simon & Schuster, 2003.
The Weeping Werewolf, illustrated by Katherine Coville, Simon & Schuster, 2004.
The Evil Elves, illustrated by Katherine Coville, Simon & Schuster, 2004.
COMPILER AND EDITOR
The Unicorn Treasury, illustrated by Tim Hildebrandt, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1987.
Herds of Thunder, Manes of Gold: A Collection of Horse Stories and Poems, illustrated by Ted Lewin, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1991.
Bruce Coville's Book of Monsters, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1993.
Bruce Coville's Book of Aliens, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1994.
Bruce Coville's Book of Ghosts, illustrated by J. Pierard, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1994.
Bruce Coville's Book of Nightmares, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1995.
Bruce Coville's Book of Spine Tinglers, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1996.
Bruce Coville's Book of Magic, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1996.
Bruce Coville's Book of Monsters II, illustrated by J. Pierard, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1996.
Bruce Coville's Book of Aliens II, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1996.
Bruce Coville's Book of Ghosts II, illustrated by J. Pierard, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1997.
Bruce Coville's Book of Nightmares II, illustrated by J. Pierard, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1997.
Bruce Coville's Book of Spine Tinglers II, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1997.
Bruce Coville's Book of Magic II, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1997.
(Compiler) A Glory of Unicorns, illustrated by Alix Berenzy, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1998.
(With Elizabeth Skurnick) Bruce Coville's Alien Visitors, illustrated by Alex Sunder and John Nyberg, Avon (New York, NY), 1999.
(With Steve Roman) Bruce Coville's Shapeshifters, illustrated by Ernie Colon and John Nyberg, Avon (New York, NY), 1999.
(With Steve Roman) Bruce Coville's UFO's, illustrated by Ernie Colon and John Nyberg, Avon (New York, NY), 2000.
(With Steve Roman) Bruce Coville's Strange Worlds, illustrated by Ernie Colon and John Nyberg, Avon (New York, NY), 2000.
Half-Human (short story anthology), illustrated by Marc Tauss, Scholastic (New York, NY), 2001.
RETELLER; PICTURE BOOKS
William Shakespeare's The Tempest, illustrated by Ruth Sanderson, Bantam (New York, NY), 1993.
William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, illustrated by Dennis Nolan, Dial (New York, NY), 1996.
William Shakespeare's Macbeth, illustrated by Gary Kelley, Dial (New York, NY), 1997.
William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, illustrated by Dennis Nolan, Dial (New York, NY), 1999.
William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, illustrated by Tim Raglin, Dial (New York, NY), 2003.
William Shakespeare, William Shakespeare's Hamlet, illustrated by Leonid Gore, Dial (New York, NY), 2004.
(Author of book and lyrics) The Dragonslayers, music by Angela Peterson, first produced at Syracuse Musical Theater, NY, 1981.
(Author of book and lyrics) Out of the Blue, music by Angela Peterson, first produced at Syracuse Musical Theater, NY, 1982.
(Author of book and lyrics with Barbara Russell) It's Midnight: Do You Know Where Your Toys Are?, music by Angela Peterson, first produced at Syracuse Musical Theater, NY, 1983.
(With others) Seniority Travel Directory, Schueler Communications, 1986., first produced in 1989.
(Author of lyrics) Faculty Room (adult musical), music by Angela Peterson
The Dark Abyss (adult novel), Bantam (New York, NY), 1989.
Prehistoric People (nonfiction), illustrated by Michael Mc-Dermott, Doubleday, 1990.
Contributor to anthologies, including Dragons and Dreams, 1986, and Am I Blue?, 1994. Contributor to Harper's Bookletter, Sesame Street Parent's Newsletter, Cricket, and Wilson Library Bulletin. Associate editor, Syracuse Business and Syracuse Magazine, both 1982-83; editor and columnist, Seniority, 1983-84. Author, under pseudonym Robyn Tallis, of two books in the "Planet Builder" series, Night of Two New Moons, 1985, and Mountain of Stolen Dreams, 1988.
The Monster's Ring (cassette), Recorded Books, 1992; The Ghost Wore Gray (cassette), Recorded Books, 1993; Jennifer Murdley's Toad (cassette), Listening Library, 1996; Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher (cassette), Listening Library, 1996; The Ghost in the Big Brass Bed (cassette), Recorded Books, 1996; The Ghost in the Third Row (cassette), 1996; Aliens Ate My Homework (cassette), Listening Library, 1998; Into the Land of the Unicorns: The Unicorn Chronicles Book I (cassette), Listening Library, 1998; The Skull of Truth, (cassette), Listening Library, 1998; My Teacher Is an Alien (cassette), Listening Library, 1998; The Attack of the Two-Inch Teacher (cassette), Listening Library; Bruce Coville's Book of Monsters: Tales to Give You the Creeps (cassette), Listening Library; The Dragonslayers (cassette), Listening Library; I Lost My Grandfather's Brain (cassette), Listening Library; Fortune's Journey (cassette), Recorded Books, 1998; Armageddon Summer (cassette), Recorded Books, 1999; I Was a Sixth-Grade Alien (cassette), Recorded Books, 2000; Shakespeare's Greatest Hits, Vol. 1 (cassettes; contains performances of William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, William Shakespeare's Macbeth, William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, and William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night), Full Cast Audio, 2003. William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream (cassette), Recorded Books; The Dragon of Doom (cassette), Full Cast Audio; Juliet Dove, Queen of Love (cassette), Full Cast Audio; The Monsters of Morley Manor (cassette), Full Cast Audio; Song of the Wanderer (cassette), Full Cast Audio; The Weeping Werewolf (cassette), Full Cast Audio.
The Monster's Ring was adapted from broadcast on CBS Storybreak, Columbia Broadcasting System, Inc. (CBS); I Was a Sixth-Grade Alien was adapted as a television series, Fox Family TV, 1999-2000, Fox Family/YTV (Canada), 2000—.
Bruce Coville is well known as a writer of juvenile fiction and young adult bestsellers such as Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher. His novels draw heavily on mythical creatures, such as unicorns and dragons, and science fiction traditions, such as aliens and space stations, often with a humorous twist. He has also contributed to and edited volumes of short stories and completed several musical plays for younger audiences. As he once told SATA, he cherishes memories of his childhood, noting that his early surroundings nurtured his vivid imagination: "I was raised in Phoenix, a small town in central New York. Actually, I lived well outside the town, around the corner from my grandparents' dairy farm, which was the site of my happiest childhood times. I still have fond memories of the huge barns with their mows and lofts, mysterious relics, and jostling cattle. It was a wonderful place for a child to grow up. In addition to the farm, there was a swamp behind the house, and a rambling wood beyond that, both of which were conducive to all kinds of imaginative games." It was during this period that Coville began to develop the heightened sensibility often possessed by writers of fantasy.
Coville's father, not bookish himself, was instrumental in exposing the young Bruce to the delightful world of literature. Coville once recounted in SATA: "Despite this wonderful setting, much of what went on at that time went on in my head, when I was reading, or thinking and dreaming about what I had read. I was an absolute bookaholic. My father had something to do with this." Coville went on to explain: "He was a traveling salesman, a gruff but loving man, who never displayed an overwhelming interest in books. But if anyone was to ask me what was the best thing he ever did for me I could reply without hesitation that he read me Tom Swift in the City of Gold. Why he happened to read this to me I was never quite certain, but it changed my life. One night after supper he took me into the living room, had me sit in his lap, and opened a thick, ugly brown book (this was the original Tom Swift) and proceeded to open a whole new world for me. I was enthralled, listened raptly, waited anxiously for the next night and the next, resented any intrusion, and reread the book several times later on my own. It was the only book I can ever remember him reading to me, but it changed my life. I was hooked on books."
Coville may have loved books, but like many other authors, the realization that he wanted to be a writer came very abruptly. He once told SATA: "I think it was sixth grade when I first realized that writing was something that I could do, and wanted to do very much. As it happened, I had spent most of that year making life miserable for my teacher by steadfastly failing to respond to the many creative devices she had to stimulate us to write. Then one day she simply (finally!) just let us write—told us that we had a certain amount of time to produce a short story of substance. Freed from writing topics imposed from without, I cut loose, and over several days found that I loved what I was doing. This may not be the first time that I knew I wanted to write, but it's the time that I remember." In addition to writing, Coville went on to be a teacher. He held a full-time position at Wetzel Road Elementary School, in Liverpool, New York, for seven years starting in 1974.
However, writing was always Coville's first love. He was introduced to the possibilities of writing for children by the woman who later became his mother-in-law. He once explained in SATA that she "gave me a copy of Winnie the Pooh to read, and I suddenly knew that what I really wanted to write was children's books—to give to other children the joy that I got from books when I was young. This is the key to what I write now. I try with greater or lesser success, to make my stories the kinds of things that I would have enjoyed myself when I was young; to write the books I wanted to read, but never found. My writing works best when I remember the bookish child who adored reading and gear the work toward him. It falters when I forget him."
As he developed into an experienced writer, Coville worked in different genres. He created musical plays such as The Dragonslayers, which was first produced at the Syracuse Musical Theater. He contributed to anthologies of fantasy stories, such as Dragons and Dreams. But it was in the area of picture books, beginning with the publication of The Foolish Giant in 1978, that Coville made a significant mark. Illustrated by his wife, Katherine, that first tale for younger readers tells of a mild, clumsy giant who has difficulty being accepted by the ordinary people of his village until he saves them from an evil wizard. In the years since that first book, Coville has published numerous other tales for children, culminating in several appearances on children's best-seller lists.
Many of Coville's books are jam-packed with the trappings of traditional mythic imagery: supernatural spirits, tarot cards, unicorns, prehistoric monsters, and futuristic creatures at the outer edge of the universe. He once discussed this characteristic of his work in SATA: "Myth is very important to me. My picture books have firm roots in basic mythic patterns. Hopefully, the patterns do not intrude, but provide a structure and depth that enhances my work." Coville often combines imaginary creatures with present-day situations to create tales of mystery and adventure. In The Ghost in the Third Row, for instance, Nina discovers an actual ghost haunts the theater where she is acting in a murder drama. Nina returns with her friend Chris in The Ghost Wore Gray, where the two try to discover the story behind the spirit of a Confederate soldier who appears in a New York hotel. "Despite the fantasy element of a ghost, this is a mystery," said School Library Journal contributor Carolyn Caywood, who added that the tale "evokes real feeling."
Some of Coville's most popular books have been those that involve Mr. Elive's Magic Shop. In Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher, young Jeremy escapes his tormenter Mary Lou only to find himself in a strange shop where he buys an unusual egg. When the egg hatches a baby dragon—that no one else but Mary Lou can see—Jeremy finds himself in the midst of adventure. "The book is filled with scenes that will bring laughter and near tears to readers," noted Kenneth E. Kowen in School Library Journal. Reviewer Kathleen Redmond wrote in Voice of Youth Advocates that the story is a good combination of real and fantasy worlds and "is right on target." Coville returned to the magic shop in Jennifer Murdley's Toad, in which Jennifer purchases a lonely toad hatched from a witch's mouth. In aiding her pet, Bufo, who seeks his lost love, Jennifer herself is turned into a toad and learns to appreciate her inner strengths. School Library Journal contributor Margaret C. Howell praised the theme as "particularly well handled," adding that "the story moves well, with realistic characterizations." In Juliet Dove, Queen of Love, a shy girl grabs the attention of all the boys at school after she finds a magic charm at Mr. Elive's shop. The cast of likeable characters, according to Candace Smith in Booklist, includes "snippy girls, love-struck boys, Greek gods, and talking rats" that will have readers "caught up in the fun." Coville believes that a knowledge of mythic patterns and imagery can facilitate children's growth and social understanding. He once argued in SATA: "This 'making sense' is a process that generally takes a lifetime and yet, sadly, it is all too often never even begun. To utilize myth as a guide in this quest one must be familiar with its patterns and structures, a familiarity that is best gained from reading or hearing myth and its reconstructions from earliest childhood on." Coville thinks that the literature he writes plays a part in exposing young people to the realm of the mythological. "I do not expect," he explained in SATA, "a child to read my picture books and suddenly discover the secret of the universe. I do hope that something from my works will tuck itself away in the child's mind, ready to present itself as a piece of a puzzle on some future day when he or she is busy constructing a view of the world that will provide at least a modicum of hope and dignity."
Beyond his grounding in classic fantasy, Coville has filled many of his books with humor aimed squarely at his young audience. In reviewing Planet of the Dips, School Library Journal critic Anne Connor referred to the book as "literary junk food" appealing to "beginning readers with a passion for weird words, stupid jokes and odd behavior." For his part, Coville defended the outrageous extremes of his stories. "There are those who want to keep children's books 'tasteful,' and ten-year-old boys are not tasteful," he told SATA. "One of the reasons we have this problem of reluctant readers, especially among boys, is that we're not writing to who and what we are. If you write a book that's a brilliant character study and is wonderfully tasteful and no kid ever reads it, you've failed…. There's another problem, where you publish to only the lowest common denominator, where you start with that and don't go anywhere else. If you do that, you've failed, too. To me, there's a sweet spot in between, where you start with boisterous energy that will engage, and then you take the reader somewhere else."
Coville acknowledged that he has a knack for fast-paced comedic storytelling, a talent borne out by the success of his four books in the "My Teacher" series, each of which sold over one million copies. He also diversified into other types of books during the 1990s, including a series of retellings of Shakespeare's plays. Coville found the task of adapting The Tempest, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Macbeth, and other works a satisfying challenge. "I've learned little ways to squeeze in more and more of the language, but keep it accessible," he told SATA. "Both my editor and I are aware of the chutzpah of what we are doing. We want to be respectful of the source and of the audience. We work really hard on these books." Reviewing William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet in Booklist, Michael Cart called it "an accessible and entertaining introduction to one of Shakespeare's most popular works." Describing the text for William Shakespeare's Macbeth as being "true to the dark, brooding spirit of the play," Booklist contributor Hazel Rochman predicted that Coville's "dramatic narrative will keep [middle graders] reading."
Expanding further, Coville published several novels for young adults during the 1990s. Fortune's Journey combined action and romance in its tale of a resourceful teenage actress leading a theater troupe across the West during the Gold Rush era. The book received mixed reviews, with some critics praising the work and others faulting the author for less-than-believable characters. "Part of it was, people complained that it was warped by a kind of contemporary mindset taking on these historical characters," Coville once told SATA. "But I'd done the research, and I knew there was a lot more that young women were doing back then than people now think." Armageddon Summer follows the story of two teenagers caught up in a religious cult with their parents. Co-written with author Jane Yolen, the novel received more consistently favorable reviews. Writing in Booklist, Roger Leslie praised Coville and Yolen for "explor[ing] their rich, thought-provoking theme with the perfect balance of gripping adventure and understated pathos, leavened by a dollop of humor."
Coville has remained committed to educating as well as entertaining young people. As he explained in SATA: "This may seem like a long-term goal and a minimal result for the work involved, but I am, after all, a teacher. This has always been our lot. We deal with a child for a year, pour our hearts and souls into his development, and then send him on his way with the scant hope that somehow, someday, some little of what we have tried to do may present itself to him when it is needed….But this is idle speculation. The first and foremost job in writing is to tell a whacking good story. You just have to hope it might mean something before you're done."
Coville's "Moongobble and Me" series offers early readers a taste of magic through the adventures of Edward, a boy who befriends his new neighbor, the would-be magician Moongobble, in the small town of Pigbone. In the series' first book, The Dragon of Doom, Edward serves as Moongobble's assistant on the quest to obtain three golden acorns from the dreaded dragon of doom, a task that will hopefully get Moongobble accepted into the Society of Magicians. Moongobble's talking pet toad injects the story, which is full of "unexpected and fantastic adventures" according to Anna Rich of Booklist, with humor.
Coville turned his love for theater into a business when he launched Full Cast Audio in 2002. The company produces audiobooks with actors reading the parts of each character, rather than a single narrator reading the whole story. Coville himself produces each reading, working with the actors in the recording studio to bring the stories to life. In Kliatt, Coville explained that "it was probably a fairly daffy career move," but he did it because "I love the sound of great books being read by terrific actors." Full Cast Audio released Coville's William Shakespeare retellings as the audiobook Shakespeare's Greatest Hits, Vol. 1, with his versions of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, and Twelfth Night each condensed to a half-hour performance. The format works, according to Melody Moxley of Kliatt, who said that "the spirit and essentials of the story and characters are well conveyed."
Personal motivation and social idealism both fuel Coville's commitment to children's literature. "There are two reasons that people go into writing for children," he told SATA. "It's either to heal a wounded childhood, or to celebrate a happy one. It's about nine to one (in favor of) the healing to the happy. But I had a happy childhood, and I love children's books. They're delicious … the writing is better, the stories are more interesting. I do it out of a sense of joy and excitement. But it's also a political choice. I feel that one of the ways I can have real impact is working for kids."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Booklist, November 1, 1997, Hazel Rochman, review of William Shakespeare's Macbeth, p. 464; August, 1998, Roger Leslie, review of Armageddon Summer, p. 272; December 1, 1999, Michael Cart, review of William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, p. 700; September 1, 2001, Grace Anne A. DeCandido, review of The Monsters of Morley Manor, p. 103; December 15, 2001, Frances Bradburn, review of Half-Human, p. 723; January 1, 2003, Carolyn Phelan, review of William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, p. 878; April 15, 2003, Candace Smith, "The Booklist Interview: Bruce Coville," p. 1485; January 1, 2004, Louise Brueggemann, review of Juliet Dove, Queen of Love, p. 854; May 15, 2004, Carolyn Phelan, review of William Shakespeare's Hamlet, p. 1616; June 1, 2004, Candace Smith, review of Juliet Dove, Queen of Love, p. 1768; October 15, 2004, Anna Rich, review of The Dragon of Doom, p. 433.
Kirkus Reviews, August 1, 2001, review of The Monsters of Morley Manor, p. 1119; March 1, 2002, review of The Prince of Butterflies, p. 332; January 1, 2003, review of William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, p. 59; December 15, 2003, review of The Dragon of Doom, p. 1448.
Kliatt, May, 2004, "The Sound of Story," p. 3; Melody Moxley, review of Shakespeare's Greatest Hits, Vol. 1, p. 59.
Publishers Weekly, March 18, 2002, review of The Prince of Butterflies, p. 104; May 6, 2002, Shannon Maugham, "Coville's Full Cast Audio," p. 20; December 15, 2003, review of The Dragon of Doom, p. 73.
School Library Journal, September, 1988, May, 1991, Kenneth E. Kowen, review of Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher, p. 91; Carolyn Caywood, review of The Ghost Wore Gray, p. 183; September, 1992, Margaret C. Howell, review of Jennifer Murdley's Toad, p. 250; December, 1995, Anne Connor, review of Planet of the Dips, p. 79.
Voice of Youth Advocates, June, 1991, Kathleen Redmond, review of Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher, p. 106.
Bruce (Farrington) Coville
Bruce (Farrington) Coville contributed the following autobiographical essay to SATA:
I was born straddling two days, and two eras, and have lived a divided life ever since.
As for the two days—my official birthday is May 16. But I was born between midnight and 1:00 A.M. If Daylight Savings Time had not artificially pushed the clock ahead, the date would have been May 15.
The eras? Well, the year was 1950, smack in the middle of the last century. The country was moving out of the war years and into an uncertain future. The atomic age had started, and we were teetering at the edge of the technological explosion that has now come to dominate all aspects of our life.
I arrived at St. Joseph's Hospital in Syracuse, NY—not two miles from where I sit as I write these words. I did not grow up as a city kid, though; we lived about twenty miles outside of Syracuse.
A few months after my second birthday, my parents presented me with a little brother.
I like to describe this as the first great tragedy of my life. (My brother and I get along very well these days. Even so…)
When I was four, Mom and Dad built a home around the corner from my grandparents' farm, three miles outside the town of Phoenix. (Not to be confused with the city in Arizona.) In time Rob and I were joined by a younger brother, Brian, and then an adopted sister, Patty.
Behind our house the lawn sloped down to a swamp. Beyond the swamp stretched a field my grandfather continued to work. Beyond the field was a forest. This may sound familiar to some of my readers, since it's the basis for the landscape behind Rod Allbright's home in Aliens Ate My Homework. Rod himself is based on me, more thoroughly than any other character I have written—so much so that my wife, Kathy, who illustrated the book and its sequels, used photographs of me as references for her drawings of Rod.
Even when I'm not pulling on specific details, a great deal of what I write about is rooted in my own childhood. I believe people who write for kids tend to be driven either by a need to heal a wounded childhood, or a desire to celebrate a happy one.
I write to celebrate.
The thing is, happiness is not nearly as interesting as misery. (One of the dumbest ideas I've ever had—and believe me, I've had more than a few—was to write a novel set in heaven. I couldn't wait to get my character out of paradise so something interesting could happen!) Fortunately—for my writing, at least—I have had some misery along the way. But in the main I grew up in a time and place that was pretty good for kids.
I also had the good fortune to have a basically sunny disposition. This is not something I take credit for; I suspect the inclination comes preinstalled. But I do believe it is something you can cultivate. I also believe it makes life easier to take when the inevitable rough spots come along.
Many writers of the American West believe that geography is destiny—that is, the places in which you grow up become a huge part of who and what you become. The places important to me were my home, the little town of Phoenix, and the farm.
Perhaps I should say "farms," since both sets of grandparents were farm folk. The ones closest to us, emotionally and geographically, were my mother's parents. But my father's parents also had a farm, about two miles away, and I spent a fair amount of time there, too.
It might be more accurate to say my father's "sortof" parents. I had four grandfathers, instead of the usual two: one on Mom's side, and three on Dad's. They were all pretty good, though I suspect that in two cases they were better grandfathers than they were fathers.
Here's how it happened. I tell you this because I believe there are forces that shape your life before you are even born, and I know that what happened to my father is a large part of how I became who I am myself.
Dad was born in 1922. In 1925 his mother checked herself into a hospital.
Less than a day later, she was dead.
What does it do to a three-year-old boy to lose his mother like that? What does it do when his father decides he is unable to raise the boy on his own, and fosters him and his baby brother out to relatives—separate relatives—to take care of them? What does it do to that boy to have relatives who are at such war that the woman raising him invites his father to dinner, and then has him arrested at the table?
It can do a lot of things, I suppose. In my father's case, it made him passionate about creating a good and stable home for his own kids, and working to make life better not only for us, but for as many kids as he could reach. That's one reason he became a volunteer in the scouting movement.
Here's one of my most vivid memories of Dad: Late one Sunday afternoon in December the family piled into the car to head for Christmas dinner at my grandmother's. (This was one of three; the area was crawling with extended family, and Christmas dinner, of necessity, happened more than once.) But when we pulled out of the driveway, instead of heading for my grandmother's, Dad turned in the other direction, heading for town.
Our protests and questions were answered with the information that he had learned that the family of one of the boys in his Cub Scout pack was suffering hard times, and not apt to have much of a Christmas meal. So before we went off to our own Christmas dinner, he insisted on buying a couple of boxes of groceries—everything it would take to make a solid, satisfying Christmas meal—and bringing them to the boy's family.
That incident has become one of my most cherished Christmas memories, something that stands out when all the gifts and feasts have blended into a blur of getting and forgetting. With a single act Dad had shown us what Christmas was really all about, in a way that telling never could.
It wasn't until years later that I understood the generosity of spirit it took for him to stay in scouting twenty-five years after his own sons had left. And it was probably a couple of decades before I saw how all of this was, in a way, an attempt to redeem his own childhood.
Dad's childhood changed drastically a second time when he was twelve and his aunt and uncle adopted him. (From them I get the Coville name; my full name is Bruce Farrington Coville—my parents' way of preserving Dad's birth name, since I would have been Bruce Farrington had he not been adopted.)
Dad's new mother was twenty-six, only fourteen years older than he was at the time. Luther, his adoptive father, was perceived as a pillar of the community, but was not the easiest man to live with. And Dad, who had been a city kid—almost a street kid—for over a decade, was suddenly living on a farm.
The transition was not an easy one.
My father's blood father and his adoptive father were both still alive when I was born. It was Luther's death, when I was three, that provides my own earliest memory.
In those days, especially in rural areas, it was common for the viewing of the body to take place in the home rather than at a funeral parlor. I still have a vivid recollection of coming into the parlor, so filled with baskets of flowers it looked like a garden in full bloom. Dad led me up to the casket, then took my hand and placed it on Grampa Coville's hand, which was cold and waxy. Some people might find this horrifying. I think it was a good thing, because his intention was to take away fear. And it did just that.
(That incident is the source of my picture book My Grandfather's House.)
Gramma Coville's remarriage when I was nine provided the fourth grandfather, a good and gentle man named John Bennett. It also provided my father with four new adult siblings, and my brothers and I with a whole new pile of cousins.
My grandfather on my mother's side also gave me a close connection to the world of death, though in an entirely different way. In addition to running the dairy
farm, Grampa Chase was the caretaker for the Chase Cemetery. (The cemetery was called this because the original chunk of land had been given to the community by the Chase family.)
One of my first jobs was mowing that cemetery. As the years passed I developed an intimate knowledge of the gravestones. To keep my mind occupied I would use the years of birth and death to calculate how long a person had lived. And, of course, wonder about the people themselves.
In time, Grampa Chase also enlisted me to dig graves. Most cemeteries these days use a backhoe to scoop out the graves, but in our little country cemetery the work was done by hand. We dug three feet wide and eight feet long, but not (as legend would have it) six feet deep; our graves went down about four and a half feet.
Even so, none of our customers ever escaped….
Digging graves was not bad work. For one thing, as with my experience with Grampa Coville's body, it took away fear. The grave is a strange and mysterious place. But when you have dug the hole yourself, when you have laid down in it to see what it looks like from the bottom up (okay, so that was a little weird, but when else was I going to have the chance?), when you have filled it in—well, a lot of the mystery is gone. With it goes some of the fear that accompanies our thoughts about death.
Gravedigging was also good for strictly economic reasons. I was paid by the job and not by the hour, and because I was fast, I could usually make pretty good money. We didn't bury during the winter—frozen ground is too hard to dig, so we stacked the coffins in a small wooden mausoleum—so I would often have a number of graves to dig in the spring. This helped pay the large heating bill that usually built up over the winter.
Even better than the money was the fact that it was good creative time. Digging a grave can be pretty boring. But the fact that the work did not take a lot of thinking gave my imagination freedom to wander. I developed plenty of story ideas while I was digging, and the climactic scene in The Ghost Wore Gray, when Nina Tanleven and Chris Gurley go to dig up an old grave, bears a great debt to my own time as a gravedigger.
I continued to do this work—after all, it wasn't a full time job: we only had to dig a grave if someone died!—until I was well into my twenties and working as a schoolteacher. More than once I would come home from a full day of teaching second grade and drive down to the cemetery to prepare someone's final resting place.
In addition to my home and my grandparents' farms, one other place was particularly important in the geography of my childhood: my Uncle Raymond's store, which stood on the corner between our house and the Chase farm.
Uncle Ray ran a typical country store. He rebuilt it to make it more modern when I was in my teens, but in my heart I always preferred the original building. It had a slightly saggy feeling, and wide plank wooden floors, ingrained with years of dirt. It felt lived in.
The store carried groceries, tools, hardware, seeds in the spring, bulbs in the fall, and—best of all, from my point of view—comic books! Coverless comics, slightly out of date, but comics nonetheless.
I had a sweetheart deal with Uncle Ray. When the monthly shipment of comics came in I got to pick out thirty and take them home to read. When I was done I would buy any I particularly wanted, return the others, and go home with a new stack of thirty. Pure bliss!
I was enchanted by comics, and for a long time I wanted to write them. This idea horrified my mother, who wanted me to do something more socially useful. Still, comics—especially Marvel comics—were an essential part of my reading education. The Fantastic Four and Spiderman came along just as I was entering my teens, and I suspect much of my extended vocabulary came from Marvel writer Stan Lee's exuberant delight in big words.
In time I became what was known as a Marvel letter hack, writing fan letters that were published on the letters page of various comic books. My first words to appear in print in a national publication!
Comics weren't the only things I read, of course. And since the road to becoming a writer starts with reading, I want to look at those memories for a moment.
I have three strong memories of beginning to read. One is of bringing home my first reader from school, with stories about Tip and Mitten, and the delight of being able to interpret some of those words.
The second is of realizing that the reading groups were at different levels, and I was not in the top one, which irked me. I asked one of the girls in that group how come she could read so well. She told me her big sister had helped her. Not having a big sister, I felt cheated. I can't remember what I did to overcome this hurdle—probably asked my mother for help. She would have given it in a heartbeat. In any event, it wasn't long before I ended up where I wanted to be.
The third key event has to do with my father reading to me. Dad was a traveling salesman, so he was away from home a few days a week, which made his time and attention all the more precious. One night after supper, he did something I don't remember him doing at any other time: he took me into the living room, sat me in his lap, and started to read a thick, ugly, brown book called Tom Swift in the City of Gold.
It was one of the most important things that ever happened to me.
I already loved stories. But this is my memory of being introduced to the wonders to be found in long books. It was also my father giving me permission to be a reader, which is something I believe boys need even more these days, since they are getting a double message from our culture, one part of which is telling them to read, another part of which is telling them that reading is for girls. I say that because most of the people they link to reading—specifically, their elementary teachers and their librarians—are women. And, alas, most of the time the person they see reading at home is mom, not dad. Worst of all, boys who read too much get picked on for it. Add the fact that too few books capture the bumptious, raucous, sometimes rude and tasteless energy of boys, and you end up with a culture in which boys often do not like to read.
If Dad was the key person in turning me on to longer books, there is no doubt that my sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Crandall, performed a similar service when it came to turning me into a writer.
Mrs. Crandall had us write all year, write much more than was common at the time. I failed at it all year long. Toward the end of the year she told us we were going to write a short story. This was a major project. We had three or four weeks (if I remember correctly) to work on our stories, and she was going to read them all out loud at the end. The most important part of the assignment, for me, was that we were allowed to choose what we were going to write about. My memories of the earlier assignments, the ones I had not done well at, are of things where we had to respond to the teacher's writing "prompts." I simply did not do well at that. But with this assignment it all came together for me. We had extended time to work (which, of course, is what real writing requires). We had a real audience (the rest of the class, not merely Mrs. Crandall). And (most importantly) whatever we wrote had to come from inside ourselves.
I wrote a story about a lion and a lamb raised on a special farm that prepared animals for movies. When
the train carrying them home after a job derailed, the two animals—who were friends—had to make their way through the wilderness back to the farm. In structure, it was a shameless copy of Sheila Burnford's The Incredible Journey. (But one of the ways we learn to write is by imitating the work we love; the trick is to grow beyond that, to find your own voice and style.)
I had so much fun writing the story, and was so pleased with how it came out, that I thought I would write more stories about animals from "Burnet Farm." This is my first memory of thinking I could write a book. (I never did write that one, alas.)
I read voraciously all through school. Among my favorites in elementary school were Hugh Lofting's Dr. Dolittle stories and Eleanor Cameron's Mushroom Planet books. Look closely, and you will find the influence of both of them in my own stories.
In the summer between seventh and eighth grades I discovered Edgar Rice Burroughs. Though best known for creating Tarzan of the Apes, it was Burroughs's stories about John Carter of Mars that truly bewitched me. I was in thrall to the books, which were being republished after a long period of being out of print, and searched desperately to find the complete set. I longed to become John Carter, to travel to Barsoom (Burroughs's name for Mars), to wield a mighty broad-sword, to leap across those dead seas in the low Martian gravity.
Failing all that, I longed to write stories that would transport other people the way these tales transported me.
This was my entrée to the world of science fiction; like the comic books, it came from Uncle Raymond's store, where boxes of coverless paperback books were stashed next to the coverless comics.
As you might imagine, I did not entirely fit in at school. The cool kids dreamed of forming rock bands and becoming football stars. I dreamed of traveling to Mars and writing science fiction.
Actually, I occupied a strange niche in the social ecology of our junior high (this was before the days of middle school). Straddling the territory between the nerds and the popular kids, I was friends with both sides, though not entirely comfortable in either world—or, for that matter, entirely sure who I was or where I belonged.
Many aspects of the Phoenix school system were less than perfect. Even so, it had two great virtues that I wish more kids could experience today. The first was that we only had two schools, one for first through sixth grade, the other for seventh through twelfth. At the upper levels this meant that rather than having eighth graders be the top dogs (as is true of most middle schools) that spot was held by the seniors. That may seem like a small thing, but middle school kids are seeking role models, and, frankly, a kid has a better chance of finding a reasonable role model among the seniors, where at least some of the kids have started to turn back into reasonable human beings, than among the eighth graders, where hormonal confusion still reigns supreme.
The other good thing was that our classes were small (my graduating class was about a hundred people). This has disadvantages, of course; a small school cannot offer as many services as a larger school. But it has this overwhelming strength: In a small school you are known, and I believe this is vital for a young person. I have spoken in schools so large that the teachers have to wear ID badges, because there are so many of them they can't even know each other, much less all the kids. These schools offer many fabulous services. But I do not think they serve the heart.
Anyway, I staggered through junior high and high school, victim to the forces that buffet everyone then—peer pressure and crushes, blossoming sexuality and social insecurity. I was not cut out for team sports—my coordination did not kick in until I was in my twenties—so that area of achievement was denied to me. But there were two teachers—one in eighth grade and one in tenth grade—who did something utterly invaluable for me.
They told me I could write.
I don't want to indicate that I was unhappy during these years. I mostly enjoyed myself. I read incessantly, everything from the comic books I still loved so much to Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare. I had my first crushes, and my first real girlfriend. In my junior year I ran for student council president. It was not a job I particularly wanted—we all knew who was going to win anyway, a popular and energetic girl who was right for the task. But the student council powers didn't want an election with only one candidate, so I was prevailed upon to run, ran hard, deluded myself into thinking I might win, and was deeply pained when the inevitable loss occurred.
The event would be nothing more than a mere painful blip in my life, were it not for one thing. I asked a sophomore girl named Katherine Dietz, who I knew to be a fabulous artist, to help make the posters for my campaign. What she came up with was delightfully whimsical—probably too whimsical for someone running for student council president in high school, but just right for a picture book artist.
Two years later we were married.
Meanwhile, the world was exploding around us. The Vietnam War was escalating, the Civil Rights movement was in high gear, and the "counterculture" of hippies and flower children was beginning to make the evening news.
I ignored most of this during the summer between my junior and senior years. I was working on my first novel, which started as a short story but spun out of control so that it was two years and 400 pages before I was able to write "The End." I had enormous fun writing it, and learned a great deal. It was filled with vigorous story telling energy—but nowhere near ready for publication.
Senior year started and so did my political awakening. Kevin Mack, a good friend who came from a Quaker family, started feeding me information about why the war was wrong. Protests against the war were escalating. The presidential campaign started and a man named Eugene McCarthy electrified students across the country with his clear stand against the war. That spring Martin Luther King was assassinated. A few months later, it was Robert Kennedy.
Nothing seemed to make sense any more. We had lurched from the world of Leave it to Beaver to the world of Easy Rider and no one seemed to know how we got there.
Some time during my junior or senior year I read an article about operating your own trading boat in the Windward Islands (a string of islands in the Caribbean) and began dreaming of doing that. At the same time I was making plans to go to college, and was accepted at Duke University.
Graduation came. I was salutatorian—an honor that prompted my mother to remark that if I had only tried a little bit harder I could have been valedictorian.
As salutatorian, you are expected to make a speech at graduation. Inspired by all that was going on at the time, I wrote a passionate speech about social justice. But when I submitted it to my advisor, she told me I could not deliver it.
My first experience with censorship!
So I wrote another speech. It was approved, but I had no intention of giving it. This was the age of protest, and I was going to protest the attempt to keep me from making the speech I had earned the right to give. For a time I planned on doing something very dramatic: I would hold up the speech that had been approved, tear it up, talk about what had happened, then give the first speech that I had written. I figured I would be hustled off the stage before I could finish, but I wanted to let everyone know what was going on.
But as I thought about it, I realized something that has become one of my guiding principals: I had to choose between making an emotionally satisfying scene or trying to accomplish what I really wanted, which was to give the first speech I had written, telling people what I thought and believed.
In the end, I simply went to the podium with my original speech and delivered it. I don't know for sure what would have happened if I had tried to make a big deal out of it. I do know that by doing it this way I didn't give anyone an excuse to stop me; if the advisor or the principal had tried, they would have been seen as the ones causing a disruption.
I was delighted when one of the other senior class advisors, who had not been aware of the censorship attempt, sought me out after the ceremony and pumped my hand, saying, "That was a hell of a speech, Bruce!"
This was my first experience with the excitement and power of public speaking. It would be many years before I came back to it, and grew comfortable with it. To my considerable surprise, speaking is now one of the most important strands of my professional life.
At my graduation party I received many gifts, including enough cash, I realized, to get myself a ticket to the Caribbean. I had to work that summer to earn money for college, my parents were adamant about that. But I figured I could work in the islands as well as I could in central New York. So off I went.
This was not a well planned adventure. I headed for New York City, figuring that since it was summer it would be off season for a tropical paradise and I would have no problem buying an airplane ticket to the islands. Wrong! As it turned out, I couldn't get a reservation for two weeks, though the airlines told me I could check on standby every day. (What I had really wanted to do was work my way down on a boat. But I got laughed at down at the docks, where they told me I'd have to join the union and unless I had a relative who was already a member, the waiting list was years long.)
Two strikes, and an important lesson for a writer: do your research! Having no intention of going home at this point, I was stranded in Manhattan. I went to the YMCA, where I got the cheapest room I could. In the lobby was a table where you could sign up for temporary work, and I took advantage of it, not wanting to draw down my little bankroll any more than necessary. I ended up washing dishes in a seafood restaurant, where I scrubbed away grease that seemed to have accumulated for years. They must have thought I did a good job because they gave me a fabulous meal in addition to my pay. The next night I got a job bussing tables at Dubrow's cafeteria in Brooklyn.
So much for the glamorous life of a young man on the road!
I was renewing my room at the Y on a daily basis, always hoping that I would be able to get my flight to the islands on the next day.
One day I was standing in line to renew my room when two older men came along the line, asking if anyone wanted to share a double room they had rented, as one of them was moving on. Sharing rent on a double was cheaper than a single, so this appealed to me. The gentleman I was now rooming with, Ramlakan Panchu, was from Trinidad—not far from where I was aiming to end up—and we struck up a pleasant friendship.
This change of rooms had an unforeseen side effect. My memory was that on my last phone call to my parents I had told them I would call again when I got to the islands. They believed I had said I would call every day until I got to there. So when I did not call the next day, or the next, they got worried. Even worse, when they called the YMCA they were told I was no longer staying there (this was not true, but it was what they were told). Not surprisingly, they panicked.
I continued in New York, exploring the city, bussing tables at Dubrow's, waiting for a flight out, blissfully unaware that my parents, my grandparents, and my friends were all convinced I had been killed, or worse.
Mom and Dad called the Y every day (probably several times a day). Finally a more alert clerk put them in touch with me. I suspect they did not know whether to rejoice or to take a flight down and kill me themselves.
Not long after, I got my flight out of town: first stop, Puerto Rico, where I was to spend the night and then take one of the little island hopper planes over to St. Thomas.
At last I was in the tropical paradise I had been dreaming of!
What I had not been dreaming of was the wave of loneliness and homesickness that overwhelmed me when I got there. For someone thinking of himself as a lone wolf and a bold adventurer, it was somewhat embarrassing.
I had traveled all over New York City for two weeks, often returning from Brooklyn in the middle of the night, and had never had a problem.
My first evening in the Virgin Islands I was mugged.
I was walking up a hill to a hotel where I planned to ask for a job, when I was grabbed from behind. Someone jabbed a knife point at my back and demanded my wallet. I pulled it out. My attackers turned and ran with the loot. I turned and shouted, "At least throw back the wallet!"—which, after they had extracted the cash, they did. This was fortuitous because not only did the wallet contain my identification, it held, in the "secret compartment" most of my money, which was in traveler's checks.
Finding work was important, because my bankroll was small and if I did not find a job quickly I would have to return home, a humiliating defeat. I asked everyone I spoke with if they knew of someone who needed a worker, and it wasn't long before I had my first job. From this I learned an important lesson: when you are looking for work, you don't just check the want ads, you ask every single person you meet.
In addition to work, I needed a place to live. I rented a room in a guest house—basically a standard home where various people rented different bedrooms and shared a kitchen. What a cast of characters I fell in with: a musician and his wife and their four year old son; a young couple just out of college—she a herpetologist, he a lawyer; and the guy who played bass in the other musician's combo, who was living there with his girlfriend. I was the youngest, and quickly became the mascot, a young man to be educated in the ways of the world.
After a while the landlady got sick of the musician for some reason, and the women decided to look for a house that we could rent as a group. We ended up living in a home on the side of the hills that sweep up from the bay. The house had a wide deck across the front, which was where I slept. Not bad. I would have liked to have had my own room, but this was like camping out with one of the best views in the world.
By this time I had a good job at the airport, and was making better money than I would for the next several years. The summer wore on. I went scuba diving and then sky diving. At home the world was getting crazier and crazier; the war continued to escalate and the streets of Chicago erupted with riots during the democratic national convention.
I loved St. Thomas, and did not want to go back. But even if I had tried to stay, it was not likely that I would have lasted long, since I was eminently draftable; my choice was less between St. Thomas and college than between the army and college.
I went home. But the summer had changed me, and when I started at Duke I felt a difference between myself and most of the kids around me, who were leaving home for the first time. I had already flung myself against the world once and survived, so this transition was easier.
I threw myself into life—and politics—at Duke. It is an extraordinarily beautiful school, and I had extraordinary opportunities. One of those opportunities was working on the student newspaper. Another was being allowed to take a seminar course in creative writing, one with very limited enrollment. I enjoyed the course, but it didn't take me long to realize I was out of place. The other students, fiercely intelligent and highly literate, wanted to be the next Hemingway, the next F. Scott Fitzgerald. I still wanted to be the next Edgar Rice Burroughs! In fact, I was still working on my adventure novel, though I did have about a week of panic when I made a trip home and the airline temporarily lost my luggage, containing my only copy of the book (this was well before the age of personal computers, of course). Two hundred typewritten pages, two years of work, missing in action! Though I eventually got it back, I learned my lesson; never again did I trust the only copy of a manuscript to luggage handlers.
While I was at school I started writing letters to Kathy. In essence, I was courting her by mail. So writing has been important to my life in more ways than one!
Another extraordinary opportunity opened up when I got a special delivery letter from the man who handled public relations for Stan Lee, head writer at Marvel Comics. I was still sending letters to Marvel. I had written a particularly long, and I guess somewhat insightful, letter about Silver Surfer #3. The PR man wanted to know if I would be interested in arranging for Stan to speak at Duke.
Would I be interested in bringing my hero in as a speaker? I nearly went out of my skin at the very thought.
Every year Duke had a major event called "The Symposium" where they explored a topic through numerous speeches and seminars. The topic for the 1968-1969 academic year was "The Media." It fit perfectly! With the guidance of some of the upper classmen in my residence hall, I was able to organize the event. I got a young, hip professor involved. I plastered the campus with posters. We got good publicity in the campus paper. And we got a massive crowd. I was moderating the program, my second major experience with public speaking, but I don't remember being nervous; I was probably too excited. Stan was a lively and engaging speaker and the event was a huge success.
At Duke I also experienced one of the quintessential events of the era: a student riot. In this case it happened after a group of black students had taken over one of the administration buildings. They had a list of demands, including the establishment of a black studies program. The police were called and were standing guard in front of the building. A large crowd of students not involved in the takeover but sympathetic to the black students gathered in a show of support.
There was a comic aspect to what happened next. The black students decided to leave the building. They went out through the back way, and had already exited when for some reason the police decided they had had enough and started firing tear gas on the crowd in front. Chaos erupted. There was a kind of surging battle, with the police forcing the students back across the quad, and then the students moving forward again. Having been moved to become a pacifist by my opposition to the war, rather than fighting I helped students who fell or were injured.
Over the next few weeks, as I followed the news coverage of what had happened, I learned something sad but important: the people in power get to tell the stories, and they don't always tell the truth. I was present at that riot and I knew what had happened. But I could not recognize it in the twisted, distorted versions being offered by the press.
Perhaps this was why I shifted my allegiance to the "underground" student paper, the Radish. I loved writing for the Radish. The people on the staff were incredibly smart, passionate about truth and justice, eager to change the world.
By the end of that year I had made a decision to leave Duke. Even today I can't explain everything that went into that choice, though I know that part of it had to do with the fact that many of the teachers who had been active in the political events of that year—teachers I admired and wanted to work with—were also leaving, some by choice, some by force. My best friend, Charlie, was at a college called Harpur in Binghamton, NY, where the political action was really hot.
I enrolled there.
In the summer between my freshman and sophomore years I worked at a steel mill, went out with Kathy, and tried to write. Her mother, with whom I got along very well, gave me a copy of Winnie the Pooh to read. I loved the book—and especially loved the perfect marriage of text and art. And I felt in my bones that Kathy and I could do something like that. I had tried my hand at a couple of children's stories before, but now, at age nineteen, I became utterly passionate about the idea. I wrote a book called "The Pixie Palace." I was very proud of it, and didn't realize until years later how bad it really was. Kathy proclaimed it to be a blend of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Ayn Rand, and A. A. Milne—which was pretty much true.
Bad as the story was, I don't regret it. One of the things you have to do on your way to becoming an author is write your way through all the other authors who have influenced you—write past them until you find your own true voice.
Summer ended, and it was back to school. I have a list in my head of the stupidest things I've ever done, and leaving Duke has always been near the top. And yet, in some ways it was a lucky stroke, because within two months of starting my sophomore year, Kathy and I were married and living on our own, something that would have been much harder for us to manage had I remained at Duke.
The year that followed was both exciting and difficult. We lived in a little apartment—the bottom half of a converted barn—several miles from campus. I was taking a full load of classes and at the same time working a low wage, minimum-brain-requirement job at IBM. We were trying to figure out how to be a married couple. And we had a child on the way.
In May of that year, our first son, Orion, was born. Because natural childbirth was still considered a wild and crazy idea, we had to travel out of town—all the way into the next state, in fact—to have the birthing at a place that would allow Kathy to deliver without the help of drugs, and let me be present to coach her.
With Orion's arrival there was even less time to write, of course. No less desire, just less time for it.
In the fall of the next year the combined pressures of family, school, and work became too much, and I decided to drop out of college. We were now living in a
little house in the country, a place meant for a farmer's hired man, and trying to earn a living by making toys that Kathy had designed. We were barely scraping along, even with the help of the government food stamp program, and after a while I went back to the assembly line at IBM. I did not like working there; after all, IBM was part of the "military industrial" complex that ruled the country and promoted the war. And the work was truly mindless. Once I had my rhythm established, I could work on autopilot for long stretches of time. This was not all bad, since it left my mind free to philosophize, to invent stories, and to try to figure out my life.
It was on one of these nights that I decided I wanted to become a teacher. It seems obvious now. After all, there was no way I was going to make a living writing children's books right off the bat, I loved working with kids, and teaching would give me plenty of material for stories.
As it turned out, Harpur did not have a program for someone who wanted to become an elementary teacher. So I ended up enrolling at Oswego College, not twenty miles from where Kathy and I grew up. After wanting so much to get out of town, I had circled my way back until we were almost where we had started.
But this time, at least, I had made a wise decision. Not only was it clear to me that I was going to love teaching, one of the classes you were required to take was children's literature. The teacher, Helen Buckley, had published several picture books of her own. She agreed to read a book I was working on, which was far and away above the requirements of her job. When she
gave it back she told me it was good and she would read the rest of it if I finished it. Just knowing she would read it was enough to push me on to finishing it.
Later I got to take a writing class from Helen—a small class, like the one I had taken at Duke, but this time one where I fit in perfectly.
During one session Helen put a box on the table and told us to write a story about it. Most people wrote about what was inside the box. My brain twisted in a different direction; I thought, "What if you had the box but could never find out what was inside?" I wrote a short story—called, naturally enough, "The Box"—about a boy who is given the box by an angel, who asks him to take care of it, and never open it. The story remains my favorite out of everything I have written.
After Helen's death, her husband sent me the box, which I keep in the hutch above my desk. It is one of my proudest possessions.
After graduation I got a job at the school where I had done my student teaching, Wetzel Road Elementary, in Liverpool, NY. Because the time that I had been out of college had put me off schedule, I was a midyear graduate, so I started my first teaching position in January, taking over for a teacher who was going out on maternity leave.
This was the first time I became aware of the fact that second graders could eat you alive! I came into the classroom filled with grand and lofty ideas about the beauty and nobility of children, and ran smack into the brick wall of the reality that you also have to provide them discipline and structure.
It was a very difficult year. Even so, and somewhat to my astonishment, they hired me to come back. The next year, when I could start fresh with a class of my own (and a better sense of what I was doing), was an entirely different experience. I loved teaching, loved the kids, loved the work I was doing. Okay, so I didn't love doing lessons plans and grading papers. But mostly I loved it. And what I learned and experienced in my years as a teacher became a core part of my writing.
But I still wanted to be a writer.
Over the summer Kathy and I made a move that seemed like a good idea, but carried with it a lot of problems. My grandparents were ready to retire from farming—actually, had already retired, but now wanted to be done with the burden of caring for the house and land. Because none of us wanted the house to leave the family, we cooked up a deal that had my father, my brother, and me buying the farm from my grandparents, then renting the house to Kathy and me.
We loved the home. But it put us under a lot of strain. For one thing, it was more than we could really afford. For another, it was not really ours. My brother—who was part owner, after all—was using the farm to board horses. And my grandfather, who had been born in the house, could never really get over thinking of it as his, so would wander in at any time of the day. To make things worse, we had a period of severe winters, some of the snowiest in history for our area, and the farm had a long, uphill driveway that was almost impossible to keep clear.
Even so, I loved the land, and felt connected to it.
In the spring of 1975 our daughter, Cara, was born, bringing our family to four.
That summer I took a graduate class in children's literature at Syracuse University. One of the speakers was Natalie Babbitt. I showed her some of Kathy's illustrations. Natalie was incredibly enthusiastic, said that Kathy should visit some art directors in New York, and invited us to come visit her at home to discuss the idea. Because of the pressures of having a newborn, we were not able to arrange this for some time.
In the meantime, something else happened. One evening I was babbling to Kathy about what we had done that day in class. She was sitting with her sketch pad, drawing as she listened. After a while she turned the pad around and said, "Write me a story about this guy." It was a picture of a forlorn-looking giant standing barefoot in a farmer's field. He had broken a fence by stepping on it, and the farmer, who only came up to his ankle, was berating him. What she had done in drawing the picture was give me the essence of a story—namely, the character. I knew by looking at it that he was big (easy to see!), that he got in trouble a lot (the expression on his face told me that), and that he was kind-hearted (otherwise, he would just have squashed the little guy yelling at him).
It took me a few weeks, but I found his story. Kathy made some more pictures. When we finally went to see Natalie, she looked at what we were doing and said, "Forget the trip to New York. Finish the dummy and I'll tell you some places to send it."
It took about a year to get the dummy finished—I was teaching full time, and Kathy had the two little ones at home. But when it was ready we thought it was really good. After a couple of rejections (I was used to that by now!) we got a letter from Dinah Stevenson at Lippincott that was a definite "Maybe." Dinah felt that the story was way too long—especially since she was considering it for a line of easy readers. She made a number of suggestions for cutting it down.
It was hard to consider such radical changes to the story. On the other hand, this was the best chance we had ever had. I went to work, revising and cutting. Kathy did a couple of new pictures in a different medium.
It was now two years since she had drawn the first picture. Once again, there was a summer seminar in children's literature at Syracuse University, this time in writing fantasy for children—precisely what I wanted
to do! I signed up for the class, and Kathy signed up to audit it. Many of the same people were taking it again, a small community of people who were passionate about children's books. Once again, Natalie was to be a featured speaker. The day she was to speak, we got a letter from Dinah formally accepting The Foolish Giant for publication.
It was 1977, eight years after we had first decided to try our hand at children's books. When you wait that long for a dream to come true, there is no way to hold still when it happens. Kathy and I literally ran outside, jumped up and down, danced around, shrieked.
We looked like a couple of maniacs.
We took the letter with us to class to show Natalie, who insisted on reading it out loud. Since the room was full of people dying to get exactly the same kind of letter, I suspect there was a mix of jealousy and the sense that, "Yes, it really can happen to one of us!"
This was a very fertile period for me. As a warm-up for the class, I wrote a little story called "Monster for a Day" about a kid who goes downstairs one morning after breakfast and finds a monster drawing bats on the cellar wall. The monster taps him on the shoulder and says, "You're it!" The kid turns into the monster, the monster turns human, and the kid has to chase him around all day, trying to tag him so he can turn back into himself. It was fast, funny, and lively, but not very deep. A few weeks later I realized what was missing: a reason for the kid to become a monster. Asking myself what kind of kid needed to have that experience, I thought of one of the kids in my class (school was back in session) and rewrote the story with him in mind. In this version he stumbled into a strange magic shop, where he bought a bottle of pills (later changed to a ring) that let him turn himself into a monster.
There are now five books about Mr. Elives' Magic Shop, and they are my most critically successful books. But they all sprang from that short story written as a warm up exercise for that summer seminar. Not that I was able to sell the book version right away. Dinah sent it back, asking for major changes—changes that, this time, I was not willing to make.
Though I was becoming more successful creatively, things were not as good on the home front, and our marriage was, for a variety of reasons, beginning to be very troubled.
In teaching, I had moved from second grade to fourth grade, where I felt really at home. I loved the age, loved the books I was able to use with the kids, loved the teaching in general. In the fall of 1978 one of the teachers I was working with talked the other three of us into doing a play as a major class project the next spring. Settling on Alice in Wonderland, we managed to get copies of the book for every single kid in the fourth grade. I was working with the top reading group that year, and we decided to have them do the adaptation.
Somehow it fell upon me to direct the thing.
It was like finding a second life. As a kid I had wanted to be an actor. I had put away that particular dream, whether from lack of confidence or because the call to writing was more powerful I couldn't say. Now I was on fire with this project. The fire burned brighter when Pat, the teacher who had insisted we do the play to begin with, kept saying we needed a big song to close the thing. Finally I went to the music teacher, Angela Zammit (later Peterson) and asked if she would write some music if I provided the lyrics. She agreed, so a few days later I got up one morning (I was still writing before I went to work) and came up with what I hoped would be a good closing number. I gave the words to Angie at school, figuring she would get back to me in three or four days. But as I was leaving that afternoon she caught me and said, "Do you want to hear the song?"
When she played and sang for me the words I had written that morning I thought the top of my head was going to come off! This was great! I loved doing it! Soon I dragooned Angie into doing two more songs for the show—which was generous of her; she was getting married a few days after we were to perform Alice, and had more than enough on her mind.
I had always loved musical theater, and now I really had the bug. So when Angie told me she had always wanted to do a musical in place of the spring concert, but couldn't because the principal wouldn't let her unless she could put every kid into the show, I said, "I'll write you a show that can hold every kid!"
The night we performed Alice for the parents I was too excited to get to sleep. As I was lying in bed, in the spot halfway between waking and sleeping, I saw an image of a princess dressed in a beautiful gown. When she lifted the edge of the gown to reveal the army boots she was wearing underneath, and shouted, "Kick up your heels!" I knew it was the start of a big musical number. I kept trying to get to sleep, but ideas for the new play—especially for how we could get groups of kids on stage—kept filling my head.
In the spring of 1980, The Dragonslayers was ready. Angie and I had over eighty kids in costume, a dozen original songs, a running time of about an hour and a half.
And in the middle of getting it all together, Kathy took the kids and moved out. My life was split right down the middle. On the professional side I was happier and more creatively engaged than I had ever been. On the personal side it was a shambles.
With some hard work and a lot of forgiveness on both sides, we managed to maintain a good friendship—which was just as well, since our third child, Adam, was born the next year. But I had lost my bearings, and entered a long period that I think of as my personal soap opera. Things became so chaotic in my personal life that the next year, the spring of 1981, I resigned my teaching position, planning to leave the farm and move to New York City to pursue my writing.
It didn't quite work out that way. While I left the job, and the farm, I was not able to uproot myself from Syracuse. Again, just as well, since it was better for the children that I be nearby. I worked as a temp, bounced around in relationships, and tried to get my writing career moving. Angie and I wrote two more musicals that were given lovely mountings by a local group. But I was not able to get another book published for quite a while. The Monster's Ring—which was still called Monster Pills at this point—was bouncing from publisher to publisher. Finally I got a letter saying a publisher was interested, but thought the book needed a number of changes—pretty much the same changes Dinah had requested three years earlier. I decided it was time to make them.
While I was working on the revision, the publisher hired that same Dinah as an editor. Since we had worked together already, they decided she should work on this project, too. So the book landed on her desk with exactly the changes she had asked for, years after she had first requested them. Who knows how much time and trouble I would have saved myself if I hadn't been so stubborn?
Publishing, I have often said, is a business that devours its young. My first three books were done with prestigious hardcover houses. They were well reviewed and sold respectably. But there was no way I could live on what I was making from them, much less provide support for my children. So I started doing paperback originals. As far as putting food on the table goes, this was a good choice. In terms of career building, it was not so wise. Original paperbacks are condemned by their very format to be considered less literary, and of lower quality, than things that are first published in hardcover. I did some of my best work in this format. But the books were rarely reviewed, and did little to establish my credentials as a writer.
Some of the writing I was doing at this time was for packagers. This is a subset of publishing where the packager sells an idea for a book or a series to a publisher, then hires a writer to provide the actual book.
(Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys are the quintessential packaged products.) Through an odd set of circumstances, one packager I worked with, Byron Preiss, asked me to write a story called My Teacher Is an Alien. I wanted to throttle Byron when I heard the title, simply because it was the best title I had ever heard, and I hadn't thought of it myself.
The book turned out to be an unexpected success, selling as many copies in its first year as all my other books put together. Of course, most of the money stayed with the packager. But when it came time to write the sequels, I was able to get a better deal. The series continued to build. The fourth book, My Teacher Flunked the Planet, is one of the things I am proudest of in all my career. But it remains a secret between me and the kids, since not many adults have paid attention to it. Indeed, a startling number of teachers and parents have told me they had not read My Teacher Is an Alien specifically because of the title or the cover, and were startled to find, after a child had urged it upon them, how much they actually enjoyed it.
Clearly, the admonition "never judge a book by its cover" has still not taken hold in most people's minds.
There's one final twist in the story that I should tell you about. In 1992, after eleven years of separation (but no divorce), Kathy and I decided to try living together again. We had stayed close friends, indeed had collaborated on additional books. Somehow, it just seemed we belonged together. As we are.
It has been a long, strange road from farm boy to author, and when I look back it sometimes seems my life is more improbable than any of the stories I have written. Who could have guessed, back when I was digging graves and slinging hay bales, that I would have a chance to write stories that would be read all over the world?
Or that anyone would want to read this much about my life?
But here you are, at the end of this essay.
So it must have happened.
Which only goes to prove that truth really is stranger than fiction.
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