By AML Staff Writer
Photos Courtesy of Kevin E. McPherson
The acclaimed author speaks how his love of his childhood has brought him to the heart of the Main Line.
Last Halloween I was proudly handing out large Hershey chocolate bars to the sea of trick-or-treaters at my parents’ house, a strategically positioned Main Line Tudor that, without fail, draws a flood every October 31st – pirates, magicians, Hannah Montanas, Cinderellas and an occasional tin man. In the midst of what seemed like a successful night of content candy grabbers, a group of boisterous middle school boys clamored up the steps dragging their stuffed pillow cases. Wondering what kind of candy they could have collected in such a short amount of time, I had to ask. “What do you guys have in there? It’s only 7:30!” “Books, we have books!” the kid with the Brian Dawkins jersey cheered. “Yeah, the guy across the street is awesome, he set up his living room and is handing out tons of free books to everyone, isn’t that cool?”
Cool? Sure, books are great. But, who hands out books on Halloween? And, most importantly, who was stealing my thunder with a virtual children’s bookstore in lieu of candy? A few minutes later after the boys were long gone and a half dozen other trick-or-treaters had come running in smiling cheek to cheek with their new bags of treats–fresh shiny literature–it all came together. I had heard some buzz recently of a children’s author moving into the Main Line and…now this made sense. I quickly put down the bowl of bars, threw on a sweatshirt and started walking out the door. Someone was handing out books for Halloween, just about as scandalous as you can get on the Main Line, and I was going to see for myself what this brew ha-ha was all about.
I shamelessly walked a few blocks, knocked on famed children’s author Jerry Spinelli’s door, and asked him if I could have a book for Halloween too. Because every other kid had one and I thought it was pretty cool (plus I had a 5 year-old niece who always loves a new book). But I really went over selfishly, to see what it was like in this rumored “living room bookstore” where you didn’t have to pay and the books were your prize for dressing up like an M&M. Luckily, my ‘costume’ of faded jeans and a worn Villanova basketball sweatshirt sufficed.
It wasn’t the generosity of Jerry Spinelli that wowed me that night (Spinelli does not hand out his own work–the books were supplied by his publishing house and were written by other children’s authors), it was the kind and sincere person I met at the front door who I could see was quietly chuckling at my Halloween adventure. Ever since then, I have been intrigued by Spinelli’s move into the neighborhood, his cult following not only among children but their parents too, and the raw talent behind an author that has captured the imaginations of millions of readers across the world.
Jerry Spinelli grew up in Norristown in the ’50s when the King of Prussia Mall was a cow pasture and downtown Norristown boasted 4 movie theaters. And that is exactly why a half-century later, Spinelli and his wife Eileen, also a children’s book author, find themselves in the heart of the Main Line for their golden years. “We love this area. When we looked around we wanted to be able to walk into a downtown area and the best town that offered that was Wayne,” he explains. “We see it as we bought a town, not a house. There’s a lot of freedom with a town like Wayne—you can walk to the grocery store, find a mocha at every corner or go to the movie theater and it only is a few minutes from your front door.” So Spinelli finds himself comfortably settled into his perfect home, perfect town–celebrating one of his most recent books “Eggs” and a pending playwright’s interpretation at People’s Light and Theatre this spring 2009. But before Spinelli and I can talk more about his love of writing, his six children and 16 grandchildren, and his successful career, I ask him to take me back to the beginning.
Rewind to the fall of ’57, when Spinelli was a junior at Norristown High. A show by the name of American Bandstand, with host Dick Clark, had just debuted on ABC that August, a gallon of gas cost $.24, Dwight D. Eisenhower was President, and the Yankees and the Milwaukee Braves were in an epic battle for a World Series title. 16-year old Spinelli was strolling the hallways of Norristown High and playing catch with his pals every day—too busy to even think about writing. “I enjoyed what little reading I did, but that wasn’t anything deep. An occasional book here or there, but I was determined to be a professional baseball player,” Spinelli explains as we chat in his fresh, bright sitting room—the former Halloween bookstore. “In sixth grade I was a big fan of Bug’s Bunny comics, it was the thing to read.” And so Jerry Spinelli was just minding his own business, growing up like every other kid in the Philadelphia suburbs so innocently did in those days until one fateful night. It was the crisp autumn evening of October 11, 1957 and Norristown was abuzz. That night the whole community would pack the stands to watch a highly anticipated high school football showdown between national powerhouse Lower Merion and Norristown—an event that would define Spinelli’s life path. For his readers and fans, let’s just say it was a good thing that Jerry Spinelli was in the stands.
“I was sitting with all my pals about halfway through what was, so far, a pretty boring football game at Roosevelt Field. Lower Merion was our big rival. And, the game came down to a goal line stand. We were up 7-6, Lower Merion had a first and goal. And our defense just held on, four downs and…nothing. And then time ran out. It was a classic, the town went crazy,” Spinelli reminisces. And, coming from a talented author, the way he describes that night over 50 years ago I almost feel like I can picture it exactly…envisioning the people in the stands, what the boys uniforms looked like, even what kind of cars were piled in the parking lot. A quick google search and I find the exact article by then Times-Herald sports editor Red McCarthy (whose column Spinelli read religiously) capturing the night with the headline “LM Gets Four Tries From 1 ½ Yards Out And Fails” and whose first line reads: “Move over Milwaukee! There’s more dancing to be done in the streets! Out of the way Sputnick! They’ll be shootin’ the moon around here, too!”
While the community of Norristown partied into the wee hours of the night soaking in the thrilling victory, Jerry Spinelli headed home to write. “I was so moved by that game, it was very dramatic and spectacular I went straight home—while the rest of the town celebrated—and wrote a poem about that play. I handed it to my Dad to get his opinion, went to bed and didn’t think about it much after that.” Spinelli called his poem about the goal-line stand “Goal to Go” and by the next day had forgotten about the piece of paper where he had collected his thoughts. But, a few days later, he opened the Norristown Times-Herald and there was his poem in full view for everyone to read…secretly handed off to the Herald by his father Louis (who thought his son might be on to something). “I went to school that morning, and now I was famous…as you can imagine, suddenly famous.”
Spinelli’s father’s covert plan to have his son’s poem published was the beginning of a very successful career—but one that took a great deal of persistence. After graduating from Gettysburg College in 1963 with an English major (there was no such thing as a creative writing degree in ‘those days’ he explains), Spinelli went on to study creative writing at Johns Hopkins University and serve a stint in the Naval Air Reserves. Spinelli assumed once out of school he would become a college professor and write his books over the long summer breaks. But, teaching didn’t suite him and so he got a job with the Chilton Company in St. Davids and worked in trade publishing by day, writing books at night. In the interim, the author and his wife, Eileen, raised their 6 children. “Yep, there were times I was writing that I would literally have to put cotton in my ears. Those years were hectic but you did what you had to do, raising a family, working and writing.”
The Spinelli family’s time in Havertown and Phoenixville was also the time that Jerry faced his first rounds of rejections, writing 4 books for adults in 12 years that “nobody would read, nobody wanted.” The 5th time was the charm. In 1982, “Space Station Seventh Grade” was complete, a story about a 13-year old kid based on a humorous incident in the Spinelli household over some leftover fried chicken. Spinelli originally intended Space Station Seventh Grade to be an adult novel, but since the protagonist is 13 years old, adult publishers rejected it and it became a children’s book.
From there the Newbery Medalist (Maniac Magee 1991) was off and running, backed by behemoth publishing houses Random House and Little, Brown. He indulges me with a story of how his books, millions sold in 35 languages across the globe, have connected and empowered children—especially young girls. He recently heard from an Italian publisher off the coast of Italy, where 60 young girls got together at 4:30am to watch the sunrise by the sea as part of a Stargirl Society group–inspired by Spinelli’s 2000 Knopf novel, Stargirl. The fact that this sweet man with a sparkle in his eye is reaching young readers across the world is exactly what makes Jerry Spinelli a splendid subject in and of himself. “I think of myself as a writer, not a children’s writer. I write about kids, but not solely for kids. From the feedback I get, quite a few grownups write to me who enjoy my books,” he adds.
Ironically, as I am putting the final touches on my ode to Spinelli, a package arrives at my parents’ house mistakenly dropped off by the postman. It’s clear it’s from one of his fans—the handwriting seems young, the address reads some small town in Ohio. So, it must be a sign to me—a clear sign of the inspiration this author is providing to children around the Main Line, around America and beyond. I’m tempted to walk the fan mail over myself, actually curious what’s inside the manila envelope. Maybe this time I would be wiser to sport a UConn basketball sweatshirt since Huskies head women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma is also a Norristown native—something Spinelli had proudly pointed out in a previous email exchange. And, as a UConn alum, I know the Norristown pride runs strong with those who grew up there. But before I can jump at another excuse to go knock on the Spinellis’ front door, the envelope has already been returned to the appropriate destination by another family member. That’s ok, October 31st is just around the corner—and this time I’ll be expecting the posse of trick-or-treaters with their stuffed pillow cases of candy bars and books. And I have a feeling this Halloween Jerry Spinelli will also be expecting me.
Below is Jerry Spinelli’s poem as published by the Norristown Times-Herald October 1957
Student Waxes Poetic:
Tribute to NHS Goal Line-Stand Chronicled by Jerry Spinelli
Sixteen year-old Jerry Spinelli, a junior student at Norristown High School, took pen in hand after last Friday night’s 7-6 win over Lower Merion and paid tribute to the great NHS goal-line stand. Spinelli, son of Mr. and Mrs. Louis A Spinelli, 1810 Locust St., titled his clever contribution, ‘Goal to Go.’
Here it is:
GOAL TO GO
The score stood seven-six.
With but five minutes to go
The Ace attack employed all tricks
To settle down its stubborn foe.
It looked as though the game was done
When an Ace stepped wide ’round right
An Eagle stopped him on the one
And tumult filled the night
Thirty-two had come their way
And thirty-two had died
Should number thirty-three, this day
For one yard, be denied?
Roy Kent, the Eagle mentor, said,
“I’ve waited for this game,
And now, defense, go, stop ’em dead
And crash the Hall of Fame.”
The first Ace bolted for the goal
And nothing did he see
But Branca, swearing on his soul.
“You shall not pass by me.”
The next two plays convinced all
The ref would make the touchdown sign
But when the light shone on the ball
It still lay inches from the line.
Said Captain Eastwood to his gents,
“It’s up to us to stop this drive.”
Said Duckworth, Avery, Knerr and Spence,
“Will do, as long as we’re alive.”
The halfback drove with all his might
His legs were jet-propelled
But when the dust had cleared the fight
The Eagle line had held.