Sid Fleischman: A Remembrance
He felt his success was due to the fact that he still sometimes thought like a kid
The well known children’s writer Sid Fleischman was a graduate of San Diego State University, where I taught, and we met on one of his return visits. On the drive to campus, he told me that he felt his success was due to the fact that he still sometimes thought like a kid. As an example, he mentioned a kind of magical bargain he had struck with himself that morning: While showering, he decided that if a certain event happened in the next five minutes, he would do this; but if it didn’t, he would do the opposite.
As we traveled down the interstate, he spoke about other ways kids think, and he did so in a manner both sympathetic and anthropological. I owe him a debt of gratitude. This wonderful conversation would eventually beget my book about children’s writers and their works: Feeling Like a Kid.
We felt a kinship in other ways. Fleischman is probably best known for The Whipping Boy which won a Newberry Award in 1987 for best children’s book. In this chapter book, Fleischman does his own turn on Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper, inventing a story about Prince Brat and the pauper Jemmy who is employed as a whipping boy to take the prince’s beatings.
Fleischman was thunderstruck, consequently, to learn from me that Twain had actually experimented with the idea of having a whipping boy in The Prince and the Pauper but had later abandoned the idea. I had discovered a “missing chapter” to Twain’s novel (where the idea of a whipping boy was rehearsed) when I was preparing a new edition of the work for Penguin Books; it’s included in an appendix to my Penguin edition of Twain’s classic. Fleischman said that news made the hair on the back of his neck stand up; he found this news uncanny.
So, I looked forward to seeing Fleischman again in Spring 2010 at San Diego State University. We were both scheduled to speak in a series of lectures organized for a Mark Twain Centennial. In preparation, I read a dozen biographies — including Fleischman’s The Trouble Begins at 8 as well as other biographies of Twain meant for young readers — and concluded that his was the best by a mile.
Sadly, that meeting would never took place. Fleischman died on March 17, 2010, at his home in Santa Monica, California. He had just turned ninety.
This essay originally appeared in Parents’ Choice (March/April 2010). You can find out more about Fleischman and his books at http://sidfleischman.com/