Paul Fleischman describes himself as a builder. His award-winning books for children span a variety of age ranges and interests—picture books, middle-grade and young adult novels, nonfiction, plays and poetry. Unlike many authors who were bookworms as children, Fleischman says, “I was not a reader and had no plans to be a writer.” Growing up in Santa Monica, California, he went to the beach or the playground, rode his bike, and listened to his shortwave radio. When his parents brought home a hand printing press, Fleischman went into business designing business cards and letterhead. He made sculptures out of found materials (some would say junk) he found at the beach and in trash cans. “I did a lot of making, in many media,” he says.
Little did Fleischman know that all of his building allowed him to absorb the skills that he would later apply to writing. Like an athlete who crosstrains, Fleischman’s printing skills demanded an attention to detail which came in handy when he worked as a proofreader for a textbook publisher and later as an author. According to Fleischman, “There is a whole visual, nonverbal element to books: you can communicate not only through the meaning of words, but through line breaks in poetry and page turns in picture books.”
Similarly, ideas for Fleischman’s books are rooted in the skills he learned when making sculptures of found materials. He and his sisters hopped on their bikes and scoured the neighborhood trash cans for “neat stuff.” They didn’t know what they were looking for, but they knew it when they found it, like the working camera, or the bomber pilot’s maps of Germany, or the black rubber gas mask.
Although Fleischman no longer hops on his bike to pick through trash cans, he does wander the aisles of used book stores in his northern California hometown. “Serendipity is one of the author’s four food groups,” he says. During his childhood Fleischman massaged his found materials into sculpture; he adjusted, clipped, sanded, drilled holes, fanned, snapped off, and lengthened the pieces to make the whole. “A found sculptor,” he says, “is forever trying to solve problems, keeping an eye on both the sum and its parts, constantly judging and revising.” Now as a writer, he applies this philosophy to his book store finds. In an old copy of Doctors on Horseback, a single paragraph about Philadelphia’s yellow fever epidemic became the initial germ of the idea for Path of the Pale Horse. A single sentence in a book on early American houses gave Fleischman the idea for The Borning Room.
Fleischman also taps his life experiences to construct characters, but changes them to fit because his purpose is to write a story rather than a memoir. “The public thinks writers cut and paste freely from their families and friends, but in truth we do lots of altering—lopping off this trait, changing gender and age, reshaping the facts to our needs.” The boy in Seekgrew out of Fleischman’s love for his own shortwave radio and the picture on the cover is Fleischman listening to the world through his headphones, but the boy’s story does not mimic Fleischman’s.
Fifteen years after Fleischman’s mother died he continues to write about the void she left in his life. In Breakout, Fleischman’s main character, Del, never knew her family and lives in a series of foster homes. In Whirligig, Brent meets the mother of the girl he accidentally killed. In Mind’s Eye, a teenager abandoned by her family relies on her connection to an 88-year old woman. Fleischman weaves a variety of circumstances and character traits into the common thread of coping with loss.
The Newbery-winning Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices and Fleischman’s other multi-voice poems use poetry to duplicate the “camaraderie and synergy and do-it-yourself pleasure of chamber music.” According to Fleischman, “Those books weren’t designed for virtuosos, but for family and friends. The concert stage I had in mind was our living room.”
Fleischman says, “I started out writing for children in the same way someone might inherit the family grocery store.” His father, octogenarian Sid Fleischman, is the Newbery-winning author of The Whipping Boy and still writes for children. (For Sid Fleischman’s archived profile, visit www.patriciamnewman.com/.) Fleischman remembers hearing his father’s books “read aloud as they rolled off the typewriter…I’d be the first to admit I learned a lot about writing from my father’s books—about suspense and cadence and the byways of history and the pure pleasure to be found in words.” When Fleischman began writing for children, publishers were tolerant of experimentation and remained separate from the Hollywood/TV lure that surrounds adult fiction.
In spite of the changes to the children’s publishing industry, Fleischman remains true to his own interests and desires. “I work entirely off my own enthusiasms and pay no attention to the market,” he says. “I don’t write out of a need to tell the world something. I write because I have a need to build.”