LEARNING ABOUT JIM MURPHY


Compiled by Kay Vandergrift

"Children weren't just observers of our history. They were actual participants and sometimes did amazing and heroic things." Jim Murphy

BIOGRAPHY

"I grew up in Kearny, New Jersey, a smallish industrial town on the Passaic River. My childhood consisted of thousands of baseball and football games with neighborhood kids, roaming around town, and inventing various "adventures." We might be explorers tramping through a river jungle or soldiers checking for the enemy in an abandoned factory. On several occasions my friends and I hopped aboard a train and went to New York City. We never worried about being bothered by anyone on such outings since we always traveled in groups of twenty or thirty."

"I didn't read very much until I was twelve. Once I started to read, it became a passion. I would and still do read just about anything I can get my hands on-historical fiction, poetry, mysteries, books about medicine or the Revolutionary War or ancient Egypt or . . . well, you get the picture. If I become interested in a subject, I will read book after book about it. And every so often, all of this reading gets my gray matter really energized and results in my writing a book. For instance, one day I was reading various theories concerning the extinction of dinosaurs. One common thread in these theories is that dinosaurs did not fall over dead in a minute or two. It took hundreds of thousands, even millions of years, for them all to die out. A week or so after reading this, I realized this meant that at some point there was only one dinosaur alive on earth. Which one could it have been? I wondered. Did it feel lonely? After seven years of additional reading, plus talking with paleontologists, I wrote The Last Dinosaur."

"Something similar happened with The Great Fire. I was doing research on another book when I came across a letter written by twelve-year-old Claire Innis. Her letter was about the fire that destroyed much of Chicago in 1881. Not only did Claire see the fire, she had actually been trapped in an alley with burning buildings all around her. What a brave kid, I thought, and what an amazing adventure she had. I had no plans to write a book about the Chicago fire then, but I liked Claire's letter enough to copy it down."

"A number of years later, I was in an antique book shop in Vermont when I came across Chicago and the Great Conflagration, which was published just a month after the fire. I glanced through it and noticed it contained several firsthand accounts from survivors of the same fire Claire had written about. One of them was a young newspaper reporter named Joseph Chamberlin who, like Claire, had actually been pursued and surrounded by the flames. That's when I began to think I might be able to do a book about the fire."

"But I didn't want it to be just another history of the fire, loaded with dry statistics and information. I wanted readers to experience what it was like to see the fire approaching, hear its terrible roar, and feel the intense heat. So I began searching for other people who had barely escaped the consuming fire and left a written account of it. I also decided to make the fire one of the characters-a hungry monster in a relentless quest for buildings and people."

"One of my goals in writing about events from the past is to show that children weren't just observers of our history. They were actual participants and sometimes did amazing and heroic things. It's why I wrote my two Civil War books, The Boys' War: Confederate & Union Soldiers Talk About the Civil War and The Long Road to Gettysburg, and why I did A Young Patriot: The American Revolution as Experienced by One Boy. And it's why I am so happy that I stumbled across Claire Innis's letter about the Chicago fire. She and the other survivors of the fire are the real historians-telling us what happened to them and their families in voices that are as immediate and powerful today as when these events took place."

Taken from the Scholastic author brochure with permission of the author.

The following is taken from a personal letter to me dated November 27, 1996

"I was a very bad student in grammar school (in part because I had an eye condition that went undetected until I was 9 or 10 and because I was in constant warfare with the nuns, who were always asking me why I wasn't as smart as my brother)."

"I began to read fiendishly after my father taught me to refinish furniture. Huh!? You're saying. Well, the first piece of furniture I refinished was a maple bookcase. I put it in my room and realized that as nice as it looked, it needed some books to look really finished. So I rounded up a few and stuck them in the bookcase. It all looked very nice and it sat, untouched, for a few weeks. Then, I picked out one of the books and started reading it. When I finished it, I picked out another, and another and so on. So I went out and bought a book with my own money and I was off on a reading binge that hasn't stopped. Both my parents encouraged my reading, though my mother especially. When the nuns, and later some of my prep. School teachers said that what I was reading was too adult, she made it clear to them that I could read anything I wanted."

"My interest in history began in 7th Grade when we had Mr. Polino as a teacher. On the very first day of class he stood in front of us and announced, "Despite what you've seen on television or been told, all American Indians weren't bad people." This was back in 1957 or 58, so this came as a bit of a surprise to us, and resulted in a two day discussion on how Native Americans were represented in history books, movies and on TV, and how we had accepted this as the truth without question. Mr. P. used a similar approach with a variety of other history topics and really started us thinking. I came away from all of this feeling that if I wanted to have a real idea of what took place in the past, I had to read a lot more than one book about a subject."

"In prep. School (St. Benedict's in Newark) and in college (Rutgers, New Brunswick) I managed to lead a strange double life. I liked some subjects (history, English, geology, art history, biology, city planning, for instance), but hated others (any language, calculus to name a few) and my grades generally reflected my interest. I also ran track (60, 100, 220 and quarter mile, plus the long jump) and was pretty good at it. I was state champion in the sprints five or six times and was on the national champion 440 and mile relay teams. I even made it to the finals of the high school national 60 yard dash and came in third (the winner was a guy named Jim Gaines, who happens to still hold the world record in the dash, so I didn't feel all that bad about my performance). But all of my running was done under the name Tim Murphy. You see, my nickname when I entered prep. School was Tiny (because I weighed under six pounds when I was born), but the coach said he didn't want me referred to by that name, so he said, "From now on you're Tim." "Sure," I said, and I was Tim thereafter, even when I made it into the New York Times. Why he didn't pick Jim or JJ (for James John) escapes me. I actually liked the name Tim and used it on and off for years (my brother still refers to me as Tim from time to time)."

"After college, I worked on a variety of construction jobs in New York city and New Jersey. I was a tin knocker and we laid the corrugated metal on the open steel beams; when we were finished, concrete was poured over the metal to create the floors. I really enjoyed this work, despite the bitter cold winds you encounter at 30 and 40 stories, but I was also looking for a job in publishing, specifically in children's books. One reason I wanted to get into children's books was that I love illustrations and illustrated books. After many interviews (in the area of 30 to 40), I finally landed a position at the Seabury Press (which is now called Clarion Books). I was a secretarial-assistant and responsible for typing letters, filing and checking mailing lists. But because this was a very tiny list when I started (we were doing 5 to 7 books a season), I was able to do a wide variety of jobs-from line-editing, to rewriting text, to revising ad copy, playing with catalog design, etc. My boss, Jim Giblin, not only tolerated my dreadful typing, but he let me see sales figures, meet important illustrators and authors, interview new illustrators and participate (in a way) in the overall decision making process. Naturally, the pay was dreadful (I took home $92.50 a week when I started; my last paycheck as a construction worker was in the area of $900), but the experience was priceless. What's more, I learned how to read and evaluate a manuscript with an editor's and publisher's eye. I try to use these same standards when I write and revise my own manuscripts."

"After working at Clarion for between seven and eight years, I became a freelance writer. Why? Well, I'd helped a number of writers come up with ideas, helped them focus their texts and in some cases even rewritten them. So why not try to do it for myself, I thought. Also, I had some ideas for books that I couldn't get anyone else to do. Finally, I decided I didn't want to wake up some morning and discover that I was 65 and annoyed at myself because I hadn't taken the chance. That was 19 years ago and I'm still wondering if I'll make it as a writer!"

"Let's see, what else can I say? Hmmm. Hobbies: I love to cook (cajun/creole, Indian, some French, Chinese, pizzas, and any recipe that sounds interesting). I collect turn-of-the-century postcards of ships (all steam driven) and trains (though there has to be an engine somewhere in the picture); reading (of course) though I'm particularly fond of finding firsthand accounts from the 19th century; gardening; and searching for the perfect hamburger and french fries (no kidding). I'm married to a wonderful and very supportive person, Alison Blank (she was the executive producer of The Magic School Bus animated series, and she created and edits/writes the MSG magazine, plus creating and writing websites for New Jersey Online). I'm very proud of her creativity and accomplishments. We have two sons (Michael, who insists we call him Mike, is 5 3/4 and Ben, who is two days shy of being 1 year old). We live in an old Victorian with a wrap-around porch and Alison and I both work out of third floor offices. So far we have had no real problems with this arrangement, but I do think she takes too many pens and rubber bands out of my office! I am a confessed horrible speller and punctuator and have had many interesting discussions with copyeditors over my creative approach to both skills. Phobias: I am not at all fond of spiders or snakes, though I've learned to be a little more tolerant because I like to work in the garden. The emphasis is on the phrase "a little more" since I will never befriend a member from either group."

"That's all I can think to write, except that I never work on St. Patrick's Day. Anyway, I better get this off to you before you call me and yell. If you need any other information, don't hesitate to ask. Meanwhile, I hope this info is of some help."

BIBLIOGRAPHY

A Young Patriot. New York: Clarion Books, 1996.

The Great Fire. New York: Scholastic, 1995.

Into the Deep Forest. Illus. by Kate Keisler. New York: Clarion Books, 1995.

Night Terrors. New York: Scholastic, 1994.

Across America on an Emigrant Train. New York: Clarion Books, 1993.

Backyard Bear. Illus. by Jeffery Greene. New York: Scholastic, 1993.

Dinosaur for a Day. Illus. by Mark Alan Weatherby. New York: Scholastic,1992.

The Long Road to Gettysburg. New York: Clarion Books, 1992.

The Boys' War: Confederate and Union Soldiers Talk About the Civil War. New York: Clarion Books, 1991.

The Call of the Wolves. Illus. by Mark Alan Weatherby. New York: Scholastic, 1989.

The Last Dinosaur. Illus. by Mark Alan Weatherby. New York: Scholastic, 1988.

Custom Car: A Nuts and Bolts Guide to Building One. New York: Clarion Books, 1988.

Guess Again: More Weird and Wacky Inventions. New York: Bradbury Press, 1986.

Baseball's All-Time All-Stars. New York: Clarion Books, 1984.

Tractors: From Yesterday's Steam Wagons to Today's Supercharged Giants. Philadelphia, PA: J. B. Lippincott, 1984.

The Indy 500. New York: Clarion Books, 1983.

Two Hundred Years of Bicycles. Philadelphia, PA: J. B. Lippincott, 1983.

Death Run. New York: Clarion Books, 1982.

Harold Thinks Big. Illus. by Susanna Natti. New York: Crown Publishers,1980.

Rat's Christmas. Illus. by Dick Gackenbach). New York: Prentice-Hall, 1979.

Weird and Wacky Inventions. New York: Crown Publishers, 1978.

AWARDS

Book cover from

THE GREAT FIRE.

NIGHT TERRORS.

ACROSS AMERICA ON AN EMIGRANT TRAIN.

BACKYARD BEAR.

DINOSAUR FOR A DAY.

THE LONG ROAD TO GETTYSBURG.

THE BOYS' WAR: CONFEDERATE AND UNION SOLIDERS TALK ABOUT THE CIVIL WAR.

THE CALL OF THE WOLVES.

THE LAST DINOSAUR.

CUSTOM CAR: A NUTS AND BOLTS GUIDE TO BUILDING ONE.

TRACTORS: FROM YESTERDAY'S STEAM WAGONS TO TODAY'S SUPERCHARGED GIANTS.

DEATH RUN.

HAROLD THINKS BIG.

RAT'S CHRISTMAS.

WEIRD AND WACKY INVENTIONS.

BIBLIOGRAPHY ABOUT JIM MURPHY

Something About the Author. Volumes 32 and 37.

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Created December 7, 1996