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Authors: Peg Kehret

Five Pages a Day

BOOK: Five Pages a Day
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Five Pages a Day:

A Writer's Journey

Peg Kehret

Albert Whitman & Company

Morton Grove, Illinois

For Carl

Table of Contents

{ 1 } The Dog Newspaper

{ 2 } Polio

{ 3 } High School Days

{ 4 } Commercials, Cats, and Carl

{ 5 } Two Letters That Changed My life

{ 6 } Twenty-five Words or Less

{ 7 } Pretending to Be Someone Else

{ 8 } Cheers and Tears

{ 9 } Alzheimer's Disease

{ 10 } At Last! Books for Kids

{ 11 } The Ideas Box

{ 12 } Helping the Animals

{ 13 } Polio Returns

{ 14 } Research and Revision

{ 15 } Talk, Talk, Talk

{ 16 } Sharing a National Tragedy

{ 17 } Happy Ending

Acknowledgments

Because this book covers the whole of my writing career, I want to recognize some of the people who have assisted me along the way.

I've been fortunate to work with a few special editors who saw promise in my manuscripts and helped me mold them until they were the best that I could make them. For their dedication to excellence, my thanks to Rosanne Lauer, Abby Levine, Pat MacDonald, Kathy Tucker, and Arthur L. Zapel.

After two false starts, I found the right agent for me. Emilie Jacobson, senior vice-president of Curtis Brown, Ltd., has negotiated the contracts for thirty (and counting) of my books. She's done it with efficient good humor and has always given me sound business advice. I hope to meet her someday.

No writer walks alone. For various kinds of help and encouragement, I thank Caity Anast, Joan Arth, Dave Barbor, Barbara Brett, Donna Brooks, Joe Ann Daly, Grace Greene, Sherry Grindeland, Carolyn Haney, Mary Harris, Chauni Haslett, Susan Hawk, Magda Hitzroth, Julie Hovis, Mimi Kayden, Kathy Kinasewitz, Hise Levine, Stephanie Owens Lurie, Susan Myers, Annette Nall, Sharyn November, Roger Page, James Panowski, Phil Sadler, Denise Shanahan, Peggy Sharp, Meredith Mundy Wassinger, and Sharon Wuest.

I also thank the Author's Guild and the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators for their advice, legal assistance, and idealism.

I've tried to be accurate and honest in this book, but some of the memories go back a long way and details could not be confirmed by other people. Any errors are mine alone.

{ I }

The
Dog Newspaper

I
began my writing career at the age of ten when I wrote and sold the
Dog Newspaper
. This weekly publication, which cost five cents a copy, reported on the local dogs.

I interviewed every neighbor who had a dog. “What exciting thing has your dog done?” I asked.

People responded, “All Fluffy does is eat, sleep, and bark at the mailman.” Or, “Max's only excitement is his daily walk on the leash.” Such answers did not lead to important news stories.

I didn't give up. “If your dog could talk,” I asked, “what do you think he would say?”

“Feed me,” was the most common answer, followed by, “Let's play.”

What could a writer do with such boring material? The solution sat at my feet, wagging his tail.

The first issue of the
Dog Newspaper
featured my dog, B.J., on the entire front page. Although his life at that time was as uneventful as the lives of the other neighborhood dogs, B.J. had a unique background.

Uncle Bill, my mother's younger brother, was a soldier in the U.S. Army during World War II. While in Germany, his unit went into a town that had recently been bombed. As they searched for survivors in a destroyed building, they came across a mother dog and her litter of puppies. The mother dog was dead. So were all the puppies except one.

The soldiers, who had seen far too much of death and destruction, carefully lifted that little brown dog from his littermates. One soldier tucked the puppy inside his jacket to keep him warm. The men fed him from their own food supplies, shared water from their canteens, and decided to keep him as the company mascot.

From then on, wherever Uncle Bill and his comrades went, the dog went, too. They named him B.J. because he was a Big Job to take care of, especially when they were fighting a war.

B. J. grew bigger and stronger as he traveled with the soldiers, tagging along on every mission and somehow surviving even when the men were too busy to pay attention to him.

As the soldiers fought to protect the free world, B. J. did his duty, too. He slept with them in foxholes: he trudged long miles across burned and barren land; he helped search rubble for signs of life. Most of all, he offered love and laughter to a group of lonely, weary men who were far from home.

When the war ended, the soldiers rejoiced. Soon they would be going home to their loved ones. But what about B.J.? They knew they could not leave him in Germany. The German people were faced with the task of rebuilding their cities and their lives; no one wanted to bother with a dog, especially a dog who belonged to the Americans.

The men decided to chip in enough money to fly B. J. back to the United States. Then they had a drawing to see who got to keep him. Each soldier wrote his name on a slip of paper and put the paper in a helmet. The winning name was drawn: Bill Showers! My uncle.

Uncle Bill lived with my family, so B.J. was flown from Germany to Minneapolis, where my parents picked him up at the airport and drove him to our home in Austin, Minnesota.

I was nine years old and delighted by the addition of this wire-haired schnauzer (at least, we thought he might be a schnauzer) to our household.

According to Uncle Bill, B.J. understood many commands in both English and German. Since none of us spoke German, we had no way to prove this claim.

B.J. quickly became my dog. Although B.J. was overjoyed when my uncle arrived home after his discharge, Uncle Bill did not stay in Austin long. He got married and headed to the University of Minnesota, where dogs were not allowed in student housing. B. J. stayed with my family.

I showered him with loving attention. I brushed him, tied ribbons on his collar, took him for walks, and read aloud to him. B.J. seemed especially fond of the Raggedy Ann and Andy stories, which were favorites of mine as well.

B.J. had lived with us for a year when I launched the
Dog Newspaper
. He was a fascinating front-page subject, and the first edition of the
Dog Newspaper
sold twelve copies.

Even though my lead story required little research, this sixty cents was not easy money. All those interviews about the neighbor dogs took time. Also, I grew up before there were copy machines, so I couldn't just go to the local copy center and run off twelve copies of the paper. Using a pencil, I wrote every word twelve times. Then I delivered my newspapers and collected my pay.

B.J. and I became famous on our block. Neighbors were enthralled by the story, and I gobbled up congratulations on my writing the way B.J. ate his dinner. All of my customers agreed to purchase the next issue of the
Dog Newspaper
.

Giddy with success, I immediately began writing the second issue. The neighborhood dogs were still every bit as boring as they had been a week earlier, so I decided to repeat my winning formula and use B.J. as the main article again. Since I had already told the only unusual thing about my dog, this time I wrote a story called “B. J.'s Gingerbread House.”

Our new washing machine had arrived in a large cardboard box. I kept the box to create a special house for B. J., who slept in the basement every night.

I spent hours decorating the box, copying a picture of a gingerbread house that was in one of my books. I colored curlicues; I blistered my hands cutting designs in the cardboard; I painted flowers on the sides. The gingerbread house was absolutely breathtaking.

At bedtime that night, I took B.J. down to the basement and put his blanket in the beautiful gingerbread house. I petted him and kissed him and told him I knew he would sleep well.

The next morning, I couldn't believe my eyes. B. J. had licked the glue from the cardboard, creating a sticky mess in his beard, and had chewed the house into dozens of pieces. He pranced toward me through the wreckage that littered the floor.

This story was quite a bit shorter than the story of B.J.'s rescue from a bombed-out house in Germany—and far less interesting. I filled the rest of issue number two of the
Dog Newspaper
with stirring reports such as “Rusty Knocks over Garbage Can” and “Cleo Chases Cat.” After I delivered my papers, I eagerly waited for more compliments on my exciting journalism. None came. The next issue was even worse. Since B.J. still had done nothing newsworthy, I used the front page to describe what a beautiful and great dog he was. The other dogs, as always, got brief mention on the back page. Desperate to fill the space, I even wrote a story titled “Skippy Gets a Bath.”

Issue number three was a publishing disaster. Few people read it, and the only person who purchased issue number four was my grandpa. Less than one month after its launch, the
Dog Newspaper
went out of business.

I believed my writing career was over. My mistake, I thought then, was always putting my own dog on the front page. Now I realize that having dull material was an even bigger error. World the
Dog Newspaper
have succeeded if I had featured Rusty or Fluffy or Cleo? Probably not, because Rusty, Fluffy, Cleo, and all the other neighborhood dogs hadn't done anything special.

If Fluffy had gotten lost and been returned home in a police car, or if Cleo had won a prize in a dog show, or if Rusty had given birth to puppies, then perhaps the neighbors would have wanted to read my articles.

Now I know that if I want people to read what I write, I must write something that they find interesting. I need exciting plots, unique information, and fresh insights.

When I wrote the
Dog Newspaper
, I was so caught up in the fun of creating a newspaper and getting paid for my work that I lost sight of my audience. What was in it for them? Except for the first issue, not much.

B.J. took one more plane ride, from Minneapolis to Fresno, California, where my parents moved shortly after I got married. He loved the California sunshine and spent his old age sleeping on the patio. He lived to be sixteen, a good long life for an orphaned puppy who entered the world during a wartime bombing.

No one bothered to save any issues of the
Dog Newspaper
. I can't imagine why.

{ 2 }

Polio

W
hen I was growing up, one childhood disease was feared above all others: polio. There was not yet a polio vaccine, and polio epidemics swept through the country each year, killing hundreds of people and leaving thousands more paralyzed forever. Although some adults got polio, the disease struck mostly children.

Little was known about how polio was spread. Since epidemics usually occurred during the spring and summer, parents often kept their children away from crowded places such as swimming pools or movie theaters during warm weather in the hope that they would avoid contact with the disease. Children were warned not to drink from public water fountains. Some parents didn't allow their children to play in parks or playgrounds. Each time a new case was diagnosed, the panic increased. Fear of polio spread even faster than the disease itself.

My parents insisted that I wash my hands thoroughly before eating, made sure I got enough sleep, and encouraged me to ride my bike. Despite these good habits, I got polio when I was twelve years old.

I don't know how I got it. I hadn't met anyone who had polio. There wasn't an epidemic in Austin that year and I hadn't been anywhere else, yet one day in September, my legs buckled while I was at school. When I went home for lunch, my hands shook so much the milk sloshed over the edge of the glass. I felt sick and weak. Alarmed, Mother sent me to bed and called our doctor. The next day, tests showed I had polio.

Austin was a town of thirty thousand, not far from the Iowa border. The hospital wasn't equipped to treat polio cases so my parents took me to the Sheltering Arms, a hospital for polio patients in Minneapolis.

Because polio was so contagious, I was immediately put in an isolation ward. Not even my parents were allowed in the room with me. To protect themselves, the doctors and nurses wore gowns, masks, and gloves.

Groggy from a high fever, I soon fell asleep. When I woke up, I was paralyzed from the neck down. Terrified, I called for the nurse. She came, but could do nothing to help me.

The strict no-visitors rule deprived me of what I needed most: the comfort of my parents. The worst part of those first days of my illness was not the pain or the paralysis. It was the misery of being all alone.

BOOK: Five Pages a Day
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