Wednesday, October 14, 2015


I’m not sure I remember a more satisfying moment from my childhood than the movie moment when Charlie Bucket unwrapped the Golden Ticket in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. “Greetings to you, the lucky finder of this Golden Ticket from Mr. Willy Wonka… In your wildest dreams you could not imagine the marvelous surprises that await you!”

So you can imagine the thrill a generation later when I wrote a magazine article about Peter Ostrum, the actor who played Charlie.

His rise to fame was remarkable. Here was a kid from Ohio who was performing at the Cleveland Playhouse children’s theater in 1970 when he was discovered by agents casting the film. They took some Polaroid pictures, tape-recorded him reading from some lines, called him in for a screen test a couple of months later… and suddenly 12-year-old Pete was Charlie Bucket, traveling overseas for the first time, to Munich, and acting opposite the likes of Gene Wilder and Jack Albertson.

He was basically playing himself—down to earth and able to be awed without losing a sense of self. But unlike Charlie, who gratefully inherited Wonka’s factory, Ostrum returned to Cleveland with the suspicion that filmmaking wasn’t quite his (edible) cup of tea. He even turned down producer David Wolper’s offer of a three-picture deal. “I enjoyed making the movie,” he told me, “but at that point, did I want to be a film actor for the rest of my life? I guess I didn’t.”

Instead, he found an entirely different calling. Shortly after he completed the film, his family acquired a horse. When a veterinarian arrived at the stables one day, Ostrum watched him work and had a life-changing epiphany. Three decades after his single film credit, Peter Ostrum has a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree on the wall of his practice in upstate Lowville, NY, instead of lickable wallpaper. He is surrounded not by Oompa Loompas, but by a handful of dogs and cats.

No, he doesn’t actually own one of the dozen or so original Golden Tickets, said to be a valuable collector’s item nowadays—just a clapstick slate and a couple of Wonka Bars. But Dr. Peter Ostrum is so content in his choices that perhaps the final lines of his sole movie appearance were prescient after all:

“But, Charlie, don't forget what happened to the man who suddenly got everything he always wanted."

"What happened?"

"He lived happily ever after."

So in the only movie he ever made, Ostrum had a starring role, grabbed a Golden Ticket, piloted a Great Glass Elevator, inherited a candy conglomerate and cemented his place in film history. Might he be the ultimate one-hit wonder?

Malcolm Gladwell would plotz. The most talked-about and compelling part about Gladwell’s outstanding book Outliers was his decision to repeatedly trumpet the “10,000-hour rule”—the notion that the key to success in almost any field is, to a large extent, a matter of simply practicing a specific task for at least 10,000 hours. The notion stems from the widespread belief, certainly generally valid, that achievement is all about perseverance. Practice makes perfect. Never say die. Try, try again. If at first you don’t succeed…

But sometimes, at first, you do succeed. Wildly. Like Peter Ostrum, a handful of folks have tried something once, achieved near perfection, then left it at that. They batted 1.000 for eternity.

A fellow named John Paciorek did so literally. He appeared in exactly one major league baseball game—for the old Houston Cold ‘45s on the last day of the 1963 season. In five times at bat, he singled three times, walked twice, scored four runs, and recorded three runs batted in. He also made a couple of nice running catches in the outfield. Paciorek was anointed Houston’s star of the future, but a series of injuries that began in the offseason derailed his career. That remarkable first game would prove to be the only big league game he ever played.

There are echoes of “Moonlight” Graham in Field of Dreams: “Back then I thought, Well, there will be other days. I didn’t realize that that was the only day.” Except Graham didn’t get to bat at all.

And sure, it’s tempting to call Paciorek the can’t-miss-kid who missed, but he did make it after all, right? And in that one game, he was simply flawless—he will forever have, literally, a perfect batting average.

But what about music, you ask? Isn’t that the source of the term one-hit wonder? Sure, there are scores of songs to choose from—hit singles from solo acts or band that never produced another. You know, like “Tainted Love” by Soft Cell, or “Come on Eileen”  by Dexys Midnight Runners, or “Spirit in the Sky” by Norman Greenbaum. However, those weren’t the only songs by those artists—just the most successful ones.

Ah, but one particular can’t-get-it-out-of-my-head tune was recorded by a specific group of little-known musicians who joined for a single recording session. Paul Leka, Gary DeCarlo, and Dale Frashuer couldn’t come up with suitable lyrics, so they substituted words like “hey hey” and “na na.” They were said to be so embarrassed by the song that they attributed it to a fictional band called Steam. The result: “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” became a number one single on the Billboard Top 100 in late 1969. To this day, it remains a sports stadium crowd-chant staple.
Nearly everybody knows the one song they recorded in a single session. That’s a one-hit wonder.

Okay, how about filmmakers? Well, if you’re a fan of zombie films, you surely have seen Night of the Living Dead, the paragon of pasty animated corpse flicks. But director George Romero once said his film was directly inspired by another, a 1962 black-and-white called Carnival of Souls, which was a micro-budget horror movie filmed by a guy named Herk Harvey in his Kansas hometown. It was the only film he ever completed before returning to a quiet life as a Kansas businessman, but it is referenced reverently by modern horror filmmakers.

If we’re talking reverence, however, let’s talk literature.

Let’s start with A Confederacy of Dunces, the unforgettable romp of fat and flatulent Ignatius J. Reilly. John Kennedy Toole wrote it, couldn’t snag a publisher, and committed suicide in 1969 at age 31. His book was published posthumously and, twelve years after his death, won the Pulitzer Prize. However, not many folks know that it wasn’t actually his first novel. He wrote The Neon Bible at the age of 16 in 1954 and couldn’t get that published either. It was eventually released eight years after Confederacy hit it big.

While a whole bunch of people consider Confederacy to be one of their favorite books, consensus suggests that To Kill a Mockingbird is THE most-loved piece of literature ever produced. Nearly every student has read it. There are nearly 30 million copies in print. In 1999, a Library Journal poll voted it Best Novel of the Century. I’m pretty sure I agree. And the movie was great, too.

Lee published the Pulitzer-winning book in 1960, then never published another novel for 55 years, although she did help her childhood pal Truman Capote in his research for In Cold Blood—and how’s that for another classic? “I have said what I wanted to say, and I will not say it again,” she once explained. Which is one reason publication of Go Set a Watchman was so… disappointing. Well, that and the fact that Atticus Finch turned out to be less than perfect.

But while I will be forever grateful to Harper Lee as an author’s inspiration, she no longer qualifies as a one-hit wonder. And I genuinely liked Peter Ostrum, but he’s not number one either. Nor is John Paciorek, even though I’m a baseball history nut.

No, I think I most love the story of John Daniels.

Daniels is believed to have snapped one photograph in his life. He did it on December 17, 1903, on a cold and windy day on the sandy shores of the Atlantic Ocean. And he made it count. Daniel’s photograph is depicted on the North Carolina quarter. It has been blown up to a 10-foot-by-10-foot size and paraded through the state. It has been recreated in statues of bronze at almost the very location that it occurred. It is simply one of the most significant snapshots in human history.
On that day in 1903, Daniels was among a handful of people keeping busy at a particularly wind-ravaged spot in North Carolina’s Outer Banks, a placed called Kill Devil Hills. The busiest two people were brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright. Daniels, a rescue worker from the local lifesaving station, was merely helping out where he could.

The story of the Wright brothers is the tale of the right men coming along at the right time. Daniels happened to be in the right place. After years of preparation, the Wrights pointed their aircraft into the wind. Orville set up a camera on a tripod, aiming it at a point he hoped the machine would reach when it left its take-off rail. He instructed Daniels to press the shutter if the aircraft actually left the ground. After about 45 feet, the flying machine lifted into the air, and 120 feet later it touched the earth again.

Daniels later claimed that he was so excited at the flight’s success that he thought he had forgotten to squeeze the bulb. But the photo was perfect, capturing the craft two feet off the ground, with Orville at the controls and Wilbur running alongside. It was the very moment that changed the world.

The photograph has since been analyzed endlessly—from the location of footprints in the sand to the speed of the propellers—but it was actually the lesser of Daniels’s major thrills that day. After the Wright’s fourth successful flight, a gust of wind caught the Flyer, causing it—and Daniels, who had been holding on—to cartwheel across the beach. The Flyer was damaged and never flew again. Until 1937, when he finally took a flight to Cleveland, the same could have been said of Daniels, who explained, “I’ve had all the thrill I ever want in an airplane.”

Daniels spent the rest of his years in relative obscurity on the Carolina coast, and he may have been most proud not of his seminal photograph but of his pioneering bruises as the first airplane casualty. In fact, Orville Wright, who died within 24 hours of Daniels in 1948, used to joke that his friend “rode further in the plane than either of the inventors.” Of course, there were no photographs to prove it.


In chapter three of The Phantom Tollbooth, young protagonist Milo and his dog-clock-sidekick Tock arrive at the gates to the city of Dictionopolis, where they encounter a gateman. There follows this exchange:

“You can’t get in without a reason.” He thought for a moment and then continued. “Wait a minute; maybe I have an old one you could use.”

He took a battered suitcase from the gatehouse and began to rummage busily through it, mumbling to himself, “No… no… no… this won’t do… no… h-m-m-m… ah, this is fine,” he cried triumphantly, holding up a small medallion on a chain. He dusted it off and engraved on one side were the words “WHY NOT?”

“That’s a good reason for almost anything—a bit used, perhaps, but quite serviceable.”

And that is as good a reason as any why, when we started our publishing venture, we named it Why Not Books. Well, that and the words of George Bernard Shaw: “You see things as they are and ask, ‘Why?’ I dream thing that never worry and say, “Why not?’”

With that in mind, I offer 31 philosophical musings from some of Juster’s most memorable characters—from the Humbug to the Mathemagician to Princesses Rhyme and Reason. They are life lessons from a lively mind:

1. King Azaz and the Mathemagician: “So many things are possible just as long as you don’t know they’re impossible.”

2. The Princess of Sweet Rhyme: “It’s not just learning things that’s important. It’s learning what to do with what you learn and learning why you learn things at all that matters.”

3. The Humbug: “Things which are equally bad are also equally good. Try to look at the bright side of things.”


Did you know that Tom Clancy’s favorite book is 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea? Stephen King’s is Lord of the Flies. Jonathan Franzen loves Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. Or how about creative types like Tom Hanks (In Cold Blood) and Matt Damon (A People’s History of the United States). Steven Spielberg? His favorite book is The Last of the Mohicans.

Doesn’t it give you a dash of insight into the artist? Professing a literary love is an especially intimate admission, perhaps a tiny glimpse into someone’s soul. Books stay with you—intellectually, emotionally, and often quite literally. A favorite story offers a sense of sensibilities, as it were. And this may be particularly true when you get specific.

Peter Orner is the author of four critically acclaimed books of fiction, including Esther’s Stories and Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge. The latter was a New York Times Editor’s Choice book for 2013 and a Wall Street Journal Best Book of 2013. He has established himself as a master of the short form, and his stories have appeared in Best American Stories, the Atlantic Monthly and the Paris Review.  He also happens to be an old high school pal of mine. So I asked him for a favor in the form of a list of favorites.


National Book Award-winner Maya Angelou once wrote, “Be a rainbow in someone else’s cloud.” About a century earlier, Oscar Wilde declared, “Mere color, unspoiled by meaning and unallied with definite form, can speak to the soul in a thousand different ways.”

Color can turn a setting into a sonnet. Just consider Jack Kerouac’s description of a sunset: “Soon it got dusk, a grapy dusk, a purple dusk over tangerine groves and long melon fields; the sun the color of pressed grapes, slashed with burgundy red, the fields the color of love and Spanish mysteries.”

So while Georgia O’Keeffe one contended that she could “say things with color and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way… things I had no words for,” we at the Why Not 100 think color is as integral to a good book as it is to a good painting.

Here we offer a multi-hued menagerie of colorful book titles. And we’re not going to repeat a color (sorry Harold and the Purple Crayon and The Green Mile and The Bluest Eye, not to mention The Red Pony, The Red Tent, Where the Red Fern Grows, and The Hunt for Red October).

The sheer variety of color names out there is remarkable. Huckleberry? Chocolate? Mango? Cornflower? But out of respect for literature, we refuse to list Fifty Shades of Grey. On the other hand, out of self-respect, we did include a recent Why Not Books title at the very end:

1. The Color Purple (Alice Walker)
2. The Scarlet Letter (Nathaniel Hawthorne)
3. The Red Badge of Courage (Stephen Crane)
4. A Clockwork Orange (Anthony Burgess)
5. Green Eggs and Ham (Dr. Seuss)
6. Blue Highways (William Least Heat-Moon)


Baseball Hall of Famer and language mangler Yogi Berra is famous for saying many things. Among them is this: “I really didn’t say everything I said.” He’s not alone. Were we to choose, along with Yogi, an all-star team of the misquoted and misattributed throughout history, we could include the likes of Shakespeare and Churchill, Bogart and Cagney, Marie Antoinette and Paul Revere, Sherlock Holmes and Captain Kirk. Indeed, the misquote has become something of a national pastime.

Leo Durocher could manage this all-star team. Before a 1946 game with the New York Giants, the Brooklyn Dodgers’ manager declared, “The nice guys are all over there. In seventh place.” Sportswriters took over from there, increasing the pop and decreasing the wordage, and Durocher’s legendary line became “Nice guys finish last.” He long denied having uttered those exact words, but in a lesson in the perpetuation of myths, it became the title of a 1975 book co-written by Durocher himself.

The words also lent themselves to another book title: Nice Guys Finish Seventh: False Phrases, Spurious Sayings, and Familiar Misquotations by quote collector and corrector Ralph Keyes. Unlike most of us, who accept classic quotes without a need to verify, Keyes did some painstaking research to find out the truth. According to Keyes, misquotes take three basic forms:

The wrong words in the right mouth
The right words in the wrong mouth
The wrong words in the wrong mouth.

So let’s take a tour of some of history’s most famous misquotations, each categorized and corrected:

Friday, October 9, 2015


I stay up late. That’s just how my biological clock rolls. But it’s also because I’m a writer, and I traffic in ideas, and the middle of the night is when everyone else asleep. So all the ideas are hanging out there, ripe for the picking.

I’ve been a fulltime freelancer and author for nearly a quarter-century, since I was 23 years old. I write for a living. But for some reason, people often think that all I do is write. When really, what I mostly do is think. I imagine. I wonder. I research. I query. I pitch. Then I write it up. But the pursuit of the idea is the large part of the adventure.

I love the idea of ideas—the fact that it’s possible to summon some sort of creative notion that hasn’t necessarily been conjured before. To be honest, I tend to enjoy the imagining even more than the writing. But if my file cabinets brimming with past and future (and occasionally rejected) story ideas are any indication, finding subject matter is the easiest part of my job.

But rather than telling you that, I’ll just show you—by exploring the articles that I have written for a single magazine and musing on the origins of many of them.

I have long been listed as a contributing editor for my college publication—Cornell Alumni Magazine. Basically, that means I write for them so often that they kindly added my name to the masthead. I have always welcomed the opportunity to write for CAM because it’s not a magazine about sports or quilting or parenting. It’s about anything. A story simply need be compelling and have some attachment to the university—a place that has churned out thousands of fascinating graduates over the years.

So how have I found suitable story ideas? You name it.

Thursday, October 1, 2015


Located in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Sleeping Bear Press has published hundreds of titles since releasing its first children’s book in 1998. It may be best known for its excellent (and seemingly endless) series of alphabet picture books, all featuring an innovative two-tiered format. That means that each letter of the alphabet contains three elements—a beautiful illustration, a short poem (for young readers) and a more extensive sidebar (for older readers). So kids can grow with the books while they grow as readers.

Sleeping Bear has published an alphabet book for each state—from A is for Arches: A Utah Alphabet to Y is for Yellowhammer: An Alabama Alphabet. There are also alphabet books devoted to Canadian provinces (including S is for Spirit Bear: A British Columbia Alphabet) and cities (W is for Windy City: A Chicago Alphabet) and countries (K is for Kabuki: A Japan Alphabet).

But wait, there’s more. Much more. Sleeping Bear is to alphabet books what Pooh-Bear is to honey. You can never get enough, and suddenly you’ll look on a forgotten shelf and find an unexpected gem. The subject matter ranges from ancient Rome (G is for Gladiator) to writing (S is for Story) to fishing (H is for Hook) to Halloween (J is for Jack-O’-Lantern).

I’m proud to have contributed nine sports-themed alphabet books to the mix—covering everything from baseball and football to soccer and stock car racing (my latest is W is for Wrigley: The Friendly Confines Alphabet). I’m also proud of the award-winning S is for Save the Planet: A How-to-be Green Alphabet. But you could build a library of Sleeping Bear alphabet books (everything from A is for Airplane to Z is for Zookeeper), read them all, and find that you’ve ingested a fine education about almost everything.

Here are 75 alphabet books, separated into categories—and this doesn’t even include any of the 50 state books or 11 Canadian province and territory books or, for that matter, any of the dozens of counting books that Sleeping Bear Press has produced. Still, it’s quite a list: