Saturday, September 27, 2014


Not long ago, I was having a conversation with a friend about favorite movies, and we were talking about The Princess Bride. I don’t think I know anybody who doesn’t love that movie. It’s almost perfect. Anyway, I mentioned that William Goldman and I happened to attend the same high school and summer camp (albeit about 37 years apart).

“William Goldman,” I said. “You know, the guy who wrote the book.”

My friend replied, “It was a book?”

Yes, it seems that mainstream films sometimes erase memories of literature. So I’m going to remedy that by ranking the 84 best movies that were books first. It’s a bit of a challenge, mostly due to an embarrassment of riches. From 12 Angry Men to Apollo 13, from The Graduate to The Player to The Firm, Hollywood has been poaching literature for decades.

Friday, September 19, 2014


On this day 101 years ago – Sept. 19, 1913—an unknown amateur golfer made an 18-foot putt that transformed the sport.

My motivation for writing the children’s book FRANCIS AND EDDIE (Why Not Books, 2013) didn’t necessarily come from the fact that I think it ranks as perhaps the greatest underdog feat in championship sports—the tale of Francis Ouimet beating the best golfers in the world to win the U.S. Open. It wasn’t even because it struck me as the ultimate local-boy-makes-good story—a kid who literally lived across the street from the golf course in Brookline, Massachusetts, right near the 17th hole. He taught himself to play be sneaking onto the course in the dark and the rain, taught himself so well that he qualified to compete in the national championship, then sank an ultra-clutch putt on that very 17th green to shock the world and catapult golf onto the front pages for the first time.

No, that’s not why either. It’s because of Eddie Lowery.

Ouimet’s prospects were so dim that his regular caddie opted instead to carry the bag of a French pro, figuring he could share in some prize money. During a practice round, a boy named Jack Lowery had been an able replacement, but only minutes before Francis’s scheduled tee time for his Tuesday qualifying round, Jack was nowhere to be found. That’s when a tiny fellow, just four feet tall, came running up to the practice green and offered five words that would launch an iconic partnership: “I could caddie for you.”

Eddie Lowery was Jack’s little brother. He was skipping school. He was ten years old. “My bag’s as big as you are,” said Ouimet, but it could be that the golfer saw a bit of himself in the boy, an underestimated kid reaching for respectability. Or, perhaps he figured he had nothing to lose. “All right then, Eddie, let’s go,” he said. “Just please call me Francis.” And that is how, over the next several days, a child stood at the center of this extraordinary athletic saga.

There have been a great many precocious athletes. Joe Nuxhall pitched in the major leagues, for the 1944 Cincinnati Reds, at age 15. In 1976, 14-year-old Olympic gymnast Nadia Comaneci became an international sensation.  In August 2013, when she was still nearly two months short of her 11th birthday, California native Lucy Li became the youngest person ever to quality and compete in the USGA Women’s Amateur golf championship.

But that’s not what I’m celebrating here.

There have been a good many times, too, when kids have influenced play on the courts or fields. At the 2011 French Open, for instance, a ball boy mistakenly ran onto the court during a point, thinking the point was already over. At the same time, Victor Troicki was completing an overhead smash against Andy Murray, but the point had to be replayed. And Murray won it. But Troicki still won the game. So nothing really changed.

Sometimes, however, the unexpected appearance of a kid—as a replacement, a fan, an inspiration—has made all the difference, occasionally even a historic difference. So here is a six-pack of small wonders, starting with the earliest (and youngest):

1. Anonymous gold medalist (rowing, 1900, age 7)

One of the stranger chapters in Olympic history occurred during the infancy of the modern Games at the 1900 Summer Olympics in Paris. It happened during a rowing event called coxed pairs, which features boats with two rowers and one coxswain (the lightweight person who sits in the boat and directs the rowers). Before the finals of the event, the team from Holland decided that the coxswain they normally used was too heavy. So legend has it that the decision-makers opted to replace him with a young French boy that they plucked from the crowd. Naturally, it wouldn’t even be close to allowable these days. The boy, whose name has been lost to history, may have been as young as seven years old. But he and his new teammates won the gold medal.

2. Eddie Lowery (golf, 1913, age 10)

At the 1913 U.S. Open, they made for an odd-looking pair, Francis Ouimet and Eddie Lowery. The golfer was lanky and loose-limbed; the caddie was small even for his age, ruddy-cheeked, with a hint of mischief in eyes peeking out from beneath a white bucket hat. By the end of the tournament, they would be dressed almost exactly alike, walking side by side, each bolstering the other. Francis made Eddie feel important, and Eddie made Francis feel at ease amid the maelstrom of world-class competition, even when they later spotted a gaggle of dignitaries surrounding a particularly corpulent fellow in the gallery. All of the anxiety that accompanies swinging a golf club in front of former President William Howard Taft is diminished when your caddie asks, “Who’s the big fat guy? He looks kinda familiar, doesn’t he?”

As Mark Frost, author of TheGreatest Game Ever Played, put it, “It was almost as if somebody rubbed a lamp and said, ‘Give me someone who will give Francis confidence.’ And the perfect person shows up. He just happens to be half of Francis’s size.” Early in their first round together, Francis turned to Eddie and said, “I think you and I are going to be good friends.” Their friendship endured for more than half a century.

3. Johnny Sylvester  (baseball, 1926, age 11)

During the 1926 World Series, 11-year-old John Dale Sylvester asked Babe Ruth to autograph a baseball. Sylvester, a fine ballplayer himself and a diehard Yankees fan asked the favor of his idol from his hospital bed (a horse had kicked him in the head, leading to life-threatening brain inflammation). On a ball signed by every Yankee, Ruth wrote, with somewhat befuddling grammar, “I’ll knock a homer for Wednesday’s game.”

He didn’t. He hit three in Game 4, an unprecedented feat. Was Ruth motivated by the promise? Who knows? The Yanks actually wound up losing the series, the last out coming when Ruth was thrown out attempting to steal second base.

As for Sylvester (who lived to the age of 74 and became a business executive), he found himself with some pretty sweet possessions, including an autographed football from Red Grange and a tennis racket from Bill Tilden (sad irony: Tilden was later revealed to be a pedophile). All three collectibles went up for auction in on February 6, 2014, which would have been—no coincidence—Babe Ruth’s 119th birthday.

4. Joe Relford (baseball, 1952, age 12)

It used to be that when a baseball team was losing badly, frustrated fans would get a kick out of yelling, “Put in the batboy!” But on July 19, 1952, Charlie Ridgeway, the manager of the Class D Georgia State League’s Fitzgerald Pioneers, actually did it. With his team down 13-0, batboy Joe Relford stepped up to the plate as a pinch-hitter. He grounded sharply to third to end the inning, but he followed that with an excellent defensive play in centerfield. After the game, fans ran onto the field to congratulate him, stuffing his pockets with money. Sadly, however, both the umpire and the batboy lost their jobs that day, and the manager was fined and suspended—not because Relford was 12, but because he was the first African-American player in the league.

5. Jeffrey Maier (baseball, 1996, age 12)

Game 1 of the American League Championship Series—October 9, 1996, Yankee Stadium. Bottom of the eighth inning, and the Baltimore Orioles led 4-3. Young New York shortstop Derek Jeter stepped to the plate and clubbed a long fly ball to deep right field. Baltimore right fielder Tony Tarasco camped under it, ready to catch the near-miss. Except that’s when 12-year-old Jeffrey Maier reached over the outfield fence and plucked the ball into the bleachers. “And what happens here?” shouted announcer Bob Costas. “The contention by Tarasco is that the ball is descending, and the fan touches it. He’s right! He’s right!”

Replays confirmed that the ball likely would have been caught by Tarasco, but umpire Richie Garcia ruled it a game-tying home run. Maier was lifted on to the shoulders of fans in right field. “Certainly, he’s affected the course of the game,” said Costas, to which color commentator Bob Uecker added, “And maybe the Series!” Indeed, the Yankees won the game in extra innings and went on to win the World Series, the first of four New York titles in five years. Maier went on to play college baseball, becoming the all-time hits leader for the University of Connecticut. But when he was 12, one headline read: THE KID CATCHES ON AS NEW YANKEE HERO.

6. Nick Gilbert (basketball, 2011, age 13)

Nick Gilbert suffers from neurofibromatosis, a nerve order that causes tumors to sprout on a whim. But his father, Dan, is the owner of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers, and he—along with most of the fans in Cleveland—think Nick is one of the luckiest kids on the planet. Or at least a good luck charm. In 2011 the 13-year-old stood there, his eyes wide through his thick lenses, and represented the Cavs at the NBA draft lottery. Cleveland had a 2.8 percent chance of drawing the top pick. Yet that’s exactly what happened. Two years later, with Nick again serving as the face of the franchise, they had a 15.6 percent chance of repeating the feat. Once again, as Nick’s serious look contradicted the vibe of his maroon bowtie, Cleveland again drew the top pick. Did Nick actually actively do anything to make this so? Well, no. But as one sports columnist put it, “Certainly, there’s no skill involved when it comes to hunching over a team-addled podium while waiting for your name to be called. With Nick Gilbert, it’s about presence.”

Friday, September 12, 2014


A few years ago, author Judith Schalansky published a widely praised book called The Atlas of Remote Islands. She pairs full-color cartographic drawings with compelling narratives about lore and legend and science and history, the aim being to celebrate the cartographic unknown.

That’s one way of exploring uninhabited or sparsely populated blips of land amid endless seas. Another way is to read some classic fiction.

As setting goes, every island is brimming with possibilities that affect plot, character, mood. It is isolation and introspection, seclusion with no place to hide, a place that seems both manageable and unfathomably mysterious. It is new life or a slow death, terror or revelation. Or sometimes all at once—just re-read Lord of the Flies, which was published 60 years ago this month.

So it is no wonder that many renowned authors have taken their readers to remote islands for some of their most famous stories—authors like Jules Verne, Robert Louis Stevenson, H.G. Wells, Virginia Wolff, Agatha Christie, and Michael Crichton. And they’ve stranded iconic characters like Long John Silver and Robinson Crusoe, Piggy and Prospero. Island protagonists (and antagonists) have been shipwreck survivors, prison escapees, accidental adoptees, treasure hunters, exiled rulers, explorers, mad scientists, and murder suspects.

So let’s take a trip to some uncharted isles. No Hawaii here (sorry, James Michener). No United Kingdom (sorry, Bill Bryson). Jamaica is by no means overlooked and secluded, so we’ll steer wide of Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea. No Long Island (sayonara, Gatsby).For that matter, no island of Manhattan.

No, here we celebrate remote (usually) spits of land—the kind that become lead characters in the story. Agatha Christies A Caribbean Vacation doesn’t count. But Indian Island from And Then There Were None? You bet. Any good island explorer seeks out the unusual—or at least the legendary. So break open a coconut and have a seat for this installment of the Why Not 100—34 unforgettable island settings:

1. The Island of Despair

Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is the shipwrecked tale that inspired all others. There’s even a genre of “desert island story” known as a Robinsonade. Crusoe is stranded with two cats and a dog on what he calls the Island of Despair (probably based on the Caribbean island of Tobago). He excavates a cave, builds a canoe, hunts, grows crops, makes pottery, fends of mutineers and cannibals, and rescues a fellow whom he calls Friday. The first edition, published in 1719, actually credited the title character as the author, and many readers believed it was a travelogue.

2. Treasure Island

Robert Louis Stevenson left us with iconic characters—Long John Silver, Billy Bones, Ben Gunn. And an iconic scenario—an island bearing lost pirate treasure. Captain Flint calls it Skeleton Island. To protagonist Jim Hawkins (and to Stevenson for a book title), it’s Treasure Island. The duality symbolizes the risk and reward of the adventure.

Friday, September 5, 2014


I wish an author had visited my elementary school back in the day. I was just beginning to become enthralled by the written word—Judy Blume and Roald Dahl and J.R.R. Tolkien. The chance to see a real live author, up close and in person? I’m sure I’d still remember it.

It is that thought that drives me when I visit schools as a guest author, telling students about how I became a writer, about the fun stuff I get to do as a writer, about where my ideas come from. When the kids and I create a goofy story together, and I see their eyes light up, it sustains me. It makes up for the occasional times when the school seems to regard my visit as an afterthought. Or when the librarian hasn’t bothered to stock my books. Or when some first graders are intent on playing with the Velcro on their shoes.

Yes, an author visit is—in my humble opinion—a fantastic way to inspire young readers and writers. But not every author visit is created equal. And it is often the efforts of the host that make the difference.

With that in mind—and now that school is back in session—we at the Why Not 100 are turning this post over to an author who is to school visits what cheerleaders are to school pride. Michael Shoulders is energetic. He is fearless (you’ll see what I mean if you ever get to see him rap one of his books). And he loves his job. A former educator who has written more than a dozen picture books (including T is for Titanic, G is for Gladiator, and Say Daddy!), he is the kind of author every school librarian dreams of finding.

Take it away, Mike…