everything grows with love

Stories about My Experiences with Writers & Illustrators Who Bring Light into the World…by Bonnie Ingber Verburg

Archive for The Last Book in the Universe

More Talented than a Hurricane: Rodman Philbrick

I met Rod Philbrick at the Edgar Awards. I attended with Kathryn Lasky, who had been nominated for a book I published at Harcourt. Kathy introduced us, and a few months later I found myself carrying an unlikely first children’s novel home from the New York office in my book bag.

It was Saturday, and I needed to get my car fixed. Back in those days I lived in my hometown of Basking Ridge, New Jersey, in the house I’d grown up in—after both my parents died suddenly and unexpectedly.

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     So I give the keys to my Honda Accord to my hometown mechanics on Finley Avenue, and they’re raising it high into the air as I sit down in a plastic chair and take the rubber band off Rod Philbrick’s manuscript. I’m not optimistic because Kathy has described it to me as a story about a dwarf and a giant, or something like that, but I am going to read it anyway.

I begin reading, and wild horses can’t drag me away from FREAK THE MIGHTY. When I get to page 11, I fish through the pages and find Rod’s phone number on the manuscript, and then I leave the mechanics to try to go find a pay phone. I finally find one at Ridge Pharmacy, and I put in my card. I am panic stricken. I need to talk to him immediately.

I get lucky because he answers. And I tell him this: I am reading your book and I have to publish it. I need for you to promise me you won’t submit it to anyone else.

He sounds a little startled, but he agrees.

And then I can relax, because no matter what, this has to be on my list.

FREAK THE MIGHTY required very little editing. Rod says he wrote it over a summer, and I believe him. He is honest and true and a beautiful human being.  The novel was based on real people, which makes it even more powerful to me—not just that a boy similar to Kevin existed, but the masterful way Rod has written about Kevin with such grace and dignity and respect. He has disguised the boy and his mom, both real, and he has made their battle and their victory timeless and unforgettable. I will read FREAK THE MIGHTY many, many times. And when the book has been out for twenty years and has sold more than three million copies without any major award, I will publish an anniversary edition with 32 pages of backmatter that are meaningful. By that I mean they are not just interesting facts; the material in the anniversary edition is pulled together, organized, and built to be a true contribution to the world of literature. We carve essays around letters to Rod from children. Some of them make me want to celebrate, while others bring tears to my eyes. And Rod tells about himself, and why he wrote the book, and what it has been like to get so many letters, and how hard it was to get published and to continue writing, despite many years of rejection. He is a remarkable person, and of course you can see that in all his fiction, but it shines in the essays of the 20th Anniversary Edition—so if you haven’t read them, you are in for a rare treat.

Freak the Mighty

This season, Spring 2014, I am publishing a different story, although Rod’s books always revolve around a central character of depth and substance who is put into an impossible situation. Rod says he had always wanted to write a story set in a hurricane, and I’m guessing that’s because he and his wife, Lynn (who died of cancer not long ago), have spent half of each year in Florida….hurricane country. After Katrina, it made sense to write about that one. So he did.

Originally titled HURRICANE ZANE, the novel is about a New Hampshire boy named Zane who lost his father before he was born. His racial background is mixed, with a blonde mother and an African-American father, but his mom has no ties to his dad’s family….until one day when she discovers Zane’s paternal great grandmother, Miss Trissy, through one of those ancestor-tracking websites. Zane’s mom sends him down to New Orleans to meet Miss Trissy—who didn’t know Zane existed—and Miss Trissy allows Zane to bring along his devoted mutt, Bandit.

Zane and the Hurricane

Timing is everything, and shortly after Zane and Bandit arrive, a hurricane named Katrina forms in the gulf. What follows is a page-turning, hold-onto-your-seat tale of survival—all based on fact. And as the editor, I had quite an education.

I signed the book up based on the idea, and I decided to stay away from any information about Katrina so I would have the fresh, blank-slate reaction of a young reader. I didn’t want any information or stories in my head to sway me about the hurricane, the behavior of the New Orleans residents, the reaction of the police and the government, or anything else. So when Rod sent along HURRICANE ZANE, my mind was open and unbiased.

In addition to the facts about Katrina—what happened at the Super Dome, the shocking statistics, the Ninth Ward, shootings on the bridge, no food or water or medical care for residents who did not have the means to leave New Orleans as the storm approached—Rod has woven an extremely powerful narrative about race and kindness and selfishness and cruelty, all seen through the eyes of a boy who is visiting. Zane’s observations, emotions, fears, and gratitude all ring true, and for me the characters and story are unforgettable.

I didn’t dive into research until I finished reading the manuscript a number of times. I did my first-pass edits on the characters and plot, not on the setting. And then, as I began searching for Katrina facts, the tsunami of information swamped me and threatened to overwhelm the book in my mind. How in the world did Rod know to sift through all the films, news articles, footage, statistics, and first-person accounts to even build a story? I watched all the documentaries, read all the nonfiction books I could find, and played with interactive maps that showed me how the hurricane approached, the timing, and which parts of New Orleans were affected and when. I learned the difference between a levee and a storm wall, and I learned how completely vulnerable the city was to complete flooding and destruction. I studied the ethnic charts and statistics about migration. I watched hours of testimonials by people who didn’t have cars or money to leave the city, and I came to see how the New Orleans government deliberately did not prepare to shelter citizens because they did not want poor people getting too comfortable. I learned about the migration of the poor away from New Orleans after the flood, and I was fascinated by learning how the financial aid was distributed or not distributed. I charted Zane’s journey from the Ninth Ward past the Super Dome and across the bridge to Algiers. All of Rod’s research was precise and accurate.

“How on Earth did you write this book?” I asked him. With so much information, I am still amazed he could manage to sew together a patchwork of people and events to create a reality that captures the corners and shadows of this horrific, historical event so vividly. I could smell it, taste it, and feel the heat. I was dripping with sweat, covered with mud, bitten by mosquitoes, and scared to death of gunshots in the night and snakes in the water.

“That’s one of the reasons it took me so long,” he explained. “So much has been written about it, and from so many points of view.” And of course he’d come at it the opposite way I’d approached the editing—he’d sifted through acres of reference material, found his own storytellers, and read the books and periodicals before he wrote it and mapped his way through the Katrina experience. I am still baffled that anyone could carve such a stunning book out of so much conflicting information—and make it seem effortless, as if the writer just had an adventure and then wrote it down.  Good fiction does feel effortless; I guess all good books do.

One of Rod’s points, when he was revising the manuscript, was that so many people experienced Katrina that there is not just one story but hundreds of thousands of stories, and this will continue to be the case as long as people live to tell them. Zane’s story is one of them, and at the end of the book, Rod suggests that others tell their stories, too. I like that.

Rod directed me to maps to include in the beginning of the book and also at the end. I wanted to see a clear map of New Orleans so I could get my bearings, and I also wanted to see the larger picture of the hurricane, because it affected so many additional places outside New Orleans.

I have been blessed to edit FREAK THE MIGHTY; THE FIRE PONY; MAX THE MIGHTY; THE LAST BOOK IN THE UNIVERSE; REM WORLD; THE YOUNG MAN AND THE SEA; THE MOSTLY TRUE ADVENTURES OF HOMER P. FIGG; and now ZANE AND THE HURRICANE: A Katrina Story. (I think I’ve listed all of them—a small but very powerful list of novels!)

The Last Book in the Universe

The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg

The Young Man and the Sea

The Fire Pony

I do not understand how Rod writes, or how he is able to write so well, or where he gets his ideas, or how he manages to always make me love his main character so deeply and completely. And his books always have humor woven into them—wry wit that again holds my attention and gives even more depth to the tale. I cry every time I read FREAK THE MIGHTY, even after all these years. There is such courage in that book, and so much inspiration. I was very excited, when I moved from New Jersey to Santa Monica, that FREAK THE MIGHTY was on the Santa Monica Public School Summer Reading List.


Seeing Rod accept a Newbery Honor for THE MOSTLY TRUE ADVENTURES OF HOMER P. FIGG was absolutely thrilling, and Lynn and I took lots of pictures. The three of us walked around Washington, D.C. and played tourists during ALA. I have a really nice photo of them in front of the White House.


I confess I was hoping THE YOUNG MAN AND THE SEA would be a Newbery Honor Book, and I heard that it had been discussed, for that is another astonishing story that, for me, took hold of my heart and imagination and never let go. But readers always seem to find Rod’s wonderful books, Newbery or not—and at last count, THE LAST BOOK IN THE UNIVERSE had sold more than half a million copies, again without any major award. It’s just a great book, and word of mouth—word of teacher, word of librarian—keeps leading young readers to it.

Rod grew up in Maine and belongs to a very big family that settled there in the 1600s, so the Philbrick roots are deep. He knew he would become a writer at an early age, but as he wrote and tried to establish himself, he also worked as a carpenter, roofer, and longshoreman among his many jobs.  He is one of those rare writers who knew his calling and answered it with unceasing energy and dedication. Again, the 20th Anniversary Edition of FREAK THE MIGHTY tells a lot about the path that led him to finally get a book published, and how he managed to get through the rough times with the help of Lynn.

It is a thrill to meet a teacher or librarian or bookseller and to hand him/her a copy of a new novel by Rod Philbrick. It was very, very exciting for me to attend NCTE this past November in Boston and to pass out copies of the bound galley of ZANE AND THE HURRICANE. So far it has received three starred reviews, which is a wonderful affirmation of his accomplishment. I say that because no matter how much I love a book, and no matter how impressed I am with the fiction, there is just no way to know if others will share my enthusiasm.

It was a coincidence that ZANE AND THE HURRICANE was published ten years after Katrina, and I hope that anniversary will bring people to the book. Where does New Orleans stand now that ten years have passed? Does the devastation still haunt the city? How has it healed—or not healed? And what have we learned? Soon the book will be released in hardcover, and Rod will begin getting letters from young people with compliments and criticisms, and some of them will tell him true stories of their own about Katrina.  Maybe one of them will be from you?


(May 22, 2014: ZANE AND THE HURRICANE has been received with great enthusiasm, and the book has earned three starred reviews. Congratulations, Rod! Here is a photo from NCTE in Boston, where he read a few passages from the book.)


Rod Philbrick at NCTE 2013