"I left and came back to that same page every day for two weeks, moaning and complaining about not being able to finish. Then I heard the character's voice in my head and realized he was a character who was filled with moaning and self-pity."
That voice became Gurgi, a major character in his six-book series, The Prydain Chronicles, contained in his collection of 26 children's books that have earned him numerous awards, including the Pennbook Lifetime Achievement Award. The Lifetime award, given by the Free Library of Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania Center for the Book, will be presented tonight at the Central Library in Philadelphia.
Carolyn Hale, spokeswoman for the Free Library of Philadelphia said Alexander was selected from a group of Pennsylvania authors with a Philadelphia connection who have written a substantial body of work. Alexander's books have been translated into nine languages.
A few of his award-winning titles are: The Black Cauldron, a Newbery Honor Book; The High King, a National Book Award finalist, and The Beggar Queen, a Parents Choice Award winner.
He admits there is a certain satisfaction in seeing his books in a local bookstore or library, but it is his fan mail that he feels is the best part of his career. "I get a couple of thousand letters a year, from both children and adults, and I answer them all," said Alexander.
Robert Rorabeck, a 13-year-old from Florida, wrote to tell Alexander that The High King made him cry.
"I think your books are the best I have ever read," said Rorabeck.
Over the years, the letter writers have changed a bit, beginning as 90 percent female, then 90 percent male and now about half and half, Alexander said. About six years ago, 12-year-old Beth Swiney sent Alexander a 57-page letter detailing why she liked his books and wanted to become a writer herself one day.
She persuaded her parents to travel from their home in Oklahoma to Drexel Hill to meet Alexander.
The attraction of young people to his books is especially pleasing to Alexander, whose parents were not receptive when at age 15 he announced his
plans to be a writer.
"My family pleaded with me to forget literature and do something sensible, such as find some sort of useful work," said Alexander.
He became a bank messenger, but felt "like Robin Hood chained to the Sheriff of Nottingham's dungeon."
Using his savings, he left the bank and went to college, but, eager for adventure, joined the Army after one semester and entered World War II.
Eventually, he wound up as a student at the University of Paris where he met and married his wife, Janine.
Returning to Drexel Hill, he wrote for seven years before his first novel was published, and it was 10 more years before he wrote for children.
"At that point in my life, I had the feeling that I wanted to write in the form of a book that is an art form (such as Alice in Wonderland and Treasure Island), not for any particular child or age group," said Alexander.
"I don't call them 'children's books'; they aren't about teddy bears, they are people books. They are about the way the world is and how human beings treat each other."