At 71, able to cast a child's eye on the world

"There's something in me that never grew up," says Jerry Spinelli, acclaimed children's author.
"There's something in me that never grew up," says Jerry Spinelli, acclaimed children's author. (MOLLY THOMPSON)
Posted: January 20, 2013

Jerry Spinelli at 71 still speaks the language of childhood.

Fluently. Gracefully. Wisely. And simply.

Beautiful writing rolls, with never a missed beat, through Hokey Pokey (Alfred A. Knopf, $15.99), the latest of Spinelli's 30 children's books, a finely wrought evocation of the timelessness of childhood.

In the land of Hokey Pokey, where only children live and one day follows timelessly after another with reassuring sameness, a boy named Jack wakes up one morning and finds that things are somehow different. " Something is wrong. He knows it before he opens his eyes."

His bike, Scramjet, is missing. A girl, Jubilee, his hated enemy, is riding it all around Hokey Pokey. But that's not the only thing that's odd. Jack's hatred for Jubilee is suddenly diminishing. The tattoo that all the kids of Hokey Pokey get when they arrive is fading from his belly. And he seems to hear a train whistle, although no one has ever seen a train on the tracks that run through Hokey Pokey.

As the day wears on, it becomes ever more clear that a big change is coming very soon.

Jack rushes back and forth across Hokey Pokey, trying to make sense of it all.

"He is swept along. Tumbleweed. No time to think. Just move. Go. Go. To where? . . . It's time."

Where? If you're an adult, it's not too hard to figure out. Maybe not so hard if you're a kid, either.

It also isn't hard to figure out that Spinelli, who grew up in Norristown and now lives in Wayne, is an inventive, playful wordsmith and imaginative storyteller.

He sprinkles Hokey Pokey with made-up words, but words that kids are likely to understand because they're words that a kid might make up. Here's Jack chasing Jubilee as she rides off on Scramjet:

"He sneakerskis down the gullied, red-clay slope, leaps the tracks, plunges into the jungle and runs - phloot! - into a soft, vast, pillowy mass." And there's this description of one of Jack's more dubious talents: "He's an expert nostril-tapping snotshooter, so he has no booger-need for a hankie."

And even though it's pretty clear where the story is headed, Spinelli has the narrative skill to pull a reader through to the end.

Spinelli got the idea for the book when he heard a 4-year-old girl in Hershey ask her father, "Daddy, what does tomorrow mean?"

"Kids live in an eternal today," Spinelli explains by phone from New York in the midst of a book tour.

"I thought about how to dramatize this, what can I do if I recast childhood from a time to a place, a place where it's always today," he continues. "It's sort of a parallel universe. It's wherever a kid is. We grown-ups don't see it. It's a parallel universe that exists right alongside what we refer to as 'the real world.' "

How does someone in the beginning of his eighth decade imagine a place like Hokey Pokey, where bicycles live in herds like chrome-and-steel mustangs to be roped and ridden, where cartoons play constantly on a big screen, where "soft loving furry" embraces are available 24/7 at the Snuggle Stop, a "candy-cane-striped red-and-white hut" occupied by the mysterious, never-seen Snugger?

"There's something in me that never grew up," Spinelli explains.

Spinelli draws on his Norristown childhood for much of the material in Hokey Pokey. He even dedicates the book to Norristown.

"There are several reflections of my hometown in the book," he says. Including the title. A hokey pokey, in the Norristown of Spinelli's childhood, was "a square snowball treat" of shaved ice sold by the Hokey Pokey man from a white cart. The Hokey Pokey man makes an appearance in the book, the only adult in the story.

Although the setting of Hokey Pokey has a western feel of dusty plains and tumbleweeds, "the world of Hokey Pokey is in effect a kind of embellishment of my old West End neighborhood street in Norristown," Spinelli says, where he played along the railroad tracks at the end of the street and on an island in Stony Creek.

He was inspired to make bicycles into wild creatures by memories of "the best Christmas present I ever got, a bicycle that was standing in the kitchen in Norristown on Christmas. That's where Scramjet came from."

Spinelli's books have drawn admiration from his peers and brought him the prestigious Newbery Medal in 1991 for Maniac Magee.

"Jerry is one of the best writers for children ever," Donna Jo Napoli, the author of more than 50 books for children and young adults, says by phone from her office at Swarthmore College, where she is a professor of linguistics. "I adore his work."

To truly appreciate Spinelli's work, Napoli says, read it out loud. His writing doesn't allow you to give it the wrong intonation, she says. Young readers don't have to puzzle over his sentences. "You don't want them to have to read a sentence twice," she says. "You want them to go right down the path you sent them down.

"He's really in touch with children. I don't know how he does it. He doesn't have children as first readers. He writes for little boy Jerry. . . . Also, there's a kindness to Jerry that permeates his work."

Diane Roback, children's book editor for Publishers Weekly magazine, describes Spinelli in an e-mail as "an old-fashioned writer in the very best sense of the word. There's nothing gimmicky about his stories or his prose. He writes about serious, coming-of-age topics with humor and a gracefully light touch. There's an emotional truthfulness that runs through all of his novels, and he treats his characters and his readers with the utmost respect. He well deserved his Newbery Medal, and is one of the top writers for children working today."

Spinelli's books have enjoyed commercial as well as critical success.

"He sells really well," Hannah Schwartz, owner of the Children's Book World in Haverford, says in a phone interview. And he's prolific, she adds.

Schwartz has been carrying Spinelli's books since she opened her shop 23 years ago.

"He absolutely hears the voice of kids. He can translate what he hears them say into the written word on the page. . . . Many of his books are very different from other books. He's not afraid to try new things."


Contact Michael D. Schaffer at 215-854-2537 or mschaffer@phillynews.com.

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