Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Typewriter Cemetery

One of the top titles of the year 2000 was CLICK CLACK MOO : COWS THAT TYPE. Perfectly blending a hilarious story (by Doreen Cronin) with splashy color illustrations (by Betsy Lewin), the book was a delight from start to finish. However, I did question if its intended preschool audience would know what a typewriter was. Heck, I even wondered if college students knew! After all, it was around that time when our library hired a student assistant for a typing project. She was a whiz at the computer keyboard -- 90 words per minute -- but unfortunately this typing job entailed filling out pre-printed forms and had to be done on an old-fashioned typewriter. And we soon realized the student was completely lost. We had to teach her how to feed the paper into the roller and line it up. We had to show her how to set the margins and tabs. How to hit the return carriage. She couldn't figure out why hitting the delete key didn't automatically correct mistakes and she wanted to know why that @#$*&# bell kept ringing! She quit at the end of the day.

I can't say I blame her. I have been using a Macintosh computer for nearly a quarter century and doubt I could now go back to one of those archaic typing machines if my life depended on it. Back in the Typewriter Days, my brown desk looked as though it had been painted white because of all the correction fluid I spilled. I'd sometimes pound the keys so hard that the letter "o" would cut through the page and flutter to the ground like a hole from a paper punch. Occasionally I'd type right off the bottom of the page. And I once knew a lady who reached inside her typewriter to change the ribbon and the "N" key accidentally flew up and imprinted itself on her index finger. At first she thought it was cute to have the letter N printed on her finger (her first name started with N) until, over the course of several days, a dark line began to run down her index finger...down her hand...up her arm...and she had to go to the hospital to be treated for blood poisoning. Who knew typing could be so dangerous?

Still, I'm sorry to see typewriters leaving our cultural landscape. After all, they were instrumental in producing so many of our favorite books. In honor of the typewriter, here are a few anecdotes about typewriters and children's books:

Roland Smith (PEAK; ELEPHANT'S RUN) recalls, "When I was five years old my parents gave me an old manual typewriter that weighed more than I did! It was my favorite possession. I spent hours in my room clacking away on that old typewriter. Of course, when I was five I didn't know how to spell and I barely knew how to read, but I loved the sound and the look of the letters on the crisp white paper. Things haven't changed much since then. I still spend several hours a day in my room clacking away and I still love the sound of the keyboard and the look of the letters and words that eventually turn into stories. The only difference is that I can read now and I spell a lot better."

Mabel Esther Allan (AN ISLAND IN A GREEN SEA; THE VIEW BEYOND MY FATHER) suffered from poor eyesight as child, a fact that went unnoticed by her teachers, who, she claims "thought me stupid, almost beyond hope." Things changed when she announced she planned to become a writer and taught herself to type at age eight.

S.E. Hinton was another early bloomer. She taught herself to type in sixth grade -- and ended up publishing her first novel, THE OUTSIDERS, when she was only sixteen. A few years later, her college boyfriend wouldn't take her out in the evening unless she showed him she'd typed two pages of her next book each day. This arrangement resulted in the publication of her second book, THAT WAS THEN, THIS IS NOW, as well as Hinton's marriage to that boyfriend.

Norma Fox Mazer's first novel, I, TRISSY, concerns a girl adjusting to life after her parents' separation. In the opening scene, Trissy's father gives her a typewriter ("Tris, now you can put down on paper all the things you're always making the mistake of saying out loud, and nobody has to know about them except you.") The book is printed in a font that mimics typewriter print, contains typed "pictures," and even includes strike-overs and other typing errors.

Back in the early 1960s, Marijane Meaker was a crime novelist who wanted to write for young readers; Louise Fitzhugh was a children's author (HARRIET THE SPY) who yearned to write crime stories. The two friends joked that they should trade typewriters. That never happened -- and Louise Fitzhugh never did write any crime fiction. But sticking to her own typewriter, Marijane Meaker wrote DINKY HOCKER SHOOTS SMACK!, the first in a series of brilliant young-adult novels she has published under the name M.E. Kerr.

Gary D. Schmidt writes all of his books, including the Newbery Honors LIZZIE BRIGHT AND THE BUCKMINSTER BOY and THE WEDNESDAY WARS, on a 1953 Royal.

By comparison, Richard Peck (A LONG WAY FROM CHICAGO; REMEMBERING THE GOOD TIMES) seems positively modern, typing his books on an electric typewriter because he wants his manuscript "to be a book from the first day."

Meindert DeJong dedicated his Newbery-winning novel THE WHEEL ON THE SCHOOL, "To my nieces, Shirley and Beverly, and their flying fingers".

Raymond Abrashkin created the character of scientific wunderkind Danny Dunn and wrote the popular books (DANNY DUNNY AND THE HOMEWORK MACHINE; DANNY DUNN, INVISIBLE BOY) along with Jay Williams. Unfortunately, Mr. Abrashkin suffered from debilitating paralysis and, as his condition worsened, was only able to communicate with Mr. Williams by pointing to the letters on his typewriter keyboard. Although Mr. Abrashkin died after the publication of the fifth book, he was given co-author credit for the entire run of the series.

I'm not saying that Theodore Taylor (THE CAY; TEETONCEY) was obsessed or anything, but this two-fingered typist once wrote a two hundred page tribute to his manual Olympia.

Mildred D. Taylor won the Newbery Medal for ROLL OF THUNDER, HEAR MY CRY, but I think her recent novel, THE LAND, is perhaps her most towering achievement. The story concerns a young man's quest to own a piece of property in the post-Civil War era. Reading the author's note at the end of the volume, the reader discovers that Ms. Taylor also struggled to purchase and keep a piece of land -- an event which mirrors Paul-Edward's plight in the novel. The author tells us, "Over the years, to obtain and keep the land, I sacrificed and sold many treasured things, including my house, some of my furniture, and my few bits of jewelry. But more precious to me than any of those things was my typewriter, which I sold for two hundred and fifty dollars. I cried when I sold it, for it was the typewriter upon which I wrote ROLL OF THUNDER, HEAR MY CRY."

That story makes me sad as well. If I ever win the lottery, I'd like to open a Children's Book Museum, and if I do, I'd have a special room just for displaying the typewriters that were used to create important books. I wonder if any of those old typewriters are still around -- or has the advent of computer technology sent them all to the local landfill?

Somewhere in those piles of refuse are old Olivettis, rickety Remingtons, and rusty Royals, perhaps waiting for the souls of departed writers to return to them and complete their unfinished tales.

Perhaps, on a quiet, moonless night, you will pass one of the typewriter cemeteries. If you listen carefully you may hear the tap-tap-tapping of ten thousand ghostly fingers typing away on a thousand long-buried typewriters.

Click Clack Boo.


Anonymous said...

We still type our library book labels on a typewriter - electric, but still. Kids often ask about it, or point it out to siblings, and I like being able to tell them that we still use it.

LaurieA-B said...

I have been reading Henry Huggins books aloud to my daughter, and there are a couple of delightful scenes in which Henry attempts to type correctly on his mother's typewriter. The typewriter, and the adults who correct Henry's grammar (who corrects grammar, verbally, any more?) may be the most dated elements of the book. My five-year-old loves the books.

Laurina said...

This post was a delight to read. Thanks!

Bybee said...

I wasn't too sure about computers at first...how could they be better than typewriters??? Then I discovered the backspace key and was completely converted.

Melissa (& Billy) said...

My first literary venture was on a portable manual typewriter that belonged to my mom. In fact, before we had a personal computer, I asked my mom to type a grade-school paper about McCarthyism on that typewriter(a little before the typewriter's time; she got it in high school in the 60's). I was always so amazed at how she could do that. It seemed so hard! Now she shakes her head in amazement at how fast I type.

I even remember the smell of the ribbon. How interesting.