Sid Fleischman

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Albert Sidney Fleischman was born in Brooklyn, New York, on March 16, 1920, but grew up in San Diego, California. In his autobiography only some of his father's activities are described in those years when the family lived in New York.

Fleischman's father, originally named Rivven, anglicized to Reuben, was born in a shabby Ukrainian village named Olik. He never knew the exact day and year of his birth, as the family, in its poverty, had no calendars. To escape service in the Russian army, a wretched life of hazings and beatings, Rivven and his father paid Ukrainian smugglers to get them out of the country. They took an immigrant ship out of Hamburg bound for New York. Most of the male Fleischmans were either tailors or pressmen. Sid himself was the first in many generations who could not baste a hem. Reuben quickly adopted the name Louie in New York. He was the type of person called "luftmenschen," or men of air, "impractical dreamers who necessarily mastered a dozen trades to keep afloat." He worked as a tailor in the sweatshops until, tiring of the ten- and twelve-hour workdays, he bought a taxicab. After selling the taxi, he opened a notions and ribbon shop, which failed soon afterwards. His move to San Diego proved to be a good one. He began a shop on Fifth Avenue catering to sailors' needs. Even during the Depression, sailors had income, and the naval base made San Diego more prosperous than most American cities at the time.

Fleischman's mother also came from a family of immigrant tailors. A bright girl, she was forced to leave school in the sixth grade and operate a sewing machine in a factory making ladies' shirtwaist dresses. She met Louie when she visited his notions and ribbon store. She was working in a ladies' hat shop by that time. She would later help support her family during the Depression years by her winnings as a card player. Her skill at cards may have been part of her inheritance to her magician son.

Sid was only two when his father sent railway tickets so his family could join him in San Diego. As a child Fleischman was a "recalcitrant reader," although certain books such as Robin Hood became a favorite for a year or so. His father was a natural storyteller who knew how to get the best dramatic effects from the stories he told his children. His mother, Sadie (Solomon) Fleischman, read such books as Aesop's Fables and Uncle Tom's Cabin to her son. He says that for a time he nurtured an intense hatred for Simon Legree. During his childhood, Fleischman became hooked on magic when his dad gave him a nickel to attend a magic show which was performed in a vacant store next to his father's tailor shop. "Someone else could be president of the United States. I wanted to be a magician." He scoured the libraries of San Diego for books on the subject of magic tricks. He became sufficiently skilled to join the San Diego Magicians Club while still a teenager. At sixteen he and his friend Buddy Ryan teamed up as the "Ryan Brothers" one summer to tour the Sierras and the Lake Tahoe region with their acts.

Sid became the first male Fleischman to graduate from high school, and then joined the Francisco Spook and Magic Show to tour the Midwest. At nineteen he wrote a book, Between Cocktails, on how to perform magic tricks. It was published in 1939 and is still in print.

In January 1940 Fleischman reluctantly...

(This entire section contains 1398 words.)

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left the touring magic show to enroll at San Francisco State College. By this time he was interested in how to become a writer. He soon learned that "Writing fiction wasn't taught." He hit the library stacks again for books on story writing techniques, but maintained: "I wasn't exactly finding what I wanted."

After reading Prescott's The Conquest of Mexico, he went to Mexico to climb Aztec pyramids. There he met his future wife, Betty Taylor, a Spanish major at San Francisco State. Two days after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7,1941, Fleischman, who was in the Naval Reserve, was called up to serve. He skipped boot camp after the Navy learned he was a skilled typist. On January 25, 1942, he and Betty were married in Yuma, Arizona, then moved to New York where Fleischman worked at the U. S. Naval Recruiting Station. He sold a story to Liberty Magazine for $250. Although he continued to write all through World War II, this would be his last sale until after the war.

By the time Fleischman was ordered south to Norfolk in early 1944, he had become bored with handling enlistment papers for naval recruits. Betty found work in the Norfolk area while Fleischman waited for his ship, which had been detained at the Brooklyn Naval Yard. He and his group were finally sent north to pick up the USS Albert T. Harris. A shakedown cruise followed, which landed them in Bermuda by Christmas 1944. The Albert T. Harris, an escort vessel, was sent to the Pacific, where it took part in two invasions at Bora Bora and Borneo. Fleischman loved being at sea, despite missing his wife. After the surrender of Japan, the ship was ordered to Shanghai, China. The city, he said, "turned me into a novelist." He would later write five suspense novels with the Far East as a setting.

After he and Betty returned to San Diego following his release from the Navy, Fleischman decided to become a freelance writer, rather than finish his degree at San Diego State College. But, in eighteen months his earnings as a writer totaled 470 dollars, and he decided to go back to college on the GI Bill. He was twenty-nine years old when he graduated.

Originally hired as a copy boy on the San Diego Daily Journal, he worked his way up to becoming a reporter, a job that lasted until the paper went out of business. He and some colleagues founded a weekly newspaper, The Point, but lacked the business sense to make their paper profitable.

During the 1950s until the early 1960s Sid Fleischman wrote detective and mystery stories for such paperback publishers as Gold Medal and Ace. One of these novels, Blood Alley, was bought by John Wayne's production company, Batjac, and Fleischman was offered a job writing the screenplay by the well-known director, William "Wild Bill" Wellman. Working with Wellman was "a graduate course in fiction writing" for Fleischman. Blood Alley became a major motion picture.

While still a screenwriter, Fleischman wrote his first piece of humorous writing for children, Mr. Mysterious and Company. Published in 1962, the book was written to amuse his own children, Jane, Paul, and Anne. "I had wandered into the field of children's books," he said in his Newbery Medal acceptance speech. "It was as if I had found myself and I didn't know I had been lost." He enjoys both the writing of the books and the response he gets from his young readers. While few adult readers actually write to authors about their books, young adults are not in the least inhibited. Fleischman spends part of each year touring high schools so he can interact more directly with his audience, since he regards his writing, in a sense, as another performance of magic tricks.

Fleischman's humorous stories have won him critical acclaim from the beginning. He brings to them an ingenious wit and a writing style at once sophisticated but well suited to his audience. Mr. Mysterious and Company won the New York Herald Tribune Spring Book Award in 1962. By the Great Horn Spoon!, Fleischman's second humorous book, won the Western Writers of America Spur Award in 1964, the Southern California Council on Literature for Children and Young People Award in 1964, and the Boys' Clubs of America Award in the same year. He was given the Commonwealth Club of California Juvenile Book Award in 1966 for Chancy and the Grand Rascal. McBroom Tells the Truth won the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award in 1969. McBroom the Rainmaker, was chosen as a Society of Children's Book Writers Golden Kite Award honor book in 1974. Humbug Mountain was a National Book Award finalist in 1979, and also won the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award. The Whipping Boy, a book Fleischman worked on at intervals for nearly ten years, was the John Newbery Medal winner in 1987.