Monday, August 31, 1998

Testimony: Looking Back, John Bellairs and Me

by Steve Ericson (1998)
(Originally published at the compleatbellairs.com)

Hopping back onto my trolley to yesterday, I visit a boy in the Sixth grade. A boy who was mad at the world, bitter, shy, withdrawn, and with nothing in the world to call his own. When I was in the Sixth Grade at Mountview Middle School, I was a little punk who had never yearned to pick up a book and read. I had little to no imagination, and no passion in my life. One day along came a Reading Teacher who thought it would be a nice change of pace to stop working on Fridays and read to us. The first book she produced, and for good reason, was The House with A Clock In Its Walls by some guy named Bellairs. She explained up front to us that it was a mystery, which turned me off right away. The thought of mystery evoked images of a whodunnit, and those never excited me. She also told us that the author, John Bellairs, was coming to visit our school in a few months. I thought little of it.

But she started reading, and what I was hearing really made me perk up. It was more than mystery, it was supernatural! It was magic! There were wizards and evil plots and armageddon! All these things that I loved at the time [ being the morbid little psychopath I was :) ] She read a chapter or two a week, and it started to get on my nerves because I was so hungry for more. I ran to the library one day and combed it for that book, but it was not in at the moment, so I settled on taking out another Bellairs book called The Curse of The Blue Figurine. I was not as excited about this one as I was with the one in class, but I picked it up and read it out of boredom, and as soon as I was into the second paragraph, I was gripped by something I had never felt before; true excitement! Every sentence propelled me to read the next, and before I knew it, I had polished off that book in a matter of hours. For me, that was incredible!

It wasn't long before I conned my parents into taking me to a bookstore and I literally cleaned off the shelves; every book by John Bellairs went into the pile, and every cent of it was leeched from my parents, who did not seem to mind because I was actually enthusiastic over reading. :)

I brought the books into school and read them at lunch, during study halls, recess, and even in class when I had the chance. My Reading teacher noted this and she was very happy with me for getting involved, and she encouraged me a lot.

By the time John Bellairs came to my school, I was a wreck. I had polished off almost every one of his books that were available at the time, and John had become my hero! I went up the school library with the rest of my class and got to see John face to face, sitting right there, not more than 5 minutes from my very home!!

I choked up.

I was already an extremely shy and quiet individual, and I was double shy when faced by Bellairs. I pushed my books at him and he signed them, I was about to turn and leave when my teacher stated to him how involved I was in his works. He smiled and told me that he was very happy and he shook my hand. I left without saying a word. What could I have said? I still don't know!

I hated myself for not saying anything when I left school that day, so I cam up with a plan; I would write to him! That's exactly what I did, I sent a letter to his publisher with a forward request and told him that I had met him but I had not had the chance to talk to him. I told him what I had read and how much I loved it. I told him that I also wanted to be a writer and be like him someday. I also asked for advice on writing.

I had never been so shocked in my entire life as when I came home from school a few months later and found a postcard in my mailbox. It was addressed to me and it had the same signiture as the ones in my books. It was just a plain white postcard, but it was the short reply on it that made it so valuable! This man, who had written a slew of books, and was always in the process of writing more, took time out to read and respond to MY letter, just a punkass 6th Grader! He told me to let my imagination run wild because there were no secret formulas for writing!

Over the rest of my Jr. High Days, I wrote back and forth with him. I wrote long 3 page letters, and he sent me 2 or 3 lined postcards. But I didn't mind, I was being acknowledged by my hero!

At the time, there was a small homey bookstore just 5 houses down the street from me, so I walked there almost daily and got to know the ladies that worked there. They were involved with the school and knew all about John. I would have them check weekly to see if any new Bellairs books were coming out, and when there was, I had my order placed immediately. I didn't care if they were hardcover and costed 12 bucks, I was going to get Bellairs books the second they popped out of the press!

Nothing, believe me, NOTHING, could describe the feeling I had when I was walking to that bookstore to pick up the books when they came in. It was like a high! Anticipation, butterflies, excitement, the works! And after I had picked it up, I would RUN home with it and leap up onto my top bunk and start reading it. I usually finished it within a day or two, and then I had to wait all over again for another one.

Every kid should have that experience! The excitement! The anticipation! The goose pimples! Everything that comes along with discovering something so great that it yours and yours only! Reading Bellairs was like hopping into these adventures myself, and I thirsted for it more than I did air and water!

When I got to high school, things changed. I did not stop liking John's books, but I got swept up into a more mature enviornment, and I just didn't have time for any of it. When a new book came out, I would hop right at it, but it wasn't the same. Especially since the books were coming out less and less.

One day I picked up one of his books out of boredom and read it, and a fire sparked back up inside of me. I also had heard that a new one, (Chessmen I think) was due out. I scribbled out a letter to John and I dropped it off on my way to the bookstore, which had moved to the center of town.

Perhaps the most shocking day of my life. I got to the bookstore and asked the lady to look up the book and order it, and she noncalauntly mentioned that John had died of a heart attack just days before! He was supposed to visit Mt. View again the day after it happened.

Just minutes after I sent him a letter I found out he had died. I left the store, climbed in my mom's car, and cried.

I got his last few books and read them religiously, knowing that they were his last works. I re-read all of his books time and time again, remembeing how they had originally made me feel. They were a warm old friend, and a great comfort to me. John had departed, but he left a part of himself behind in his books. I always beleived that. John Bellairs lived on, in the meaning that he would still be heard all around the world by children and parents alike, getting his stories out, and nurturing imaginations.

Then came Brad Strickland . . .

John Bellairs influenced me, as a person, a lot more than I care to admit. It was from reading his books that I figured out what I wanted to do with my life: Be a writer. I wanted to inspire people just as much as John had inspired me. I wanted to give people the same feeling that I had gotten from John. I dreamed of becoming a writer, and I still do. To this day I still want to write, and I do write (I'm just not very good at finishing what I start).

He indirectly showed me how to put my heart and soul into writing. He wrote with such passion, such heart, that it was hard for me as an emotional person to miss. I didn't want to be a stiff writer only writing a story, I wanted to spill my life and blood out onto that page like he did!

When I first encountered John Bellairs, my imagination was stranded only on sinister, dark depressing things, thereafter, it flourished out into a million story ideas and daydreams that made my life bearable in rough times. John transformed me from a hardass cynic into a dreamer, which is, IMO, the best thing that could have happened to me.

I owe all my creativity to John. I owe a lot more to John. And while I cannot look him face to face and say 'Thank you. . .', I can...by discussing him, reading him, and writing for others like he wrote for me. John, thanks a million, bud. We miss you dearly.

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