Last week, we lost a dear friend of mine and a member of the Writing to be Read author family, Tom Johnson. Tom was a multi-genre writer for most of his life, mostly pulp fiction in the traditions of the classics, but in recent years, he dedicated himself to children’s fiction, with the intentions of creating stories for today’s children which reflect old fashioned values and morals in the traditions of the stories his mother read to him as a child. Tom took part in Round 2 of my “Ask the Authors” blog series, (which will become a published book by WordCrafter Press soon), and I interviewed Tom about his children’s stories back in 2018. He had some great things to say about writing for children that may be relevant here, since the Writing to be Read theme for November is young adult and children’s fiction. With that in mind, I’m reprinting that interview in part here, (you can read the full interview here), as we remember our friend and fellow author. Tom may be gone, but his wisdom lives on. This is what writing for children meant to him.
Kaye: Although in the past, you’ve written and published many different genres, you are currently writing only children’s stories. So, let’s talk about that. Tell me a little about your stories.
Tom: My children stories are about 1k and meant as bedtime tales, and to be read in classroom or library settings. They are short stories with little morals to teach children something about life.
Kaye: Are they a series or stand alone?
Tom: They are a series, and published in anthologies about once a year. There have been four anthologies so far. I was invited to participate beginning in volume #3. The anthology is called Wire Dog Storybook. Here is the background. True story. A young girl, Ellen Walters, asked her father, David Walters, if she could have a dog, and he said, “No.” So she found an old wire hanger and shaped it to resemble a dog, and called it wire dog. David Walters was fascinated by her ingenuity and created the Wire Dog storybooks. So the stories usually feature Ellen and Wire Dog, but always Wire Dog. Five of my stories have been published so far, and I’ve written three more for the 2018 yearbook when it comes out at the end of the year.
Kaye: What age group are they aimed at?
Tom: I feel that we should begin reading to our children by age one. With that in mind, my stories are aimed at the age group of 1 to 5. However, older children will enjoy the stories, as do adults.
Kaye: What differences do you see between writing for children and writing adult fiction?
Tom: Adult fiction usually means, “no holds barred”, while writing children stories you want to stay away from violence, horror, and adult themes. Keep in mind, young children absorb what they hear quickly, and some themes could have an adverse effect on young minds. When writing for children we must keep this in mind.
Kaye: What appeals to you about writing for children?
Tom: Do you remember the old radio show for kids, Let’s Pretend ? It produced shows for children that acted out fairy tales and light adventures – nothing as harsh as today’s cartoons that are aimed at our youth. Well, I have the chance to import my love for adventure in tales easily understood by young people; children who some day may also experience that same love to pass on to their children. Stories that give our children a moral to live by, not “It’s clobbering time!” Or Pow! Bang! Boom! It’s something my mother did for me when I was little, and now I have the same opportunity, and I’m not going to pass it up.
Kaye: You have wanted to write for children since you were little and your mother used to read to you.
Tom: Oh, yes. I hope that mothers are still reading to their children. They learn at such a young age, and we’re missing an opportunity if we fail them when they’re young. They will never forget what they learn as children, it’s when their minds are growing and grasping at everything. I think one of the first words they learn is, “Why?”
Kaye: What were your favorite children’s stories?
Tom: Really, I would have to look them up in the book of fairy tales on my shelf. There were so many she read to me. Knights saving young damsels come to mind. I remember one particular fairy tale where the princess was on a glass mountain, and the young knight had to save her. She watched each day as a knight riding brown horse attempts to scale the glass mountain, then a knight on a white horse, and so on, until the final day when a knight riding a great steed scales the mountain, and we find out that he was the knight on the brown horse, the white horse, etc. It wasn’t the color of the horse, but the persistence of the knight that finally achieved the goal.
Kaye: In what ways do the stories you write emulate those favorites from your childhood?
Tom: Like the fairy tale I mentioned above, my stories will also have a similar moral – it’s not the color of the horse, or the knight’s armor, but his persistence that wins the hand of the princess. Do the right thing, for the right reason. Persevere. If you don’t succeed today, try and try again.
The stories that we hear and read in childhood often stick with us into our later years. Even though Tom wrote other fiction through the years, as he grew older, it was the stories that his mother read to him as a child that inspired him. That’s what writing children’s fiction is all about.
Tom’s other works included pulp, crime and science fiction stories right up there with the best, and many may be familiar with his promotions for them on Facebook. His covers seem to reach out and grab your attention. He published over eighty books during the span of his career. In that previous interview, Tom claimed that Alien Skies was born from his most unusual inspiration and the Guns of the Black Ghost was written as a homage to Walter Gibson’s The Shadow radio drama. You can read my review of Pangaea: Eden’s Planet here.
Writing was a big part of Tom’s life. It was important to him. But, Tom was more than just a talented and dedicated writer. He was also a loved life partner to his lovely wife Ginger. She was supportive of his writing, and I believe she edited some, or perhaps all of his work. With Ginger at his side, Tom lived a life doing what he loved – bringing his characters to life.
Tom, farewell. You will live on through the plethora of books and stories you’ve left us with, but you will still be greatly missed.
Are you a Tom Johnson fan? If so, feel free to leave a few words in the comments telling us what Tom meant to you, or share a memory, or just tell me which of his books is your favorite. Thank you all for joining me in saying good-bye.