word craft


Story Behind the Story #35:
Abigail Takes the Wheel

St. Nicholas MagazineI’ve long been fas­ci­nat­ed by the his­to­ry of writ­ing for young peo­ple. This includ­ed an inter­est in St. Nicholas Mag­a­zine. Found­ed in 1873 and edit­ed by Mary Mapes Dodge (She wrote Hans Brinker and the Sil­ver Skates) it last­ed until the 1940s. The mag­a­zine was enor­mous­ly suc­cess­ful as it brought fine chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture into Amer­i­can homes as nev­er before. Its list of con­tribut­ing authors is quite astound­ing. There are too many to list here. Go to St. Nicholas Mag­a­zine for a lot more infor­ma­tion about this vital pub­li­ca­tion. St. Nicholas also fos­tered writ­ing and art by young peo­ple, and it’s cap­ti­vat­ing to see who was first pub­lished there.

When I was col­lect­ing old chil­dren’s books in used book stores and flea mar­kets, I’d run across issues of the pub­li­ca­tion. They were always won­der­ful fun to read. In one such issue—1880’s or thereabout—there was a sin­gu­lar hero­ic sto­ry. It was a news report about a New York City har­bor boat cap­tain, who brought in veg­eta­bles from New Jer­sey “The Gar­den State.” His steam­boat came up through New York City’s vast and crowd­ed har­bor to Man­hat­tan. On these trips he was often accom­pa­nied by his daugh­ter and son.

Abigail Takes the WheelOne day, as they come up the Nar­rows, they saw two sail­ing ships col­lide. One of the ships was dis­abled. Our cap­tain offers to tow the dam­aged ship into safe har­bor. He goes on board that ship, leav­ing his boat in the hands of his engi­neer. As the account relat­ed, the engi­neer sud­den­ly became ill. That meant it was the daugh­ter who had to steer the boat into NYC. A har­row­ing voy­age it is but she does it.

As soon as I read the report, I was sure it would make a good sto­ry. I spent a good deal of time try­ing to ver­i­fy the details in the New York City news­pa­pers of the day. Alas, there were too many news­pa­pers and the date of the inci­dent was not pro­vid­ed by St. Nicholas.

Regard­less, I rewrote the sto­ry as an I Can Read chap­ter book, with the title Abi­gail Takes the Wheel. It was illus­trat­ed by Don Bolognese.

I wrote the book short­ly after mov­ing to Col­orado. The truth is, how­ev­er, I still con­sid­er myself a New York­er, and this is one of many books I’ve writ­ten about the City.

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