Edward Is the Phoenix

As a boy, I loved a novel called “David and the Phoenix.” You’ve never heard of it.

It came out in 1957, 15 years before I was born. But that’s not why you never heard of it. You have probably heard of plenty of books that came out before I was born.

You haven’t heard of it because it is not an unmodified classic. It may be a cult classic. I like to think that another reason you haven’t heard of it is because if you had, the following story wouldn’t exist, and I personally need more stories like the following.

As an adult, I became a writer myself. A few years into my career, circa 2002, I rediscovered the book, which had recently been reissued by a small press.

The author had written numerous other books; “David and the Phoenix” was his first and his last came out in 1985. You’ve never heard of him, either. His name is Edward Ormondroyd. He wouldn’t have minded that you haven’t heard of him.

But see, thing is, I minded.

The summer of 2011, I thought I might want to write about Ormondroyd for my blog. I found very little about him on the Internet. I thought it likely that he was dead.

I am always surprised whenever I see that someone whose work I loved in a younger day has almost no or literally no online presence—barely a photo and nary an interview. But then I get excited because it means maybe I can be the one to help change that.

So I contacted Purple House Press, the small press that republished “David and the Phoenix.” To my surprise, the publisher responded. To my surprise, he said Ormondroyd (born 1925) is alive. And he said he’d be happy to forward my e-mail to him.

No response.

I asked if the publisher would try again, and he kindly obliged.

No response again. I asked what my options were and the publisher suggested I send a letter by postal mail. So I did.

Paper was the magic potion.

Ormondroyd responded by mail, and by hand. In articulate prose, he had written that he was flattered I asked to interview him and happy to participate. He gave me his wife’s e-mail and I sent him the questions.

“Cry you mercy, sir! Forty-one questions!” he wrote. (Actually, his wife wrote, taking dictation from him.)

Yet he graciously answered all 41, with verve. I posted the two-part interview on my blog that October. He then became Edward to me.

Yet in terms of moving experiences, that turned out to be mere prologue to the Edward-related event that would take place in upstate New York two months later. I believe it is unprecedented in the known history of author appearances.

In the interview, Edward had said that, but for two “unofficial” (my term) exceptions, he never spoke in schools, as many children’s authors do today.

A humble and happy man, he didn’t say this with any discernible hint of regret or longing, but I saw an opportunity just the same.

By pure, freakish chance, at the same time I had been tracking down Edward, I was also booking an author visit at Trumansburg Elementary in Trumansburg, NY…which, I would soon learn, happens to be the town in which Edward lives.

Apparently, the fact that he is a published author was largely unknown among the townsfolk.

More broadly, “David and the Phoenix” remains beloved by certain adult readers yet largely unknown among the current generation (though it could be one of the books to which HarryPotter owes some debt).

I believed kids and Trumansburgians alike would be most interested in Edward’s books and in Edward himself.

So I asked Purple House if they could discreetly donate any copies of “David and the Phoenix” to the school so the kids could take turns reading it in the month leading up to my presentation. The publisher kindly agreed and sent 30 paperbacks at no charge. And I asked the school librarian if the kids could read the book before I came. She agreed. The kids were not told that their assignment to read Edward’s novel had any connection to my upcoming author visit.

Edward had already planned to attend my talk—anonymously, he thought. He, his wife Joan, and his friend sat at the side of the room, calling no attention to themselves.

About halfway through, I ambushed the audience.

I said that I wanted to highlight a few books that influenced me as a child. I showed “Where the Wild Things Are.” The kids knew  it, of course. I showed “The Mouse and the Motorcycle.” Some knew that one, too. Then I put “David and the Phoenix” on the screen. The room crackled with enthusiasm, louder than for the previous two. I innocently asked the kids if they knew the book and they breathlessly shouted “We just read that!” As I suspected, their reaction quickly turned to disbelief: what are the chances this guest author would mention the very book by an unrelated author that, it just so happens, they all just read?

I asked if they knew anything about Edward Ormondroyd. I don’t know how they knew, but two boys called out that he lived in Trumansburg.

I said they were right, and, as a matter of fact, he’s sitting…right…over…here.

I gestured to him to “introduce” him to the crowd—a surprised author greeting surprised fans...for the first time. Applause. Wide eyes. Lumped throats. Edward stood and gave a gentlemanly bow.

To close my program, I announced a Q&A. Some hands went up. I said this Q&A would be different than what I normally do. I said today, you can ask questions not only of me but also of Edward—at which more hands shot up and most everyone raising them turned to Edward. (I had not cleared this with him in advance, but he continued being a good sport.)

After the questions were over and the kids had filed out and Edward was talking to the school librarian, Joan told me that Edward had been touched. Edward’s friend said seeing Edward get such long-deserved attention brought tears to his eyes. Edward would later tell that me he had not thought I would involve him in my presentation, let alone even mention him.

After the presentation, Edward and I posed for two photos. One was a standard side-by-side smiling one. The other, at Edward’s suggestion, was each of us throwing up bunny ears behind the other’s head.

His wife shrugged and said authors of books for children never fully grow up.

As if this weren’t memorable enough, the Ormondroyds kindly invited me to their house for dinner (featuring vegetables they grew themselves) that evening. Adding to the honor, fellow author Bruce Coville (whom I’d run into online but never in person) joined us.

After dinner, Joan took a picture of the three authors. Bruce called it “three generations of David and the Phoenix”—the author (holding the lone first edition hardcover he owns), a fan from circa the first edition (Bruce), and a fan from circa the 1981 Scholastic edition (me).

Let’s recap how many surprises were bundled into this story:

•    surprise on me: that Edward lives in same town as a school I was booked to speak at
•    surprise on Edward: that I was going to shine the spotlight on him during my presentation and that the kids read “David and the Phoenix” in prep
•    surprise on the kids: that Edward was there and that they'd read “David and the Phoenix” BECAUSE Edward was there
•    surprise on the people of Trumansburg: that Edward lives in town

The press release I'd sent began with this plea: “Due to the surprise nature of this event, please do not run story (or even discuss locally) until after!” The Ithaca Journal (the region’s daily paper) covered it.

The day prior, I had seen the film “Hugo” (itself based on a book for young people), in which a younger person shows an older person (silent era filmmaker Georges Méliès) who had a significant creative impact that he (the older person) is still fondly remembered. I felt like this Edward Experiment was a Hugo moment of my own.

It would not have been possible without Trumansburg Elementary librarian Gail Brisson. She was immediately willing to take on this additional effort and she managed to keep the whole thing a secret for a month, even from Joan…who, it just so happens, volunteers in the school.

Like the fabled Phoenix of his book, Edward (as author) had risen again. It didn’t require a pyre…but it did require fire.


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