Thursday, October 24, 2013

My Go-kart: A early-teenage reminiscence

It was the fall of 1964 and The Beatles were “taking America by storm” (a ridiculously overused phrase at the time) with hit after hit. To me, they were okay, but not nearly as cool as when Doug’s parents bought him a brand new go-kart with a two-cycle Clinton engine.  

I’d never seen anything so beautiful. Or so fast. We took the kart over to the school parking lot and started it. The engine whined like a chain saw (the Clinton company did indeed make chain saws), and when Doug took off he shot past me with bugling eyes and a look of frozen fear on his face. 

It had to be the coolest thing ever. That night at dinner I asked my father if I could get a go-kart, too. “Sure,” he said. “If you can pay for it.” 

I shoveled driveways all winter and, by the spring, had saved less than a quarter of what I would have needed to buy a kart like Doug’s. It seemed hopeless, but then, in the Pennysaver, I found an ad for a homemade kart that looked like it had been welded together out of spare pipe. It had no engine.   

“You sure you want it?” Dad asked, clearly dubious, when he took you to see it. But I was sure (And why not? I couldn’t afford anything better). 

I guess Dad felt bad after that, because he said I could have the Briggs and Stratton engine from our old lawn mower. I unbolted the engine from the lawnmower, drilled new holes in the engine plate on the go-kart, and mounted it. 

When I went to the store to buy a centrifugal force clutch, I discovered that I couldn’t afford one. But I could afford a sprocket and a chain. All I’d have to do was jump start the kart.  

Our short driveway slanted down to the street. After making sure no cars were coming, I crouched beside the kart like a bobsled driver and pushed. The engine caught and roared. The kart shot out of my hands, sailed down the driveway, across the street, crashed into the curb, and died. 

In time I learned to push and jump on before the kart got away. I would ride up and down the narrow street in front of our house, lugging the engine on each tight turn, and knowing if I hit the brakes too hard she’d stall. 

Jumpstarting is hard on an engine. The spark plug often got fouled and had to be cleaned. I fiddled constantly with the carburetor, and often burned myself on the muffler. Cables snapped and had to be replaced. Brake bands wore out and had to be replaced. The drive tire went bald and had to be replaced. I did it all myself. 

While every kid around begged Doug to let them drive his kart, I cannot remember anyone ever asking to drive mine. I suspect they regarded my kart as a joke and an eyesore. And yet, I can’t recall being particularly bothered or jealous. 

I’m pretty sure I spent far more time fixing the kart than driving it. At its best, it never went a third as fast as Doug’s. It would be too neat and easy to end this story by saying that Doug got bored with his kart, or never appreciated it. The truth is, I have no idea how he felt about his kart, or what he eventually did with it. All I know is I loved every second I spent with mine.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013


Always an Original: SLJ Talks to ‘Fallout’ Author Todd Strasser

Todd Strasser has been on the children’s and YA literature scene for more than 30 years. His latest YA book Fallout (Candlewick, 2013) has received rave reviews from many outlets, including The Wall Street Journal. School Library Journal calls it “a well-written, compelling story with an interesting twist on how history might have turned out.” Publisher Candlewick has even developed a discussion guide for the book that has direct correlations to the Common Core. We caught up with Strasser to chat about the book, his distinguished career, and his latest project.
toddstrasser  Always an Original: SLJ Talks to Fallout Author Todd Strasser
Can you tell us more about your latest book, Fallout?
The book is part memoir and part speculative fiction, rooted in my experience as a twelve-year-old boy living through the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, when our family was the only one in town with a bomb shelter. Thus, I not only worried along with everyone else in our country about the very real possibility of a nuclear World War III, but I worried about trying to survive in our shelter as well.
Many of my anxieties concerned the possibility that a war might start while my father was off at work in New York City, and therefore too far away to get home. In that case: Would there be time for me to run home from school before the bombs fell? And since everyone in town knew we had a bomb shelter, would others get there first and demand to be allowed in? What if my mother, brother, and I got inside and our neighbors came and wanted us to let them in?
How does it feel writing a book that has a historical setting in which you actual lived?
It certainly stirs up long dormant memories and emotions—and it’s a bit of a reality check. When I revisited the bomb shelter 50 years later, it was a lot smaller than I remembered.
What are your memories of 1962?
It was a transformational year in terms of my awareness of the world. Before then, my world view was mostly school and my small neighborhood and friends. Not only was 1962 the year I became aware of the Cold War and the idea that a country thousands of miles away wanted (allegedly) to destroy us, but also that here in the US some people were willing to resort to violence to stop a black man, James Meredith, from enrolling at the University of Mississippi.

You have been writing for a long time. Have you seen many changes in what kids want to read and how books are published?
Fallout is actually my 100th book-length work of original fiction. My first novel, Angel Dust Blues, was published in 1979. It’s about a young man growing up on Long Island who’s arrested for selling marijuana and, like Fallout, is considerably more autobiographical than most of my books.
I came along in the valley between two mountains of series. You might call the first [mountain] “Mt. Stratemeyer,” after Edward Stratemeyer, the creator of Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, Tom Swift, and the Bobbsey Twins. The second [mountain] is more like a mountain range; some of the peaks might be called “Mt. Pascal,” “Mt. Martin,” and “Mt. Stine” [and] the tallest, certainly, being “Mt. Rowling.” But I was schooled in the valley of the one-off problem novel. There were hardly any series coming out at that time. And as far as how books are being published? The e-book, of course, which is a blessing for those of us with long lists of out-of-print books.

You have been nominated several times for the Edgar Award.  Are there a certain techniques to writing a good mystery?
Here are some that I’ve gleaned over the years: 1) Be stingy with information. 2) Create as many viable red herrings as possible. 3) At some point, dismiss suspicion of the main culprit.

One of your pastimes is surfing, and you came to it in your fifties.  Can you tell us more about how that happened?
FALLOUT COVER075 398x600 Always an Original: SLJ Talks to Fallout Author Todd Strasser
I’ve always been a water rat, and had always wanted to surf. My daughter and I went to Hawaii the summer after she graduated from high school and saw lots of “Learn to Surf” signs, so we tried it and loved it.

What book would we find on your nightstand?
The Son, by Philip Meyer. An extraordinary story extraordinarily researched.

As an author, how are you using social media?
I’m trying. I’m really trying! I am on Facebook, and have recently been posting photos and stories from the 1960s. On Twitter (@ToddStrasser) I have changed my photo to one that includes the Fallout cover, and I also have been tweeting about topics from the 1960s.

On what are you currently working?
A sci-fi adventure about life after the destruction of Earth’s environment. Working title: Moby Dick in Space.