Tammy A. Thome doesn't particularly like to write, hasn't been whale watching for several years and hasn't visited the Cabrillo Marine Museum since she was a fifth-grader.
Yet to folks at the harbor-front museum in San Pedro, the 21-year-old Torrance secretary is a literary find--the South Bay's very own Herman Melville.
In 1976, when Thome was a student in Mrs. Barkley's fifth-grade class at Edison Elementary School in Torrance, she went on a museum-sponsored whale-watching trip from King Harbor in Redondo Beach.
When she got back to class, Thome penciled a 12-page book about whales, complete with multicolored crayon drawings. She dedicated "Charlie, the Blue Whale" to John Olguin--the museum's co-director who retired last month--shipped it off to the museum, and then forgot about it. For 11 years.
In February, Lois Larue, who is writing a biography of Olguin, discovered the tiny book, bound in a Con-Tact-paper cover, in a stack of Olguin's papers. Larue says she immediately fell in love with it.
"This work is a classic," said Larue, a self-described fan of children's literature. "When I saw it, I said, 'This cannot be by a child.' "
Larue showed the book to Catherine Sjostedt, editor of the museum's quarterly publication, and to Patsi Daugherty, president of Friends of Cabrillo Marine Museum, a volunteer group that helps raise money for the museum. They agreed that the book "Charlie, the Blue Whale" was special.
"She got her colors mixed up," said Daugherty, explaining that Thome saw gray whales--not blue whales--when her class went whale watching.
"But otherwise her drawings and the story are very accurate. I can't get over the fact that it was done by such a little girl. It is just so well done and so well thought-out."
The book is narrated in the first person by Charlie, a blue whale, who talks about what he eats, how much he weighs and how large he will be when he grows up. It also deals with some of Charlie's worries, namely Japanese fishermen who kill whales for their blubber.
"One day we were out and a strange-looking boat came out to look for whales," Charlie says. "So I called for my mother and my friends and I went down as far as we could. We both stayed together. We were crying because we were so scared."
Charlie loses a friend to the whalers, but he also has encounters with friendly people when he swims near whale-watch boats, such as the Voyager, which took Thome's class on its trip.
"My mother said I show off too much," Charlie says, "but I am just showing them that we are playful and that we don't like to be killed! We like to have fun like everybody else!"
Larue and Sjostedt were able to track down Thome through the Torrance school district, eventually getting her phone number from a school secretary, Larue said.
"I didn't know what she was talking about," said Thome, a sales secretary at Matrix Science Corp., which manufactures electrical equipment for aircraft. "I had no idea what book it was."
Sjostedt and Larue, who wanted permission for the museum to publish the book, agreed to bring it to Thome's home in north Torrance. After seeing "Charlie, the Blue Whale," Thome recognized it.
"I am assuming it was a project that we had to do after we went whale watching," said Thome, adding that she couldn't even remember the whale-watching trip, let alone details about the book. "I used to get good grades in school for writing and stuff like that."
Linda Barkley, Thome's fifth-grade teacher who is on leave from the Torrance school district, said Thome's book was sent to Olguin to thank him for arranging a second whale-watching trip for her class. The first trip, which the class paid for by collecting aluminum cans for recycling, was "disappointing and heartbreaking."
"They saved all that money, and we went out there, and the fog came in and we couldn't see a thing," Barkley recalled. "So I wrote a letter to (Olguin) and they arranged another trip" at no charge.
Barkley said she couldn't remember Thome's book, but she recalled that Thome was a good artist and was extremely interested in the lessons about whales.
"She was highly motivated," Barkley said.
At her meeting with Sjostedt and Larue, Thome agreed to turn over rights for the book to the Friends of Cabrillo Marine Museum in exchange for 100 copies of it. She has already given most of them away to friends and relatives, she said.
Daugherty, president of the volunteer group, said the museum gift shop has sold several hundred books since they went on sale last month. The books cost $2.75 and copies autographed by Olguin are $3. Profits will go toward expanding the museum's cramped gift shop, she said.
After rereading the book for the first time since writing it, Thome described it as "so-so." She said she was a little surprised that the museum would want to publish it.
"I thought it was good for someone who was that young," Thome said. "It is neat that something that I did is being published."
Still, Thome said, her sudden success as an author has not gone to her head. She hasn't been to San Pedro to see her book for sale among the stuffed animals, pins, pens, mobiles and other mementos in the museum's gift shop, and she said she has no plans to pursue a career in children's literature.