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John Reynolds Gardiner, 61; Bestselling Children’s Author

Times Staff Writer

John Reynolds Gardiner, who wrote only three children’s books in his career as an author but saw his first one, “Stone Fox,” sell more than 3 million copies and be made into a television movie, died March 4. He was 61.

Gardiner died of complications from pancreatitis at Kaiser Permanente Anaheim Medical Center, his wife, Gloria, said this week. He was a longtime resident of Huntington Beach.

“Children’s publishing has lost one of its touchstones,” Kate Jackson, editor in chief of HarperCollins Children’s Books, said in a statement Monday. “Stone Fox,” published in 1980, is “a true modern classic,” Jackson said.

For many years, Gardiner traveled the country speaking to schoolchildren about his favorite topic, creative writing. He sometimes invited them to stand before the class and finish a sentence he gave them. “If only I could ... " Gardiner began. Overcoming obstacles can make for a good story, he said.

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His books were geared to readers in fourth through six grades but he met with students of all ages. To encourage those who struggled with grammar and spelling, he described his own halting beginnings as a writer. He didn’t like to read when he was young. His mother tried reading to him at night but he pretended to be asleep.

Born in Los Angeles, one of four children, Gardner never read an entire novel until he was 19, although his parents were educators. Not that he was a bad student; Gardiner attended UCLA, where he earned a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in engineering. Throughout college, however, his writing skills lagged.

“At UCLA, I ended up in dumbbell English,” Gardiner wrote in an autobiography on his website. For most of the other students in the class, English was a second language. They “could and did get better grades on their compositions than I did,” he wrote.

He did have one thing going for him, he said. “The imagination was there.”

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He kept up his writing while he worked as a contract engineer specializing in thermodynamics for such aerospace corporations as Rockwell International and McDonnell Douglas.

When he was in his late 20s, his brother Ken made a suggestion.

“My brother ... got me to enroll in a television writing class, taught by an instructor who didn’t give a hoot about spelling and grammar, and my writing career began,” Gardiner wrote in his autobiography.

Originally, he wrote “Stone Fox” as a screenplay. In it, a boy named Willy and his dog Searchlight enter a dogsled race hoping to beat an undefeated opponent.

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A producer read the script and suggested Gardiner turn it into a book, which he did. Seven years later, it was made into an NBC television movie with Buddy Ebsen as the boy’s grandfather.

Two more novels, both filled with good-natured humor, were published. “Top Secret” (1985) is about a boy who turns himself into a plant as a science project. “General Butterfingers” (1986) follows a kind but clumsy boy as he helps care for aging war veterans.

“Gardiner’s other books were equally well done, but they never got the press of his first one,” said Frank Hodge, owner of Hodge-Podge Books for children in Albany, N.Y., and a longtime friend of Gardiner.

All three books had one thing in common. “Gardiner was concerned about quality stories for children,” Hodge said.

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Gardiner is survived by his wife; children Carrie, Alicia and Danielle; a grandchild, Lana; a brother; and sisters Kay Brown and Sue Broome.


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