The writing usually began with a haunting, a real-life incident so arresting that author Theodore Taylor could not shake it from his mind. At the typewriter he used that unforgettable event as a cornerstone, the foundation of a world created on the page.
The fiction that resulted rang so true that for decades young readers sent Taylor letters inquiring about his characters, most often those of his novel “The Cay”: a bigoted boy named Phillip stranded on an island during World War II with Timothy, a compassionate black man upon whom the boy’s life depends.
Even this week, as Taylor lay dying, mail arrived from young readers of that 1969 novel, a now classic work that helped set the standard for young-adult literature.
Taylor died Thursday at his Laguna Beach home from complications of a heart attack, said his daughter Wendy Carroll. He was 85.
Generations of Americans were first introduced to “The Cay” and its lessons in their junior high school English literature classes. At one point the novel was required or recommended reading in 38 states, including California. “The Cay” received 11 literary awards, was made into an NBC television movie starring James Earl Jones and was published in several languages.
Throughout his decades-long career, Taylor wrote more than 50 books, but none would receive the acclaim of “The Cay.” He struggled to explain the book’s appeal: “It’s just a simple message of understanding and love, is what I think it is,” Taylor told a Times reporter in 1997.
Before 1968, Taylor had never written a young-adult novel. As he would do with other novels, he carried the story around in his head for years before ever sitting down to write it. The image that inspired the story came from the archives of the U.S. Coast Guard. While researching his 1957 nonfiction book “Fire on the Beaches,” he read of an incident in 1942 in which Germans torpedoed a Dutch ship, slicing it in half. Those who survived the attack crawled into a lifeboat, looked back and saw an 11-year-old Dutch boy swim to a raft launched by the impact of the torpedo. The German submarine then surfaced, blocked their view of the child, hampering their ability to reach him. By the time the submarine left, it was night and the boy was gone.
For 11 years, the author could not forget that boy. During walks on the beach he would look out across the water and envision the boy holding on and praying for rescue. Taylor drew upon his memory of a childhood playmate in North Carolina to create a personality for the character.
“The one thing I remembered about him was that his mother had taught him to hate black people and to hate them with a passion,” Taylor told a Times reporter. The character of Timothy was based on a fishing and drinking buddy he met in the Caribbean.
When Taylor finally sat down to write the book, a fictionalized account of what happened to the Dutch boy on the raft, it took him only three weeks to complete it. In the book the boy’s racist views leave him as he learns to admire and respect Timothy.
“The Cay” had its detractors, who saw the depiction of Timothy as stereotypical and offensive. Still, the book’s appeal has outlived the controversy and was included among the top 100 children’s books of the 20th century on a list compiled by the International Reading Assn.
Taylor’s approach to writing “The Cay” and other works for young readers was simply to write well.
“Above all I try not to ‘write down’ to the young reader,” he once said.
Reviewers described Taylor’s books as action-packed, realistic adventures that held readers’ attention. “The Weirdo” is the story of a 17-year-old boy who tries to save black bears from hunters. “The Bomb” is the story of residents tricked into leaving their lives on Bikini Atoll so it could be used as a nuclear test site. His book “The Maldonado Miracle,” about a boy who travels to the U.S. from Mexico and experiences an “accidental miracle,” was adapted into a movie and directed by actress Salma Hayek.
Readers were attracted to the books because Taylor was a gifted storyteller who understood his readers, said his longtime literary agent Gloria Loomis.
“You can’t fool kids, really,” Loomis said. “A lot of hype can make some books sell, but kids are a tougher breed. They can see somebody not delivering the goods.”
As a child, Allyn Johnston read and loved Taylor’s books. As an adult and an editor at Harcourt, she edited him, encouraging him to develop the emotional content of his characters.
“Suddenly I was editing the work of a childhood hero,” said Johnston, who is now editor in chief at Harcourt. “He met me and thought I was 12 years old, and he didn’t think I knew what I was doing.”
During the editing process Taylor sometimes got “hot under the collar,” Johnston said, but she earned his confidence and worked with him on 10 books.
In his books, the author often used the names of actual people, including a college roommate of his daughter.
“You never knew if the butcher or the gardener would show up,” Carroll said.
In addition to his daughter, Taylor is survived by his wife, Flora, and sons Mark Taylor of San Diego and Michael Taylor of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.
For years Taylor avoided writing a sequel to his most famous work, knowing there would be comparisons. Loomis pushed for such a story.
“Timothy of the Cay,” which precedes and follows events portrayed in “The Cay,” was published in 1993. It continues the life of Phillip after the incident and looks back at the life of Timothy before it. The book received numerous awards, including an ALA Best Book for Young Adults.
Later in life, Taylor wrote fiction for adults as well, and like his books for younger readers, the works were often rooted in a fact and informed by his life experiences.
Born June 23, 1921, in Statesville, N.C., the family moved to Craddock, a village outside Portsmouth, N.C., when Taylor was 10. At the age of 13, he landed a job at the local paper writing a high school sports column. The column paid 50 cents a week.
At 17, after he could not pass a math class required for graduation, Taylor dropped out of high school and turned to writing full time.
During World War II he joined the merchant marines, earned a commission as an ensign in the Navy and was recalled to the Navy after the outbreak of the Korean War. For many years he worked as a Hollywood press agent -- and spent his free time writing.
But of all his experiences, his travels and loves, writing was what he returned to morning after morning.
“I’ll get into a novel knowing something about the beginning, knowing less about the middle and knowing nothing about the end,” he told a Times reporter in 1997. “I don’t want to know anything about the end until I get there, and I hope I’ll be able to recognize the end when I get there.”