Sid Fleischman dies at 90; Newbery Medal-winning children’s writer


Sid Fleischman was a successful suspense novelist and screenwriter whose credits included the screenplay for his novel “Blood Alley” when he decided to write a book that his young children could read so they would understand just what it was he did at home all day.

“I seem to have written a children’s book,” Fleischman wrote to his agent in New York. “If you’re not interested, just drop it in the waste basket.”

The 1962 lighthearted tale of an Old West traveling magician and his family, “Mr. Mysterious & Company,” sold to the first publishing house that read it, launching Fleischman into a long and much-honored career as a children’s book author.

Fleischman, whose book “The Whipping Boy” earned him the prestigious Newbery Medal in 1987, died of cancer Wednesday at his home in Santa Monica, the day after his 90th birthday, said his son, Paul.

“Sid was a national treasure in the field of children’s books,” said Lin Oliver, a children’s book author and executive director of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. “It really is a monumental loss for the field.”

Known for his humor, love of language, adventuresome plotting and nose for history, Fleischman wrote more than 50 children’s books.

“He was a true master of the craft and a writer’s writer,” said Oliver, adding that Fleischman wrote in many genres, including novels, tall tales, picture books and biographies.

“By the Great Horn Spoon!,” a lively tale of the California Gold Rush, has been required fourth-grade reading in California and was turned into the 1967 movie “The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin.”

Fleischman had written more than 30 children’s books when he won the Newbery Medal for “The Whipping Boy.”

He was inspired to write the book after discovering the practice of the royal houses of Europe, where, he told The Times in 1987, “the prince, the heir to the throne, couldn’t be punished. So if they had a rotten prince, they installed a commoner off the streets, and he took the punishment for the prince.

“The injustice of it enraged me. The lunacy of it!”

Fleischman came to enjoy writing for children.

In another 1987 Times interview, he recalled the fan letters he began receiving after his first children’s book was published.

“Adult readers never write,” he said. “It was the first time I ever felt in touch with my audience.”

And, he said, “their letters are wonderful. They make you feel like Shakespeare must have felt when he heard the applause.”

For the first time, he recalled, “I felt I was doing something important.”

One of the pleasures of writing for children, he said, is the enduring nature of good children’s books.

“Adult novels are as ephemeral as newspapers,” he said. “Children’s books stay in print for decades.”

The list of Fleischman’s books include two biographies for young readers in recent years, “Escape!: The Story of the Great Houdini” and “The Trouble Begins at 8: A Life of Mark Twain in the Wild, Wild West.”

“Sir Charlie,” a biography of Charlie Chaplin, will be published in June.

Fleischman was a founding member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and had been on its board of advisors since its inception in 1972.

In 2003, the organization named an award for him that honors humorous writing for children.

“Humor is the oxygen of children’s literature,” he told the Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch in 1997. “There’s a lot of competition for children’s time, but even kids who hate to read want to read a funny book.”

Born March 16, 1920, in Brooklyn, Fleischman grew up in San Diego, where he began studying magic as a child. As a teenager, he performed in vaudeville and nightclubs. His first book, a collection of magic tricks he had created, was published when he was 19.

After serving in the Navy Reserve aboard a destroyer escort during World War II, hegraduated from what is now San Diego State University in 1949. He worked as a reporter on the San Diego Daily Journal and was associate editor of a small magazine before he began writing fiction full time in 1951.

Fleischman’s “The Charlatan’s Handbook,” a 1993 compendium of magic tricks, was written for professional magicians.

“He was somebody, more than anyone I know, who loved his work; he loved to write,” said Oliver. “He also was a great magician. He was devoted to that, and I think he regarded writing as magic.”

Indeed, Fleischman’s 1996 autobiography for young readers is titled “The Abracadabra Kid: A Writer’s Life.”

His wife, Betty, died in 1993. In addition to his son, who also is a Newbery Medal-winning writer, Fleischman is survived by his daughters, Jane Fleischman and Anne Fleischman Miller; his sister, Arleen Kornet; and four grandchildren.