The first two pages of The Eyes of Mr. Croaker, a children’s story written by Roald Dahl in 1982 that he sold to two young American writers with the intention of publishing it in the proposed Do-It-Yourself Children’s Storybook, have resurfaced in Los Angeles after nearly three decades and are being auctioned on eBay.
As young men, Jerry Biederman and Tom Silberkleit conceived the idea of a book containing the openings of short stories by famous writers that children could complete themselves. Besides Dahl, the two also received submissions from Richard Adams, P.L. Travers, Madeleine L’Engle, Joan Aiken and others. Each author agreed to be paid $200 upon publication of the book; only Dahl insisted on being paid at once and, curiously, he had Biederman make the check out to someone named M. Barran. At the time Dahl explained, “I owe the fellow precisely $200 and it would be a nice way to pay him off.”
It was Biederman’s late uncle, the author Irving Wallace, who advised him on how to deal with the question of rights and payment. “We had absolutely no money at the time.” Biederman recalls. “My uncle told me that there was no way we could afford to pay these authors what they deserved, so instead we should offer them a token sum. Clearly the authors were doing this because they loved the concept of ‘story starters.’ It was easy for them to do, and it was a way to stimulate young people to be creative writers.”
Now, as Biederman prepares to submit the book proposal to publishers in January, he is confident that the agreements established with the authors back in 1982 will demonstrate that he owns the copyright to each short piece. Anthony Goff, Dahl’s literary agent in London with the firm of David Higham Associates Ltd., has informed Biederman that the Dahl estate will respect the original agreement providing the writing is used in exactly the way it was intended—as part of a collection of “starter stories”—which was the basis upon which Dahl made his contribution.
“I’ve been advised by top copyright attorneys that all I need to do in order to publish the other story submissions is to fulfill the agreement to pay the authors $200 upon publication,” says Biederman, who is in possession of all the original documents related to the book.
Over time both Biederman and Silberkleit became involved in other book projects and The Do-It-Yourself Children’s Storybook fell by the wayside, with Biederman storing the Dahl pages in a box in his garage. In 1994 the Northridge earthquake seriously damaged his home, and he moved the contents of his garage to his parents’ nearby home, where everything sat untouched for 10 years. In the meantime Biederman forgot exactly where the Dahl story was. After his father died he cleaned out the garage and found The Eyes of Mr. Croaker in a box.
Biederman now hopes to create an interactive version of The Do-It-Yourself Children’s Storybook that will include contributions by contemporary authors; he will approach J.K. Rowling about the possibility of joining the project as well. “The concept is now possible on a massive global scale,” Biederman notes, “thanks to the ability of a publisher to stage an online competition to find the best completed versions of each unfinished story.”
He decided to put the original 300-word Dahl document up for auction on eBay “because of the participatory nature of the book concept. This was the only story Dahl wrote that was to be completed by his fans. It also makes the announcement of this important find more dramatic.” Biederman, who now produces reality TV shows in Los Angeles, intends to donate some of the proceeds of the auction to a charity of the Dahl family’s choosing.
Biederman notes that the 20-year anniversary of Dahl’s death fell a few months ago. “It seemed wrong that Dahl’s wish to have The Eyes of Mr. Croaker finished by his fans had not yet been fulfilled,” he says. “I felt like his legacy would only be complete when his story is complete. I have an overwhelming need to have Dahl’s story finally see the light of day.”
Editor's note: Following the publication of this story, the auction concluded, and the two pages sold for $1900. Goff questions Biederman's claim of ownership, but Biederman insists that he does control the rights.