Tor Seidler, who demonstrated his talent for creating beguiling anthropomorphic animal characters in such novels as A Rat’s Tale, The Wainscott Weasel, and Mean Margaret, will soon have a renewed presence on bookstore shelves. Atheneum Books for Young Readers has acquired rights to Firstborn, a new middle-grade novel featuring a wolf pack, and to The Wainscott Weasel and National Book Award finalist Mean Margaret, originally published by Michael di Capua Books at HarperCollins in the 1990s and currently out of print. The publisher tentatively plans to release the reissues in summer 2014, and Firstborn in summer 2015.
Holly McGhee, creative director of Pippin Properties, brokered the three-book deal with Caitlyn Dlouhy, v-p and editorial director at Atheneum. McGhee, a longtime friend of Seidler, was an editor at HarperCollins when the two earlier books were published. “This was a very special and meaningful submission for me,” she said. “I had worked with Michael on The Wainscott Weasel and Mean Margaret, [so] I knew how good they are, and the idea they would be available again made me very happy.”
McGhee was well positioned to conduct the contract negotiation. “Since I also represent the estate of Fred Marcellino [illustrator of The Wainscott Weasel] and Jon Agee [illustrator of Mean Margaret], I happen to hold all the pieces, and I’m hoping to relaunch those books worldwide.” Alex Webb of Rights People has sold Chinese rights to Firstborn on McGhee’s behalf, and both agents expect other foreign sales to follow for all three books.
Dlouhy, who recalls that Mean Margaret was a book that enticed her daughter, once a reluctant reader, to read on her own, says that when she heard that the rights to that novel and The Wainscott Weasel were available, “My heart gave a little leap. These are real American classic stories that every kid should read, and to have the chance to give them a new life and get them out to a new generation of kids is very exciting.”
The editor was also thrilled to learn that Seidler, whose most recent book was 2008’s Gully’s Travels, had written a new novel. “When I read Firstborn, I thought to myself, ‘Tor has done it again,’ ” she said. “In the past, he made readers fall in love with the most unlikely animals, like weasels, groundhogs, and rats. Here he does the same with wolves. The novel is full of energy, and loaded with all sorts of anthropomorphic emotions, yet you never lose the sense that these are wild animals. And Tor has such facility with language. You can read his sentences over and over again; they are so beautifully structured.”
A Labor of Love for Seidler
Firstborn is dear to the author for several reasons. The novel was inspired by – and is written as a tribute to – his friend Jean Craighead George, who died last year. “Usually when I write a book, it comes from some random little idea that I can’t track down easily,” he explained. “But this book is very different. I wrote it with a purpose. I wrote it for Jean.” Introduced many years ago by HarperCollins library marketing legend Bill Morris, the two authors grew close while commiserating over the loss of their mutual friend after Morris’s death. That friendship led to a propitious invitation.
“In 2005, Jean invited me to go with her to Yellowstone to watch wolves that had been reintroduced into that park,” Seidler recalled. “I had read and loved her books, but the idea of wolf-watching didn’t resonate with me very much. But I loved Jean so much I knew I shouldn’t miss the opportunity to spend time with her. We spent a couple of weeks watching wolves, and they were so fascinating in so many different ways. Jean told me I should write one of my animal books about the experience. My books about anthropomorphic animals are whimsical, and I thought wolves were probably too violent to lend themselves to that kind of treatment, but Jean kept after me about it.”
In the months before her death, Seidler said, George began sending him e-mails to spur him on. “She sent me about a dozen long and interesting e-mails about wolf behavior, and I cut and pasted them and put them in a file, and those really got me going,” he said. “Sadly, I didn’t sit down to write the novel until after she died last spring. I wish I had started the book earlier and wish she had seen it. I wanted this to be a tribute to her, and this is as good a tribute as I could come up with. Jean was a very warm and generous soul, and taught me a lot about ecology and the interconnectedness of animals.”
In a poignant nod to the cycle of life, another factor inspiring Seidler to pursue Firstborn was the pending arrival of his own firstborn child, Annabel, now six months old. “I sat down to write the book a week after seeing the 20-week sonogram and finding out I was having a daughter,” he said. “The firstborn in the book is a male – and it had to be that way. But at the end of the novel I thought of a way to add a tip of the hat to the fact that I have a daughter.”
And having a prospective young reader in the house makes the forthcoming reissues of The Wainscott Weasel and Mean Margaret all the sweeter. “I couldn’t be happier – I’m on cloud nine,” Seidler said of the recent deal with Atheneum. “It’s time for a new start, and I feel like it’s a kind of renaissance for me.”