Rosemary Wells is one busy lady. Her prolific career as a children’s author has spanned more than 40 years and produced at least 120 books that are cherished by children around the world. However, her latest novel, On the Blue Comet, took a bit longer than most to complete—30 years, to be precise.
Three decades ago, Wells created the book’s hero, Oscar, an 11-year-old who lives in Cairo, Illinois, in the 1930s. She wrote several chapters, only to reach a moment when Oscar comes close to being killed in a bank robbery. That’s when he somehow ends up on a train—and not just any train: a Lionel electric train.
The creator of Max and Ruby turns her talents to a time-travel adventure that doubles as a history lesson.
At that point, Wells was stuck. Very stuck. “I knew that he had jumped onto the train, and I didn’t know how to deal with that. I didn’t know that it was a time-travel book,” she remembers.
That changed three years ago, when a revelation about Oscar came to her in the shower. “It occurred to me, and I immediately went to the computer and rewrote the whole thing. I just wrote it out flat,” Wells says by phone from Connecticut, where she lives, writes, illustrates and makes creative sparks fly.
On the Blue Comet was well worth the wait. This thrilling adventure and takes young readers across the country in the 1930s and ’40s. “It’s about Oscar, it’s about the Midwest, and it’s about how we were during the Depression, and how people lived through it,” Wells explains. “It’s about history and the war coming.”
She adds, "Although I was born during the war, in 1943, I still had enough contact, as most of us did back then, to know the Depression age, and to connect with the first half of the twentieth century pretty easily."
Wells, whose books include the novels Lincoln and His Boys and Red Moon at Sharpsburg, loves to dig deep into history. "There are all kinds of guessing games in the book," she says of On The Blue Comet. "There are, I think, 15 presidents mentioned. I had a lot of fun having an 11-year-old John Kennedy appear."
After Oscar’s mother dies, he and his father immerse themselves in creating elaborate Lionel train layouts. However, when his father loses his job, they are forced to sell their house and beloved trains. Dad heads to California to find work, leaving Oscar in the care of his fussy aunt and prissy cousin. The boy’s salvation comes from a kind stranger he meets, an encounter that eventually leads him to the bank on the day of the robbery. Once launched on his page-turning adventure, Oscar meets many more strangers, including Alfred Hitchcock and a kindhearted young actor nicknamed Dutch.
Of Dutch, Wells exclaims: “Oh my goodness, that’s Ronald Reagan! He was a friend of my father’s and was the head of the actor’s union in Hollywood for a number of years. My father was a playwright, and was his co-chairman, and knew him well.”
Well draws an intriguing comparison between the stage and screen and the creative process she taps into each day: "A writer has to create is an entirely different world from the reality of their own life, and enter it much as an actor has to. It's like being in a completely different world, one that's made up by yourself, and that could end also in madness. There are people who do this and . . . end up completely insane, and it is hoped that doesn't happen. Writers really create entire worlds and then walk into them and illuminate them."
That's pretty heady stuff coming from a children's author who's beloved for bringing to life such characters as Max and Ruby, Noisy Nora, McDuff and Yoko, as well as entire kindergarten classrooms. What draws all her characters and books together? Emotional content, Wells says. “It’s the center of my writing. And this is why it works. I have to make sure that the emotional content is valid, and something that is wholesome and worthwhile, even if noncompliant.”
“All my heroes are noncompliant in one way or another,” she responds. “I’m a very noncompliant person, but with very conservative standards. I have the belief system of a typical person born in 1943. As far as kids go, I believe in good citizenship, good behavior, kindness to others, no time spent in front of the television, and all kinds of things like that.”
When creating her cheerful, colorful illustrations, she works with pastels, color pencils, ink, watercolor, gouache—all kinds of different media, she says, except acrylics and oil. However, Wells wasn't about to tackle the more complicated illustrations planned for On the Blue Comet, which were done in full color and wondrous, glowing detail by Bagram Ibatoulline.
"Oh heavens, I can't do that!" Wells says. "Bagram Ibatoulline is a fabulous illustrator. I can't draw stuff like that anymore than you could. I draw Max and Ruby, but just because I'm an illustrator doesn't mean I can do all kinds of illustrations, and this required something very different from what I do."
The artist's directive was to make Oscar's world look like one drawn by Norman Rockwell. "Everybody who grew up in the 1940s and 1950s would wait on Saturday afternoon for the Saturday Evening Post to come and see if Rockwell had a cover,” Wells says. “I would sit looking at the cover for an hour, because it was the age of high-definition, representational art that was done by real artists, not from photographs, and it was wonderful."
Years ago, in an essay called "The Well-Tempered Children's Book," Wells wrote: "I believe that all stories and plays and paintings and songs and dances come from a palpable but unseen space in the cosmos."
Wells notes: "I said those things when I was 30, and now I'm 67 and they're still true." I'm not an original thinking brain, but I do have this window that I can open. So I use that all the time."
Wells looks back fondly on what she calls the “Golden Age of Childhood,” from about 1920 to 1968: “I think there was a time there when children were taught better manners, there was very little sense of entitlement, they were expected to behave themselves and work. They were also greatly loved, and everybody had more time. I think there’s a lack of time now that marks childhood in the Western world.”
Rosemary Wells—the extremely talented, noncompliant and inexhaustible children’s author—sums up her ongoing career with eloquence: “I do my best to contribute to what I consider to be the only legitimate part of American childhood culture left, which is books.”