When he was a little boy, children's book author Richard M. Wainwright would often visit his grandfather's farm in Vermont. A tiny Christmas tree grew there, sheltered by the shade of a grand old oak tree. With every visit, Wainwright would check the tiny tree's progress, always wondering if it would ever grow tall and full enough to bear tinsel or colorful ornaments during the Christmas season.
Then one December, Wainwright was stricken with pneumonia and had to be hospitalized. Seeing that their boy felt lonely and sick, Wainwright's parents made the 10-hour journey to Vermont and brought that special tree back for their son.
That small, unspectacular tree symbolized the birth of Christ that year, as well as parental love, in a very big way. "I knew if they would do that for me, they must love me very much," Wainwright said, "and I never again doubted their love for me."
The memory also became the seed for his first book, A Tiny Miracle.
Last week, Wainwright shared that story and some advice Mary Giella Elementary School pupils. Since 1986, he has written and published six books, the most recent being A Garden of Dreams.
During his presentation, Wainwright put his memory to the test. Even though he had just met them, he called the children by name, gently coaxing them to draw out of him useful information.
"Where do ideas for books come from?" he asked, "From two words, one beginning with I and the other beginning with R."
Hands immediately shoot up around the room. Wainwright chooses one, "Neil."
"Right. Now what's the other that begins with R?" he asked pointing toward another child, "Tina?"
"That's right, imagination and reality or real experiences _ or a combination of the two are where ideas for books come from."
Wainwright's talk is helpful to aspiring writers who learn that describing a character's emotions rather than telling the reader outright how a character is feeling is important or that research and editing are important tools for those who pick up a pen. "The next time you write a paper for your teacher," he said, "Read it over and ask yourself, "Is this the best I can do?' If not, give it five more minutes."
Students also learned about the progression of a book, from first draft, to dummy copy, to the printing press. "Some days writing is very difficult _ it's like climbing up a mountain. The next day it's like a river _ the words flow freely," he said, "It takes me a year to write a story and six weeks to three months just to write the first draft."
Wainwright briefly discussed the plots of his books, reading passages from stories where valuable lessons about courage, humor and discrimination lie hidden between the pages.
Twenty years in education as a teacher and headmaster have taught Wainwright about the importance of delivering a social message. "The stories all have a message, but I don't hit anybody over the head with it," he said. Wainwright's characters all must confront a problem, whether it is overcoming a fear of the dark or living with a disability. "My characters often have to make hard but ethically right decisions," he said.
Wainwright lives most of the year with his wife and two godsons in Cape Cod, Mass. For four months he lives on the east coast of Florida. Usually he spends that time writing. "Every morning from 5 a.m. to 7 a.m., while the house is still quiet," he said. But his time spent with school children is also important to him.
Through his presentations, he hopes that children will learn to develop their own talents. Wainwright did not discover his own talent for writing until late in life.
It was a brush with death that caused him to reassess his life after 20 years as an educator. "I turned all shades of green and yellow from a severe case of hepatitis," he said, "I wasn't supposed to live. I decided that if I ever got out of this I would do two things. I would get A Tiny Miracle published and I would backpack in New Zealand."
Wainwright got his trip to New Zealand _ a gift from his wife and since its first printing in 1986, A Tiny Miracle has sold more than 50,000 copies and is in its sixth printing.
Although Wainwright is known as a children's author, he insists that his books are not just for the young. "My oldest fan letter came from a 99-year-old woman," he said, "My books are meant to touch a child when they're about 3 years old and mean even more when they're 9. And hopefully, when they're 19, the depths . . . of the stories will mean even more to them."