Lloyd Alexander/His children's books explore clash between good and evil

HE'S a wizard with words. And with his words, he builds worlds. Not real worlds, mind you, but make-believe ones where the good guys and the bad guys are clearly labeled.

Lloyd Alexander writes books for 10- to 16-year-old readers. Although his tales are spun in unreal realms, the author portrays the tug of war between good and evil in very real terms. It's these believable battles that pull young readers to his pages. And parents, too.

His characters tumble through adventures in castles and caverns, on crags and in crannies. There's skulduggery and sorcery aplenty. But beneath all this fantasy threads a message: Human beings are often pushed past the bounds of their capabilities. Most stand against the tumults. Some survive. Some don't. But most try.

With 22 juvenile books to his credit, Mr. Alexander has won eight major awards for children's literature, including the coveted Newbery Medal. And his works have been translated into more than a dozen languages. In late July a Walt Disney movie based on his five-book series, ``The Prydain Chronicles,'' will open in theaters across the United States. The animated film is called ``The Black Cauldron.'' On July 10 Mr. Alexander will speak at Simmons College in Boston as part of the school's conference on children's literature.

A wisp of a man with hair that tufts all whichway, Mr. Alexander might well have stepped from the pages of his own books. Take one part imp, a dash of elf, and a large dose of grandpa, mix well, and you'll come up with the outward Mr. Alexander. But that's not what is deep inside. Behind his guise that says ``life-is-too-serious-to-be-taken-seriously'' is a man who takes life most seriously.

Thrashing within him is the question, ``What does it take to be a real human being?'' This is the theme laced into the pages of his Prydain series, which follows Taran, an assistant pig keeper, in his climb to manhood and position as High King of the land.

The author's Westmark trilogy carries the question further, ``Once ideals have been attained, how does one remain a human being when bombarded by outside forces?'' These questions and more underpin his writings, all colorfully wrapped in adventure.

``For some strange reason, I was able to deal with the big questions through the form of children's books,'' Mr. Alexander explains.

Unlike some authors who consciously hone their thoughts to juvenile tastes, Mr. Alexander writes what he wants to say, then watches as his stories fall neatly into the laps of the young.

``I didn't know if I'd be good with children,'' Mr. Alexander says. ``Actually talking with them, I mean. But I am good with them,'' and a grin eases across his face, etching the smile wrinkles even deeper. And so he must be because each week during the school year, two or three classes visit the Alexanders' white stucco house outside of Philadelphia. Thirty to 40 kids per visit drape themselves over couches and chairs and spill onto the floor for a chat with Mr. Alexander.

The author and his Paris-born wife, Janine, have a grown daughter and five grown grandchildren. But communicating with them as they were growing up was not the same as communicating with a whole roomful of kids, according to Mr. Alexander. In addition to the school contact, he personally answers some 1,500 letters each year from young readers. And then there are the young visitors who just arrive at the front door.

With obvious delight, Mr. Alexander takes you on a tour of his ``treasures'' -- wooden, cloth, clay, and yarn characters from his books, the majority crafted by young people and mailed to him. MR. ALEXANDER is a casual person, clad in jeans and plaid shirt, willing to answer whatever is asked. He describes his everyday life as ``simple,'' pared of big parties and runnings and goings. The frills that edge his workaday world revolve mainly around the music of Mozart played on his violin, cartooning, cats, and plenty of junk food at bedtime (donuts and wafers are best). ``Then there's always the garbage to take out. And the lawn to mow. And the groceries to shop for,'' he explains. The `famous author' tag he wears hasn't altered the Alexanders' life style over the years.

Daily, he and Janine share a 2 p.m. meal (the author's only one of the day) on a back porch where they can watch the squirrels and a bevy of birds feast on tidbits tossed into the garden.

Janine sums up her support for her husband's writing in this way: ``I stay quiet while he's thinking.'' And she says this in a whisper.

``I'm impossible when a book is taking shape,'' the author admits somewhat sheepishly. Then he stops a moment and steeples his forefingers against the bridge of his nose. ``Well, actually, I'm despicable.'' The light of fireflies no longer plays in his eyes, and you know he's serious, confessing an absolute truth.

The process of putting a book together is ``not a linear sequence,'' he confides. ``There's just a chaotic mess inside my head . . . a taste . . . a mood . . . an attitude . . . and faceless forms. They're fragments floating around.''

He acknowledges giant-sized struggles before words finally click off his manual typewriter. Every day of every week, he's at his desk by 3:30 a.m. No breakfast. And not even the birds companion him at that hour. He works until eight before taking a break.

``If it's going badly, I work long hours. Maybe until 11 at night. I try to hang in. If it's going well, I do the least possible,'' he says. ``This is a really neat trick. And I'd say it applies to any long project. When it's going great, stop. Then when you come back, you'll start on the crest. If you quit when it's going badly, you come back to a problem.'' HE has rewritten individual pages 30 times. Chapters, six times. And a whole book, three times. But when all is said and done, the stories flow, and he's king of his sentences.

The author's urge to be a writer surfaced early -- to the horror of his parents. But it was a natural path for him because he had always been a voracious reader, surrounded by books.

``Oh, my parents never cracked a book, just newspapers,'' he says. But they had lots of books. ``They bought them at the Salvation Army to fill up empty shelves.''

From this ``decorative'' mix, Mr. Alexander had read the worst of junk and the best of literature by the time he was 15, a senior in high school. It was then that he announced to his parents he planned to be a poet. And they answered by promptly getting him a job as a bank messenger. Mr. Alexander squirmed, saved his money, quit, and enrolled in college. But that venture fizzled, too, because his wealth of reading far outdistanced that of his college peers. And the freshman beanie just didn't sit well on his head. Besides, the globe was then engulfed in World War II.

Enlisting in the Army took precedence on his agenda. After several assignments as ill-tuned as his playing cymbals in an Army band, the would-be poet wound up in counterintelligence. Training for this covered a range of history, geography, and languages, which provided a meaty supplement to the author's do-it-yourself education.

The last phase of intelligence schooling took place in Wales. ``To see this country, the incredible language, the incredible landscape. Oh, it was like being with King Arthur,'' he says. In later years, the Welsh countryside and myths filtered into his Prydain books.

It was after the war in Paris that he met Janine. ``She was running in the rain. What could I do but stop the jeep and offer a ride?'' Six weeks later they were married. The couple then traded life in France for Mr. Alexander's hometown of Philadelphia. And this is where he began his writing career in an attic apartment.

The pattern was standard: a job by day and writing by night. Seven years went by and four weighty tomes went into the wastebasket -- literally. Finally, a sale. For a total of 12 years, Mr. Alexander wrote for the adult market before stumbling into the children's format via a commission to do a biography for young readers. And thus the door to children's literature opened a crack. But it was his book ``Time Cat'' that truly signaled his shift to the juvenile market.

Book followed book, and with each the author's concept of ``hero'' became more burnished. No ``Rambo'' criteria are tied to the Alexander ideal. His heroes can be bald or potbellied, even bumbling. Big heroes. Little heroes. Part-time heroes or forever heroes. Some are armed with weapons, others with words. The hero concept is one the author has thought about, long and hard.

``Heroes are people who think more of others than themselves,'' Mr. Alexander explains. ``This is not to say that they don't think of themselves. They do. They certainly do. But they think of others more.''

And so it is in his books.

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