Bob Hicks, a retired college professor, has renewed his passion for teaching by writing children’s book. At 15, Bob contracted encephalitis from a mosquito bite. The illness left him physically paralyzed, but spiritually determined. After 24 years of teaching at the University of Hawaii, Bob retired because his voice would no longer hold up.
He has always loved words and rhyme, but had not envisioned himself as a children’s writer. Bob’s first picture book, Tommie Turtle’s Secret has received a number of awards: 2005 Florida Christian Writer’s Conference~Best Submission for Children’s Writing; 2007 DragonPencil Awards~Silver Medal for Literature (Awarded for superior writing); 2008 Florida Writer’s Association Royal Palms Literary Award~First Place, Children’s Published; and 2008 Florida Writer’s Association Royal Palms Literary Award ~ Book of the Year (over all categories).
In our interview, Bob shares the story-behind-the-story of Tommie Turtle’s Secret and talks about helping kids become successful readers.
RT: Congratulations on the success of Tommie Turtle’s Secret, your first children’s picture book. Tommie adds a new twist and life-lessons about relationships to the classic “Tortoise and the Hare” fable we all grew up with. Were you looking to modernize a classic tale or was the objective to show that being nice was better than bragging and teasing to make friends?
Bob: People often ask about my “plan.” Actually, there was no plan. I was watching my wife Betty chase a toad around the room with a paper cup, trying to catch it and put it outside. My mother used to do that, and it sparked great memories of growing up on my grandparent’s farm in Michigan. I started to put those memories on paper. My first was a poem about bugs in an apple tree.
The classic “Tortoise and the Hare” was probably a subconscious model, but for me, a story begins with an animal and a rhyme. Then I begin running alternative sentences in my mind until a rhyme connects and it is the right rhythm. I write by inspiration, but there is also an element of persistence and trial and error when working with rhythm and rhyme.
After Tommie’s story was done, I added discussion questions and commentary for parents, teachers, and readers. I wanted to give them some thought-provoking ideas about the moral values and friendship principles that Tommie demonstrates.
RT: As a teen, you were an accomplished trumpeter who won awards for your trumpet solos. Back then you had visions of becoming a professional musician or bandleader. Those plans changed when a mosquito bite at a Boy Scout camp resulted in you being paralyzed by encephalitis. Have you ever thought about writing a children’s book drawing on those experiences or your musical interests?
Bob: Not a book for children. Pleasant Word, A Division of Winepress Publishing, published a collection of experiences by many Christian authors titled God’s Handprints. My experience of being paralyzed and how the direction of my life was changed is one chapter. “Not By Choice” summarizes times in my life when adversity was the instrument to move me in a new direction. The skills I learned as a result prepared me for the purpose I have now: to make a difference in the lives of children.
RT: Instead of leading the band, your career was teaching college students/young adults as a speech communications professor. It wasn’t until you retired, though, that you began writing children’s stories. What accounts for the change of interests?
Bob: Terry, this is a profound question that no one has asked before. The medium has changed. The audience has changed. The “interest” or motivation is the same. In the heart of a teacher, the intention is to change the lives of their students for the better, and help them grow to be all they can be. Teaching speech communication was very rewarding, but the unseen reward was developing my skill with words. That prepared me to write. The change was not by choice. My voice kept giving out, so I had to retire from teaching speech after 27 years. I had no intention of writing children’s stories, but people who read my other stories told me I have a gift for rhyme and that my stories can have a positive impact on children.
RT: Now that you’ve started writing – and had great success with your debut work – what do you want to do next?
Bob: I would like to publish “The Mouse in the Manger,” which I think is my best story. The story’s theme is certainly familiar, but I think Micah, a secret observer of the birth of Christ, offers a cute new perspective. I got the idea when I was remembering how Mom and I “rescued” a mouse in our attic when I was a child. Micah tells the Christmas story in rhyme, but still biblically correct. I hope children can enjoy the story, and imagine themselves in the stable watching with Micah.
RT: You describe Tommie Turtle’s Secret as a book that not only introduces kids to a good story, but also gives parents and teachers a tool to help guide kids’ development in bigger areas (i.e., moral values and personal relationships). What has been your favorite part of promoting the book to your audiences? Do you have any particularly memorable stories?
Bob: Yes I do! The notice in our community newspaper about the DragonPencil award caught the attention of our neighbor, who is an Instructional Assistant at a nearby elementary school. She invited “Mr. Bob” to come to read Tommie Turtle’s Secret to her class. This young lady is a dynamo, a whirlwind who pulls you into her world. Before we knew what was happening, we were scheduled for six sessions over two days, presenting to 15 combined classes in the school’s media center. We showed the Tommie Turtle DVD, did some rhyming games, and had a fun time with the children, Kindergarten to fourth grade.
Betty suggested to the children that they write “Mr. Bob” a letter to tell him what they learned from Tommie Turtle. We got more than 250 heartwarming, affirming letters. The kids got the message that being nice, not bragging and teasing, is the way to make friends. The school guidance counselor wrote a thank you letter and said she could use the book in her classroom visits. One child wrote that he would now teach his friends not to brag and tease. We found out later that he was the class bully! Apparently, Tommie Turtle’s Secret does work as a tool to help change behavior for the better.
My favorite story, though, is about Gabe, a fourth grader who attended two of those school sessions. Gabe is nearly quadriplegic, lives in a wheelchair, and wants to be a writer. Gabe could charm the spines off a porcupine! He said, “Mr. Bob, your book is great, I want to be like you when I grow up.” I melted. Wow!
RT: Did you like reading as a young boy? How about as a teen? What were your favorite stories?
Bob: Yes. Growing up on the farm, I had to amuse myself most of the time, so I read a lot. I attended second and third grades at a one-room country school a mile down a side road from my grandfather’s farm. Miss Tanner, my teacher, enrolled us in a paperback book club. She gave us stars for reading and writing book reports. When we earned a full row of stars, we received a pencil or “soap” eraser. Those were big awards. I now realize that winning the stars and pencils was a great motivation for me to read. I remember reading Frank Buck’s Bring Them Back Alive, about capturing animals for zoos.
When I was older, I read adventure, Zane Grey westerns, mysteries, and science fiction. Books opened up new perspectives for me, and stimulated my thinking. I developed a dream to see the wonders of the world.
RT: As a lifelong book lover, teacher, and a children’s book author, do you have any suggestions for getting kids excited about reading?
Bob: Yes indeed! PARENTS…take time to read to your children. Find fun, good quality books that children enjoy. It is so important to give your child the gift of reading and help them learn verbal skills! Help your children appreciate how words can shape their life, as well as communicate and relate with others. Take responsibility to help your children learn.
When I was teaching at the University of Hawaii in an “open door” community college, a young man with a fourth-grade reading level was put in my speech class. Back then, people didn’t think Speech required much reading. He told me “I was cheated in school, NOBODY MADE ME READ!” What a handicap that young man had. He was not able to accept our help because he could not understand that he had to take the responsibility and do the work required to read and learn.
Teachers work with a lot of students, and have specific requirements and goals. The best strategy is for parents to prepare their children for school by giving them a positive experience with good books. Show them how to learn from books and start them on the lifelong habit of reading and learning.
RT: There have been a number of industry analyses about the state of publishing and books. Like all sectors of the economy, publishers are feeling the pinch. As someone who self-published their work, what would you say to first-time authors anxious to have their manuscript become a book?
Bob: Dare to dream! Publishers are always looking for the next big best seller. BUT…do your homework! Join a writer’s group at your local library. Consult with professionals in the business. Join a state or national publisher’s or writer’s organization. Examine your own motives and set a reasonable goal. With print-on-demand it is possible to print a few books for friends and family, or to test the market. If the professionals and fellow writers tell you your work is of the quality it takes, go ahead, submit to publishers. But do it right. Do a professional job.
RT: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Bob: Thank you to the Reading Tub for letting me share my story. I would also like to let people know they can learn more at rhymetimebob.com, our website. They can purchase the book on our site or they can order it from their favorite bookstore.