Excerpts from 'Something About the Author' Autobiography Series, Volume 6, published by the Gale Group, 1988.
(American, 1914-1998) James Flora: "I was born in Bellefontaine, Ohio. We traveled slowly in those days and had more time to do really important things like studying clouds, watching bugs, envying birds, and looking for good swimming holes. We also had plenty of time to make lots of good friends. To this day I do all of those things but mostly I like making friends. I love friends. I'd rather have one good friend than a couple million dollars. Dollars are very nice but they are soon spent. Good friends last forever.
My mom and dad set out to teach me to read and spell, and they nurtured a curiosity about our world. Ever since then the study of geography has been very important to me. It pleased me to read stories most nights to my younger brother and sister. I vividly remember reading to them about the great ship Titanic which hit an iceberg and sank with great loss of life in 1912. All of those years I had been drawing pictures. I specialized in pirates and their ships. I must have drawn hundreds of ships and thousands of pirates. My mother gave me a corner of our entry hall as my studio. My grandfather Royer made for me a very clever drawing table that could be raised or lowered. That made me a real artist. Indeed it did.
After finishing high school I spent two years studying liberal arts at a small college in Ohio -- Urbana University. I wanted to be an architect and, while at the university, won a scholarship to the Boston Architectural League. In September of 1933 1 took a bus to Boston. It was the worst year of the Great Depression and the only job I could find was as busboy in a restaurant. I earned seven dollars a week plus my meals and I had to work the entire day -- breakfast, lunch, and dinner. This meant that I could not attend classes and late in October the school said they could no longer hold my scholarship open. What a defeat! The worst of my life. With eight dollars in my pocket I had to hitchhike home and arrived in Bellefontaine three days later, flat broke, licking my wounds.
I was fortunate to be able to find work in Bellefontaine as usher and assistant janitor of the local movie theater. By September 1934, I had saved enough for tuition at the Art Academy of Cincinnati. If I couldn't make it as an architect I was determined to find a future as an artist.
The Art Academy was a revelation to me. I learned how to draw and paint and compose a picture. Carl Zimmerman for an instructor. He was a wise and patient man, and he made competent draughts men of us.
Mr. Zimmerman was also a mural painter and, after my second year at the academy, he asked me to become his assistant. I was immensely proud of that. He paid me the princely sum of twenty-five dollars each week. With Zimmerman's patronage I could now become a full-time artist.
In the spring of 1938, Bob Lowry came to the academy looking for an artist to help him establish the Little Man Press. We found an immediate rapport, and I slipped into the harness with Lowry and became co-founder of the Little Man Press. We decided to sell subscriptions to our nonexistent magazine. When we eventually squeezed $300 out of our subscribers, we bought a press. Lowry wrote many of our items in the basement we called our pressroom and immediately set them in type. I carved wood engravings, woodcuts, and linocuts because we couldn't afford photoengraving. By trial, error, and necessity we developed an astonishingly unusual combination of typography and graphics that became the distinguishing style of the press during the four years of its existence. The New York Public Library has a collection of most of our titles, and I treasure one of my own. I mention this adventure to show that when the time came to design and illustrate my own children's books I was not without some expertise.
At the academy I began to notice a lovely first-year student Jane Sinnickson. In no time at all we were dating steadily and for forty-eight years thereafter I had eyes for no other woman.
After graduating from the academy I set up a small studio. Soon I was making a meager living selling art to Proctor and Gamble and the Union Central Life Insurance Company. Business grew and grew until I remember making four hundred dollars during the month of December 1940. To me it seemed a handsome sum. Enough to support a wife, and Mr. Sinnickson consented to our marriage on March 1, 1941.
I have always loved music, especially jazz. It is a truly authentic American creation and I've always bought jazz records when I could afford them. I thought Columbia Records was not properly promoting their jazz and big band records so I had the temerity to design a series of promotional ideas and send them to Columbia. To my amazement they called and offered me a job. I accepted.
I moved from Cincinnati to Westport, Connecticut and began working in the art department of Columbia Records on February 1, 1942. Working at Columbia Records was a source of endless delight and discovery. I began as a lowly paste-up man in their small art department and worked my way up to being art director. Eventually I decided that I couldn't abide the corporate life so I left Columbia and went to Mexico.
In art school I had learned to admire the living Mexican artists, Rivera, Orozco, Siqueiros, and Tamayo as well as the powerful primitive pre-Columbian arts. Finally it came time for us to return and I was determined to make my way as a free-lance artist in New York City. In 1946 we had bought a waterfront home in Rowayton, Connecticut. I made up a portfolio of my artwork and began to call on art directors to try to sell my illustrations. I first went to see a friend, Bill Golden, art director of the CBS network. Bill took me across town to see Leo Lionni, the art director of Fortune magazine, and Leo gave me a commission to do their January 1952 cover. I could not have had a more auspicious entry into a career in the New York publishing world. I felt blessed indeed.
Sometime in 1954 1 happened to be showing my portfolio to the art director of Harcourt, Brace and Company. He asked me to wait a moment and he returned with a tall handsome woman, Margaret McElderry, who was one of the top editors of children's books. "I really need a book on Mexico or any Latin-American country," she said. "Can you write one for me?" I replied, "I'm not a writer. I'm an artist," I said. "I've never written a book but I'd like to give it a try."
While living in Mexico I had made a point of going to all of the church fiestas in Taxco. I was fascinated by the vivid imagination of these firework makers and soon got to know the Guadillo family who made the best of these displays. It was a most fascinating and happy family and I loved to visit them. When I sat down to write my first book for Margaret McElderry I decided it would be about the Guadillos and I called it The Fabulous Firework Family.
I typed my story The Fabulous Firework Family and sent it off to Harcourt Brace. Margaret McElderry liked my story and agreed to publish it and that is how I became a writer. Pure luck, of course, but first I had to place myself in the path of good luck by going to see that art director. That's how good luck happens. You run into it or it runs over you.
Generally, when I write for children I reverse the calendar of my mind until I am once again a boy in Bellefontaine. It is from my own childhood that I find most of my ideas. I've been fortunate in my life to have had three very close friends. As close as brothers and in some ways even closer. As a sort of celebration of their warm friendship, I wrote My Friend Charlie in 1964 and dedicated it to Don, Paul, and John. Charlie is a combination of all three of my friends and he embodies all of the wonderful playful qualities that make dear friends priceless. The book offers five ways to recognize a dear friend.
The final and most delectable of all rewards for a writer is contact with his readers. To be able to go to their schools and talk and draw pictures for them is an unalloyed delight. I focused all of my books on the five- to nine-year-old group. They are at the most receptive age and they generate lots of feedback.
During this period I kept a studio in New York and sold artwork to various magazines and record companies. For a couple of years I was art director of Park East and did artwork for Look, Life, Holiday, and the New York Times Magazine, among others. My early love of geography also became useful at this time. I acquired a reputation as a mapmaker, overlaying the maps with illustrations of current events or other regional features. I also enjoyed making album covers for RCA Victor. And that is how I supported my growing family and my boats.
I have always been interested in boats of all kinds. It is difficult to explain my love of boats since I grew up in the middle of Ohio far from the seashore. I mentioned earlier that, when very young, I began drawing pirate ships and then I branched into yachts. When I was twelve or thirteen I began to answer ads in Yachting asking for photos and specifications of yachts I could not possibly afford to buy. I would draw pictures of those yachts and hang them on the walls of my room. Once a yacht salesman traveled from Cleveland to sell me a seventy-five-foot yacht. He was quite irritated when my mother told him that I was only a schoolboy in the seventh grade.
When Jane and I moved east in 1942, one of the first things I did was buy a sailboat--a twenty-five-foot Nevins day sailer, gaff-rigged. She was a beauty and I sanded, painted, and polished her to perfection.
Since then I have owned many boats, both sail and motor and from ten feet to forty feet. I have sailed the East Coast of the United States from Miami, Florida to Nantucket, Massachusetts, and had the usual assortment of pleasant and hair-raising adventures. One trip, while tied up at a dock in Beaufort, South Carolina, a shrimper told me about a fishing boat that hauled up a torpedo in its net. This became the basis for my story Fishing with Dad. Another voyage inspired another book, Sherwood Walks Home.
The past few years I have been focusing all of my efforts on painting. Mostly I paint pictures of steamships, which have become a passion with me. In 1980 Jane and I went around the world on the Norwegian American ship Sagafjord. Such a trip had been a lifelong dream of mine and I finally achieved my heart's desire. We embarked from Fort Lauderdale on the Sagafjord in January 1980 and returned ninety-three days later to the same port, having circled the earth.
What a magnificent ship. What a splendid trip. The Sagafjord was 620 feet long and 80 wide. We visited twenty-nine ports, many of them very exotic, and everywhere we saw steamships of every size and disposition. I had yearned for the sea since I was a youth and now it surrounded me in all of its solitude and glory. I felt strongly drawn to painting the sea and its ships and that is what I have been doing since then.
Life has indeed treated me better than I had any right to expect. At the age of seventy-three I still bounce out of bed at five-thirty each morning filled with vigor and go for a long brisk walk. During that walk I do most of my thinking for the day. It is the time for clear thinking. The air is clean and brisk. Birds are on the wing and all seems well with the world. Mornings to me are like fresh-baked cherry pies. I can hardly wait to bite into them. My future stretches before me filled with sunlight and happiness."