I HAD A LOT to be afraid of in the summer of 1975. I was 12-years-old. Watergate and Vietnam were still making headlines. The radio played nothing but Captain and Tennille. Thanks to Jaws, even freshwater ponds gave me panic attacks.
That's the year I crashed my bicycle — a metallic blue "chopper" with banana seat and sissy bars — into Bobby Crapser, a boy built like a cement ox. When I fell, my bone snapped with a sound like logs popping at the center of a bonfire. Somebody's mom rushed over and found Bobby staring at me on the blacktop. "Both you boys deserve a kick in the ass," she declared.
I can't say that she was wrong.
A few days later, my Dad dropped a big bag of books onto our kitchen table. He reached into the sack, pulled out Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach, and tossed it my way.
I spent most of that muggy summer stuck to a collapsible green chair in my own backyard. My leg, wrapped hip to ankle in a thousand-pound cast, dripped more sweat than our window air conditioners. I drank so much Kool-Aid my pee looked like Tropical Punch. I read James and the Giant Peach. Then I read it again. And again.
I nearly memorized that book. I worried about the cloud men and fat aunts and killer rhinos that Dahl threw at James. I dreamt about the insect friends and lassoed seagulls and the special qualities of peach pits that would make everything all right in the end. Meanwhile, I desperately wished that a magic man might appear to me just like he did for James. The man would hold out another bag of glowing green alligator tongues. He'd give me ingredients to save me from my misery. He'd guide me toward grand adventures of my very own.
Today, I still avoid fresh water ponds. But looking back, I see that my Dad and Roald Dahl and maybe even Bobby Crapser ... they made my wish came true.
WRITERS NEED AN AUDIENCE. It's not enough to create the story. Without a reader, does it really exist? When I was a kid, Roald Dahl not only wrote the stories I read — he read a story I wrote.
I grew up in a small logging town in Southern Oregon, where there was little to do if you didn't like to hunt and fish. I practically lived at the Carnegie-funded library. In grade school, I started to write my own stories.
One was about a six-foot-tall frog named Herman who loved peanut butter. I decided it would appeal to Roald Dahl, the author of my beloved Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. My father had told me that you could write to an author's publisher, so I sent off my story — carefully printed in pencil on wide-ruled paper — to the address printed just inside the front cover.
And somehow it found its way to Dahl in England. He sent me back a postcard. It's dated 24th August '72, and says, "Dear April, I loved your story about Herman the frog. I read it aloud to my daughter, Ophelia, who also loved it. I read it to my secretary, Hazel, who giggled. Lots of love, Roald Dahl."
Somehow I've managed to hold onto this postcard for nearly 40 years. It's amazing that he committed this act of kindness for one of what must surely have been a flood of scribbled missives.
Dahl even shared the story with the editor of a children's magazine. She contacted me and asked to publish it. But even before the magazine came out, I already knew that I was a real writer. Roald Dahl had told me so.