Growing up in Painesville, Ohio, James Cross Giblin spent his summers consuming the shelves of the Morley Public Library. If he had done well, at the end of the summer he would have a pole of construction paper fish or a multicolored feathered headdress to memorialize his achievement. These summer reading contests were the brainchild of Ms. Abbott, the local librarian. "I thought it was a little silly," remembers Giblin, "especially when everyone who completed the contest had to put on his or her headdress for a group photo on the front steps of the library." Nevertheless, he returned every year, looking forward to the chance of learning more and more from the books.
Though he spent most of his young life in Painesville, Giblin was born in Cleveland. His family moved to follow his father's law practice, and his mother, a former French teacher, took care of Giblin until he went to school. He credits his mother with fostering his love for reading. His particular favorites were always comic books, so she helped him to create his own. Giblin describes himself growing up as "shy, bookish, and probably a little spoiled." He graduated from Harvey High School in 1951 and stayed in Painesville to attend Case Western Reserve University. In 1954, Giblin moved to New York City for his master's degree in Creative Writing from Columbia University.
Giblin had hopes of becoming a playwright in New York, and set out writing several television plays. He also adapted a novel for Broadway, but when none of his work sold, he took a job at the British Book Centre as a special order clerk. Giblin remembers this early letdown left him "depressed, disappointed, and broke."
But his new job led him to consider children's books, and he concentrated on that area as an associate editor at the Lothrop, Lee & Shepard publishing company. In 1967, he joined Seabury Press, becoming the editor-in-chief of its children's division. He spent 20 years in the publishing world before taking an early retirement to pursue his not-forgotten writing career. His experiences working on nearly every genre of children's and young adult literature motivated him to research and write his own books.
Giblin fully retired in 1989 but started writing much earlier, publishing his first text in 1980. The Scarecrow Book told about the 3000-year-old history of scarecrows, and how farmers used and changed them to protect their crops. For later books, Giblin would write about the history of skyscrapers, windows, forks, Egyptian hieroglyphics, and plagues. Another recurring topic in his books is historical people; he's written about George Washington, Charles Lindbergh, and Edith Wilson (President Woodrow Wilson's wife).
His most recent book details the life of Adolf Hitler, including carefully researched descriptions of his early life and rise to power. Giblin was partly inspired to do the book from childhood memories about World War II. "I was six when Hitler invaded Poland. At twelve, I remember our teacher bringing a radio into the classroom so we could hear Germany surrender in May of 1945. My childhood was shaped by the war…." The Life and Death of Adolf Hitler won the 2003 Sibert Informational Book Award.
After overcoming his first demoralizing attempts, James Cross Giblin became an award-winning author. He mixes history and exciting story-telling to produce his texts and uses both recent inspiration and early memories to guide him. In maybe the best success of all, he can now spend summers finding his books on the shelves of the Morley Public Library -- though he won't get a headdress this time.
Photo credit: Alejandra Villa.