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John Bellairs is the award-winning, best-selling author of the fifteen acclaimed Gothic mystery novels in the Lewis Barnavelt, Anthony Monday, and Johnny Dixon series, including The House with a Clock in its Walls (1973), The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn (1978), and The Curse of the Blue Figurine (1983). Bellairs first taught at various Midwestern and New England-area colleges. His first published book, Saint Fidgeta and Other Parodies (1966), was a satire on Vatican II-era Catholic rites and ritual, while The Face in the Frost (1969), staring wizards Prospero and Roger Bacon, has been called a "fantasy classic, defying categorization". Two of his books were adapted for television, and both Marshall, Michigan, and Haverhill, Massachusetts, have acknowledged his connection to and promotion of those communities.

Growing up in Michigan (1938-1955)

John Anthony Bellairs was born in Marshall, Michigan, on January 17, 1938.  He was the oldest child of Frank (1896-1983), a World War I veteran; cigar-store owner; and one time-sheriff deputy, and Virginia (Monk) Bellairs (1910-67). Two other children, brother Frank and sister Suzanne, followed.

Growing up with an active imagination, John was intrigued by the historic houses and buildings he encountered while walking to and from school, visiting the library, spending time with family, and attending Mass at church. John would admit later to often escaping into fantasized adventures during his explorations around town. A voracious reader in his youth, by his teenage years John had made new friends by joining Boy Scout Troop 122 and by moving from parochial to public school, where he was active in journalism and the Latin and Chess clubs.

In 1955, John graduated from Marshall High School and set his sights on studying pre-law at the University of Notre Dame.

Behold Notre Dame! (1955-59)

This story surely would have had a different ending had Bellairs's interest in pre-law continued.  Perhaps it was the influence of legendary Notre Dame instructor Francis J. O'Malley that one must thank.  O'Malley's classes were something of academic lore, revered by former students decades after they had moved beyond South Bend and able to stir a sense of understanding and appreciation for the written word.  Many students enrolled in his classes - such as Bellairs in O'Malley's freshman level Rhetoric and Composition class - would share a certain bond that would remain throughout their four years of undergraduate study and the rest of their lives.

Bellairs's interest in English literature and writing blossomed. By his junior year (1957), he had become a member of the Bookmen, a long-running campus organization dedicated to literary study and critique. As a senior (1958), he joined the Wranglers, another organization, and was on the writing staff of the student magazine, the Scholastic. With the Scholastic came some of Bellairs's earliest published work: a bi-weekly column consisting of humorous stories, witty anecdotes, and interactions with the people and places that make up the Notre Dame campus.

It was also during Bellairs's senior year that the event that would make him a legend among his peers occurred. Five Notre Dame students, including Bellairs, took part in the nationally-televised College Quiz Bowl program where teams of university students competed against another in varying subjects. The most memorable moment of the March 8, 1959, match-up between Notre Dame and Georgetown University occurred when Bellairs startled the national viewing audience by quoting Chaucer's Prologue to the Canterbury Tales - in perfect Middle English. Well, not all of it.  Just the first eighteen lines or so.

Later that spring Bellairs departed Notre Dame with a B.A. in English and went off to pursue graduate studies in Chicago.

The Move to Minnesota (1963-65)

Bellairs left the comforts of the Windy City in 1963 for his first full-time teaching position in in Winona, Minnesota. There he taught English classes full-time at the now-defunct College of Saint Teresa. He wrote there, too, though his earliest examples were academic-driven examinations of poetry and prose. His creative writing, however, honed in on his experiences in the church and from the Catholic girl's school where he taught. Here Bellairs would commit to paper the adventures of a saint he first told friends about back in Chicago. The saint was known as Fidgeta and she would go on to become the launching pad in his career.

In between teaching, writing, and attending conferences, Bellairs found time to take up acting. Because Saint Teresa's was an all-female institution, faculty members often pitched in to complete casts in various stage productions. Over the course of two years, Bellairs found time to participate in four different roles.

Two years later Bellairs was ready to resume work on his doctoral studies, something small-town Minnesota was unable to provide. While his time there was short, he would later memorialize his time in Minnesota with the books in the Anthony Monday series, taking place in the Mississippi River-town of Hoosac, itself a near geographically-identical cousin to Winona.

Making It In Massachusetts

The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn

The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978)

Bellairs considered his first three children's books as sequels, not trilogies - three separate actions involving the same characters, rather than a continuing story: "I try for realism...for instance, fat Lewis is a year older in each story.  And of course, he can't get much and older and be the star of a children's book, so I don't plan to write any more about him....[1]"

True to his word, two years after The Letter, the Witch, and the Ring, Bellairs jumped from Dial to Harcourt Brace Jovanovich where The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn was published (1978).  This would be the debut of a new character, Anthony Monday, a slightly older and more mature character than Lewis, who would be teamed up with Myra Eells, an elderly librarian, in rural Minnesota, country familiar to Bellairs from teaching in Winona.  However, what would become the book's most-noticeable attribute, especially when viewed against the entirety of his published works, was the departure in featuring the supernatural.

Brad Strickland called Treasure John's attempt at "a Hardy Boys" kind of book: "I think he sort of planned a faux Gothic series, apparently supernatural mysteries would turn out to have mundane explanations, but given his interests and reading, perhaps inevitably they became true Gothics as he went along.[2]"  Bellairs himself said it was an "odd book" with its creation motivated by his desire to write a story that recalled his own family life[3].

Bellairs remained unpublished for the next five years though he didn't stop writing. One such gem was a 30-plus line ode to the Septuagint, a translation of the Hebrew Bible into the Greek language, under the pen-name Nittany Blodgett:

Sing of scholars short and tall
In Alexandria's columned hall
Candlelight that makes you squint
Working on the Septuagint.
We don't know the names of any
Not the one, nor not the many
Septuagint once meant seventy
Oh would it not be sort of heavenly....

Caring For Kids

Bellairs became something of an area celebrity once his stories of Lewis, Anthony, and Johnny became popular, and was asked to visit schools and libraries to speak to children about his books, his inspirations, and writing in general.

Children's librarian (and author-to-be) Francess Lantz organized one such meeting at the Dedham (Massachusetts) Public Library in late 1978.  While she recalls a poor turnout - maybe five children in total - Bellairs was a "kind, shy and self-effacing" speaker, reading sections of his books in a chair in front of the fireplace with the children gathered around him.

Bellairs brought in props, objects he used in the stories - "like a stone or a jewel inside a little box" - to prompt questions from his young audience. "I can still see him sitting there, showing the kids the objects he had.  He wasn't cracking jokes, nor was he being super serious or self-important. Just kind of quiet but interesting.[4]"  In a letter to Lantz, Bellairs notes his standard fee for such visitations was $25 to cover gas and being away from work: "I don't think that's terribly high considering what some of my fellow authors ask." Bellairs also writes that while he once spoke to 400 children in an auditorium, his preferred amount was around fifty so that everyone in attendance had the opportunity to ask a question[5].

Elizabeth Thomsen relates that Bellairs's presentations were so popular that at one school he gave out his home telephone number to the students that had additional questions:

"My older daughter heard his presentation, which was fine for her, but terrible for my younger daughter, Kristin, who really loved his books. When I came home from work, I walked in and heard Kristin on the phone, asking politely if she could speak to John Bellairs. Had I been there a minute earlier, I would have stopped her from disturbing him at home at suppertime on a day he had spent in our schools. She explained to him how disappointed she had been to miss him when he was at her school, and they had a nice chat - despite the fact that the poor guy had already spent the whole day doing this stuff. Kristin had a chance to ask her most important question, 'Why do you write such scary stories for kids?' and he told her how things had scared him as a kid. It was a lovely conversation, and she's never forgotten it. This phone conversation meant a great deal to her, and when he died she really felt like she had lost a personal friend. I never met John Bellairs, but I'll always think of him as a most kind and gracious man that really cared about kids.[6]"
Those that couldn't meet the author in person had the opportunity to share their thoughts via fan mail - something Bellairs adored. Some were simple letters in admiration, while other drew pictures of his characters and stories. Bellairs revealed in a 1983 autobiographical sketch that he had received "fan letters from kids in forty states and Canada" and that some of his gifts from readers have included “a piece of mica, a sports quiz game, and a purple wooden fish." The children's drawings he collected went on full display in his house; longtime friend Gerald Kadish remembers John proudly showing off some of these above his desk and pointing them out to friends. John also made an effort to respond to all his mail, often postcard sized thank you notes written in his distinct scrawled handwriting and, sometimes, with one of his personalized cartoons.

Bellairs also visited area colleges to share some of his experiences and offer his views on writing and the publishing process. Former Salem State College student Maura Bresnahan remembers Bellairs as a speaker in a graduate-level children's literature course during the fall of 1990. Bresnahan says Bellairs discussed the settings in his novels, particularly how the White Mountains had inspired the Johnny Dixon series.

"The funniest thing was that I ended up giving him a lift home because I lived the nearest to him from the college which was about a 45 minute ride away. I remember him dressed in overalls and blowing his nose on a red bandana; he did not bother primping for his visit. As the years have passed I only have vague memories of his visit though I did find him very charming."

References

  1. "Bellairs Books Win Praise", Haverhill Gazette (May 28, 1975).
  2. Correspondence with Brad Strickland.
  3. "enotes: The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn", Gale Group (2002).
  4. Correspondence with Francess Lantz.
  5. Correspondence from John Bellairs to Francess Lantz (Oct. 31, 1978).
  6. Remembrances of Elizabeth Thomsen.

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