New York City
March 2003

Thomas Rockwell, Writer: Where Fried Worms Come From
By Jacob M. Appel

Celebrated children’s book au-thor Thomas “Tom” Rockwell confesses that he grew up in a small New England town not so different from the rustic communities depicted in the Saturday Evening Post illustrations of his father, Norman Rock-well. Arlington, Vermont, was a lot like the Berkshire communities near where Norman Rockwell later settled, hamlets like Lenox and Lee, only much smaller. “We had a one-room school house and a Grange hall,” recalls Rockwell. “Every-thing else was just farms. There were only twenty-three students in my high school graduating class.” His early mentors were Jim and Clara Edgarton, local farmers, and he worked many hours beside their son, Buddy, on the family farm. “We worked gathering hay,” the artist explains from his current home near Poughkeepsie, N.Y., itself located adjacent to a dairy farm. “We didn’t even have a bailer. And we used to use a doodlebug. That was a truck that you’d stripped down to nothing but the cab and the engine!

It was good for hauling things. Who could afford a tractor back then? They were so expensive.” Yet Rockwell quickly points out that Arlington, although not by any means an artist colony, did boast its share of local talent. Among the most famous denizens were illustrators Meade Schaeffer and Jack Atherton, and the popular author Dorothy Canfield-Fisher. Jim Edgarton later became a model for Norman Rockwell’s “Four Freedoms” series of illustrations and the town still touts itself as “the home of America’s most-beloved illustrator,” but Tom Rockwell has done his best to steer clear of his father’s celebrity. That may be because he has achieved significant professional success in his own right.

Tom Rockwell knew from an early age that he wanted to be a writer. “My father used to say, tongue-in-cheek, that he didn’t want any of his children to become artists. He’d say he wanted us to go into business so that we could support him in his old age while he sat outside on the porch....But the truth is that my father couldn’t understand why anybody would want to be anything else but an artist.” Both of Tom’s brothers did follow in their father’s footsteps: one is a prominent sculptor and the other does wall installations in the Berkshires. But Tom knew from early on that his first love was the printed word. “Of course, I also wanted to play third base for the Brooklyn Dodgers,” he adds—a rare urban jest from the laconic New Englander. “I went to Bard College and then worked for a magazine,” says Rockwell. “But what I wanted most of all was to write.” Yet it was a literary set-back that led to Rockwell's greatest success. “I’d just come back from a meeting with an editor that hadn’t gone well,” he explains. “They didn’t like the book I’d just written and I was feeling unhappy, like I could eat fried worms. And all of a sudden I decided that I wanted to write a book about a young boy who eats fried worms.” In the book, two boys bet a third fifty dollars that he won’t eat fried worms, one per day, for fifteen days; as he grows closer to reaching his goal, they engage in multiple tricks to stop him from winning. The book, How to Eat Fried Worms, won multiple awards and gained Rockwell national renown. How to Fight A Girl and How to Be a Millionaire soon followed. Tom Rockwell has written a total of fourteen children’s books. He is now working on a new challenge—a volume on Shakespeare for adults. Why Shakespeare? “I guess I’ve always been fascinated by the problem of Hamlet,” notes Rockwell. Whether he solves it or not, it seems that, as a life-long learner, he is enjoying the process.

Rockwell also remains active in his late father’s affairs. He administers the Norman Rockwell estate—a daunting responsibility, seeing as the illustrator’s career spanned sixty-four years, and he ghost-wrote his father’s autobiography. Yet being the scion of arguably the nation’s most famous artist has had its disadvantages as well as its blessings. “Everywhere you go, people introduce you as Norman Rockwell’s son. And you want to be Tom Rockwell.” Yet for the millions of children who have read Tom’s works and futilely tried to fry their own worms at home, it’s the Saturday Evening Post illustrator who is merely “the father of Tom Rockwell.”#

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