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A Father's Decades-Old Bedtime Story Is Back In Print

Sep 15, 2012
Originally published on September 15, 2012 2:13 pm

One night in 1947, an intensely curious 5-year-old boy named Michael McCleery asked his father for a story. So his father, William McCleery, produced a tale that revolved around a wolf named Waldo, a hen named Rainbow, and another little boy, the son of a farmer, named Jimmy Tractorwheel. Over weeks and weeks, William serialized the story, telling it in installments to Michael and his best friend during bedtimes and Sunday afternoon outings.

But William wasn't just a dad — he was also a Broadway playwright. And, together with the artist Warren Chappell, he turned that elaborate wolf story into a short book for children. The resulting Wolf Story was acclaimed when it came out in 1947, but it's been out of print for decades. Now, the New York Review Children's Collection has reissued it.

Michael McCleery, now 72, tells NPR's Scott Simon about why his father wrote Wolf Story, and what it's like for him to read it.

Interview Highlights

On why his father wrote the book

"My mother and I were going to Reno, Nev., in, whatever that was, '46 I guess, to get a quickie divorce — seemed like she took forever to me. And ... [my father] was not happy with things as they were going to be. And when I was away he worked for six weeks and he wrote the whole thing and presented it to me when we returned."

... That's the sub-rosa plot there. This is the father pricking the son's memory with the sweetest stories that he can tell, or that he can remember. I don't think you would discern that just from reading it, but once you know it's there, I think you'll know what I mean."

On what it's like for him to read the book

"It's a pleasure to read. It's very simple ... With three sons of my own, I recognize the moral theme, if you will. You shouldn't tell lies. You should be nice to people. So it's fun and ... I think that's what makes reading it and other books like it such a pleasure. But there is one point when the wolf is trying to get under the fence and he slips and he skins his behind ... and oh, the kids laugh. They just collapse. 'Behind,' they say. 'Oh!' So that's pretty tame."

On why he thinks the book was such a hit

"It really said, in a way that children could understand, the things that adults want to say to their kids, but so often cannot for whatever reason. Certainly the emotional side is easier. It's easier to talk to a 5-year-old when you're writing [your] words down than if you have to actually do it with him. And then issues that haven't changed a bit in 70 years like who's in charge of things around here, who's making the decisions, whether it's right to kill and eat chickens or not. There's a lot of food for thought in the plot as well."

On what he's doing today

"I bought a marina and a tackle shop in the Stony Creek area, which is a chain of islands outside of New Haven, Conn. And I thought that was going to be the place I could just sit around and play the guitar and swap yarns and whatnot, and it turned out to be very, very much more energetic than that. And I now have the lobster-mobile, which is a car-pulled trailer, and I have enough stuff in there to feed 200 people lobsters ... So I come to your house ... and in an hour you're eating freshly shucked clams and oysters and all that."

I'm also a professional guitarist. And so, I have on occasion brought the guitar and sung salty songs for the children. Salty by their standards, not mine."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

One night in 1947, a little boy named Michael asked his father for a story. His father, William McCleery, told a story that revolved around a wolf named Waldo, a hen named Rainbow, and another little boy, the son of a farmer, named Jimmy Tractorwheel. The father serialized the story, just like in the movies, over weeks and weeks, telling it in installments to young Michael during Sunday afternoon outings and bedtime after bedtime.

William McCleery was a Broadway playwright, as well as a father. And, together with the artist Warren Chappell, he turned that elaborate wolf story into a short book for children. William McCleery's "Wolf Story" was acclaimed when it was published in 1947. It's been out of print for decades. But it's now been published again by the New York Review Children's Collection. Michael McCleery - the little boy in the story is all grown up now and recently joined us for an interview and treated us to a reading from his father's book.

MICHAEL MCCLEERY: (Reading) Once upon a time a man was putting his five year old son Michael to bed and the boy asked for a story. And on we go. No, no, a new story. A new story? What about, said the man. About a hen, said the boy. Oh, good, said the man. I was afraid you might want another wolf story. Well, once upon a time there was a hen. The man stopped.

Go on. What are you waiting for? What's a good name for a hen? Michael looked thoughtful. Make it the hen's name is Rainbow. She was called Rainbow because her feathers were of different colors - red and pink and purple and lavender and magenta. The boy yawned. And violet and yellow and orange.

That will be enough colors, said the boy. And green and dark green and light. Daddy, stop. Stop saying so many colors. You're putting me to sleep. Why not, said the man. This is bedtime. But I want story, not colors.

So that's pretty typical of the dialogue.

SIMON: What's it like for you to read your father's words like that?

MCCLEERY: It's a pleasure to read. It's very simple. With three sons of my own, I recognize the moral theme, if you will. You shouldn't tell lies. You should be nice to people. So it's fun and you - I mean, even in this few seconds I slip into the different voices.

And I think that's what makes reading it and other books like it such a pleasure. But there is one point at when the wolf is trying to get under the fence and he slips and he skins his behind. Oh, the kids laugh. They just collapse. Behind, they say, oh. So that's pretty tame.

SIMON: You know, it must be said we fathers like a good behind story too, don't we?

MCCLEERY: I suppose. I've been behind most of my life. I'm still trying to catch up.

SIMON: May I ask, do you remember asking for the Wolf Story?

MCCLEERY: I'm only 72 years old.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: So like it happened yesterday, I guess. Right?

MCCLEERY: Well, yes. Because over the intervening years it is about the only - I mean, you can't walk in a bar and say I'm Mike from "Wolf Story" and get much of a reaction. But an astonishing number of adults my children's age in their 40s are very familiar with it and that's what they want to talk about. So I remember it well.

SIMON: Why did your father write the book?

MCCLEERY: My mother and I were going to Reno, Nevada, in, whatever that was, '46 I guess, to get a quickie divorce - seemed like she took forever to me. And when my father took that time he was not happy with things as they were going to be. And when I was away he worked for six weeks and he wrote the whole thing and presented it to me when we returned.

SIMON: I had no idea. They're so happy in the book.

MCCLEERY: Yes. That's the Sub-rosa plot there. This is the father pricking the son's memory with the sweetest stories that he can tell, or that he can remember. I don't think you would discern that just from reading it, but once you know it's there, I think you'll know what I mean.

SIMON: Let's catch you up a bit in life. Now you have a lobster truck.

MCCLEERY: I bought a marina and a tackle shop in the Stony Creek area, which is a chain of islands outside of New Haven, Connecticut. And I thought that was going to be the place I could just sit around and play the guitar and swap yarns and whatnot.

And it turned out to be very, very much more energetic than that. And I now have the lobster-mobile, which is a car-pulled trailer, and I have enough stuff in there to feed 200 people lobsters. In fact, if you gave me enough propane and enough ice, I could feed the world lobsters.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Do you ever tell stories to the kids that show up?

MCCLEERY: Well, I'm also a professional guitarist. And so - and I have on occasion brought the guitar and sung salty songs for the children. Salty by their standards, not mine.

SIMON: With behinds in it.

MCCLEERY: Sure. With whatever.

(LAUGHTER)

MCCLEERY: "The Chivalrous Man-Eating Shark" is the most requested one.

SIMON: Why do you think people connected with your father's books so powerfully?

MCCLEERY: Because it really said, in a way that children could understand, the things that adults want to say to their kids, but so often cannot for whatever reason. Certainly the emotional side is easier. It's easier to talk to a 5-year-old when you're writing his words down than if you have to actually do it with him.

And then issues that haven't changed a bit in 70 years, like who's in charge of things around here, who's making the decisions? Whether it's right to kill and eat chickens - or not. There's a lot of food for thought in the plot as well.

SIMON: Michael McCleery, speaking with us from the studios at Yale University. The book he's talking about by his father, William McCleery, "Wolf Story." It's been republished by the New York Review Children's Collection. Michael, thanks so much.

MCCLEERY: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.