Once upon a time, sometime in the Eighties, when my age was still in the single digits, I created a character named Henry Unicorn-Mitchell. He was the fourth of six children. He came after Candy, Fredrick, and Jessica (Jesse), and before Millicent (Millie) and Matilda (Tillie). This character must’ve been very special to me, because I decided to use him again some years later when I’d moved beyond picture books as my primary mode of writing. On 25 November 1991, I began an absolutely horrible piece of dreck called Proud to Be a Smart, which is never seeing the light of day. A number of the scenes in there were able to be salvaged, rewritten, and used in other books with these characters taking place along that same timeframe, but the entire book itself embarrasses me.
The book was set in Atlantic City and began sometime in late 1941. A number of the original characters in that generation were based on people I knew at the time, in upper elementary school. Some were based rather loosely, on just a similar physical appearance, and others had a stronger basis of similarity. Henry, for example, was at one time based on some guy I’m now extremely embarrassed I had a huge crush on in fifth grade. Over time, this original cast of perhaps 20 or so characters has grown to include several generations and probably number in the hundreds. Eventually, it’ll number in the thousands and include perhaps seven or eight generations, including the parents of the original generation.
At the time, I thought I’d write about these characters only until they graduated college. I was wrong. I literally grew up with them, having created them when I was only 11 years old. These characters now feature in four different series, with a number of other series which I aborted or put on permanent hiatus. It’s a blend of historical fiction, humor, social satire, and spoof. I know not everyone will find some of the things depicted to be amusing or even realistic, but that’s the whole point. It started as a satire on preteens and teens who think they’re so bad-ass and all grown-up already, like girls who are dressing in a very adult way, sporting prominent bustlines, and getting into physical relationships at an age when most girls are only just starting to think of boys in a romantic way.
Along the way, I also created a radical, mystical, secret society and quasi-religion of sorts, passed down for over a thousand years and ending up in their fictional Atlantic City neighborhood. This philosophy is used to explain why these young people look, talk, act, and think about five or six years older than they really are. It’s not seen as bizarre or disturbing in their neighborhood, even though a running joke is that their town is really out of the loop and that such things would be considered deviant behavior or not funny at all anywhere else. It’s not meant to be read as straight historical fiction, because I know full well that many of the things depicted would never have been allowed to stand in real life in the 1940s or 1950s. Think of it sort of like the irreverent, at times dark and absurd, humor and satire on a show like Family Guy, American Dad, The Simpsons, or The Boondocks. It’s funny because you know it’s deliberately unrealistic.
I also think the historical era I chose (starting in 1938) helps to make the satire and humor even more effective. While I agree America in that era was by and large more polite, sweet, and innocent, that wasn’t true across the board. Real life has never been like a Norman Rockwell painting or some fictitious small town in a movie, 1950s tv show, or book. That kind of innocent, sheltered life never existed for most Americans. It’s a fantasy people create to feel better about themselves in the present era, viewing the past through rose-colored glasses when something displeases them in the present. This is not an era most people would think of when thinking about preteens and teens who are having fights with their parents, having wild parties, dating around, having premarital sex, or experimenting with drugs. People did those kinds of things just as much in the past, only they were better at covering it up and denying it prior to the tumultuous changes of the Sixties.
My Atlantic City books are divided into four separate series:
WTCOAC (1943-55) (Now shelved permanently, with the exception of strong-enough material I’m going to pull out for my other Atlantic City books)