Local author's stories based on real-life experiences


MAYBE M.C. Helldorfer was seeking fortune and fame as an author when she left for New York City in 1984. But when she got there, she was just looking for a decent place to live while she tried to land an entry-level job in the publishing industry.

"I ended up doing temp work as a secretary and living at the Salvation Army," said Helldorfer, who grew up in Rodgers Forge. "My parents were very proud."

She lived three years at the Salvation Army -- "It was safe, it was cheap and it was clean," she said -- and she finally got a $12,000-a-year job as an editorial assistant at Bradbury Press, a division of Macmillan.

But she found she could make twice the money as a secretary in a doctor's office, where she used the word processor at night to pursue her writing career.

Then in 1987 -- about 10 years after her first rejection letter -- Helldorfer became a published author for the first time by selling not one, but two children's books: "Daniel's Gift," a picture book, and "Almost Home," a novel.

Since then she has moved back to Baltimore (she now lives in Hamilton) and has had three more children's books published. "Spook House," a novel set in Ocean City, came out in 1989.

This year she has two new books out: "Sailing to the Sea," (Viking, $13.95, ages 3-8) and "The Mapmaker's Daughter" (Bradbury Press, $14.95, ages 4-8). She has three more picture books under contract, and she's working on a couple of others as well. There's also another novel awaiting judgment at a publishing house in New York.

Helldorfer, 37, didn't set out to write children's books. "The stories just came out that way," she said, laughing. "I work from memory a lot, and feelings are the same no matter what the age."

"Sailing to the Sea," for instance, tells the story of a young boy who sets off on a three-day journey with his aunt and uncle on their sailboat.

"My aunt and uncle have a boat called Looking Glass, and it's based on a trip I took with them from Spa Creek in Annapolis, up the Chesapeake Bay, across the C&D; [Chesapeake & Delaware] Canal, into the Delaware Bay and down to Cape May," she said.

And how old was she when she took this trip?

"Thirty-two," she said, laughing again.

The luminous illustrations by Loretta Krupinski complement Helldorfer's prose:

We anchor in a windless cove.

Looking Glass is still.

Our skins burn with a whole day's heat.

One by one we slip into the water

and swim in circles of gold.

Helldorfer's fascination with old maps -- the kind with sea creatures curled in the corners and large uncharted masses of land sketched in imaginative shapes -- helped inspire "The Mapmaker's Daughter," illustrated by Jonathan Hunt.

Suchen is the daughter of a man who draws maps for explorers "in the days when wild and lonely places lay between kingdoms." When the prince wants to journey to a place called Turnings, where an evil witch now reigns, Suchen supplies him a map. Then she sets out after him, meets several challenges and eventually rescues the prince from the witch's evil spell. It's a nice reversal on the "happily ever after" stories of men saving helpless maidens.

Even with all of her recent success, Helldorfer hasn't quit her day job. She has taught writing on and off for the last 15 years -- after graduating from Loyola College, she received her doctorate in literature from the University of Rochester -- but now she is writing text for an educational software company when she isn't working on her books.

"It pays well, and it's not as draining as trying to write and teach at the same time," she said. It's also a long way from a temporary secretarial job and a room at the Salvation Army.


Here's a quick look at some other recent books by local authors:

* "Down at the Bottom of the Deep Dark Sea," by Rebecca C. Jones, illustrated by Virginia Wright-Frierson (Bradbury Press, $13.95, ages 3-5). Jones, who lives in Annapolis, has written 11 books for kids, including "Germy Blew It" and "The Believers."

Watching children play on the beach at Ocean City inspired this story of a little boy named Andrew. He hates all kinds of water -- he hates the bath, the sprinkler and even rain. So of course he's terrified of the ocean. But in the course of building a city in the sand, he learns that maybe his fear of water is all wet.

* "Trouble at Marsh Harbor," by Susan Sharpe (Puffin paperback, $3.95, ages 8-12). This is an excellent summertime read, especially for boys in the older elementary school grades ,, who have given up books for the summer.

Sharpe, who lives in Arlington, Va., has written a fast-paced story set in a small town on the Eastern Shore. Ben Warren, 10, wants to be a waterman like his father. But that way of life is disappearing as pollution and development threaten to destroy the Chesapeake Bay. By solving the mystery of illegal oil dumping in the marsh, Ben shows his father and the rest of the town that reversing the destruction may not be an impossible task.

* "Oswald and the Timberdoodles," by Priscilla Cummings, illustrated by A.R. Cohen (Tidewater Publishers, $8.95, ages 3-8). Cummings, who lives in Annapolis, continues the gentle tales of Chesapeake Bay wildlife that began with "Chadwick the Crab," "Chadwick and the Garplegrungen" and "Chadwick's Wedding."

Oswald, a blue heron, is shunned by the rest of the flock because he isn't able to straighten his neck. He goes off to live with the little Timberdoodle birds but is welcomed back by the blue herons -- who come to accept him even though he is "different" -- after his warnings about a brewing storm save the day.

* "Sandcastle Seahorses," by Nikia Clark Leopold (Galileo Press, $5.95, ages 3-8). Leopold's fanciful pencil-and-charcoal drawings are the perfect accompaniment to her lyrical story of a family of seahorses that takes up summer residence in the moat of a sandcastle.

bTC The children who have built the castle arrive one morning to find the moat filled with 309 tiny seahorses. As the summer gives way to September, they watch the seahorses grow into colts, crowding the moat and eventually riding a wave back into the sea.

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