In writing her latest book, Lois Nicholson had an easy time focusing on her intended audience -- the boys she worked with as librarian at Rock Hall Middle School on the Eastern Shore.
"Boys are not as motivated to read as girls tend to be, and you really have to look to find things they're interested in," she says. "I just listened to my students. They wanted to read about Cal Ripken, and I began to ask myself why he is a hero to these kids."
The result is "Cal Ripken, Jr., Quiet Hero," released last week by Tidewater Publishers in Centreville ($12.95, 112 pages, ages 8-12).
It does not pretend to be a probing look at the man behind the myth. There isn't any dirt here -- but then, in-depth profiles of Mr. Ripken over the years have failed to reveal many negatives, so it's not as if flaws have been intentionally omitted.
And Ms. Nicholson is up front about her intent. She addresses two of the toughest things Mr. Ripken has dealt with recently -- his protracted salary negotiations last season and the Orioles' release of his brother, Billy, and their father, Cal Sr., after the season -- but only a few paragraphs are devoted to each issue.
"I did not want to dwell on the hurtful things, like his father and Billy not being with the team," Ms. Nicholson says. "With the contract, I tried to think, 25 years from now, what will be important about Cal? The contract won't be, but what his family has meant to him and what he has meant to Baltimore will be."
Ms. Nicholson's request to interview Mr. Ripken was declined. "His office [Tufton Group Inc.] did anything they could to help me, but I did not get to sit down with him," she says. "From the beginning, I agreed to let him see the galleys [proofs of the pages]. He took them with him on a road trip to Detroit, made three minor corrections and sent me a note, saying he thought it was very nice."
Ms. Nicholson did interview Mr.Ripken's mother, Vi, as well as Orioles manager Johnny Oates; Jimmy Williams, Mr. Ripken's manager at Double-A Charlotte; Donnie Morrison, his baseball coach at Aberdeen High; and former teammates Tim Norris, Larry Sheets and Rick Dempsey, among others.
Vi Ripken's contributions are crucial. Central to the book are anecdotes about the Ripken family and Cal's childhood. Many of the stories have been written before, but there are a few new ones here.
Some came from an unexpected source -- Mr. Ripken's autobiography. He wrote it in the eighth grade, and Ms. Nicholson read it while doing research at the Babe Ruth Museum last year.
In it, he tells of the family's springs and summers on the road, following Cal Sr.'s career as a minor-league player and manager, from Daytona Beach, Fla., to Appleton, Wis., from Aberdeen, Md., to Aberdeen, S.D.
Not surprisingly, Cal Jr. didn't adjust well to the confinement of the classroom. His first day of school was "the worst day of my life," he wrote. "I was always looking for a way out of the school. One day my teacher, Mrs. St. Pierre, went out of the room and I picked up my belongings and headed out of the door, but my gym teacher, Mrs. Cruit, caught me."
Mrs. Ripken contributed several wonderful family photos. Tim Norris,who signed with the Orioles as a pitcher out of Archbishop Curley High School the same day that Cal Ripken signed, also lent Ms. Nicholson several snapshots of the two of them in the minor leagues.
Ms. Nicholson has a pleasant, conversational style, and she is comfortable writing about sports. She grew up as a fan in Sudlersville, home of Hall of Famer Jimmy Foxx.
"Like most families in the late '50s and '60s, we had one black-and-white television set," she says. "My father had three daughters, and he was the lord and master of the house. Whatever he wanted to watch, that's what we watched, and he was a big sports fan. In some ways, just as Cal got to spend time with his father by asking him questions about baseball, I did the same with my father while we were watching games on television."
After working in the Kent County school system since 1976 as a teacher, reading specialist and librarian, Ms. Nicholson resigned this year to concentrate on her writing -- she is working on her fifth biography for children, on artist Georgia O'Keeffe -- and to visit schools around the state, talking with students about reading and writing.
She will be at the Babe Ruth Museum tomorrow, beginning at noon, to sign the Ripken book. Copies will be available for purchase at the museum, 216 Emory St; for information call the museum at (410) 727-1539. The book also can be ordered by calling Tidewater Publishers at (800) 638-7641.
* Another signing of interest will be Sept. 18. Emily Arnold McCully, who won the 1993 Caldecott Medal for "Mirette on the High Wire," will make stops in Columbia and Bel Air. She'll be signing "Mirette" and her new book, "The Amazing Felix," from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. at Junior Editions bookstore in Columbia Mall; telephone (410) 730-2665. From 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., Ms. McCully will give a reading of "Mirette" and sign copies of that and other titles at Stepping Stones Books, 24 E. Pennsylvania Ave., in Bel Air; (410) 638-9001.