Knowing the power of a good book


Mary Claire Helldorfer sits on a quilt-covered daybed as she takes a break from writing. Morning sunshine flows in with a slight breeze, twirling a seashell mobile. It hangs above the desk in her home office, where she is currently immersed in something decidedly less sunny - a gothic mystery entitled "Dark Secrets."

It's the last installment of her trilogy penned under the pseudonym Elizabeth Chandler and a title more familiar to her legion of paperback fans than those assembling this weekend at the Children's Stage of the fifth annual Baltimore Book Festival. Here, devotees are more likely to be acquainted with Helldorfer's popular picture books "Phoebe and the River Flute" and "Night of the White Stag."

"Kids don't have as many preconceptions when they read a book," says the author, who lives in Rodgers Forge. "They don't care if it's an award-winner or socially responsible. They just want a good story."

Sunday afternoon she will read from her latest children's book, "Hog Music," the story of a gift's transformation as it travels halfway across the United States in the 1840s. Afterward, Helldorfer will field questions from the audience, something she's used to from her frequent visits to area schools and libraries.

"I go over the process of making a book, focusing on one thing or brainstorming, depending on the age group," she says of her workshops for kids. She shows older children galleys - rough drafts of books - and reviews, and discusses the revisioning process.

"I want to show them that what happens when you write a book is no different from what happens in the classroom," says Helldorfer. "You don't wake up one day and just write. You sweat over the words, you get mad about your work at your editor - or teacher - and you huff and puff."

If anyone should know a thing or two about the publishing industry, it is this Baltimore native, who studied literature at Loyola College and received a Ph.D in English at the University of Rochester. Moving to New York in 1984, she lived at the Salvation Army among Gramercy Park's stately brownstones, all the while hoping for her big break. After three years of living in the city, her first two books for young readers - "Almost Home" and "Daniel's Gift" - were published in 1987.

Numerous picture books and novels followed, as well as teaching stints at the University of Baltimore and Mount St. Joseph high school. Now, at age 46, Helldorfer works from her home office in an apartment she shares with husband, Bob Danner, a computer science teacher at Mount St. Joseph.

Her alternative writing personality - that of romance novelist Elizabeth Chandler - emerged in 1995 as a result of conversations with her picture book editor at Doubleday, Francoise Bui.

"We knew each other years earlier in New York, and she knew how I struggled to get my books published in hardcover," recalls Helldorfer. "She suggested trying this route to support my nasty habit of writing picture books."

When asked if there's any significance to the nom de plume, she says, "Oh, they wanted something less cumbersome than Helldorfer, and I liked Elizabeth. As for Chandler, they wanted me to pick something starting with the letter 'C' so that it would sit more prominently on the rack."

Her well-known initials, M.C. - which most young fans and family know her by - fall in line with other children's book authors such as J.K. Rowling and R.L. Stine.

Helldorfer says crossing over from one genre to another is nothing unusual in the publishing world. The mass market exposure of teen paperbacks and romance novels offers steady work, a necessary financial base that affords her the time to work on picture books. Children's books can be worked on for stretches of two or three hours, then put away for another day. With a novel, it takes weeks and months of concentration to complete one.

"There are different things you do in a novel than in a picture book," says Helldorfer. "A picture book tends to be circular in development ... it has to have a very strong plot, with minimal character development. A novel is basically linear, tracking the changes characters go through."

When she writes novels she says, "I really need to live in the world itself," which is evident in the photos and notes of the Eastern Shore - the location of "Dark Secrets" trilogy - pinned to the wall behind her desk.

Helldorfer invests factual background in all her work, drawing from medieval tales, folklore and most recently, local history. Her latest children's offering, "Hog Music," was an unexpected spinoff from a research trip.

"I wanted to write tall tales about stagecoaches," she explains. "So during the research into it, I found a book [Merritt Ierley's "Traveling the National Road"] on the National Public Road, which is Route 40. It was funded by the federal government and from 1800 through 1850 it was the main route west to Indiana."

From these real accounts she spun a picture book about the path a gift takes from a grandmother in Baltimore to her granddaughter, recently relocated in Illinois. Adventure wraps around the gift until it reaches Lucy, the recipient of now splendorous bounty.

"She's a wondeful storyteller and has written a lot of good stories, but this one is by far her finest book," says Children's Bookstore owner JoAnn Fruchtman. "It's a classic Americana tale."

Kids' Events

This weekend's fifth annual Baltimore Book Festival at Mount Vernon Place, 600 block of North Charles Street, includes appearances by children's book authors and illustrators at the Children's Stage. Among them are: Today

Black Cherry Puppet Theater. A local puppet troupe puts on performances based on myths and fables. 11 a.m.

Jerdine Nolen reads and discusses "Big Jabe." Noon.

Arlette Braman of "Kids Around the World Cook!: The Best Foods and Recipes from Many Lands" teaches children how to discover and appreciate foods from different cultures. 1 p.m.

Avi reads and discusses "Ereth's Birthday." 2 p.m.

Alice McGill, author of "Miles' Song," speaks on 1850s' issues such as slavery. 3 p.m.

Dinah Johnson reads and discusses "Quinnie Blue." 4 p.m.

Elisa Carbone reads and discusses "Starting School with an Enemy." 5 p.m.

Storytime. Children read some of their favorite stories. 6 p.m.


Black Cherry Puppet Theater. A local puppet troupe puts on performances based on myths and fables. 11 a.m.

Kevin O'Malley draws for the crowd. His latest work is "Bud." Noon.

Detective Dictionary. Kids solve questions using words. Elementary school-aged children are encouraged to attend. 1 p.m.

Jean Fritz reads and discusses "Can't You Make Them Behave, King George?" 2 p.m.

M.C. Helldorfer reads and discusses "Hog Music." 3 p.m.

Lisa McCue reads and discusses "Bunny's Noisy Book." 4 p.m.

Karen Rupprecht reads and discusses "Miss Prudence Penny Pack Perfectly Proper." 5 p.m.

Storytime. Children read some of their favorite stories. 6 p.m.

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