I recently interviewed Oscar-winning lyricist and screenwriter (he wrote the songs for Fame and lyrics and script for Footloose) and affable local-boy Dean Pitchford (he graduated from St. Louis School) about his latest adventure–writing a young adult novel. Though not set in Hawai`i, Pitchford drew heavily on his childhood here, of being an ‘outsider’ and his struggle to fit in and find his way after his parents’ divorce.
The Big One-Oh follows Charley’s attempt to plan the best 10th birthday party ever, despite not having any friends and being considered a freak by most for, among other traits, his improbable gourmet cooking. And, as I say in my article on 3/2 in the Honolulu Advertiser, though Charley at times sounds 50 not 10, this is merely a small impediment to the narrative success. The book has a rhythmic momentum, and is a humorous, compassionate story that will amuse young adults, and the adults who buy the book for them.
Pitchford will be in Honolulu through Tuesday, reading from and signing copies of his book at various local bookstores. The Advertiser article lists the times and locations.
ADDITION: Since the article is no longer available online, I’ve included it in full here:
The Big One-Oh
By Dean Pitchford
PUTNAM; 187 pages; $TK
Reviewed by Christine Thomas
Published in the Honolulu Advertiser March 2, 2007
When St. Louis School graduate and Academy Award-winning lyricist Dean Pitchford throws a party, he doesn’t worry about having no one to invite. But the main character in “The Big One-Oh,” Pitchford’s first novel, isn’t so lucky.
Charley Maplewood never thought of having a 10th birthday party until his father, a chef in Scotland, sends him an early gift with a card asking what he’s doing for “the big day.” After that, he becomes hyper-aware of his lack of friends and how others perceive him at this monumental point of transformation from single to double digits.
Pitchford, who arrived Wednesday to promote the book, has himself long appeared as one illumined by success. His songs have become part of our cultural wallpaper, from Footloose (he also wrote the script) to Fame, and numerous melodies crooned by such top performers as Dolly Parton, Whitney Houston, and Kenny Loggins. But this is his first foray into the printed page.
Inspired by the universal appeal of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” Pitchford began thinking about other moments that connect us, and came up with birthdays. “When we’re kids it’s the biggest day of the year,” he says. “I thought there was a universal story to be told about one little boy and his very wacko birthday.”
Such a tale wasn’t likely to immediately interest film studios, so despite never before having written narrative, he turned to young adult fiction. Pitchford confidently meets the challenges of working in a new form by drawing on his personal experiences to develop the story. “The book touches on moments from my childhood,” he says, “of growing up without a father, feeling different and feeling outside the mainstream, and yet having passions.”
He also admits that Charley’s mother is a tribute to his own, and the girl with whom Charley is smitten is similar to his niece. Like Charley’s, Pitchford’s family grappled with the wounds of divorce, and while Charley collects monster comics and humorously but improbably cooks gourmet meals as a way to connect to his dad, Pitchford worked at his absent father’s hobby of photography in his abandoned darkroom. When the developing supplies ran out, he began to sing and act with Honolulu’s Community Theatre, Symphony Orchestra, and Theatre for Youth.
Though Charley, the book’s narrator, is a bit savvy for his age, he sometimes sounds not 10 years-old but 50, a jarring concession to Pitchford’s aim to appeal to both adults and children. The story suffers slightly because of this, but adults will still appreciate his sophisticated observations such as likening a pony ride to “as much fun as watching paint dry,” (6) and points of reference like Charley’s freakish next-door neighbor. The narrative is more than redeemed by its humor and a buoyant rhythm of plot twists, while its richness is derived from the compassion one can’t help but feel for this boy struggling to fit in.
Having grown up in Honolulu in the ‘50s as a haole, artistic-type, Pitchford can definitely relate to this shared experience of feeling different. And even though the story is set in Fresno, not the Islands, Hawai`i is never far from his work. “Over the years I’ve discovered how a lot of what I went through in Honolulu I’ve carried with me—mostly the music,” he says.