Sit with Kensington author Paul Sleman Clark for a while and be prepared to hear lots of stories–stories about growing up in Montgomery County, stories about his love of sports and stories about his lifelong interest in history.
Clark has put his interests and talents into two books for young readers: “Spenser’s Story of the Constitution” and “Spenser’s Story of Harriet Tubman.”
Spenser, by the way, is a cat, another of Clark’s interests. He and his wife have one house cat and two feral cats who appear regularly for meals on the back deck. The fictitious Spenser, named for a former house pet, narrates Clark’s stories.
“Most kids like imagination,” Clark said. “So, I put in a narrator who is a cat.”
Clark said he worried that a cat would be too young for his target audience, middle graders, ages 8 to 12, but, he said, it’s a means of telling stories from way back in history.
Both books are illustrated with black and white sketches by Olney artist Ray Driver although the jackets are in color, each showing Spenser in period dress helping move history along between the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and Harriet Tubman’s work on the Underground Railroad almost 70 years later. He did, after all, have nine lives.
Clark said he wrote the book on the Constitution first. “Between 1986 and ’89, I worked for the Bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution Commission in charge of organizing events at schools around the country,” he said. “I didn’t know anything about the Constitution and my 10-year-old daughter would ask me questions.”
It’s not easy to talk about a piece of paper, he said. “I did research in part because I worked for the Commission but I also [wanted] to tell the story for 10- to 12-year-olds because they need to know their history.”
To this end, Clark included a copy of the Constitution at the conclusion of the book. Also included is the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, ratified in 1791. “My daughter loved it,” he said.
He never tried having it published, in part because the Bicentennial Commission already asked another writer to write a young people’s book, and in part because he does not want to spend the time needed for marketing.
He doesn’t market because he has hundreds of stories left to tell. At age 75, he said, he doesn’t have a hundred years left to tell those stories.
He wants to spend time writing, he said.
“Writing doesn’t take that long,” he said. “It’s the research.”
For Spenser’s book about Harriet Tubman, Clark said he did a lot of research.
“It’s historically accurate,” he said. “But it’s not so much a factual book as a story. She did not read or write so we don’t have her story.”
Clark talked excitedly about the Tubman book.
Legend has it that Tubman led hundreds of slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad, according to Clark. “The best estimate is she made 13 trips leading about 70 people. That doesn’t detract from what she did. She was as tough as nails. She was in the Civil War, she was a nurse and a cook and she once fought with Union troops in South Carolina.”
Reflecting on Tubman’s life, Clark said, “It was a life well lived. If you didn’t have Harriet Tubman, you would have to invent her.”
Asked which of the books he likes best Clark said they are totally different. “One is at the beginning of the nation; the other is the beginning of equality for [African Americans],” he said. “A child of the right age will enjoy the books and learn something.”
What’s next for Clark? “My third book, when I get to it, will be the story of Jackie Robinson,” he said.
What the author reads
Clark said he focused on two things when he was a child. “I read and I played baseball, basketball, football and ran track,” he said. “I read everything from ‘The Hardy Boys,’ every single hardback known to man,” to political theory.
Among the books he remembers most were “Treasure Island” by Robert Louis Stevenson and “The Prophet” by Kahlil Gibran.
When he became interested in race relations, he read works by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Langston Hughes and Frederick Douglas.
“Having that world to go into, that world of imagination, it can get you away from [your world],” Clark said.
“Spenser’s Story of the Constitution” and “Spenser’s Story of Harriet Tubman” are available on Amazon.com.