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One night in 1947, an intensely curious 5-year-old boy named Michael McCleery asked his father for a story. So his father, William McCleery, produced a tale that revolved around a wolf named Waldo, a hen named Rainbow, and another little boy, the son of a farmer, named Jimmy Tractorwheel. Over weeks and weeks, William serialized the story, telling it in installments to Michael and his best friend during bedtimes and Sunday afternoon outings.
But William wasn't just a dad — he was also a Broadway playwright. And, together with the artist Warren Chappell, he turned that elaborate wolf story into a short book for children. The resulting Wolf Story was acclaimed when it came out in 1947, but it's been out of print for decades. Now, the New York Review Children's Collection has reissued it.
Michael McCleery, now 72, tells NPR's Scott Simon about why his father wrote Wolf Story, and what it's like for him to read it.
On why his father wrote the book
"My mother and I were going to Reno, Nev., in, whatever that was, '46 I guess, to get a quickie divorce — seemed like she took forever to me. And ... [my father] was not happy with things as they were going to be. And when I was away he worked for six weeks and he wrote the whole thing and presented it to me when we returned."
... That's the sub-rosa plot there. This is the father pricking the son's memory with the sweetest stories that he can tell, or that he can remember. I don't think you would discern that just from reading it, but once you know it's there, I think you'll know what I mean."
On what it's like for him to read the book
"It's a pleasure to read. It's very simple ... With three sons of my own, I recognize the moral theme, if you will. You shouldn't tell lies. You should be nice to people. So it's fun and ... I think that's what makes reading it and other books like it such a pleasure. But there is one point when the wolf is trying to get under the fence and he slips and he skins his behind ... and oh, the kids laugh. They just collapse. 'Behind,' they say. 'Oh!' So that's pretty tame."
On why he thinks the book was such a hit
"It really said, in a way that children could understand, the things that adults want to say to their kids, but so often cannot for whatever reason. Certainly the emotional side is easier. It's easier to talk to a 5-year-old when you're writing [your] words down than if you have to actually do it with him. And then issues that haven't changed a bit in 70 years like who's in charge of things around here, who's making the decisions, whether it's right to kill and eat chickens or not. There's a lot of food for thought in the plot as well."
On what he's doing today
"I bought a marina and a tackle shop in the Stony Creek area, which is a chain of islands outside of New Haven, Conn. And I thought that was going to be the place I could just sit around and play the guitar and swap yarns and whatnot, and it turned out to be very, very much more energetic than that. And I now have the lobster-mobile, which is a car-pulled trailer, and I have enough stuff in there to feed 200 people lobsters ... So I come to your house ... and in an hour you're eating freshly shucked clams and oysters and all that."
I'm also a professional guitarist. And so, I have on occasion brought the guitar and sung salty songs for the children. Salty by their standards, not mine."