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Auxier draws on fascination with children's literature for 'Peter Nimble'

| Sunday, Jan. 8, 2012

One of Jonathan Auxier's favorite books as a child was Robert Louis Stevenson's "Treasure Island." Auxier read it often because of the sense of wonder it inspired. He read it so often that he knew it by rote, sometimes to the point of boredom. But he always returned to "Treasure Island" because of the richness of the story, even as one character haunted him: Blind Pew, the ragged, fearsome beggar who gives Billy Bones the fateful black spot.

"I've had a lifelong fascination with the complexity of a blind person who seems feeble but is actually incredibly capable, and maybe even dangerous," says Auxier, who recently moved to Regent Square from Los Angeles. "And that really started with the character Blind Pew. ... The character terrified me as a kid. I was wild with terror about that character, and my father would read that book aloud to me and do a really wonderful Blind Pew impression. That planted a seed in me 20 some years ago."

That seed germinated into Auxier's first novel, "Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes." The title character is a 10-year-old boy, orphaned, blind and forced into a life of thievery. Peter's life changes when he steals a box from a traveling haberdasher that contains three sets of magical eyes, enabling him to go on adventures that pay homage to Lewis Carroll, Jonathan Swift and Stevenson.

Auxier was a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University in the dramatic writing program, focusing on theater and screenwriting, when he started to write "Peter Nimble," primarily at the Tango Cafe in Squirrel Hill. At the time, he was a bit overwhelmed by his studies, thinking his peers more able and focused than he.

"Between my first and second year, I was going to write a letter explaining to friends and family why I was going to drop out," says Auxier, who attended CMU from 2003 to '05. "Instead I wrote the first line of this book (' Now, for those of you who know anything about blind children, you are aware they make the very best thieves. ') and I kept going. I could not explain it to you, but, basically, over the course of three and a half weeks I wrote the entire book. I did nothing but write. I wrote that first draft, exhaled, put it in a drawer, finished graduate school, moved to Los Angeles, started working as a screenwriter and didn't pull the book out for a couple years. But there was something the book did, which is remind me why I loved stories in the first place."

Auxier started collecting children's books when he was growing up, primarily in Vancouver, British Columbia, but also during stops in New Jersey and Arizona, places where his father, a pastor, was called to minister. This love of children's literature followed him into his teenage years, "which was weird," he says "because it was before Harry Potter. I was this giant, lumbering 6-foot-4 kid wandering through the children's sections checking out what new titles were available. But there was something I loved about the dual play of children's books. The ones that really last really are the ones that have this adult and childlike conversation. The space between those two things are what makes them so wonderful."

Scattered throughout "Peter Nimble" are black-and-white illustrations drawn by Auxier. The illustration on the first page features the infant Nimble floating in a basket on a body of water, with a raven "which had, presumably, pecked out his eyes" watching over him. It calls to mind the biblical image of Moses floating on the Nile in a small boat made of bulrushes.

"Because my father was a pastor, the Bible was something that was very present in my life through childhood and adolescence and into adulthood," he says. "Separate from the book, I feel this way about the world: The fingerprints of the Bible are all over Western culture and all over the stories we have. ... I know a lot of people, if they see something that reminds them of the Garden of Eden or the crucifixion, they get upset because they think it's an allegory. But I don't think that's the case. I think it's more that it's just part of the fabric of our modern culture. It has to come because it's part of the heritage, agree with it or disagree with it."

After becoming frustrated with "the hired-gun nature" of screenwriting a few years ago, Auxier rescued "Peter Nimble" from the confines of his desk, brushed it up and eventually found a publisher. He's embraced reaching out to children and is willing to visit schools in the area to not only to talk about "Peter Nimble," but also the magical world of reading and literature. And, if it seems like the character Peter Nimble is a bit of a delinquent, Auxier notes that this sort of concept has long been popular in children's literature.

"One of things I relished as a kid in children's literature was that adults were made to be a little bit absurd," he says. "I don't think that's a straight up call to anarchy. I think, at the end of the day, kids are smart enough to understand it's an adult that's telling that story. ... It's not really a true call to delinquency. It's a child getting to see an adult acknowledge that it's not always fun to be a grownup, and that, sometimes, it's fun to make a little trouble."

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