But Slack's audience has expanded significantly. No longer limited to bedside tales, Slack has been writing fictional stories for Virginia's Richmond Times-Dispatch since October 12. "The Queen of Furryus," Slack's tale of a little girl who accidentally becomes queen of the forest animals, is being published in serial form over a period of 19 weeks.
This is not a first for the Times-Dispatch. Two years ago the paper published a serialized story by noted children's author Avi called "Keep Your Eye on Amanda." The story, about a "sharp-nosed, white-whiskered" raccoon with criminal tendencies named Amanda, and her twin brother, Philip, appeared in several papers across the nation and helped reawaken the old newspaper tradition of serialization.
In the 19th century and the first half of this one, newspapers and magazines regularly published stories for adults on a chapter-by-chapter basis. Notable authors such as Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Jules Verne, Rudyard Kipling, Ernest Hemingway and Edgar Allan Poe all wrote serials and gained national recognition for them, often before their major works were published.
When the Times-Dispatch ran "Keep Your Eye on Amanda" in 1997 and its sequel, "Amanda Joins the Circus," a year later, reader response was tremendous, says Betty White, the paper's Newspaper In Education coordinator. In 1997, the Times-Dispatch sold a total of 72,000 additional papers over the course of the serial, she says.
Virginia's Roanoke Times also published "Keep Your Eye on Amanda" with great success, and now has instituted a new serial, "Adventure on Ocracoke Island," by staff writer Karen Adams Sulkin. Running from September 13 until December 13, Sulkin's tale concerns an 11-year-old girl who goes to stay with relatives on the Outer Banks of North Carolina during World War II.
The serial initiatives at both papers have been developed through the Newspaper Association of America Foundation's Newspaper In Education programs. Though each newspaper's NIE program operates autonomously, forums on serials at past NIE conventions have helped make these children's stories more popular.
Jim Abbott, the foundation's manager of educational programs, says that popularity can be attributed to a bandwagon effect--papers jump on board when they see success elsewhere. The stories "have become a real hot commodity," he says.
Though there are no exact numbers on how many papers run children's stories, Breakfast Serials, the nonprofit organization created by Avi to encourage serialization, has sold its stories to more than 205 papers nationwide since its inception in 1997, says Breakfast Serials Director Linda Wright.
Papers publishing these stories hope to encourage literacy and to foster newspaper reading. Sulkin's stories include lesson plans written by a third-grade teacher. "Teachers say it's a good way to familiarize [students] with the paper," she says, "because a lot of kids don't get newspapers at home."
Sulkin visited several classrooms where students were reading her stories, and she found another unexpected outcome to publishing literature. "The best thing about it," she says, "is so many [kids] started writing their own stories."
Freelance writer Charles Slack gives an impromptu performance every night. Under pressure more demanding than any news deadline, he extemporaneously creates lively stories about little girls and talking animals for a discriminating audience composed of one squirmy, impatient, 7-year-old daughter.