Children’s book author Michael Shoulders visited elementary and middle school students this week to discuss the ins and outs of being an author.
The former teacher and principal became a full-time author when he retired from the school system. To date he has written 18 children’s books. His most recent book is a historical fiction novel titled “Crossing the Deadline.”
Shoulders shared the true story that led him to write the novel.
“You will not believe hardly anything in this book and it is all correct,” he said. “It is historical fiction which means people are talking to each other, and I was not there to hear them, so I made that up, but the events that happened were real.”
The book follows a young man from Centerville, Indiana, as he travels to Tennessee and on to Alabama where he is captured as a prisoner of war. He is put in prison in Alabama and later ends up on a ship in Mississippi. His journey ends in Memphis, Tennessee.
The young man finds himself in the center of “the greatest maritime disaster in United States history.” He is a passenger on the side-wheel steamboat Sultana when it exploded on April 27, 1865.
Shoulders explained that while the Titanic is the most well-known boat disaster, the Sultana had more fatalities and was a much smaller vessel.
“The Titanic – if you took it out of the water and stretched it down that road out there,” Shoulders said of Ninth Street, “you would need at least enough room for about three football fields. That other ship lost more people. Do you think it’s bigger or smaller? Way bigger, right? The other ship would actually fit behind the last smoke stack [of the Titanic]. It was not even three hundred feet long – the length of one football field.”
The Titanic had a capacity for 3,547 passengers, while the Sultana could only hold 376. On board the Titanic were 2,223 and on the Sultana were 2,400. More than 1,500 passengers died in the Titanic incident, while more than 1,700 died on the Sultana.
Shoulders described an incident during the explosion which is explained by the main character of his book.
“I know that the illustration [of the explosion] in Harper’s Weekly was incorrect because one of the first things that happens after the explosion is one of the smoke stacks falls and crushes the wheelhouse where the people steer the boat,” Shoulders said. “He sees the smoke stack crush the wheelhouse to atoms – crushed it to atoms.”
Shoulders discussed another true story which was very special to him because the woman – Wilma Rudolph – is from his hometown of Clarksville, Tennessee. Shoulders features her in his children’s book “V is for Volunteer.”
When Rudolph was a young girl, she was diagnosed with polio, which crippled her left leg. She was fitted with a brace and after years of walking with it, her leg straightened out she was able to play basketball and run.
Rudolph was recruited to represent the U.S. in the Olympics. She lost in her race her first time at the Olympics, but she returned for the summer Olympics in Australia and tried again.
The week before her race in Australia, she sprained her left ankle exiting a bus. She begged her coaches to let her run the race, and she went on to do something amazing.
“When she crossed the finish line, she broke something,” Shoulders said. “As soon as she crossed the finish line, they found out, she broke the World’s Record. She became the world’s fastest woman. That little girl that everybody laughed at and made fun of was now the world’s fastest woman. She ran two more races, and she won a gold medal in both of those.”
Like “V is for Volunteer,” many of Shoulders’ books are illustrated alphabet books. He explained to the students that most alphabet books are 32 pages long due to the way they are printed.
“They are literally printed on one piece of paper,” he said, showing the students a mock-up of a book. “This is a real book. Half of the pages are upside down. The illustrator does not paint upside down. He paints regular pictures and turns them in to the company. The company puts them in the order that they go.”
While he is a full-time author with 18 books under his belt, Shoulders assured the students that he is not “filthy rich.” He asked them how much they think he makes for each $18 book he sells.
“The actual answer is ten percent goes to the creator of the book – a dollar, eighteen cents,” he said. “This book right here, ‘G is for Gladiator,’ the illustrator gets half of that. Income taxes, social security are taken out. I get ‘nuttin’ honey.’ Most authors cannot live off of being an author. They have other jobs or they speak, or they are also teachers, librarian, reporters or photographers.
“So sixty-five cents off an eighteen dollar book is all I get to spend,” he continued. “My novel does not have an illustrator. It’s a seventeen dollar book, so I’ll get a dollar, seventy cents, but I have to pay income taxes on that. I would have to sell hundreds of thousands every year to make a really good living.”
Shoulders shared the process of writing a book with the students – from dreaming up the story, to writing it, to rewriting it and printing it.
Shoulders visit was made possible by a donation to the Pocahontas County Reading Council from the Pocahontas County Commission.
Suzanne Stewart may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org