Theodore Taylor:
living on The Cay

By the time Theodore Taylor arrived at Borders Bookshop in Lancaster, Pa., Friday evening, a line of fans clutching copies of his novels snaked from the store's poet's corner, wove around stacks of new-age readings and stretched to the art section.

The author of The Cay, a novel for young adults, has created a stir ever since the book was first published in 1969. And Friday was no exception as children, teachers and even a man also named Theodore Taylor waited for a chance to speak with the award-winning author.

Criticism from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, coupled with bans on the book by some schools and libraries, made for controversy when it was published. But The Cay, first published by Doubleday in 1969, remains required reading in many schools throughout the country.

The story is about a young white boy who relies on an old black man for survival after they are shipwrecked in the Caribbean during World War II.

"It's high adventure. It stays alive because of the subtle tolerance message in there," Taylor said of the book's continuing popularity. "I didn't preach a sermon, it just seemed to be a way to talk to young people about racial relationships by example."

The dedication in the book reads, "To Dr. King's dream, which can only come true if the very young know and understand."

Taylor said he carried the story with him for 11 years before sitting down to write it all at once in three weeks.

"The atmosphere was beginning to change, the blacks were definitely awakening, and I felt it was time to do that book," he said.

Taylor said the racial criticism stemmed from objections to his black character Timothy, who was illiterate, spoke in a pigeon English dialect and was physically frightening. "But it was a based on a real person who really looked like that, spoke like that and, because he was so black, couldn't go to school in that time (1860s)," Taylor said.

His other main character, the boy Phillip, was based on a playmate Taylor know from the time he was 5 until he was 10.

"Here was boy who hated black people. I remembered him very well. When my mother used to take me to black churches, his mother couldn't understand. She was spilling her poison all over the place," Taylor said. "I saw him as a vehicle to talk about that subject, then blinded him to make him colorblind.

"I don't have a good imagination so all of my books are real incidents, all my major characters all lived or are still living. My entire family is in my books."

"Including his dogs," chimed in his wife, Flora, who helped him through his third book-signing of the day.

His whirlwind book tour is promoting his newest novel, Timothy of the Cay, which fills in the lives of the characters in his first book.

"I had no interest in a sequel. I said I'd never do it because it's seldom that you'd do a second book as good as the first," he said. "After the first book got 11 awards, I didn't have the guts, didn't have the courage to write it." But two years ago, at his 70th birthday party, his son badgered him to complete the story, to tell Timothy's tale. That, combined with the hundreds of thousands of letters from young readers asking for a sequel and the publisher's six-figure offer convinced him.

A prolific writer for 35 years, Taylor has authored more than 20 books for young adults, including the award-winning novels The Weirdo and Sniper. He has also written several adult novels, including the recently-published To Kill the Leopard.

This newest book, labeled a prequel-sequel, tells the tale of Timothy as he reaches 70 years and follows Phillip as he struggles to regain his eyesight.

Although many of the children waiting to have their books signed were boys, Taylor said his young fans are predominately female.

"Little girls read more than little boys," he said.

But many of the mothers expressed the sentiment that The Cay was the first book they could get their sons to read and enjoy.

"In hooking readers in the first paragraph, whether the characters are male or female, I try hard to make them self-reliant," Taylor said.

This self-reliance is what Taylor said earned him his highest praise. A year after the book was published, a woman from the Braille Institute came up to Taylor and said, "Do you know what you've done. You've invented the first blind child hero in literature."

"That was one of the most wonderful things about The Cay," Taylor said, adding that the book has been published around the world in braille.

Soon after, Taylor said, "A blind child came up to me and said, 'Thank you very much for writing this, if I ever get lost I know I'll survive.' That's worth the whole book, that's worth any kind of criticism."

by Daina Savage

Buy The Cay from

Buy Timothy of the Cay from