Friday, March 19, 2010

An Interview with Neil W. Rabens: Author, Illustrator, Game Inventor, Musician, Parent, and More

Many of you read my previous blog here, and know that I am a fan of Neil W. Rabens' book The Secret of Henry and Sam. Since that time I have emailed with Mr. Rabens on a number of occasions and discovered bits and pieces of his life that are fascinating. So, I decided to interview him next for Book 'em Bob.

BookemBob: Hello Mr. Rabens and welcome to Book 'em Bob. I am your host Robert Brouhard and it is a great pleasure to have you here today. As you know, I had the delight of growing up with a book you wrote and illustrated called The Secret of Henry and Sam. Little did I know, I also grew up with a game you co-invented called Twister (“the game that ties you up in knots”). First, I just want to say thank you for these two wonderful childhood experiences. There isn’t much out there as far as biographical information goes… So, to introduce people to you, please tell us a little about your life. Where and when were you born and where did you grow up?

NeilWRabens: I was born in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1929. I was the youngest of five, and I grew up during the depression years. My dad, Fred T. Rabens, kept his job but had his wages cut. He was a blacksmith for a milk company when they still had horses. He had natural mechanical abilities and became a mechanic when trucks replaced the horses. Incidentally, Dad had a patent in his name #2343578 (look it up)! It was a vending machine that would drop your item down when you put in a coin. Up until then you had to lift a lid and slide your beverage out. He was not a particularly good business man in spite of his creative mind. After the patent ran out, these machines were all over the place and he never benefited from it. He worked ten hour days sometime and would come home and work on his machine. When Dad passed away they told us that there were tools hanging in the shop that no one knew what they were for. When he came across a problem he used his blacksmith savvy to make a tool to fix this or that. I might add that he served in WW1 as a blacksmith when they still had the cavalry. All in all, I had a pretty happy childhood with a lot of friends and pets: dogs (one from the time I was one year until I buried him when I was about seventeen), cats, a black ram and even an alligator.

BMB: An alligator?

NEIL: Some guy sent it to his wife as a joke and she gave it to us. It didn't live too long or I might still have it. I had a baby woodchuck that I would carry around in my shirt. This of course made me very cool with my buddies. I had him all one summer but he ran away in the fall to hibernate. My mother had a high tolerance for animals. Her dad was a vet, or, as they called them then, a horse doctor.

BMB: Wow, Neil. Your dad sounds like he was a very interesting man, and I can see how some of those pets would make you popular with the curious kids. How did you start inventing games and who did you work with?

NEIL: In 1965 I got a job with Reynolds Guyer Agency of Design in St. Paul. They were going into games as a sideline and hired one Chuck Foley to head up that division. They hired me to work with him mainly as an artist. At the time they called me, I was working in New Richmond, Wisconsin as a cartoonist /designer doing art for children’s swimming pools and inflatable toys. Guyer had a few mat games that they intended to produce themselves but Foley suggested they contact established game companies on a royalty basis. I came up with the hand and foot concept and called it “Pretzel” which was later changed to “Twister.” Foley added some changes and it became what it is. He was the one who sold it to Milton Bradley for Guyer.

BMB: So, besides Twister, what are the names of some of the games you helped create, and are any still around today?

NEIL: Some of them can still be found on the Internet. Animal Twister, Grab a Loop, Bing-Bang-Boing (BMB NOTE: “The Bounce-a-Dilly Watchamagame with the Bingaroony Sound”... “The first open end action game ever created”... you gotta see this commercial), and Pie Puzzles. Others were: Battle Ball, No Go, One more Time, Stats (the safe dart board), Traffic Jam, and a few others. Plus a few toys (these were all done after we left Guyer). Foley made the first plastic handcuffs (they were light metal things up to that point). I can't remember who bought them but I think it was Cadaco.


BMB: I can’t honestly say that I have heard of any of them. Do you have any kind of ownership of Twister? Why or why not?

NEIL: No. The day Chuck and I applied for the patent we signed over the rights to Guyer. Foley had a verbal agreement with Reyn Guyer Jr. for a certain percentage, but when the money started to come in, it was not honored. Foley then resigned, got a backer, and I went with him. We started our own company which we called Research and Development (R & D). We worked together until the early 70's. The energy crisis of that time affected the toy industry somewhat, plus Foley's wife became ill with cancer. She passed away and he had nine children. We suddenly folded up and I was unemployed.

BMB: Oh, no. What did you do then?

NEIL: I went into sales, which was a huge mistake. I was completely out of my element, and there were a few rough years. Twister sold over 70 million games up to 2004 and I don't know how many since. If I could have had one half of one percent of the retail price it would have been nice. But nobody said life was fair. Foley became quite bitter and retained a lawyer and did get a little something. I got nothing, but I have a wonderful wife of fifty years and all my children are successful and life has been good. That's worth something.

BMB: Family can certainly make a person rich with its own rewards. How did book writing and illustrating enter the picture?

NEIL: The wife and I had a story hour in our church in a fairly rough part of Minneapolis. The children were not acquainted with the usual Bible stories, so I started making up contemporary stories that they could relate to. I would draw on a large pad while my wife told the story. I believe the first one was The Secret of Henry and Sam. Years later they ended up at Standard Publishing as books and were published. Two of the story hour kids, a brother and sister (9 and 11) ended up living with us as foster kids. They were the first of thirty-seven foster kids over the years.

BMB: Thirty-seven!

NEIL: Yes. We also had three of our own and adopted one of the foster children, a beautiful red headed baby girl. She was a year old when we got her and parental rights were taken from her parents when she was three… So we kept her. She is now in her early thirties. I should write a book about some of our experiences. The longest we had one child was three years and the shortest was three hours.

BMB: Sounds like it would be a great book. Entertaining and probably heart wrenching too. Besides the children’s swim pools and inflatable toys, did you do any illustration work prior to the books you wrote in the late 1970s?

NEIL: I had designed some paint by number sets for a small company while still in art school shortly after I got out of the service This would be in the middle fifties.

BMB: Have you written any books that never got published?

NEIL: Yes, I have a few stories but they’re not illustrated yet. I enjoy the writing almost as much as the illustration, but I'm a terrible procrastinator.

BMB: Yeah, I know what that is like. If a publisher asked you to write and illustrate a new children's book today, would you do it? Why or why not?

NEIL: Sure. As a matter of fact all the book rights have been given back to me by contract and could be published again. With the exception of The Secret of Henry and Sam, which I resold to Bogard Press at a flat rate. I needed the money at the time. I would have to re-illustrate them, I think. I've been out of the loop for a long time and really wouldn't
know how to go about getting re-published. The industry is a different kind of animal than it was in my day.

BMB: I really wouldn’t know how to go about it either, but I’d love to your work back on the shelves. Who are some of your favorite children's book authors and illustrators and why?

NEIL: Maurice Sendak, Mercer Mayer, Garth Williams, the late Dr. Seuss, and the late Bill Peet. I like the different styles and that each one is easily recognizable. I also really loved the work of cartoonist Walt Kelly the creator of Pogo Possum. He was in a class all by himself… Sort of the Mercer Mayer of the comic strip world

BMB: A man after my own heart. You just listed out some of my biggest favorites! What are you currently doing to fill your time?

NEIL: I work part time at a local county history center. Both my wife and I are volunteer grandparents at the elementary school. I assist the art teacher with kindergarten, 1st and 2nd grades an hour a day. I play a six string banjo (a banjitar) mostly for my own amusement but occasionally publicly. Most kids nowadays idea of “cool” music is definitely not an 80 year old guy with a banjo.

BMB: I don’t know... I think they’d secretly like it and think it was pretty cool. What kind of music do you play with it?

NEIL: I like folk songs, old ballads and hymns. Incidentally, I had a song published some years ago. An old guy from Australia had a children's ministry and had one of my books and wanted to put it to music. It was called "Jesus Loves You" and was about children from other lands. He called Standard Publishing and they told him the rights belonged to me. He called me and I said go ahead. He was operating on a shoe string so I let him have it. He sent me a tape and I misplaced it somehow. He was originally from Scotland but also picked up the Australian accent. His singing was something to hear and he played some kind of odd instrument along with it that I couldn't identify. I also gave him a song I had made up for our story hour kids and he published that too.

BMB: Neil Rabens, songwriter, toy inventor, game designer, book writer, illustrator, parent, and more. You are a man of many talents. When we were emailing you mentioned a group called Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators and they sounded pretty interesting. Please tell us about the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI).

NEIL: I was a member last year but dropped my membership. My purpose for joining was to network with local artists and writers but most of the meetings are not geographically feasible. I'm in good health but my night driving vision is bad. I think I will sign up again though because I enjoyed being part of it.

BMB: Okay. Did you pattern yourself after any other artists or illustrators?

NEIL: Not really.


BMB: That was to the point. Ha ha. I’ve got a possible doozy for you: If you could tell or teach the children of the world anything at all, what would that be and why?

NEIL: Just the old cliché, "follow the dream" and avoid procrastination.

BMB: Well, I wouldn’t call avoiding procrastination “cliché.” That is pretty darn good advice. Feel free to tell us anything else you’d like the world to hear about you, your philosophy, life, or anything else

NEIL: I am serious about being a Christian, but didn't become one until I was an adult. I grew up in a more or less agnostic atmosphere. I was a medic in the Korean War which had something to do with my change of thinking to some degree. I worked in an evacuation hospital (something like a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, MASH, outfit) I developed somewhat of a drinking problem (now, no longer a problem for many years… I just don't touch it). For some reason, I felt guilty for coming home before the war was over. When I got out, I went to art school for a short while, got married, and booze on both our parts ended that in a few short years. Then I got a job at the county hospital where I worked as an orderly and also made ambulance runs. I met my present wife there and this is the best thing that ever happened to me (fifty years and it looks like it might last)!

BMB: Anything else you’d like to share with our readers and Internet-land?

NEIL: I'll have to add a few words about my kids of whom I'm quite proud. My oldest son recently finished 25 years in the navy and now works out of Washington for the state department. He's over in Oman with his family. He makes frequent trips to Yemen where he is responsible for the security system. He has to keep all the electronic gear in order, cameras, gates, etc... at the embassy there. Oman is fairly safe, but in Yemen, he has to go to work in an armored car. My daughter works in a hospital as a cardiac registrar and her husband is the system analyst there also. My youngest boy does virtual reality training films at a nearby technical community college. My youngest girl, that we adopted, lives in an adult foster home near us. She has some learning disabilities but she's a real sweetheart.

BMB: Thank you very much for your time Mr. Rabens. I am very glad that I got to know more about you. You are a great person, a talented man, and I am sure you are a great father too. God bless you sir, and thank you again for letting me interview you for my blog.

Neil W. Rabens is the author and illustrator of many children’s books including: The Secret of Henry and Sam, Jesus Loves You, No One but God, One Happy Little Songbird, Bunker Bear, God Made All the Animals, and Scooter Bug and the Bookworm. He is also the co-inventor of many board games including Twister. His games and books often show up on eBay and also at Amazon.com. Please find them and check them out.