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Maine writer taps into family history to create an adventure tale for young readers

For Rodman Philbrick, getting the story right took time: “I first had the idea twenty years ago and the book is just out now.”

PORTLAND, Maine — At the age of 16, when most of his male friends were probably thinking about cars or sports or girls, Rodman Philbrick went down a different path -- he started writing his first novel.

“I wanted to do that more than anything,” Philbrick said, although he kept his aspirations to himself. “I wasn’t letting people know that I was interested in being a writer because I thought it would set me apart.”

It would be another decade before Philbrick sold his first novel. But his determination paid off. His best-known work, “Freak the Mighty,” sold five million copies and was made into the motion picture “The Mighty” starring Sharon Stone, James Gandolfini, and Meat Loaf.

His latest book titled “We Own the Sky” is a novel for young readers that draws on two relatives from Philbrick’s family history who were alive in the early 1900s — a female cousin of his grandfather who started and ran a flying circus, and his grandmother, who was targeted by the Ku Klux Klan in New Hampshire because she was Irish Catholic.

Getting the story right took time, and because it was personal, Philbrick -- who divides his time between Kittery and Florida -- didn’t want to stumble. 

“I first had the idea 20 years ago and the book is just out now,” he said. “It took me a while to come up with a story where I could weave these two things together and have a lot of excitement and adventure for the middle school readers who read my books, and yet have a dose of real history going on.”

That history, which includes the presence of the KKK in Maine within the last century, matters to Philbrick even though “We Own the Sky” is fictional. 

“I really, firmly believe that if we want to understand who we are, we have to understand who we were," Philbrick said.

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