Written by grandmother in the 1930s published 80 years later

Local Life April 11, 2012 0 Comments

by Lou Mancinelli

Long-time Erdenheim resident Susan Cadwalader Johnson was sorting through boxes of old family heirlooms last year when she discovered an unpublished manuscript for a children’s book written by her grandmother in the 1930s.

It certainly looks in this photo as if President Obama and his two daughters were reading “Amusement Trains,” published recently by Erdenheim resident Susan Cadwalader Johnson and Wyndmoor illustrator Sueli Melo Vieira, based on a whimsical manuscript written 80 years ago by Johnson’s grandmother, Leta Corinna Gunn Dahlgren. However, the truth is that the book had not been published yet when the Obamas’ photo was taken in a bookstore. Isn’t technology amazing? (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Attached to the manuscript was a card from the Platt and Munk Publishing Company in New York that had already in 1930 published “The Little Engine That Could,” the retelling of a classic, optimistic tale about a train unsure if it could reach its destination. The letter thanked the author, Leta Corinna Gunn Dahlgren, for her submission of an uplifting story about two brother trains, but said “it didn’t fit into our plans at the moment.”

Perhaps one train engine story for a generation was enough. Maybe Platt and Munk wanted to quell any potential competition against their train’s struggle to climb the hill. There was also a note with the text that indicated the story was “to be illustrated,” but there were still no pictures. The manuscript had sat in a box with Johnson’s grandmother’s wedding dress and a flax apron woven by Johnson’s family, who had run a farm in Gentry, Arkansas, in the 19th century.

“I said now’s my chance,” said Johnson, 62, a lifelong journal keeper who had earned a degree in English at the University of California Davis and always wanted to work on a book. “The door has been opened for me to really try.”

After meeting local illustrator Sueli Melo Vieira while swimming laps in the Springfield High School pool, it was agreed that Vieira would illustrate the book. The day after Thanksgiving in November of 2011, Johnson and Vieira gave the manuscript a second birth and published “Amusement Trains: The Story of Freddy and Flash” through CreateSpace, the self-publishing wing of Amazon.

The duo hosted several events at Chestnut Hill’s O’Doodles Toy Store, Jenkintown’s Rhinoceros Toy Store, the Joshua Tree Daycare, and the Springfield and Jenkintown Public Libraries that included an interactive reading of the story, Freddy and Flash-shaped puzzles created by Johnson’s husband, train sugar cookies, train recordings from the Railroad Museum of PA, and Freddy and Flash drawing lessons from Vieira. Upcoming calendar events include presenting “Amusement Trains: The Story of Freddy and Flash” at Wissahickon Library’s Local Authors’ Event on Thursday April 12, 1 to 3 p.m., 650 Skippack Pike, Blue Bell, and at Mt. Airy’s Kids’ three-day Literary Festival on Saturday April 14, 1 to 2 p.m., at the Big Blue Marble Bookstore, 551 Carpenter Lane.

“Amusement Trains” tells the tale of Freddy and Flash, two amusement park train rides. As Flash the roller coaster gets older, his paint chips and wheels begin to squeak. His future looks glum. Meanwhile, his brother Freddy, the park’s train, who often longed for the type of fun ride Flash provided kids, continues to transport kids through the park and blow his whistle. When Flash overhears the park’s owners talking about replacing him, he is consumed with sadness.

Children had a great time in an interactive reading of the 80-year-old “Amusement Trains: The Story of Freddy and Flash” at The Joshua Tree Daycare and Learning Center in South Philadelphia. There will be another reading for kids on Saturday, April 14, 1 to 2 p.m., at the Big Blue Marble Bookstore, 551 Carpenter Lane in Mt. Airy.

This is where the story of overcoming trials plays out. In the end, the owners find a way to keep Flash running, but now as a train alongside Freddy. The moral is to keep going and try to find a way to adapt when one is faced with difficulty that challenges one’s existence and also reveals the importance of recycling and finding the right place for everything.

That moral is something that Johnson’s grandmother embodied. Dahlgren was born at the turn of the 20th century in Gentry, Arkansas. During the Great Depression she raised three children on her own who became college graduates; all the while she wrote short stories and an unfinished novel, and to Johnson’s surprise, this children’s story. As a youth Dahlgren made four railroad trips with her family from Arkansas to Mt. Vernon, Washington, where the family would finally settle.

At 10, Johnson took a transcontinental railroad trip with her grandmother, who had traveled across Europe in trains, and the romance of the sprawling continent revealed itself as Johnson listened to her grandmother explain things like why Texas is called the Lone Star State.

Johnson was raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. After graduating from the University of California at Davis in 1971, she married Stephen Johnson, whom she had met her second day of college. A decade later, Stephen’s job took the couple and their two children to Frankfurt, Germany, for a year in 1982, and back to California for several years before returning to Bad Lippspringe, Germany, in 1985. In Bad Lippspringe, Johnson worked as an elementary music teacher in the German school system and refined her command of the German language.

Eventually, her husband’s work brought the couple to Philadelphia in 1989. By then, Johnson had been teaching music and musical theater, as well as directing choirs, for 20 years. Her husband encouraged her to enroll in the Westminster Choir College at Rider University nearby his work in Princeton, New Jersey. She went back in 1996, part-time first, then full-time and graduated with her master’s degree in 2001.

It was around that time that she secured a position as the lower elementary choir director and music teacher at Episcopal Academy’s Devon campus. “It was heaven on Earth,” said Johnson.

Her apocalypse, if you will, came in 2008 when Episcopal announced plans to merge its Devon and City Line Avenue sites into one new Newtown Square campus and dropped at least 30 staff members while keeping others who had more tenure.

That’s when Johnson had the time to sift through family heirlooms. “You’re the family kin-keeper,” Stephen said to her. (Stephen, 65, placed third in his age group a few years ago in the Broad Street Run and will run again this year, along with their daughter Amy, a local veterinarian.)

Johnson said the book serves as a parable for her life and for the times. After being let go from Episcopal, she felt lost, aged and unsure of how she fit into the future, much like Flash. “It’s basically my story, professionally, getting back on my feet,” she said.

During her more than 30-year career in music, Johnson has sung with Westminster’s Symphonic Choir at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center and has directed her young choirs in singing our National Anthem before many Phillies games. Now she is working to promote her grandmother’s book at libraries, schools, book stores, conferences and more.

At their readings, with train recordings, whistles, stomping feet and clapping hands, Johnson and Vieira actually get their audiences to sound like the little trains. The method creates an atmosphere where all participants realize immediate success in a musical ensemble, as layers of sound fill the room.

For more information, visit www.freddyandflash.com. “Amusement Trains: The Story of Freddy and Flash” is available in paperback at O’Doodles in Chestnut Hill, Rhinoceros Toy Store in Jenkintown, and online at Amazon and CreateSpace.com.

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