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Star-Bulletin Features

Tuesday, May 2, 2000

By George F. Lee, Star-Bulletin
James Rumford, author of the children's book "Seeker
of Knowledge."


Children's book 'Seeker of
Knowledge' is the result of
author James Rumford's
own quest for knowledge

By Leslie Lang
Special to the Star-Bulletin


JAMES Rumford first read about Jean-Francois Champollion when he was about 11, the same age as Champollion when, in 1802, the French boy vowed to be the first to decipher Egypt's mysterious hieroglyphs.

"He knew that if he was ever going to crack the code, he would have to learn the Coptic language. He decided he would keep a diary in Coptic; that he would learn it better than his own French language. That just really struck me as an interesting thing to do," he said.

By George F. Lee, Star-Bulletin
You need to read Rumford's book to decode
his hieroglyphic message.

"I think all kids are like Jean-Francois Champollion," said Rumford. "When they're 10, 11, 12 years old, most of them have a clear picture of what they want to do. Whether they do it, and how it gets changed, that's another story. But here's a boy who did it."

And Rumford wants all kids to know that dreams can come true with hard work. The Manoa author has just released a children's book about Champollion, "Seeker of Knowledge."

The book, written and illustrated by Rumford is published by Houghton Mifflin.

A teacher who read an advance copy of the book to his fourth grade class wrote Rumford a letter, saying he was initially skeptical about it.

"He said he found Champollion a bit too much, too driven," Rumford said. "But his students were completely taken by this person who dedicated his life to this task. At the end they considered him to be a hero.

"The teacher said he was pleased they had a hero who was a scholar, not a basketball player or rock star."

The kids also requested photo copies of the book's endpapers, which tell a story in hieroglyphs.

The teacher continued, "Two days later, two of the children came in with books from the library and they were learning hieroglyphs."

An obsession with learning is something Rumford understands well. He has a master's degree in linguistics from the University of Hawaii, speaks many languages, and taught himself hieroglyphs for this book. They are scattered throughout the text.

When he's not crafting child-ren's stories, Rumford publishes his own, limited-run books. Next to his house, in a tiny room crammed with trays of type, stacks of different kinds of papers, books, pens, knives, framed drawings, and an antique Japanese iron handpress from the turn of the last century, he operates Manoa Press, which allows him to pursue another long-held dream: that of creating handmade books.

He handles every step of the process, from translating texts, or writing and illustrating books on topics such as Chinese papermaking and the Hawaiian language. An accomplished papermaker, he creates the pages from pulp, and then sets type by hand and prints the pages on the handpress, and then binds them together. Sometimes he uses poi to paste on the covers, a technique he learned from researching early printing in Hawaii. He even markets the books himself.

When he signs a book contract with another publishing company, Rumford retains Hawaiian language rights, then translates the text and publishes Hawaiian language inserts through Manoa Press. He's done this for his new release, as well.

"As odd as the topic is for Hawaiian-speaking children, you're going to have a book in which the insert has hieroglyphs and Hawaiian on the same page," he said. His aim is to make such works available for Hawaiian-immersion schools. Hawaiian inserts are free upon request to anyone who buys the book.

His first children's book, "The Cloudmakers" (Houghton Mifflin, 1996), is a fictional story based on a legend about how the art of Chinese papermaking spread around the world. Rumford wrote that story, painted watercolors, and sent it off to the publisher, which mailed back a contract, just like that.

Only later did he learn how poor the odds are for acceptance of unsolicited works. Houghton Mifflin receives 12,000 manuscripts a year and only publishes about 100.

His second book for Houghton Mifflin, "The Island-below-the-Star," was called one of the 10 best children's books of 1998 by a New York Times reviewer. The book tells a story about Polynesian navigation. At Rumford's request, the book was published in Hawaiian as well as English. The Hawaiian version is available as an insert.

These days, Rumford is finishing his next project, "Traveling Man," due from Houghton Mifflin next March. It is based on a true story of a 14th-century Moroccan who leaves home at age 21 and travels around the Moslem world for 30 years.

"I want to tell kids about it, this world where there were few books, and traveling was a dangerous thing. And how a traveler became a storyteller, to connect people to this world. And I want to connect people to the 14th century."

Rumford, a former schoolteacher and a traveler himself who has lived and taught in Saudi Arabia and Rwanda among other places, often reads his stories to young classes. (They usually get to hear works-in-progress, too.)

A dynamic reader and speaker, he was speaking to students in an elementary school class once when a little girl raised her hand to ask a question.

"I didn't know why, but everybody held their breath when she raised her hand," he said. "And afterward I was told she was an abused child who hadn't spoken one word all year."

She asked if he liked writing books. He told her he does. "I like to write these books to talk to kids and tell them about things I find interesting.

"Whether it's Polynesian navigation or papermaking or Arab map-making, or an era we know nothing about in which a man from Morocco could travel to China in the 14th century and have a common culture. We don't know anything about that as Americans," he said. "So why not learn about it?"


Bullet What: James Rumford signs his new book "Seeker of Knowledge"
Bullet Where: Honolulu Academy of Arts
Bullet When: 1 to 2:30 p.m. Saturday
Bullet Also: At Bookends in Kailua, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. May 13

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