By Alicia Doyle

The Writer
Specializing in Good News
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Author stirs up children's imaginations

with subtle lessons

Friday, July 4, 2008
Ventura County Star

For Newbury Park author Robert West, a childhood dream about building a treehouse shaped like a spaceship was the inspiration behind his current series, "The Star-Fighters of Murphy Street."

"Unfortunately, we had just moved into a new suburban development outside of Indianapolis, and the only trees were spindly little saplings that would fall down if you leaned on them," recalled West, 62.

"So the dream never became a reality. Until this series of stories, that is."

Three books in the series have been recently released: "There's a Spaceship in My Tree," "Attack of the Spider Bots" and "Escape from the Drooling Octopod."

The stories, which revolve around the adventures of children Beamer, Ghoulie and Scilla, are based on the question: What would a child do if he or she discovered a spaceship in a tree?

Escapades into the unknown

While the titles suggest an old-fashioned movie serial, the theme of this series is compelling, West said. "It is a world for limitless escapades into the unknown, where kids can learn that, however different they are from one another, they are each a special creation with a destiny all their own."

Born and raised in Indianapolis, West moved to Newbury Park in 1974 to take a position as an assistant professor and director of theater at Pepperdine University.

For his book series, "many of the stories (were) tapped out on my laptop computer while backstage during rehearsals and performances," said West, who remains active in theater, making frequent acting appearances in regional productions.

He eventually moved on from Pepperdine and, after spending a few years as a graduate fellow at UCLA, became involved in the film industry, where he served as a story editor and associate producer for several movies, including "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom."

Concern for 'different' kids

He was later hired by an up-and-coming production studio to develop four TV series for children.

"While the studio collapsed during a recession before the series could be produced, I benefited from much research on children's programming and the psychology of child perception," West said.

Several years ago, he collaborated with author Bill Myers to write three episodes in the "McGee and Me" series, which was picked up by ABC and aired on Saturday mornings for a time.

"By then, my wife, Helen, and I had three young sons, who were an incredible delight to us and who further spurred my interest in writing for children," West said.

Another impetus for the series is his concern for kids who are "different" and who find themselves alienated from other children.

"Stories and fragments of stories about bullies and the bullied have been around for generations," West said, "but my first-hand experience with an autistic boy made the problem more acute."

'He could not fit in'

Unfortunately, his condition was not diagnosed until he was well into middle school because he was high functioning and quite intelligent, with no obvious physical problems.

"Nevertheless, he had certain mannerisms that made him stand out," West recalled.

"Try as he might, he could not fit in. It was agonizing to see this handsome, blond and green-eyed, intelligent boy fall deeper and deeper into depression."

Part of the goal of his series is to reach all kids, but especially those who have found themselves to be different, with the message that they are a special creation.

"They are in this world for a reason, uniquely gifted to help make it a better place," West said.

The stories, however, are fun, funny and full of wonder, mystery and adventure — not heavy or preachy, West emphasized.

"That little spoonful of medicine is a pleasant little flavoring amid the sugar, carefully embedded within the action and adventure."

California teen in Middle America

The series tells the story of 13-year-old Beamer from California, an alien in the world of Middle America, exiled to a bizarre, ancient house on a mysterious street that may or may not exist on any map.

"He soon discovers, however, that the everyday on Murphy Street is far from ordinary, for this is a special place on the edge of fantasy, pushing the boundaries of science and imagination, with people and places mysterious, wonderful and often delightfully terrifying," West said.

With the help of a nerdy African-American kid named Ghoulie, a gangly tomboy named Scilla and a broken-down treehouse capable of bridging all the boundaries of time and space, Beamer tangles with the indigenous life forms of subterranean caverns, dark forests, space platforms, worlds on the verge of exploding, and a spider web the size of a house.

"Murphy Street is an amalgam of many places — my wife's childhood neighborhood in Memphis, the huge attic in the old frame house, the first house where I grew up in Indianapolis, the fireflies I used to catch, the treehouse shaped like a sailing ship I built with my kids in California, and my love for astronomy," said West, who has a degree in math and physics and almost pursued a career in astrophysics.

He plans to amplify the wonders of Murphy Street in future episodes, he said, "giving kids new discoveries and surprises with new mysteries and exciting adventures to experience."

Synopsis:

Beamer, age 13, who speaks only Californian, is an alien in the world of Middle America, exiled to a bizarre, ancient house on a mysterious street that may or may not exist on any map. With the help of a nerdy African-American kid named Ghoulie, a gangly tomboy named Scilla, and a miraculous, broken-down tree house shaped like a spaceship, he battles the indigenous life forms in his new home, from bullying creatures to the strange inhabitants of dark castles, subterranean caverns, and a spider web the size of a house, to discover how God gives a distinctive purpose to each uniquely designed human being. 





"Stories and fragments of stories about bullies and the bullied have been around for generations," West said, "but my first-hand experience with an autistic boy made the problem more acute."
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