Theodore Taylor

Bestselling author of 'The Cay'
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The Independent Online

Theodore Langhans Taylor, writer: born Statesville, North Carolina 23 June 1921; married 1946 Gweneth Goodwin (two sons, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1977), 1981 Flora Schoenleber; died Laguna Beach, California 26 October 2006.

Theodore Taylor is best known for his searing children's novel The Cay, which won 11 literary awards, was translated into 14 languages and sold over four million copies. Drawing on memories of the tiny Caribbean island where he was stationed after he was called up for the Korean War during the 1950s, Taylor dedicated this novel "to Dr [Martin Luther] King's dream, which can only come true if the very young know and understand".

One of Taylor's own first memories was of a dozen Ku Klux riders passing by his house holding aloft lit pine-knot torches; a terrifying experience which turned him against racism for the rest of his life. He was born in Statesville, North Carolina, in 1921. He and his four sisters lived in poverty while their father was forced to leave home in search of work during the Great Depression.

Aged 10 and getting up at 4.30 every morning for a two-hour paper round, "Ted" still found time to explore local muddy fields and creeks while also climbing every possible tree in his path. He began writing when he was 13, covering school sports events for local papers, and four years later went off to join the Washington Daily News. During the Second World War he worked as a seaman on a petrol tanker, later graduating to naval officer. In 1946 he participated in the testing of two atomic bombs at Bikini Atoll in the Western Pacific.

Having produced his first adult novel, The Magnificent Mitscher (1955), Taylor joined Paramount Pictures as a press agent and eventually as associate producer. But after the filming of Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), he turned to writing full-time, finding fame with his first children's book, The Cay (1969).

Based on an actual story that Taylor unearthed while researching a non-fiction book, it describes the relationship in 1942 between Phillip, a recently blinded 11-year-old American white boy, and Timothy, a saintly old West Indian sailor. Together they manage to survive shipwreck and then a hurricane as they struggle to cope on their own on the tiny, deserted island of the title. In the end Timothy gives up his life to save Phillip, who is finally rescued.

Seen as strongly anti-racist at the time, it has since been accused of patronising the illiterate Timothy, who is described by Phillip while he can still see as ugly because "his nose was flat and his face was broad". He is also shown practising voodoo and refers to Phillip as "young bahss" for the first half of the story. One critic called the book "an adventure story for white colonialists - however enlightened - to add to their racist mythology". But the humanity of this fine tale is never in doubt, and, while Phillip - who hails from Virginia - articulates the common prejudices held there about black people at the time, he roundly rejects them before the book finishes. In 1974 it was made into a television film starring James Earl Jones.

The Maldonado Miracle (1973) and The Teetoncey Trilogy (1974-77) describe life on the remote riverbanks of North Carolina. But readers kept demanding more about Phillip and Timothy, and having received over 200,000 pleading letters from fans Taylor finally gave them the prequel/sequel Timothy of the Cay (1993).

There were many adult novels too, and some ghost writing. But it was as a children's author that Taylor was best known, writing in muscular prose that makes its point in a minimum of words. The Hostage (1987), Sniper (1989) and The Weirdo (1992) are all powerful stories within which troubled young people play out their own personal dramas against a common background of endangered wild life. The Bomb (1995) tells the story of America's first atomic test explosions. The Flight of Jesse Leroy Brown (1998) records the life of the US Navy's first Afro-American pilot to fly a navy fighter and make a carrier landing.

Living with his wife three blocks away from the Pacific Ocean in California, Taylor remained active to a late age, still following his favourite hobby of sea fishing. His autobiography, Making Love to Typewriters, appeared earlier this year.

Nicholas Tucker