Theodore Taylor

Bestselling author of 'The Cay'

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

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Mia Freedman, editorial director of the Mamamia website, reads out a tweet she was sent.
Arts and Entertainment
The write stuff: masters of story-telling James Joyce, left, and Thomas Hardy
books...begging to differ, John Walsh can't even begin to number the ways
Jose Mourinho on Sky Sports
footballEXCLUSIVE COLUMN Paul Scholes: It was not a leg-breaking tackle, as the Chelsea manager had claimed
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Web Application Developer / Software Developer

£21000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This software development compa...

Recruitment Genius: Brand Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Do you wish to be part of an exciting journey ...

Guru Careers: Talent Manager

£30-35k (P/T - Pro Rata) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienc...

Anna Woodward: Invoicing Clerk

£21,500: Anna Woodward: The Accounts Payable team for this group is recruiting...

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower