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Nate the Great
By Marjorie Weinman Sharmat
Delacorte, $13.95
64 pages, ISBN 0385730179

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A kid detective who never grows old

INTERVIEW BY HEIDI HENNEMAN

Nate the Great is 30! The classic children's book character created by Marjorie Weinman Sharmat and illustrated by Caldecott Award winner Marc Simont has reached a major milestone. But don't look for the young detective to hang up his cloak and magnifying glass quite yet. Sharmat, along with her trusted band of co-authors, is still cranking out Nate tales left and right, and in honor of the sleuth's 30th anniversary, a new hardcover edition of the first mystery in the series, Nate the Great, originally published in 1972, was recently released.

Author Photo For Sharmat, writing is all about family. With the help of Mitchell, her husband of 46 years and an author in his own right, Sharmat has just finished her 24th Nate the Great title, which is set to be published in October 2003. And this is not the first book Sharmat has co-authored with a family member. Her sister, Rosalind Weinman, helped pen several titles, and her son, Craig Sharmat, a musical director, has collaborated on a few as well, including Nate the Great and the Musical Note.

The author has always based her characters on those near and dear to her. The title character, a young pancake-hungry detective, was inspired by her father, Nathan Weinman, who was often called Nate by his friends. "A novel I had written previous to the Nate books featured my mother and sister," explains Sharmat. "So when the idea came into my head for the young detective character, I thought it was time for my father to be in a book, too." But Sharmat didn't stop there.

"I wasn't finished with my other relatives," she explains, "so I named the other characters in the book after them." Her sister Rosalind became the feline-loving Rosamond. Her uncle Harry became the mischievous young Harry. And her mother Anne played a part as Nate's friend Annie. And those are just the characters in the first book.

Sharmat admits that many of the events in her books have been inspired by things that have happened to her friends and relatives. "My sister and I recalled an instance when our father got a phone call down to the family business in the middle of the night to deal with an attempted robbery," says Sharmat. "That turned into Nate the Great and the Pillowcase." In another title, Sharmat recollects how her sister's scarf flew away. "Often it's something that somebody says to me that inspires me," admits Sharmat, "It can be just one sentence and then I'm off."

But Sharmat's inspiration isn't completely based on others. She herself is a part-time, amateur detective. "I love mysteries," she admits. "When things go wrong, I take an interest, and I love to find things."

And find things she does. Like the perfect literary niche for her Nate stories. "At the time I wrote the first Nate the Great, 30 years ago, easy reading books were just starting to become popular," says Sharmat, "And I wanted to make this book, inspired by my father, easy to read."

It was as simple as that. The book was quickly accepted by Putnam, which was just starting an easy reading program. The acceptance letter arrived on her father's birthday. And shortly thereafter, the book was reviewed by Gene Shalit on the Today show. That night when Sharmat's father went to the synagogue, everyone started calling him Nate the Great. "It was wonderful," recalls Sharmat.

Sadly, before the second title was published, Sharmat's father passed away. "I told him before he died that I would continue writing the Nate stories," the author says, "I knew that I would—whether or not they were published—because I felt that Nate was such a strong character, and he was based on such a wonderful man."

Recently, Nate has appeared in a New York Times crossword puzzle and decorated the front of 28 million Cheerios boxes to promote children's literacy. He is also on display at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.

After 30 years, Sharmat still doesn't know where Nate the Great will lead her next. "This was never a preplanned series," says Sharmat, "and often Nate writes himself—book by book." Sharmat tries to come up with the solution to every case before she starts writing, but it doesn't always happen that way. Sometimes it's her husband Mitchell who comes up with the crux of the case. "He has so many intriguing ideas," says Sharmat, "He is always my first editor, and it's been a very happy collaboration."


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