What I Learned About Gumby—and My Son

Since the subtitle of Following Ezra refers to the what I learned about Gumby and otters, a lot of people have asked, “What, exactly, did you learn about Gumby?” A few have posed a more basic question: “What’s Gumby?”

Let’s take the second question first: Gumby is a green clay-animated character who appeared on a TV show that started in the 1950s. Gumby was also one of Ezra’s earliest obsessions. He first came across a rubber toy Gumby figure at the home of friends when he was four or five. He found it captivating, and in the months and years that followed, learned everything he could about Gumby, his animated friends, and about Gumby’s creator, Art Clokey. (See the Chapter Seven, “Gumby, Cheerios, and Red T-Shirts.”) None of Ezra’s peers knew or cared about Gumby. Ezra didn’t care — or even notice.

I did learn a lot about Gumby, but even more important was what I learned about Ezra and about the kinds of strong obsessions children with autism can develop. Instead of trying to steer him toward some other interest (a difficult challenge in itself), Shawn and I watched and listened — and waited to see where this might lead.

It did lead somewhere. His interest in Gumby helped ignite a fascination with animation of all kinds — Pixar, Disney, The Simpsons. Eventually, that led to something else: Ezra started creating his own animation, with the help of some remarkable teachers at a place called Media Enrichment Academy. At age 12, he produced a delightful, hilarious 2-minute animation called “Alphabet House.” It’s the kind of story only someone with a mind like Ezra’s could conceive: A sweet, charming tale about all 26 letters living together and what happens when one gets hurt.

Among the people who saw “Alphabet House” was a talented, bestselling children’s book illustrator and author, Tom Lichtenheld. He liked it so much that he was convinced it would make a wonderful children’s book. One thing led to another, and Tom, with Ezra’s inspiration and contributions, created just that book. It’s called E-Mergency, and it’s being published in the coming days. (See one of the rave reviews here.)

Yesterday, Ezra shared a spirited and entertaining Skype chat with his coauthor (who lives in Illinois), and peppered Tom L. with questions and comments. In the process, they discovered something they had in common: collections of books about the detailed work that goes into Disney and Pixar’s animated features. Ezra kept calling him by his full name: “Thank you for doing such a good job on E-mergency,Tom Lichtenheld.”

A short while later, I was checking on my laptop and noticed something: Google’s homepage looked different. As it happened, in honor of the 90th birthday of Art Clokey, the search page was featuring animated versions of Gumby and his pals — animations you could activate by clicking on colorful pictures of balls of clay. “Look, Abba,” he said. “It’s Pokey!” Then: “Look, that’s Goo!”

Of course, Ezra knew that Art Clokey didn’t turn 90 Tuesday.  “He died last year, on January 8, 2010,” Ezra said, a bit forlorn.

In our house, though, he lives on.

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One Comment

  1. sara
    Posted October 14, 2011 at 8:01 am | Permalink

    I just showed my son the video on you tube and he is SMITTEN with Ezra’s story! He, too, has a fascination with Pixar and animation and I hope that we can provide him with an opportunity such as Ezra has had to create his own animation. Such an awesome idea!

    This post made me think of a question I’d like to ask you: have you struggled with how other people (strangers/people who don’t know him) perceive and/or respond to Ezra? At my sons recent school meeting, we discussed the different challenges that life might present to him as he gets older and one that was listed over and over in both my reading and brought up in the meeting is the issue of how other people treat people who are autistic/on the spectrum. Right now it isn’t as much of an issue since my son is only 6 and has no concept of people being mean (thank God! I dread that day… though all children experience it), but it’s evident to me and my husband already when we see the neighborhood kids playing and my other son joining in while my older boy is more on the fringe of the group, not interested in riding bikes (he’s not at all interested and, from what I can gather, afraid due to the whole spatial awareness, or lack thereof) and would rather reenact scenes from movies or talk or … a million of the other things that HE loves to do, but most 5, 6 and 7 year olds don’t even THINK of! It often breaks my heart – and that’s when I most find myself wishing that he weren’t so different, for HIS sake. As his mama, I want everyone to love him as much as I do and to celebrate his quirks and differences… even though I know that’s not a reality. Have you and your wife struggled with this at all? Has it ever bothered Ezra, or does he remain unaware, even as he gets older? Any tips for coping with this?

    Thanks again for sharing your story/life. I look forward to your posts and to reading your book (it’s sold out locally!).

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