Taking up a second career, especially after retirement, is not that unusual.
Going from corporate law to writing children’s books, however, is a bit unexpected.
Yet Michael A. Kaufman — Mickey to his friends — the author of the Fox and Camel children’s book series carved that very path. (He’s written seven of them so far.)
His journey began in Hungary.
“I am an immigrant, a product of the Hungarian Revolution,” Mr. Kaufman said. “I came here with my parents. We were living in Hungary, in poverty, though I didn’t know that. I had no basis for comparison.”
As a child, owning nothing but some postage stamps he saved from mail that came from America, he was forced to leave them behind when the family fled Hungary in 1956. The day they escaped — he had been on his way to piano lessons when his father called him back — his mother, father, and aunt began hurriedly to pack their bags. He put his stamps in his own suitcase but his aunt removed them, saying there was no room. “They got left behind, and we weren’t coming back,” he said. “I carried on for eons.” Mr. Kaufman was eight years old then.
“I can tell you about the trip out, or anything to do with school in the U.S., but I remember nothing from Hungary, except for the escape. It was pretty traumatic.
“My little sister heard the stamp story over and over,” he recalled. “For my 60th birthday she bought me cufflinks engraved with American stamps.”
Memories of lost stamps, together with creativity and the ability to tell a good story, formed the basis of “The Stamp Collection,” one of Mr. Kaufman’s seven books. In that story, it is Camel who loses the stamps.
On December 1, Mr. Kaufman — who now is 72, and began writing when he was 69 — will kick off the virtual author lecture series sponsored by the Foundation of the Wilf Campus for Senior Living, discussing the factors that led to his literary career. After decades spent working as a corporate lawyer, mainly at Johnson & Johnson, “When I began to write, I said to myself that anyone can do this,” he said. “But then it dawned on me, not too many people actually do.”
At Johnson & Johnson, Mr. Kaufman met another lawyer, Robert L. Zocca, with whom he had a lot in common. They even retired on the same day. One of the things they did together was “writing stuff. He was very good. His father was a professor and he had been an English major. I wanted to write but I didn’t think I could. For 10 years we wrote funny verses back and forth. I was learning the craft as I went along.”
At retirement, when Mr. Zocca got up to address the audience, “he read a poem to me. I did the same to him. We hadn’t planned it.” The poem addressed to Mr. Kaufman now hangs, framed, in his home.
Mr. Kaufman’s professional writing career “started completely by chance,” he said. On vacation with Andrea — who is the youngest of his three children, was 5 years old at the time, and is 24 now — “one day it occurred to me that I could get her attention by telling her stories. Out of the blue came two characters, Fox and Camel. They were best friends, and I would make up stuff about them. As she grew older, I told her more stories. When she asked where I got them, I would say that I went to the library, took out a volume of stories, and memorized them.”
“When she got older, she said, ‘You don’t do that. These are really good. You should write them down.’ I had a fairly demanding position with Johnson & Johnson, so I had no time for that.
“But after I retired, Andrea said, ‘You’ve run out of excuses.’ So I said OK, I sat down, and I started writing. I wrote the first book and sent it to some professional who said it was way too long. It had to be 700 words.” While he didn’t remember the stories he had told, when he sat down to write, “they came bubbling out.”
After he started writing, he realized that most of the books were loosely based on events that had happened to him or to family members, Mr. Kaufman said. In addition, “they all had something worthwhile to say.
“When my synagogue, the East Brunswick Jewish Center, called to see if I could read my stories to the junior congregation, they asked if there was any Jewish content. I told them that Jewish values are reflected in the stories, and they are instructive of what children need to learn to succeed in life — how to share, learn patience, respect parents, and play with friends. Those themes run throughout the books.
“I have no notion that this was any great literary work, but I like them because they have a story to tell and were nice stories for three- to seven-year-olds.”
Mr. Kaufman also had in mind that he would have grandchildren — now he has four of them — and that these stories could be read to them. In fact, his grandchildren love them.
When he decided to publish, “I asked my sister to find an illustrator,” he said; he didn’t want a publisher to choose one but instead “wanted to control the artistic endeavor. I went looking for an illustrator and found one.” Her name is Lorraine Dey.
“I told her about the stories and she said she could envision them. She came up with the look of the book. I showed my wife, who said the characters were adorable. Lorraine really brought the stories to life.”
His family gave the final product their heksher. “You did it!” said his wife, Sherryl, former president of Hadassah’s southern New Jersey region, and his son and his family sent him a Father’s Day card addressed to “the coolest dad.” As for Andrea, “she couldn’t believe that I actually sat down and wrote the book.”
The Fox and Camel books are available from BookBaby.com or on Mr. Kaufman’s website, www.foxncamel.com.
Who: Michael A. Kaufman
What: Will kick off the Author Lecture Series sponsored by the Foundation of the Wilf Campus for Senior Living
When: On December 1 at 6 p.m.
Where: It’s online.
How: Participants must register in advance at www.tinyurl.com/WilfAuthorSeriesKaufman; after they register they’ll get the link.
Link to join the webinar will be emailed to after registration.
For more information: Email email@example.com or call (732) 649-3502, ext. 104
And also: You can buy signed copies of Fox & Camel before the program. Find details at www.wilfcampus.org/author-lecture-series.