Author dips into Ben and Jerry's life

BOOKS FOR KIDS

July 09, 1993|By Molly Dunham Glassman | Molly Dunham Glassman,Staff Writer

The idea was as tempting as a triple dip of Heath Bar Crunch: to write a book about two boys who weren't particularly popular or athletic or good in school, who went on to become wildly successful anyway.

"This is a morality tale about fat boys doing good," said Jules Older, author of "Ben & Jerry: The Real Scoop," illustrated by Lyn Severance (Chapters Publishing, $6.95, all ages).

It's also the tale of hippies who never had to stop being hippies -- another reason the idea of writing about ice cream kings Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield must have appealed to Mr. Older, 53. It takes one to know one.

Born and raised in Baltimore, Mr. Older was a 1958 graduate of City College -- "just barely," he says -- who went to the University of Vermont because it was kind enough to accept him.

When he lost a summer job digging ditches, he took the advice of his mother, a social worker, and volunteered as an aide at psychiatric hospitals in the Baltimore area. Inspired, he finished his undergraduate work and followed it up with a doctorate in clinical psychology from New York University.

Active in the civil rights movement, he worked four years in a program to get black and Hispanic youngsters into the top private schools in New York City. But in 1972, he quit.

He and his wife, Effin, had twin daughters -- named Amber and Willow, appropriately enough. Their neighborhood wasn't a safe place to raise kids and, more important, "We couldn't stand Nixon and had to get out," Mr. Older said.

So they spun a globe and chose New Zealand.

They liked it so much that they stayed 14 years.

Mr. Older taught medical students at the University of Otago, and Mrs. Older worked as a writer. Mr. Older also began writing for children, building on stories he told as a school volunteer.

"After psychiatric aides, I think teachers have the hardest jobs," he said. "I used to go to the schools and give the teachers a break, telling stories for a half-hour or so."

A British publisher, William Heinemann Ltd., accepted a series he wrote about a brother and sister named Hank Prank and Hot Henrietta. The Olders worked together on two books in that series, then collaborated on six books in a non-fiction series published by Golden Books.

"After we signed the contract with Golden Books, we decided to come back and make our fortunes as writers," Mr. Older said. "But that series collapsed the day we set foot in America. Meanwhile, we had sold our house in New Zealand and put our money in the New Zealand stock market." It promptly crashed, and still hasn't recovered.

It was 1986. The family moved to Vermont, where Amber and Willow worked their way through college while Mr. Older worked as a free-lance newspaper and magazine writer "because I couldn't make enough money writing children's books. Then I discovered the perfect subject for a kid's book."

That's how "Ben & Jerry: The Real Scoop" came to be. At a dinner party two years ago, he met Lyn Severance, who designs all the ice cream cartons as director of the Ben & Jerry's art department. He told her he wanted her to illustrate the book.

She, in turn, arranged a meeting with Ben, who signed off on the idea. "His words to his secretary were, 'Give the dude a letter,' " Mr. Older said. "I kept editorial control, but they were encouraged to make suggestions."

The result is 80 pages of fun. It opens with Ben and Jerry as childhood buddies on Long Island, where the two "widebodies" hate having to run around the track in gym class.

They go their separate ways after graduation. Ben bounces around a couple of colleges, drops out and goes through a succession of jobs: driving an ice cream truck, flipping hamburgers, mopping floors. Jerry goes to Oberlin College but then can't get into medical school anywhere.

The old pals get back together, bum around for a while and then hit upon the idea that they might be able to make a little money by making ice cream. They move to Vermont, pay $5 for an extension course on how to make ice cream, and set up shop in an abandoned gas station.

Before they know it, they're making lots of money, giving away lots of ice cream, and making headlines as a socially conscious corporation that supports everything from small dairy farms in Vermont to Brazil nut crops in the South American rain forest.

A recent "social audit" of Ben & Jerry's suggests that the company has strayed from its ideals. Smaller competitors contend that Ben & Jerry's main distributor has squeezed them out of the market -- something Pillsbury, which owns Haagen-Dazs, tried to do to Ben & Jerry's nine years ago.

"These guys are two hippies who have become, quite unexpectedly, multimillion-dollar businessmen," Mr. Older said. "They make no claims of being Mahatma Gandhi. If you hold them up to the standards of perfection, they fail. But if you hold them up to the standards of business as usual, they far exceed almost any company."

Ben & Jerry's still donates 7 1/2 cents of every dollar earned to charity -- just as Mr. Older, Ms. Severance and the publisher will donate 7.5 percent of their profits from this book to teach non-reading parents and their children to read.

If that's not reason enough to sample the book, consider the quiz at the back. The last question: "Who was the flavor Cherry Garcia named after? Answer: Ask your mom or dad."

The book can be ordered through Chapters Publishing Ltd., 2031 Shelburne Road, Shelburne, Vt. 05482. For more information, call (802) 985-8700.

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