Christopher Bernard was already a prolific writer before publishing these two books in his new children’s series, Otherwise: To Ride a Crooked Trolley and The Judgment of Biesta. Before that, he had never even considered writing for children; his previous works leaned more experimental, including poetry, plays, and novels for adult audiences. Then one day he was riding the bus to a concert when he saw a yellow trolley with a clanging bell charging down the street. The vehicle was so distinctive it seemed to pop out from another world, and Bernard was instantly inspired by the idea of a child on his way to school boarding the trolley and being swept off to a magical adventure:

As the trolley clanked around the corner in the freezing predawn, Petey noticed how it looked kinda funny. With its single headlight glaring like the head in the raised hand of the headless horseman, it lumbered with a determined squealing straight toward the little boy where he’d been waiting, alone and half-frozen, under the old, flickering streetlight.

But Petey had never seen this trolley before, battered and leaning perilously over like it had just a drop too much at its last stop and moving toward him unsteadily through the early morning fog.

The bell clanged twice, and the curiously vulnerable-looking machine groaned as it rolled down the rails. There was no other traffic on the icy streets, and the night was pitch dark beyond the cones of light from lamps disappearing in the fog up and down Buckingham Street.

In this first story, Petey asks the driver if the trolley will go past his school, and when the driver assures him it will, Petey is satisfied that this strange streetcar is the one he is meant to take. But instead of going to another ordinary day at school, Petey is transported to the world of Otherwise, where he meets a girl who needs help rescuing her family. In the second story, The Judgment of Biesta, Petey faces a challenge when no one at home believes his fantastical tales of Otherwise. Kirkus Reviews calls the two stories “a pair of appealing adventures with an edgy through-the-looking-glass feel.”

Bernard, who grew up on the East Coast but now makes his home in San Francisco, works as a technical editor in the fields of information technology and medicine. Mostly, he is a man of many interests and creative pursuits. As a child, he put on his own magic and puppet shows, he tried composing music and painting, and he narrowly avoided an explosive disaster while playing with a chemistry set in his bedroom. He spent part of his childhood in Guadalajara, where Romantic music, English poetry, and Russian fiction were some of his first creative influences. In college, he not only pursued history, literature, and philosophy but also participated in theater and in counseling programs serving disenfranchised teenagers.

Bernard won the Temple University student poetry contest and had both fiction and nonfiction works published in the United States and the United Kingdom. He has since published several novels and a couple of collections of short stories, with praise from Kirkus Reviews and writers like Juan Goytisolo and Pauline Butcher. His third poetry collection, The Socialist’s Garden of Verses, won a PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Literary Award as well as a place on Kirkus Reviews’ list of the Top Indie Books of 2021. Bernard’s plays have been broadcast on the radio around the San Francisco Bay Area, he is a contributing writer for Synchronized Chaos magazine, and he is the founder and co-editor of the literary and art publication Caveat Lector. He wrote the libretto and music for an opera, he publishes his photography, and his personal journaling has filled more than 100 volumes. In 2019 he won the Albert Nelson Marquis Lifetime Achievement Award.

Writing for children was one of the very few artistic pursuits Bernard had yet to try. “The first story, To Ride a Crooked Trolley, was by far the hardest writing I had faced in a very long time,” he says. As any writer can attest, the prospect of crafting something new fueled his inner critic. But he pushed himself anyway, knowing that if he didn’t pounce on inspiration when he had the chance, his ideas might fly away and he’d be left with the one thing that’s worse than self-criticism: writer’s block. “Every sentence collided with a dozen doubts. I couldn’t just let my imagination run wild as I usually do; I felt certain I couldn’t trust my instincts, so what was I to do? Obviously: research!”

Bernard doesn’t have children, and many of the kids in his extended friends-and-family circle don’t live nearby, so he immersed himself in children’s literature. From old classics like The Wind in the Willows to modern favorites like A Series of Unfortunate Events, he studied the kind of writing that keeps kids engaged and entertained. He also recalled his own childhood favorites, like the Golden Books series, Raphael Sabatini’s Captain Blood, the Horatio Hornblower books, and the Hardy Boys and Tom Swift.

When he settled on the particulars of his story, he sent out drafts to his friends’ children for notes. “I was surprised—shocked, gratified, delighted—at the reactions of readers, both young and old,” he says. “They were far better than anything I had expected or even hoped. I was thoroughly relieved and went on a tweaking jag, primping and polishing till the story seemed to shine.” That positive feedback gave Bernard the confidence to write the second story, The Judgment of Biesta.

Despite the children’s valuable insights, Bernard had to learn the same lesson that so many adult writers must in order to write stories that connect with young readers. “It took me a while to realize,” he says, “but the best thing for me to do, rather than try to guess what would please contemporary audiences, was to deliberately regress to my own childhood and please and satisfy the child I will forever carry within myself.” Of course, that was no simple task; Bernard says that it took many rewrites and revisions before he found his inner kid.

Nevertheless, Bernard began the writing process for his Otherwise stories the same way he begins the process for his adult novels: with a beginning and an ending. “For the rest, I invent as I go along,” he says. “I know where I am going, but I have no idea how I will get there. And this process of discovery is what keeps me interested. Though that’s too weak a word for it. I live my stories as I write them; my characters’ fears and hopes become mine, too.”

Christopher Bernard fans of all ages can find his works at any online book retailer. He plans to continue his Otherwise stories, with Petey and all the other characters he calls “my little heroes.”


Chelsea Ennen is a writer living in Brooklyn.