Homer H. Hickam, Jr. was born on February 19, 1943, the second son of Homer and Elsie Hickam, and was raised in Coalwood, West Virginia. He graduated from Big Creek High School in 1960 and from the Virginia Polytechnic Institute (Virginia Tech) in 1964 with a BS degree in Industrial Engineering.
A U.S. Army veteran, Mr. Hickam served as a First Lieutenant in the Fourth Infantry Division in Vietnam in 1967-1968 where he won the Army Commendation and Bronze Star medals. He served six years on active duty, leaving the service with the rank of Captain. Hickam has been a writer since 1969 after his return from Vietnam. At first, he mostly wrote about his scuba diving adventures for a variety of different magazines. Then, after diving on many of the wrecks involved, he branched off into writing about the battle against the U-boats along the American east coast during World War II. This resulted in his first book, Torpedo Junction (1989), a military history best-seller published in 1989 by the Naval Institute Press.
In 1998, Delacorte Press published Hickam's second book,
Rocket Boys: A Memoir, the story of his life
in the little town of Coalwood, West Virginia. It became
an instant classic. Rocket Boys has since
been translated into eight languages and also released
as an abridged audio book and electronic book. Among
it's many honors, it was selected by the New York Times
as one of its "Great Books of 1998" and was
an alternate "Book-of-the-Month" selection
for both the Literary Guild and Doubleday book clubs.
Rocket Boys was also nominated by the National Book
Critics Circle as Best Biography of 1998. In February,
1999, Universal Studios released its critically-acclaimed
film October Sky, based on Rocket
Boys (The title October Sky is
an anagram of Rocket Boys). Delacorte
subsequently released a mass market paperback of Rocket
Boys, re-titled October Sky. October
Sky reached the New York Times # 1 position
on their best-seller list.
His third Coalwood memoir, a true sequel, was published in October 2001. It is titled Sky of Stone (2001). Sky of Stone is presently under development as a television movie. His final book about Coalwood was published in 2002, a self help/inspirational tome titled We Are Not Afraid: Strength and Courage from the Town That Inspired the #1 Bestseller and Award-Winning Movie October Sky.
latest work is The Keeper's Son (2003),
published by St. Martin's Press and set in the glorious
Outer Banks of North Carolina during World War II. It
is the first of a series about Josh Thurlow, a Coast
Guard officer, and his crew of misfits. The next novel
in the series is set in the Solomon Islands of the South
Pacific. While working on his writing career, Mr. Hickam
was employed as an engineer for the U.S. Army Missile
Command from 1971 to 1981 assigned to Huntsville, Alabama,
and Germany. He began employment with the National Aeronautics
and Space Administration at Marshall Space Flight Center
in 1981 as an aerospace engineer. During his NASA career,
Mr. Hickam worked in spacecraft design and crew training.
His specialties at NASA included training astronauts
on science payloads, and extravehicular activities (EVA).
He also trained astronaut crews for many Spacelab and
Space Shuttle missions, including the Hubble Space Telescope
deployment mission, the first two Hubble repair missions,
Spacelab-J (the first Japanese astronauts), and the
Solar Max repair mission. Prior to his retirement in
1998, Mr. Hickam was the Payload Training Manager for
the International Space Station Program. In 1984, Mr.
Hickam was presented with Alabama's Distinguished Service
Award for heroism shown during a rescue effort of the
crew and passengers of a sunken paddleboat in the Tennessee
River. Because of this award, Mr. Hickam was honored
in 1996 by the United States Olympic Committee to carry
the Olympic Torch through Huntsville, Alabama, on its
way to Atlanta. In 1999, the governor of the state of
West Virginia issued a proclamation in honor of Mr.
Hickam for his support of his home state and his distinguished
career as both an engineer and author and declared an
annual "Rocket Boys Day." For recreation,
Mr. Hickam still loves to SCUBA dive. He also jogs nearly
every day. A new avocation is amateur paleontology.
He works with Dr. Jack Horner in Montana every summer.
Most of all, however, he loves to write. Mr. Hickam
is married to Linda Terry Hickam, an artist and his
first editor and assistant. They love their cats and
share their time between homes in Alabama and the Virgin
Note from Linda Hickam
This commentary and the discussion questions were written by Linda Terry Hickam, assistant (and wife!) to Homer Hickam.
Since the publication in 1998 of Homer's memoir Rocket Boys (aka October Sky - the movie name was chosen by using an anagram of the book name), the mail has been nearly overwhelming but all of it so very positive and much appreciated. People of all ages the world over have fallen in love with this series of memoirs that Homer calls his "Coalwood Trilogy +1" Over 400 schools are studying these books, at both the secondary and college-level. Many, many Book Clubs have enjoyed them and many "ONE BOOK, ONE PAGE" city-wide reads are using them.
these books are written in Homer's distinctive voice,
they are not just about him, but about a special place,
people, and time in America. We think you'll fall in
love very quickly with Coalwood and its unique people.
Please don't get the idea that Homer's books are in
any way technical. He wrote about his amateur rockets
in the first memoir the same way Mark Twain wrote about
steamships in his books about life along the Mississippi.
Homer's missiles are used as metaphors to paint a gloriously
colorful picture of life in the mountains when "rockets
once leapt into the air, propelled not by physics, but
by the vibrant love of an honorable people, and the
instruction of a dear teacher, and the dreams of boys."
The third book in the memoir has nothing whatever to
do with rockets. Yet, it's as loved as the first two
books! And We Are Not Afraid, written
in reaction to 9-11 is a great companion book to any
of the trilogy studied. So don't make the error of thinking
these books are for male readers or kids, or about anything
other than a wonderful time and place, unique in American
Homer and I both come from families of avid readers, and we are so glad people are making time to READ, not just the watch the movie based on his memoir. The movie has quite a bit of artistic license and the REAL story of the SIX Rocket Boys is even more interesting, I swan! By the way, Universal Studios got the movie name "October Sky" by rearranging the letters of Rocket Boys. Try it! The reason they did that was because the Hollywood marketing people feared confusion with other movies with "rocket" in their titles. By accident, the director entered the old title into some anagram software and out popped "October Sky!" It was appropriate since Homer was inspired by the sight of the world's first artificial satellite flying across the night sky of October 5, 1957. It has ended up confusing many readers, though, since now the mass market paperback is titled October Sky and the hardcover and trade versions are still Rocket Boys. Homer always reminds people of that when they bring both titles up for autographs!
For the latest, including lots of old and new pictures of all the real people from Coalwood, including the real Rocket Boys, please go to our website www.homerhickam.com . Of particular interest for Book Clubs, click on the "Books" button which will give a thumbnail sketch of each of Homer's books. The buttons marked "The Rocket Boys," and "Coalwood" will take readers to pages of photos, bios, and links. There are also pages for teachers, students, and writers seeking more information. On the "Other Writings" button is a wonderful essay called "How I came to Write Rocket Boys", some of his best writing I think. My favorite section of the website is the "Letters" page containing some very special letters people have written Homer about their experiences with the story. One of my favorite student e-mails, for instance, is this one:
you inspired me and I hope you can keep on inspiring
kids my age
To the readers of Beaufort, South Carolina:
I am presently finishing my eighth book, The Ambassador¹s Son, and deep into its characters and plot. Yet, due to the interest of your wonderful city, I find myself drawn once more back to my second book, a memoir of a boy growing up in the coalfields of West Virginia. This is understandable. Very surprising to me, Rocket Boys (also known as October Sky) has become one of those rarities in literature, a cultural phenomenon that transcends its author.
I am pleased to thank Beaufort, South Carolina and celebrate the selection of my classic even as I am sensitive to the misperceptions about it. The greatest misperception is that the book is about rockets and space flight. Certainly, the book has a strong thread about boys dreaming of space and boldly building rockets from scrap, but there is a larger, more important story. Once, in the wilderness of West Virginia in a tiny coal camp, a boy was allowed to find understanding through a series of dramatic acts of reconciliation and redemption by his parents and the people of his town. That lucky soul was the boy I once was, the small near-sighted "Sonny" Hickam, the second and somewhat lackluster son of Homer (Sr.) and Elsie Hickam of Coalwood, West Virginia.
Small towns with people who care, good friends, understanding and reconciliation between parents and children, then, is what I believe Rocket Boys/October Sky is really about. These themes thrum through the book like a low, insistent note. To tell this story was a journey of the heart. I am so glad that the readers of your area have decided to make the journey with me.