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updated 3/16/2006 4:35:09 PM ET 2006-03-16T21:35:09

John Reynolds Gardiner, who wrote the best-selling children’s book “Stone Fox,” has died. He was 61.

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Gardiner died at a hospital March 4 of complications from pancreatitis, according to his wife, Gloria.

“Children’s publishing has lost one of its touchstones,” said Kate Jackson, editor in chief of HarperCollins Children’s Books.

She called the book “a true modern classic.”

Gardiner wrote “Stone Fox” as a screenplay about a boy named Willy and his dog Searchlight who enter a dogsled race hoping to beat an undefeated opponent. A producer suggested Gardiner turn it into a book, which he did, in 1980.

The chapter book, aimed at readers in fourth through sixth grades, sold 3 million copies and was later made into an NBC television movie.

Few would have predicted Gardiner’s literary success. He didn’t enjoy books when he was young — he never read an entire novel until he was 19 — and he ended up in what he called “dumbbell English” at the University of California, Los Angeles.

When he was in his late 20s and working as an aerospace engineer, his brother persuaded him to take a television writing class taught by an instructor who cared about imagination rather than spelling and grammar.

Gardiner also wrote the book “Top Secret” in 1985 and “General Butterfingers.”

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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