Thursday, January 17, 2008
WANTED : CHILD CARE PROVIDER. Name must begin wIth letter P; some flight experience preferred
When we were growing up, our parents devised a practical division of labor. Our father would pick up old children’s books for us at the Goodwill store near his office, then our mother would read them to us at bedtime. And though I can’t recall ever having a babysitter, I felt like I knew all about them from these books, which included Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle and the pre-Disney Mary Poppins.
I also remember listening to the story of Miss Price, the journeyman witch in Mary Norton’s BED-KNOB AND BROOMSTICK. I recently recommended this book to a friend and we got into a discussion of whether the two nouns in the title were singular or plural. As it turns out, the 1957 book is titled BED-KNOB AND BROOMSTICK, but the 1971 movie musical, which starred Angela Lansbury, is called BEDKNOBS AND BROOMSTICKS.
This is just one of the oddities surrounding this book, so I figured I’d set down the facts as I know them, in hopes they’d be helpful to book collectors. If I get anything wrong here, maybe someone can jump in and offer any corrections.
Author Mary Norton (1903-1992) was born in England and spent most of her life there, except for a few years during World War II when she came to the United States with her children. It was here that she wrote THE MAGIC BED-KNOB, or, HOW TO BECOME A WITCH IN TEN EASY LESSONS. It was said that she wrote the text mainly to accompany the illustrations of artist Waldo Peirce (sic.) Therefore, Norton’s book was first published not in her native country, but in the United States by Hyperion. It’s an unusual volume: tall, thin, and unpaged, it somewhat resembles a picture book in its dimensions and quantity of color artwork, though there is also plenty of text -- printed in two (offputting) columns of small type per page. My copy, which I believe to be a first edition, has no first edition points beyond the phrase “Copyright 1943 by The Hyperion Press, New York” on the title page. The price on the front flap of the dustjacket is $1.75; the front flap also informs us that the book is 48 pages, with 24 of them in full color. THE MAGIC BED-KNOB was finally published in England in 1945 by J.M. Dent, with illustrations by Joan Kiddell-Monroe. Copies of the American and English editions of this book typically sell in the hundreds of dollars, though they can be found for $75 or so if you’re lucky.
A second book about Miss Price and her young friends, BONFIRES AND BROOMSTICKS, was published by J.M. Dent in 1947 and, to my knowledge, was not published in the United States. In the coming decade, Norton would find success with her Carnegie Award-winning THE BORROWERS and its first follow-up THE BORROWERS AFIELD. At this point her two Miss Price stories were combined in a single volume called BED-KNOB AND BROOMSTICK (though the dustjacket cover on the American edition omits the hyphen) which were published in the United States by Harcourt and in Great Britain by Dent in 1957 -- both editions illustrated by Erik Blegvad. This is the book that most readers know today. First editions can be found for about $100. (Imagine my delight when I discovered the copy my father purchased at the Goodwill store for twenty cents is a true first edition!)
BED-KNOB AND BROOMSTICK was a popular junior novel throughout the sixties and seventies, and I imagine that the movie version continues to draw kids to the book, which appears to still be available in paperback. I wonder if the politically-incorrect illustrations depicting cannibals have been removed or changed in modern editions. Anyone know?
Incidentally, the young adult novel BRAS AND BROOMSTICKS by Sarah Mlynowski (Delacorte, 2005) is not a sequel.
The dustjacket description of THE MAGIC BED-KNOB makes a comparison between Norton’s book and the work of Pamela Travers. It does seem clear that Miss Eglantine Price, while not a babysitter or nanny per se (though she does take care of the Wilson children for an entire summer) is a literary descendent of Travers’ Mary Poppins. She has the pedigree. She’s a realistic character who performs acts of magic. She can fly. And, most importantly, she has a last name that begins with the letter P.
Adults featured in children’s books often have names that begin with P (remember Miss Pickerell and Mrs. Pepperpot?) but this seems to be especially true in books about caregivers with magic abilities. Poppins. Price. Piggle-Wiggle. Pickett. Pudgins. All but Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle can fly. And all are featured in well-remembered books that are constantly sought by book collectors.
Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle was created as series of bedtime stories that Betty MacDonald told her children and grandchildren. MacDonald’s adult books (THE EGG AND I, THE PLAGUE AND I, ANYBODY CAN DO ANYTHING, and ONIONS IN THE STEW) are brilliantly humorous and her children’s books are also amusing. Kids enjoy the over-the-top portraits of naughty children with bad habits, while adults will smile at the nudge-nudge-wink-wink humor that’s directed at sophisticated grown-ups. Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle cures kids (of interrupting, of staying up late, of not bathing, etc.) by a variety of methods that seem may alarming to modern sensibilities (usually slipping the kids a mickey or hiding some tonic or concoction in their food or beverage. Imagine!) Many readers think MRS. PIGGLE-WIGGLE’S FARM is the weakest volume in the series, because it’s the “boring” one in which the kids solve their own issues (i.e. a girl who’s afraid of the dark must get help for the injured Mrs. P-W by venturing outside at night) but it’s actually my favorite because it involves no magic and features kids who empower themselves rather than kids doped into dazed submission by kindly old Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle. The four books in the series are:
MRS. PIGGLE-WIGGLE, Lippincott, 1947
MRS. PIGGLE-WIGGLE’S MAGIC, Lippincott, 1949
MRS. PIGGLE-WIGGLE’S FARM, Lippincott, 1954
HELLO, MRS. PIGGLE-WIGGLE, Lippincott, 1957
They can be found in first edition from $50 to $150, with MRS. PIGGLE-WIGGLE’S FARM usually the most expensive, since it features illustrations by the young Maurice Sendak.
Incidentally, HarperCollins just published HAPPY BIRTHDAY, MRS. PIGGLE-WIGGLE, which is said to be written by Betty MacDonald’s daughter and concludes with a story that's said to be written by Betty MacDonald herself before she died...way back in 1958. I’m continually amazed that HarperCollins is able to discover relatives of their best-known authors (Laura Ingalls Wilder...Peggy Parish...now Betty MacDonald) who have the writing ability that permits them to continue series begun by their late family members. Guess that’s what makes Harper such a $ucce$$ful publi$her!
Miss Pickett, star of THE PECULIAR MISS PICKETT (Winston, 1951) and MISS PICKETT’S SECRET (Winston, 1951) by Nancy R. Julian is another elderly babysitter who can fly. She performs her fantasy feats by staring hard at things through her magic glasses. I remember being enchanted by the first book when I read it as a kid. As an adult...not so much. It seemed slight and derivative. But apparently a lot of other readers love these books, as they are notoriously hard to find...and sell for hundreds of dollars.
Finally, we come to the lone male in our Babysitters Club (Senior Divison.) He's also got the right the intial and knows how to fly (in a bathtub!) He’s MR. PUDGINS by Ruth Christoffer Carlsen. Published by Houghton in 1951 and long out of print, this story of a jolly old babysitter with magical powers seems to be remembered by every adult. I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard someone ask, “I’m trying to find a book I once read where a babysitter makes root beer and grape soda-pop come out of the faucets.” MR. PUDGINS is that book. Because this volume is remembered so fondly by so many, I can’t understand why it hasn’t been brought back into print.
If you own a first edition, you could probably sell it for a mint on eBay.
If you’re looking for a first edition, get in line.
It’s one of those rare books that everyone wants and no one can find.
Like they always say, it’s hard to find a good babysitter.