Sunday, July 27, 2008


Some random thoughts and opinions on old and new children’s books -- presented brunch style. Feel free to come back for extra helpings.


I was going through a file cabinet when I came across these book reports I wrote for school many (many) years ago. The picture of the dog on GINGER PYE’S Duo-tang cover is long gone, but the “mustard-yellow hat” representing Ginger’s kidnapper remains. The stork’s wings used to extend much more impressively off the side of THE WHEEL ON THE SCHOOL, but they’ve chipped off bit by bit over the years. And -- I’ll offer no excuses -- the illustration I drew for THE BRONZE BOW’s always did stink.

Anyway, this got me thinking about school book reports. If I was a teacher, I’d assign one every week. My students would probably hate me and plot some kind of grisly Mr-Griffin-like revenge, but I think book reports are one of the most valuable teaching tools out there, combining reading, critical thinking, and writing skills in one assignment. Besides I know so many people (even people with advanced degrees) who have only read a couple novels in their entire lives. Yet sometimes when the subject of books and reading comes up, they’ll get a faraway look in their eyes and say, “I once did a book report on...” and begin reminiscing, with some fondness, about a title they read twenty or thirty years ago. Whether they realize it or not, a book they were “forced” to read several decades ago cast a long shadow across their lives. If they had been assigned a few more books, they’d have that many more memories to share.


Actually, this book is not X-rated at all, but I thought I’d increase traffic to my blog if I found a way to include that term. The book’s real title is LET X BE EXCITEMENT and the author is Christie Harris. Earlier this week, a blog-reader said she was trying to track down a copy of this novel because she was interested in flying, test pilots, astronauts, and space.

This novel has the feel of “real life” because it concerns the experiences of the author’s son, Michael, in the Royal Canadian Air Force. He’s called “Ralph” in the story, yet the book rather strangely includes a set of black-and-white plates featuring the real Michael as a kid...getting married...on a rowing team...and in the cockpit of a plane.

I was lucky enough to track down a copy of the book that was signed by Michael Harris and also includes a letter in his own handwriting. (You may need to click on the image to enlarge it enough to read the words.)


You’ll note that Mike wasn’t able to get his mother to autograh the book. However, that made me want to find another copy signed by Christie Harris. I finally found one that was advertised as being signed by “the author.”

Imagine my surprise when the book arrived and it really was signed by “the author”:

I don’t think I’ve ever seen an author sign a book without actually included his or her name!


On the same endpaper where “the author” signed her name there is this unusual handwritten symbol:

Does anyone have an idea what it could be? It looks to me like a horse pulling a chariot -- and I’m wondering if it could be some type of Native insignia. Ms. Harris wrote several books about Native North Americans, including the novel RAVEN’S CRY, which concerns the Haida Indians.

Perhaps I should preemptively include a little sidebar story here. When my Baptist cousin was in his early teens, he was invited to a Jewish friend’s house for Sabbath dinner. He watched wide-eyed while his friend’s mother lighted candles and recited a prayer before the meal. After dinner was finished, the boy’s parents poured cold beverages into glasses, then placed the glasses in black punctured-metal holders with ornate handles and went outside to sit on the porch. My cousin assumed this was also part of the Sabbath ritual. Imagine his surprise when he returned home an hour or so later and found his own parents sitting on their porch, drinking cold beverages from the exact same punctured-metal holders with ornate handles. “Where did you get those?” my cousin demanded. “Dave’s parents have the exact same thing. I thought they were ceremonial objects!”

My uncle said, “No, they’re just drink-holders that the Shell station on the corner is giving away with every fill-up.”

The moral of the story: When we meet people from cultures different from our own, we spend so much time looking for differences -- expecting them to be exotic and unconventional -- that we sometimes forget how similar we really are.

You’d think I’d learn a lesson from that story, yet here I am viewing this marking in the book as an “exotic Indian symbol” when it could just as likely be a doodle made by some bookstore clerk when pricing the book.


Incidentally, Christie Harris also wrote books based on the teenage years of her two daughers: YOU HAVE TO DRAW THE LINE SOMEWHERE and CONFESSIONS OF A TOE-HANGER.

My copy of DRAW THE LINE is signed by Harris’s daugher Moira Johnston, who also illustrated the book, but TOE-HANGER has not been signed by “Sheilagh, the original toe-hanger.” I wonder if she’s still (hanging) around and willing to sign books?


The July 21, 2008 issue of Publishers Weekly contains listings for all children’s books being published this fall. I always look forward to this issue and go through the list marking down all the books I want to read. ...Then I wonder how I can afford them.

This time around I noticed lots of sequels; lots of books packaged with CDs, puppets, bibs and other ephemera included (or, more accurately, CDs, puppets, bibs and ephemera packaged along with a superfluous book); many young-adult titles dealing with death and cancer and killings -- both intentional and accidental; lots of pregnant teenagers, including at least one with post-partum depression. And there are way, WAY too many books about Marley the Dog, who has ceased to be a canine and now seems to be a franchise.

In the coming weeks and months I’ll write about some of the GOOD books I discover among this fall’s offerings.

For now, here are some of the oddities:

THE BIG SPLASH by Jack Ferraiolo : “a noir-inspired first novel about middle school life.” (I’ve never understood all the kids’ books that satirize film noir. You can’t laugh at THE POSSUM ALWAYS RINGS TWICE by Bruce Hale or THE POSTMAN ALWAYS BRING MICE by Holm and Hamel unless you’re familiar with the book and movie THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE...and I doubt many kids are.)

STEINBECK’S GHOST by Lewis Buzbee : “A boy sees John Steinbeck’s characters spring to life around him.” (Ditto my comments on “noir” books. ...And any kid who’s read GRAPES OF WRATH probably isn’t going to be reading a middle-grade novel like this.)

HOW YOUR BODY WORKS, a box containing a book and “plastic body parts.” It’s by Anita Ganeri. (I bet you thought I was going to say Pamela Anderson.)

BOYS ARE DOGS by Leslie Margolis : “A girl gets an owner’s manual to help her tame boys.” (Can you imagine the uproar if the sexes were reversed here?)

PLEASE DON’T EAT ME by Roger De Muth : “about a fish that doesn’t want to be eaten.” (Don’t look for this one in the giftshop at Red Lobster.)

WITH LOVE, FROM DISNEY : “spotlights iconic kisses from Disney animated movies.” (No.

I also threw up in my mouth a little when I saw that Razorbill is publishing INFLUENCE by Mary-Kate Olsen and Ashley Olsen. I think the publisher has overestimated the interest in and appeal of these two tabloid twits. Razorbill has published some really good, really interesting books in their short history, but this title -- with a first printing of 250,000 and a price tag of $35 -- strikes me as wrong in so many ways. (Does it at least come with a pair of oversized sunglasses, a pack of cigarettes, and a gallon-sized paper cup of Starbucks coffee?)


I recently came across this book, which is simply a collection of caricatures by an artist named Ted Scheel:

I paged past Mao Tse-tung, Alfred Kinsey, Benny Goodman, Jimmy Durante, and a few dozen others, looking for a children’s book author and finally found one on the very last page. Betty MacDonald, known for Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle children’s books, was included with a nod to her adult bestseller THE EGG AND I. Since she still has so many fans, I’m including the picture here for those who have never seen it before:


Finally, while rummaging through my old book reports, I also found a term paper I once wrote. No Johnny-come-lately to this field, I was even writing about children’s books more than three decades ago.

Unfortunately, I got a B.

Hey, maybe if I keep on blogging about children’s books my old English teacher will give me extra credit and bump the grade up to an A.


Monica Edinger said...

I think teachers who care about books and reading still do find ways to have kids present books they've read. Perhaps not in the sort of book reports we did exactly, but presentations still. I have my students write to me weekly in journals and they also volunteer to read aloud to the class selections from books they are reading. Anyway, while the term "book report" may be out of favor I don't think the concept is. (Are you familiar with Lucy's book report on Peter Rabbit from "You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown"?

Anonymous said...

Not sure where to post this - - more of a question. I, too, have saved many of my old books from the late 1960s and early 1970s. There is one book that eludes me, though. It has the line in it "It never snows in Borneo" or "they don't get snow in Borneo." No one in my family can remember which book this was. Inasmuch as you've dealt with many kids' books, any clue?

ZiaSun said...

Are you sure that the symbol is hand-drawn? To me, the oval is too perfect, and maybe it's a stamped image.
To anonymous: Try Loganberry Books for your request. They have a book sleuth feature that is haunted by people trying to give answers to questions just like yours!

Peter D. Sieruta said...

Hi Monica,

I'm glad to hear some teachers do still care about books and reading today. Even back in my era, most teachers didn't assign book reports. And now you say even the term "book report" has fallen out of favor? That's sad. Yes, I do know Lucy's book report on Peter Rabbit. I was lucky enough to see the B'way revival a few years back. Thanks for reading my blog and leaving feedback. I appreciate it.


Hi Anonymous,

Unfortunately, I don't know the book in question. Could it possibly be HENRIETTA, THE WILD WOMAN OF BORNEO by Winifred Rosen? I'll keep trying to find an answer...or perhaps someone who visits this blog can provide the title. Thanks for dropping by.


Hello Ziasun,

I thought the image was hand-drawn, but you could be right about it being a stamp. I'll second you on the Loganberry suggestion. Wish I'd thought of that idea myself! Thanks for visiting.


Anonymous said...

If I had to bet, I'd go Egyptian with that chariot. Certainly not native American, though; the wheel as we know it (to say nothing of chariots) was never invented in the western hemisphere; it only arrived with European colonization.

Catholic Bibliophagist said...

Oh my goodness! You can't imagine how many times I read "You Have To Draw the Line Somewhere" when I was a kid! But I never knew anyone else who had read it, and I never knew the author had written other books. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Traditional book reports do seem to be a thing of the past, at least in 5th grade around here. My son's assignments in 5th grade this past school year included reading a novel and re-writing it as a picture book, and reading a novel and designing a new cereal box based on the book. I have mixed feelings on this. I think these assignments get the kids to think about the books more deeply than a traditional book report might, but the kids are not getting the expository writing skills they need with this method.

He did also have to keep a classroom journal, in which he wrote letters every week to his teacher about what he was reading, and she would write back. This was not as formal as a book report, but served some of the same purpose as a book report.