The long holiday weekend is drawing to a close, but I’m not willing to let it go just yet. In fact, since I’ve spent the last few days cleaning, sorting books, and running errands, I almost feel like I didn’t get a true break from work and am considering taking Monday off as an “Any Purpose Day” -- a “use it or lose it” day that must be taken by the end of the fiscal year, July 31. In the meantime, here’s a Sunday Brunch blog containing random information on children’s books old and new.
While straightening out my shelves this weekend, I came across a couple books that helped teach us how read in the first grade: MY LITTLE RED STORY BOOK and MY LITTLE BLUE STORY BOOK, both written by Odille Ousley and David H. Russell, and illustrated by Ruth Steed.
Everyone knows Dick, Jane and Sally. But in the Detroit Public Schools we learned from Tom, Betty, and Susan. Finding the books again this weekend was like running into old childhood friends.
By today’s standards, the books seem pretty sexist. Consider the following spread. (To get a better look, you can click on the image to enlarge it.)
Tom gets to have fun playing in the tree (AND gets a gift!) while Betty lounges around on the grass like a clothed version of the woman in Manet's famous painting “Le dejeuner sur l’herbe.” (Who am I kidding? I don’t speak French and didn’t know the original title for that painting OR that Manet was the artist until I looked it up on Wikipedia just now.) But the fact remains: in LITTLE RED and LITTLE BLUE, boys are usually shown DOING THINGS while girls laze around and look pretty. In the next story, Tom gets to ride a pony, while Betty merely stands on the sidelines jabbering, “Father! Father! Come and see Pony. See Tom ride. Tom can ride Pony. Tom can ride Pony fast.” Later, during a rainstorm, Mother sends Testosterone Tom out to pick up toys in the sandbox while dainty Betty and Susan huddle on the porch.
To be fair, in LITTLE BLUE (which seems to be for somewhat more advanced readers) Betty does don overalls and grab a hammer when the kids build a playhouse...but as soon as the playhouse is finished, listen how imperious the male members of the family get. Tom immediately begins bossing his sisters around: “Susan! Betty! Go and get the toys. Get Bunny and Patsy. Get the little green ball. Get the toy airplane.” Apparently the girls aren’t speedy enough, because Tom feels the need to add: “Go fast, Betty and Susan!”
Even Father gets in the act, ordering the girls to “Get Mother.”
I am tempted to pencil in a couple caption balloons over Betty and Susan’s heads, saying, “Get your own damn ball and toy airplane!" and "If you want me to get Mother, at least say please!”
UNDER THE COVERS
I thought this dustjacket for Jaclyn Moriarty’s THE SPELL BOOK OF LISTEN TAYLOR was particularly arresting:
The other day I removed the jacket and noticed the binding itself is also quite unusual, mimicking a hand-made book with white lettering on the front panel and faux staples at the binding:
The back cover features open-ended staples and a quote at the bottom: “This Book Will Make You Fly, Will Make Your Strong, Will Make You Glad. What’s More, This Book Will Mend Your Broken Heart.”
I always need to remind myself to peek under dustjackets and see what's hiding beneath. Generally it’s just a plain cloth cover, but every once in a while you get a nice surprise like this.
And here’s a bit of trivia about THE SPELL BOOK OF LISTEN TAYLOR: It was originally published as an adult book in Australia with the title I HAVE A BED MADE OUT OF BUTTERMILK PANCAKES.
ELVIS HAS APPARENTLY NOT LEFT THE BUILDING
Sometimes I think certain bright ideas just float around the cosmos, ripe for the taking. Unfortunately, sometimes two people grab the same idea at the same time. How else to explain two new spring books, by Audrey Couloumbis and Shelley Pearsall, both about thirteen-year-old kids (one a girl, one a boy) whose fathers are Elvis impersonators? Published within three weeks of each other, the books are also named after Elvis songs.
These two recent books, by Ralph Fletcher and Jennifer McMahon, even share a cover motif.
A recent English import, THE VIPER WITHIN, concerns several boys who become embroiled in a nefarious made-up religion and kidnap a “different” girl at school because they think she’s a terrorist. The tension never flags as the boys hold the girl captive, issue public statements (“We demand that the government immediately hold a vote in the Houses of Parliament to amend the Prevention of Terrorism Act and make it tougher! ...We demand a million pounds to build a temple to spread our message") and threaten to kill their hostage, whom they call “SNAKE.”
I must admit I was pulled outside the story every time the poor girl's real name was mentioned: Padma Laxsmi.
Okay, it’s spelled slightly different, but I still kept expecting her to order her assailants to drop their knives and guns by shouting, “Utensils down, hands up!”
ANOTHER REASON TO LOVE BOOKS
Last fall I happened to drive past a store’s grand opening party.
The shop was devoted to holiday decorations -- ceramic Jack-o-lanterns and Thanksgiving door hangings and Christmas tree lights -- but as I looked at the excited faces of the owners and employees cutting the ribbon, my only thought was, “It won’t last till Independence Day.”
I felt terrible thinking that, but I knew that after the winter holidays the store just wouldn’t be able to make it. Not in this area. Not with this economy.
Every time I passed the store in January it was empty. (Sorry, there just isn’t a market for Martin Luther King knick-knacks.) Valentine’s Day and Easter didn’t seem to increase business either. May...June...I could never bring myself to go inside, as I knew I’d feel so sorry for the owners that I’d end up buying armloads of Memorial Day and Flag Day decorations that I didn’t need and couldn’t afford.
I passed there again yesterday and the store was gone.
The handpainted signs were no longer on the windows, the interior was completely empty.
Just as I predicted, the store didn't even make it till July the Fourth.
Someone’s dream had come to life and been destroyed in little more than six months.
A year from now the building will have another occupant, another business, and I doubt anyone will ever remember the holiday store.
Yesterday afternoon I happened to come across this volume on my shelf and began paging through a year’s worth of celebrations bound within the pages of a book:
I guess that’s one of the things I love best about books. Some titles may not be popular...some titles may go out of print very quickly...yet they never quite disappear for good. There are always copies out there somewhere. The words and pictures remain -- fifty, sixty, a hundred years after they were first published.
Once someone’s dream comes alive in the pages of a book, it never truly dies.
POSTSCRIPT TO HEYDAYS AND HOLIDAYS
...Another reason I love this particular book is that it contains a wonderful postscript that commemorates an event that occurred on the day that Grace Paull finished the illustrations for the volume. It’s a nice moment in which the book’s theme and “real life” happened to bisect on August 14, 1945.
But I’ll save that story for a blog in August.