Sunday, August 10, 2008

A Brunch for Beatniks and Stargazers

A collection of random thoughts and opinions on children’s books -- this week featuring tattoos, beatniks, American Gothic farm kids, stars of the Olympics and stars shooting across the sky.


At the risk of being macabre, I thought it might be interesting to collect the “last words” of some famous writers for children -- as well as a few who didn’t write for kids but whose last words were so entertaining I couldn’t help but include them:

Louisa May Alcott (author of LITTLE WOMEN) : “Is it not meningitis?”

J.M. Barrie (author PETER PAN) : “I can’t sleep.”

L. Frank Baum (author of THE WIZARD OF OZ) : “Now I can cross the Shifting Sands.” (A reference to the desert that surrounded Oz.)

Roald Dahl (author of CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY) : “And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who do not believe in magic will never find it. ” (These were actually the last words he wrote, not spoke.)

Jeane Dixon (author of A GIFT OF PROPHECY) : “I’m gonna WHAT?” (Okay, that one is a joke.)

Walter de la Mare (author of PEACOCK PIE) : “Too late for fruit, too soon for flowers.”

Frederick Marrat (author of THE CHILDREN OF THE FOREST) : “It is now half-past nine. World, adieu!”

O. Henry (author of “The Gift of the Magi”) : “Turn up the lights -- I don’t want to go home in the dark.”

Eugene O’Neill (playwright) : “Born in a hotel room, and Gal darn, died in one!”

George Bernard Shaw (playwright) : “Dying is easy, comedy is hard.”

Frances Temple (author of GRAB HANDS AND RUN) : "Tell me nice things."

James Thurber (author of MANY MOONS) : “God Bless. ...God damn.”

J.R.R. Tolkien (author of THE HOBBIT) : “I feel on top of the world!” (The last words he said to his daugher, a few days before his death.)

H.G. Wells (author THE TIME MACHINE) : “Go away. I’m all right.”

Oscar Wilde (author of THE HAPPY PRINCE : “Either that wallpaper goes, or I do.”


Louise Fitzhugh had a brief, but meteoric career in children’s books, publishing such classics as HARRIET THE SPY and THE LONG SECRET before dying tragically young at age forty-six. I don’t think her last words were ever recorded, but one article reports that on the weekend of her death, she met with friends for dinner and cards. As they stepped outside, Ms. Fitzhugh mentioned that she could see shooting stars, though another guest saw nothing in the night sky and later viewed Fitzhugh’s remark as an early sign of the fatal brain aneurysm she suffered later that night.

More about shooting stars to come, but for now I wanted to mention two lesser-known works that Louise Fitzhugh created with another of my favorite authors, Sandra Scoppettone.

SUZUKI BEANE (1961) is the story of a young beatnik who lives in Greenwich Village with her parents Hugh and Marcia. Originally published as an adult satire, the book was embraced by both adults and children for Fitzhugh’s abundant and inimitable illustrations, as well Scoppettone’s imminently quotable cool-cat text, printed in typescript with no caps and little punctuation:

this is our pad--

we all have a ball here

we don’t have much bread but

bread is really not very important

when you have good relationships

First editions of SUZUKI BEANE are highly-prized among collectors. If you want one, plan to shell out at least $100...but don’t worry. After all:

bread is not really very important

when a book is this good.

Fitzhugh and Scoppettone also collaborated on 1969’s BANG BANG YOU’RE DEAD. Published during the Vietnam War, this picture book about two groups of kids fighting to capture a hill, presented an anti-war message -- though I read that the creators later realized that, as worthy as that message was, playing war is something that kids will always regard as FUN. This is another hard-to-find title for children’s book collectors.


Although Sandra Scoppettone and Louise Fitzhugh only wrote one book about Suzuki Beane, many years later David Teague somehow secured rights to the character and wrote a book called THE CRAZY WORLD OF AMERICA’S FAVORITE BABY BEATNIK, SUZUKI BEANE, with plans to make a film about the character, as well as market stuffed toys, a board game, T-shirts, etc. Those things haven’t come to fruition yet, but I do have a copy of the Teague book -- signed.

Another bit of trivia about Suzuki Beane: In 1962 Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz bought the production rights to the character with the idea of including Suzuki in a live action television series. A pilot was made, but the series never aired. At one point the pilot was available for viewing on Youtube, but it’s no longer listed. I wish it was. Then I could emulate fellow children’s book blogger Fuse #8 and do a “Video Sundays” feature. But I guess that’s not meant to be. In the words of Suzuki Beane: what a drag!


By now we all know about the rock star with the tattoo of Ferdinand the Bull.

The other day I saw my very first children’s book tattoo.

Cutting through a parking lot on the way to work, I saw a young woman walking in front of me in a skirt.

On the back of her left leg, just below the knee, was a word in bold black print: STAY.

On the back of her right leg was the word GOLD.

That's right: STAY GOLD.

A couple days later I saw her again, wearing shorts, with that immortal phrase from S.E. Hinton’s THE OUTSIDERS accompanying her every step. I wished I had my camera. Then decided it was probably just as well that I didn’t. Can you imagine trying to explain THAT to the police? “Officer, I have an explanation! The reason I was crouched down behind that girl taking pictures of her legs was because I needed an illustration for my blog. Yes, my blog. My children’s book blog!”

Incidentally, when I told someone about the tattoo, they asked if I’d ever get a children’s book tattoo.

Nope. No tattoos. Ever.

I’d rather carry around images from my favorite children’s books in my head and heart.


I discovered a fascinating book in the Ramsey Room this week. FARM ON THE HILL was written by Madeline Darrough Horn and published by Scribner’s in 1936. This old-fashioned story of two boys visiting their grandparents’ Missouri farm is based on the author’s family history.

What distinguishes this book, however, is its illustrator: Grant Wood.

Even if someone doesn’t recognize the name of his most famous painting, “American Gothic,” all you have to say is, “Man. Woman. Pitchfork.” and the response will be, “Oh yeah!”

I didn't know Grant Wood illustrated a children’s book during his short, but significant, career. (Another shooting star, he died one day before his fifty-first birthday.) Since FARM ON THE HILL is not a widely-known children’s book, I thought I’d share some of the images on this blog. Here’s the boys’ grandmother, mending overalls:

And the family animals:

Even the illustrated endpapers are a delight:


Watching the Olympics for the past two nights, I wondered how long it would be before rush-job biographies of the gold medal winners hit the library shelves. Something tells me that publishers such as Enslow and Lerner already have Michael Phelps books ready to go.

I've also been trying to remember if there have been any children’s or young adult novels that are actually set at the modern Olympic Games. The only one I can think of is ALEX IN ROME by Tessa Duder, a 1992 New Zealand import which takes a fifteen-year-old swimmer (first featured in IN LANE THREE, ALEX ARCHER) to the 1960 Olympics in Rome.

Can anyone think of any others?

There are plenty of nonfiction Olympics volumes for kids, including an entry in the Eyewitness Books series and this pop-up book by Robert Crowther:

The movable parts in this book actually allow the reader to light the Olympic flame. Move over, Li Ning. This time it's my turn!


Few people seem to remember E.C. Spykman’s children’s books. That’s too bad, because her quartet about the Cares family of Summertown, Massachusetts contain much of the old-fashioned appeal and charm we associate with Elizabeth Enright and Eleanor Estes. Published in 1955, A LEMON AND A STAR -- followed by THE WILD ANGEL (1957), TERRIBLE, HORRIBLE EDIE (1960) and EDIE ON THE WARPATH (1966) -- begins with the tenth birthday of Jane Cares.

That evening Jane sits in her window and watches the fireflies “shooting like sparks from shrubs and hedges. They made her think that what she suddenly saw was a gigantic firefly which had somehow pitched itself into the sky and was coming down again. And then, sitting back quickly, she realized it was not. A star -- big, bright, and yellow -- had got loose and was falling slowly, leaving a trail of light behind it, right before her eyes, into Aunt Charlotte’s garden. It was so clear, so near, and so big, her whole body waited to hear the hiss as it went out against the earth. But although it fell just across the back yard beneath Aunt Charlotte’s wall, the night did not make an extra sound. The tree-toads sang, the trees moved, a dog barked, nothing paid attention to the wonder -- except herself. Excitedly, she felt that she must go at once and search for it. A star had fallen almost at her feet, her, a star, she was the only one to see it, or know where it was. Of course she must go and look for it.”

Great writing! Great book!


It’s all because of Elizabeth Enright and the Melendy Family.

First featured in THE SATURDAYS (1941), the Melendys spend a summer in the country in THEN THERE WERE FIVE (1944.) I’ve never forgotten that book's memorable scene in which oldest brother Rush and new family friend Mark relax on a hillside and watch the stars appear in the twilight sky:

“Watch,” said Mark mysteriously. “I predict that within five minutes you will see a shooting star. Before half an hour’s up you will have seen at least twenty or twenty-five.”

Rush laughed. “I hope you sent your order in early.”

“Don’t worry,” said Mark, still mysterious. “I fixed it up for you. Just keep watching and you’ll see.”

Rush lay idly staring up at the sky and all its thousand points of light. Suddenly one of them sped across the dark, bright as a firely, but sure of its goal as a bird.

Rush sat up abruptly. “Say!”

Mark smiled. “Lie down; keep watching.”

Almost at once there was a second star-flight, and a third. A prickle of superstition crept over Rush’s scalp.

“Come across, now; what’s the secret?’

“When you’ve counted to twenty-five I’ll tell you.”

“There’s something very fishy about this,” growled Rush. Long before the half hour was up he had counted twenty-five.

“Okay, come clean.”

“Well, I kind of hate to. For a minute I almost thought I was running the show. But it’s only because it’s the eleventh of August.”

Rush was still mystified.

“I don’t get it.”

“Didn’t you ever hear about the Perseids?”

“No, what are they?”

“They’re the shooting stars you’ve been looking at. Every August they come, the sky is full of them,. Specially around the tenth. I’ve counted more than a hundred some nights.”’

“I never knew that. Look, there goes another!”

THEN THERE WERE FIVE was published fifty-four years ago. I probably first read it close to forty years ago. As I get older, I find myself forgetting more and more. I grasp for words that are tantilizingly out of reach. Sometimes I can't remember where I put the car keys. I've forgotten friends' birthdays. But I’ve never forgotten that scene from THEN THERE WERE FIVE and, every year, on August 10 and August 11, I never forget to go out and look for shooting stars. Such is the power of children’s books. They can affect us a half century after they were written and decades after we’ve read them.

Today is August 10. (See, I didn't forget!) And tonight will find me once again staring up at the sky looking for stars, along with Rush and Mark and the spirit of the author who created them.


Daughter Number Three said...

Wow, so many great leads for books I hadn't heard of. Can't believe I never saw Suzuki Beane on the shelf in my local library in the 70s.

And I laughed out loud (really!) when I read about STAY GOLD... and had to read it to my 14-year-old daughter, who also loves the Outsiders.

Thanks, Peter.

Emile said...

I also think of that scene from Then There Were Five this time of year! And I agree completely about the E.C. Spykman books; I'd recommend them to anyone who likes Enright.