Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas, Periodically

Where is Lydia’s Christmas tree?

As far as that goes, where is Lydia herself?

The topic of today’s blog was supposed to be holiday stories that were originally published in adult magazines -- and later became children’s books.

The jumping-off point was going to be “A Christmas Tree for Lydia” by Elizabeth Enright. Although Ms. Enright is best-known for her Newbery winner THIMBLE SUMMER and her juvenile novels about the Melendy family, she was also an accomplished short story writer, whose work appeared in many of the top magazines of her day -- and was collected in several anthologies for adult readers. Her story “A Christmas Tree for Lydia” first appeared in the December 1947 issue of WOMAN’S HOME COMPANION and was later issued as a book by Enright’s usual publisher, Farrar, in 1951. Few people know this title, possibly because it was published as a “gift book” -- so tiny it could be slipped in a Christmas stocking -- rather than a regular trade volume. I doubt many libraries owned it, since it would be too small to control. I have -- or had -- a copy of the book A CHRISTMAS TREE FOR LYDIA and it was almost impossible to keep track of. At first I placed it in the middle of a shelf, between two standard-sized books, but it was so short and thin that it would usually work its way to the back of the shelf where it could not be found. Eventually I moved it to the end of the shelf, though every time I grabbed another nearby book -- or even just brushed against the shelf with my hand -- A TREE FOR LYDIA would tumble to the floor. When I vacuumed, even the vibrations of that appliance would make delicate little LYDIA fly off the shelf and, more than once, it nearly got sucked into the bag of the vacuum. (Fortunately, I don’t vacuum often enough for this to have been a major issue.) Anyway, last night when I decided to write about A CHRISTMAS TREE FOR LYDIA in my blog, I could not find it. I was up until 4:00 AM (on Christmas Eve!) using a flashlight to find the book on my shelves, running my fingers over the spines of dusty volumes (I dust even less than I vacuum) hoping to feel where it may have slid between two larger books. In the back of my mind, I vaguely remember putting it somewhere “where it can’t get lost.” So now of course it IS lost. Either that, or it really did get sucked up by the vacuum at some point. Even though I can't show you my copy, there is a cover image just above, which I poached off someone else's blog. And that really is close to the size of the actual volume.

Another Christmas book that had its origins in a magazine is THE LIGHT AT TERN ROCK by Julia L. Sauer, which was published by Viking in 1951. Those who are only familiar with the HORN BOOK as an “informational” magazine may be surprised to learn it used to print the occasional piece of fiction, especially around the holidays. That’s where Ms. Sauer’s story was first published.

Earlier this year there was an internet-based fuss about whether Neil Gaiman’s THE GRAVEYARD BOOK could be eligible for this year’s Newbery since part of the story had been previously published. THE LIGHT AT TERN ROCK should lay rest to that argument. Here is a book that was named a Newbery Honor even though its copyright page clearly informs the reader “originally published in The Horn Book under the title “The Light at Christmas.” (I hope I have not begun a brand-new internet-based fuss to revoke TERN ROCK’s status as a Honor Book.)

Finally, there’s the modern classic THE BEST CHRISTMAS PAGEANT EVER, written by Barbara Robinson and published by Harper in 1972. This short novel had its origins as an even shorter story called “The Christmas Pageant,” which appeared in McCall’s Magazine.

Many years ago I had the opportunity to review THE BEST CHRISTMAS PAGEANT EVER for a reference book. Having not read the book for many years at that point, I was surprised by how weak it seemed to me. The narrator is not only nameless, but she really doesn’t participate in the story at all. And the Herdman kids, though wonderfully portrayed as a group (“They lied and stole and smoked cigars (even the girls) and talked dirty and hit little kids and cussed their teaches and took the name of the Lord in vain and set fire to Fred Shoemaker’s old broken-down toolhouse”) were pretty much interchangeable and indistinguishable as characters. The editor of the reference publication sent my essay back, suggesting that I was being “a bit too hard on the book.” So I went back to re-read it and discovered that she was right. Although, not perfect, there’s a lot to love about this book -- and who isn’t both amused and moved by little Gladys Herdman appearing as a pageant angel “with her skinny legs and her dirty sneakers stick out from under her robe, yelling at all of us, everywhere: ‘Hey! Unto you a child is born!’”

Considering how many famous holiday stories were originally published in magazines (not forgetting Truman Capote’s masterpiece, “A Christmas Memory,” first printed in the December 1956 MADEMOISELLE), it’s sad to realize how few general periodicals publish fiction at all these days. As far as that goes, many of these publications (WOMAN’S HOME COMPANION, MCCALL’S) are now gone and those that remain are struggling to hang on. What a loss if we didn’t have such publications to bring us new Christmas stories at all in the future.

And speaking of losses, I’m still flummoxed over what happened to my copy of A CHRISTMAS TREE FOR LYDIA. Is it tucked behind some larger books on my shelf? Did I put it someplace for “safekeeping” -- so safe that I’ve now forgotten where? Did it tumble under the bed, under a chair? Or should I finally change the bag on that vacuum cleaner just to make sure it’s not in there...?

Really, it could be anywhere.

I’m hoping that LYDIA eventually turns up. I know it won’t be today. It may not even show up during this holiday season. ...I’ll probably find it next summer. Yet when I do, I imagine that reading it will transport me back to this Christmas when snow was on the ground and the tree was decorated and lighted up with gifts piled beneath. A good book can take you back to Christmas for sure.

Really, a good book can take you anywhere.

Merry Christmas to everyone.


Anonymous said...

I don't know where my copy of "Christmas for Lydia" is either, now that you mention it! Those tiny books do hide.

But what really prompted me to write is to ask if you've read the article by Anita Silvey in the October School Library Journal entitled "Has the Newbery Lost Its Way?" And, if you have, do you have any comments?

Interesting article in yesterday's L.A. Times commenting on the article and subsequent fall-out: section E12, "Are Newbery winners the new not-to-read list?" by Valerie Strauss.

I've not read Silvey's article and have just begun to read Strauss' article on Silvey's article. So, being completely uninformed, all I have to say is, I don't think "Ginger Pye" would win a Newbery nowadays. (I don't know why that winner came to mind - maybe because I packed a raggedy old copy into a bag of books for a reading skills class yesterday.) Do you? But I have a feeling many kids will still love it.

Perhaps the Newberys were aimed at younger readers back in the day? Ya think? Maybe they need a Newbery for books for younger readers and a Newbery for young adult books?

Because early on is when you really have to capture kids as readers, I think. Between picture books and "Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!" I think there needs to be a "Pinky Pye."

I'm interested to hear what you think.

Anonymous said...

PS: I hope I'm not posting about something which has already been discussed! I'm way behind on your blog and am playing catch-up. My apologies if you've covered this already.

Ladytink_534 said...

I loved The Best Christmas Pageant Ever as a kid. I meant to watch the movie this year but didn't get around to it. Hope you had a merry Christmas!

Toña said...

I haven't read The Best Christmas Pageant Ever since I was in elementary school, but I remember so clearly how much I LOVED IT. After reading your thoughts, I may want to try it again . . . perhaps not.
And as for Lydia, she is asleep, in her crib, in her room, next to mine. I shall have to find a copy of her own, now that I know it exists.