Thursday, July 31, 2008

Marie Osmond, Irene Spillane, and Me

Marie Osmond and I share the same birthday -- October 13.

However, I am exactly one year older than she is.

Still, I've always felt a kinship with her and have followed her career from the time she hit the music charts with "Paper Roses"...through the Donny and Marie Show...the short-lived sitcom with Betty White (anyone remember that?)...even the doll-selling era. And last year I was delighted to learn she was going to compete on TV's Dancing with the Stars.

The day after she debuted on the show, I visited a few of the internet message boards to see what people were saying. The very first message I read said, "Who the (bleep) is Marie Osmond?" The next message said, "I've never even heard of that old lady."

That old lady?

Can you imagine how Marie would have felt if she read that remark?

Can you imagine how I felt, knowing I was a year older than that old lady?

I'm thinking about this because I just added a new book to my collection -- A BIRTHDAY GARLAND compiled by Elinor Parker and illustrated by someone who went by the single name "Primrose."

I did a little research and learned that Elinor Milnor Parker (1906-2001) worked in the children's book department at Scribner's Book Store for fifteen years and then became an editor at Charles Scribner's Sons for the rest of her lengthy career. I still don't know who that "Primrose" is though.

The reason I purchased this book is because it was presented as a gift to those who attended the 1950 Newbery-Caldecott Banquet -- the year Marguerite de Angeli won the Newbery for THE DOOR IN THE WALL and Leo Politi got the Caldecott for SONG OF THE SWALLOWS.

There is a note attached to the illustrated endpapers (which feature a tree weathering the four seasons) that says: THIS KEEPSAKE / OF THE NEWBERY-CALDECOTT DINNER / HELD IN CLEVELAND, OHIO, ON JULY 18, 1950 / IS GIVEN BY THE THOMAS Y. CROWELL COMPANY / TO CELEBRATE THE FIFTIETH BIRTHDAY OF / THE CHILDREN'S LIBRARY ASSOCIATION.

You can click on this image to get a better view of the presentation:

This pocket-sized volume, nicely illustrated with seasonal black-and-white and color drawings, contains a quote or verse for every day of the year from Dinah Marie Mulock's sentiment for January 1:

Who comes dancing over the snow,
His soft little feet all bare and rosy?
Open the door though the wild winds blow,
Take the child in and make him cozy.
Take him in and hold him dear,
He is the wonderful glad New Year.

to Alfred, Lord Tennyson's familiar "Ring out the old, ring in the new" verse for December 31.

Here's the entry for today, and isn't it appropriate?

You'll notice that each date has a couple blank lines beneath, for filling in the birthdays of family and friends. The book's previous owner made good use of these blank lines, adding birthdays on many of the pages. The oldest person listed is Perley E. Jeffery, who was born December 17, 1878. The youngest is Peter Jeffery, born January 5, 1960 -- showing that the owner was still using this volume ten years after receiving it at ALA.

Of course my favorite entry is this one for Irene Ellen Spillane, who has something in common with me and Marie Osmond.

I've blocked off the actual year of Irene Spillane's birth for the simple fact that she's about my mother's age -- and if I ever posted my mother's age on this blog she would hit me with a shoe. Since Ms. Spillane may be similarly skittish about revealing her age, I've decided that discretion may be the better part of valor. But let's just say that Irene is a lot older than either Marie or me.

I've never attended a Newbery-Caldecott Dinner, but am glad I've been able to pick up souveniers from some of these events -- including this 1950 dinner which occured long before I was born. I wonder how many copies of A BIRTHDAY GARLAND were handed out that night? I wonder how many of them are still around today? I wonder if anyone thought to pass their copy around and have all the notables in attendance sign the pages?

And is that copy out there somewhere, waiting for discovery?

Maybe someday you or I (or Marie or Irene) will stumble across another "keepsake" copy in a used bookstore, open it up, and find that Marguerite de Angeli has signed her name under the entry for March 14 and Leo Politi has added his signature under November 21.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Midnight Madness

Take an everyday activity, place it in an unusual time frame, and it suddenly becomes An Event.

When I think back on my childhood, most of the school days seem to blend together. But what still stands out in my mind are the out-of-season, out-of-sequence times: walking into the dark school at night to attend an evening concert or taking our parents to the annual "Open House" to see our classrooms and meet our teachers even though it was way past our bedtime. I remember going to school to get our sugar-cube polio vaccines on a SUNDAY MORNING and the year the teachers went on strike and summer vacation lasted through September and most of October. (I also remember how we had to make up that time by attending school all through the following June and July -- the wide-open windows letting in bees and hornets and the blaring music of passing ice cream trucks, but not a lick of cool air.)

I suspect that many of today's kids will someday have similar memories of attending Harry Potter book release parties -- those rare nights when a simple visit to the bookstore became An Event. I can just imagine the excitement of staying up late on a Friday night...traveling by car down near-empty streets at a time when you're normally long asleep...browsing the shelves while waiting for the boxes of books to be opened at the stroke of midnight...and then of course riding home with the treasured book in your hands, perhaps holding it up to the window and trying to read by streetlight and stoplight.

I've known people who were not even fans of the Potter books, yet attended all the release parties just because they enjoyed being around other enthusiastic "book people" and loved the idea of buying-books-by-moonlight.

Many of us thought these late night parties would end with the publication of HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS, not realizing that Stephenie Meyer's vampire "Twilight Saga" would soon seize the collective imagination of young readers. The final book in that series, BREAKING DAWN, doesn't have the same pervasive and deafening level of "buzz" that HP had, nor are its expected numbers nearly as big (BREAKING DAWN has announced a first printing of 3.2 million, versus 12 million for DEATHLY HALLOWS) but that's still more than enough interest to keep the bookstores open late again this Friday night, August 1.

I read the first book in Meyer's series, TWILIGHT, in 2005, but didn't read 2006's NEW MOON or 2007's ECLIPSE. Nor do I plan to get a copy of BREAKING DAWN this Friday night/Saturday morning. Yet wild horses couldn't keep me from the release party. My favorite bookstore is hosting a "Midnight Madness Monster Party" complete with costumes, an appearance by a local horror-movie TV host, djs in the store, and a band playing outside on the sidewalk. Best of all, nearly every book in the entire store will be 25% off!

Although I visit this store nearly every Friday on the way home from work, this week I'm planning to go much later in the evening just to experience the excitement, hang around other midnight shoppers, and watch families show up for an occasion when a simple visit to the bookstore becomes an adventure...An Event...and, ultimately, a memory.

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.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Paula's Last Laugh

Paula Danziger was once quoted as saying that if she weren't a writer she'd like to be a stand-up comic. This probably won't surprise anyone who has read her riotously funny children's and young-adult books.

I discovered Paula Danziger in the summer of 1974, when she published her first novel, THE CAT ATE MY GYMSUIT. I could tell from the title that the book would be funny...but when I turned to the first page I was stunned by the raw intensity of the opening lines: "I hate my father. I hate school. I hate being fat. I hate the principal because he wanted to fire Ms. Finney, my English teacher." This story of Marcy Lewis's life-changing ninth-grade year covers some rough emotional terrain -- especially in its depiction of a parent's emotional abuse -- and though the protagonist emerges somewhat empowered, Marcy never loses her realistic edge of anger, stating on the final page that "I still hate my father." THE CAT ATE MY GYMSUIT became an immediate bestseller and announced Paula Danziger as a major new voice in children's books. Subsequent novels such as THE PISTACHIO PRESCRIPTION (1978), CAN YOU SUE YOUR PARENTS FOR MALPRACTICE? (1979), and THE DIVORCE EXPRESS (1982) continued to merge painful topics (abuse, divorced parents, negative self-image) with humor and confirmed Marcy's statement in GYMSUIT that "middle-class kids have problems too."

Paula Danziger's blending of humor and melancholy seemed to extend to her own life as well. In her book PRESENTING PAULA DANZIGER, Kathleen Krull writes of seeing the author give a speech in 1983. After noting that Ms. Danziger was one of the best speakers she'd ever heard, she adds, "She also struck me as possibly in need of therapy, or maybe more therapy. Her anger was towering, almost out of control. She seemed a troubled soul, full of compassion for others but only unhappiness with herself and a disturbing honesty about it."

They say that every great comedian is deeply sad inside and Paula Danziger, who not only wished she was a stand-up comic but also gave her characters the same last names as famous comedians -- Lewis (for Jerry), Allen (for Woody). Brooks (for Mel) -- certainly seemed to fit that bill.

Happily, Krull also tells of visiting Danziger nearly ten years later and finding the author "much becalmed since our last meeting, just as funny but not nearly so angry and unhappy. The years had made a positive difference."

I would contend that this change was also reflected in her novels, which over time became less intense and edgy. She wrote a science fiction romp (THIS PLACE HAS NO ATMOSPHERE, 1986), took her characters on scavenger hunts in New York (REMEMBER ME TO HAROLD SQUARE, 1987) and England (THAMES DOESN'T RHYME WITH JAMES, 1994), and wrote the "Matthew Martin" and "Amber Brown" series for younger readers. Which isn't to say that she ignored tough topics in her later books (for example, the protagonist loses a much-loved uncle in UNITED TATES OF AMERICA, 2002), just that their treatment was much less emotionally naked than in earlier volumes.

I never met Paula Danziger, but I've heard a lot about her over the years. A fixture on the lecture circuit both here and abroad (she even had a children's book segment on a BBC television show), she was known as a flamboyant, larger-than-life presence with an obsession for sequins, rhinestones, purple tennis shoes, and funny hats. Some found her personality overwhelming, but nearly everyone spoke of her with great affection and warmth.

When Paula Danziger died in 2004, I was dismayed to realize that I didn't have a single one of her titles in my collection. She may not have been the most acclaimed children's author of the twentieth-century (some critics found her work slight) but, with millions of books sold in over fifty countries, she was certainly one of the most popular. So in her memory I tracked down a signed copy of REMEMBER ME TO HAROLD SQUARE.

I'm especially fond of this book for its New York setting and I love that my copy demonstrates, in mirror-image inscriptions, Ms. Danziger's ability to write in reverse which was, reportedly, the result of a brain injury she received in a car accident.

About a week after her death, the following paid obituary -- which Danziger had prepared some time in advance -- appeared in the New York Times:

"Paula Danziger, beloved children's book writer, would like to inform you that she isn't avoiding your calls, she passed away on July 8, 2004."

Like any good comedian, Paula Danziger knew the value of a good exit line -- and, true to form, she left us laughing.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Most Likely to Succeed

It was the very first day of high school. When I finally found the second-floor study hall, I slid into an empty seat and pulled out my omnipresent paperback, but was distracted by a group of kids in the aisle, shooting wads of paper into the trash can with rubber bands. A short kid with a loud laugh seemed to be the ringleader. At one point I heard him brag that he planned to grow a mustache, adding, “My mom said I could.” I rolled my eyes.

A few minutes later the room monitor ordered the kids into their seats. The short boy sat down right across the aisle from me and immediately leaned forward to talk to the kids sitting in front of him. At one point I heard him say that he planned to be a writer someday. That stunned me so much I put down my book. What were the chances -- a thousand to one, a million to one? -- that on the very first day at this new school I’d meet someone else who also wanted to be a writer?

I waited till he finished talking with the kids in front of him, then waited a little more to conquer my shyness and force myself to speak. Finally I leaned over and asked, “Did you say you wanted to be a writer?”


“Me too.”

And that began a conversation which continued pretty much nonstop from the first day of high school till the day we graduated.

In some ways we were unlikely friends. He was gregarious and popular; I was the opposite. He excelled at math, science, and foreign languages; everything came hard to me. He was president of the National Honor Society; I flunked geometry. He had a cool after-school job in a tall office building; I delivered newspapers.

But in other ways, we couldn’t have been more alike -- especially in our shared dream of someday becoming writers. I wonder now if I ever could have sustained that dream throughout high school all by myself. Would I have stayed motivated? Focused? Maybe. ...But it certainly made things easier to have a friend with the exact same goal. And he definitely kept me on my toes. Every time I read one of his brilliant English reports or an article he wrote for the school newspaper, I was determined to write something even better. It was the best kind of friendship and the best kind of rivalry. Yeah, he beat me out for the job of Cody Star editor, but I won a journalism contest sponsored by a national magazine. When I got another prize for writing a short story, he turned around and wrote an even better story about a schoolyard fight and it also had the best title ever -- “About a Bout.” We talked incessantly about the future when we’d be...novelists. Not just novelists, but...Famous Novelists.

During our senior year, we took an advanced English class that culminated in a major term paper. With our friend Karen we drove to several local libraries to track down research materials. One cloudy afternoon we staggered out of Detroit’s Main Library, each carrying a tall stack of books. We’d almost made it to the car when I realized one of the books in my pile was missing. We retraced our steps for three or four blocks, looking on the sidewalk for the volume I’d somehow dropped. Suddenly the sun broke through the clouds and my friend pointed to a waist-high hedge running beside the sidewalk. There, resting on top of the hedge, was my library book -- laying wide open as if waiting to be read -- with the bright sunlight reflecting off the pages.

To this aspiring "Famous Novelist," it seemed like a metaphor for the future that lay before us like an open book.

I wasn’t surprised when my friend was named “Most Likely to Succeed” in our graduating class. I knew he was going to succeed -- big time. I just hoped I could somehow keep up with him. At graduation we wrote extravagant, egotistical notes in each other’s yearbooks. I can’t quite recall what I wrote in his, but I do remember including footnotes. His message to me contained this comment: “Perhaps someday I’ll write a critique of one of your books or vice versa or both.”

It seemed possible at the time. EVERYTHING seemed possible at the time.

A few months later, I wrote him a letter saying I was trying to write a novel for young readers (yeah, even then) and he sent back a long letter brimming with his usual enthusiasm and encouragement (“Don’t let yourself believe that because you write ‘kids books’ that you can’t make them intelligent pieces of literature. YOU can.”) as well as several of his own story ideas (he’d just written a time-travel story called “Do the Hustle” and a tale about a ping-pong game that came to an unresolved ending like “The Lady or the Tiger.”) He also had another story that he was saving for me to read.

He concluded, “Well, Pete, I’ll see you around this summer."

But I never saw him again.

Later that year we heard he’d gotten married. We heard there was a baby on the way. Someone said he'd dropped out of college. Someone else said he was now working at K-Mart.

Years later, our mutual friend Karen told me she’d run into him at K-Mart. He was wearing a manager’s uniform. “Oh my gosh,” I said. “What did he say?”

“He just said hi and kept walking,” she reported.

“What? You haven’t seen him in eight years and all he said was hi?”

“He acted like he didn’t want to talk,” she said.

I remembered how determined he was to be a writer. In fact, he was once quoted in our school paper saying, “I want to be a writer so bad, I know I couldn’t be happy doing anything else!” K-Mart manager or not, I refused to believe that he’d give up on that dream.

I hadn’t given up on mine. I wasn’t a Famous Novelist -- not even close. But I kept dreaming and I kept writing -- and my high school friend was never far from my thoughts. When a play I wrote was reviewed in the newspaper's theater column, I wondered if he’d seen that day's paper. When a few of my short stories were published in school-books, I wondered if he’d recognize my name in his kids’ language arts texts. And I never stopped looking for HIS name -- expecting it to turn up in a magazine’s table of contents...on the cover of book in the a bookstore window display.

And I finally did see his name in print. Not on a dustjacket or magazine cover...but in the newspaper death notices. The obituary didn’t tell us much, though we did learn he was no longer married. Karen asked if I wanted to go to the funeral home with her, but I wanted to remember our friend the way he was -- when he was young and noisy and full of dreams. Karen later told me she was sorry she went. She didn’t recognize the body in the casket. Nobody in the family acknowledged her.

Even today we still don’t know how he died.

Just from little things I’ve picked up and pieced together, I think something went wrong for him along the way. I hope his dream of being a writer never died. I wish he knew that I never quit believing in him.

He’s been gone for over a year and even now I sometimes find myself looking for his name in print. Maybe I always will. You see, we were both supposed to become Famous Novelists and someday he was going to write a critique of one of my books. Or vice versa. Or both.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Sounds of Sunday Brunching

One of the books I discuss in today’s blog, RAPUNZEL’S REVENGE (written by Shannon and Dean Hale; illustrated by Nathan Hale) features the kind of old-fashioned, cartoon sound effects I haven’t seen since I used to watch BATMAN on TV as a kid. We hear a magic glass capsule crush between thumb and index finger (CRISH!), the sound of Rapunzel using a lariat (FWIP!) and falling in the water (SPLOSH!), and the growl of attacking beasts (ROWR!) Today’s Sunday brunch offers some random thoughts and information on children’s books, complete with sound effects.


That’s the sound of walking through a noisy street fair and then finding sanctuary in a quiet bookstore. Ann Arbor’s annual Art Fair was held this past week and though I have not been there in many years, I remember going several times as a kid. Throngs of thousands browsed the booths that ran up and down the busy streets of this university town. The art was nice, but I was more interested in escaping the blazing sun and deafening din by visiting every bookstore in sight. This was the seventies when the city had all kinds of bookstores, including the very first Borders ever; stores that sold mainly university texts; esoteric book boutiques located at the top of wobbling wooden stairways or down in dark basements that specialized in titles for women’s libbers (as feminists were called back then) or hippies or those with an interest in the paranormal, as well as dusty used bookshops on almost every block.

Is there anything better than stepping off a hot, crowded street and finding refuge in an air-conditioned bookstore?

Today I buy books willy-nilly -- keeping a few favorites, but mostly giving the rest away to libraries after I’ve read them. But back then I only had maybe twenty dollars to spend on books for the entire year, so when I brought that money to Ann Arbor each July, I shopped very wisely -- picking books I knew I’d want to keep forever. And I still do have most of them. If I spin my chair around right now, I can actually touch three of them on the shelf a few inches behind me: THE SON OF SOMEONE FAMOUS by M.E. Kerr, IS THAT YOU, MISS BLUE? by M.E. Kerr, and A HEART TO THE HAWKS, a novel by Don Moser who, as far as I know, hasn’t written a book since.

Incidentally, my only major art purchase in all the years I visited the Art Fair, is this painting of “The Round People” by Frank Stephan Pollack:

I couldn’t afford it myself, so I paid for half and my aunt paid for half -- and then we shared it! For part of the year the Round People resided with her in Ann Arbor and for the rest of the year they lived with me in Detroit. (Has anyone else ever used this innovative approach to buying a piece of art?) My aunt died several years ago, so the little round family now resides full-time with me. It represents one aspect of the Art Fair -- walking around under an oppressive sun, squeezing into noisy, bustling booths and looking over people’s shoulders at paintings and sculptures. The books I bought during those visits represent another side of the art fair -- standing alone in a cool and quiet bookstore exploring the art of the written word.

Everyone deserves a pat on the back for a job well done. And while authors get their fair share of praise (and criticism), it seems to me that publishers, editors, and others involved in the production of a book are usually the “silent partners” who remain unacknowledged. The only publisher I know of that regularly includes the editor’s name on the copyright page is Philomel.

But now a new imprint, Feiwel and Friends, has come up with a novel way of acknowledging the “behind the scenes” folks who contribute to the creation of their books. Each of their volumes includes a page at the end thanking us for reading the book (you’re welcome!) and stating “The friends who made [title of book] possible are” followed by a list of names.

I like how F&F incorporate the theme of each book into this page.

COMPOUND by S.A. Bodeen, about a boy who lives in an underground shelter for many years, uses this motif:

And the baseball novel SIX INNINGS by James Preller utilizes this fun design:


That’s the sound of me getting slapped down by a famous editor. How famous? She’s THE Feiwel of the aforementioned Feiwel & Friends!

Last year I was excited to learn that Ellen Emerson White had written a new volume in her “Meg Powers” series. However, my excitement was short-lived when I discovered that LONG MAY SHE REIGN was going to be published in softcover.

There’s certainly no shame in being published in paperback. It seems like most young adult books in England -- even serious literary works -- are published as paperback originals. Young adult author M.E. Kerr published nearly twenty paperback originals in the 1950s and 1960s as “Vin Packer” and her work was compared favorably to that of John O’Hara and is still considered some of the finest suspense writing of that era.

So my concern isn’t the quality of the book, but more the (cue SFX) “SKITTER SKITTER SKITTER” sound we’ll be hearing in a few years when we try to read these paperbacks and the pages all fall out and land on the floor. So often when I read my Vin Packer books, just turning a page will cause it to pull out of the binding; I once dropped one and the entire spine came off. That’s why I prefer the durability and near-permanence of a hardcover book.

Since Feiwel and Friends had a website, I sent Jean Feiwel herself an e-mail with my arguments against paperbacks (“they only hold up for a few readings at the library before being tossed, so they don’t sit on library shelves for any length of time the way a hardcover does, drawing new fans years after year.”) and even trying to convince her to at least to try a “limited edition hardcover” the way Roaring Brook Press did with last year’s Printz winner AMERICAN BORN CHINESE.

First I went at it from the collecting perspective: “Everywhere I go, I see evidence of products geared toward the collector. We’re now collecting state-themed quarters. The magazine Vanity Fair is featuring 30 different covers this month, leaving collectors rushing around to find all of them. The TV Guide regularly publishes 4-6 different covers for the same issue, and collectors must buy all of them.”

I desperately threw in the CANDY argument! :

“Even candy bars have been experimenting with the trend lately, putting out “limited edition” dark chocolate M&Ms...and “limited edition” Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups with caramel and nut fillings. ...So I’m wondering if it would be financially feasible, from a publisher’s perspective, to issue a limited number of signed and numbered hardcovers to complement a paperback original. I know I’d pay $50 or $60 for a special limited edition of a book like LONG MAY SHE REIGN.”

I then tried flattery:

“I don’t think many other publishers have considered such a thing, but it might be something a new, vital and exciting company such as yours might try someday.”

She wrote back and said NO.

But she was very nice about it, thanking me for my thoughts, and saying she preferred to “publish a beautiful looking trade paperback that would have serious shelf presence, but would be far more affordable” (than what a 700-page hardcover would cost.)

Ms. Feiwel was also very complimentary about Ellen Emerson White, calling her “one of the most talented and brilliant writers I’ve ever worked with.”

But still:

“I am not considering a hardcover special edition.”

I was bummed because, as a book lover and book collector, I’m all about preservation and permanence -- two qualities generally lacking in paperback books.

Oh well, Feiwel & Friends ARE still my friends, as they have released some really great books in their first year of publishing.

I just wish all those books had been hardcovers!


That’s the sound of great excitement slowing fading away, and that’s the sound I made when I read Benjamin Alire Saenz’s new novel HE FORGOT TO SAY GOODBYE.

I thought that Mr. Saenz’s first young adult novel, SAMMY AND JULIANA IN HOLLYWOOD, was one of the best books of this new century and that he deserved the Printz Award for it. So I was really looking forward to this new novel. However, GOODBYE seems very much overwritten and, while it has some nice moments, I felt it needed stronger editing. Not everyone agrees with me on this one. Publishers Weekly actually starred it. If you want to see my detailed criticisms, my review of HE FORGOT TO SAY GOODBYE appears in the current issue of the Horn Book.


This past week, three people whose opinions I value have told me how much they liked the following new or forthcoming books:

LOVE ME TENDER by Audrey Couloumbis

I haven’t read them yet, but after hearing this kind of word-of-mouth praise, these books are moving to the top of my “to be read” pile.


Twice this past week I encountered children’s books dedicated to the authors’ grandparents. That’s not so unusual. The unusual thing is that both dedication pages contained photographs of the dedicatee.

Here’s the dedication page of FIVE LITTLE GEFILTES by Dave Horowitz:


Is this a new trend? Is it a positive trend? Does it make us (heart) the author for being a good grandchild? Or does it intrude on the integrity of the book in some way? I haven’t decided yet.


That’s the sound of me reconsidering an old opinion.

In the past, I have often dismissed children’s books that were issued by regional or university presses, figuring they probably weren’t up to par with the best books released by the major publishing houses.

However, this past week I came across WHO'S JIM HINES? written by Jean Alicia Elster and published by the press at the university where I work:

The description on the back cover stated that the story was based on the life of the author’s uncle, who helped his father deliver wood throughout Detroit and the suburbs during the Depression. Now I’m very interested in reading this story about the history of my hometown and its people. That’s when it dawned on me that this is the primary appeal of books published by regional companies. They may not get much national attention or garner huge audiences, but they often tell “small” human stories that will best be appreciated by readers, families, and cultures within their own communities and should be celebrated as such. Later generations of historians will appreciate them as well.


A couple days ago I wrote about receiving a poster from a blog-friend who attended the American LIbrary Association convention in Anaheim last month. I later received the book that goes with the poster, RAPUNZEL'S REVENGE, signed by co-author Shannon Hale with the jaunty inscription “Yeeha!”

This retelling of Rapunzel, by way of the Old West, is a spirited, entertaining, tongue-in-cheek graphic novel.

A lot of people were surprised last year when a graphic novel, AMERICAN BORN CHINESE by Gene Luen Yang, won the Printz Award. This year’s Caldecott winner, THE INVENTION OF HUGO CABRET by Brian Selznick, may not technically be a “graphic novel,” but it comes pretty close. And now that acclaimed authors such as Shannon Hale are entering the genre, it strikes me that there will come a day when a graphic novel wins the Newbery Medal.

What will the response to THAT sound like?

Loud applause from those who appreciate innovation?

Teeth gnashing and heads imploding from traditionalists?

Cheers? Boos?

Stunned silence?

How will you feel? Insert your own sound effect here.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Moore Books from My Shelves

She was a pioneering figure in the world of children’s books.

She ran the first specially-built children’s library room in the nation at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute. She served as the superintendent of children’s work at the New York Public Library for thirty-five years, introducing principles, policies, and procedures still used today in libraries around the world. She wielded tremendous influence in children’s literature, reviewing for periodicals such as the Atlantic Monthly, serving as associate editor of the Horn Book, and publishing several volumes of criticism.

Yet nearly fifty years after her death, she is remembered not for these professional triumphs but for her biggest blunders.

Meet Anne Carroll Moore -- the woman who hated STUART LITTLE and CHARLOTTE’S WEB.

Moore is the subject of a fascinating article in the July 21, 2008 issue of THE NEW YORKER, “The Lion and the Mouse : The Battle that Reshaped Children’s Literature” by Jill Lepore. You can read it online at:

Lepore's balanced portrait gives Ms. Moore plenty of credit for her achievements (instituting library story hours, giving children book-borrowing privileges, celebrating multiculturalism) while also touching on her peccadillos, which include copius use of a rubber stamp emblazoned with the words “Not recommended for purchase by expert” (hey, I want one of those!) and a bizarre relationship with her own early version of filmdom’s Chucky Doll -- a little wooden figure named Nicholas whose hands, I have read elsewhere, were crafted to hold candles that Moore would ceremoniously light on special occasions. But the main focus of the article is Moore’s condemnation of E.B. White’s STUART LITTLE.

Strangely, it was Anne Carroll Moore who originally encouraged E.B. White to attempt a children’s book, not knowing that he'd already begun writing one. And during STUART’s seven-year gestation, she unceasingly pestered the author with giddyup letters. It must have come as quite a shock -- to both White and Moore herself -- when she finally read a galley of STUART LITTLE and proclaimed, “I have never been so disappointed in a book in my life.”

Moore tried to convince editor Ursula Nordstrom to stop publication and sent a similarly-themed fourteen-page letter to White and his wife. She did her best to keep the book out of libraries and, Lepore contends, “seems to have used her influence to shut STUART LITTLE out of the Newbery Medal.”

The book nonetheless became a critical and popular success. One might think that Anne Carroll Moore would have been suitably chagrined and chastened. Yet, just a few years later, she was up to her old tricks again! E.B. White’s second children’s book, CHARLOTTE’S WEB, was that rare novel almost universally considered an instant classic, but that didn't stop Moore from complaining in the pages of the Horn Book that she found the book “hard to take from so masterful a hand.” According to Anita Silvey’s indispensible 100 BEST BOOKS FOR CHILDREN, “Many believe that Moore played a critical role in keeping the gold Newbery seal from adorning the cover.” CHARLOTTE was, at least, named a Newbery Honor to SECRET OF THE ANDES by Ann Nolan Clark. (The book's biggest secret? How did it ever win the Newbery over CHARLOTTE’S WEB?)

I actually have a couple Anne Carroll Moore books in my collection.

In 1924 she published a fantasy novel about her wooden doll, NICHOLAS : A MANHATTAN CHRISTMAS STORY. The book was named a Newbery Honor and it’s ironic to think that, if it had garnered just a few more votes and beaten TALES OF SILVER LANDS in the final talley, Moore could have claimed something that E.B. White never achieved -- the highest award in children’s books.

I’m glad she didn’t get it. The book is dated and precious, with dialogue so sugary that it can cause cavities. I have to admit I’ve never actually been able to finish Moore's book. But since I do love New York (the endpapers feature maps of the city) and Christmas, I think I’ll give NICHOLAS yet another try this coming holiday season. But I plan to keep a “Not recommended for purchase by expert” rubber stamp very close at hand.

I also have a 1939 volume of Moore’s critical essays, MY ROADS : VIEWS AND REVIEWS OF CHILDREN’S BOOKS.

What I like best about this book is that it was personally inscribed by the author, sixty-eight years ago this very week:

If you can’t read that, I believe it says, “MY ROADS TO CHILDHOOD are lighted with Christmas candles for Barbara Smith and the best of luck wishes for her wherever she goes with books -- with memories of a very happy visit at her Mountain View Farm July 13-15 1940. Anne Carroll Moore.”

The book's former owner also laid in a photo of Anne Carrol Moore. I love this picture because it’s not some kind of studio shot used for publicity, but an honest-to-goodness snapshot taken right on the street. In the picture, Ms. Moore doesn’t look formidable at all. In fact, she looks like someone’s no-nonsense, but kindly grandma.

Who would ever suspect that her big ole white purse contained a loaded mousetrap and a giant economy-size can of Spidey-B-Gone Insecticide?

Tuesday, July 15, 2008


The July issue of VANITY FAIR featured an “oral history” of the internet, told by dozens of individuals who created and developed the computer network that changed all of our lives.

Personally, I’d like to shake the hand of each and every one of them.

For most of my life I felt very much alone with my interest in children’s books. Except for some bookstore friends and an occasional librarian, I didn’t really know anyone with whom I could discuss children’s books of the past, share information and opinions about current favorites, or wager on which titles might win awards in the future.

Then along came the internet with its create-your-own-community conviviality and suddenly I had coast-to-coast "book buddies." I could start the morning talking with my friend in Boston who's acknowledged as one of the top children's book experts in the nation, have a lunch-time conversation with a university librarian in Iowa, and then spend the evening discussing books with a California friend who has served on both the Newbery and Printz committees.

The internet also changed the commerce of bookselling. No longer confined to a few local bookstores, we can now "browse the stacks" at any number of online bookstores from The Biggie to little mom-and-pop used bookshops that list their wares online. And I've met some really great booksellers and fellow collectors in cyberspace.

One online friend from Connecticut, who has certainly enriched my collection with her book-collecting tips and discussions, was the first person to suggest I start this blog.

If it hadn’t been for that suggestion, I wouldn’t have made even more friends here at Collecting Children's Books:

...There's the librarian from Cambridge, Massachusetts who claims she’s “far too shy” to post comments on my blog, yet sends me the kind of thought-provoking and entertaining letters offline that really SHOULD be shared with everyone online.

...There's my amazing (and amahzing) correspondent in New York who shares so many similar interests that we joke about being separated at birth.

...There's a well-known editor who swoops in occasionally to make a pithy comment in teeny-tiny print.

...There are fellow bloggers providing support and inspiration, like Fuse #8 from School Library Journal.

...I've even reconnected with a childhood friend who stumbled across my blog, as well as a cousin in Macon, Georgia.

...And how about those visits from famous authors who drop by from time to time with comments? I won't list them all, for fear of accidentally leaving someone out, but it's a real thrill every time I see one of those much-admired names pop up on this blog.

Ultimately, I'm grateful to every single blog-trotter -- named or anonymous -- who stops by for a visit.

I've been thinking about all this because of something that happened last night. I arrived home from work to find two packages waiting.

A reader of this blog, Esperanza from Oregon, had attended ALA in Anaheim and sent me a poster from one of this fall's most anticipated books, RAPUNZEL'S REVENGE, a graphic novel written by Newbery Honor winner Shannon Hale and her husband Dean, and illustrated by Nathan Hale who is, apparently, not a relative.

As if it weren't nice enough just to send the poster, I realized that Esperanza had actually stood in line to have it personally autographed by Shannon and "Nate" Hale.

Thank you Esperanza for this rare and much-appreciated gift!

The other package was from writer-illustrator Leo Landry. After reading my blog he recently wrote and asked a couple questions, which I tried to answer as best I could. Truthfully, I don't think my answers were THAT helpful, but by-way-of-thanks he sent me a package containing two of his own books -- the rollicking EAT YOUR PEAS, IVY LOUISE! and his recent bedtime adventure story SPACE BOY:

Even though I probably only gave him fifty cents' worth of advice, he made his books priceless to me by personally inscribing them AND including a hand-drawn sketch in each. Wow!

Thank you, Leo Landry!

And thank you to everyone else who visits this blog, or leaves comments, or sends me pesonal e-mails.

You're some of the nicest people I've never met!

Sunday, July 13, 2008

What's for Brunch? Books "Over Easy"

The library where I work classifies picture books under a “PE” heading.

PE stands for “Picture Easy.”

I’ve never quite understood that designation. To me, “easy” books are titles geared for early readers, such as the “I Can Read” series published by HarperCollins.

I wouldn’t necessarily call a picture book an “easy” book. They are not easy to write, nor are they easy to illustrate. The intended audience (often preschoolers) probably doesn’t find them easy to read. Heck, they’re not even easy for me to catalog.

But I guess people just assume they’re “easy” because they contain mostly pictures.

I’ve been busy this weekend, so didn’t get around to preparing a blog entry. Then I thought, “Why don’t I just post a bunch of pictures? That should be easy.”


See how quickly one can fall into that “pictures” equal “easy” trap?

Anyway, a couple people have asked to see pictures of my Newbery Book collection, so I thought I’d post a couple on my blog today. All the books are first editions. It’s taken a whole lifetime to collect them...and I still haven’t found them all yet. (Anybody have a first edition of the 1922 Newbery Honor WINDY HILL by Cornelia Meigs? How about 1931’s DARK STAR OF ITZA by Alida Malkus? Buyer desperate.)

Here’s a panoramic view of the main collection:

And here’s a close-up of a random shelf. This one contains books from the early to mid-1960s. ...Hey, does that book have a tail?

That’s actually a fraying tassel attached to the program for the 1967 Newbery-Caldecott banquet. Every year the people who attend this ceremony receive a program or souvenier of some sort. Last year it was a harmonica! Naturally these items are highly valued by collectors. I’ve never attended an N-C ceremony but sometimes I’ve had friends who attended and brought me back a souvenier (thanks, guys!) If that doesn’t happen, I usually try to buy one. The older it is, the more it costs. This program from 1967 cost over one hundred dollars:

The program for the 1967 banquet, which was held in the ballroom of the San Francisco Hilton on June 27, contains a list of the people who sat the head table. In addition to the winners (Irene Hunt won the Newbery for UP A ROAD SLOWLY and Evaline Ness won the Caldecott for SAM, BANGS & MOONSHINE) and their editors, guests included Daniel Melcher (“Donor of the Newbery and Caldecott Medals"), Mary Gaver ("President of the American Library Association") and Mrs. Clift, Mr. Meeks, Mrs. O’Hara, Mrs. Holman, and Mrs. Mohrhardt, who not only don’t have any positions listed...they don’t even seem to have first names! The highlight of the banquet program are two removable pages, one containing a quote from UP A ROAD SLOWLY (if you have a copy of the book, the quote is from page 171. It concerns the moment the novel’s protagonist first becomes a REAL writer) and the other a print from SAM, BANGS & MOONSHINE:

As you can see, there are many shelves in my Newbery collection, each one special. This one contains a favorite book, that one contains a favorite memory. But if you asked me about the most special shelf of all, I’d have to say this one:

Not just because it also features pictures of treasured pets, a treasured friend (and favorite author), and a treasured memento -- a mug from another Newbery-Caldecott dinner. No, what makes this shelf special is that it contains the most recent winners and Honor Books. I love that it’s always in a state of flux. As soon as I added this year’s winner (GOOD MASTERS! SWEET LADIES!) and Honor Books (ELIJAH OF BUXTON, THE WEDNESDAY WARS, and FEATHERS) people were already talking about what books will win NEXT year. My Newbery book collection isn’t just a bunch of dusty old books sitting on a's something that continues to grow and change with every passing year.

Incidentally, if you’re wondering about the mug, it’s a gift from a friend who attended the 1989 banquet, honoring Paul Fleischman for JOYFUL NOISE and Stephen Gammell for SONG AND DANCE MAN. And you can see I put it to good use:

Every night I empty my pocket change into the Newbery mug. When I have enough coins saved, I may be able to add a new book to my Newbery collection.

...Now if only I could find copies of WINDY HILL or DARK STAR OF ITZA....

Thursday, July 10, 2008



NAME: ???



D.O.B. 1947






A couple days ago I read the new young adult novel THE LOSER’S GUIDE TO LIFE AND LOVE by A.E. Cannon, an enjoyably slick story about the romantic entanglements of several Salt Lake City teenagers in the days leading up to a big Midsummer Night’s party. Though the characters are familiar (the worrisome boy trying to impress a beautiful blonde; the nice girl in love with her unaware male best friend; the-science-geek-next-door) and the plot is sitcom-lite, Cannon keeps the multi-voiced narrative moving at a fast pace and does a great job with the novel’s “moon” motif; the science-geek-next-door gazes at the lunar surface through a telescope, characters quote Edward Lear’s “And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand, they danced by the light of the moon, the moon, the moon, they danced by the light of the moon,” and each chapter is marked by an illustration of a waxing moon.

Cannon's book also includes a riff on Margaret Wise Brown’s GOODNIGHT MOON. Science geek Quark (short for Quentin Andrews O’Rourke) recalls, “My mother
used to read Goodnight Moon to me when I was little. I used to love to hear her low voice as I stared out my bedroom window.” Quark quotes the book’s familar opening lines (“In the great green room / There was a telephone / And a red balloon / And a picture of-- / The cow jumping over the moon...”) and then adds, “It’s such a comforting book. Just a bunny and his mother in a roomful of familiar things. No surprises. Just things the way the bunny expects them to be. Just things they way they’re supposed to be.”

Well, that pulled me up short.

A bunny and his “mother”? I didn’t know the female rabbit in the long dress and apron was supposed to be the sleepy bunny’s mother! I quickly grabbed a copy of GOODNIGHT MOON from the shelf and looked it up. No, the book only refers to her as “a quiet old lady who was whispering ‘hush’.” Surely if she was his mother, the book would refer to her as “Mama” or “Mom” or “Mother.” It wouldn’t refer to her as an “old lady,” would it?

But it did get me wondering: exactly WHO is this "quiet old lady" sitting in the great green room whispering "hush"?

I decided to do a little searching around on the internet and discovered that Quark is not alone in viewing the quiet old lady as the bunny’s mother. Several other sites also refer to the two characters as a bunny and his mother.

I also found other sources -- including reviews for a recent musical version of GOODNIGHT MOON -- that believe the old lady is the bunny’s grandmother.

Personally, I always felt she was some kind of babysitter or housekeeper charged with taking care of the little bunny. I think the long apron drew me to that conclusion; Julie Andrews wore something similar in Mary Poppins.

Then I saw the movie SEANCE ON A WET AFTERNOON, in which a crazed Kim Stanley kidnaps a little girl, keeps her in a darkened room, and puts on a nurse’s outfit so the little girl will believe she’s in a hospital. ...That ALMOST made me wonder if the quiet old lady had sinister motives for watching over the little bunny so intently. I mean, he is pretty groggy. ...And, hey, what’s in that bowl of mush anyway?

Looking for definitive answers, I consulted Leonard Marcus’s excellent biography, MARGARET WISE BROWN : AWAKENED BY THE MOON. He tells us how GOODNIGHT MOON came to be written and published, but offers no explanation for the quiet old lady’s identity. I did learn some interesting trivia about the book, though. Upon publication, it was not even deemed worthy of review by the Horn Book Magazine. And the New York Public Library rejected it as an “unbearably sentimental piece of work” and didn’t order its first copy until 1973!

But back to the nameless old lady. I’ve come to the conclusion that she functions as a sort of Rorschach Test for the reader. It’s not surprising that Quark from LOSER’S GUIDE views her as the bunny’s mother: his own mother has been absent for most of his life. Whether we think she’s a mother...grandmother...babysitter... whether we find her cozy and comforting...authoritative and no-nonsense...or even slightly sinister mostly speaks about our own complicated psyches and personal issues.

It also strikes me that fretting about her name and status is probably something only adults would do. The millions of kids who fall asleep each night to the words of GOODNIGHT MOON never question it. They know exactly who she is: she’s simply the quiet old lady who whispers "hush" -- and that’s all they need to know.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Corresponding with a Character in a Book

Many people send fan mail to their favorite writers, but has anyone ever written a letter to a CHARACTER in a novel?

I have.

Previously in this blog I’ve spoken of an experiment that the American Library Association conducted in the early 1970s, publishing lists of books that were nominated for each year’s Newbery and Caldecott award. I’d always try to read as many of the nominated titles as I could. Mostly I borrowed the books from the library, but occasionally I’d save up a little of my paper route money and order one or two from the bookstore. In the fall of 1974, I ordered three books off the list and, amazingly, all three turned out to be life-changing favorites that I have continued to read over and over again through the years: William Sleator’s HOUSE OF STAIRS, Ellen Raskin’s FIGGS AND PHANTOMS, and Sandra Scoppettone’s TRYING HARD TO HEAR YOU.

One of the things I liked best about TRYING HARD TO HEAR YOU was how contemporary and real this novel felt. It’s set in the summer of 1973 and, as I read the book in the late fall of 1974, I could completely relate to the characters. After all, they were practically my peers. They dressed like me and my friends, spoke like us, listened to the same music (Carole King, Jim Croce), and went to the same movies we did. Today when I read the book it still transports me right back to the summer of 1973.

Sandra Scoppettone only wrote a few more young adult novels (THE LATE GREAT ME, 1976; HAPPY ENDINGS ARE ALL ALIKE, 1978; LONG TIME BETWEEN KISSES, 1982, and PLAYING MURDER, 1985) and because she wrote about “hot topics” (homosexuality, alcoholism, rape, multiple sclerosis) she was often unfairly labeled an author of “teenage problem novels.” The critics didn’t always note her genius for realistic dialogue or the incisive, highly sympathetic characterizations that made her books rise far above the “problem novel” category.

Ms. Scoppettone definitely had a gift for creating characters you wished you knew personally...could hang out on the phone...correspond with. I actually had a literary crush on Camilla Crawford, the likable -- even lovable -- narrator of TRYING HARD TO HEAR YOU and didn’t realize I’d picked up one of her catchphrases until someone mentioned how often I said, “I find that hard to believe.”

But I didn’t write a letter to Camilla Crawford. I wrote to another character in the book.

This happened several years after the publication of TRYING HARD TO HEAR YOU. By then I was crazy about a new show on television, a domestic drama called FAMILY, starring theater actress Sada Thompson, actor James Broderick (before anyone knew he had a son named Matthew), Meredith Baxter (before she had a TV son named Michael J. Fox), Gary Frank, and Kristy McNichol. I watched the show every Tuesday night and devoured every article I could find about the series. Back then there were dozens of TV and movie magazines with names like MODERN SCREEN, SILVER SCREEN, TV MIRROR, HOLLYWOOD GOSSIP...on and on. One day I was standing in the bookstore flipping through one of these publications and saw a column by the magazine’s editor, Elissa Rosner. I immediately did a double-take. Where did I know that name from? Then I remembered. TRYING HARD TO HEAR YOU was dedicated to someone named Elissa Rosner --

-- AND a character named Elissa even appears in the book! In the story she runs “Elissa’s Bookstore,” which Camilla calls “one of the coziest and nicest bookstores I’ve ever been in.” Elissa is described as the type of “warm and sunny” person who offers her customers a free cup of coffee and a cookie, someone who “never made you feel foolish about the books you bought” and is so supportive of the local kids that “this past June she came to an assembly to hear Billy Shipley give his campaign speech for president of student council. Billy’s parents weren’t even there.”

In other words, she’s another of Scoppettone’s supremely likable characters.

The photo of the magazine editor looked exactly like I pictured Elissa in the novel. (Strange, because the character’s appearance is not even described in the book. But I had conjured up a mental picture of the character and she was a dead ringer for the woman shown in the gossip magazine.) I’m sure there is probably more than one person in the world named “Elissa Rosner,” but somehow I knew this had to be the same one depicted in the book.

So I wrote her a note in care of the magazine, ostensibly to ask a question about FAMILY but really just to say, “Are you THE Elissa from TRYING HARD TO HEAR YOU?” I even included a stamp so she’d write me back.

A week or so later I received a letter in the mail from “Sterling’s Magazines” on Lexington Avenue in New York. If you click on this image you can enlarge it and read it for yourself:

I immediately glued the letter into a scrapbook. Hokey? Well, how often do you hear from someone who was featured as a character in one of your favorite books? Who lives and works in New York City (someplace I never expected to visit in my life)? Someone who edits and writes for a magazine (something I could only dream about doing)? Someone who goes to see “live theater” (something I’d never done before)? ...And she even sent my thirteen cent stamp back!

Well, obviously the cost of postage has changed a lot since then. And so have many other things.

Sandra Scoppettone began writing primarily for adults, both under her own name (SOME UNKNOWN PERSON, 1977, is a real stunner) and as “Jack Early” (check out 1988’s DONATO & DAUGHTER.) Her private investigators Lauren Laurano and Faye Quick (each featured in her own series) are as winsome and likable as the protagonists in her young adult books.

As for me, I actually did get to visit New York eventually. I’ve gotten to know other editors and have written for magazines. I’ve seen lots of live theater and have even seen Sada Thompson on stage.

But I still treasure the letter I got from Elissa Rosner in 1977. After all, how many people can say they’ve written to a character in a favorite book? And actually gotten an answer back!