Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Tot Chef

Several years ago I discovered a large box of books from my brother's and my childhood that our mother had packed away. There was PETEY THE PEANUT MAN by Jean Bethell (mine), THE WITCH OF HISSING HILL by Mary Calhoun (his), PROJECT GENIUS by William Hayes (mine), PART-TIME DOG by Jane Thayer (his.)

Then I came across a book I'd never seen before in my life:

It wasn't mine, it wasn't his. Whose was it? And why was this heretofore unknown cookbook buried at the bottom of a box in the cobwebbiest corner of the basement?

After a few minutes of contemplation, I think I figured out The Mystery of the Hidden Cookbook.

But I'll let that story bubble on the backburner for a few minutes so we can discuss some other kids' cookbooks. At present, there are over 2400 cookbooks for children listed on Amazon.com, ranging from celebrity volumes (Paula Deen's got one coming out next week) to books aimed at specific cultures (Mexican, Italian) and special diets (kosher, vegetarian.) My favorite sub-genre is cookbooks associated with works of literature: nursery rhymes, classic books, fictional characters.

PEASE-PORRIDGE HOT : A MOTHER GOOSE COOKBOOK by Lorinda Bryan Cauley (1977) is something of an oddity.

For one thing, it doesn't include a recipe for pease-porridge; it does, however, serve up "The Three Bears' Hot-and-Yummy Breakfast Porridge," which contains rolled oats and wheat germ. There are also "The Three Little Pigs' Cinnamony, Jinnamony Baked Apples" and (cruelly) "The Big Bad Wolf's Little Pigs in a Blanket." (I'm surprised there wasn't a recipe for roasted and stuffed Mother Goose!) The recipes are fairly easy, though I contend that kids old enough to halve zucchinis and grease custard cups will probably consider themselves too old for nursery rhymes. I think everyone who utilizes this cookbook, regardless of age, will come away with the same question: what the heck does "jinnamony" mean?

Virginia H. Ellison's THE POOH COOK BOOK (1969) contains a wide variety of recipes for breakfasts, lunches, dinners, and smackerals ("Nearly eleven o'clock, said Pooh happily. You're just in time for a little smackerel of something..." -- THE HOUSE AT POOH CORNER) as well as recipes for picnics and expotitions ("Oh! Piglet, said Pooh excitedly, we're going on a Expotition, all of us, with things to eat. To discover something." -- WINNIE THE POOH), parties, and Christmas.

The recipes are fairly simple, most calling for a minimum of ingredients. Best of all, there are quotes and pictures from the books (by original artist Ernest H. Shepard) to keep the cook entertained while your "Minted Honey Banana Bread" or "Christmas Nut Cookies" are baking in the oven.

There's only one bad thing about the book. The title. I called the bookstore and asked if they had a Pooh cookbook and the clerk hung up on me.

Illustrations by original artist W.W. Denslow also highlight THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ COOKBOOK by Monica Bayley (1981), which contains recipes suggested by elements in the book ("Cyclone Jumbles"; "Cowardly Lion Quivering Gelatin") and, sometimes bizarrely, connected to colors in the novel: "On the Yellow Brick Road and in Winkie Country, yellow ingredients are used. In the Country of the Munchkins, the color is blue; in Quadling Country, red; and in the Emerald City, of course, green."

That's all fine in theory, but do you really want to try "Soldier with Green Whiskers Salad"? (Spit take.) Me neither.

I like PETER RABBIT'S NATURAL FOODS COOKBOOK by Arnold Dobrin (1977), a handy square shaped volume illustrated with Beatrix Potter's artwork.

The recipes for soups, sandwiches, salads, breakfasts and desserts are simple and healthy and the cover of the volume is "washable with damp cloth" in case you accidentally spill "Old Mrs. Rabbit's Hearty Vegetable Soup" or "Mr. McGregor's Scrumptious Pureed Beets" on the book.

THE ANNE OF GREEN GABLES COOKBOOK by Kate MacDonald (1985) uses quotes from the L.M. Montgomery novels as starting points for each of the recipes. Diana's statement "You know I can make splendid lettuce salad," in ANNE OF AVONLEA prefaces a recipe for (what else?) "Splendid Lettuce Salad."

Readers may recall that in ANNE OF GREEN GABLES the heroine accidentally uses liniment as a cake ingredient. This book provides a cake recipe substituting vanilla extract for the liniment. It probably tastes good, but it won't do a thing for your aching back.

MARY POPPINS IN THE KITCHEN (1975) is by the series' original writer and illustrator P.L. Travers and Mary Shepard. (Mary is the daughter of WINNIE THE POOH illustrator Ernest, by the way.)

This volume actually begins with a new story about Mary Poppins and the Banks children. Spending a week without their parents or Reta Shaw (I mean, Mrs. Brill), the kids prepare a variety of meals. Each section of the story concludes with that day's menu and the remainder of the book contains recipes for these sometimes sturdy meals (Irish Stew, Shepherd's Pie, even Lemon Souffle.) Isn't souffle supposed to be, like, one of the hardest things in the world to make? I think Poppins should have just used her magic to whip up the meals and saved the kids from all that sifting and stirring.

Probably the most comprehensive cookbook-based-on-fiction I encountered was THE LITTLE HOUSE COOKBOOK by Barbara M. Walker (1979.)

Not only does this volume contain copious quotes and illustrations (by Garth Williams) from the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, but it places the recipes in historic context, explaining how vegetables were grown and stored and how to churn butter, among other fascinating details. And you've got to love a book that contains a recipe for "Blackbird Pie" (first ingredient? "Starlings, 12, plucked and dressed.") You don't have to EAT it, but you've got to love that they included it.

And here's a book I love for another reason. Unlike the previous volumes, which are based on way-famous stories and characters, THE STORYBOOK COOKBOOK by Carol MacGregor (1967), also includes recipes based on some of my favorite twentieth-century children's books, including MISTY OF CHINCOTEAGUE, RABBIT HILL ("Sulphronia's Southern Fried Chicken"), THEE, HANNAH! ("Pennsylvania Pretzels") and ROLLER SKATES.

One of my favorite Halloween scenes in all of children's books is in Joseph Krumgold's Newbery winner ONION JOHN, which features an all-sugar meal highlighted by a Mocha Cake with the phrase "Good Wishes, Rusch, Schwartz, Hemmendinger, Ries" written on top. Even that recipe is here!

We used to call them comic books. Now they are graphic novels. And here's one comic book kid who inspired his own cookbook:

SOMEONE'S IN THE KITCHEN WITH DENNIS (1978) is the kind of book that tries to be funny by spelling things in a kidlike way

and then turns right around and includes a recipe for "Creme Vichyssoise Glace."

Finally, there's GINNIE AND GENEVA COOKBOOK by Catherine Woolley (1975), a companion to a series of novels and mystery stories about these characters, including the foodie volume GINNIE AND THE COOKING CONTEST (1966.)

I have to admit I'd never been innerduced to the "Ginny and Geneva" books until today, but they must have been pretty popular if they inspired an associated cookbook. Incidentally, Catherine Woolley, who died recently at age 100, also used the pen name "Jane Thayer" and wrote such books as PART-TIME DOG, which I found in that box of old children's books along with the mysterious NEW BOYS AND GIRLS COOKBOOK by Betty Crocker.

Now about that cookbook....

I don't know who gave us the book or how it ended up in our house. But I can guess how it ended up getting hidden away in box until I was about forty.

Around the time that book was published, one of our young relatives had a minor mishap in the kitchen. A little grease fire. Well, a little grease fire that ended up engulfing the entire kitchen in white-hot flames and nearly burning down their whole house. After that, I don't think our mother wanted us experimenting in the kitchen. In fact, I don't think she wanted us within twenty feet of that room. So BETTY CROCKER'S NEW BOYS AND GIRLS COOKBOOK mysteriously disappeared and, consequently, my best recipes today involve putting a Lean Cuisine or styrofoam take-out carton into the microwave and pressing "start."

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Sunday Brunch as September Ends

It’s the last Sunday in September and I’m back with a few random facts and opinions on children’s books from the past and present.


The other day I had occasion to ride on an elevator that was approximately the heighth and width of your average dumbwaiter. I used to be a carefree elevator-rider, but then I read Marijane Meaker’s (AKA M.E. Kerr) "five strangers trapped in an elevator during a blizzard" novel, GAME OF SURVIVAL, and now find myself holding my breath from the time the doors slam shut until they (finally, blessedly) reopen. To calm myself down on that herky-jerky tiny elevator ride the other day, I began thinking about the scenes in HARRIET THE SPY in which the protagonist (willingly!) sneaks into a creaky old dumbwaiter to spy on Agatha K. Plumber. And I realized that every time I hear the word “dumbwaiter” I think of HARRIET THE SPY.

This made me realize how often hearing, or seeing, or just thinking of a certain word or phrase immediately takes me back to a children’s book.

The word “stork” makes me think of THE WHEEL ON THE SCHOOL by Meindert DeJong.

Another bird, the “heron” makes me think of Cynthia Voigt’s A SOLITARY BLUE.

Hearing the nursery rhyme “The Farmer in the Dell” gives me a chill because it immediately makes me recall I AM THE CHEESE by Robert Cormier.

Discussions of strip-mining remind me of Virginia Hamilton’s M.C. HiGGINS THE GREAT.

You don’t see it often, but when I come across the word “chilblains,” I’m up on a hill watching the eclipse with Eleanor Estes' "middle Moffat."

The color “puce” makes me remember THE SUMMER OF THE SWANS by Betsy Byars.

The name “Nellie” always reminds me of CHARLOTTE’S WEB by E.B. White. (Strange, because that name is only mentioned a couple times in the final pages of the book.)

I will not eat gooseberry jam because even the mention of “gooseberries” reminds me of my least favorite character in my least-favorite Newbery winner, WALK TWO MOONS by Sharon Creech.

Whenever I see school kids selling candy, I automatically think of THE CHOCOLATE WAR by Robert Cormier.

Hearing the song “Make It with You” by David Gates makes me think of the wonderful telephone scene in THE VIRGIN SUICIDES by Jeffrey Eugenides. Okay, it wasn’t published for kids, but it’s a novel about young people and probably shows up on high school reading lists.

Finally, here’s another one from HARRIET THE SPY: “egg cream.” I didn’t get to try an egg cream for myself until I visited a small diner in Hartford, Connecticut at age twenty -- and that’s where I learned that Harriet M. Welsch’s favorite beverage contains neither eggs nor cream!

What words or phrases immediately make YOU recall a particular children’s book?


Pour an inch of chocolate syrup into a tall glass.
Add an inch of milk.
Now fill the rest of the glass with seltzer or soda water.
Stir gently.
Serve with a tomato sandwich, of course.


My stat counter allows me to see how many people visit my blog each day and what they were looking for when they came. Several visitors have been trying to find information on how to identify first editions from various publishers. In the coming weeks, I’ll begin including edition points for specific publishers. For now, let’s start with the publisher whose standards for indicating editions can best be described as a “hot mess” -- Harper!

First known as Harper & Brothers (later Harper & Row and today HarperCollins) this publisher is notoriously the WORST when it comes to identifying editions. There is absolutely no consistency in the way Harper marked first editions throughout their history. Some of their books have the words “first edition” on the copyright page, yet many don’t. Meindert DeJong published two books in the same year; one, SHADRACH, contains the words “first edition” while the other, HURRY HOME, CANDY, does not.

Most Harper children’s books published in the 1960s contain nothing to indicate edition, so you must use other methods to figure out whether you have a first. For example, you need to see if the price on the dustjacket flap matches the original price. And you need to make sure that no titles published AFTER this book are listed inside the volume or on its dustjacket.

Prior to the 1960s, Harper used an arcane “two letter code” to indicate the publication date of each nppl. The first letter indicated the month of publication: A was January, B was February...all the way up to L for December.

The second letter in the code indicated the year. M was 1912, N was 1913...all the way to Z for 1925. Then it started all over again with A for 1926, B for 1927...up to Z for 1950. 1951 is A, 1952 is B...and that continued on until it stopped at W for 1972.

After that, Harper began using the common “ascending number” print code, in which a first edition contains the numbers 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10. A second printing states 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10, a third printing is indicated by 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10, etc., etc.

Clear as mud, right?


Last Sunday I wrote about Robert McCloskey doing illustrations for a 1942 edition of TREE TOAD by Bob Davis, which was originally published in 1935.

I now have a copy of the book in hand and want to mention a few more things about it.

Anne Carroll Moore contributed a foreword to this new edition, praising it as “one of the freshest, truest, most delightful records of American family life in print.” Now you can diss ACM all you want (I myself have called her “The woman who set a mousetrap for Stuart Little...the lady who sprayed a Flit gun on Charlotte’s Web...and the owner of the most macabre doll of the twentieth century, with the possible exception of filmdom’s Chucky”) but after reading her foreword, I have to admit she knew how to turn a phrase and I appreciated how she connected the boys in the book to the events of the ongoing war in 1942: “I thought of all the boys -- little boys and big boys moving from place to place in this vast human migration of the 1940’s; of the boys and men moving from camp to camp, from coast to coast, and across strange seas, rivers, and mountains to other lands.”


In last Sunday’s blog, I said of TREE TOAD: “It’s an odd book, featuring a cutesy frontispiece by another illustrator, while the rest of the book contains Robert McCloskey’s vibrant and comical ink drawings.”

What I didn’t know at the time was that the author included an “Introduction to a Frontispiece” at the beginning of the volume, explaining why this particular illustration was used. Apparently the author, Bob Davis, had attended an 1896 dinner with the famous illustrator Charles Dana Gibson. During the event, Davis told several tales about his brother Bill and Gibson encouraged him to record these stories in a book. Forty years later, Davis finally wrote TREE TOAD. When the volume was about to be released in a new edition in 1942, Gibson said, “It would be the culmination of an artist’s dream if I might be privileged to contribute to your re-issued biography the frontispiece disclosing the verdant brat entering your Kingdom of Illusion.”

Gibson uses the term “verdant” because in one scene Bill is painted green. Here you can see Gibson’s rather delicate portrait cheek-to-cheek with one of McCloskey’s more animated and humorous illustrations (which, in fact, shows the brat becoming verdant.)

By the way, Charles Dana Gibson was the creator the Gibson Girls, considered the ideal of feminine beauty at the turn of the century.


Finally, I was thrilled to find a copy of TREE TOAD that was signed by the author. Even better, it once belonged to the English novelist E. Phillips Oppenheim, and was passed down by him to his grandson.

The front endpaper contains the phrase:

Compliments of the author
Bob Davis

in the center of the page. Above and below that, Oppenheim has written in an aged hand:

Aug. 1943

Passed on to my
John Downer by
E. Phillips Oppenheim.

It was the wish of the
author of this story for
boys “Bob Davis” by name
one of the most famous
Journalists + Editors
the USA has ever known
that if ever I possessed a
grandson I should pass
this volume on to him
duly inscribing herein his name.


I’ve been thinking about how Bob Davis gave a signed copy of his book to Mr. Oppenheim with the hope that it would someday be passed down to a grandson.

It seems to me that nearly every aspect of a book -- from start to finish -- is based on HOPES and EXPECTATIONS.

The author originally writes the manuscript with the HOPE that a publisher will buy it and that readers will read it. And love it.

The publisher prints the manuscript with the HOPE that it will sell and be read.

People buy the book at a store or borrow it from the library with the HOPE that they will enjoy it.

On and on it continues right up to the moment the bookstore owner sends it back for a refund, or the librarian “weeds” it from the shelves, with the EXPECTATION that no one is interested in reading the book.

Finally there are just a few copies of the book left, maybe gathering dust in the corner of a used bookstore -- and, as a book collector trying to preserve the history of the written word, I sincerely HOPE they will be found and kept by someone who loves them.


The fact that I now own E. Phillips Oppenheim’s copy of TREE TOAD proves that his grandson didn’t keep the book in the family. For all our hopes and expectations, we can only control things for so long -- and we can never control them from beyond the grave. (Oppenheim died in 1946.) I think about this often in conjunction with my own book collection. I’ve spent a lifetime growing it and it now contains several one-of-a-kind volumes. I plan to leave it to a library or institution when I shuffle off to Buffalo -- my gift to the future. However, when I once mentioned this to a bookseller, she shook her head in disapproval, saying that she’s known many people who left their books to libraries, where they ultimately ended up being neglected.

I still intend to leave my books to a library, though I know there is some truth to the bookseller’s words. I have heard similar stories myself. Laura Ingalls Wilder donated her handwritten manuscripts of both THE LONG WINTER (which many consider the masterpiece of her series) and THESE HAPPY GOLDEN YEARS to the Detroit Public Library. For many years they were kept in the Rare Book Room, an elegant department with a scrolled metal entranceway and glass showcases. A few years ago the library did some reconstruction, permanently closing the Rare Book Room at the same time they opened a coffee shop. I wonder what Laura would think about that.

The good news is that the manuscripts ARE still available to researchers in another collection of the Detroit Public Library.

Please don’t spill any coffee on them.


This morning I was looking in the TV Guide to (lowers voice to whisper) find out what time AMAZING RACE starts tonight, when I noticed that Masterpiece Theatre is running an adaptation of Philip Pullman’s young-adult novel THE RUBY IN THE SMOKE. Checking the internet, I learned they’ve also filmed the second Sally Lockhart mystery, THE SHADOW IN THE NORTH. And there are plans to film the other books in the series as well.


I’ve gotten lots of great e-mails and blog-comments this week, including a note from the daughter of one of my favorite authors, Mary Anderson. Wow!

And here’s another reason to shout “wow” -- I got an award from a fellow blogger, Charlotte at http://charlotteslibrary.blogspot.com/

I haven’t yet figured out how to post the graphic of the award on my site or provide the necessary links to other bloggers, but I’ll eventually figure it out. Till then, THANK YOU!


I miss the old-fashioned science books from my youth, back when palm-sized volumes by Herbert S. Zim, covering every scientific subject imaginable (dinosaurs, trees, fossils, birds and butterflies) dominated the "500 section" of the school and public library.

I also miss the reader-friendly books by Glenn O. Bough (usually illustrated by Jeanne Bendick) which described how Christmas trees are grown, how animals spend their nights, and who dwells in the forest and meadows. On this last Sunday in September -- while the leaves on the trees are still green and it's still warm enough to wear shorts outside -- I’m posting this Bough/Bendick cover as a reminder of what’s yet to come:

Wednesday, September 24, 2008


There are two letters of the alphabet that every author hates to hear:


It means "out of print."

Though I'm not an expert on this issue, my understanding is that adult books have always gone in and out of print fairly quickly. Yet children's books were usually known for staying in print for years and years. At one time publishers maintained large backlists of children's titles which continuously needed to be replaced in bookstores and on library shelves as each new generation of kids came along. I first became aware that things were changing when I read a Publishers Weekly opinion piece by Barbara Corcoran, who wrote nearly seventy-five children's books between the late 1960s and the early 1990s. Corcoran was the epitome of a great midlist author. She never won any major awards, never had a big breakthrough book or huge bestseller, yet year after year she consistently published rock-solid novels under her own name (SASHA, MY FRIEND, 1969; A DANCE TO STILL MUSIC, 1974) as well as several pseudonyms; her best-known novel is probably the 1975 teen-facing-death novel MAY I CROSS YOUR GOLDEN RIVER? written under the pen name "Paige Dixon." Yet in her PW essay, the author bemoaned that her books were suddenly going out of print at an alarming rate. Not only was this impacting her income, but she felt bad that young readers were losing access to her work. Now, just a few years after her death, every single Barbara Corcoran book appears to be OP, and that's a shame because she created the kind of sympathetic characters and realistic plots that never really get dated. Next time you're at a bookstore, pick one up and see what I mean. Oh...you won't be able to. They're all out of print.

In the years since Corcoran wrote that article, children's books have begun to go out of print faster than ever. Some blame it on the "Thor Power Tool Company v. Commissioner" Supreme Court ruling of 1979 which, according to the Wikipedia, "changed the way companies are allowed to depreciate their unsold inventory." The Wikipedia continues: "An unforeseen side effect of this decision was that it became less profitable for publishers to keep slowly but regularly selling books in print (their backlist). Some argue that this has made it harder for midlist authors to make a living because books tend to be remaindered or pulped and go out of print more quickly."

This site:


explains how the ruling impacted the publishing industry but, since I'm a letter-guy instead of a numbers-person, I can't follow all the mathematical equations and charts in the piece. So I will leave that article to brighter minds and just spend my time here complaining about children's books that are released and, almost before they reach library shelves and start to find their audience, are declared OP and pulped. Pulped. It sounds like the name of a horror movie. And it is rather horrible, isn't it?

As for older books, only the classics seem to remain. Even some of the award winners of the past are no longer available. Newbery winners TALES FROM SILVER LANDS, WATERLESS MOUNTAIN, and one of my favorites, DOBRY -- OP! Caldecott winners MEI LI, SONG OF THE SWALLOWS, and NINE DAYS TO CHRISTMAS -- OP! Many of the others are available in paperback only. I haven't checked specific titles, but I think I can state with some certainty that MOST Newbery and Caldecott Honors of the past are now OP.

I've always heard that change is a good thing. I know that it's inevitable. And who am I to demand -- especially in these rough economic times -- that a publishing house keep a book in print if it's somehow losing money for the company? But it still makes me sad when books from the past -- even the very recent past -- are not available for kids to read today. I hate that a kid might be deprived of the one book that could change his or her life because the title is out of print. I feel like the dialogue between the past and the future is broken every time a book goes out of print. And it makes me realize once again why collecting books...preserving those connections between past, present, and future...is a worthy endeavor.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

A Mostly-Silly Sunday Brunch

Well, this has been a lousy week.

No sooner did I finish writing last Sunday’s brunch entry than a family member got very sick and ended up spending several days in the hospital.

Then a famous author dissed my blog. She even called it “the Collecting Children's Book thing.” As much as I love literary feuds -- and, heaven knows, we haven’t had a good one in the children’s book world since Eleanor Cameron duked it out with Roald Dahl in the 1970s -- I have no intention of adding fuel to the fire by revealing the identity of the author who was displeased with me. Nope, won’t do it. I’m not even going to provide a hint. Except to say that she wrote that Owl Moon thing.

After such a traumatic week, I’m in the mood for a little levity. So today’s Sunday Brunch will be a little more light-hearted than usual, focusing mostly on fun facts and silly scenarios involving children’s books of the past and present.


Fuse #8 at School Library Journal is the Queen Bee of children’s book blogging and no day is complete without me visiting her site a few times to seek inspiration (nice way of saying “steal ideas.)

I’d like to provide a direct link to her blog, but my computer is too old to perform such complex calisthenics (nice way of saying “and I’m also too dumb and lazy to figure out how to use the link feature on this blog.”)

But you can get there by copying this address:


and pasting it into your browser.

Anyway, Friday’s “Fusenews” blog contained the shocking report that WHERE’S WALDO is turning 21 years old this year.

I then did a little investigating and tracked down a few pages from a forthcoming WHERE’S WALDO book that will place the iconic figure in all kinds of locations that he wasn't permitted to visit when he was just a kid. For example, here he is at a bar:

He also pays a visit to an adult bookstore:

And can you find him hiding at this nude beach?

(Hint: he’s the only one wearing a hat.)


Books that should not be read together, shelved together, or even in the same room with each other:

THE MOUSETRAP by Agatha Christie

The “Anastasia Krupnik” series by Lois Lowry
MY BROTHER SAM IS DEAD by James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier

OWL MOON by you-know-who
LIFE AS WE KNEW IT by Susan Beth Pfeffer

BOOT CAMP by Todd Strasser

A TREE IS NICE by Janice Udry
HATCHET by Gary Paulsen


One of my favorite reality shows, THE AMAZING RACE, is about to return for a new season. This got me thinking about how well various characters from the world of children’s books would do if they were cast on reality TV shows.

Earlier this year CBS attempted a children’s book edition of their long-running SURVIVOR series, but it didn’t work out very well. Competing for the title of “sole surivor” were Claudia and Jamie Kincaid, who proved they could survive on their own in FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER; Jean Craighead George creations Sam Gribley and Julie (“of the Wolves”); Brian Robeson of HATCHET fame; Karana from the ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS; the legendary Robinson Crusoe; Ann Burden from Z FOR ZACHARIAH; Felice Holman’s Slake (who said “If I can survive the New York city subways, I can survive anything!”), and a girl named “Disaster.” Other contestants included the kids from SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON, SNOWBOUND, and THE CAY, as well as a couple Will Hobbs’ protagonists, and new-kid-on-the-block Katniss from THE HUNGER GAMES.

The season started well with the surprising ouster of Robinson Crusoe, who proved he could not survive on his own without the assistance of Friday.

The following week Claudia and Jamie Kincaid took voluntary exits when they realized that slumbering on a sixteenth-century state bed and nibbling Hershey bars had not prepared them for sleeping in a tent and eating grasshoppers.

Unfortunately, the series came to an abrupt and tragic conclusion when Katniss, not realizing that it was merely a game and that the term “sole survivor” wasn’t meant to be taken QUITE so literally, picked off all the remaining contestants with her bow-and-arrow in a twenty-four hour period.

CBS extended its sympathies to the bereaved families of the other competitors, then quickly booked Katniss for the series CELEBRITY DEATHMATCH, where she will be competing with another new-girl-in-town, Katsa from Kristin Cashore’s debut novel GRACELING. Who will win the “Battle of the Wild-Kats”?

Meanwhile, competition is heating up on NBC’s THE BIGGEST LOSER, where Dinky Hocker has now lost 38 pounds and is still leading the field in a contest that also features Zachary Beaver; Lara Ardreche, who is anxious to move out of the fat lane; Junior Brown; Eric Calhoune (“I’m no longer staying fat for Sarah Byrnes or anyone else!”); Bobby Marks; Troy Billings (who announced upon joining the show, “This fat kid is going to RULE THIS GAME!”), as well as a young woman known mainly as “The Fat Girl.” The trio from Daniel Pinkwater’s FAT CAMP COMMANDOES are also competing, but have actually gained a combined total of 16 pounds in the first three weeks of the contest.

Finally, the contestants for the upcoming second seaon of CBS’s “THE GREATEST AMERICAN DOG” have been announced and are currently awaiting veterinary approval and flea dips before the start of filming. The cast includes Lassie; Ribsy; Shiloh; Sounder; Old Yeller; Carl; Winn Dixie; Walter (who plans to show the other dogs they are full of hot air); Searchlight; Strider; Ginger Pye; Big Red: Martha (“I’ve told you and told you I’m going to win this competition!”) and Clifford.

Something tells us that Old Yeller won’t make it through the entire competition.


Great Britain’s children’s laureate, Michael Rosen, recently founded the Roald Dahl Funny Prize to honor humorous books. Rosen said, “"I have sat on judging panels before and what happens is that the funny books get squeezed out, because somehow or other they don't tackle big issues in the proper way. They'll get through to the last four or five books, and then historical fiction, or something about death or slavery or new technology will win out. I think it's a great shame, because actually when I think about the books I remember from childhood they are the funny books."

Two prizes will be announced on November 13, one for ages six and under from this shortlist:

Stick Man by Julia Donaldson, illustrated by Axel Scheffler
THE WITCH’S CHILDREN GO TO SCHOOL by Ursula Jones, illustrated by Russell Ayto
THERE’S AN OUCH IN MY POUCH! by Jeanne Willis, illustrated by Garry Parsons

and one for ages seven to fourteen from this shortlist:

MR GUM AND THE DANCING BEAR by Andy Stanton, illustrated by David Tazzyman
PADDINGTON HERE AND NOW by Michael Bond, illustrated by RW Alley
STOP IN THE NAME OF PANTS by Louise Rennison
COSMIC by Frank Cottrell Boyce
ALIENS DON’T EAT DOG FOOD by Dinah Capparucci
URGUM AND THE GOO GOO BAH! By Kjartan Poskitt, illustrated by Philip Reeve

Lots of interesting authors, lots of fun titles, lots of exclamation points. And the winners each get 2,500 pounds, which is nearly equal to the number of pounds that will be lost by Dinky Hocker, Zachary Beaver, Junior Brown and the others by the time this season of the BIGGEST LOSER -- CHILDREN’S BOOK EDITION is complete.


So that’s why we need our own version of the “Funny Prize” over here in the States.

And, guess what? We have one!

The Sid Fleischman Humor Award was established by the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators in 2003. The first winner was Mr. Fleishman himself, who was honored for his entire body of work. Since then the awards have been specific titles:

2004 / AL CAPONE DOES MY SHIRTS by Gennifer Choldenko
2005 / ABSOLUTELY POSITIVELY NOT by David LaRochelle
2006 / CLEMENTINE by Sara Pennypacker

...Strangely, I can’t find the winner for 2007. Does anyone know?


Just last week I bought an interesting copy of AL CAPONE DOES MY SHIRTS on eBay. Since I already have a hardcover first edition of this title in my Newbery collection, you may wonder why I would want a eighth printing of the paperback edition. What drew me to the book was its inscription:

The book was inscribed by John Dekker (prison Identification number AZ1076) who was incarcerated at Alcatraz from 1953-1958 as a bank robber and escape risk. According to the eBay seller: “Today, Dekker plays poker and deals coins in Vacaville, California. During his heyday, he was known as the would-be John Dillinger, after he successfully robbed the same bank as Dillinger.”

Now, I should add a little disclaimer here: It is not the policy of this blogger or of his “Collecting Children’s Book thing” to glamorize or glorify criminals and acts of criminality. We support law and order, the sanctity of our legal system, and the rights of victims. Furthermore, we believe that Alcatraz Island was a serious penal institution and should never be made light of, nor should its importance as criminal justice community ever be diminished. But having said all that...

Isn’t this the greatest inscription ever???

I can hardly believe my copy of this children’s book is signed by someone who actually served time at The Rock.

Way cool!!!

And cheap too.

I only paid $5.99 for it.

The cover price of the paperback book alone is $6.99.

What a steal!



On Friday night, I picked up (bad choice of words after that last entry; I should say that I BOUGHT it) the new book DARK DUDE by Oscar Hijuelos; I’m anxious to read the young-adult debut of this Pulitzer Prize-winning author.

However, as I flipped through the book, I came across this “Note to Readers” on the back page. I’m curious to hear what anyone else thinks of it:

“The publication of DARK DUDE by Cuban-American Oscar Hijuelos marks an exciting moment at Atheneum Books for Young Readers. We intend to offer the finest literature of Latinto inspiration to the world’s readers, whether they be young adults or young-at-heart adults.

“Atheneum/Simon & Schuster greets the largest and fastest growing ethnic community in the United States with enthusiasm by saying, Your voices, your dreams, your experiences, and your hopes will find expression in our books. We believe the Latino community - so diverse in tradition, cultural sensibility, historical pacing, race and religion -- is renewing the American spirit. We invite you to share with us in celebrating our new venture. Read this literature that defines a whole new world in a promising new millennium. Saludos!
-- The Editors”

Obviously the editors (I mean, “The Editors”) have their hearts in the right place, but I found this note rather patronizing and self-serving. It might have made sense if they were announcing this as the first book in a new Latino IMPRINT. That way readers could look out for that imprint at the bookstore or library. But Athenum publishes all kinds of books for every age and interest, so the word “Atheneum” is never going to have any kind of “brand appeal” or “product visibility” as a publisher specializing in Latino literature. Therefore the note seemed a little desperate and pandering to me.

And it’s not as if this is the first Latino, or even Cuban-American, book they’ve ever published. What about UNDER THE ROYAL PALMS : A CHILDHOOD IN CUBA by Alam Flor Ada, which won the 2000 Pura Belpre Award?


Personally, I like a publisher with a sense of humor. I’ve always gotten a kick out of the spine of HENRY REED’S BABYSITTING SERVICE, written by Keith Robertson and illustrated by Robert McCloskey, because it substitutes a safety pin for the V in Viking. Can anyone think of other examples where a publisher fiddled with its name or spoofed its logo to fit a book’s theme? I seem to recall a Jon Scieszka/Lane Smith volume that featured a sinking Viking ship on the title page....


We all know him from his wonderful picture books (including Caldecott winners MAKE WAY FOR DUCKLINGS and TIME OF WONDER), his HOMER PRICE tales, and the illustrations he contributed to novels like the “Henry Reed” series.

However, I recently came across two other novels he illustrated early in his career. In both cases, the books were originally published in previous editions. TREE TOAD : ADVENTURES OF THE KID BROTHER by Bob Davis was first published in 1935, then re-issued with McCloskey’s illustrations in 1942. It’s an odd book, featuring a cutesy frontispiece by another illustrator, while the rest of the book contains Robert McCloskey’s vibrant and comical ink drawings.

The second book is TRIGGER JOHN’S SON by Tom Robinson, first published in a 1934 volume with no pictures and then reissued in 1949 with illustrations by Robert McCloskey. The dustjacket states that Mr. McCloskey had wanted to illustrate the book ever since he first read it.

I was unfamiliar with either book and now wonder why I never saw these in the library when I was growing up. I suspect that one character in TRIGGER JOHN (an African-American performer named “Sambo”) kept the book out of libraries by that time. Or at least out of my library.

But the book is filled with wonderfully detailed, comic illustrations:

And I love looking at similarities between the illustrations in TRIGGER JOHN and later books such as HENRY REED, INC. Notice here how the boys are industriously doing work while the girls are consigned to secondary positions -- typical for that era:

And here are two similar McCloskey illustrations from TREE TOAD and HENRY REED’S JOURNEY which you can compare...cheek to cheek:

Thanks for stopping by and I hope you return for another visit to this “Collecting Children’s Book thing.”

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Scout's Honor Preserved

Sometimes I see old diaries and journals listed for sale in catalogs and on the internet. "Never written in!" the seller proclaims. "Unused! Pages clean!"

Where's the fun in that?

I'd much rather find a diary filled with entries -- and take a peek into someone's past.

Such volumes can be found -- on eBay, at used booksales, in dusty corners of old bookstores. The content is rarely scintillating. In fact, it's usually humdrum. But even at their most prosaic and plodding, such journals are fascinating for the insights they give us into an earlier era and the everyday life of a total stranger.

I just came across this palm-sized BOY SCOUT DIARY 1925:

It was kept by a twelve-year-old boy from Detroit named Edwin Wuerfel. Like so many of us, Edwin started the year with a bang, penciling-in entries from Thursday, January 1, 1925 all the way till Sunday, January 25. Then there are nothing but blank pages for months and months. That's the fate of many, even most, diaries. But unlike the rest of us, Edwin actually returned to his diary in December, making an entry every day from Saturday, December 5 to New Year's Eve.

I'm fascinated by the slightly archaic writing style: "I was to school and hauled paper" (January 5), "I was to patrol meding" (December 7.) As you might guess from the word "meding," there are no entries in which Edwin talks about winning a spelling bee. His spelling is pretty atrocious. "Choir" is spelled "chiar"; "special" is "spesled."

Edwin appears to be an industrious kid, hauling papers and helping out at his father's bakery (earning either fifty cents or a dollar each time he assists.) The motto "DO A GOOD TURN DAILY" is printed at the bottom of each page, and we get at least one example of Edwin doing a good turn; one day in January he "took a man to night school." He attends a missionary meeting and, midway through December "I went to put $1.00 in the bank." Two days later: "I went to pass my Thrift." (Is that Boy Scout badge for thriftiness?) He also talks about seeing a show nearly every Friday or Saturday (including a 1924 movie called POISON) at a theatre called something like "Kaledsommes" (darn, why couldn't this kid spell better? I'd like to track down this theatre and find out if the building is still standing on some boarded-up downtown street.)

There's only one mention of Edwin's mother (January 7: "I was to school and hauled paper and give my mama a sleigh ride") and one mention of his father (December 17: I work in the bakery to help da.") There are no references to siblings and he's rather vague about friendships (January 2: "Whint to YMCA with a boy." December 29: "I went out to some boy home.")

I'm intrigued by the fact that he notes December 24 with "It was Christmas Eave" yet only memorializes Christmas day with these five words: "I had a good dinner."

The very last entry for the year, December 31, says: "Takling about slaride." (It actually seems his spelling got worse as the year went on. He spelled "sleigh ride" correctly back on January 7!)

In addition to the diary pages, the book also includes lots of information on merit badges, "signaling by two-arm semaphore," bandaging techniques, camping hints, and even songs from the Boy Scout Songbook, which include "America the Beautiful," "Hail! Hail! The Gang's All Here!," "Aloha Oe," and "My Old Kentucky Home."

I also like this ad for Boy's Life Magazine on the back cover:

I was curious if Noel Wical, the boy from Ohio quoted in the ad, really existed. So I looked him up and discovered that this kid who was already writing letters to magazines at age thirteen grew up to have a long and distinguished career in journalism.

But what about Edwin Wuerfel? One of the songs in the back of the BOY SCOUT DIARY contains the lines:

Some day I will be old, boys, my hair'll be falling out,
My joints will all be squeaking with the rheumatiz and gout

I don't know if Edwin suffered those maladies, but an internet search reveals that he grew up to marry a woman named Ann and died at a good old age in 1997 in the city of Roscommon, which is about three-quarters of the way up the Michigan mitten. How did he get there? How did he spend his life? His BOY SCOUT DIARY leaves me with more questions that answers.

For example, the last page of the diary section is labeled "MEMORANDA" and the only thing he wrote beneath that was: "Feb. 7, 1925 I saw 'the feval.'" What's 'the feval'? A movie? A ship on the Detroit River? A famous person? Why did he memorialize the event on this page? We'll never know.

Then there's the next page, which contains blank address listings:


All the addresses remain blank, but if you hold the book to the light you will see the name "Richard" was written and then erased from the top line. Who was Richard? Why did he get erased?

So many questions, so many blank pages and empty entries.

And now, eighty-three years later, we can only use our imaginations to fill in the blanks.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

A Sunday Brunch Featuring Only Appetizers

Here's a collection of VERY random thoughts, facts, and opinions about children’s books old and new.

1. IS THERE A MONKEY HIDING IN YOUR ATTIC? Consider yourself very lucky if you find a first edition of CURIOUS GEORGE by H. A. Rey stored away in your attic or basement. In 2007, a copy sold at auction for nearly $22,000.

2. THERE WAS A MONKEY HIDING ON THAT BIKE. H. A. Rey and his wife/writing partner Margaret smuggled the original manuscript of CURIOUS GEORGE out of France on home-made bicycles just hours before Paris fell to the Nazis.


4. I THINK ONE OF THE HONOR BOOK AUTHORS PUSHED HER. When Eleanor Estes rose to accept her 1952 Newbery Medal for GINGER PYE, she got up from the banquet table and immediately fell to the floor! Witnesses thought the nervous author had fainted, but it turns out her dress had caught on her chair, causing her to tumble. By all reports, she got up laughing and proceeded to give a grand speech.

5. NEWBERY NO-SHOWS. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe that in the eighty-six years of Newbery history, only two authors did not attend and deliver their own speech. One was Charles Boardman Hawes, who wrote THE DARK FRIGATE. He died before receiving the honor and his widow spoke on his behalf. The other was Robert C. O’Brien, author of MRS. FRISBY AND THE RATS OF NIMH. He claimed his doctor wouldn’t allow him to give a speech, so editor Jean Karl read it for him.

6. THAT POSTHUMOUS WINNER. When researching item #5, I discovered that Charles Boardman Hawes was only thirty-four years old when he “died suddenly,” but I can’t find any reference to his cause of death. Does anyone know?

7. SOMETIMES IT’S BETTER NOT TO KNOW. I just learned that Will James, who won the 1927 Newbery for SMOKY, died sometime around his fiftieth birthday -- of alcoholism. And the 1928 winner, Dhan Gopal Mukerji, who won for GAY-NECK, THE STORY OF A PIGEON, now has three things in common with David Foster Wallace: cause of death (suicide), method of death (hanging), and age at time of death (forty-six.) Sad.

8. STAYING GOLD -- PERMANENTLY. Some weeks back I mentioned walking behind a woman who had those immortal words from S.E. Hinton’s THE OUTSIDERS tattooed on the back of her legs: STAY (left leg) GOLD (right leg.) Imagine my shock this past Friday when I visited a bookstore and one of the employees told me that she’d read my blog, then thrust out her arms to show me that she also had an OUTSIDERS tattoo, with STAY on her right arm and GOLD on her left arm. I don’t know what shocked me more -- learning that there are two people in this world with “stay gold” tattoos...or actually encountering someone who has read my blog!

9. MARKUS ZUSAK TABLOID SHOCKER! I never would have expected to see that wonderful Australian young-adult author mentioned in a supermarket tabloid, but I found a reference to him in this past week’s GLOBE. (Yes...I read the tabloids.) The story concerned a twenty-year-old babysitter from Grafton, Wisconsin who was “tossed in the slammer” because she was late returning two books (ANGELS & DEMONS by Dan Brown and WHITE OLEANDER by Janet Fitch) to the public library.

The final paragraph reads, “Ironically, when cops knocked on her door, avid reader Heidi had her nose buried in Markus Zusak’s appropriately named bestseller THE BOOK THIEF!”

10. ANOTHER AUTHOR IN AN UNEXPECTED PLACE. Last Sunday night I was watching FOOD NETWORK CHALLENGE on TV (yes...I watch the Food Network) and was surprised to see author-illustrator Rosemary Wells as one of the judges in a cake-decorating contest. The theme of the contest was nursery rhymes, so Ms. Wells (who illustrated MY VERY FIRST MOTHER GOOSE by Iona Opie) was particularly well-suited for the job.

11. COOKING WITH THE AUTHORS. Ying Chang Compestine has written picture books as well as last year’s young adult novel REVOLUTION IS NOT A DINNER PARTY. Several months ago I happened upon another Food Network series, ULTIMATE RECIPE SHOWDOWN, and saw her competing with two other cooks in a pasta competition, making spaghetti with lion’s head meatballs.

12. MORE “AUTHORS” ON TV. Rosemary Wells and Ying Chang Compestine are writers who happened to appear on TV. Lauren Conrad is a reality TV star (MTV’s THE HILLS) who now gets to call herself an author thanks to a three-book deal with HarperCollins to write young adult fiction. A THREE-BOOK DEAL? WITH HARPERCOLLINS? At the age of TWENTY-TWO?

13. REST IN PEACE, URSULA. Every time I hear one of these stories about Harper offering big deals to TV stars, hiring movie actresses as editors, publishing movie adaptations, etc., etc., I always say, “Ursula Nordstrom must be spinning in her grave!” Considering the number of times I’ve had to utter this phrase in recent years, they might as well have buried poor Ursula in a Waring Blender.

14. PRE-EMPTIVE RANT. Every time some media personality gets a big book contract and authors (REAL AUTHORS) start complaining about the unfairness of it all, some goody-goody will always self-righteously proclaim, “How can you judge a book that hasn’t been published yet? Maybe ___________ (insert name of favorite bimbo or himbo or politico’s daughter) will turn out to be a good writer! Personally, I will wait to read the book before I condemn it!” Let me respond to this. Yes, it’s POSSIBLE that one of these media-creations may write a good book. But to quote that famous children’s book author Madonna, it’s also possible that “monkeys might fly out of my butt.” In the meantime, imagine learning that your job (teacher, librarian, plumber, whatever) may be taken over by a twenty-two-year-old with no training, no education, no background, no expertise, and no experience -- who simply has a whim to join your profession. As an added kick, their arrival means you might lose your job because the powers-that-be are paying the newbie ten times what you make and now there may not be enough money to pay everyone else. Now do you get it?

15. I GUESS THERE WON’T BE AUTHOR TOUR. I was surprised to see this new book by Kin Platt on Farrar’s Fall 2008 list:

Mr. Platt died nearly five years ago. I wonder if A MYSTERY FOR THOREAU was already contracted for at the time of his death, or if it was found among his papers and manuscripts, or left uncompleted and finished by another writer. It will be interesting to find out.

16. SHE CAN DO IT ALL. Is there any other writer who has tackled as many fictional genres as Cynthis Voigt? She’s done easy readers (STORIES ABOUT ROSIE), intermediate fiction (HOMECOMING), young adult novels (TELL ME IF THE LOVERS ARE LOSERS), fantasy (JACKAROO), mysteries (THE VANDEMARK MUMMY), mystical stories (TREE BY LEAF), animal stories (ANGUS AND SADIE), experimental fiction (ORFE) and an adult novel (GLASS MOUNTAIN.) About the only thing missing is humor.

17. RECOMMENDED READING. If I had to choose, I’d say that my favorite Cynthia Voigt novels are two of the lesser-known titles: IZZY, WILLY-NILLY and TREE BY LEAF. And maybe this is just my male perspective coming into play, but I think the three Tillerman books with male protagonists (A SOLITARY BLUE, THE RUNNER, and SONS FROM AFAR) are actually better novels than the four Tillerman titles featuring female protagonists.

18. WHAT THE H? Cynthia Voigt may be the most consistently misspelled author out there. Everyone wants to add an H to her name and make it “Voight.”

19. WHAT ABOUT US? Other unspellable and/or unpronouncable authors include: Ibtisam Barakat, Gennifer Choldenko, Carl Hiaasen, Ron Koertge, Justine Larbalestier, Lisa Papademetriou, Chris Raschka, Jon Scieszka (I always want to put an “h” in John. Szeiecskcza is of course easy to spell.), Chris Soentpiet, and Jordan Sonnenblick. Personally, I’ve never even been able to wrap my tongue about the name “L’Engle.”

20. SPEAKING OF WORDS NOBODY EVER GETS RIGHT.... Do you think Jon Scieszka will ever win the “Newberry” Award?

21. Does anyone remember this famous figurine? I had an aunt who couldn’t stand to even look at it, because she hated to see the kid poised in midstride, unable to lower his leg and rest. Now I’ve found the literary equivalent of that Hummel figurine -- a book whose dustjacket makes me so uncomfortable that I have to turn the volume backward on the shelf so I can’t see either the cover or spine image, both of which are printed in a typeface so fuzzy and woozy that it makes your stomach lurch and head spin:

Just glancing at the cover of this new young-adult novel, JERK, CALIFORNIA by Jonathan Friesen makes me feel like I’m stumbling in at 6:00 AM after an all-night bender. And I don’t even drink!

22. MULTIPLE CHOICE QUIZ. We all have special books that have changed our lives or touched us deeply in a very individual way. Have you ever attempted to share one of your most-loved books with a friend and discovered they didn’t feel the same kind of emotional connection? Maybe even hated it? How did you deal with that (after the initial hissy fit)?
a) I re-evaluated my own initial reaction to the book.
b) I realized my friends have lousy taste!
c) I realized that friends should enjoy their similarities and celebrate their differences.
d) None of the above.
e) All of the above.

23. THE OLSEN TWINS HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH THIS ONE, DESPITE THE TITLE. One of the most-anticipated novels of the coming months is THIS FULL HOUSE, the final volume in Virginia Euwer Wolff’s trilogy that began with MAKE LEMONADE and continued with her National Book Award-winning TRUE BELIEVER. Mark your calendars for January 27, 2009.

24. CHILDREN’S BOOK CHARACTERS THAT HAVE ENTERED OUR LEXICON. My friend recently mentioned the Eleanor Porter book POLLYANNA. I doubt many people these days have actually read it. Yet the word “Pollyanna” has entered pop culture and is used all the time. (How many times a week do I utter the phrase “I don’t want to sound like a Pollyanna, but....”?) Are there any other names or phrases specific to children’s books that are part of our shared culture? I’m thinking Nancy Drew...maybe the Hardy Boys.... What else?

25. TRADING TYPEWRITERS. Back in the early 1960s, Marijane Meaker was a well-regarded writer of mystery and suspense novels; her friend Louise Fitzhugh wrote books like HARRIET THE SPY for young people. Ms. Fitzhugh always wanted to try her hand at a mystery novel and jokingly suggested to Ms. Meaker that they trade typewriters and switch writing genres. I don’t think that trade ever happened -- and Louise Fitzhugh never did write her mystery novel. That’s too bad, because with her keen insight into human behavior and quirky characterizations, she would probably have written an amazing mystery story. However, Marijane Meaker DID begin writing for young people and, to quote the heroine’s mother in her first young-adult book, DINKY HOCKER SHOOTS SMACK!, “Oh my my my my my" -- what success she has had as M. E. Kerr!

26. MOST SEARCHED BOOK. Barely a day goes by without someone visiting my blog to find out information on Eleanor Estes’s book A LITTLE OVEN. Written three years after the author went SPLAT! at the Newbery award ceremony, the book has been out of print for decades. But it’s obviously well-remembered and well-loved because people are searching for it on the internet every day. Some enterprising publisher should look into reprinting the book.

27. FINDERS’ FEE. If you’re the enterprising publisher who reprints A LITTLE OVEN, remember you heard about it here first. Send your check to Newbery13@aol.com.

28. FIRST THERE WAS ANDERSEN AND ALEXANDER. Now here are Elizabeth Borton de Trevino, Newbery winner for I, JUAN DE PAREJA and contemporary picture book author-artist Patricia Polacco (PINK AND SAY):

And here’s Edward Lear of “The Owl and the Pussycat” fame and Paul Fleischman of JOYFUL NOISE fame:

29. Is there any author who writes with more cadence and poetry than Paul Fleischman? He was writing “novels-in-verse” before such things existed.

30. LIKE SON, LIKE FATHER. And let’s not forget Paul’s father Sid Fleischman, still going strong with a new biography, THE TROUBLE BEGINS AT 8 : A LIFE OF MARK TWAIN IN THE WILD, WILD WEST, especially notable for its colorful, colloquial writing style.

...Well, that's it. My original intent was to post 100 items, but as the day wore on, I decided 50 would be sufficient. Now the afternoon is almost over and, if I don't stop here at 30 items, "brunch" will have to be renamed "late dinner" or, even worse, "midnight snack"!

In other words: I give up!

Thursday, September 11, 2008


Many of us involved with children’s books tend to see the world from a youthful perspective. We’re interested in how things start and how things grow. We’re fascinated by creation and beginnings...even though it’s often hard to pinpoint exactly when something begins. I’m reminded of one of my favorite young-adult novels, THE CRUCIBLE YEAR by Norma Johnston, in which the protagonist muses about “Ends, beginnings...like a doorway you run through headlong, not even noticing, until the door shuts behind you, and you know you have left childhood and a part of your life behind you.”

I definitely felt one of those doors shut behind me on the morning of September 11, 2001. I think everyone in the country heard a door slam shut that day.

It left us angry and confused, wondering how this had happened, how it had begun. Historians would probably say it began hundreds of years ago with tribal disputes, or at least decades back with political conflicts. I searched my own memory and kept recalling a Saturday early that spring when I came across an internet story about the destruction of giant Buddha statues in Afghanistan -- thousand-year-old artistic, cultural, and historic artifacts reduced to rubble by the Taliban. “Gosh, that’s terrible,” I said, then clicked the button on my mouse and moved on to another article.

A few months later, a coworker worriedly told me about a student employee who used a portrait of Osama bin Laden as the screensaver on his computer. “Gosh, that’s terrible,” I said, and then changed the topic to something more trivial.

Then came the morning of September eleventh and I had no words at all.

That November I visited New York and saw the fire stations draped with black bunting, saw posters and photos of the “missing” on fences and walls, took a cab to Ground Zero and saw the smoke still rising from the ruins of the towers more than six weeks after the attacks. Again: no words.

...Almost exactly two years later, I received an ARC (advance reading copy) of E.L. Konigsburg’s newest book, THE OUTCASTS OF 19 SCHUYLER PLACE. One of the many reasons I love ARCs is that they often contain information that is not included in the final bound copy of the book. Frequently it’s a letter from the author, describing the book and its origins. I’ve already mentioned that I’m interested in hearing how things begin -- and nothing fascinates me more than learning how a book came to be created. Ms. Konigsburg’s letter explained what motivated her to write this story about Margaret Rose Kane, who was first introduced in the author’s earlier novel SILENT TO THE BONE. This new book also concerned Margaret Rose’s two great-uncles “who have spent the last forty-five years building three giant towers from scrap metal and shards of glass and porcelain” in their backyard. Because the towers do not fit in with the “historical integrity” of the neighborhood, the local Restoration Authority has decided they need to be destroyed. Konigsburg continues:

“In a plea to the city council, Uncle Alex asks, ‘How can anyone -- any authority -- have the authority to say that the towers are not part of history? How can anyone say something that happened, didn’t happen?’ Good question. No one should have the right to destroy someone’s history the way the Taliban destroyed fifteen hundred years of history when in March 2001, they blew up the giant Buddhas in Central Afghanistan. The towers are works of art, just as the Buddhas were. The towers are integral to the history of their place, just as the Buddhas were. The towers helped create a sense of community, just as the Buddhas did. The Taliban said the Buddhas didn’t fit their new order, just as the Restoration Authority said the towers didn’t fit theirs.”

As I said, this note from the author appears only in the ARC -- not the final hardcover copy of THE OUTCASTS OF 19 SCHUYLER STREET. Nor is there any reference to the Taliban or the destruction of the Buddhas within the novel; the story is set in 1983, nearly two decades before those events occurred. Yet the author somehow found a vehicle for addressing these issues in 19 SCHUYLER PLACE. While the actions of the Taliban left many of us mumbling inanities (“Gosh, that’s terrible”) or struck silent to the bone, E.L. Konigsburg found the words.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The Sincerest Form of Flattery

Go to any museum and you will see students plopped in front of great works of art, copying these masterpieces onto oversized tablets with pencil, ink, or crayon.

I used to think that budding artists who indulged in such public displays were a little show-offy (well, I still think the berets and scarves are a bit much), but at least I now understand the motivation for their actions. What better way to learn about art than to imitate the techniques of the masters? And where else are they supposed to find those works except on the walls of a big public museum? It's not like art students are allowed to check out the Mona Lisa at a circulation desk and take it home to copy in the privacy of their own home.

But I imagine there are also a lot of young artists who get an education without ever leaving the house -- drawing cartoon superheroes off the TV or replicating outfits from fashion magazines. My own brother used to spend hours copying Archie, Jughead, Betty and Veronica out of ARCHIE'S PALS AND GALS comic books. And one of our cousins copied characters from the Sunday funnies in colored chalk, then sprayed them with Aqua Net hair spray so the colors wouldn't smudge. Her bedroom smelled like the set of Steel Magnolias, but her colors never smudged.

I wonder how many children's book illustrators got their start imitating artwork from their favorite books. I've been thinking about this ever since I came across some drawings inspired by the books of Eleanor Frances Lattimore, most famous for writing LITTLE PEAR (1931), LITTLE PEAR AND HIS FRIENDS (1934), LITTLE PEAR AND THE RABBITS (1956), MORE ABOUT LITTLE PEAR (1971), and over fifty over children's titles -- many set in China.

Eleanor Lattimore was born and raised in Shanghai, the daughter of American parents. Trained as an artist, Lattimore saw her writing as a natural extension of her art. LITTLE PEAR began with a series of illustrations; she later wrote the accompanying text in less than a week. (Geez, sometimes it takes me a week just to write one of these blog entries!) Many reference books credit Ms. Lattimore with introducing Chinese culture to an entire generation of American children -- and she seems to have escaped the usual criticisms that authors face when writing about cultures not their own. The "Little Pear" books continue to be loved by young readers and both LITTLE PEAR and LITTLE PEAR AND HIS FRIENDS remain in print today.

The latter book inspired these drawings I recently found. This page that shows a boy playing with a spinning toy called a "diabolo"

is reimagined here:

I've only known a shuttlecock from badminton, but in China at the turn of the century, a shuttlecock was a toy made from three rooster feathers weighed with two pennies and wrapped in cloth, then used to play the game we now call hacky sack:

Here's how the young artist depicted that scene:

Finally there's the stuffed tiger that appears in the story and on the spine of the dustjacket

and is reproduced here:

I'm really impressed by the time, thought, and talent that went into these drawings. The young artist used special, thin paper with a border that includes Asian motifs such as temples, cranes, and umbrellas, and pain-stakingly printed the text in green ink. Best of all are the illustrations, which not only faithfully reproduce Lattimore's pen-and-ink drawings, but add subtle and appropriate color.

Unfortunately, the artist never signed his or her name. Maybe this was just a kid's hobby, like copying Fred Flintstone and Blondie from the Sunday comics and spraying them with Aqua Net. Or maybe this was an early attempt by someone who has since gone on to great fame as a contemporary children's book illustrator. I guess we'll never know for sure...but it's fun to think about.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Unreadable Signatures, Unwatchable Movies, and Little Audrey

Further randomness about children’s books from yesterday and today, presented Sunday brunch style.


Many years ago my entire family went to New York and saw the final play in Neil Simon’s autobiographical trilogy, BROADWAY BOUND. It was a great production, highlighted by Linda Lavin’s amazing performance as the down-to-earth mother who still dreams about the long-ago night that she danced with movie star George Raft.

After the play was over, we happened to see Linda Lavin leaving the stage door. My brother asked if she’d sign his Playbill, but she ignored him and kept walking. He called after her, “I guess that means ‘no’?”

Lavin turned around, rolled her eyes, grabbed his program, and signed it -- with her initials!

Or at least it looked that way. There was an L followed by another L ...though the second letter had a little flourish after it that MIGHT have meant “Lavin” if “Lavin” was spelled “L____.”

Just a couple years earlier, she’d been slinging hash at Mel’s Diner, but now she was a Broadway STAR and didn’t have the time or the patience for good penmanship. Or for her fans.

But this isn’t a story about actors (so you can kiss my grits, LL____!) but instead a tale of authors who have illegible handwriting. I have to admit, most of the signed books in my collection are inscribed with excellent, even beautiful, handwriting. But there are one or two authors whose signatures make even LL____’s penmanship look good. Can you figure out the signatures of the two Newbery medalists below?

I’ll include the answers at the end of today’s blog.


Did you know that Will James, the Newbery-winning author of SMOKY THE COWHORSE (1926), once worked as a film extra in early westerns? Or that there was a 1933 movie adaptation of SMOKY, which he narrated himself -- as well as a 1946 remake starring Fred MacMurray, Anne Baxter, and Burl Ives? Or that he was the subject of a 1988 documentary called ALIAS WILL JAMES?

The more I learn about about this cowboy/author/artist, the more I think someone needs to write a full-scale biography about him. Will James seems to have reinvented himself over and over again during his short but busy life. Some sources say he was born in Montana as “William Roderick James,” when in truth he was Joseph Ernest Nephtali Dufault of Quebec, Canada. I think I can say with certainty that he was the only Newbery winner ever to serve time in a Carson City, Nevada jail for cattle rustling...and the only one to work for the rodeo. In fact, every time the rodeo came to New York and paraded down Fifth Avenue, they’d make a special stop outside the Scribner Building, so James could wave at his publishing friends inside.


...but did you see the film adaptation of Scott O’Dell’s THE ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS?

Long-considered one of the best-written Newbery winners of all time (though I get the feeling the book isn’t as popular these days as it once was), O’Dell’s novel was made into a 1964 film starring someone named Celia Kaye (also not as popular these days as she was once was.) Although my family attended only one or two movies a year when we were growing up, we actually went to see this one -- at a drive-in theatre, no less. I remember almost nothing about it; I think I fell asleep in the backseat. I’d blame that on being just five at the time, but apparently nearly everyone found this movie mind-numbing. I found two professional reviews on the Internet Movie Database (www.imdb.com.) One called the film “bland.” The other went a little farther, stating: “This film is a lifeless vacuum of blandness. It is probably the most bland film ever conceived. Watching it made me want to burn the negative along with anyone involved in the production that is still alive....” This reviewer also says -- and, no, I’m NOT making this up --“Everyone involved has a good chance of being the anti-Christ.”

Think he liked it?

Well, you know critics are always a little picky. What do regular viewers say? One person wrote in to say, “The greatest family movie ever made! The acting and ending is a WOW!!!!” Another deemed it “great for insomnia” but said that he really liked Celia Kaye’s leather slit-skirt, adding “hubba-hubba” in case we didn’t get the point.

Here’s a picture of the movie’s original advertisement. You may have to click on the image to see the slit-skirt, I mean the ad, in better detail:

Incidentally, this advertisement was folded and glued into the back of my copy of ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS. On the reverse side of the ad is a huge picture of Scott O’Dell, signed in blue ink by the author. The back endpapers have remnants of other articles once glued inside and I mourn the fact that they are now missing. My book was also inscribed:

I wonder who Glen was and what role he had in the creation of this book? I used to ask such questions idly, but now that I’m addressing them into cyberspace, I halfway expect to receive an answer. Just the other day I wrote a blog entry about Jennie D. Lindquist and got a note from one of the late author’s relatives. Maybe Glen, or someone in his family, will read this blog and let me know his connection with Scott O’Dell and ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS.


Little Audrey was a cartoon and comic book figure who always tried to make the best of a bad situation, as does her namesake in Ruth White’s new novel LITTLE AUDREY.

I usually like Ruth White’s novels and thought last year’s WAY DOWN DEEP was nothing short of brilliant (I still want a recount from the Newbery committee so that White’s book and Lauren Tarshis’s EMMA-JEAN LAZARUS FELL OUT OF THE TREE can get some kind of delayed Honor Book status...call it the “Oops, We Forgot Award.”) LITTLE AUDREY is a bit thinner than WAY DOWN DEEP and suffers from a rushed ending that ties things up too quickly, but it’s still a thoughtful and emotionally-involving story about the lives of an impoverished coal-mining family in 1948 Virginia. This book felt very personal to me, as my grandmother came from Virginia and used the same dialect as Audrey (“worsh” for “wash”) and I also recognize many moments in the novel from stories I’ve heard about my own family’s underprivileged background -- recalling a time when a banana was a rare treat and kids were afraid to ask their penniless parents for school supply money.

I’m also fascinated by the fact that the author wrote this book in the voice of her oldest sister Audrey (White herself appears as little sister Ruth Carol), especially since those of us who read her earlier book MEMORIES OF SUMMER know the troubled fate of the real-life Audrey. I wonder if this book was an attempt to show a different side of Audrey, before her problems began, or if it’s an ATONEMENT-like version of what Audrey’s life could have, or might have, been. Whatever the case, it’s a strong book and fans of Ruth White’s work will not be disappointed in LITTLE AUDREY.


The mining camp water tower is one of the central motifs in LITTLE AUDREY and I was reminded of how often water towers have been showing up in children's and young adult books lately. I wonder what that's all about. Just in the past couple years we've had GODLESS by Pete Hautman, LAST DANCE AT THE FROSTY QUEEN by Richard Uhlig and FAR FROM XANADU by Julie Anne Peters. Are there any other recent literary water towers I'm forgetting?


Did you figure out who signed my books? Here’s the answers:

Even KNOWING who signed them, I can’t make those scrawls out to be “Christopher Paul Curtis” or “Kate DiCamillo.” But that’s okay. Even if their signatures do resemble chicken scratch, the books themselves are wonderful and I’m thrilled and honored that the authors took the time to sign them.

Besides, I actually know another person with EVEN WORSE handwriting than these two authors.