Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Light in the Castle

Every year, as the days get darker and we creep closer and closer to Halloween, I think about my grade-school art teacher.

To be honest, I never found him that inspiring as an instructor. Emphasizing technique over creativity, he'd begin each class period by explaining the current assignment -- an underwater scene in crayons, a landscape using watercolors, a still life in charcoal. Then he'd grab a piece of chalk and draw a quick example on the blackboard. That was his big mistake. Being, in general, a group of conventional kids, anxious to please our teacher and get good grades, we'd then proceed to copy his drawing off the blackboard. So much of school was like that back then: in history class you'd write down the important names and dates that your teacher discussed and then, when she called on you, you'd recite those names and dates back to her; in English class your teacher would highlight the most important parts of the story you'd just read in your textbook and then you'd repeat her remarks, more or less verbatim, on the next essay exam. Unfortunately, that style of learning even extended to art class, where every afternoon we'd sit on stools studiously copying our teacher's artwork off the blackboard. Even when he set up a still-life tablau, I'd find myself copying his example off the board rather than looking at the actual empty wine bottle, orange, apple, and bunch of grapes on the table in front of me. At the end of every class period, we'd hand in our assignments which, with the exception of a few daring personal flourishes, were basically amateurish copies of whatever he'd demonstrated. Education by Xerox.

However, once a year we'd stray from the prescribed curriculum.

At Halloween our art teacher would always tell us a scary story. He'd dim the lights, then sit down on his desk -- right on top of it, not behind it -- and begin reminiscing:

This happened a long time ago...more than twenty years ago...before any of you were born or even imagined.

A chill went through the classroom, imagining a time when we weren't even imagined.

It was right at the end of the war and my regiment was stationed in Germany, bivouaced right on the edge of a dark forest.

Another chill -- even the word "bivouac" was cool.

About a mile away was a castle, just like you see in pictures, with towers and turrets and drawbridges and dungeons. And all across the front there were jagged walls that looked like a smile...with some of the teeth missing. No one had lived there for decades...maybe centuries...except, sometimes, at night, we heard...or thought we heard...sounds coming from that dark castle. Sometimes it sounded like laughing and sometimes it sounded like crying and sometimes we couldn't tell if it was laughing OR crying. We wanted to investigate, but Sarge said we weren't allowed outside the camp. But then, one night, right around this time of year, I was on guard duty with my buddy and we saw a light in the if someone was creeping around inside with a kerosene lamp...or just a single candle, and I told my buddy, "As soon as we get off duty, I'm going over there to see for myself," and my buddy said, "Don't do it, Frank."

Frank. Our teacher had a first name. How cool was that?

Finally I convinced my buddy to come with me. But before we went, he wanted to write a letter to his folks, and his girlfriend, in case he never came back from the castle. At midnight two other soldiers took over guard duty and, instead of heading back to our tent, we snuck out of camp....

By then the art room, with its wooden floors and bright paintings pinned to the walls and clouds of chalk-dust in the air, had completely faded away as we followed our teacher -- Frank! -- and his buddy through the moonless night as they crossed a field covered in frost and fallen dead leaves and finally reached the huge dark castle, stepping onto the creaky drawbridge, armed with only a tiny Zippo cigarette lighter to show them the way....

Forty minutes later the story ended with our teacher jumping from his desk and bellowing a soul-shaking scream that had all of us rearing back and clutching our chests. One kid fell off his stool. For the rest of the day, it's all we could talk about. We begged our other teachers to tell us Halloween stories, but they refused. And going out trick-or-treating that night was scarier than ever...especially when we passed the occasional creepy dark house and wondered what we'd do if a candle began to flicker inside.

Our teacher told us this story, or variations of this story, every Halloween: fourth grade, fifth grade, sixth grade. And then in seventh grade, the last year of elementary school, he stopped.

"No, you're too old for that," he said, waving away our requests with his hand. "You think they're going to tell you stories over at the junior high next year? There's no time for that kind of stuff in junior high. Junior high is serious business. Now get out your rulers and let's work on perspective."

So we spent that Halloween afternoon -- as we spent every seventh grade art class -- working on perspective. We watched our teacher draw lines across the blackboard with a yardstick and then we copied those same lines across our own sheets of manila paper with a twelve-inch ruler. It didn't feel like art -- it felt more like drafting. It wasn't fun and neither was our teacher, who wouldn't even tell us a scary story. It all seemed unfair.

I never was very good at drawing things in perspective. Or even seeing life in perspective. Decades later, I complained to someone about how mundane and formulaic our grade-school art classes used to be -- just copying down what our teacher drew on the board. "What would have happened if you didn't do it his way -- if you'd just let your imagination go wild and did things your own way?" they asked.

"We probably would have flunked the class," I said, but even as the words came out of my mouth I know that it probably wasn't true. (And even if it WAS true, would that have been the end of the world? Has anyone ever uttered the words, "I'm sorry, Bob, we'd take you on at this law firm in a heartbeat if it wasn't for that little matter of failing fifth-grade art"?) And I suddenly remembered that our teacher even had a few students who came in after school for special art classes. I guess I always assumed those were the kids who did the best job copying his work from the blackboard. But now that I think about it, they were probably the ones who weren't bound by convention -- and what they saw on the board -- and really let their imaginations run wild in their own drawings and paintings.

And maybe there was also a bigger point to our teacher's sudden refusal to tell us any more stories. It seemed so unfair at the time, telling us we were "too old" for a story. It's true that things were starting to change in seventh grade. Kids were showing up at school with braces. There was a lot more swearing in the hallways. Seventh grade was also The Year That Girls First Started Wearing Nylons. Maybe by seventh grade our delight in a Halloween story would have been tempered by a little cynicism for the first time. So our teacher cut us off. Now, from the perspective of several decades, I think I can see the reason why. He really was a great storyteller...and any good storyteller knows you're supposed to leave the audience wanting more. So he finished telling us his story -- but sent us off from grade school hungry to hear more stories, different stories -- a need we'd never outgrow.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Halloween Costume Contest

Announcer: Welcome to the First Annual Children's Book Halloween Costume Contest! We've invited many of your favorite characters from children's books to show off their holiday best. During the past two days, a preliminary panel has narrowed down hundreds of entries to a top twelve, who will today be competing alone, as pairs, or in groups. Our esteemed judges, fresh off TV's PROJECT RUNWAY, are top designer Michael Kors--

Kors: Hi guys.

Announcer: Editor at large from ELLE Magazine, Nina Garcia--

Garcia: Hola.

Announcer: And fashion model Heidi Klum!

Klum: He-wo.

Announcer: If you hear your name called, please come up on stage, so your Halloween costume can be viewed by our entire audience. The judges will be rating your costume on originality, construction, and taste.

Announcer: First up are a pair of specters -- "The Little Ghost" from the book of the same name by Otto Preussler, and Godfrey from Inger and Lasse Sandberg's LITTLE GHOST GODFREY.

Klum: I like the European flair of both garments.

Kors: To me, it looks like you're both just wearing bedsheets.

Garcia: White after Labor Day? Sorry guys, you've just committed a fashion faux pas.

Announcer: Next we have Joey from I AM NOT JOEY PIGZA by Jack Gantos.
Joey, could you come up on stage? No, over here. Yes, those are nice drapes, no need to climb them. Over here. No, you can't hold the microphone. Please give that back to me. Ouch. Thank you. Now, stand still!

Garcia: The bee outfit is nice, but the headpiece is too small.

Klum: And one of your antenna is bwoken.

Kors: Bees. Saturday Night Live, circa 1977. So lame.

Announcer: Next up, a group from WINNIE-THE-POOH by A.A. Milne!

Kors: Too gaudy.

Garcia: What does this have to do with Milne's stories or Ernest Shepard's original vision of the characters? It's a new low in the Disneyfication of literature and fashion.

Klum: It looks like he's Pooh in fabric.

Announcer: Next up is Jill Brenner, from Judy Blume's novel BLUBBER.

Kors: I'm not exactly sure what your costume is supposed to represent.

Jill: I'm a flenser.

Garcia: What's a flenser?

Jill: The guy who removes the blubber from a whale on a whaling boat. Have any of you see Blub-- I mean, Linda Fischer, around?

Klum: She's over dere!

(Jill runs off the stage and chases Linda into the girls' bathroom.)

Announcer: Next up we have a group that calls itself The Kids from Klickatat Street, led by Henry Huggins dressed as a Native American.

Kors: This is a very fifties look.

Garcia: I don't like it. The robot is dated and the Native American costume isn't--

Klum: Powiticawy cowwect.

Garcia: Exactly.

Announcer: Next up is Weetzie Bat from the novel of the same name by Francesca Lia Block.

Weetzie: I'm so glad you told off that Retro-Duck who was just up here. He shouldn't have worn an Indian outfit. They were here first and we treated them like--

Kors (interrupting): What in the world are you wearing?

Weetzie: Pink harlequin glasses and an antique taffeta dress covered with poetry written in glitter. Isn't it slinkster-cool?

Garcia: But what are you supposed to be?

Weetzie: BE?

Garcia: For Halloween.

Weetzie: This isn't a Halloween costume. This is how I dress EVERY day.

Klum: Next!

Announcer: Here's a pair of Spanish costumes, worn by Eddie Wilson of Carolyn Haywood's EDDIE'S PAY DIRT and Manaolo of Maia Wojciechowska's SHADOW OF A BULL.

Klum: Your costume seems authentic, Manaolo.

Garcia: But yours is a bit much, Eddie.

Kors: Were you deliberately going for the metrosexual look, Ed?

Announcer: Our next finalist is Harriet M. Welsch from HARRIET THE SPY by Louise Fitzhugh, dressed as an onion.

Kors: It looks like striped pajamas to me.

Garcia: I like the layered look. It's very ap-peeling.

Klum: It makes. Me weep.

Announcer: Now a pair of pilgrims -- Jennifer and Elizabeth from E.L. Konigsburg's JENNIFER, HECATE, MACBETH, WILLIAM MCKINLEY, AND ME, ELIZABETH.

Kors: Your garment looks very authentic, Jennifer -- especially the buckles and cracked leather on your shoes.

Garcia: Unfortunately, Elizabeth, your pilgrim costume is a little short and a little tight.

Klum: And I can see where you pinned it.

Jennifer (tiredly leans against wall): Before we go, I would like just a drink of water....

Announcer: Next up is Max from Maurice Sendak's WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE.

Klum: Wuv the wolf wook, but why the cwown?

Kors: It makes a statement, I think.

Garcia: But once again: white after Labor Day. If my kid wore white after Labor Day, I'd send him to bed without supper.

Next is the protagonist of Beverly Cleary's RAMONA THE PEST.

Garcia: Basic black is always a safe choice.

Kors: Many designers like to use their name as a brand or logo, but your "Ramona Q." logo overwhelms the garment.

Klum: I think you should wear a mask with that witch outfit. Oh, you ARE wearing a mask?

(Ramona exits stage right, muttering the word witch. Or something that sounds like it.)

Announcer: Next up is Annabelle Andrews from FREAKY FRIDAY by Mary Rodgers, who is dressed up as her mother.

Garcia: Why, you couldn't look more 1970s suburban housewife if you tried: pastel pantsuit, helmet hair, sturdy shoes....

Kors: Look, she's even got the crows-feet next to her eyes.

Klum: What a transformation, Annabelle! It's almost magical! How did you do it?

Annabelle: You are not going to believe me. Nobody in their right minds could possibly believe me....

Announcer: Finally, we have Oscar, the hero of Dav Pilkey's THE HALLO-WIENER. Oscar is a long little doggie dressed up as a wiener dog.

Oscar (dejectedly): My mom made me wear this costume.

Kors: Well, it's wonderful. It's not easy finding a costume for a character who is "half-a-dog tall and one-and-a-half dogs long."

Garcia: It's witty, it's original...and I think we have our winning costume right here!

Klum: Oscar, we hereby name you "best in show."

Oscar: I can't believe it! Me? I'd like to thank my mother and my obedience school teacher, my vet, my groomer, my wormer, my agent. I must frank-ly tell all of you that I couldn't have done this by myself. And I relish this opportunity to thank French's mustard, Heinz catsup, and all the others who helped make this costume....

Klum: Auf wiedersehen, Oscar.

Oscar: Arf-arf wiedersehen!

Sunday, October 26, 2008

A Haunted Brunch...I Mean, Dunch

Most things get easier with practice, but I’m not sure blogging is one of them. Every week it seems to take me longer and longer to post these Sunday entries. Sometimes “brunch” is posted so late in the day that it should more accurately be called “dunch” or “linner.” Today I’m going to make a concerted effort to get this thing online earlier than usual! (Of course I say that every week, but this time I really, really mean it.) Today’s random facts and opinions on children’s books include writers wearing costumes, walking houses, haunted houses, madapples -- and mad bloggers!


Did anyone see this picture in the newspaper this week?

Oh yeah, who reads newspapers anymore. I should have said: did anyone see this picture on the internet this week?

It’s the prototype for the first “walking house.” Powered by solar and wind energy, this home contains a living room, kitchen, restroom facilities, and a bed. It’s mounted on six legs that can move at a walking pace across any terrain. Ostensibly, it was created so that a home could move away from rising waters to avoid a flood -- though at least one article mentioned that it also provides a way to escape lousy neighbors.

I don’t know about you, but the first thing I thought of was Philip Reeve’s “Hungry City Chronicles” -- a four-book series (MORTAL ENGINES, PREDATOR’S GOLD, INFERNAL DEVICES, A DARKLING PLAIN) in which entire mobilized cities glide around the globe chowing down on smaller towns.

I used to think the concept of roving cities was silly...but now realize that Philip Reeve was onto something.

We used to laugh about The Thing That Ate Cleveland, never realizing that someday we’d have to worry about The Things That Cleveland Ate.

Watch out, they’re coming!


It’s easy to be one of the crowd. In fact, it’s downright fun to be among a group of like-minded folks who share the same opinions. You spend a lot of time nodding at other people’s remarks, chant “owe me a Coke!” whenever you and someone else happen to say the same thing at the same time, and do a lot of high-fiving when you agree with a comment that someone else has voiced -- secure in the knowledge that your shared feelings are all correct.

It’s so much harder to be the odd man out.

I realized that again this week when I read a new young-adult novel called MADAPPLE by Christina Meldrum.This dense, eccentric novel concerns a teenage girl, Aslaug, raised by a mad Danish immigrant who insists that her daughter was the product of a virgin birth. When her herb-gathering, abusive mother dies, Aslaug -- who has lived her life in near-isolation -- is taken in by an aunt and two cousins she has never known. Unfortunately, they turn out to be just as crazy as her mother. Eventually Aslaug herself becomes pregnant under mysterious circumstances and her aunt -- a charismatic minister with a drinking problem -- and cousin keep the teenager captive in her bedroom, even binding her mouth and hands so she cannot call for help or run away. The prose is intelligent and at times quite beautiful, and the author uses an intriguing device to keep the plot moving, as chapters describing the events of 2003, when Aslaug first went to live with her relatives, alternate with court transcripts from 2007 as Aslaug is being tried for a double murder. Although a promising debut, I found this surreal gothic novel overlong, overloaded with arcane information on plants, herbs, and religion (every time Aslaug’s cousin begins talking about pagan religions or Essene prayers, her dialogue devolves into lengthy Theology 101 lectures) and filled with over-the-top scenes and characters. And is there a single character in the book who isn’t either insane or downright nasty? (Even a policewoman with a soft spot for Aslaug ends up stealing money from her -- in an intriguing scene that isn’t mentioned again and adds nothing to the plot.) Some readers may have a modicum of sympathy for Aslaug herself (who endures so much with Job-like submission) but I found her pretty much a cypher. I closed the 400-plus page book with the feeling that it was an interesting failure that would probably be poorly-reviewed, wouldn’t have much appeal to kids, and was soon destined for the bins at Half-Price Books. Imagine my surprise when I looked online and discovered it had gotten starred reviews by every major journal and has also garnered a lot of young fans! It’s difficult to have a dissenting opinion on a book that everyone else seems to love (there’s no one for me to high-five with!) but my opinions on this one are pretty intractable so I guess I’d better get used to being “odd man out” when it comes to MADAPPLE.


I guess anyone who voices their opinions on a blog -- as I just did regarding MADAPPLE -- should have the courage and fortitude to accept the consequences. However, I recently had an unnerving experience when a reader (who perhaps found their way to “Collecting Children’s Books” when they were looking for their favorite blog “Committing Childish Behavior”) deliberately tried to stir up some trouble.

It all started when I made a comment -- and a fairly positive one, I thought -- about one of my favorite authors on this blog.

Practically as soon as my blog entry was posted, a reader ran (well, in this case I prefer the word “scurried” because rats scurry or “slithered” because snakes slither) to the author I’d mentioned and “tattled” on me. The problem was that they quoted me out of context, only reporting half of what I’d said and leaving out the good comments. Then this author -- an idol of mine -- turned around and reported my “waspish” (her word) comments on the internet and went on to supply a quote that used the phrase “weasilish, piggish, and buzzardly.”

As it turned out, a kind reader of this blog cleared up the matter by providing my FULL QUOTE IN CONTEXT to the author, who agreed that my original statement was "quite benign."

I have three comments to make:

1) To the kind reader who cleared this up: THANK YOU!

2) To the iconic author who thought she’d been dissed: I’M SORRY. I REALLY DO LOVE YOUR BOOKS!

3) To the person who tried to stir up the trouble: SHAME ON YOU!

And here’s a reading list for that third person:


Here is a dustjacket image I love:

YOUR BACKYARD CIRCUS by Dic Gardner presents a picture of this circus the way most kids would IMAGINE it -- with tents and ticket booths and refreshment stands and a million attractions (is that an ELEPHANT in the background?) plus tons of customers, including plenty of paying adults. Okay, in truth, most kids’ circuses end up a little less grandiose...but this is how they imagine it will be when they plan their circus. And this will be how they remember it thirty or forty years later.

When I was growing up, some kids down the block created a haunted house in their garage every year. They’d use blankets to partition off the building into long corridors and secret rooms made up as monsters’ dens and mad scientists’ laboratories. Ghosts popped out at every turn. Dead bodies arose from plywood caskets. You were forced to touch bowls containing human eyeballs (peeled grapes) and brains (cold, wet spaghetti) and it took hours and hours to get through the entire haunted house because it was so HUGE and there were HUNDREDS of attractions to see.

Of course the logical part of my brain now reminds me that my neighbors only had a one-car garage -- so how HUGE could that haunted house really be? And how many attractions did they really set up in the day or two it took them to create the haunted house? HUNDREDS? ...Dozens? ...Two or three?

But that is not how I remember it. I still contend there were innumerable rooms, endless corridors and uncountable attractions in that haunted house. That’s how it seemed to me then and that’s how it seems to me now. In fact, the older I get, the larger it seems in my memory.


In the spirit of the season, I thought I’d check out a few more haunted houses -- found within the pages of children’s books.

For picture book readers, there’s TUCK’S HAUNTED HOUSE by Martha Weston. The piggish (though not weaselish, buzzardly or waspish) protagonist puts on a haunted house to rival my neighbors’ garage, complete with fake coffins and “peeled grapes for ghouls’ eyes.”

It’s a fun book and just scary enough for its intended audience. What scared me the most were Tuck’s feet. Look at them:

How does he WALK on those things? Note to Tuck: Next Halloween ditch the pirate costume and go as a clothespin.

When I was a kid, I loved a pair of books about three siblings who solved mysteries: THE KEY TO THE TREASURE (1966) and CLUES IN THE WOODS (1968), which were written by Peggy Parish of “Amelia Bedelia” fame. I used to think those books were very long and involved. Then I ran across them again last week and -- in another case of “everything is big when you are little” -- discovered the volumes were rather slim and the text was sparse. Collecting children’s books may be about rediscovering old things, but it’s also about discovering new things. While I got older and and moved past these books, the author, unbeknownst to me, continued writing them. Now I’ve discovered three more books in this series: PIRATE ISLAND ADVENTURE (1975), HERMIT DAN (1977), and this 1971 book which will make perfect Halloween reading:

Peg Kehret is the contemporary successor to Peggy Parish, writing fun, unpretentious and moderately scary stories for young readers. And like Parish, she’s also written a mystery series about some young siblings. Ellen and Corey Streater are featured in DANGER AT THE FAIR, TERROR AT THE ZOO, and this volume, which has the pair working at haunted house to raise money for a community project:

Originally published in Great Britain under the title IT”S TOO FRIGHTENING FOR ME, Shirley Hughes’ novel HAUNTED HOUSE contains dialogue balloons in many of the illustrations -- something I’ve rarely seen:

William Sleator’s BLACKBRIAR isn’t a haunted house, but a haunted cottage. The author got the idea for the book while himself restoring an old cottage. Sleator said, “"The place was interesting…the whole thing was like a gothic novel. So there was my first novel, BLACKBRIAR, handed right to me"

Notice how the details of the cover illustration evoke a face:

And -- eek! -- here’s another cover illustration with a hidden face:

Though in this case the face is familiar. Does anyone remember these oversized volumes of scary stories for kids, ostensibly selected by Alfred Hitchcock? I say “ostensibly” because I’ve never learned whether “Hitch” was actually involved with these books, or merely lent them his name. The same goes for all the volumes of adult short stories with Hitchcock’s name attached that were published back in the day. All I know is that the books ceased when the filmmaker died and that was a real loss as these books were enjoyed by both grown-up and young readers. I wish some publisher could bring them back into print!

Finally, here’s an odd volume (no author listed and the publisher is the long-extinct Aladdin Books) with a haunted house on the cover. For some reason this one really gives me the creeps. Maybe it’s because the house isn’t ornately decorated and there are no bat-wings-in-front-of-a-full-moon or pumpkins or other Halloweeny accouterments to jazz up the jacket -- just lonely ghosts treading through a cold blue night.


Gregory Maguire has written some great children’s books, but may now be best known for writing WICKED, the novel that inspired the hit Broadway musical. I just found a wonderful quote attributed to this author in which he calls his books “novels of ideas dressed up in Halloween costumes.”



I was lucky enough to see a matinee of WICKED shortly after it opened. The theatre sold witch’s hats as souveniers and, from where I sat way up in the nose-bleed seats, I could see nothing but black triangle hats spread out below me. It was like being at a witch’s convention. They didn’t block the view at all, since our seats were raised quite high above the lower balcony, but that didn’t stop the lady sitting next to me from hailing an usher and asking him to make sure everyone took off their hats, “Because it’s very annoying.” After he walked away, this same lady spilled an entire giant-sized bag of Skittles on the floor where they rolled across the aisles willy-nilly and crunched under our feet for the rest of the show. Annoying is as annoying does.

Anyway, a few weeks later there was an article about Gregory Maguire in PEOPLE magazine and I was amused to see a photo of him and his family all wearing those same witch’s hats from WICKED.

So we know how he dresses for Halloween. But what about other children’s authors? I did a search on the internet today and found several examples -- many of them on the “Three Silly Chicks” blog (, which regularly asks their children’s book interviewees “What was your best Halloween costume ever?” I wanted to write them and ask permission to borrow some of these quotes, but couldn’t find an address on their site. Maybe if I mention that one of the Three Silly Chicks, Andrea Beaty, wrote one of this year’s VERY BEST new books, CICADA SUMMER, they won’t be mad at me. (And it really IS a great book! Check it out!)

Anyway, have any of the following famous authors ever come trick-or-treating at your door?

Jon Scieszka: “I was a pretty good witch. And a scary bunny rabbit. But I was an excellent bum -- I had the black marker whisker stubble, baggy suitcoat, and no mask. Beauty.”

Lisa Yee: “One year, in college, I wore one of my mom's old pink taffeta cocktail dresses, long gloves, and lots of (fake) pearls. I hardly ever dress up, so it felt very chic and irreverent at the same time. I suppose if I wore that today I'd look like Gwen Steffani, minus the blonde hair, musical abilities, and clothing line.”

Adam Rex: “Last year I shaved my head and wore a Charlie Brown t-shirt. Several years ago I made a full-body robot costume that weighed fifteen pounds and lit up. The year I was working on Ste-e-e-e-eamboat A- Comin'! by Jill Esbaum I went as Steamboat Head.”

Annette Curtis Klause, whose many scary books must make her an expert in this field, described her favorite way to spend Halloween: “I like to be dressed as a ghoul, standing by my front door, next to the Victorian Child's coffin I bought on eBay, holding a witches cauldron full of candy in my arms, a skeletal hand emerging from the pot. I whip open the the front door growling as soon as someone knocks and I count how many children fall backwards off my steps. Yah ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!”

Kate and Sarah Klise said their mother helped them make papier mache costumes, adding “Sarah’s of course were always perfect; Kate’s turned out looking like lumpy oatmeal on a stick with eyes.”

During high school Mo Willems “arrived on Halloween in khakis, pressed oxford shirt, and letter jacket. Satire trumps Vampire, I say.”

My favorite writer M.E. Kerr was an aspiring writer even in her youth, constantly sending out stories to magazines. For a sorority costume party, she pinned all her rejection letters to a long black slip, then attended the event as a Rejection Slip.

Paul O. Zelinsky may have had the most inventive costume of all: “I was in third or fourth grade and made a traffic-light costume out of a big box. I went trick-or-treating holding a flashlight inside it with me. When I got to a house, I would point the flashlight at the inside of the top light, and the words ‘trick or treat!’ would show in the red translucent lens; then I would hold the flashlight up to my middle, yellow lamp until I received a treat, and then ‘Thank you!’ would show in the green, bottom lamp.

And poor Will Weaver reports that his most embarrassing moment was “In 8th grade I went to a costume party that was not a costume party.”

Ouch. Talk about a trick.


Does anyone remember IDEALS -- a kind of coffee-table magazine filled with beautiful pictures, stories, and poems? Our grade school teachers used to cut pictures out of this magazine and display them on bulletin boards. The magazine was usually published in conjunction with holidays or the seasons. There wasn’t a Halloween issue, but there were issues labeled “Autumn,” “Thanksgiving,” and sometimes just “Harvest.” I recall coming across a Halloween story in one of these issues, about a group of kids in a forest. The girls seemed to be on a nature walk with an older woman, while the boys were on their own. The boys taunted the girls by shouting something like,

Pins and needles, needles and pins,
When Halloween comes, the trouble begins!

and the girls would counter with:

Pins and needles, needles and pins,
When Halloween comes, the fun begins!

Does anyone know this story? Could it have been an excerpt from a full-length book?

Any ideas?


It’s been almost two weeks since my Big Birthday and I just got another gift -- this one from a bookstore buddy. It’s a Houghton Mifflin Harcourt canvas bag and it contained a few surprises inside, including the most recent issue of Publishers Weekly.

My friend suggested I bring the bag to the store each week to conserve on the plastic bags they normally put my purchases in. I hope I remember to do that. (Do you think I could also use it for trick-or-treating on Halloween night?)


I had hoped to get this blog posted in a timely fashion, but I guess it just wasn’t meant to happen. I’m a slow and error-prone typist. Plus, I got interrupted, in the middle of an otherwise warm and sunny autumn afternoon, by a freak hail storm!

At this time of year it’s cold one day, warm the next, and you never know what the hail to expect next.

Anyway, thanks for dropping by for brunch.

I mean linner.


Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Take Me Out to the Roadshow

One of my favorite TV series is the ANTIQUES ROADSHOW, a PBS program where regular folks bring in their family heirlooms for expert appraisal.

If the Roadshow ever comes to my area, I'd like to get one of my favorite keepsakes appraised. No, it won't be a book. I already know the value of most of my books. Instead, I'd head over to the sports memorabilia table to show those two smart and enthusiastic sports experts, Leila Dunbar and Simeon Lipman, my special autographed baseball.

I wonder what they'd think....

Peter: Hi, I brought in this autographed baseball.

Simeon: Where's it from?

Peter: Dodger Stadium.

Leila: Ah, the home of Koufax, Drysdale, and Tommy Lasorda!

Peter: Yeah...them too.

Simeon: How old is this ball?

Peter: About six months old.

Leila: That's hardly an "antique."

Peter: It's a future antique. I mean, every antique's got to start somewhere, right?

Simeon: Well, let's take a look at it.

Peter: Sorry, it's still in the plastic case. I didn't know how to open it.

Leila: Maybe that's just as well. There's an awful lot of smeary fingerprints on this case.

Simeon: And what are these other marks on the sides?

Peter: You know how kids press their noses up against a candyshop window?

Simeon: Yeah.

Peter: When I got this baseball, I was so excited I felt like a kid at a candyshop!

Leila and Simeon: EWWW! (They both hurriedly put on latex gloves -- then begin examining the baseball with a magnifying glass.)

Leila: I thought you said this came from Dodger Stadium.

Peter: It did. Last May the annual Book Expo was held in Los Angeles and Random House had a big party at Dodger Stadium. Can you imagine going to a "twi-night" party right on the field of Dodger Stadium?

Simeon: Provenance is always a good thing when it comes to antiques...but I've got to tell you: Random House has nothing to do with baseball!

Peter: Why not? Doubleday did.

Leila: I don't recognize any of the names on this baseball. Are you sure they are major league players?

Peter: Of course. There's Marc Brown, who writes the "Arthur" books. Louis Sachar, who won the Newbery Medal for HOLES. And there's Polly Horvath, winner of the National Book Award. They're all major league writers as far as I'm concerned!

Simeon: I've never heard of them.

Peter: You've never heard of Judy Sierra? Or Marjorie Priceman? And who doesn't know Judy Blume? She wrote FOREVER.

Leila: Oh, is that the new book about the Chicago Cubs' World Series drought?

Peter: No! She also wrote THEN AGAIN, MAYBE I WON'T.

Simeon: Was that a book about the steroids scandal?

Peter: No, the steroids book was called MAYBE I DID, MAYBE I DIDN'T. Judy Blume wrote ARE YOU THERE GOD? IT'S ME, MARGARET.

Leila: Now that one I do know! It's Yogi Berra's autobiography, right?

Peter: No, no, no. Berra wrote AM I HERE GOD? ARE YOU MARGARET? Listen, just take my word for it: everyone who signed this ball is a famous author. It's a regular "All Star" roster of children's writers. Look here, Kate Klima even personally inscribed it: "Go Peter, Dragons Rock!"

Simeon: The Dragons must be minor-league team I've never heard of....

Peter: No, they're the stars of her new book, THE DRAGON IN THE SOCK DRAWER. ..And speaking of dragons, look who signed it on this side: Christopher Paolini. You don't get more famous than that!

Leila: I'm not familiar with him. Does he play for the National League or the American League?

Peter: Neither, but based on sales, he's one of the MVPs of the children's book world today.

Simeon: Well, whoever these people are, here's my advice about keeping this baseball in the best possible condition. Don't toss it around, make sure to store it out of sunlight, and whatever you do, don't coat it with shellac or varnish -- it fades the signatures.

Peter: Got it.

Leila: As for value--

Peter: No need to bother with a figure.

Leila: Don't you want to know what this baseball is worth?

Peter: I already know. It's priceless to me.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Today's Brunch Includes Birthday Cake Crumbs

I used to know this girl who had an October birthday, just like me.

Starting around October first, she’d begin attending a series of parties, dinners, and other special events -- all celebrating her upcoming birthday. Every morning she’d arrive at the office with tales of the previous evening’s festivities -- a bowling party with former co-workers, drinks with an old college chum, a spaghetti dinner with her parents and sister -- and show off the gifts she’d received. Her birthday fell in the middle of the month, just like mine, but she didn’t stop celebrating then. The fun continued with midnight hayrides, an evening at a dance club, and a surprise birthday party given by neighbors. Around Halloween I finally said to her, “You had another party last night? I thought your birthday was WEEKS ago?”

“It was,” she responded. “But I like to keep the celebration going for the whole month.”

Back then, I probably rolled my eyes. But now I can empathize. Since I was kind of cheated out of my “Big Birthday” (you know, the kind where you change BOTH digits) last week due to car problems, I’ve been trying to continue the celebration all week long. In fact, because I spent last Monday -- my real birthday -- getting up at dawn, having my car towed, and negotiating the purchase of a new vehicle, I’ve decided to take tomorrow off work and pretend that I’m getting an extra birthday this year.

Not that October 13 didn’t have its fun moments. It was nice to get a brand new car (a Ford Focus -- gold because it was my golden annivesary of being alive), but I’m not sure one can call it a “present” since I’m going to being making payments on it for the next how-many birthdays. But the rest of the day was nice and included cards and e-mails from friends, lunch at my favorite Chinese restaurant with family, and some great presents. (I’ll share the book-related gifts later in this blog.) And of course I still had that wonderful birthday cake (FIVE layers!) featured in last Sunday’s blog entry. Unfortunately, only the crumbs remain.

I only wish AARP didn’t keep bugging me.

Ever since my birthday they have contacted me not once, not twice, but THREE TIMES, just to remind me how old I’m getting.

I’m just going to ignore them and keep on blogging. Today’s blog contains the usual mix of random facts and opinions on children’s books old and new.


This fall’s hottest title for young people has to be THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins, a compulsively-readable futuristic novel about a ritualistic sporting event that has higher than normal stakes. (Only the winner comes out alive.) According to my friends at the bookstore, every kid who reads this book immediately begins clamoring for the next volume in the trilogy -- and volume two isn’t due out for at least a year. Suzanne Collins was recently here in Michigan. When I heard that she had agreed to “sign stock” for my favorite bookstore, Bookbeat, I dropped off my copies of THE HUNGER GAMES in hopes they’d be signed. Long-time readers of this blog may remember that some months ago I bartered for a spiral-bound “second draft” of this manuscript. I was thrilled that Ms. Collins signed that copy, plus my hardcover first edition, last week. What a treasure!


The presidential election is only a couple weeks away. I was wondering how our candidates were faring in the world of children’s books, so visited where I learned there are 54 current or forthcoming kids’ titles that cite the name Barack Obama and 91 that reference John McCain.

The top Obama title is BARACK OBAMA : SON OF PROMISE, CHILD OF HOPE, written by Nikki Grimes and illustrated by Bryan Collier, while the most popular McCain book is MY DAD, JOHN MCCAIN, written by the senator’s daughter Meghan McCain and illustrated by Dan Andreasen.

The current sales ranking for the Obama title is #714, with McCain ranked #984.

I wonder how these “poll numbers” will compare to the general election numbers.


A couple weeks ago I heard Heather Henson and David Small talk about their fine new picture book, THAT BOOK WOMAN. Ms. Henson mentioned a customer review on in which someone said, “Caldecott winner David Small's illustrations are...well, Caldecott worthy as usual. (But I'm wondering where them tow-headed twins come from with Mama, Pap, Cal and Lark all with hair black as night.)”

Henson then showed a picture of her own family -- all with hair black as night...except for her own tow-headed twins.


I’m always curious to hear authors talk about their own favorite books. I was once at an author event where a kid asked Lois Lowry if she reads children’s books and she said, “I’m an adult and I read adult books.” As an adult who reads all kinds of books, I was sorry to hear that. (But if reading mainly adult books causes her to write such brilliant chidren’s books as THE GIVER and the “Anastasia Krupnik” series, who am I to say she is wrong?)

I was tickled to learn that my favorite writer, M.E. Kerr, is a big fan of AL CAPONE DOES MY SHIRTS by Gennifer Choldenko.

Then there's the late Newbery-winner Maia Wojciechowska,who didn’t like much of anything. In an introduction to the 1970 paperback edition of THE SPIRIT OF JEM by P.H. Newby, Wojciechowska begins, “Recently someone asked me to speak on the subject of children’s books and I said, ‘Fine, but I’ll have to blast them because I think most of them dreadful. I’ve enjoyed only three recently published books, A WRINKLE IN TIME, HARRIET THE SPY and JAZZ COUNTRY.’ So they said, ‘Thank you anyway’ and of course I didn’t give my speech.” (She then goes on to say that she’d just read THE SPIRIT OF JEM and would add it to her list of good books.)


Frankly, I’m surprised Maia didn’t include a few of her OWN titles on her list of good books. She was never shy about promoting them. In her novel THE ROTTEN YEARS (talk about dreadful books! Though I’ll be the first to admit this book is both dreadful and dreadfully fascinating), she has a teacher (who serves mainly as a mouthpiece for Wojciechowska’s own idiosyncratic beliefs) give a reading list of “great books” to her students...and it includes the Maia Wojciechowska novel DON’T PLAY DEAD BEFORE YOU HAVE TO front and center!

But Maia’s got nothing on Bette Greene in the “I Love Me” Sweepstakes. In her novel THE DROWNING OF STEPHAN JONES, Ms. Greene has her protagonist writing an essay for school about the book SUMMER OF MY GERMAN SOLDIER...writtten by none other than Bette Greene!

And Clement Hurd includes a graphic reference to THE RUNAWAY BUNNY in GOODNIGHT MOON.

Can you think of any more self-referential (some might even say “self-reverential”) moments in children’s books?


CHAINS by Laurie Halse Anderson was nominated for a National Book Award this week. I’ve heard nothing but great things about this title and can’t wait to read it. But one thing I haven’t heard mentioned too often is that CHAINS is the first of a series. Maybe early reviewers were not aware of this because that information wasn’t included in the advance reading copies that went out to critics. But in the hardcover edition, the last page tells us that the next volume will be called FORGE:

I wonder if Anderson originally wrote her manuscript as one gi-normous book which the editors decided to divide into two volumes, or if she first wrote CHAINS and then later began writing a sequel. It will be interesting to learn more about this.


Earlier I spoke of receiving lots of books for my birthday, so I thought I’d share them with you in today’s blog. Here’s a must for any children’s book enthusiast -- MORROW JUNIOR BOOKS : THE FIRST FIFTY YEARS by Leonard S. Marcus, which covers the history of the publisher who brought us Beverly Cleary, Carolyn Haywood, and so many others. If you can track down a copy of this softbound volume, make sure it includes the pull-out poster by Stephen Kellogg:

I also received a program for this year’s Newbery-Caldecott Awards dinner. I was thrilled to add it to my shelves, right beside the winning books from 2008:

I love the old Scholastic paperbacks from the 1950s and 1960s. A book-buddy sent me this edition of TROUBLE AFTER SCHOOL by Jerrold Beim. I’m not familiar with this title at all, but am anxious to read this good-kid-gone-bad story from 1957:

The back pages of the book have an order form listing many more Scholastic titles, such as MiSS PICKERELL GOES TO MARS by Ellen MacGregor, YOURS TILL NIAGARA FALLS by Lillian Morrison, and REVOLT ON ALPHA C by Robert Silverberg -- all for 25¢ a piece, plus 5¢ shipping and handling. Oh how tempted I am to send in this order form from so many years ago...just to see what kind of response I’d get!

Incidentally, the same book-buddy who got me into “trouble after school” sent me a huge box of ARCs (advance reading copies) of children’s and young adult books...some of which won’t be published till next summer. How cool is that? These are only SOME of them:

And my parents gave me this big volume which isn’t, specifically, a children’s book, but will evoke childhood memories, as it contains news items, ephemera, hilarious advertisements, and assorted facts about sports and entertainment from the year 1958.

The publisher, Flickback Media, has issued volumes like this for most years and they make great birthday gifts. I know I thought it was a great birthday gift. Though I’m confused. Why did my parents give me this volume for 1958 when I was actually born in 1978?



If you buy that, you might also be interested in buying this:

(And no, I’m not talking about buying the BOOK called BROOKLYN BRIDGE by Karen Hesse -- also a b’day present from a book-collecting bud -- I’m talking about buying the actual Brooklyn Bridge in New York City. Because if you believe I was actually born in 1978, you’ll buy ANYTHING!)

Thanks, as always, for visiting my blog!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The NBA : Where Amazing Happens?

I was really looking forward to hearing yesterday's nominations for the National Book Awards...especially when I learned that the NBA had a new slogan this year: "Where Amazing Happens!"

So when the list of nominated titles finally showed up online around noontime, I quickly scanned past the categories of fiction, nonfiction and poetry, eager to see what amazing books for young people were nominated. (I was reminded of Bill Murray presenting his Academy Award picks back in the early days of Saturday Night Live. "Supporting Actor and Actress?" he'd say, wiping the names of the nominees off his magnet-board prop with the brush of a hand: "Who cares?") Adult fiction, nonfiction, and poetry? Who cares? (...Well, I actually do care, but I just care a lot more about the children's book category.)

Finally I found the list of this year's nominees:

Laurie Halse Anderson, CHAINS

I already owned two of these books, but rushed out to find the others. "This must be good," I told the clerk at the bookstore while she rang up WHAT I SAW AND HOW I LIED. "After all, the NBA's slogan is 'Where Amazing Happens.'"

"Uh...that's the slogan for the National Basketball Association, not the National Book Award."

Suitably chagrined, I reverted from Bill Murray to another SNL favorite, Emily Litella, and said, "Oh. ...Never mind."

(Well, to a children's book person, the NBA is the National Book Award.)

Since I haven't yet read all this year's nominees, I have no idea if they are amazing or not. Some past winners are true classics (Louis Sachar's HOLES is one example) while others have long since been remaindered and pulped (that paper coffee cup you're drinking from? In a past life it was the NBA winner from 1979, BERT BREEN'S BARN.)

The National Book Awards began in 1950 as an "award given to writers by writers." A category for children's literature did not exist until 1969 when Meindert DeJong's A JOURNEY FROM PEPPERMINT STREET beat out fellow nominees THE HIGH KING (Lloyd Alexander), CONSTANCE (Patricia Clapp), THE ENDLESS STEPPE (Esther Hautzig) and LANGSTON HUGHES (a biography by Milton Meltzer.) DeJong wrote some classic books in his time, but I'm not sure that PEPPERMINT STREET ranks among his very finest. It seems more like a "career capper" in honor of the author's entire body of work. Actually, many of the early winners feel that way to me. Consider the following year when Isaac Bashevis Singer won for A DAY OF PLEASURE : STORIES OF A BOY GROWING UP IN WARSAW over Vera and Bill Cleaver's WHERE THE LILIES BLOOM, Edna Mitchell Preston's POPCORN AND MA GOODNESS, William Steig's Caldecott-winner SYLVESTER AND THE MAGIC PEBBLE and Edwin Tunis's THE YOUNG UNITED STATES, 1783-1830. And they did it again in 1971 when Lloyd Alexander won for the okay-but-certainly-not-his-best MARVELOUS MISADVENTURES OF SEBASTIAN over GROVER by Vera and Bill Cleaver, BLOWFISH LIVE IN THE SEA by Paula Fox, FROG AND TOAD ARE FRIENDS by Arnold Lobel and E.B. White's THE TRUMPET OF THE SWAN. You can almost hear the committee thinking, "Well, Lloyd didn't get it for THE HIGH KING, so let's make it up to him this year."

The following year things got CRAZY.

The children's category included one fairly dismissable book (THE ART AND INDUSTRY OF SANDCASTLES by Jan Adkins); one controversial story which included even more deaths than THE HUNGER GAMES (WILD IN THE WORLD by John Donovon); and a passel of great and greatish books including THE PLANET OF JUNIOR BROWN (Virginia Hamilton), HIS OWN WHERE (June Jordan), THE TOMBS OF ATUAN (Ursula K. LeGuin), MRS. FRISBY AND THE RATS OF NIMH (Robert C. O'Brien), HILDIDID'S NIGHT (Cheli Duran Ryan), THE BEARS HOUSE (Marilyn Sachs), AMOS & BORIS (William Steig), and FATHER FOX'S PENNYRHYMES (Clyde and Wendy Watson.) So what won? THE SLIGHTLY IRREGULAR FIRE ENGINE OR THE HITHERING THITHERING DJINN, a surreal and psychodelic volume by adult literary writer Donald Barthelme which would probably best be appreciated by other adults living in that surreal and psychodelic era. As I recall, even one of that year's judges was furious about the book's selection.

1973 gave us an expected and unexciting winner, THE FARTHEST SHORE by Ursula K. LeGuin over a mostly-unexciting field: THE HOUSE OF WINGS (Betsy Byars), TROLLS (Ingri and Edgar Parin d'Aulaire), Newbery winner JULIE OF THE WOLVES (Jean Craighead George), CHILDREN OF VIETNAM by Betty Jean Lifton and Thomas C. Fox, THE IMPOSSIBLE PEOPLE by Georgess McHargue (who wrote some great books in the 1970s and then pretty much disappeared from publishing), THE WITCHES OF WORMS by Zilpha Keatley Snyder, and DOMINIC by William Steig.

In '74, Eleanor Cameron won for the rather muted time-travel fantasy THE COURT OF THE STONE CHILDREN over the much more raw and emotional candidates A HERO AIN'T NOTHING BUT A SANDWICH by Alice Childress and SUMMER OF MY GERMAN SOLDIER by Bette Greene; Caldecott winner DUFFY AND THE DEVIL by Harve and Margot Zemach; Norma Fox Mazer's breakthrough-novel A FIGURE OF SPEECH; strong entries from Vera and Bill Cleaver (THE WHYS AND WHEREFORES OF LITTABELLE LEE) and E.L. Konigsburg (A PROUD TASTE FOR SCARLET AND MINIVER), as well as THE TREASURE IS THE ROSE by Julia Cunninham, GUESTS IN THE PROMISED LAND by Kristin Hunter, and POOR RICHARD IN FRANCE by F.N. Monjo.

Virginia Hamilton made history in 1975, winning both the Newbery and NBA for M.C. HIGGINS THE GREAT. Milton Meltzer made another kind of history, scoring two finalists on the same list: REMEMBER THE DAYS and WORLD OF OUR FATHERS. Natalie Babbit was nommed for THE DEVIL'S STORYBOOK, along with Bruce Buchenholz for DOCTOR IN THE ZOO, James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier for MY BROTHER SAM IS DEAD, and Jason and Ettagale Laure for JOI BANGLA! : THE CHILDREN OF BANGLADESH. I'd like to make special mention of the final three nominees: I TELL A LIE EVERY SO OFTEN by Bruce Clements, WINGS by Adrienne Richard, and THE EDGE OF NEXT YEAR by Mary Stolz -- all great books that no one seems to think about or talk about these days, and all deserving of re-discovery.

The aforementioned coffee cup, BERT BREEN'S BARN, won in 1976 and it's actually a pretty strong, solid historical novel. Competition included Eleanor Cameron for TO THE GREEN MOUNTAINS, Norma Faber for AS I WAS CROSSING BOSTON COMMON, Isabelle Holland's OF LOVE AND DEATH AND OTHER JOURNEYS, Nicolasa Mohr for EL BRONX REMEMBERED, Belinda Wilkinson for LUDELL, and David McCord for his classic poetry volume THE STAR IN THE PAIL.

In 1977 the NBA went to Katherine Paterson for THE MASTER PUPPETEER -- the first major award for this author who went on to win TWO NBAs and TWO Newberys...for four different books! Other nominees were Milton Meltzer for NEVER TO FORGET : THE JEWS OF THE HOLOCAUST, John Ney for OX UNDER PRESSURE (was this a weak year or what?), Mildred D. Taylor for ROLL OF THUNDER, HEAR MY CRY and Barbara Wersba for NOTES FOR A SMALL HARMONICA.

...And if you thought 1977 was a weak year, what about 1978 when the NBA went to a nonfiction book, THE VIEW FROM THE OAK by Judith and Herbert Kohl, which almost no one remembers, and the other nominees were Betty Sue Cummings for HEW AGAINST THE GRAIN (another mostly-forgotten book, though I remember liking it), Ilse Koehn for MISCHLING, SECOND DEGREE (raise your hand if you've ever heard of this book. ...Anyone?), David McCord for ONE AT A TIME and the redoubtable William Steig for CALEB & KATE.

Katherine Paterson was back on top in 1979 with THE GREAT GILLY HOPKINS, beating out Lloyd Alexander for THE FIRST TWO LIVES OF LUKAS-KASHA, Vera and Bill Cleaver for QUEEN OF HEARTS (I love this book!), Sid Fleiscman for HUMBUG MOUNTAIN and Paula Fox for THE LITTLE SWINEHERD AND OTHER TALES.

This marked the end of the National Book Awards as we knew them. In 1980 the NBA gave way to the American Book Awards which honored titles in a ridiculous number of categories including prizes for paperbacks which, peculiarly, had 1979's winner THE GREAT GILLY HOPKINS competing for top paperback just a year after it won the NBA (and losing to Madeleine L'Engle's A SWIFTLY TILTING PLANET.) In 1982 Paterson would be nominated for the paperback version of her NBA-winning THE MASTER PUPPETEER and she'd lose again. The mind boggles.

By 1987, the National Book Awards were restored, but it wasn't until 1996 that a category now called "Young People's Literature" was included. Since then the focus has been on books for older kids and young adults -- and there have been some great winners (HOLES is the only book since M.C. HIGGINS THE GREAT to win both the NBA and the Newbery) as well as some that have left me scratching my head (HOMELESS BIRD by Gloria Whelan is a nice-enough book, but....) It's also served to introduce some exciting new voices (THE PENDERWICKS by Jeanne Birdsall; THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN by Sherman Alexie.) I almost feel like the awards from the current decade are so recent that I haven't had time to develop a perspective on them. I prefer looking back on the earlier years to see which books have held up over time. And see which books have not. To look at which authors were honored (Milton got five nominations, William Steig got four, and so did those clever Cleavers, Vera and Bill) and which were ignored. And I love comparing the NBA winners and and Newberys from year to year.

For whatever reason, the National Book Awards have never acquired the same cachet as the Newbery, though some feel the NBA selections are often more kid-friendly than the titles that end up winning the Big N. I try to make a point of reading all the titles nominated for the National Book Award each year -- mourning the fact that the number of nominees is now strictly five, whereas there used to be as many as ten back in the day. Yes, I've found a fair share of clunkers among the NBA nominees, but I've also discovered many new books that I love. Because you never know where amazing is going to happen.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Today's Brunch Includes Cake!

Here are more random facts and opinions on children’s books from the past and present, along with a slice of birthday cake for dessert.


Oh for the good only days.

Was it only last Sunday that I used this blog to complain I’d accidentally put my wallet through the washing machine, from pre-soak to spin cycle?

I shouldn’t have complained. I should have learned a lesson from this picture book by Margot Zemach:

Because today I realize that not only COULD things be worse, they ARE worse. Much worse.

On Friday night my not-so-ancient, yet nonetheless falling-apart car -- with its cracked windshield, busted tail light, duct-taped window, broken radio, out-of-alignment tires, terminally-ill catalytic converter, and a myriad of other, even worse, problems -- up and died in a mini-mall parking lot.

I have never, ever had good luck with cars. I have friends who hang onto their cars for ten, fifteen, even twenty years...and I often see them whiz past me on the expressway while my car is pulled over on the side of the road with the hood up, waiting for a towtruck to drag it to the dealer where the mechanic will inevitably shake his head and say, “I’ve never seen THIS problem before.”

I used to have a friend who had only good luck with cars. She once had to drive to the mechanic with her entire engine literally dragging on the ground and jetting streams of liquid fire like Mount Vesuvius ready to blow. Then she arrived at the auto shop:

Friend: My engine fell out.
Mechanic: Oh, all you need is this $1.98 pin to put it back in place.
Friend: Whew!
Mechanic: In fact, do I spy a bobby pin on your head?
Friend: Why, yes. I didn’t have time to fix my hair because my engine was about to explode.
Mechanic: Hand me that bobby pin. It’ll hold your engine in place just as well as this $1.98 gadget I was going to use. ...There you go! It’s fixed. No charge. And here’s a coupon for a free car wash on your way out.

Then there was me, taking my car to the same garage:

Peter: Hi, I’d like to get the $19.95 oil change special.
Mechanic: When you pulled up I heard a clicking sound coming from under your hood.
Peter: I’m sure it’s nothing. Now about that oil ch--
Mechanic (opening hood): Yep, just as I thought. You got a big problem here, bud.
Peter: B-b-big?
Mechanic: Well, I can probably fix it for eighteen hundred dollars--
Peter: Eighteen HUNDRED do--
Mechanic: ‘Course it’ll take three-four days...two weeks tops.
Peter: I’ve got to sit down.
Mechanic: Waiting room’s right around the corner. And remember, if you want a cup of coffee, put a buck in the jar.

Story of my life.

Anyway, tomorrow I will be shopping for a new car I can ill afford.

Oh, and did I mention that tomorrow is my birthday -- one of the Big Ones where you go from one decade to the next? I had taken Monday through Wednesday off work with plans to do nothing but catch up on my reading, relax, and slowly ease into my dotage. I was really looking forward to it (the reading and relaxing part...not the dotage part.) Now I’m going to spend the next three days at the car dealership, bank, insurance company, and Secretary of State with no time to read, much less relax.

Though I'm completely traumatized, I keep trying to remind myself that as horrible as this is, in the words of Margot Zemach:

It could always be (even) worse.


A book-selling friend from Ohio recently asked for help in identifying a first edition of Roald Dahl’s 1961 book JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH, illustrated by Nancy Ekholm Burkert.

I checked with an expert and discovered the following first-edition points for this classic novel:

The first edition is bound in dark red cloth with an uncolored stamp that features a cameo of James; it's the same illustration that faces the title page inside.

The title is stamped in gold on the spine.

The top of the pages are tinted yellow.

Under very bright light horizontal high-end milling lines are visible on the pages.

Finally -- and this is the easiest method of identifying a first -- on the last page there is “about the author” info, followed by five lines concerning the book’s production:

TEXT SET in Walbaum. COMPOSED BY Clarke & Way, Inc., New York
PRINTED BY Reehl Litho Company, New York
BOUND BY H. Woolf, New York
PAPER SUPPLIED BY P. H. Glatfelter, Spring Grover, Pennsylvania

The fourth line indicating paper supplier was removed in subsequent editions.

...So if you’ve got a dark red book with the top edge of the pages tinted yellow, horizontal milling lines AND a reference to P.H. Glatfelter on the last page, you’ve got a first edition of JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH and it’s worth between $5000 and $8000!


The Harry Potter frenzy seems to be dying down now and collecting prices have somewhat stabilized. But for a while there, first editions of the early volumes were selling for four figures on eBay. I was very excited because I had a first edition of HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS -- and planned to sell it as soon as I finished reading it. One day I brought the book to work in my briefcase (that sounds so stuffy; it’s more like a soft faux-leather, briefcase-shaped bag with lots of zippers and pockets.) As it turned out, that day I decided not to eat the peach I’d brought for lunch and stuck it in the briefcase. Then I forgot about it for a few days...a few especially hot summer days. One afternoon I was sitting at my desk and noticed swarms of fruit flies hovering like clouds over my briefcase. I opened one of the many zippers and found that the peach had somehow EXPLODED inside the bag and completely stained Harry Potter’s dustjacket:

and the top spine edge of the book. (Hey Roald Dahl, the top edge of MY book is tinted yellow too, but in this case it came from rotting peach juice:)

You’ll note that the top edge is now stamped by the library and scruffy from patron use. That’s because I ended up donating my damaged copy to the library, rather than earning four figures selling it on eBay.

If it hadn’t have been for that peach, I might have been able to afford this new car.


When I was nine or ten years old, I used to see these two versions of the paperback LAST SUMMER by Evan Hunter at every bookstore and magazine stand. The cover of this “explosive novel” had the tagline “FOUR NICE KIDS PLAYING AT SEX AND VIOLENCE.” It seemed The book was made into a movie starring Richard Thomas, Bruce Davison, and Barbara Hershey who, for a while, changed her name to Barbara Seagull after she killed a seagull during the making of this film. (I can’t explain that except to say it was the sixties.) The movie was rated R and, rumor had it, originally received an X before being re-edited. Yes, it seemed VERY adult. The other day I happened upon one of these paperback copies and actually read LAST SUMMER for the first time. I was shocked -- not by the content, but by the fact that this novel about four kids ranging in age from 15 to 17 -- is pretty much a young adult novel. What was considered graphic and X-rated in 1968 is pretty much standard YA fare in 2008. In fact, it’s almost tame compared to many teenage books today!In addition to Richard Thomas, Bruce Davison and Barbara Seagull, LAST SUMMER starred a young actress named Catherine Burns who was actually nominated for an Oscar for her performance in this film. Although I was obviously too young to see the movie, I do remember her appearing on television shows during that era. She was also considered a major young stage actress. Then she suddenly disappeared. A quick check of the internet this week showed that many people remember her fondly and wonder what happened to her. One small item mentions that she quit acting to focus on writing and has a “survival job” as a receptionist in New York city. Another item mentions that she once wrote a children’s book called THE WINTER BIRD. I looked up the title and discovered that such a book was published by Windmill in 1971, but have no idea if the author Catherine Burns is actually the same as the actress Catherine Burns. If so, she would only have been 25 when THE WINTER BIRD was published...and that was back in an era before celebrity books for kids were as prevalent. Does anyone know anything about this book and its author?


Although I’m facing a bummer of a birthday tomorrow, I am glad for the presents I’ve received.

A few weeks back, I even bought myself a birthday present -- a signed first edition of the book that won the Newbery the year I was born, RIFLES FOR WATIE by Harold Keith. It celebrates its golden anniversary this year. Just like me.

Then on Friday I received a gift from a book-collecting friend on the east coast -- a personally inscribed copy of BROOKLYN BRIDGE by Karen Hesse! I have no idea how my friend arranged to get this inscription, but I’m thrilled to add it to my shelves! Karen Hesse is one of my favorites authors and BROOKLYN BRIDGE is being talked-up for the 2009 Newbery Medal.

Also, if I swivel my chair I can see a box behind me that I received from another book-collecting buddy. I’m saving it to open tomorrow, but have been told contains many, many colored-coded birthday presents -- including a signed copy of another book being talked-up for the 2009 Newbery, MY ONE HUNDRED ADVENTURES by Polly Horvath.

I’m so grateful for these gifts.

And even more grateful to have book-collecting friends who are now simply friend-friends.


Speaking of thankfulness, did you know that tomorrow is Thanksgiving? Well, not where I Iive...but it’s Thanksgiving right across the river from where I work -- in Canada. And tomorrow is also Columbus Day here in the States. And Marie Osmond’s birthday. And my birthday. There will be no mail delivery tomorrow either, but I think that has more to do with Christopher C. than with me and Marie.

Anyway, since I was going to be celebrating a Big Birthday, I decided to splurge on a store-bought cake from a fancy bakery. I ordered it before the stock market crashed and before my car died. Oh well. Here’s what it looks like:

Thanks for dropping by my blog. Now have a slice of birthday cake.