Today’s blog contains more random jottings about children’s books past and present, starting with this group -- who definitely don’t seem like typical Sunday Brunch visitors:
COOL FACT OR URBAN LEGEND?
Several people have written in lately, asking “What music group is named for a book by Carol Beach York?”
I didn’t have a clue.
The only children’s book author/rock group connection I knew involved my favorite writer M.E. Kerr. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, she wrote nearly twenty suspense novels under the name “Vin Packer.” One of the best Packer books was THE DAMNATION OF ADAM BLESSING. Some time after it was published, a sixties rock band, struggling to come up with a name, found a copy of the Vin Packer book on a bus and dubbed themselves “The Damnation of Adam Blessing.” They produced several recordings and still maintain a website and Myspace account.
But I’d never heard anything about Carol Beach York influencing a group. So I began to do a little research and discovered several sites, including Wikipedia, that said the musical group “Good Charlotte” (pictured above -- what, you thought it was a photo of this year’s Newbery committee?) was named after a 1969 novel by Ms. York called -- what else? -- GOOD CHARLOTTE. (Some editions have the subtitle A BUTTERFIELD SQUARE STORY, others use THE GIRLS OF THE GOOD DAY ORPHANAGE.) I can hardly believe that a band which recorded “My Bloody Valentine” would name themselves after such a gentle children’s book...but, hey, I guess it’s possible.
CAROL BEACH YORK : OUT-OF-PRINT BUT NOT OUT-OF-MIND
Speaking of Ms. York, I just did a little searching on the internet and it appears that all of her books are now out of print. That’s too bad. Over the years she wrote a wide variety of titles, including other “nice” stories about the Good Day Orphanage, scary books for middle-grade readers (ON THAT DARK NIGHT; REMEMBER ME WHEN I AM DEAD), and young adult romances (SPARROW LAKE.) Her prose was often plainspoken and bland -- but that was a quality she exploited quite well in her suspense novels, lulling the reader with the everydayness of her characters and the languid tone of her writing before springing some awful surprises. I’ve blogged before about my admiration for her novel TAKERS AND RETURNERS, which follows a group of kids as they invent a new game that comes to a tragic conclusion; I’ve seldom seen a children’s book that depicts the boredom and ennui of the dog days of summer so well. Even the title of her novel NOTHING EVER HAPPENS HERE sounds unexciting, yet it also comes to a dramatic and emotionally-draining finish. Though no longer in print, these books are worth tracking down at the library.
OUT-OF-PRINT BEFORE IT WAS IN PRINT
The media has been reporting the cancellation of the forthcoming book ANGEL AT THE FENCE by Herman Rosenblat, a Holocaust memoir that turned out to be a hoax. There is also a children’s book connection to this story, as Carolrhoda/Lerner had published a children’s version of this story in September. Written by Laurie Friedman (who worked closely with Mr. Rosenblat and his wife in creating the book and was sadly duped by the couple) and illustrated by Ofra Amit, ANGEL GIRL has now been recalled by the publisher. Someone mentioned trying to look it up on Amazon and finding no entry for the title -- “as if it never existed at all.” But the book DID exist and many copies are now in libraries or in the hands of private owners. A few people have asked about the value of these volumes in light of the recall. Is ANGEL GIRL now considered a collector’s item? Is it worth a lot of money?
My guess is that this title currently has some small value as a curiosity -- an example of “a book that was recalled soon after publication and got a lot of play in the media.” But I doubt it’s a book that will continue growing in value. Five years from now people will barely remember this incident. The only way I can see it becoming a major collector’s item would be if Laurie Friedman or Ofra Amit went on to become hugely successful, award-winning creators of children’s books. Then collectors would be anxious to acquire ANGEL GIRL as a “rare” example of their early work.
YE OLDE NEWBERY DAY
Earlier this week, School Library Journal blogger Fuse #8 mentioned that the announcement of the Newbery winners will be broadcast live via webcam two weeks from tomorrow.
Well, I guess it will be available for those of you with DSL and all that modern technology stuff. But things will be different for those of us with antiquated computers and dial-up internet connections. My computer is a Mac BC (those who are politically correct probably call it a “Mac BCE” -- Before Christian Era) which (I don’t like to brag) is said to have once been owned by Fred Flintstone himself. And since my dial-up connection to Pangaea-Online is so shaky, usually the only way I can connect to the internet is by holding a tin can with string attached to the side of the computer. Needless to say I will NOT be watching the live webcast. But I can answer Fuse #8’s question: “How did you guys find out about the winners prior to the Internet? Telegrams? Singing telegrams?”
It’s funny, I actually DO remember telegrams being involved. When I was a kid (precambrian era) I once went to the library and asked the children’s librarian if the new Newbery winners had been announced yet. I very clearly remember her reaching into the right hand drawer of her desk, pulling out what looked to be a telegram or mailgram and telling me that SOUNDER had won and the runners-up (because that’s what they were called back then, not Honor Books) were JOURNEY OUTSIDE, OUR EDDIE, and THE MANY WAYS OF SEEING : AN INTRODUCTION TO THE PLEASURES OF ART. (When was the last time anyone read that one?)
The following year I went back around Newbery time (and back then I didn’t really KNOW the exact date the awards were given) and asked the new librarian at the desk about the winners. She said she hadn’t heard yet. I said, “Didn’t they send you telegram?”
“Telegram?” she scoffed. “They don’t send telegrams! We just wait for whoever attended the convention to come back and tell us what won.”
I didn’t argue, but I knew otherwise.
As time went on, I got a lot more savvy about the subject. I knew what day the awards would be given and became desperate to find out the winners ASAP. Sometime around then I discovered that the ALA Convention actually had a Press Room. So every year I would telephone the convention and ask for the Press Room (and, remember, this was a time when making a long-distance call was a big deal...and very co$tly) and then ask what books had won. “Are you calling from a newspaper?” I was asked more than once. “Of course!” I responded, lowering my voice as much as I could. I probably didn’t fool anyone. Incidentally, I used to think I was the only kid in the whole world who called the ALA for this info, but I have since learned about other people who did the same thing when they were young. I wish I’d known them then. We would have been friends.
Things have changed drastically over the past twenty years or so, with more and more people interested in learning the winner and reporting the news. I've heard that just a decade ago the award announcement would be followed by dozens of people running out of the auditorium, anxious to find a pay phone and report the news. Then technology progressed and people would sit in the audience with cellphone or laptop ready to transmit the news immediately. And now we’ve reached the live webcam era.
I’m all about getting the information as fast as possible, but there seems to be such a frantic feeling to Award Day now with everyone rushing to learn the winning titles, rushing to find the books. That includes me. But I sometimes wish for the good old days when things were more relaxed, when people weren't so frantic and desperate, and when a twelve-year-old boy could call Denver or Dallas and say in a faux-baritone voice, "Could you connect me to the Press Room please?"
SECOND GUESSING THE WINNERS
People have probably always guessed and predicted the award winners, but the internet has made the world so small that we are now privy to nearly every blog that predicts the next Newbery, every library that runs a mock ballot, every bookstore that sponsors discussions of potential winners. I wonder if this helps or hurts the overall process. Do people on the committees feel circumscribed by all the pre-award discussions? If all the Mock Newberys and prognosticators pick the same couple books, do members of the real committee ever feel like they are -- rather than choosing a winner -- merely anointing a book that’s already been selected by public acclaim? I don’t know, but I wonder if some of the offbeat, under-the-radar books that have been selected in recent years were ever chosen -- consciously or subconsciously -- as a committee response to pre-award publicity?
Speaking of Mock Awards, the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana runs one of the most well-known mock award programs in the country. I don’t believe they’ve held their mock Newbery and Caldecott votes yet, but this past week they announced their Mock Printz selections. This year’s books are a pretty literary bunch.
The winner was TENDER MORSELS by Margo Lanagan
The Honor Books were:
NATION by Terry Pratchett
THE ASTONISHING LIFE OF OCTAVIAN NOTHING, TRAITOR TO THE NATION, VOLUME TWO : THE KINGDOM ON THE WAVES by M. T. Anderson
LIVING DEAD GIRL by Elizabeth Scott
THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins
It will be interesting to see how many, if any, of these titles are recognized by the official Printz committee.
A STRANGE STATEMENT FROM A NEWBERY WINNER
A friend sent me this quote from a recent School Library Journal interview with Patricia Maclachlan, who won the 1986 Newbery for SARAH, PLAIN AND TALL:
Q. It’s been 23 years since you won the Newbery Medal. What effect has it had on your career?
A. With the possibility of offending many librarians, I have to say that I have mixed feelings about the award. It definitely changes your life. Winning the award isn’t the important thing; it is the process which is important. However, it has made me a better writer. Times change, and I don’t think that if I wrote Sarah today it would be considered for the award.
What I find so intriguing about Ms. Maclachlan’s comment isn’t only that she thinks SARAH wouldn’t have won the Newbery today, but she also thinks it wouldn’t even be CONSIDERED. I wonder why. Certainly times change and tastes change with the times and I can think of MANY recent winners which probably wouldn't stand the test of time. But SARAH, PLAIN AND TALL has always struck me as a rather timeless novel -- and one which would be as strong a contender in 2009 as it was in 1986. Am I wrong?
OH, BUT I WISH I COULD CHANGE SOME OF THE PREVIOUS WINNERS
One of my favorite award books is ALTERNATE OSCARS : ONE CRITIC’S DEFIANT CHOICES FOR BEST PICTURE, ACTOR AND ACTRESS FROM 1927 TO THE PRESENT by Danny Peary. In this imminently-browsable volume, Mr. Peary lists all the official nominees and winners for each year of the award, then presents his own thoughts who should have been nominated that year -- and who should have won. In some years he agrees with the Motion Picture Academy. In other years, he chooses a different nominee for the prize...or selects a movie or performance that didn’t even merit a nomination by the Academy. I’ve always wanted to write an “Alternate Newbery” volume, going through the previous winners and Honor books, to dump the chaff (goodbye WALK TWO MOONS), name books that SHOULD have been rewarded (hello HARRIET THE SPY) and acknowledge those winners that have stood the test of time.
This blog doesn’t usual discuss adult books, but I read two over the holidays and since one is ABOUT a kid and another was written by an author of kids’ books, I thought I’d mention them here. WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN by Lionel Shriver is the story of a woman whose teenage son commits a Columbine-style murder at his high school. Challenging and intelligently-written, this epistolary novel examines how a family deals (or doesn’t deal...or can’t deal) with a sociopathic child. There’s nothing enjoyable about this book but, boy, does it make you think. I tried to describe the novel to a friend recently, but she immediately began telling me that every child can be successfully raised if they only get the right form of discipline. I said, “But you don’t understand. In the book Kevin is the kind of kid who doesn’t care about anything! He’s unreachable.”
“Every kid cares about something,” she replied. “I know I could reach him.”
I don’t think so. In fact, I almost said, “Well, I hope you get saddled with a kid like Kevin someday,” but then changed my mind. I would not wish a kid like Kevin on anyone.
But it remains a very good literary novel -- and one that provides a different view on childhood than we usually see in children’s books.
The other adult book I just finished was THE GUERNSEY LITERARY AND POTATO PEEL PIE SOCIETY by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. Like WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN, this novel is also written as a series of letters. But where KEVIN is dark and horrifying, GUERNSEY is bright and heartwarming. It tells the story of a how a used book about Charles Lamb introduces a young writer to the inhabitants of Guernsey Island in the years following World War II. Some have compared this book to one of my favorites, 84, CHARING CROSS ROAD by Helene Hanff. I think anyone who enjoys books, writing, entertaining and eccentric characters, and feel-good stories would fall in love with this book the way I did. I’m getting ready to mail my copy to a special friend. It’s the kind of book you want to pass on to someone else.
Incidentally, THE GUERNSEY LITERARY AND POTATO PEEL SOCIETY was begun by Mary Ann Shaffer. When she grew too ill to finish the novel, her niece Annie Barrows stepped in to complete the book. Up until now, Ms. Barrows was best known for writing children’s books such as IVY AND BEAN and THE MAGIC HALF.
WHICH WOULD YOU SUGGEST?
I have a friend who reads only big, dark, heavy adult books. Her favorite novels are written by very obscure Nobel laureates, translated from foreign languages, and usually end with the protagonist killing himself. Those kinds of books. She recently told me that she’d read a book for young people for the first time since, well, since she was a kid herself. She said that a friend who knows a lot about children’s and young adult books felt that the best introduction to this genre would be the book ALCHEMY by Margaret Mahy. This surprised me. Great author, good book (though certainly not Ms. Mahy’s most acclaimed title) but it just doesn’t strike me as the “single book” one might recommend to someone who has not read a children’s book in several decades. Besides the classic titles (CHARLOTTE’S WEB, TUCK EVERLASTING, etc.), what contemporary (let’s say published within the past ten years) would you recommend to someone if they were only going to read one book in this genre? I can’t decide whether I’d pick something fun and likable (perhaps HOLES) to show how much joy the genre holds, or something much deeper (maybe OCTAVIAN NOTHING) to show how challenging these books can be. What would you recommend?
Thanks for stopping by.