Sunday, February 15, 2009

Sunday Brunch with an Odd Mix of Guests

Guests at today’s Sunday Brunch include George Washington, “Ginny and Genny," Frances Hodgson Burnett...and Courtney Love. Just planning the seating arrangements was a nightmare. Nobody wanted to sit next to George because of his clattering dentures. Ginny and Genny are terribly homophonic. Frances would be okay, except she insisted on bringing that bratty little Lord Fauntleroy with her (what that kid needs is a swift kick in his velvet knee-breeches.) As for Courtney Love...let’s just say that her reputation precedes her. No wonder today’s brunch is shorter than usual; I just want to get these people out of here so I can relax with a good book!


Did you hear the one about the minister, the priest, and the rabbi?

Oh, you have?

Okay then, how about the one with the writer, the librarian, the editor, the book collector, and Courtney Love?

This all started last week over on Fuse #8’s indispensable children’s book blog. Fuse #8 (AKA Elizabeth Bird) is the librarian in this equation. One her blog-readers, SamR (AKA writer Sam Riddleburger) made a reference to something being “almost as crazy as the Paula Fox - Courtney Love thing.”

Fuse #8 responded, “Well if no one else is going to say it, I will. What Paula Fox/Courtney Love thing, Sam?”

This is where I entered the picture. As anyone who reads this blog knows, I love sharing information and opinions on children’s books and their creators. So I immediately posted a message on Fuse #8’s blog, begging to tell the tale. Raising my hand and almost falling out of my school desk with excitement, I shouted, "Oh, I know! Teacher, teacher, I know the Paula Fox/Courtney Love answer! Please call on me!"

Miss Fuse shook her head: "No, Peter, Sam brought it up first and we'll let Sam reveal the answer!"

"But, Miss Fuse, I know it! I know the answer to that one,” I sputtered. “And it IS crazy!"

Miss Fuse rapped me on the knuckles with her yardstick to quiet me down, then turned to my classmate and said, “Sam, you have until the end of the day to answer the question. Then I'm calling on Peter. He's being very patient.”

But Sam just SAT there, refusing to answer!

Later on, a very famous editor called Brenda B (AKA Brenda Bowen) dropped by. How famous is she? Think National Book Awards (TRUE BELIEVER by Virginia Euwer Wolff), think Newbery Awards (OUT OF THE DUST by Karen Hesse.) And even she implored Miss Fuse to “please please let Peter tell us about Paula Fox and Courtney Love!”

Well, since she ASKED, and since I was DYING to tell the story -- and since Sam still wasn’t talking, I issued the following “Fox News Alert.” I’m repeating it here today for those who might have missed it:

A writer of fiction for both adults and young people, Paula Fox is probably best known in the children’s book world for her Newbery-winning novel THE SLAVE DANCER and the Newbery Honor ONE-EYED CAT. (My personal favorites also include BLOWFISH LIVE IN THE SEA, A PLACE APART, and THE MOONLIGHT MAN.) Back in the 1944, when Paula Fox was 21, she gave birth to a daughter whom she gave up for adoption. Nearly fifty years later this daughter, Linda Carroll, tracked down Ms. Fox and they met for the first time. An Oregon-based therapist, Linda Carroll has five children -- one of whom is rock star Courtney Love. That’s right, Paula Fox is Courtney Love’s grandmother!

From articles I’ve read, it appears that Ms. Fox does not get along with her newfound granddaughter, though one report did say that Courtney was pleased to learn that, though her grandmother, she is distantly related to Douglas Fairbanks. Incidentally, for those who think I am telling tales out of school with this story and have turned “Collecting Children’s Books” into the “National Enquirer,” let me hasten to add that all the parties involved in this event have written about it. Paula Fox told the story in her memoir BORROWED FINERY and Linda Carroll related the tale in the book HER MOTHER’S DAUGHTER.

It’s definitely stranger than fiction.


Tomorrow is Presidents’ Day -- a time for celebrating Presidents George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Since Lincoln got all the glory on the two hundredth anniversary of his birth last week, I thought it only fair to focus on George Washington today.

Back when I was a teenager, many years before I moved into the high-paying field of children’s books, I worked the grill at McDonalds. And every February 22 we’d celebrate George Washington’s birthday by selling cherry pies for only a dime. I can still hear the echoes of those days in my head:

Boss: “Drop another dozen cherry pies in the fryer!”

Me: “We already have two dozen pies down. The pie fryer is completely full!.”

Boss: “Then make them in the fish fryer!”

Me: “But they’ll taste like seafood.”

Boss: “No one will notice the difference.”

(Moral of the story: if a cherry pie only costs a dime, you should expect to get scrod.)

The story of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree has been part of our culture for over two hundred years. In addition to those fish-flavored cherry pies, there have been cherry-and-hatchet postcards:

and pageants where unsuspecting kids are made to dress up as the young George Washington:

(Tip to parents: if you MUST dress your kid this way, it’s probably not a good idea to hand him a hatchet. He may, you know, be unhappy about having to wear that costume.)

This week in school kids will be celebrating Presidents Day by drawing pictures of cherry trees and doing craft projects, like one I found on the internet today, showing how to make a fun replica of George Washington’s cherry tree out of chenille stems and pony beads.

This inevitably leads to three questions:

1) What the heck is a chenille stem?
2) As far as that goes, what are pony beads?
3) Why are we still perpetuating this cherry tree story when we all know it’s a myth?

To be fair, many of the school lesson plans and craft projects I found on the internet referred to the “legend” of George Washington and the cherry tree, but isn’t that just a nice way of saying “fib” or “lie”? In truth, the story is so untrue that McDonalds should dispense with their George Washington cherry pie promotion and let Burger King celebrate the day by giving out free Whoppers -- because the story of Little George and his hatchet is one of our most famous historical whoppers.

But did you know all it started with a children’s book?

Mason Locke Weems was a cleric and writer who published two volumes about the first president. The cherry tree story did not turn up until the fifth edition of THE LIFE OF GEORGE WASHINGTON : WITH CURIOUS ANECDOTES, EQUALLY HONOURABLE TO HIMSELF AND EXEMPLARY TO HIS YOUNG COUNTRYMEN, which was published in 1806:

"George," said his father, " do you know who killed that beautiful little cherry tree yonder in the garden? " This was a tough question; and George staggered under it for a moment; but quickly recovered himself: and looking at his father, with the sweet face of youth brightened with the inexpressible charm of all- conquering truth, he bravely cried out, "I can't tell a lie, Pa; you know I can't tell a lie. I did cut it with my hatchet." "Run to my arms, you dearest boy," cried his father in transports, "run to my arms; glad am I, George, that you killed my tree; for you have paid me for it a thousand fold. Such an act of heroism in my son is more worth than a thousand trees, though blossomed with silver, and their fruits of purest gold."

This story, recounted in countless biographies and children’s books, has since been deemed untrue. Ditto the story of Washington tossing a silver coin across the Potomac. And, while we’re at it, his dentures weren’t made out of wood either.

But I’ve got to say that while Mason Weems may have played fast and loose with the facts, he was obviously a good storyteller -- spinning a tale that has been retold for centuries and creating the most memorable hatchet in children’s books until Gary Paulsen came along. So I’m not going to criticize Parson Weems too much for stretching the truth.

...Besides I don’t have room to criticize. I’ve told a whopper or two in my time as well. Maybe even in this blog. (See statement above regarding “the high-paying field of children’s books.”)


Lincoln seems to trump Washington when it comes to children’s books awards, with ABRAHAM LINCOLN by Ingri and Edgar Parin D’aulaire winning the 1940 Caldecott and LINCOLN : A PHOTOBIOGRAPHY by Russell Freedman claiming the 1988 Newbery.

There are three Newbery Honor Books about George Washington -- and none of them include the story of the hatchet and the cherry tree. First up is the 1939 Honor LEADER BY DESTINY : GEORGE WASHINGTON, MAN AND PATRIOT by Jeanette Eaton. Although it contains a bit of unnecessary fictionalized dialogue, this is a straightforward, intelligent, and thorough biography of the first president.

Genevieve Foster was a much honored author-illustrator of biographies and historical books. Her 1942 Honor, GEORGE WASHINGTON’S WORLD contrasts events in the president’s life with global history. A companion volume in this series, ABRAHAM LINCOLN’S WORLD, would also win a Newbery Honor a few years later.

Although well-regarded in the past, the first edition of the book contained a mistake in this map of the thirteen colonies

by including Maine, which was not one of the thirteen colonies. Later editions corrected this error. And by today’s standards, the prose -- which attributes thoughts and dialogue to historical characters -- seems very much dated and, at times, even offensive. On the very first page an “old Negro woman” dressing the infant Washington exclaims, “He sho’ a fine big boy, Mis’ Mary. ...So big and strong. Look lak he monf old already.”

Several years later, Ms. Foster began a new series of “Initial Biographies.” Aimed at younger readers than her earlier books, the Initial Biographies always featured the subject’s initials on the cover. The GW volume was named a 1950 Newbery Honor. It’s a special book in my collection, mainly because it’s inscribed from the author (“Genny”) to her editor Virginia Fowler (“Ginny”) “with appreciation for all she does to make these books come out right.”


Paula Fox isn’t the only author with a famous relative. Genevieve Foster would later become the mother-in-law of Frances Foster, the editor who published HOLES by Louis Sachar and many other notable books.


Once again, PBS’ ANTIQUES ROADSHOW featured another children’s book treasure on last night’s show. On a stop in Dallas, a woman brought in a collection of items that once belonged to her great-grandmother, Frances Hodgson Burnett. They included the handwritten first chapter of LITTLE LORD FAUNTLEROY, a first edition copy of that book, a guest book from Burnett’s home, and items related to a copyright suit in which the author was involved. The owner of these items also reported she also owned some “Little Lord Fauntleroy” suits worn by her ancestors. The appraiser said that while these items may not have a lot of value as individual pieces, as an archive representing the life and work of Frances Hodgson Burnett they were worth $75,000. (Which would be better -- Paula Fox for a grandmother or Frances Hodgson Burnett as a great-grandmother?)

During the author’s lifetime, she was best known for her first children’s book, LITTLE LORD FAUNTLEROY. This story of a poor American boy who learns he is a wealthy British heir was first serialized in ST. NICHOLAS MAGAZINE before being published as book by Scribner in 1886. A huge success, it had a major impact on culture as boys everywhere were soon dressed in velvet kneepants with bows and lace collars and wearing their hair in long ringlets (I can almost hear Ramona Q. yelling, “BO-ING!) As pointed out on last night’s ROADSHOW, Burnett's lawsuit against a theatrical presentation of FAUNTLEROY led to a change in copyright laws which assured that creators are entitled to royalties for adaptations of their work.

As popular as LITTLE LORD FAUNTLEROY was during its era, the book's fame has now been eclipsed by two Burnett titles that were originally considered much less successful -- THE LITTLE PRINCESS and THE SECRET GARDEN. These novels continue to be read and loved by young readers, are adapted for stage and screen, and many young girls daydream about being GARDEN’s Mary Lennox or PRINCESS’s Sara Crewe. Although LITTLE LORD FAUNTLEROY remains in print, it’s not widely read and I think it’s safe to say that very few twenty-first century boys daydream about being Fauntleroy.

Gosh, I can't imagine why.

Thanks for visiting Collecting Children’s Books. More facts, stories, and opinions regarding children’s books on schedule for later this week. Hope you’ll be back!


Sam said...

I'm glad you stepped in to provide a Paula Fox answer -- I didn't know all of those details about their relationship.

You know I really don't hear enough bloggers singing Fox's praises these days.

As for Fauntleroy, you're right nobody wants to be him. But I would be very happy to be Dicken.

Anonymous said...

Let's get to the really juicy gossip -- what was the copyright suit Frances Hodgson Burnett was involved in? Was she the plaintiff or the defendant?

Peter D. Sieruta said...

Burnett was the plaintiff in a lawsuit over international copyright law. A British theatre adapted LITTLE LORD FAUNTLEROY for the stage without paying Burnett. Apparently this was very common in an era when British pubishers even reprinted American books without paying the authors and vice versa. This time, though, Burnett fought back with a lawsuit and won -- and this marked a change in copyright law from that point on.

Anonymous said...

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