Sunday, March 15, 2009

Sunday Brunch for the Ides of March

Today’s Sunday brunch features a list of children’s books to celebrate the Ides of March, as well as my dissenting opinion on this year’s Printz winner, and a rather melancholy story about Robert Westall. Plus, I get buried by Neil Gaiman.

BEWARE THE IDES OF MARCH

There are children’s books for nearly every holiday and occasion, but when I started hunting for titles on the Ides, I came up blank. Then I realized I was spelling it wrong. Here’s the list that I finally put together:

I’D LIKE TO BE by Steven Kroll (1987)
I’D RATHER THINK ABOUT ROBBY by Merrill Joan Gerber (1989)
PEOPLE I’D LIKE TO KEEP by Mary O’Neill (1964)
I’D RATHER HAVE AN IGUANA by Heather Stetson Mario (1999)
WHERE I’D LIKE TO BE by Frances O’Roark Dowell (2003)
I’D LIKE TO TRY A MONSTER’S EYE by Judith Thurman (1977)
I THOUGHT I’D TAKE MY RAT TO SCHOOL by Dorothy M. Kennedy (1993)
I’D RATHER BY EATEN BY SHARKS by Elaine Moore (1995)
IF I’D KNOWN THEN WHAT I KNOW NOW by Reeve Lindbergh (1994)
I’D RATHER BE DANCING by Mary E. Ryan (1989)
TODAY I THOUGHT I’D RUN AWAY by Jane Johnston (1986)
I’D TELL YOU I LOVE YOU, BUT THEN I’D HAVE TO KILL YOU by Ally Carter (2007)

MY MISSING YEARS

Like most everyone, I try to keep up with popular culture -- what books people are reading, what movies they’re watching, and what gets people talking and thinking. However, the biggest gap in my “pop culture” knowledge is the late sixties and early seventies. This may sound strange, since I was certainly around back then. In fact, that era -- my late childhood and early teenage years -- is remarkably vivid for me. The problem has to do with being at that “in-between age” at the time -- too young to get involved in adult matters, too old to be interested in children’s activities. For example, when people talk about the great films of the early seventies, such as THE GODFATHER, I have nothing to say; most of those movies were rated R and I didn’t get to see them. Conversely, I’m clueless when people discuss SESAME STREET; I was already eleven or twelve when that TV series premiered and considered it a “baby show.” Consequently, I have very few cultural references for one of the periods in my life during which I felt most fully alive.

I thought about that this week when I came across two books in the library. One was BLESS THE BEASTS AND CHILDREN by Glendon Swarthout. I was surprised to find it in the children’s section because back when it was first published in 1970, it was very much an adult novel. A movie version was soon released and I remember seeing this paperback edition everywhere back then. The name of director Stanley Kramer meant nothing to me then; I was more impressed that the kid from LOST IN SPACE was pictured on the cover. But still, it was an adult book and it never even crossed my mind to read it. This week, nearly forty years later, I finally borrowed the book from the library. Now all I can say is “wow.” BLESS THE BEASTS AND CHILDREN concerns five troubled boys who -- sent away to camp and dubbed “The Bedwetters” by the camp director -- make a covert, overnight journey to free a herd of doomed buffalo at an animal preserve. This tightly-written, almost archetypal story may suffer from a bit of trippy overwriting (“They quivered. Their toes sang songs. Their hearts beat poetry. Through the tingling gates of their fingertips their souls were liberated.”) but it’s still a powerful and unforgettable novel. Apparently it’s used a lot in high school English classes these days. In my day, it was kept in the adult section of the library and I wasn’t allowed to check it out. I'm also currently reading ESCAPE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN by Alexander Key. Published in 1968, I’m sure this book was not in my local library when I was a kid, as I know I would have read it. The first time I ever heard the title was when the Disney movie adaptation was released in 1975. By then I was in high school and felt I was much too old to see a “kids movie." A couple generations have passed since the book was published and the movie was made. A new film adaptation, RACE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN, opened this weekend and first editions of the Alexander Key novel now sell for hundreds of dollars. When I saw the book on the library shelf this week, I brought it home. It’s about time I read it. One of the best things about being grown-up is having the ability to fill the gaps in my pop culture knowledge -- and finally reading the adult books I was once too young for, as well as the children’s books I once felt too old for.

MORE ABOUT SWARTHOUT

I have to admit, until I came across BLESS THE BEASTS AND CHILDREN in the library the other day, I wasn't aware that he was the same author who had written several children's books with his wife Kathryn. (Obviously not one of my smarter moments; how many authors named "Glendon Swarthout" could there possibly be?) The Swarthouts' most notable collaboration was the 1966 nailbiter WHICHAWAY, which is set almost entirely atop a thirty-foot windwill, where the son of a rancher is stranded with two broken legs unable to get down. The lean, cinematic prose that distinguishes both WHICHAWAY and BLESS THE BEASTS AND CHILDREN obviously made Glendon Swarthout a favorite of Hollywood moviemakers. Several of his books were made into films, including the westerns 7th CALVARY and THEY CAME TO CORDURA; THE MELODEON, which became a TV movie starring Joanne Woodward; and John Wayne's swan song THE SHOOTIST, with a script adapted by Swarthout's son Miles. But I was most surprised to discover that Glendon Swarthout also wrote the novel WHERE THE BOYS ARE, which later became the prototypical "spring break" movie of the same name in 1960.

YOU KNOW IT'S A GOOD BOOK WHEN...

This morning I checked Amazon to see what kind of reader reviews BLESS THE BEASTS AND CHILDREN had received. The review that tickled me most was this one:

BLESS THE BEASTS AND CHILDREN was like most books. It had its good parts, bad parts, and the parts that you can't make up your mind on.

But I was most impressed to see that nearly a hundred people had submitted reviews for this novel. The other day I wrote a blog entry called “You Know It’s a Good Book When...” Now I have a new answer for that:

You know it’s a good book when...almost one hundred people take the time to post their opinions about a decades-old book on Amazon.com.

Incidentally, in my last blog I solicited ideas for my “You Know It’s a Good Book When...” list. Here are some of the wonderful responses:

Anne said:

I know it's a good book (or a great book!) when it offers comfort in times of sorrow or change or unrest; there are books I trot out over and over in such times, and they are like trusted friends, comforting me.

I totally agree. When my grandmother died, I took a copy of RUFUS M. by Eleanor Estes to the funeral home with me.

Peter’s Mother: Leave that book in the car!
Peter: If the book stays in the car, I’m staying in the car.

So I stayed in the car and read while everyone else went inside. The next day my mother made me leave the book home...but the whole time I was in that awful funeral home staring at my dead grandmother, I wished I had RUFUS M. with me....

Sandy D said:

You know it's a good book when you return your library copy and buy it in hardcover (even though you're on a tight budget), because you know you're going to keep it forever.

Been there, done that! When I read Norma Johnston’s THE CRUCIBLE YEAR, I couldn’t even return the book to the library until I’d ordered a copy for myself from the bookstore.

Sam said:

You know it’s a good book when you discover that you have strong opinions about the book jacket -- such as when you find yourself forced to tear the bookjacket off because the character in the picture simply doesn't look like the character in your head.

Perhaps we finally have an explanation for all the headless kids on dustjackets!

Rasco from RIF said:

I am not a person to walk up to strangers and start talking about a specific book "out of the blue"...although I am MORE than happy to talk about books. However, I know it is a good book when I almost mow people down to get to someone holding one of my all time favorites. Why? I am SO eager to know if the person feels the same strong kinship to the book as I do.

I’m too shy to do that...but whenever I see someone with one of “my” books I wish I had the nerve to approach them.

Jeanne K. said:

When I was homeschooling, I recall neglecting my four children for several days while I plowed through Susan Cooper's Dark is Rising sequence.

However, I'd say you know it's a good book when you read while you're cooking...or even driving!


I’ve read while cooking, but never while driving. A cooking accident may result in ruined meal and a phone call to 1-800-Chicken-Delite, but a driving accident could result in a ruined car and a phone call to 911!

Amanda said:

You know it's a good book when you get mad at Hollywood for ruining it with a movie.

Melody Marie Murray said:

You know it’s a good book when you join a society or an internet discussion group dedicated to the book. When you update the wikipedia entry for the book because it's not quite enthusiastic enough. When you refuse to see the movie based on the book because you can't bear to risk tainting the magic.

Stephanie said:

You know it's a good book when, years after you first read it, you're still recommending it to absolutely everyone you know.

Or when you wish you could hang out with the characters.

Or when you see something in a store, and it reminds you of something a character from your book would own. Good books sneak into your everyday life.


GETTING RICH QUICK

The “Stat Counter” on this blog allows me to see how many times a day someone visits Collecting Children’s Books and, frequently, what brought them here. I guess it’s a sign of our bad economic times, but I’ve noticed that more and more people visit looking for a way to get rich quick. In fact, the other day someone landed here by Googling the phrase “Can I get rich from writing a children’s book?”

The answer is NO.

Or perhaps I should say it’s next to impossible...but it can be done if you’ve got that exceedingly rare, once-in-a-blue moon combination of talent and good luck. (See “Rowling, J.K.”) But I think I can say with certainty that if you approach the idea of writing a children’s book with the single goal of “getting rich,” it’s probably not going to happen.

Lately I’m getting lots of visits, presumably from young people, Googling the phrase “Ways for Kids to Get Rich.”

If I knew the answer to that, I would have retired at age eighteen instead of facing a future of working forever because my retirement fund was depleted by the current recession.

Still, if someone comes here with a question, I’d like to be able to provide some answers. So here are three books about young people who strike it rich.

The always-inventive author Jean Merrill published THE TOOTHPASTE MILLIONAIRE in 1972. This brief, amusing novel concerns a sixth-grade boy who balks at the idea of spending seventy-nine cents for a tube of toothpaste and decides to make his own. Through a combination of luck and talent (again, see “Rowling, J.K.”), young Rufus soon finds himself manufacturing his product under the simple brand name of “Toothpaste.” The book, which contains lots of math problems, was originally conceived as a school reader (the title page includes the unusual note “Prepared by the Bank Street College of Education") but continues to be read and enjoyed as a mainstream novel and is still available in paperback today. I’ll have to track down a recent copy of THE TOOTHPASTE MILLIONAIRE and see if they’ve updated some of the prices included in the text. By today’s standards, seventy-nine cents for a tube of toothpaste is a steal!

Bill Brittain’s ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD (1979) is a fun story about a kid who wishes he had “all the money in the world” -- and gets it! Unfortunately, the leprechaun who grants Quentin’s wish is quite literal-minded, so the young protagonist actually does end up with “all the money in the world” piled high in his yard while every country around the globe goes bankrupt. (Hmm...maybe this book is nonfiction. Most countries are bankrupt these days; now all we need to do is find the kid with all the money in his yard.) Incidentally, those who think they can get rich writing for kids probably assume that a famous author like Bill Brittain spends all his time making big financial deals with publishers and fending off movie producers who want to film his stories. I guess that's not true...because when ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD was optioned for a television special in 1983, Mr. Brittain said he didn’t know anything about it until he happened to read a mention of the show in his local newspaper!

Finally, I've got to include UNEASY MONEY by Robin F. Brancato, a 1986 young adult novel about a New Jersey teenager who wins over two million dollars in the state lottery. It’s a funny and warm book in which Mike learns the expected lesson that money isn’t everything...though it’s certainly nice to have. Ms. Brancato wrote a number of strong, well-regarded novels in the late 1970s and early 1980s including BLINDED BY THE LIGHT, SWEET BELLS JANGLED OUT OF TUNE, and my personal favorite, COME ALIVE AT 505. Strangely, UNEASY MONEY appears to be her last published novel and she wasn’t heard from again until a couple years ago when she released a nonfiction book called, simply, MONEY. I would love to see some new fiction from her now; I was a big fan of her novels.

So...there you have it: three novels about kids getting rich -- by working, by wishing, and by luck. If you’re interested in finding more books about how to "get rich quick," just visit your local library. What particular section of the library? Considering our current economic crisis: fantasy!

A STORY WITH A SAD ENDING

The other day I came across the story of how Robert Westall came to be a writer. Or perhaps I should say a "published writer," as he'd been writing fiction from the time he was twelve years old. In fact, during his high school years he wrote a novel every summer -- though he described his younger self as "a bad writer, the worst kind of writer."

Robert Westall became a journalist and didn't return to fiction again until middle-age. He spoke of attempting an historical novel which he read aloud to his son Christopher who "found it so comically dreadful that tears of laughter used to stream down his face."

When Christopher was twelve, he joined a group of boys who built an encampment in the woods. When their corrugated iron house developed a leak, they invited Mr. Westall into their inner sanctum to help repair it. This event, plus a dream about his own childhood during World War II, caused the author to realize "I wanted to share childhoods with my son." He began writing THE MACHINE-GUNNERS in longhand as a gift to Christopher. Westall recalled, "He was the most savage of critics -- if a part bored him he'd pick up a magazine and start reading that instead. The parts that bored him, I crossed out, which is perhaps what gives the book its pace. But I had no thought of trying for publication."

Years later, when THE MACHINE-GUNNERS was published, it won the Carnegie Medal and sold over one million copies.

...A couple days ago I came across another autobiographical sketch of Robert Westall and learned this story has a postscript. After noting that he wrote all his books for his only child -- and even based the hero of THE DEVIL ON THE ROAD on Christopher -- the author ended his essay with this sad, perhaps bitter, and certainly melancholy note: "When he was eighteen, he died on his motorbike, instantly. It was the way he'd have chosen to die. He didn't leave me a single crappy memory, so I count myself lucky, though it's harder to write books now that he's gone."

DO YOU KNOW THIS BOOK?

Someone recently asked if I could help identify a partially-remembered book. Here is the description:

It was a picture book about a young girl who imagines what life would be like if she didn't have any parents and could do whatever she wanted; the fantasies go from joyful freedom and independence to loneliness and isolation. The setting is mostly on a beach and she imagines having to use sand and seaweed and seawater for all of her necessities. Unfortunately, I don't remember a fragment of the title or author's name, but I do remember that the illustrations were delicately drawn and detailed and it may have been done in 2 or 3 color printing with a limited palette.

This description didn’t ring any bells for me. I asked a picture book expert for some help and they suggested it could be a Byrd Baylor/Peter Parnall title, but I haven’t been able to find a matching book among Baylor’s titles either.

Any ideas?

A DISSENTING OPINION

There has been a lot of recent talk about the Newbery Award going to books that are not kid-friendly. Some experts have suggested that the winning titles are geared for “special” rather than general readers, and that the prize-winners are often “unconventional” and “quirky.”

I have one response to that: Newbery, meet Printz.

This year’s Printz winner, JELLICOE ROAD by Melina Marchetta, strikes me as a literary novel (which is good) that not many young adults are going to embrace (which is bad.) Since the announcement of the award, I have read a variety of responses to this Australian import. One reader stated that he couldn’t make it past the first five pages. Another reader said she gave up after a few chapters “and I usually never quit reading a book.” Even some of the novel’s biggest supporters admit they initially found the book confusing and that it didn’t all fall into place until the final pages; some said they then felt compelled to immediately reread the novel, at which time they gained a far greater appreciation for the book.

I was quite anxious to read JELLICOE ROAD -- and even read it twice if necessary.

Having now read the book, I’m somewhat disappointed that it won the Printz. The double-tracked plot, which pairs the contemporary, first-person story of Taylor -- abandoned by her mother and now boarding at the Jellicoe School -- with an account of several teenagers who resided in the area a generation earlier, is intriguing if somewhat confusing in execution. The characters remain rather cold and remote and at times I felt the author had to spend so much time on the machinations of the two-tiered plot that Taylor -- and particularly the teenagers from the past -- never fully came alive. I also felt that many of the plot devices -- a hermit kills himself in Taylor’s presence, a school building catches fire, and, particularly, rumors of a serial killer on the prowl -- seem overblown and too dramatic while others -- a long-standing “war” between young people who live near or visit Jellicoe Road -- remain under-explained.

This isn’t to say that JELLICOE ROAD is not worth reading. The theme of a teenager’s quest for identity is compelling, the prose is frequently haunting, and the plot -- despite its flaws -- is clever and intriguing. But is it the top young adult book of 2009? I remain unconvinced. To quote the previously-cited reviewer comment from Amazon.com -- which may become my future mantra for MOST books: “It had its good parts, bad parts, and parts that you can't make up your mind on.”

I will credit JELLICOE ROAD for provoking a lot of interesting discussion -- from both the book’s proponents and nay-sayers -- and of course any discourse on young adult literature is always a good thing.

MAIL CALL

As I mentioned earlier, it’s pretty unlikely you can get rich writing a children’s book.

And it’s IMPOSSIBLE to get rich writing a children’s book blog.

In fact, it’s reached a point where I don’t even want to open my mail these days. Most of it is BILLS that I can’t afford to pay. And then there are those statements from my retirement fund which is losing so much money that the concept of “retirement” is beginning to seem like a pipe dream.

But, happily, I did receive some amazing packages in the mail this week, as reported in the following three items:

CHAIN MAIL

CHAINS, by Laurie Halse Anderson, was my favorite book of 2008. The British edition was recently published and I was surprised and excited to receive an inscribed copy directly from the author:


THE HOUSE IN THE NIGHT, THE HOUSE ON A VERY SPECIAL DAY

It’s very frustrating to follow children’s books all year and then, when award season rolls around, discover that you’ve missed one of the top prize winners. That’s what happened to a friend-of-a-friend, who couldn’t find a first edition of one of this year’s Newbery Honor Books, SAVVY by Ingrid Law. Luckily, I had an extra copy of that novel and passed it on to this collector. I did not expect anything in return, so was shocked when I received a first edition of this year’s Caldecott winner, THE HOUSE IN THE NIGHT, in the mail. That in itself would have been amazing, but I was shocked-beyond-belief to see that it was not only signed by illustrator Beth Krommes...but it was actually signed ON the day she won the Caldecott!


NEIL GAIMAN KILLS ME!

And if a signed Caldecott isn’t cool enough, how about a copy of this year’s Newbery winner, THE GRAVEYARD BOOK, personally inscribed by author Neil Gaiman:


I never thought I’d be happy to see my name on a tombstone...but I was delighted to be Newburied by Neil Gaiman.

To misquote Andrew Marvell:

The grave’s a fine and private place
Though not a thing I want to face.
Yet death becomes a lot less scary
When your GRAVEYARD’s named Newbery.

Thanks for visiting Collecting Children’s Books!

6 comments:

chandlerful said...

Escape to Witch Mountain is the first chapter book I can remember reading. It had a profound impact on my life. I still have my orignal copy, although sadly its now only about half a book. The orignal Disney movie was nothing like the book! The ony similarities are the title and the names of the characters.
I am looking for a new copy to replace my old one, it seems pretty expensive nowadays. Maybe with the new movie, they will reprint it?
You've got a great blog. I am constanty haunting library book sales, buying childrens books. At first, I was just trying to replace books from my childhood. Now I pick up anything that looks interesting. I have found some really great books that way. Currently reading "The Ghost Garden" by Hila Feil.

Anonymous said...

> So...there you have it: three novels about kids getting rich -- by working, by wishing, and by luck

or even by inheritance, as in The Westing Game

PS: what a disgustingly impressive haul of books you got!

Anonymous said...

The person inquiring about a book title might want to head over to Loganberry Books, where there is a book sleuth feature. For $2 you can post your request. It's very interesting to read all the listings of earlier questions, too. Maybe your book is already listed there!

Penni said...

I always felt that Robert Westall helped connect my childhood to that of my father's, who was 50 when I was born and had lived on the Yorkshire coast during World War 2. I will remember that story of the author and his son.

Fuse #8 said...

I've an idea on the stumper, though the plot differs slightly from the one given here. Have you considered that it might be "Jane, Wishing" by Tobi Tobias, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman? It's circa 1977, has a limited color palette (2-3 colors, max), includes Hyman's typically delicate and beautiful drawings. The text is actually somewhat graphic novel-esque (sans panels) and the story concerns a girl named Jane who wishes for her life to change. I don't recall if she wishes for her parents to disappear, but she certainly wishes for prettier hair, a more exciting life, etc. That's my best bet.

Anonymous said...

another place to post for a 'lost' book is the abebook forums