Sunday, March 29, 2009

Sunday Brunch with Frozen Books and Fortune Cookies

Today’s children’s book brunch features freeze-dried literature, looks at a book called LOOKS, shows how the paperback edition of a novel brought two sisters closer together, and reveals the only Newbery-winning title that became a Classics Illustrated comic book.


This covergirl from Cynthia Kadohata’s Newbery-winning novel KIRA-KIRA gets my vote as worst-airbrushed, worst-Photoshopped book image of the past five years:

I don’t know how this poor kid was clothed when she posed for the original photograph, but I think it’s obvious that the black thing she’s wearing (a blanket? a coat? some kind of curly animal pelt?) was ‘Shopped-in later. I can’t decide whether she looks more like a girl wrestling with a black sheep, Margaret Dumont in an old Marx Brothers’ movie, or the Octo-Mom in her seventh month of pregnancy.

And whoever trimmed the outline of this figure must have used a pair of blunt plastic kindergarten scissors because they chopped the edges so severely that the top of her head is almost perfectly square (you can click on the image to enlarge it), her hair is flat, and I think they actually cut off the tip of her nose!

And speaking of her nose: Is she wearing sunblock or one of those “Breathe-Right” nasal strips? Otherwise, why is her nose a completely different color than the rest of her face?

Actually, the purpose of this entry isn’t too complain about how baah-d (c’mon, she does look like a sheep!) this particular image is, but to show an interesting comparison between the hardcover and paperback versions of the book.

Here is the front panel of the hardcover dustjacket. It features one badly Photoshopped girl (presumably the narrator Katie) alone in the field:

However, if you spread the book open you can see that a second girl -- presumably Katie’s ill-fated older sister Lynn -- is pictured on the back cover. (And, to give props to the designer, this image is excellent -- no obvious airbrushing or Photoshopping here, no right angles on her head, no Band-aids on her nose.) You’ll notice there is quite a distance separating the two girls in this image though.

A year or so later, the paperback was issued and the exact same photos were used, but now Lynn has turned the corner and joined Katie on the front cover:

I wonder why this decision was made. There is a starkness, and an element of loneliness to the original cover; perhaps adding the second figure makes the book appear a little friendlier and more accessible to young readers.

My guess is that adults (those people who buy hardcover books for libraries and birthday presents) prefer the first cover, but kids (who buy paperbacks for themselves) like the second version better.


I bought a bottle of Diet Coke at work the other day, but by lunchtime the soft drink had gotten warm. Figuring I could cool down the pop by sticking it in the freezer for a few minutes, I ran to the staff lounge, opened the freezer compartment of our refrigerator and found it was full of...books.

Yep, the entire freezer was full of library books individually wrapped in plastic shopping bags.

This happens fairly often. The preservation people on the library staff use the staff refrigerators to remove mold from old books. If you ever find mold on any of your old books, you can do the same at home. All you need to do is place your moldy book in a plastic grocery bag, squeeze out the excess air, and seal it. Then you must leave the book in the freezer for a full seven days. When the week is over, remove the book from the freezer and the mold should come off with a damp soapy sponge.


It sounds like a dumb old joke:

Q. Why did the boy put his kitty in the freezer?
A. He wanted to have a ‘cool cat.’

But talking about frostbit books reminded me that the husband-and-wife writing team known as “The Gordons” once kept a cat in their freezer.

The Gordons wrote books for adults. His parents, who either had a sense of humor or absolutely no imagination, named him Gordon Gordon. During WWII he worked in counterespionage for the FBI. Eager to prove that women could be detectives too, his wife Mildred decided she’d write a mystery story. After the war, the two collaborated on a number of well-regarded mystery and suspense novels including FBI STORY and MAKE HASTE TO LIVE.

The Gordons were known for always keeping manuscripts in the freezer compartment of their refrigerator. What better way to save a work-in-progress in case of house fire?

So when I say the Gordons kept a “cat” in their freezer, I’m talking about their fictional feline creation, who was featured in the books UNDERCOVER CAT (1963), UNDERCOVER CAT PROWLS AGAIN (1966), and CATNAPPED! (1974.)

Because UNDERCOVER CAT dealt with three young siblings, it had the most youth appeal of any book by the Gordons and it was quickly snapped up by Disney Studios. But there was only one problem. The name of the title character was “Damn Cat” (so called because the kids’ father was always tripping over him in the dark.) Of course such a name wasn’t suitable for a Disney film...especially one starring Hayley Mills! I mean, she didn’t star in Pollyanna for nothing. So the movie cat was renamed “Darn Cat” and subsequent editions of the book -- published especially for young readers -- had a new title:

You’ve heard of books being “dumbed-down” for children.

This one was damned-down.


Someone recently told me that they don’t like to read any children’s book that involves bullying or exclusion. I remember hearing that Madeleine L’Engle gobbled up mystery novels like popcorn...but refused to read any involving the murder or abuse of a child.

When it comes to reading, do you have any self-imposed limitations of this type?

I’m not really referring to simply avoiding genres. We all have certain preferences in that regard (i.e. “I don’t read fantasy,” or “I don’t like suspense novels,” etc.) I’m specifically talking about certain themes or plot elements that will will stop you from even picking up a book.

In my case, I steer clear of novels in which dogs get sick and die. Been there, done that, don’t want to dwell on it if I don’t have to. So obviously I’ve never read MARLEY AND ME and don’t intend to see that movie.

Is there any one topic that will prevent you from reading a novel? Or are you open to anything?


Does anyone remember this logo from years past? It appeared in the upper left hand corner of a comic book series that retold classic novels in graphic format. Begun in 1941 and continuing for the next thirty years, CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED was a rather ambitious series that introduced a broad range of literature to young (and often not-so-young) readers in an easy-to-read, visually-pleasing format. Just because they were “comics” doesn’t mean they always contained simplistic stories; titles included LORD JIM by Joseph Conrad, CRIME AND PUNISHMENT by Dostoyevsky, and novelized versions of Shakespeare’s plays. Most of the books featured in CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED were from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (though some went as far back as THE ILIAD.) That’s why I was shocked when I recently discovered one issue based on a twentieth century children’s book -- and not just any book, but the 1924 Newbery winner THE DARK FRIGATE by Charles Boardman Hawes:

Considering the literary stature of most of the other titles in this series, I’m surprised (but sort of delighted) to see that a fairly modern children’s book like THE DARK FRIGATE was considered for inclusion.

I’m sure that educators looked down on CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED at one time, but are they really much different than today’s graphic novels based on classic works of literature?


This blog began with a comparison of the hardcover and paperback versions of KIRA-KIRA. I’m always fascinated to see the same title interpreted in different ways for different editions.

Although the recent young adult novel LOOKS by Madeleine George falls prey to the ubiquitous “headless teenager phenomenon,” I still found the stark red-and-silver cover -- which presents shadow figures of its two protagonists -- to be quite striking. The forthcoming paperback version presents a variation on the same theme. The hardcover is on the left and the paperback the right:

I think I like the hardcover best. ...But in truth it doesn’t make any difference what covers were used -- the book itself is pretty amazing. The story concerns the friendship between a hugely-overweight high school student and her anorexic classmate. It sounds like a bad joke, doesn’t it? (In fact, we’ve all heard the bad joke: “If only Mama Cass had given that ham sandwich to Karen Carpenter.”) But those who dismiss LOOKS as a typical “problem novel” will miss one of the best YA novels I’ve read in a long time. Both protagonists are realistically, even achingly, portrayed. Meghan, despite her large size -- actually, because of her large size -- is invisible in the eyes of her classmates, yet brilliantly observant of everything around her; then there’s Aimee, a poet who can control what food she eats though she cannot control her recently broken family. Even the minor characters are fresh and three-dimensional. One of the things I liked best about this novel is that, when Meghan and Aimee finally meet (after warily circling each other for over half the book), they never discuss their eating disorders, nor do they attempt to “cure” or “save” each other. Both remain the same size on the final page of the book as they were on page one -- yet they’ve deeply changed as well. It’s hard to believe this is Madeleine George’s first novel; there’s a real maturity in the way the author maintains suspense, slowly building the story and sparingly sharing details about the characters (just when we’re beginning to wonder about Meghan’s background, we meet her family and it adds another whole dimension to her personality.) The prose is sophisticated, the dialogue is witty (yet, as a true measure of the author’s skill: what’s not said is frequently as important as what’s being said), and the book itself is wise and thought-provoking. LOOKS introduces us to a fascinating new voice in young-adult fiction and I can’t wait to see what comes next from Madeleine George.


Finally, I thought I’d pass on this apropos message that I got from a fortune cookie yesterday at lunch:

Keep turning those pages -- and thanks for visiting Collecting Children’s Books.


Sam said...

Have you read the damn Darn Cat book?
Since I absolutely love the movie I tried the book once and got bogged down immediately and gave up.
Should I try again?

Won't read: Ghost stories. I've made exceptions and usually regret it.

Anonymous said...

I won't read any book where a character is stricken with cancer.

Wendy Jennings said...

Delighted to say that Classics Illustrated are now available in the UK! are re-issuing them at the rate of one or two a month (I think) and we've got War of the Worlds, Man in Iron Mask, Romeo and Juliet and Les Miserables so far. No sign yet of the new book you mention, is that just out in the US? My kids adore them, my father has a subscription as they remind him of his youth(???) and I'm using them in class too.Just goes to show that a great idea remains a great idea even over so many years.
Sam, does Time travellers wife count as ghost story?

Wendy said...

There's nothing I'll actually refuse to read, but it is very, very unlikely that I'll read any book that has a dragon in it--an immediate turnoff.

Lori J. said...

I won't knowingly read a book in which the dog dies. Apparently Gordon Korman shares (or at least sympathizes with) this particular antipathy and was moved to write the hilarious novel NO MORE DEAD DOGS. Be prepared to suspend all disbelief when reading this one!

Anonymous said...

Won't read about dead dogs, or dead cats (I was traumatized as a child by "It's Like This, Cat" doesn't a kitten die in that one?)
Won't read about severely disfunctional families where abuse is present. Won't read about kids/teens who have mental illness or drug addiction. Won't read picture books that are written to teach kids manners, or what a wonderful thing self-esteem is, or how exciting it is to go to school, any school.
Last, but not least, I won't pick up any book that has grammatical errors on the cover, like Jamie Lee Curtis' "I'm Gonna Like Me".
Jeanne K.

Anonymous said...

I'm going out right now to get LOOKS!

Adam Rex said...

For what it's worth, I'm a graphic artist, I use Photoshop regularly, and I don't think that girl was tampered with much. I think she was photographed wearing exactly what she's wearing. Her head looks a little flat because heads aren't round. Her nose is lighter because it's catching light that's high and slightly behind her (which is made apparent by the lighting on the taler figure's face). I don't even think her nose is cut off–I just think it's too close to the color of the sky to see where it ends.
I came here from Fuse 8's blog, expecting to see some hilariously bad Photoshop, and found what I strongly suspect is a pretty unfair denunciation of the book's designer. So I thought I ought to through in my two cents.

Adam Rex said...

Hmm. That should be throw in, of course.