Sunday, April 12, 2009

Easter Brunch

This blog entry is being typed with multicolored fingers. After dying Easter eggs last evening, my fingertips are now yellow, red, blue, purple and orange. And for the first time in my life I have a green thumb -- literally. Today’s blog will be a bit truncated as I have an appointment this afternoon at H&R Block.

Yeah, I know: Who gets their taxes done on Easter?

...Only those of us who dragged our feet till April 12.

But before I go, I wanted to share a few items involving rabbits in children’s books, point you toward a new movie trailer for a classic young-adult novel, and answer some reader mail.


Even though the story has nothing to do with the holiday, I still think of Easter every time I see the cover of Robert Lawson’s RABBIT HILL.

Robert Lawson holds a unique place in the world of children’s books. He’s the only person to have ever won both the Caldecott Medal for his illustrations and the Newbery for his writing. Mr. Lawson received the 1941 Caldecott for his family history, THEY WERE STRONG AND GOOD; four years later he won the Newbery for RABBIT HILL. Although this talking-animal story is obviously fiction, it -- like THEY WERE STRONG AND GOOD -- includes a bit of Mr. Lawson’s life as well. The name of his property in Westport, Connecticut was “Rabbit Hill” and he and his wife Marie are the “New Folks in the Big House” mentioned in the novel. It was Lawson’s editor, May Massee, who suggested he write a story about the rabbits on his property, though the author-illustrator put it off until “there weren’t any excuses left.” (He was probably also the type to wait until April 12 to do his taxes.)

Later, Robert Lawson would recall that rabbits seemed to appear mystically whenever he was about to receive good news about the book. One hopped up to his mailbox the afternoon his editorial letter about RABBIT HILL came from May Massee; one appeared on the day his book was chosen as a Junior Library Guild title; others showed up when he received sales reports or a good reviews. Finally, when a small rabbit resembling the book’s protagonist appeared outside his studio and stared intently through the window for a good ten minutes, Mr. Lawson said, “Well, there’s Little Georgie with some good news about RABBIT HILL.”

His wife responded, “I don’t see what else nice could happen with it.”

The next day he received the letter informing him that RABBIT HILL had won the Newbery.

I don’t know what’s more extraordinary: the prophetic powers of those rabbits...or the fact that back then writers received notification of the award in the mail!

I have always wanted to find a first edition of RABBIT HILL signed by the author AT his home Rabbit Hill. So far no luck, but I do have a 1953 Christmas card he sent out from Rabbit Hill and that’s pretty cool too:

I don’t know if the property known as “Rabbit Hill” still exists -- or exists under another name. But there appears to be a road called Rabbit Hill in Westport and every fall the Westport Public Library sponsors the “Rabbit Hill Festival of Literature” which brings together some of the top names in children’s book writing and illustration.


Talking about RABBIT HILL got me thinking about other bunny books. Here’s a baker's dozen more, for every age from infants to young adults.

THE RUNAWAY BUNNY by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Clement Hurd, 1942.

This classic picture book was inspired by a medieval love poem.

WATERSHIP DOWN by Richard Adams, 1972.

Despite winning the top children’s book awards in Great Britain, the book was a bestseller among adult writers when published in the United States.

UNCLE REMUS STORIES by Joel Chandler Harris, beginning in 1881.

These stories featuring the trickster character of “Brer Rabbit” are drawn from African American and Cherokee tales.

BLACK RABBIT SUMMER by Kevin Brooks, 2008.

Talking animals are a staple of children’s books, and here’s a young adult novel that includes a strange kid who claims his rabbit can talk to him. It’s only one small part of the novel, but it’s a memorably creepy component of this sprawling (i.e. overlong) British mystery.

BUNNICULA : A RABBIT TALE OF MYSTERY by Deborah and James Howe, 1979.

Shortly after the publication of this “vampire bunny” book, Deborah Howe died of cancer; her husband later wrote several more books in this series.

THE TALE OF PETER RABBIT by Beatrix Potter, 1902.

The books have sold over 150 million copies and a pic of Pete appears on the package of Enfamil baby formula, a product which has produced over 150 million burps.


The adventures of a toy bunny. In the 1960s, many college students carried this classic around because they found it profound, man.


The adventures of a toy bunny. In 2006, it won a Boston Globe-Horn Book Award because they found it profound. (I thought the book was award-bait. I cannot believe anyone fell for it.)

SHADRACH by Meindert DeJong, 1953.

Some regard this as DeJong’s best, most intense work

PAT THE BUNNY by Dorothy Kunhardt, 1940.

A tactile book in which infants can touch the cottony fake fur of a bunny. I am still trying to figure out if the main character’s name is short for Patrick or Patricia.

VOYAGE TO THE BUNNY PLANET by Rosemary Wells, 1992.

Mini-picture books in which bunnies who have had a bad day get a chance to relive it. Would that we all had that opportunity.

The “Uncle Wiggily” books by Howard Roger Garis, 1910 on.

Begun as newspaper stories for the Newark News, the tales of Uncle Wiggily bred like, well, rabbits and eventually filled dozens of volumes.


Eccentric but memorable rabbit story.


M.E. Kerr is my favorite writer and her second young adult novel, IF I LOVE YOU, AM I TRAPPED FOREVER? appears to be just as hot in 2009 as it was when first released in 1973. On the left is the original edition; on the right is the brand new edition from Marshall Cavendish Classics:

Now a student named Colin has created a short movie “trailer” based on the book. He really did a fine -- and very professional -- job with it, as you can see by clicking here. It makes me want to run out and see an entire movie based on this book. Wish there was one. Maybe some enterprising Hollywood-type will view this clip on Youtube and realize what a great film it would make. Or maybe Colin will eventually make the movie himself. Whatever the case, I’d sure love to someday sit down in a movie theatre and see the words “BASED ON THE NOVEL BY M.E.KERR” appear on the big screen.


Thanks to everyone who wrote in with corrections or suggestions for last Sunday’s list of “Newbery book places.”

I’m especially intrigued when a book doesn’t specifically state its location, yet enough clues are given so that savvy readers can figure it out.

For example, Jen wrote in with a convincing argument that Beverly Cleary’s DEAR MR. HENSHAW is set in California. And Brooke said, “I also believe that Criss Cross, as well as its prequel, All Alone in the Universe is set in suburban Pittsburgh. Perkins grew up in Cheswick, just up the river from Pittsburgh, and while the specific setting is never stated explicitly, any Western Pennsylvanian will recognize specific references to this region -- the constant presence of "fly ash," the houses that climb up the hills "like cliff dwellers," and most particularly the explanation of the word "yinz" in Criss Cross. There may be a few other place names from the region mentioned, but it's been a while since I read it . . ..”

That makes sense. I had been hoping that CRISS CROSS and ALL ALONE IN THE UNIVERSE (two books I really love) were set here in Michigan, since that’s where author Lynne Rae Perkins currently resides, but I now suspect Brooke is right about the Pennsylvania setting.

It’s fun to figure these things out, isn’t it? It’s only happened to me once. Several years ago I was reading a contemporary book by Donna Jo Napoli and even though the name “Ann Arbor, Michigan” was never mentioned, I began to realize it was set in A2 (or A-squared, as it’s sometimes called around here.) I don’t remember all the clues that led me to that conclusion, but I knew for sure when the protagonist mentioned attending Angell School. I had a friend whose parents lived right next door to that school and I'd walked through their backyard and onto the school’s playground many times to push their kids on the swings. I felt like such an insider figuring that out on my own.


Regarding my recent posting about Theodore Taylor having his Jane Addams Award revoked for THE CAY, KT Horning commented:

I have been in touch with Susan C. Griffith who has done extensive research on the Jane Addams Award, including going through the papers included in the archives at Swarthmore College, and she found no evidence that the award was ever rescinded.

But Susan did find the likely source of the misinformation about it (other than Taylor himself). Bertha Jenkinson, chair of the 1975 Jane Addams Award Committee, wrote a statement saying that she thought that giving the 1970 award to "The Cay" had been a mistake. This statement was printed in the Interracial Books for Children Bulletin in 1975, along with statements, pro and con, from several others, under the headline "Revoking The Cay Award: The Establishment Cries Foul!" Since there was nothing in the article itself that indicated the award had been revoked, this headline was misleading, at best.

Unfortunately, follow-up letter from Bertha Jenkinson to Bradford Chambers, editor of the Bulletin, admonishing him for the headline and clarifying that the award had never been revoked and that she had been speaking for herself, not for the Jane Addams Peace Association, was never printed in the Bulletin, in spite of the fact she explicitly asked him to correct this information.

Perhaps at some point Theodore Taylor received a letter, or a copy of a letter, when all of this was in the works that led him to believe there was some sort of official revocation, but that does not appear to be the case.

It’s interesting to learn that, while the award may not have been officially revoked by the Jane Addams Peace Association, Theodore Taylor went to his grave thinking it had. He spoke several times about receiving a letter "from the Jane Addams people...saying they wanted me to return the award” and how, in his haste to send it back -- collect! -- he fell down the stairs and almost broke his leg.

It would be interesting to find out where that award now resides.


...In addition to wondering where THE CAY’s Jane Addams Award is, I’d love to know where old Newbery and Caldecott Medals go when their recipients shuffle off this mortal coil. I’m assuming most are passed down within the family, though there are certainly cases where the winners had no children or, let’s face it, they had children who wouldn’t really care. (How many generations does it take for the Alcott family of literature to devolve into Mama’s Family of television?) Do such prizes end up in library special collections? Have you ever seen one on public display? I’m always hoping I’ll stumble across one in a thrift shop, the way Mrs. Whitaker found the Holy Grail in the Neil Gaiman short story “Chivalry,” or maybe one will turn up in a pile of boxes and overflowing trash cans waiting for garbage pickup on the side of the road.

Can you tell I’m a big fan of TV’s Antiques Roadshow?


In reference to my blog posting on Norman Rockwell illustrations in children’s books, Sam wrote, “Don't forget his book WILLIE WAS DIFFERENT. Unless you are excluding that for some reason?”

Yes, Sam, I did exclude it for a reason.

The reason was...pure ignorance. I never even knew this book existed!

Although WILLIE WAS DIFFERENT : THE TALE OF AN UGLY THRUSHLING was published by Funk and Wagnalls in 1969, I don’t recall ever having seen this book. It wasn’t in my public library when I was growing up; it’s not in the library where I work today. I did track down a picture of the cover
and now wonder if it’s not one of those “children’s books” that’s really meant for adults...yet designated for kids only because it contains a lot of pictures and a skimpy text. I did a bit of research and discovered that Norman Rockwell wrote the original text himself and sent it to McCall’s Magazine. When McCall’s suggested that the prose be expanded, Rockwell’s wife Molly rewrote the story and Norman illustrated it. According to the biography NORMAN ROCKWELL : A LIFE by Laura Claridge, “some people have wondered why Rockwell would call the bird by the same name as his famous World War II hero, Willie Gillis. Perhaps this was some kind of odd parallelism: [his previous wife] Mary had named that protagonist, and now there would be another of the same name reserved for [his current wife] Molly.”


Claridge’s reference to Norman Rockwell’s “famous World War II hero, Willie Gillis” sent me off on another round of research. Willie Gillis was a character that Mr. Rockwell created for wartime issues of the Saturday Evening Post. A young “everyman” soldier, he appeared on eleven Post covers, first as young recruit carrying a package of food from home, then in church, at home on leave, in a romantic black-out situation with a young woman, and finally, at the end of the war, as an older, wiser vet attending college under the G.I. Bill.

I was surprised to learn from the Claridge book that Willie Gillis got his name from a children’s book! Over the years it has been inaccurately reported that he was named after the nursery rhyme character Wee Willie Winkie. But he was actually named after the protagonist of WEE GILLIS, written by Munro Leaf and illustrated by Robert Lawson (yep, the RABBIT HILL guy.) At the time Norman Rockwell was creating the character, his wife was reading WEE GILLIS aloud to their children. As Norman tried to figure out a name for his character, Mrs. Rockwell remembered WEE GILLIS and suggested the name Willie Gillis.


Okay, I’m leaving to have my taxes done. Feel free to take an egg when you go. Every year they have some new kind of egg decorating gimmick. One year it was glitter, the next year it was tie-dye. My favorite were the “egg wraps” from several years ago: decorated plastic sleeves that melded onto the egg when dipped into boiling water. This year’s decorating kit featured “splatter and spray” dyes. I’m not crazy about how they turned out, so I hid them in the bottom of this basket filled with plastic decorated eggs I bought half-price the day after Easter a couple years ago:

Please take as many as you like. Take three, take four. The fewer eggs I’m stuck with, the less egg salad I’ll have to eat this week!

Thanks for visiting Collecting Children’s Books -- and Happy Easter! Hope your holiday is not as "taxing" as mine.


Sam said...

Okay, what we've got here on the shelf is the 1994 Dragonfly reprint of "Willie was Different."
It claims to have reverted to Rockwell's original manuscript.
"Though perhaps more like a working sketch than a finished work..." notes the forward.

Perhaps that is the reason that it reads like this:
"Willie was proud to be a wood thrush. But he also wanted to be himself."

It's a story that all American Idol contestants (and many other fame seekers) should be required to read, though. The moral is something like: Enjoy your gift, but don't let it become a trap.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the mention! I understand completely the way you describe figuring out the Ann Arbor setting of the Napoli book. It's like getting the inside joke. And thanks for the great blog and for all the work you put into collecting all this information.

Anonymous said...

Being an Ann Arborite, I'll have to read the Napoli book. Thanks for the tip.

I agree with you about the Edward Tulane book. I read it and felt very manipulated.

Anonymous said...

Wait, just realized you didn't give a title for the Napoli book. Which one, please?

Melissa (& Billy) said...

Mmmm, egg salad.

Ahh! I want that NR Storybook! I would love to see what folks came up with, inspired by his beautiful illustrations.

Peter D. Sieruta said...

Donna Jo Napoli's Ann Arbor book was SHELLEY SHOCK, published in 2000. However, I now see this is a sequel to two earlier books, SOCCER SHOCK and SHARK SHOCK, so I'm assuming AA is mentioned in those as well.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the Napoli title. Ironically enough, the AA public library doesn't own a copy! They have only the first book in the series, and according to the online summary, that book takes place on Cape May.

Peter D. Sieruta said...

If I understand correctly, the first book in the Napoli series, SOCCER SHOCK, is set at home (presumably Ann Arbor.) The second book, SHARK SHOCK, sends the characters on vacation to Cape May, and then the third book, SHELLEY SHOCK, is back in Ann Arbor. I can't believe the Ann Arbor Library doesn't have a copy!


Anonymous said...

Yes, Peter, there really is a Rabbit Hill, and it is still there. Since Robert and Marie Lawson had no children, the house passed out of the family and had several owners after his death in 1957. The Westport (CT) library's Rabbit Hill Festival was originally funded by a woman who lived in the Rabbit Hill house for a number of years in the 1980s and 90s. She was delighted to discover her lovely dwelling had been the home of a famous children's book writer/illustrator, collected a number of Lawson titles, and added a lovely library room onto the house. The current owners are also connected to the festival, have their own Lawson collection, and host a dinner for the Rabbit Hill Festival author/illustrator presenters every year. The house has had major additions and renovations, but the main entrance with its stone patio and brick facade looks very much the way it did when the Lawsons lived there. The Festival, in late October every year, draws an audience from all over. Each year focuses on a topic that represents a different aspect of Lawson's work - animal stories, historical fiction, biography, illustration, etc.
I've never noticed the change in the Rabbit Hill text in later editions, but remember wincing when I read the original passage some years back. The racist comments and - even worse - images are most prevalent in his Caldecott winner, a book we tend to downplay in promoting his legacy.
Connie Rockman
Program Coordinator, Rabbit Hill Festival

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