Sunday, April 26, 2009

Sunday Brunch

What book would you give a newborn baby? What title should have won this year’s Pulitzer? What is Buttercup Gizzardsniffer’s real name? These questions and more are answered in today’s blog entry about children’s books old and new.


Okay, that’s not her real name.

But that’s how I think of the very young, very eager, and more-than-a-little kooky children’s librarian who works at one of the libraries I frequent. She’s constantly trying to get kids reading -- which is, of course, a very good thing -- yet she always manages to shoot herself in the foot at the same time. For example, last summer she organized an event she felt was certain to bring young people into the library. It was called “S’mores Saturday.” Debbie’s mimeographed flyer said, “What’s better on a hot summer afternoon than a cold glass of lemonade and a s’more hot off the barbecue? Visit next Saturday to make-your-own s’mores and check out s’more books!”

Sounds great, right?

The big day came and she had the reference desk converted into a s’mores station. There were stacks of graham crackers, squares of chocolate, and bowls full of marshmallows set up next to a cute little Hibachi. The kids were having a great time grilling their own marshmallows and making their own s’mores until Debbie kicked them out of the building because “Eating is not allowed in the library.”

See what I mean about shooting herself in the foot? Not a single book was checked out all day!

Even worse, the Hibachi eventually set off the library’s fire sprinklers. ...Sometimes you shoot yourself in both feet.

Debbie means well, but her desperation to get kids reading is not always coupled with common sense. That’s why I wasn’t surprised when I visited the library yesterday and found Debbie was already handing out these bookmarks to kids. I was too embarrassed to take one for myself, but picked this one off the floor near the circ desk to share with you:

Yes, I know how serious a pandemic is. I wonder if Debbie does!


The biggest news that came out of last week’s London Book Fair was the announcement that Dan Brown’s follow-up to the DA VINCI CODE will be released this fall. I wonder if bookstores will stay open to sell this book at midnight the way they did when volumes in the “Harry Potter” and “Twilight” series were released.

In other London Book Fair news, it was announced that Prince Charles will be publishing a children’s book about ecology with HarperCollins in 2011. Many people are not aware that Charles published a children’s book back in 1980 called THE OLD MAN OF LOCHNAGER.

Illustrated by Hugh Casson and released in the U.S. by Farrar, the book was based on a story that Charles made up for his younger brothers when they were taking a trip on the H.M.Y. Britannia as children.

The proceeds for THE OLD MAN OF LOCHNAGER went to the Prince of Wales Charities Trust. Any earnings from the new book will also be donated to charity.


A friend has recently learned that a new grandchild will be joining her family this year. This got me wondering if anyone has a favorite book they always give as a gift to a newborn. In the past I have given the following as gifts to infants:

THE REAL MOTHER GOOSE -- the “Checkerboard Edition” illustrated by Blanche Fisher Wright.

ON THE DAY YOU WERE BORN by Debra Frasier.

I SAW ESAU : A SCHOOLCHILD’S POCKETBOOK by Peter and Iona Opie; illustrated by Maurice Sendak.

PAT THE BUNNY by Dorothy Kunhardt.

Occasionally I will also make my own book of original poems and stories for a baby.

What special books do you give to a special newborn?


...So please don’t mention that cheesy paperback LOVE YOU FOREVER. Yes, I know it’s Oprah’s favorite book. Yes, I know it’s sold about ten million copies. Yes, I know that Joey recited it on FRIENDS.

Still doesn’t make it a good book.

The debate between LYF lovers and LYF haters will never end. If swine flu eradicates the world’s population, leaving only a handful of survivors, I guarantee that half of them will think LYF is the greatest book ever written and the other half will think it’s the worst. An explosive, emotional LOVE YOU FOREVER flame-war occurs about twice a year on every children’s book listserve, blog, or message board.

The trajectory is always the same.

Reader #1: Has anyone here read LOVE YOU FOREVER by Robert Munsch?

Reader #2: Ooh, that’s my all-time favorite book! I can’t read it without puddlin’ up!

Reader #1: I’m writing a paper about it for school. What do you think of its literary qualities?

Reader #2: It’s only the best book ever!!!!!!!!! I cry just thinking about it.

Reader #3 (a children’s lit professor): Bathetic balderdash.

Reader #4: That scene where the mother climbs the ladder is INSANE! It’s not a book about love, it’s a book about OBSESSION!

Reader #5 (never read a children’s book in her life, but just came back from a baby shower and is now an expert on LYF): I just attended an event where this book was read out loud and everyone was crying their eyes out!!!!!!

Reader #2: I’m crying now just thinking about the book. It’s SOOOOOO amazing!

Reader #3: I cried when I read it too. Cried to think we live in a society where this type of pabulum is taken seriously.

Reader #6: Did you guys know that the author wrote this book in response to some sad events in his own life? You should think about that before you criticize!

Reader #7: We can’t judge a book based on outside considerations. Only by what’s on the page. And I agree this book is hokey and manipulative.

Reader #6: I think you guys are really MEAN!!!

Reader #3: Ad hominem attacks don’t further your cause. Why don’t we try to get this conversation back on track. How can it be a “children’s book” when the primary audience is clearly sentimental adults?


Reader #9: I really think the big problem with this book is the illustrations. The text is okay.

Reader #3: It is decidedly not “okay.” Let’s talk about rhythm, structure, word selection, metaphor, imagery--


Reader #2: Anyone who doesn’t love this book doesn’t have a heart!

Reader #3: It’s sentimental claptrap disguised as a children’s book and wrapped-up with a bow of toilet paper!

Reader #2: Oh I LOOOOOVE the picture of the baby with the toilet paper. It’s SOOOOOOO KEY-ute!

Reader #9: I hate the illustrations.

Reader #1: What does anyone think of the book’s literary qualities?


At this point, the owner of the listserve, the webmaster, or the blogger blocks shuts down the conversation and blocks everyone from commenting further. After the dust settles, conversation returns to normal. Then, about six months later:

Reader #1: Has anyone here read LOVE YOU FOREVER by Robert Munsch?

THE SUN AND THE WIND AND MR. TODD by Eleanor Estes ; illustrated by Louis Slodokin.

Praised by critics and beloved by readers, it’s hard to decide if Eleanor Estes is best known for her “Moffats” series, her Newbery-winning GINGER PYE, or her heart-tugging, impossible-to-forget novella THE HUNDRED DRESSES.

But one Estes book that nearly everyone has forgotten is 1943’s THE SUN AND THE WIND AND MR. TODD. This retelling of an Aesop fable about a battle between the wind and sun is set in New England, where Mr. Todd is employed as a weatherman who always gets it wrong (“when Todd said snow, the weather was beautifully sunny. ...And when Todd said clear and cooler, it was quite apt to be rainy and warmer.”) The people of Rockypoint are not happy that their weather man doesn't "come up to scratch.” Traveling to speak to a convention of weather forecasters, Mr. Todd falls victim to a disagreement between the Wind and and the Sun as to which can make him remove his overcoat. The Wind huffs and puffs and tries to blow away Mr. Todd’s clothing, while the Sun turns up the heat and ends up winning. The lesson Mr. Todd learns from this experience -- that “the weather is not the same for everybody. And when I predict rain, it is raining somewhere. And when I predict shine, it isshining somewhere” -- seems a rather underwhelming victory for the little weatherman since the only ones who embrace it are his fellow error-prone weather forecasters; it does little to change his reputation at home in Rockypoint. This unsatisfactory resolution may be one of the factors that prevented THE SUN AND THE WIND AND MR. TODD from becoming as popular as the author’s other books. Another reason may be its lack of young characters. No one is better than Eleanor Estes at getting inside the mind of a child, and expressing a child’s thoughts through deed and dialogue. Though the writing is light and whimsical, we still miss having Rockypoint viewed through the eyes of a young character. And the story’s uneven mix of fantasy and reality is jarring.

In many ways, THE SUN AND THE WIND AND MR. TODD is an odd work. Though the volume has the dimensions of a picture book, it runs a rather lengthy (unnumbered) ninety-six pages -- making it too big for a readaloud, but perhaps too childish-looking and picture-filled for older readers. Louis Slobodkin's energetic, sepia-toned illustrations are superb, though one wonders if the classical, semi-nude forms of the Sun and the Wind were considered a bit risqué for the 1940s. I say this because I have never seen a copy of THE SUN AND THE WIND AND MR. TODD in a public library. In fact, I never saw the book until I tracked down a copy on the internet and purchased it three or four years ago. It remains difficult to find for collectors, with only one ex-library copy even listed for sale today.

Why the book is collectable: Both Estes and Slobodkin are major figures in the world of children’s books. Also of interest to those who collect Aesop variations.

First edition points: Tan cloth binding with brown vignette on front panel. Illustrated endpapers. Roman number “I” on copyright page. Price of $2.00 on front dustjacket panel and “war bonds” advertisement on rear panel.

Difficulty in finding first editions: Quite hard to find. Expect to pay $75-$200.


Last week’s discussion of politically-correct text changes in children’s books led blog-reader Jeanne to write about one she’s noticed. As a child, her copy of THE LITTLE ENGINE THAT COULD referred to one of the passengers aboard the train as “the gayest little toy clown you ever saw.” She sent me a copy of the text plus this picture featuring the clown. Jeanne points out that in modern editions, he is now called “the funniest little clown you ever saw.” I was going to write a blog about the text being “de-gayed,” similar to the way Isabelle Holland’s young adult novel THE MAN WITHOUT A FACE was “straightened-out” when Mel Gibson made it into a film.

However, I’ve now checked some other editions of the book and have found both “gay” and “funny” used to describe the clown. I also have a copy of the book, published by Platt and Munk in 1990, which is supposed to be “the complete, original edition” and it uses “funny.”

So now I’m confused.

Did the original edition actually say “funny”...or was it altered...or does the confusion come from there being way too many editions of this book available from way too many publishers?

I did a bit of research on it and discovered the story behind the story is even sticker than I imagined. Watty Piper never existed! Someone called “Uncle Nat” claimed authorship! There are so many details that I can’t keep it all straight in my head! Rather than try to recap it, check out this fascinating piece called “In Search of Watty Piper : A Brief History of the Little Engine Story” by Roy E. Plotnick, which can be read online here.


Mentioning Isabelle Holland made me think of what an important young-adult author she was during the early 1970s. Within a span of three years she published the groundbreaking MAN WITHOUT A FACE (1972); HEADS YOU WIN, TAILS I LOSE (1973) and OF LOVE AND DEATH AND OTHER JOURNEYS (1975.) Writing literary novels about important issues, she was one of the era’s most noted and influential authors. The critics loved her. She received a National Book Award nomination.

Yet after that trio of spectacular books, she moved away from the field, focusing on gothic novels for adults as well as middle-grade stories. I’d love to know what initiated that change of focus. She never had quite the same level of fame once she moved from the young-adult field.


After my previous posting on book dedications, blog reader Brooke wrote, “One of the best and most memorable dedications I've come across in recent years is from John Green's AN ABUNDANCE OF KATHERINES. The protagonist of that novel is obsessed with anagrams, and so for the dedication Green created a poem that includes some dozen or more anagrams of his wife's name, all listing her various virtues. I wish I had a copy so I could type it up here; go find it if you can, it's really clever!”

Thanks for the tip, Brooke. Here is the dedication:

To my wife, Sarah Urist Green, anagrammatically:

Her great Russian
Grin has treasure--
A great risen rush.
She is a rut-ranger;
Anguish arrester;
Sister; haranguer;
Signature Sharer
Easing rare hurts.

That in turn reminded me of the dedication in Dav Pilkey’s CAPTAIN UNDERPANTS AND THE PERILOUS PLOT OF PROFESSOR POOPYPANTS. (I know, from the sublime to the....) That book is dedicated: “For Buttercup Gizzardsniffer, with love.” In the book Prof. Poop shows a chart to change a normal name into a goofy name. Using that chart, you can figure out who Buttercup Gizzardsniffer actually was.

...Oh, you're too embarrassed to be seen looking at the book?

Okay, I can provide some hints.

Children’s book writer.

Newbery winner.

Missing May.

Figure it out yet?

Cynthia Rylant.


This past week the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction went to OLIVE KITTERIDGE by Elizabeth Strout. The book is already out in paperback and I’m about halfway through it.

Olive is okay, but she’s no Octavian Nothing. I still contend that, children’s book or not, THE ASTONISHING LIFE OF OCTAVIAN NOTHING : THE KINGDOM OF THE WAVES by M.T. Anderson is the most literary, most compelling, and most deserving-of-a-Pulitzer novel published in 2008. I wonder if the Pulitzer committee even considered it. I know what you’re thinking: it could still win School Library Journal’s “Battle of the Books.” Isn’t that even better than a Pulitzer? Isn’t it?

Um...let me think about that.

Thanks for visiting Collecting Children’s Books. Hope you’ll be back.


Daughter Number Three said...

Another great post, Peter. I noted that Debbie the librarian also advised the kids to read a book that's locked in a case and doesn't circulate... when they're home in bed with the flu.

I've never read LYF because I couldn't stand the cover illustration. It always struck me as subpar -- flatfooted and kind of ugly. (Admittedly, I don't know what the inside illustrations look like.)

And thanks for mentioning Isabelle Holland! She was one of my favorites at an impressionable age.

Charlotte said...

I myself always found that clown just plain scary.

Anonymous said...

That reference to the "original edition" really bothered me when I first noticed that "gay" toy clowns were no more to be found. Thanks for doing all the goodness! That certainly says something about me, that I read that whole linked article with fascination, book in hand.
Jeanne K.

Anonymous said...

You are so right about OCTAVIAN! I thought OLIVE KITTERIDGE was excellent, but OCTAVIAN is better.

Leda Schubert

Eva M said...

Thank goodness - the LYF "discussion" has been exhaustively covered and now we never have to talk about it again. Please!
Although I do love bagging on it at any opportunity.

Lisa said...

My eyes are aflutter with disbelief over the Debbie stories. Great swine flu reads? Seriously? SERIOUSLY?

Lisa said...

Or is it April Fool's Day again already?

Sam said...

This was the funniest brunch in human memory!

Debbie is amazing and -- assuming that she's a figment of your imagination -- she needs to have her own picture book!

Sam said...

When I was in college I took a library science class about children's boks and the professor told us that LYF is not a book for children. Therefore, I never picked it out for storytime.
The swine flu bookmarks just floored me.

Genevieve said...

Does Debbie understand that if you're home in oyur sickbed then a book that is in the "Caldecott Case" and cannot be checked out may pose a problem?!?!?

reverse phone said...

I love these classic illustrations. I think that if I were to have a little girl I would give her a Tasha Tudor book.