Sunday, May 17, 2009

All This, and Bugs Bunny Too

Today’s Sunday Brunch blog features an unusual book dedication, discusses the invisible role of editors, and explores the connection between Rachel Field and two cartoons -- one famous, the other banned.


On Friday I picked up a copy of Caroline B. Cooney’s latest young-adult thriller, IF THE WITNESS LIED. I’ve never found Ms. Cooney to be a particularly “literary” author and I’m frequently disappointed by how unlikable her protagonists can be...but there is no denying that she’s a versatile writer, expert at building suspense to a page-turning climax. Her books are always full of twists and surprises. This volume, which features a lone candle on the cover, contained a surprise before the story even began. It seems like only yesterday when I heard the sad news that two librarians were killed in a car accident while attending the American Library Association's convention in Denver. I did not know Kate McClelland and Kathy Krasniewicz, but as I read tributes from their friends and colleagues in the days after their deaths, I learned they were much-respected, valued members of the children’s book community. This past Friday night, I opened IF THE WITNESS LIED to the dedication page and found this tribute from Caroline B. Cooney:

When I was in high school and people knew me as Kitty Bruce, I was a page at the Perrot Memorial Library in Old Greenwich, Connecticut. Many years later, my nephew Ransom Bruce was also a page there. I loved the library -- the graceful curving white marble stairs, the wood-paneled children’s room, the back stacks. I learned the Dewey decimal system, which was like a special language, and often when I recall some book from my childhood, I see its position on the shelves of the Perrot library. I’ve moved several times over the years, and I have used and enjoyed many libraries and admired many librarians, but there will always be a special place in my heart for my first love: the Perrot Memorial Library.

This book is dedicated to two of its wonderful librarians, whose early deaths are such a loss: Kate McClelland and Kathy Krasniewicz.

I was very much surprised to see this dedication because barely three months have passed since the untimely deaths of these librarians. Normally the publishing world moves at glacial speeds, so it would seem a real effort was made to honor Kate McClelland and Kathy Krasniewicz this expeditiously on these pages.

And of course what better place to keep their candle burning than in a book for young readers?


One of my favorite books from 2007 was EMMA-JEAN LAZARUS FELL OUT OF A TREE by Laura Tarshis. Now its pragmatic protagonist is back with a second story, EMMA-JEAN LAZARUS FELL IN LOVE, in which Emma-Jean, her mother, her seventh-grade classmates, and even a couple of their teachers seem to be suffering from spring fever. Though solitary Emma-Jean has recently been accepted by a group of friends, she remains a logical, analytical character with a flat affect (adult readers may suspect she has Asperger’s syndrome) who is surprised to suddenly experience an “odd fluttering in her heart” when she thinks about Will Keeler. Meanwhile, classmate Colleen has received an anonymous love letter and asks Emma-Jean to help identify her secret admirer. In many ways it’s Colleen who grows and changes the most in this brief novel, finding that just the idea of someone liking her makes her feel “taller, braver, stronger...Colleen-er.” And even after the truth about her secret admirer emerges, Colleen retains this newfound strength and resilience. Emma-Jean continues to be one of the most intriguing characters in recent middle-grade fiction -- by turns perceptive, earnest, helpful, impractical, and likable -- as she slowly grows to accept her new friends' flowery scents, sparkly clothing, casual “love yous!” and even a group hug at the Spring Fling dance. The plot of this novel may not feel quite as fresh and eccentric as the time Emma-Jean fell out of the tree (a deus ex machina solution to one problem seems particularly contrived) but on the whole EMMA-JEAN LAZARUS FELL IN LOVE is a warm and welcome addition that will satisfy fans of the series.

by Lauren Tarshis
Dial Books for Young Readers, 2009

FIRST EDITION POINTS: $16.99 on dustjacket flap
Descending number code on copyright page: 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

WHY THE BOOK MAY BE COLLECTABLE: EMMA-JEAN LAZARUS FELL OUT OF A TREE was a critical and popular success. If the series should really take off, these early books will be difficult to find.

Lauren Tarshis is at the beginning of her career as a writer. Based on the quality of her first two books, even bigger things are on the horizon. If so, these early titles will be especially valued.

DIFFICULTY IN FINDING FIRST EDITIONS: No problem at all right now -- but ask me again in a few months....


Investigating the identity of Colleen’s secret admirer, Emma-Jean Lazarus discovers a clue on an anonymous note: a fingerprint.

Well, I just found a fingerprint in my copy of TALES FROM OUTER SUBURBIA, but I know who left it.

Author Shaun Tan, who lives in Australia, recently made a rare trip to United States to promote his books. My east coast friend attended one of the signings and kindly got an inscribed copy of the book for me.

As you can see in the image below, Mr. Tan signed the book with a fingerprint, which he turned into a flower:

I am especially pleased to have a signed copy of TALES FROM OUTER SUBURBIA, as it’s one of my favorites for 2009. I’m frankly surprised that this endlessly inventive volume -- a stunning mix of oblique prose and color artwork in a huge variety of styles -- isn’t getting a lot more buzz. At this early point in the year, it’s my pick for the Printz...with or without fingerprintz.


With the recent layoffs in publishing, I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of editors.

There's no doubt that the world of blogs and websites have made today's editors much better known to the public. For example, you might look up a favorite author’s blog and find pictures of your author clinking champagne glasses with her editor at some literary bash; you might go to a children’s book website and read a speech that an editor delivered at a conference -- or even watch it on Youtube. This is a far cry from the days when editors remained pretty much “invisible.” Of course there have always been a few “celebrity editors” (we’ve all heard of Maxwell Perkins) and I guess anyone with an interest in children’s books knows which titles Ursula Nordstrom edited during her illustrious career.

But just glancing over at the books of my shelves right now, I have to say that I don’t know, offhand, who edited A WRINKLE IN TIME by Madeleine L’Engle...DICEY’S SONG by Cynthia Voigt...ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS by Scott O’Dell.

I don’t know who edited Dr. Dolittle or Henry and Ramona or the Melendys.

I’m not saying this information isn’t available on the web on in reference books; I’m just pointing out how many “invisible editors” are out there -- some of whom published our favorite books -- yet most of us still don't know their names. Odd, isn’t it?

But at least these men and women had the pleasure of a job well done when they saw the books they edited win awards, become bestsellers, be embraced by young readers.

But think about the editors who can’t even claim that. They may have changed lives and influenced literary history without even knowing it.

Many years ago, when Rachel Field was starting her career, she sent her first adult novel to a number of major publishers. No one was interested, but a number of editors wrote back and said that the early part of the manuscript, which covered the protagonist’s childhood, was the strongest part of the book. They suggested that she try writing for children.

Who were these perceptive editors?

I suppose their names are lost to history at this point. Do you think they ever knew that an unpublished author they once rejected actually took their advice and began writing for young readers? Do you think these invisible editors ever realized they were tangentially responsible for children’s classics such as HITTY, HER FIRST HUNDRED YEARS, CALICO BUSH, and PRAYER FOR A CHILD?


Reading about Rachel Field, I’m fascinated that she is one of the few authors who enjoyed equal success in both children’s books and adult fiction. After her amazing success in children’s books, she again attempted writing adult novels and ended up having big bestsellers with TIME OUT OF MIND (1935), AND NOW TOMORROW (1942) and especially ALL THIS, AND HEAVEN TOO (1938.) I guess she eventually learned how to make the adult sections of her novels as strong as the childhood scenes. Her best-known adult book, ALL THIS, AND HEAVEN TOO, with its oft-quoted opening line ("Dear Great-Aunt Henriette, Although I never knew you in life, as a child I
often cracked butternuts on your tombstone”) was based on a episode from Ms. Field’s family history. It was made into an Oscar-nominated motion picture in 1940 -- one of my favorites -- starring Charles Boyer and Bette Davis. I love this advertisement for the movie because it emphasizes the film’s literary origins. I doubt you’d see that today. And how cool is it that Bette Davis seemed to be familiar with Rachel Field’s books for young readers as well? In a book written thirty years later, Davis reminisced about filming ALL THIS, AND HEAVEN TOO and said of Rachel Field: “She also wrote many books for children. They are classics as far as I’m concerned.”


Incidentally, ALL THIS, AND HEAVEN TOO was such a bestseller that its title entered the lexicon. In 1941, a Bugs Bunny cartoon was called:

This comic film -- which featured Bugs facing off against an African American hunter -- was eventually banned from television because it employed severe racial stereotyping. There was even a minor conflict involving nudity/sexuality, as the cartoon ends with the hunter losing his clothes and wearing only a fig leaf. In the final seconds of the movie, Bugs reaches over and tries to yank off the fig leaf. Many TV stations edited that out -- even while continuing to run the racially insensitive story -- until the whole thing was banned in 1968. Although Rachel Field had nothing to do with that Bugs Bunny cartoon, she was involved with one Disney animated feature. While in Hollywood making ALL THIS, AND HEAVEN TOO, she was permitted to view some of the footage for Walt Disney’s FANTASIA. She was so moved by the “Ave Maria” sequence that she wrote a poem based on the music and imagery. It was later published as a stand-alone book, illustrated with film stills -- most of which were not used in the completed movie. There is currently a copy of this book on sale signed by both Walt Disney and Rachel Field...for $4000.


...and don’t have an extra $4000, it’s good to know that Ms. Field signed lots and lots of books during her career -- far more, it seems, than most other children’s authors of the time. So copies are out there. What I’m now looking for are specially illustrated items from Ms. Field. I understand that she designed her own Christmas cards, which are highly valued by many collectors. So if you happen across any cards signed “Rachel Field” or “Arthur and Rachel Pederson” (her married name), they may be valuable.

I’ve also heard that Rachel Field would give special friends copies of her own books with all the pen-and-ink line drawings hand-colored by herself.

...So if you ever come across a copy of HITTY or any other Rachel Field volume at a used bookstore and the pictures have been painted, don’t say, “Some dumb kid colored-in all the pictures and wrecked this book!” Instead, remind yourself that you may actually have a Rachel Field original!

Thanks for reading my blog. Hope you’ll be back.


Bybee said...

I didn't connect Rachel Field with Hitty AND All This And Heaven, Too. Wow, I learned something today! Thanks for brunch...yum...

santiago said...

I did not know that Rachel Field had written the book the movie was based on. I remember seeing it with friends once on a PBS station on the Fourth of July (the theme of America as a place of re-birth, perhaps?) and thought it was pretty good, but so very melodramatic (we had a kick out watching a vein on Charles Boyer's forehead throbbing in a climactic scene.) We also were puzzled by the apparent Southern American accents ("Mam-zell") coming from the supposedly French children.