Sunday, August 9, 2009

Sunday Brunch with Ladybugs and Bees

Today’s Sunday brunch offers up the usual mix of facts and opinions on children’s books. Want to know which Newbery and Caldecott winners were most popular fifty years ago? Want to know how a fictional character from a children’s book figures into NCAA basketball? Want to know why I’m ticked at JACK AND JILL magazine? Read on.


The mind is a very strange thing.

Well, let me rephrase that:

My mind is a very strange thing.

What quirk in my brainwaves caused me to wake up this morning thinking about, of all things, HUMPTY DUMPTY MAGAZINE? I haven’t thought of that children’s periodical in decades. I can only assume that I dreamed about it last night...otherwise, why did I wake up thinking about it?

I actually had a subscription to HUMPTY DUMPTY when I was preschooler. What I remember best was how thick each issue was. I also remember fanning out the pages and rubbing them against my cheeks because the paper was so soft. (Gosh, maybe that’s how Lennie from OF MICE AND MEN went off track.) I don’t remember much else about the magazine, except I seem to recall a monthly cartoon called, I think, “Twinkle, the Star That Fell to Earth” and featured a star with a face walking around on two of his points. He looked sort of like this:

So for the last couple hours I’ve been looking online to learn more info about this magazine. The first thing I discovered is that’s actually called HUMPTY DUMPTY’S MAGAZINE, not just HUMPTY DUMPTY and that it is still being published. I also learned that from 1952 through 1965 it was edited by Alvin Tresselt, a major figure in children’s books. Among other titles, he wrote WHITE SNOW, BRIGHT SNOW, which won the Caldecott Medal in 1949.

I can’t find any references to the comic strip character Twinkle, though. Could I have made him up? You have to remember it's been decades since I subscribed. In fact, I’d outgrown the magazine by the time I started kindergarten. For a few years after that, I received JACK AND JILL magazine instead. I don’t know if they had a famous editor and, frankly, I don’t care. Ever since age eight, when they rejected the crayon drawing I sent for their “picture exhibition page,” that magazine has been dead to me!


One reference book that I frequently consult is A HISTORY OF THE NEWBERY AND CALDECOTT AWARDS by Irene Smith. Published by Viking in 1957 (an updated edition was published 1963), this volume provides background on the awards, lists the winners and “runners-up,” places the books in subject categories, and ranks them in popularity. I’ve always been particularly interested in those popularity rankings circa 1957. Are the same books popular today? Have most lost favor over time? Have any become more popular than they used to be?

In ranking the Newbery titles, Ms. Smith states that only two “stand out for their real satisfaction to a majority of children": GINGER PYE by Eleanor Estes (1952) and KING OF THE WIND by Marguerite Henry (1949.)

Five more are “usually found in the upper bracket of favor among children”: JOHNNY TREMAIN by Esther Forbes (1944), RABBIT HILL by Robert Lawson (1945), THE VOYAGES OF DOCTOR DOLITTLE by Hugh Lofting (1923), CADDIE WOODLAWN by Carol Ryrie Brink (1936), and STRAWBERRY GIRL by Lois Lenski (1946.)

The following “occupy the middle ground between actual popularity and a prevailing lack of it":

CALL IT COURAGE by Armstrong Sperry (1941)
THE MATCHLOCK GUN by Walter Edmonds (1942)
SMOKY THE COWHORSE by Will James (1927)
MISS HICKORY by Carolyn Sherwin Bailey (1947)
ROLLER SKATES by Ruth Sawyer (1937)
THIMBLE SUMMER by Elizabeth Enright (1939)
MIRACLES ON MAPLE HILL by Virginia Sorensen (1957)
THE DOOR IN THE WALL by Marguerite de Angeli (1950)
YOUNG FU OF THE UPPER YANGTZE by Elizabeth Foreman Lewis (1933)
THE WHEEL ON THE SCHOOL by Meindert DeJong (1955)

Two books are listed as having “less than average use”:

THE TWENTY-ONE BALLOONS by William Pene DuBois (1948)
TALES FROM SILVER LANDS by Charles Finger (1925)

According to Smith, the Newbery biographies (INVINCIBLE LOUISA by Cornelia Meigs, 1934; DANIEL BOONE by James Daugherty, 1940; AMOS FORTUNE, FREE MAN by Elizabeth Yates, 1951; CARRY ON, MR. BOWDITCH by Jean Lee Latham, 1956) “enjoy a fair and steady popularity” with the remaining nonfiction volume, 1922’s THE STORY OF MANKIND by Hendrik Van Look, somewhat less popular.

The rest of the winning books “compose a group considered lowest in popularity.” They are:

THE DARK FRIGATE by Charles Boardman Hawes (1924)
GAY NECK by Dhan Gopal Mukerji (1928)
ADAM OF THE ROAD by Elizabeth Janet Gray (1943)
DOBRY by Monica Shannon (1935)
THE TRUMPETER OF KRAKOW by Eric P. Kelly (1929)
THE WHITE STAG by Kate Seredy (1938)
THE CAT WHO WENT TO HEAVEN by Elizabeth Coatsworth (1931)
SHEN OF THE SEA by Arthur Chrisman Bowie (1926)
SECRET OF THE ANDES by Ann Nolan Clark (1953)
...AND NOW MIGUEL by Joseph Krumgold (1954)
WATERLESS MOUNTAIN by Laura Adams Armer (1932)

Irene Smith also ranks the Caldecott winners in popularity, circa 1957. She includes just two as “top favorites with children”: THE BIGGEST BEAR by Lynd Ward (1953) and MADELINE’S RESCUE by Ludwig Bemelmans (1954.)

Next in popularity are:

ABRAHAM LINCOLN by Ingri and Edgar d-’Aulaire (1940)
MAKE WAY FOR DUCKLINGS by Robert McCloskey (1942)
FINDERS KEEPERS by Nicolas Mordvinoff (1952)
CINDERELLA by Marcia Brown (1955)
FROG WENT A-COURTIN’ by Feodor Rojankovsky (1956)

Those deemed to have “average” popularity are:

MEI LI by Thomas Handforth (1939)
THE LITTLE HOUSE by Virginia Lee Burton (1943)
MANY MOONS by Louis Slobodkin (1944)
PRAYER FOR A CHILD by Elizabeth Orton Jones (1945)
THE ROOSTER CROWS by Maud and Miska Petersham (1946)
WHITE SNOW, BRIGHT SNOW by Roger Duvoisin (1948)
THE BIG SNOW by Berta and Elmer Hader (1949)

At the bottom of the list are five Caldecott winners “not often sought by children themselves”:

ANIMALS OF THE BIBLE by Dorothy Lathrop (1938)
THEY WERE STRONG AND GOOD by Robert Lawson (1941)
THE LITTLE ISLAND by Leonard Weisgard (1947)
SONG OF THE SWALLOWS by Leo Politi (1950)
THE EGG TREE by Katharine Milhous (1951)

Nowadays, most of Smith’s top-ranked books would be pushed further down the ladder because so many kid-friendly titles (HOLES, WESTING GAME, WRINKLE IN TIME, FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES, etc.) have been published in the intervening years. Still, I think Smith’s relative rankings hold up surprisingly well. Those listed as lowest in popularity in 1957, such as THE WHITE STAG and THE CAT WHO WENT TO HEAVEN, still remain fairly unpopular today.


Here’s a book that suits the season:

Unfortunately, this is also a book that makes me feel a little sad. When I look at the cover, I think of opportunities lost and stories we probably won’t get to read. And I blame the publisher.

Bonnie Geisert began her writing career with the texts for HAYSTACK, RIVER TOWN, and other volumes illustrated by her husband Arthur Geisert. In 2002, she published PRAIRIE SUMMER, an autobiographical novel about a young girl growing up on a South Dakota farm in the early 1950s.

Now most of us know about nineteenth-century prairie life courtesy of Laura Ingalls Wilder. But here was another historical, though significantly more modern, view of life on the prairie for a whole new audience of kids. Ms. Geisert had written a fine story, peopled with well-individualized characters and strong sense of place. Publisher Houghton Mifflin seemed to be behind the book as well, giving the book a notably classy design. The volume was issued in a larger-than-normal format, with a beautiful wraparound jacket evoking farmlife under a wide prairie sky. Here’s the back panel:

The book contained line drawings by Arthur Geisert and, that rarest of luxuries in a modern children’s books, illustrated endpapers:

In my mind, I imagined this series running for years, continuing the story of Rachel’s life on the prairie as she progressed through grade school...went to high school...grew older and wiser. I could see more and more larger-than-normal-sized volumes joining PRAIRIE SUMMER on the shelf, each with a gorgeous matching dustjacket.

Three years later, Bonnie Geisert wrote LESSONS, another story about Rachel’s life on the prairie and this is what we got:

Gone were the distinctively oversized volume and timeless dustjacket. Gone were the illustrated endpapers and wonderful line drawings throughout the book. Instead, we got a normal trimsize and today’s “typical” -- and typically bland -- stock photo cover illustration. The book had lost its charm and individuality. The narrative was still appealing (though a bit more narrowly focused than its predecessor) but the whole presentation was now just...ordinary. Houghton had had the opportunity to create a special series of books that might have appealed to readers of Wilder, but it appears that they really dropped the ball. LESSONS is now selling for about $5 on and I doubt there will be any more books in this series. Sad. It had the makings of a classic.


Well, this afternoon I finished this blog entry, braved the 94 degree heat and went out for lunch, then came home and took a nap. When I woke up, I had received an e-mail from a friend of this blog, informing me that a new novel by Bonnie Geisert is going to be be published this fall: PRAIRIE WINTER!

Of course I'm delighted to hear the Bonnie Geisert series will continue, although I feel kind of embarrassed to learn this news two hours after complaining that Houghton had ruined the franchise with their shoddy production of LESSONS!

I just hope that PRAIRIE WINTER is a return to the distinctive bookmaking of PRAIRIE SUMMER and not a slick, ordinary-looking volume like LESSONS. This series deserved better than that.


Wandering the stacks this week, I came across a curiosity -- CHINESE MOTHER GOOSE RHYMES by Isaac Taylor Headland of Peking University:

Published by Fleming H. Revell in 1900, this collection of nursery rhymes was collected from two of China's then-eighteen provinces and the editor contends that there "are probably more nursery rhymes in China than can be found in England and America."

Printed on heavy, patterned paper, each verse is accompanied by a black-and-white photograph and -- a surprisingly respectful touch considering the date of publication -- the poem's text written in Chinese.

Which isn’t to say that some images won’t make modern readers cringe, such as this frontispiece titled “Little Orientals”:

Although many of these verses relate to specific Chinese subjects, others are reminiscent of rhymes from our own oral tradition. Listen to “Lady Bug”:

Lady-bug, lady-bug,
Fly away, do,
Fly to the mountain,
And feed upon dew,
Feed upon dew
And sleep on a rug,
And then run away
Like a good little bug.

In the the west we have “five little piggies,” but in the east they apparently have “five little cows”:

This little cow eats grass,
This little cow eats hay,
the little cow drinks water
This little cow runs away,
The little cow does nothing
But just lie down all day;
We'll whip her.

Oh, and if you missed the little toe going “whee-whee-whee all the way home,” here is a Chinese rhyme called “Five Little Fingers”:

A great big brother,
And a little brother, so,
A big bell tower,
And a temple and a show,
And little baby wee wee,
Always wants to go.

And for those who wonder about the gratuitous violence that sometimes pops up in our western children’s rhymes, here are a couple eastern rhymes that prove it’s a global phenomenon:

Cruel Little Glutton

He eat too much,
That second brother,
And when he had eaten,
He beat his mother.


Pat a cake, pat a cake,
Little girl fair,
There's a priest in the temple
Without any hair.

You take a tile,
And I'll take a brick,
And we'll hit the priest
In the back of the neck.

CHINESE MOTHER GOOSE RHYMES presents a view of childhood that is both specific to Asian culture yet also has a recognizable universal quality.


A friend of mine grew up with Chip Hilton sports novels that were passed down by his four older brothers. I never heard of these books until I was an adult -- probably because they were out of print when I was growing up and -- as “series books” -- our library did not carry them.

Written by Clair Bee, who was both a college (Long Island University) and professional (Baltimore Bullets) basketball coach, the novels concern a wholesome and industrious high schooler (later college student) who participates in many sports, including basketball, football, and baseball.

Well-loved by former kids, first editions of some of these titles -- particularly 1964’s HUNGRY HURLER -- now sell for hundreds of dollars. In recent years, Mr. Bee’s daughter, Cynthia Bee Farley, has republished updated editions of the novels. Here’s a complete list of the author’s books:

NO-HITTER, 1959*
FIERY FURNACE, 2002 (published nearly twenty years after the author’s death)

Clair Bee was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1968 and the "Clair Bee Coach of the Year Award" is given annually to a college basketball coach. Even better, ever since 1997 there has been a "Chip Hilton Player of the Year Award" which is given "to a Division I men’s basketball player who demonstrates outstanding character, leadership, integrity, humility, sportsmanship and talent both on and off the court.” Past winners include Tim Duncan and Shane Battier. The current winner is Jon Brockman from the University of Washington.

I can’t think of too many major awards named for a fictional character.

Much less a fictional character from a children’s book.

Score one for Chip Hilton!


Speaking of honors, I’m happy to report that the Collecting Children’s Books blog has been chosen as one of the top ten book blogs by Larry D. Mitchell of the prestigious Private Library Blog.

Thank you for the honor! And score one for children’s books.

Thanks for visiting CCB. Hope you’ll be back.


Wendy said...

Fascinating info on the Newbery (as always). I would say that none of her tops in popularity are still big with kids (or former kids) today, though you still see Johnny Tremain in schools occasionally, and I think they all have some name recognition. (I've noticed that a lot of adult readers really dislike Ginger Pye, for some reason.) I think Miracles on Maple Hill and The 21 Balloons have crept up in popularity (and rightfully so) in comparison to the others, but all the bottom ones--I'd agree, they're still at the bottom.

jama said...

Congrats on making Larry's Top Ten List -- a well deserved honor. Love your focus here. Thought it was time to de-lurk and thank you for writing such great posts!

Anonymous said...

I'm happy you highlighted the great Arthur Geisert etchings in Prairie Summer. The classy design and the typeface on Prairie Summer are Walter Lorraine hallmarks, by the way. You'll spot that typeface on many (most? all?) of the books he edited. So, here, indeed, is hoping that HMCo doesn't take the lazy dive back into the stock photo pool for Prairie Winter, when they have a fine and beautiful tradition they could uphold. It's frustrating to anyone who cares about illustration and design how terrified sales and marketing departments sometimes seem at the idea that their books might look different than everything else on the shelves.

Mia said...

I remember Twinkle, too, and my random search for Twinkle led me to your blog! He did exist! He did he did he did! (Glad someone else remembers him too.)

Mia said...

I tracked down a copy of a 1967 Humpty Dumpty -- he is "Twinkle the star that came down from heaven." (Yeah, I've been obsessed with finding him since I read your blog.)