Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Nun of the Above

Back in the 1960s, there was a double-bill of Tennessee Williams plays on Broadway called SLAPSTICK TRAGEDY. I've always loved that title because it seems to sum up so much of life. Sad events sometimes contain a touch of dark or irreverent humor -- and there is often an element of pathos in comedy. Today's blog started with a silly topic -- airborne nuns. I was going to talk about how a children's book that nobody knows became a TV sitcom that everyone knows...but the more I researched the topic, the sadder I became.

The sitcom is THE FLYING NUN, which premiered in the fall of 1967 starring future Oscar-winner Sally Field. Our gal Sal played a novice nun assigned to a convent in Puerto Rico where the combination of her huge headgear (which kind of looked like a paper airplane on steroids) and the prevailing local winds frequently sent the sister soaring. It was a mixed blessing for Sister Bertrille. The opening credits did, after all, show her crash-landing through a stained glass window, though it certainly sounded like she was having fun when she sang the show's theme song :

Who needs wings to fly?
Certainly not I.
I prefer to take up on the breeze,
Follow any swallow that may please my fancy!

I just close my eyes,
Tiptoe through the skies.
'Long as there's a heaven standing by,
Who needs things like wings to fly?


Okay, I'll admit it: I once actually owned a copy of the Flying Nun album.

Something else I'll admit: for many years I didn't know the series was based on a book. I just figured the idea was dreamed up by some wacky scriptwriter. Remember, it was the sixties -- a time when a lot of Hollywood types didn't need wings to fly either. But it turns out that Sister Bertrille was actually created by a writer named Marie Teresa Rios Versace, an American of Puerto Rican descent. The wife of a U.S. Army colonel and mother of five, Ms. Versace wrote under the name "Tere Rios." The author, who had written two previous novels (AN ANGEL GROWS UP, 1957; BROTHER ANGEL, 1963), got the idea for this character when a friend spoke of seeing a nun with a large headpiece almost fly off her feet on a Paris street. Ms. Versace, who knew something about aerodynamics after spending the war with the Civil Air Patrol, soon invented the "flying nun." However, it took ten years before she could figure out the plot. She explained: "To write a good story, you have to get your character in trouble, and in those days, there wasn't much trouble you could get a nun in. Landing her in a nudist colony would have changed the tone I wanted and it wasn't until 1962...that it came to me to land her in an Army Security Area. That put her under the Espionage Act, which put her really in trouble, so I had my book. I thought."

See, just after the book was accepted for publication, the religious order featured in the story, the Daughters of Charity, announced that they were changing from big bonnets to little veils. The publishers felt that this dated the book and changed their mind about releasing the novel. Ms. Versace then submitted the book to Doubleday with a clever cover letter suggesting that the real reason the Daughters of Charity were no longer wearing the large headpieces could be because the high-flying events depicted in her book really happened! THE FIFTEENTH PELICAN : THE ADVENTURES OF A FLYING NUN was published in 1965. I am still trying to figure out if this book was published by Doubleday's adult or juvenile division. I've never seen this title in any children's library, yet it's commonly referred to as a "children's book" and the New York Times Book Review recommended it for ages eight to eleven. I do know that years later the paperback edition was published under Avon's children's imprint, Camelot. But that was after the TV show had become a big hit with kids. How did such an obscure book get made into a television series anyway? Part of it had to do with the times. It was the era of THE SOUND OF MUSIC and THE SINGING NUN, so there was already a built-in audience for a show about nuns. Besides, the United States was confronting many difficult issues during the sixties: civil rights, intergenerational conflicts, drugs, and, particularly, the war in Vietnam. There was a need for silly, escapist entertainment -- and what could be more absurd than a nun zooming around overhead like an airplane?

But here's where the story gets sad.

Marie Versace herself was likely unable to truly enjoy the success of her Flying Nun character. When THE FIFTEENTH PELICAN was published in 1965, she dedicated the book ""FOR THE ROCK and the children and sugar people of NamCan." "The Rock" was a nickname for her oldest son, Humbert Roque, a West Point-educated Army Captain, then serving in Vietnam as a military advisor. After the war he planned to attend seminary, become a priest, and return to Vietnam to help that country's orphaned children. But that was not to be. During a military mission, he and two other soldiers were captured and spent the next two years being tortured in a Viet Cong prison camp. He was executed on September 26, 1965. The last time his fellow prisoners heard his voice, he was loudly singing "God Bless America."

In the late sixties, while American audiences were still laughing at the antics of the Flying Nun on TV, its author traveled to Paris hoping to meet with a delegation from North Vietnam that had arrived in France for peace talks. Marie Versace wanted them to personally tell her what had happened to her son. She was not allowed to meet with them. Another of her sons, former Indiana Pacers coach Steven Versace would later say, "My mother, she never gave up. <...> Until she died, she thought he'd come walking out of those jungles any day."

Marie Versace died in 1999. Three years later, Humbert Roque Versace -- the Rock -- was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in a White House Ceremony. Because his remains were never found, his headstone marks an empty grave at Arlington National Cemetery, where both his parents are also buried.

This statue of the Captain and two Vietnamese children is on display at the Captain Rocky Versace Plaza and Vietnam Memorial in Alexandria, Virginia.

THE FIFTEENTH PELICAN by "Tere Rios" is a fun, silly book and the TV show it inspired is even sillier. It was the kind of escapist fare the country needed at the time.

But the book's single-line dedication -- from a mother to her son -- tells another, more somber, story about what our country was really going through during that time.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

A Pre-Oscar Brunch

The Oscars were always a big deal at our house. It was one of the few nights our parents let us stay up late. My brother and I used to study the checklist of Academy Award nominations on the back page of the local TV Guide and then devise a complex betting system involving pennies (five pennies were awarded if our favorite nominee won, four for our second favorite, etc.) so that the sound of the ceremony on television was always drowned out by the “plunk, plunk, plunk” of pennies dropping into the copper bowls (his red, mine blue) where we harbored our winnings. There was Pepsi and Fresca and potato chips -- and not just chips, but also...dip! Chip dip was only for special occasions: New Year’s Eve...the occasional big family get-together...and Oscar Night. And, since this was the late sixties/early seventies, we’re talking about French Onion dip made from one container of sour cream mixed with one pack of Lipton onion soup mix. (If we were really daring, we’d make it with Zevo, which was some kind of low-calorie sour cream of the era.)

The irony is that, for all our excitement, we were too young to have seen any of the movies...didn’t know the actors and actresses who were nominated...and could barely stay awake though all the boring categories (short subjects, documentaries) to see the big awards given out in the last few minutes of the ceremony.

Today’s Sunday Brunch is all about children’s books and movies. Can you guess how many Newbery-winning books have been filmed? How many children’s book authors have won Oscars? Some of the answers are below...and, here, have some chip dip while you’re reading. Don’t worry, we didn’t make it with Zevo.

THE DISNEY BRAND

This Oscar weekend actually started on Friday night when I stopped at my favorite bookstore and picked up a copy of Jonathan Stroud’s new book, HEROES OF THE VALLEY, an epic adventure/fantasy that draws on Scandanavian myth.


I read the first couple chapters and was quite impressed by the exciting action and beautifully-written prose. Then I set the book down for a moment and noticed this on the heel of the spine:


That Disney logo also appears on the title page. The fact that Hyperion Books is a division of the Disney Company is well-known and has never bothered me before. They’ve published some great books and even won the Newbery with Avi’s CRISPIN : THE CROSS OF LEAD. But in the past the Disney connection was not emblazoned on the spine in that familiar font. I don’t know if others will agree, but I feel that logo cheapens Stroud’s book because it puts me in mind of junky grocery-store activity books featuring Mickey Mouse and princess stickers. It’s hard to take a book seriously when it sports the word "Disney" in a jaunty font with a little circle dotting the i.

NEWBERY BOOKS ON THE SCREEN

If you had asked me a couple days ago how many Newbery Medal books had been made into motion pictures or TV-films, I would have said, “I dunno...six? Seven?” Then I started researching the topic and discovered that at least 25 of them have been filmed, including the very first Newbery-winning title, THE STORY OF MANKIND! How did they make a movie based on Hendrik Willem van Loon’s history of civilization? Not very well, it appears. Here is a chronological list of all the films I could find. Have I missed any?

1922 THE STORY OF MANKIND by Hendrik Willem van Loon was made into a 1957 blockbuster starring Ronald Colman, Hedy Lamarr, Vincent Price, the young Dennis Hopper and...the Marx Brothers? The advertising slogan was “No Greater Cast Ever! Rarely So Vast An Undertaking!” Surely any movie in which Harpo Marx played Isaac Newton was destined to flop.

1923 Hugh Lofting’s THE VOYAGES OF DOCTOR DOLITTLE may not have been the specific novel that inspired the 1967 musical DR. DOLITTLE, but the character certainly did. The movie, which starred Rex Harrison singing such lines as “If people ask me, ‘Can you speak rhinoceros?’ I’d say, ‘Of courserous! Can’t you?’” was nominated for nine Oscars including Best Picture. Eddie Murphy has recently played Dr. Dolittle in some comic remakes. Can you imagine what Polynesia the Parrot would say about that?

1927 Will James’ novel SMOKY THE COW HORSE has been filmed three times -- in 1933, 1946 (starring Fred Macmurray and Anne Baxter) and 1966. (Incidentally, Will James himself used to appear in old westerns as a cowboy extra.)

1936 CADDIE WOODLAWN by Carol Ryrie Brink was made into a 1989 television movie which, based on the picture used in the ad, could have been called CADDIE LONGSTOCKING.

1941 CALL IT COURAGE by Armstrong Sperry was filmed for the Disney TV series in 1973.

1944 Esther Forbes’ JOHNNY TREMAIN was made into a 1957 Disney feature. Not one of Disney’s classics, this is one novel that deserves to be remade.

1945 RABBIT HILL by Robert Lawson was broadcast as a TV episode of NBC CHILDREN’S THEATRE in 1967 with the title LITTLE GEORGIE OF RABBIT HILL.

1949 KING OF THE WIND by Marguerite Henry was made into a 1990 movie starring Richard Harris and two-time Oscar winner Glenda Jackson. Who knew? I sure didn’t.

1954 Joseph Krumgold was involved in the world of motion pictures from a young age. His father ran silent movie houses in New Jersey and Joseph grew up to write several screenplays including SEVEN MILES FROM ALCATRAZ. His Newbery winner ...AND NOW MIGUEL has an interesting history in film. It was originally created as a documentary for the State Department, with Krumgold later adapting his documentary into a novel. In 1966 that novel was made into a motion picture.

1961 Scott O'Dell’s ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS was made into a 1964 movie starring an actress named Celia Kaye wearing a slit leather skirt. No one remembers the movie; everyone remembers the skirt. In fact, this blog has actually had more visits from people Googling “Celia Kaye, slit skirt” than from people searching for information on the Scott O’Dell novel!

1963 The public had been demanding a movie based on Madeleine L'Engle’s A WRINKLE IN TIME for decades. It was finally broadcast on TV in 2003 and the public was underwhelmed.

1968 FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER by E. L. Konigsburg hit the screens in 1973 with three-time Oscar winner Ingrid Bergman as Mrs. Frankweiler. A floperoo at the box office, it was re-released with the new title THE HIDEAWAYS and still flopped. It was remade as a 1995 TV film with Lauren Bacall as Mrs. Frankweiler. Below you can see the different ways the movie was marketed, first with its original title and emphasis on the kids, then as THE HIDEAWAYS, featuring the kids and Ingrid wearing the fright wig she later loaned to Rachel Roberts for PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK. Later the adult stars (Richard Mulligan, Bergman, and Madeline Kahn) were highlighted. Finally, there’s Lauren (don’t call her Betty unless you know her personally!) Bacall as a sophisticated and modern Mrs. F.


1969 Lloyd Alexander’s THE HIGH KING wasn’t made into a movie, but it should be noted that an earlier novel in the Prydain series, THE BLACK CAULDRON (itself a Newbery Honor) was adapted for a 1985 Disney animated film.

1970 SOUNDER by William H. Armstrong is perhaps the most artistically successful of all Newbery adaptations. This 1972 film was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, and received Best Actor and Actress noms for Paul Winfield and Cicely Tyson. A TV version was made in 2003.

1971 SUMMER OF THE SWANS by Betsy Byars was shown as an ABC Afterschool Special called SARA’S SUMMER OF THE SWANS. Christopher Knight and Eve Plumb (AKA Peter and Jan Brady!) had supporting roles. Poor Jan...always on the supporting sidelines...never a STAR!

1972 Robert C. O'Brien’s MRS. FRISBY AND THE RATS OF NIMH was made into a 1982 animated feature film, though Mrs. Frisby became “Mrs. Brisby” and the title was changed to THE SECRET OF NIMH. I heard the name of the title character was changed because of a concern that it would be confused with the popular airborn spinning toy. If they made this movie in today’s world of product-placement, I think they probably would have struck some kind of deal with the Wham-O toy company and we’d be throwing Frisbees painted up with rodent faces.

1976 Susan Cooper’s Newbery winner THE GREY KING was not made into a film, but the second book in this series, THE DARK IS RISING, was released last year under the title THE SEEKER : THE DARK IS RISING.

1977 Mildred Taylor’s ROLL OF THUNDER, HEAR MY CRY was shown on television in 1978 with Morgan Freeman in one of the supporting roles.

1978 BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA by Katherine Paterson was made into a TV movie in 1985 and a major motion picture in 2007.

1979 THE WESTING GAME by Ellen Raskin sounds like a natural for the screen, but its 1997 TV adapation was forgettable.

1981 Katherine Paterson’s second Newbery winner, JACOB HAVE I LOVED, was a 1989 TV movie starring Bridget Fonda as “Weezy.”

1983 Although Cynthia Voigt’s DICEY’S SONG has not been filmed, the first book in the Tillermann series, HOMECOMING, was made into a very fine 1996 TV-movie starring Anne Bancroft.

1986 SARAH, PLAIN AND TALL was made into an acclaimed TV movie in 1991 starring Glenn Close and Christopher Walken, with Patricia MacLachlan adapting her own novel for the teleplay.

1987 Sid Fleischman wrote a number of screenplays over his career, including the 1956 tearjerker GOOD-BYE, MY LADY , which had me bawling like a baby when I was much younger. (Well, not that much younger; I saw it about five years ago.) Anyway, his Newbery winner THE WHIPPING BOY was made into a 1995 telefilm starring that notorious Oscar rejector George C. Scott.

1991 MANIAC MAGEE by Jerry Spinelli was made into a 2003 TV movie. It was directed by Bob Clark, who also directed the classic A CHRISTMAS STORY. (Okay, he also directed the Porky’s movies, but we’ll pretend he didn’t.)

1992 Phyllis Reynolds Naylor scored a trifecta, with SHILOH released as a movie in 1996, followed by its sequels, SHILOH SEASON and SAVING SHILOH, hitting the screen in 1999 and 2006.

1999 Louis Sachar wrote the screenplay for his novel HOLES, which was released in 2003, starring Shia LaBeouf, Sigourney Weaver and Jon Voight.

2004 THE TALE OF DESPEREAUX by Kate DiCamillo was recently released as an animated feature film. In fact, if you hurry up you can probably still catch it at the dollar theatres.

2009 I think we can predict with great accuracy that Neal Gaiman's GRAVEYARD BOOK will become a film sooner rather than later.

PIC FLICKS

I haven’t checked all the Caldecott winners to see which have been filmed. I imagine some have been made into short subject cartoons, but the only titles that I know have become full-scale motion pictures are both of Chris Van Allsburg’s winners. JUMANJI was made into a 1995 film and THE POLAR EXPRESS hit the big screen in 2004 with Tom Hanks in the starring role.

Last year’s winner, Brian Selznick’s THE INVENTION OF HUGO CABRET, is currently in development for film. This is particularly fitting since the book is about the early days of moviemaking. ...And did you know that Brian is a distant relative of the famed producer David O. Selznick.

WHY WE’LL BE SEEING MORE CHILDREN’S BOOKS ON THE SCREEN

It appears that films of children’s books have been doing particularly well at the box office lately. Of 2008’s top ten grossing films, TWILIGHT (based on the novel by Stephenie Meyer) was #7 and HORTON HEARS A WHO (based on the book by Dr. Seuss) was #10.

2007’s top ten included the third film in the SHREK series (based on the book by William Steig) and HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX (J.K. Rowling.)

Incidentally, has there ever been a more faithful film adaptation of a children’s series than the Harry Potter books, with each volume being carefully made into a well-received movie with the same lead performers?

Another author treated very well by Hollywood is S.E. Hinton who, within a three-year period in the early 1980s saw four of her young adult novels, TEX, THE OUTSIDERS, RUMBLE FISH and THAT WAS THEN, THIS IS NOW made into fine films -- two directed by Francis Ford Coppola! -- and featuring then-up-and-comers such as Patrick Swayze, Matt Dillon, Nicolas Cage, Laurence Fishburne, Rob Lowe and Tom Cruise.


EIGHT GOOD MOVIES BASED ON KIDS’ BOOKS
In addition to some of the titles mentioned above (SOUNDER, RUMBLE FISH, etc.), here are a few especially good movies based on books for young people:

THE BLACK STALLION (1979) is based on Walter Farley’s novel.

BABE (1995) is adapted from the novel by Dick King-Smith.

CAPTAIN COURAGEOUS (1937) is based on Rudyard’s Kiplings classic; Spencer Tracy won an Oscar for it.

OLD YELLER (1957) originated in a Newbery Honor book by Fred Gipson.

THE YEARLING (1946) started with MARJORIE KINNAN RAWLINGS’ novel which was published as a adult book, true...but can be found in every children’s library.

LITTLE WOMEN (1933) is based on the Louisa May Alcott novel and starring Katharine Hepburn.

CAROLINE? (1990) not to be confused with CORALINE, this TV movie was based on E.L. Konigsburg’s novel FATHER’S ARCANE DAUGHTER and won the Emmy for Outstanding Special of the Year.

CORALINE (2009) not to be confused with CAROLINE?, this movie from Neal Gaiman's novel is currently playing in theatres everywhere and getting raves.

SIX CHILDREN’S BOOKS MADE INTO MOVIE MUSICALS

THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939) may not be faithful to the L.Frank Baum novel, but it’s acquired a life separate from the book and is loved by almost everyone. Its theme song, “Somewhere Over theRainbow” won an Oscar.

MARY POPPINS (1964) isn’t real faithful to the P.L. Travers book either, but Julie Andrews won an Oscar in the title role and “Chim Chim Cher-ee” won Best Song.

CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG (1968) was adapted from the book by Ian Fleming. The title tune was nominated for an Oscar.

BEDKNOBS AND BROOMSTICKS (1971) is based on Mary Norton’s book BEDKNOB AND BROOMSTICK. (Why did they change the title? I guess in Hollywood they always believe that more is better.) This Angela Lansbury movie also had an Oscar-nominated song, “The Age of Not Believing.” Do you know it? Me neither.

THE JUNGLE BOOK (1967) was an animated film made from Rudyard Kipling’s book; it also got a Best Song nomination for “The Bare Necessities.”

HEIDI (1937) starring Shirley Temple. I know you’re saying, “But it’s not a musical!” No? Then why was that dumb “In Our Little Wooden Shoes” number plunked down in the middle of it? Don’t get me wrong, I love this movie...but that’s really a silly and unnecessary song. If they wanted to make this a musical, they should have gone full-tilt-boogie and made it a big ol’ all singing-all dancing extravaganza by adding a few songs like “I Love a Happy Yodelin’ Tune,” “Just a Squirt of Goat Milk,” “Papa, Watch Me Walk,” “Oh My Pretty Little Snowglobe (How Can I Put You Together Again?)” and the soaring duet “Grandfather, Grandfather! Heidi, Heidi!”

SIX MOVIES ABOUT CHILDREN’S AUTHORS

THE DREAMER OF OZ, a 1990 telefilm, starred John Ritter as L. Frank Baum.

1993’s SHADOWLANDS starred Anthony Hopkins as C.S. Lewis.

Johnny Depp got a 2005 Oscar nomination for his performance as J.M. Barrie in FINDING NEVERLAND.

Rene Zellwegger portrayed the creator of Peter Rabbit in the 2006 film MISS POTTER.

Danny Kaye had the title role in the 1952 movie musical HANS CHRISTIAN ANDERSEN.

Matt Damon, who won an Oscar for writing GOOD WILL HUNTING, and Heath Ledger, who will probably win a supporting actor Oscar this evening for THE DARK KNIGHT, played the lead roles in 2005’s THE BROTHERS GRIMM.

...AND ONE WAITING TO BE MADE

I understand THE SECRET LIFE OF THE LONELY DOLL : THE SEARCH FOR DARE WRIGHT by Jean Nathan is about to be made into a movie. I love this book. In fact, I loved it so much that, as soon as I finished reading it the first time I turned back to page one and started reading it again. I thought that was due to my interest in children’s books, but I then gave the book to someone else to read -- someone who knew nothing about kids’ books -- and they reported that they had to read it twice as well. It’s that kind of book.


I’m really curious to learn who will be cast in the pivotal roles of that tortured soul Dare Wright and her (s)mother Edie, one of the most controlling maternal figures ever. Whoever takes the role of Dare must be beautiful, charming, ethereal, willing to play scenes of madness and near-degradation. Full frontal nudity required. (Curious why? Read the book. It’s great.)

ONE MOVIE SET IN A CHILDREN’S BOOKSTORE

The 1998 Meg Ryan-Tom Hanks romance YOU’VE GOT MAIL concerns a children’s bookstore that was modeled after New York’s famous BOOKS OF WONDER. During the course of the movie, several children’s titles are referenced, including the BETSY-TACY books by Maud Hart Lovelace, BOY by Roald Dahl, and the “Shoe” books by Noel Streatfeild.

DID I DREAM THIS?

Reading up on books made into movies for this blog, I came across a TV movie called THE WORLD OF STUART LITTLE which won a 1966 Peabody Award. I actually have a very dim recollection of seeing this movie when it aired (I was only seven) and seem to recall hearing that one of the scenes was shot in Caroline Kennedy’s classroom and that she can be seen among the students in the film. I also remember hearing that a man is seen sitting in the back of the room at one point -- Caroline's bodyguard. However, I Googled “Caroline Kennedy” and “Stuart Little” today and found no reference to this anecdote. Does anyone else remember it or was it just a product of my fertile childhood imagination? (Though why I’d imagine THIS story is beyond me; I certainly didn’t spend much, if any, time thinking of Caroline Kennedy as a kid!)

HAVE ANY CHILDREN’S BOOK AUTHORS WON OSCARS?

Let’s ignore those actors who “write” children’s books (I wish PUBLISHERS would ignore them!) and just focus on real working writers. So far I can only think of three who were nominated or won an Academy Award. Can you think of any more?

My three:

GIVING TREE author Shel Silverstein was nominated for an “Original Song” Oscar for writing “I’m Checking Out,” which Meryl Streep sang in POSTCARDS FROM THE EDGE.

Norman Juster, who wrote the children’s classic THE PHANTOM TOOLBOOTH wrote 1966’s “Best Short Subject Cartoon” Oscar winner, THE DOT AND THE LINE : A ROMANCE IN LOWER MATHEMATICS.

The late Barbara Cohen wrote many outstanding children’s books including THE CARP IN THE BATHTUB, about a boy trying to save a fish from becoming Passover dinner, and my personal favorite FAT JACK, which concerns a high school drama club. In 1985, Ms. Cohen’s Thanksgiving story, MOLLY’S PILGRIM, was filmed and the author even had a small role as a school crossing guard. The following year, MOLLY’S PILGRIM won an Oscar for “Best Short Film, Live Action.”

Barbara Cohen later wrote about her experiences seeing her book turned into a movie. She said that as exciting as it was to see her story win an Oscar...she would rather win the Newbery Award!

Well, that’s all for today’s pre-Oscar Brunch. Hope you can fill in any of the empty spaces in today’s blog -- what other children’s book people have been nominated for Oscars? What children’s books made into films should I have mentioned -- INKHEART? SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES? What mistakes have I made? Please feel free to add any comments. I’m off to buy some sour cream and onion soup mix for tonight’s festivities.

Incidentally, the more things change the more they stay the same. When I was a kid I never knew any of the nominated movies because I was too young to see them -- and could barely stay awake to the end of the ceremony because I was too tired. Flash forward to 2009. This year I don’t know many of the nominated movies because I’m too busy working and blogging to see them and will barely be able to stay awake to the end of the ceremony because I’m too old and tired!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Books That Went to the Dogs (and Cats)

Beatrix Potter once had a pet rat.

No, I didn't say C-A-T, as in that nice, but mischievous little "Tom Kitten," I said R-A-T...as in greedy Templeton from CHARLOTTE'S WEB...as in James Cagney sneering, "You dirty rat!"...as in Michael Jackson warbling to that rodent-with-roid-rage Ben.

Not everyone was fond of Miss Potter's pet (the author once wrote about an elderly aunt "who didn't appreciate his friendly advances." Yeah, probably not...especially if he was crawling up her leg.) But Beatrix herself was quite smitten with the little guy. She wrote about Samuel Whiskers in her 1908 book THE ROLY-POLY PUDDING, and even dedicated the volume "In remembrance of 'SAMMY,' the intelligent pink-eyed representative of a persecuted (but irrepressible) race. An affectionate little friend, and most accomplished thief!"

I wonder if THE ROLY-POLY PUDDING was the first children's book dedicated to a pet. It certainly wasn't the last. Over the past century, many more pets have been celebrated and memorialized in dedications.

In 1994, Stephanie Calmenson wrote ROSIE : A VISTING DOG'S STORY, about her own Tibetian Terrier who was trained to visit children's hospitals and nursing homes; she dedicated the volume to Rosie. Seven years later, Ms. Calmenson published the picture book PERFECT PUPPY, which was illustrated by Thomas F. Yezerski, who dedicated the book "To Tiffy and Mickey." Mr. Yezerski said, "Both Stephanie Calmenson and I had real dogs in mind while we worked on PERFECT PUPPY. Stephanie’s dog Rosie is <...> trained to cheer up sad and sick people. My parents’ dog Mickey doesn’t have such an important job, unless stealing toast and socks is an important job. He was the dog I was thinking about. It wasn’t until after I started working on the book that Stephanie and I realized that Rosie and Mickey are both Tibetan Terriers! What a coincidence! I also dedicated the book to my family’s first dog Tiffy, because a lot of her personality is in the Perfect Puppy, too." Author-illustrator Denise Fleming has also dedicated at least two of her books to favorite pets. MAMA CAT HAS THREE KITTENS (1998) is "for Abigal, my first cat" while BUSTER (2008) is dedicated to her dog Warfy. While writing THE FIVE-DOG NIGHT (1993), Eileen Christelow thought about the canines that had shared her life and dedicated the book "To five dogs past and present -- Johnny Bull, Gretchen, Casey, Ladi, Ophelia." The dedication of Bill Peet's 1970 picture book THE WINGDINGDILLY is simple and hearfelt: "In memory of a wonderful dog."

Authors often fictionalize real-life pets in stories...and then dedicate the books to them. Marguerite Henry dedicated MISTY OF CHINCOTEAGUE to several citizens of Chincoteague Island who appeared as characters in her book, ending with "a special dedication to Three Chincoteague Ponies: Phanton, Pied Piper, Misty." Betsy Byars' 1996 easy-to-read novel TORNADO features a cat named Five-Thirty (the narrator says, "It got the name because the cat used to come to our house every day at five-thirty to get something to eat.") Ms. Byars would later say, "The cat in the book, Five-thirty, is a real cat and I dedicated the book to him and his family." However, I noticed that the dedication is actually to a cat named "Nine-Thirty" so I guess she changed this feline's first name for the book...though she kept the same last name. Phyllis Reynolds Naylor based the title character of her 1992 Newbery winner SHILOH upon "the saddest dog I ever saw" during a visit to West Virginia. Later some friends of Ms. Naylor's found the dog, took him in, and named him Clover -- and the book she wrote about him was ultimately dedicated to Clover. SHILOH isn't the only Newbery winner dedicated to a pet. When Emily Cheney Neville published her first book, IT'S LIKE THIS, CAT in 1963, she did not acknowledge her husband, her kids, or her parents. Instead she dedicated the book to the cat who shared her family's apartment in New York City: "To Midnight, the 'Mayor' of Gramercy Park, 1954-1962." (Sounds like he pretty much ran the neighborhood, doesn't it?)

Perhaps the most unusual "pet dedication" I've seen can be found in Gary Paulsen's MY LIFE IN DOG YEARS, a memoir that introduces several canines the author has known and loved. What makes this dedication so fascinating is that it's seven pages long! In "Cookie: A Dedication," he talks about the special dog that led his team the first time that he raced the Iditarod. Once, during a beaver trapping expedition, the author fell through some ice and faced certain death -- until he was pulled out by Cookie and the rest of his sled dogs. Paulsen concludes: "That was in 1980. It is now 1997 as I write this, and everything that has happened in the last seventeen years -- everything: Iditarods, publishing books, love, living, life--all of it, including this book, I owe to Cookie."

We do owe a lot to our pets -- and since the time of Sammy-the-Rat, lots and lots of children's book have been dedicated to litters and litters of animals. Maybe some think it's silly to dedicate a book to a being that can't even read, but I don't necessarily agree. I'm thinking of this scene in Lois Lowry's ANASTASIA KRUPNIK: "The second book of poetry by her father <...> was called MYSTERY OF MYTH. Her father liked it. But her mother didn't like it at all. The reason her mother didn't like it at all was because on one of the inside pages it said, 'For Annie.' Anastasia didn't know who Annie was. She suspected that her mother did." This makes me think about all the books out there that are dedicated to husbands and wives that are now ex-husbands and ex-wives. Books dedicated to friends who are no longer speaking. I doubt that kind of thing ever happens after a book is dedicated to a dog or cat. Our constant companions, always loyal and faithful, our pets show their dedication to us every day of their lives.

Is it any wonder that some get Dedications back in return?

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Looking Over the President's Shoulder

Last week President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama visited the Capital City Charter School in Washington, D.C. During their visit, they read aloud the new children's picture book THE MOON OVER STAR, written by by Dianna Hutts Aston and illustrated by Jerry Pinkney.


According to reports, the president's pick sparked public interest and libraries soon noted an increased demand for THE MOON OVER STAR. I have to admit I pored over the photographs of President and Mrs. Obama at the library, seeing if I could identify any of the children's books from the spines on the shelves behind them. I think I saw Funke, I think I saw Gantos. I'm pretty sure I saw Scott O'Dell's SING DOWN THE MOON and ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS side-by-side. Oh, and right over the president's shoulder, the only book facing out, I definitely saw THE CROSSROADS by Chris Grabenstein.


I found this both historically symbolic, since Obama is now leading a country which seems to be at a crossroads, as well as, just personally way cool because, hey, I read that book!


A few days after her trip to the Capital City Charter School, Michelle Obama visited Mary's Center, a Washington community health organization, where she read aloud Bill Martin's BROWN BEAR, BROWN BEAR, WHAT DO YOU SEE? Saying that she'd shared this book "a million times" with her own daughters, Mrs. Obama proceeded to recite the story before an audience of preschoolers -- often without having to consult the text. Reading is important to the Obama family ("Harry Potter is huge in our house," Mrs. Obama once said, adding that her husband had read the entire series aloud to their daughters) and it's great to see the new first family continuing the presidential tradition of supporting children's books.

Lynda Johnson Robb, former chairman of Reading is Fundamental and president of the National Home Library Foundation, used to solicit signed children's books for the White House Library during the presidency of her father Lyndon Johnson.

President Jimmy Carter's daughter, Amy, often sat reading a book at official state dinners. In a 1978 interview, she listed ALVIN FERNALD, SUPERWEASEL by Clifford B. Hicks as her favorite, though when the White House hosted a "Reading is Fun Day" event the following year, she released a balloon with a tag containing her name, address, and the title of her favorite book, TREASURE ISLAND.

The children's title most associated with the recent Bush presidency will probably always, tragically, be "My Pet Goat," although it's not a stand-alone children's book but, instead, a story -- actually titled "THE Pet Goat" -- in a grade school primer. On a happier note, Laura Bush, a former children's librarian, invited several authors of books for young people -- including Christopher Paul Curtis, Susan Jeffers, and Angela Shelf Medearis -- to an inauguration event in 2001, and even presented a copy of our 1929 Newbery winner, THE TRUMPETER OF KRAKOW by Eric P. Kelly, to Polish first lady Jolanta Kwaśniewska during a state visit. Reportedly, Mrs. Kwasniewska opened the book and then gave Mrs. Bush a kiss. I could have kissed her too, for bringing this great, but often-neglected, novel back into the media spotlight.

Granted, not everyone is quite as obsessive about the topic of children's books as I am. Not everyone cheers when they hear that two presidents' wives from two different countries appreciate THE TRUMPETER OF KRAKOW. Not everyone gets out a magnifying glass to see what books are on the shelf behind President Obama's right shoulder. But even the most casual news-watcher sees the president and first lady in libraries, surrounded by books -- and that's a good thing. Some have heard the titles THE MOON OVER STAR or BROWN BEAR, BROWN BEAR, WHAT DO YOU SEE? for the first time and may now go to the library or bookstore and get these stories for themselves. That's good too. When images of famous people enjoying children's books are floated around out there, like ballons in the air, who knows what kind of influence they may eventually have?


And speaking of balloons...I'd like to think that, by some quirk of fate, thirty years ago a balloon went up into the air, caught a particularly ascendant jet stream, and has been floating around in the stratosphere for decades...over Atlantic and Pacific, over the Alps and Himalayas. Maybe someday it will finally touch down in a backyard where a kid will puzzle over the faded writing on the tag, ride his bike over to the library for the first time to borrow a copy of TREASURE ISLAND, and then write back to a girl named AMY C. at -- what's that address? 1600 what? -- to tell her it's now his favorite book too.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Sunday Brunch with an Odd Mix of Guests

Guests at today’s Sunday Brunch include George Washington, “Ginny and Genny," Frances Hodgson Burnett...and Courtney Love. Just planning the seating arrangements was a nightmare. Nobody wanted to sit next to George because of his clattering dentures. Ginny and Genny are terribly homophonic. Frances would be okay, except she insisted on bringing that bratty little Lord Fauntleroy with her (what that kid needs is a swift kick in his velvet knee-breeches.) As for Courtney Love...let’s just say that her reputation precedes her. No wonder today’s brunch is shorter than usual; I just want to get these people out of here so I can relax with a good book!

BABY LOVE

Did you hear the one about the minister, the priest, and the rabbi?

Oh, you have?

Okay then, how about the one with the writer, the librarian, the editor, the book collector, and Courtney Love?

This all started last week over on Fuse #8’s indispensable children’s book blog. Fuse #8 (AKA Elizabeth Bird) is the librarian in this equation. One her blog-readers, SamR (AKA writer Sam Riddleburger) made a reference to something being “almost as crazy as the Paula Fox - Courtney Love thing.”

Fuse #8 responded, “Well if no one else is going to say it, I will. What Paula Fox/Courtney Love thing, Sam?”


This is where I entered the picture. As anyone who reads this blog knows, I love sharing information and opinions on children’s books and their creators. So I immediately posted a message on Fuse #8’s blog, begging to tell the tale. Raising my hand and almost falling out of my school desk with excitement, I shouted, "Oh, I know! Teacher, teacher, I know the Paula Fox/Courtney Love answer! Please call on me!"

Miss Fuse shook her head: "No, Peter, Sam brought it up first and we'll let Sam reveal the answer!"

"But, Miss Fuse, I know it! I know the answer to that one,” I sputtered. “And it IS crazy!"

Miss Fuse rapped me on the knuckles with her yardstick to quiet me down, then turned to my classmate and said, “Sam, you have until the end of the day to answer the question. Then I'm calling on Peter. He's being very patient.”

But Sam just SAT there, refusing to answer!

Later on, a very famous editor called Brenda B (AKA Brenda Bowen) dropped by. How famous is she? Think National Book Awards (TRUE BELIEVER by Virginia Euwer Wolff), think Newbery Awards (OUT OF THE DUST by Karen Hesse.) And even she implored Miss Fuse to “please please let Peter tell us about Paula Fox and Courtney Love!”

Well, since she ASKED, and since I was DYING to tell the story -- and since Sam still wasn’t talking, I issued the following “Fox News Alert.” I’m repeating it here today for those who might have missed it:

A writer of fiction for both adults and young people, Paula Fox is probably best known in the children’s book world for her Newbery-winning novel THE SLAVE DANCER and the Newbery Honor ONE-EYED CAT. (My personal favorites also include BLOWFISH LIVE IN THE SEA, A PLACE APART, and THE MOONLIGHT MAN.) Back in the 1944, when Paula Fox was 21, she gave birth to a daughter whom she gave up for adoption. Nearly fifty years later this daughter, Linda Carroll, tracked down Ms. Fox and they met for the first time. An Oregon-based therapist, Linda Carroll has five children -- one of whom is rock star Courtney Love. That’s right, Paula Fox is Courtney Love’s grandmother!

From articles I’ve read, it appears that Ms. Fox does not get along with her newfound granddaughter, though one report did say that Courtney was pleased to learn that, though her grandmother, she is distantly related to Douglas Fairbanks. Incidentally, for those who think I am telling tales out of school with this story and have turned “Collecting Children’s Books” into the “National Enquirer,” let me hasten to add that all the parties involved in this event have written about it. Paula Fox told the story in her memoir BORROWED FINERY and Linda Carroll related the tale in the book HER MOTHER’S DAUGHTER.

It’s definitely stranger than fiction.

HE COULD NOT TELL A LIE, BUT HIS BIOGRAPHER COULD

Tomorrow is Presidents’ Day -- a time for celebrating Presidents George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Since Lincoln got all the glory on the two hundredth anniversary of his birth last week, I thought it only fair to focus on George Washington today.

Back when I was a teenager, many years before I moved into the high-paying field of children’s books, I worked the grill at McDonalds. And every February 22 we’d celebrate George Washington’s birthday by selling cherry pies for only a dime. I can still hear the echoes of those days in my head:

Boss: “Drop another dozen cherry pies in the fryer!”

Me: “We already have two dozen pies down. The pie fryer is completely full!.”

Boss: “Then make them in the fish fryer!”

Me: “But they’ll taste like seafood.”

Boss: “No one will notice the difference.”

(Moral of the story: if a cherry pie only costs a dime, you should expect to get scrod.)

The story of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree has been part of our culture for over two hundred years. In addition to those fish-flavored cherry pies, there have been cherry-and-hatchet postcards:


and pageants where unsuspecting kids are made to dress up as the young George Washington:


(Tip to parents: if you MUST dress your kid this way, it’s probably not a good idea to hand him a hatchet. He may, you know, be unhappy about having to wear that costume.)

This week in school kids will be celebrating Presidents Day by drawing pictures of cherry trees and doing craft projects, like one I found on the internet today, showing how to make a fun replica of George Washington’s cherry tree out of chenille stems and pony beads.

This inevitably leads to three questions:

1) What the heck is a chenille stem?
2) As far as that goes, what are pony beads?
3) Why are we still perpetuating this cherry tree story when we all know it’s a myth?

To be fair, many of the school lesson plans and craft projects I found on the internet referred to the “legend” of George Washington and the cherry tree, but isn’t that just a nice way of saying “fib” or “lie”? In truth, the story is so untrue that McDonalds should dispense with their George Washington cherry pie promotion and let Burger King celebrate the day by giving out free Whoppers -- because the story of Little George and his hatchet is one of our most famous historical whoppers.

But did you know all it started with a children’s book?

Mason Locke Weems was a cleric and writer who published two volumes about the first president. The cherry tree story did not turn up until the fifth edition of THE LIFE OF GEORGE WASHINGTON : WITH CURIOUS ANECDOTES, EQUALLY HONOURABLE TO HIMSELF AND EXEMPLARY TO HIS YOUNG COUNTRYMEN, which was published in 1806:

"George," said his father, " do you know who killed that beautiful little cherry tree yonder in the garden? " This was a tough question; and George staggered under it for a moment; but quickly recovered himself: and looking at his father, with the sweet face of youth brightened with the inexpressible charm of all- conquering truth, he bravely cried out, "I can't tell a lie, Pa; you know I can't tell a lie. I did cut it with my hatchet." "Run to my arms, you dearest boy," cried his father in transports, "run to my arms; glad am I, George, that you killed my tree; for you have paid me for it a thousand fold. Such an act of heroism in my son is more worth than a thousand trees, though blossomed with silver, and their fruits of purest gold."

This story, recounted in countless biographies and children’s books, has since been deemed untrue. Ditto the story of Washington tossing a silver coin across the Potomac. And, while we’re at it, his dentures weren’t made out of wood either.

But I’ve got to say that while Mason Weems may have played fast and loose with the facts, he was obviously a good storyteller -- spinning a tale that has been retold for centuries and creating the most memorable hatchet in children’s books until Gary Paulsen came along. So I’m not going to criticize Parson Weems too much for stretching the truth.

...Besides I don’t have room to criticize. I’ve told a whopper or two in my time as well. Maybe even in this blog. (See statement above regarding “the high-paying field of children’s books.”)

GEORGE WASHINGTON AND THE NEWBERY

Lincoln seems to trump Washington when it comes to children’s books awards, with ABRAHAM LINCOLN by Ingri and Edgar Parin D’aulaire winning the 1940 Caldecott and LINCOLN : A PHOTOBIOGRAPHY by Russell Freedman claiming the 1988 Newbery.

There are three Newbery Honor Books about George Washington -- and none of them include the story of the hatchet and the cherry tree. First up is the 1939 Honor LEADER BY DESTINY : GEORGE WASHINGTON, MAN AND PATRIOT by Jeanette Eaton. Although it contains a bit of unnecessary fictionalized dialogue, this is a straightforward, intelligent, and thorough biography of the first president.


Genevieve Foster was a much honored author-illustrator of biographies and historical books. Her 1942 Honor, GEORGE WASHINGTON’S WORLD contrasts events in the president’s life with global history. A companion volume in this series, ABRAHAM LINCOLN’S WORLD, would also win a Newbery Honor a few years later.


Although well-regarded in the past, the first edition of the book contained a mistake in this map of the thirteen colonies


by including Maine, which was not one of the thirteen colonies. Later editions corrected this error. And by today’s standards, the prose -- which attributes thoughts and dialogue to historical characters -- seems very much dated and, at times, even offensive. On the very first page an “old Negro woman” dressing the infant Washington exclaims, “He sho’ a fine big boy, Mis’ Mary. ...So big and strong. Look lak he monf old already.”

Several years later, Ms. Foster began a new series of “Initial Biographies.” Aimed at younger readers than her earlier books, the Initial Biographies always featured the subject’s initials on the cover. The GW volume was named a 1950 Newbery Honor. It’s a special book in my collection, mainly because it’s inscribed from the author (“Genny”) to her editor Virginia Fowler (“Ginny”) “with appreciation for all she does to make these books come out right.”


SPEAKING OF RELATIVES

Paula Fox isn’t the only author with a famous relative. Genevieve Foster would later become the mother-in-law of Frances Foster, the editor who published HOLES by Louis Sachar and many other notable books.

NOT COMING BACK IN STYLE

Once again, PBS’ ANTIQUES ROADSHOW featured another children’s book treasure on last night’s show. On a stop in Dallas, a woman brought in a collection of items that once belonged to her great-grandmother, Frances Hodgson Burnett. They included the handwritten first chapter of LITTLE LORD FAUNTLEROY, a first edition copy of that book, a guest book from Burnett’s home, and items related to a copyright suit in which the author was involved. The owner of these items also reported she also owned some “Little Lord Fauntleroy” suits worn by her ancestors. The appraiser said that while these items may not have a lot of value as individual pieces, as an archive representing the life and work of Frances Hodgson Burnett they were worth $75,000. (Which would be better -- Paula Fox for a grandmother or Frances Hodgson Burnett as a great-grandmother?)

During the author’s lifetime, she was best known for her first children’s book, LITTLE LORD FAUNTLEROY. This story of a poor American boy who learns he is a wealthy British heir was first serialized in ST. NICHOLAS MAGAZINE before being published as book by Scribner in 1886. A huge success, it had a major impact on culture as boys everywhere were soon dressed in velvet kneepants with bows and lace collars and wearing their hair in long ringlets (I can almost hear Ramona Q. yelling, “BO-ING!) As pointed out on last night’s ROADSHOW, Burnett's lawsuit against a theatrical presentation of FAUNTLEROY led to a change in copyright laws which assured that creators are entitled to royalties for adaptations of their work.

As popular as LITTLE LORD FAUNTLEROY was during its era, the book's fame has now been eclipsed by two Burnett titles that were originally considered much less successful -- THE LITTLE PRINCESS and THE SECRET GARDEN. These novels continue to be read and loved by young readers, are adapted for stage and screen, and many young girls daydream about being GARDEN’s Mary Lennox or PRINCESS’s Sara Crewe. Although LITTLE LORD FAUNTLEROY remains in print, it’s not widely read and I think it’s safe to say that very few twenty-first century boys daydream about being Fauntleroy.

Gosh, I can't imagine why.


Thanks for visiting Collecting Children’s Books. More facts, stories, and opinions regarding children’s books on schedule for later this week. Hope you’ll be back!

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Touching Lincoln's Nose


Today is the two hundredth anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth.

To commemorate the occasion, I have been reading some of the Lincoln books in my collection. One of the most recent -- and surely one of the best -- is THE LINCOLNS : A SCRAPBOOK LOOK AT ABRAHAM AND MARY by Candace Fleming, a photo-filled, highly-detailed history of the first couple and their world. Ms. Fleming was particularly well-suited to writing this volume, having been raised in Illinois where, according to the book’s introduction, “I often bicycled out to the old Lincoln place -- the farm where Abraham and his parents settled when they moved to the state back in 1830. I thought nothing of clambering over the rotting log cabin or exploring the crumbling root cellar.” Later she speaks of her school’s annual field trip to the state capital where “yet again I traipsed through the Lincoln home and filed through the Lincoln tomb. Encountering his bust outside the gravesite, I always rubbed his big bronze nose for good luck.”

She rubbed his NOSE?

As soon as I read that line I sat back in shock. Somewhere in the recesses of my mind, I heard a voice exhorting me not to touch Lincoln’s nose. It seemed to be a teacher’s voice. ...But it couldn’t be. I’d never been to Lincoln’s tomb on a field trip. In fact, I’ve never been there in my life! It wasn’t until the next day that I remembered. The teacher’s exhortation wasn’t something I’d heard but something I’d read -- and that memory had been stuck in my head for decades.

I finally tracked down this long-remembered anecdote in, of all places, Irene Hunt’s Newbery Award acceptance speech. Irene Hunt came to writing fairly late in life -- after many years as a school teacher in Illinois. Her first book, ACROSS FIVE APRILS, was named a Newbery Honor in 1965. Two years later she won the award for her sensitive and beautifully-written novel UP A ROAD SLOWLY. Ms. Hunt devoted her acceptance speech to discussing the importance of books in children’s lives. One of the stories she told involved taking a group of students on a field trip to Springfield:

Outside the tomb there is a great bronze bust of Lincoln corroded -- all except the nose -- by the elements until it is quite black. Thousands of school children have leaped up to touch that nose (for good luck, they say), and it has been rubbed until the bronze shows through, giving a grotesque appearance to that sad, magnificent face.

I spoke to the group I was taking to Springfield about the fact that though the gesture was neither illegal or wrong, it did show a lack of taste, a certain gracelessness and disrespect. But I was an adult preaching, and the efficacy of preaching against something perceived as fun is very slight. So I said no more and turned to Carl Sandburg.

During the week before our trip, I read many chapters from ABRAHAM LINCOLN : THE PRAIRIE YEARS. The children loved the book. They borrowed it and reread some of the chapters. They caught the heartbreak of Sandburg when he writes of Lincoln. Sometimes there were a few tears.


Ms. Hunt describes the bus trip to the state capital with students “as boisterous as any group of thirteen-year-olds” and the moment, at the end of the day, when they arrived at Lincoln’s tomb: “I was anxious as those children walked up the steps toward the entrance. There was the great bronze bust, there was the nose that thousands of other children had touched for good luck. But I need not have worried. Those kids marched straight past that bust, eyes ahead, faces very stern. Oh, I think a few hands may have itched a little, a few arm muscles may have twitched a bit, but the owners of those hands and arms were in control.” The author then spoke about a student -- “a typical boy who would rather have been found dead than polishing an apple" -- who hesitantly came to sit beside her on the bus ride home:

...he handed me a crumpled piece of paper which he had taken from his pocket. “I was reading this a while ago when we were at the tomb,” he told me almost sheepishly.

I recognized the writing almost immediately. He had a copied a paragraph from Sandburg’s ABRAHAM LINCOLN : THE WAR YEARS, a paragraph in which Sandburg describes the living death of the President at the moment the bullet entered his brain. It begins: “For Abraham Lincoln it was lights out, good night, farewell and a long farewell to the good earth and its trees, its enjoyable companions, and the Union of States and the world Family of Man he had loved.”

I was not able to speak when I handed the paper back to him. The boy seemed to feel he needed to explain. “I thought...I just had a feeling that when you stand at the tomb of Abraham Lincoln, you ought to have beautiful words to think about." After that explanation, he got back to a group of his peers as quickly as possible.


Irene Hunt concluded:

And so, you see, they can be reached, these youngsters who cause us so many anxious moments. There was no preaching here; only the kind of beauty which the name of Abraham Lincoln evokes for a writer like Sandburg. Great books do not have to preach. But they do speak to the conscience, the imagination and the heart of many a child. And they speak with very clear and forceful voices.

I first read Irene Hunt’s Newbery acceptance speech when I was a kid myself. Of course back then I was most interested in the whole “Lincoln’s nose” debate and wondered if I could have resisted leaping up to touch it as I passed by. Today I’m not so sure it even matters. I can see both sides of the issue. For Irene Hunt, not touching was the respectful and proper thing to do -- and this respect for Abraham Lincoln obviously inspired her. She ended up writing one of the truly great Newbery Honor Books -- a Civil War story in which a letter from President Lincoln serves as a balm to a family torn apart by that conflict. Then we have Candace Fleming, whose hands-on approach to history -- playing in the Lincoln farmyard and reaching out to rub the statue’s nose -- would also lead to a powerful book about our sixteenth president.

Today when I read Ms. Hunt’s speech, I am most moved by what she had to say about the transformative power of books and reading. And I think Abraham Lincoln himself would agree with her words. After all, it was President Lincoln who once said, "The things I want to know are in books; my best friend is the man who'll get me a book I ain't read."

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Uncle Sam, Bang-bang-bang & Illegal Moonshine


Yeah, it was the age of illegal moonshine. Rum running. Bootlegging. Gunfire in the streets. They called it Prohibition.

His name was Eliot Ness and he worked for Uncle Sam. As a member of Chicago's Bureau of Prohibition, he assembled a crack team of T-Men who smashed stills and seized speakeasies all across the Windy City. Immune to corruption, they were known far and wide as "The Untouchables." Their biggest success? Bringing down Alphonse Gabriel Capone. Yeah, Scarface himself. Al Capone -- orchestrator of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre and Public Enemy Number One. A not-so-nice guy. Destroying Capone's criminal empire made Eliot Ness a legendary figure. He was featured in books and magazines. Robert Stack played him on THE UNTOUCHABLES television series back in the late fifties, early sixties. Kevin Costner portrayed him on the silver screen. But here at Collecting Children's Books we celebrate Mr. Ness for the round-about role he had in changing the life and career of an aspiring illustrator.

You might even say that Eliot Ness had something to do with a certain book winning the Caldecott Medal.

The story begins a few years after the end of Prohibition. By then Capone had a cozy new home at Alcatraz and Eliot was sittin' pretty as the Director for Public Safety in Cleveland, Ohio. Then he met a dame named Evaline, though almost everyone called her "Eve." Born in Ohio, raised in Michigan, it seemed like Eve was always running away from something. First she trained to become a librarian in Chautauqua, New York. Didn't work out. Next came a year at Ball State Teachers College in Muncie, Indiana. Didn't work out. What she really wanted to do was become an artist, so she attended the Chicago Art Institute and found work drawing fashion advertisements. When her long-time beau, away at med school for many years, finally showed up with plans for a new life in a small Dakota mining town, Eve ran away again -- impulsively marrying a Scottish artist, though she soon realized, "Mac should have been my brother...not my husband."

One fateful day in June, Eve boarded a train for Canada to visit friends and that's when she met Eliot Ness. She later recalled, "Eliot and I talked a lot...looked at each other at the same time a lot...laughed a lot and kissed a lot when I got off the train. He was married. So was I. I thought that I would never see him again. I was wrong. Eliot had many talents but his 'detective' skill was the one I liked best. Two years later he 'tracked' me down in New York City."

And soon they were married, living first in Cleveland and then, after the war began, moving to Washington, D.C. where Eliot Ness was charged with trying to prevent the spread of venereal disease in the military. It was an ugly job, but someone had to do it. Meanwhile Eve joined the American Women's Volunteer Services and, wearing a cute blue uniform with a matching hat, chauffeured military brass around the nation's capital. But when Eliot learned that most of Eve's work involved driving generals to cocktail parties and then sitting outside in the car waiting to drive them home again, he strongly suggested she quit. "Go to art school," he urged. "If Renoir could paint through two wars, you are allowed to paint through one." She was soon enrolled in classes at the Corcoran Gallery of Art where, under the tutelage of a special teacher, "The Walls of Jericho came down...the Red Sea parted...manna fell from Heaven!" Over the next two years, Eve won many prizes for her artwork and "my passion for painting replaced everything in my life. I found everything dull except working in front of my easel or looking at paintings in the Corcoran Gallery or the National Museum or the Frick Collection. And Eliot found me dull. He said I was no longer the woman he married. He was right. I wasn't -- and what's more, I never wanted to be that woman again."

Many years later, Eve described that period in her life in one succinct sentence: "The End...end of World War II...end of Eliot and me together."

But of course it wasn't the end. In fact, it was just the beginning. After divorcing Eliot, Mrs. Ness moved to New York where she began doing magazine illustrations...which lead to book illustrations -- first for books by other authors (THE BRIDGE by Charlton Ogburn, THE SHERWOOD RING by Elizabeth Marie Pope, as well as titles by Sorche Nic Leodhas, Julia Cunningham and Lloyd Alexander) and eventually to books she both wrote and illustrated herself, including A GIFT FOR SULA SULA, EXACTLY ALIKE, and her most famous book, SAM, BANGS & MOONSHINE.


To most of the public, the name Eliot Ness conjures up images of a machine-gun toting uncorruptable -- and "untouchable" -- law enforcement powerhouse, but he was also the man who, by encouraging his wife to attend art school, jumpstarted the career of well-regarded children's book creator Evaline Ness and, one might say, ultimately led to the creation of 1967's Caldecott winner SAM, BANGS & MOONSHINE.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

It's Sunday Brunch Time Again

Welcome to another Sunday brunch featuring odds-and-ends about children’s books old and new. Today’s blog also discusses what it felt like to see an old friend on TV and what I discovered when I heard mysterious voices in the hallway outside my office....

THE MAN ON THE WALL

Last night I made a special point of watching the movie GIFTED HANDS : THE BEN CARSON STORY on TV. Starring Cuba Gooding, Jr., this inspiring film traced the childhood and medical career of the famous neurosurgeon who was raised here in my hometown. Quite a few local actors had small roles in the show and I was looking forward to trying to pick them out in their don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-’em performances. But as I watched the movie, what really gave me a jolt was the unexpected appearance of someone else that I’ve known nearly all my life. I'm talking about this guy:


The scene involved young Ben (the future Dr. Carson) visiting the main Detroit Public Library, walking up the marble (I think they’re marble) stairs and entering the large exhibition hall on the third floor which features this large triptych mural, “Man’s Mobility 1905-1965-1855” by John Stephens Coppin:


Seeing it pop up on TV last night was like unexpectedly running into an old friend. It brought back so many memories of trudging up those same stairs and encountering that mural in my younger days. I wonder how many other people watching that movie last night felt the same shock of recognition that I did. It’s not just books that connect us to the past and our younger selves. Libraries do too.

This got me thinking about my local Detroit library, the Edison Branch, where I spent a very large part of my youth. I can still remember everything about the children’s room, right down to the exact location of specific books on the shelf. Once in a while I even dream about that place.

It’s still open -- and occasionally I think about going back for a visit, though it’s been close to three decades since I’ve been there. I’m sure some things remain the same, like the big sunken square in the children’s room. Very cutting edge for its time, this pit was undoubtedly intended as a gathering place for story hours, though kids mostly played there -- rolling down its two steps or doing somersaults across the length of the pit -- till they got so noisy they were yelled at by the librarians. And I bet kids are still rolling and somersaulting; some things never change. But I'm sure the card catalog is gone. And most of the books I used to read as well. ...I guess a few may be left, but certainly not in the exact location where they once were. And I doubt the very-seventies poster of a cat hanging from a bar (with the caption “Hang in There!”) is still taped behind the circulation desk.

Intellectually, I know all those things would be gone, yet if I went back for a visit, I’d still want to pull out one of those wooden card catalog drawers and look through the well-thumbed cards, I’d want to see the cat poster, and I’d want all the books to be exactly where I left them. (Who moved my books?) And I’d expect to see the nice children’s librarian sitting behind the desk in one of her sweaters (even in the summer), and the cranky circulation clerk slipping date-due cards into books as she checked them out, and Bob, the library page whose job I coveted, pushing a creaky book cart around the room and placing volumes on shelves.

But let’s see...the children’s librarian was about 55 back then. 55 + 30 = she’s not working there these days. The cranky clerk was about 40 then. She won’t be there either. And even though Bob would only be about 50 now, I sure hope he’s not still pushing that cart around.

But in my mind they all remain there. With the same books and the card catalog and that cat poster -- and I don’t think I can bring myself to go back and discover they are gone.

THE NEW KIDS IN THE HALL

My room is right outside the children’s book collection of our library. The other day I heard voices in the hallway outside my office. Peeking around the door, I saw a group of three students gathered around Margaret Wise Brown’s BIG RED BARN. A girl was reading the text out loud, another girl was turning the pages for her, and a guy was videotaping it. Later, when I left for the day, I passed another trio making a videotape of LITTLE BEAR by Else Holmelund Minarik. Obviously this was a class assignment, either for education or library science majors.

Our copies of BIG RED BARN and LITTLE BEAR were published decades before those videotaping students were born. (Heck, they were even published before I was born.) So I found it fascinating to think that, out of the thousands of recent books they could have chosen for their project, the students selected these time-tested stories to videotape. Who would have thought these books would fit so well into today’s new modern technology. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. In fact, it now crosses my mind that, whatever forms of technology evolve in the future (hopefully not LITTLE-BEAR-on-an-implanted-brain-chip) these books will continue to endure. Because good books always do.

CALDECOTT WINNERS THROUGH THE AGES

As a follow-up to last week’s list comparing the ages of all the the Newbery-winning authors, I thought I’d provide a similar list noting the ages of Caldecott-winning artists. This time we have one creator in his twenties, but none over seventy.

I again offer this proviso: I have made no attempt to check the exact age of an author on the exact day they won the Caldecott. I am listing their ages for the years in which they won. Since the award is announced very early in the year, we can probably assume that most of the winners may be just shy of their listed age in the chart below.

The Young One

Robert McCloskey / Make Way for Ducklings / 28

Thirtysomethings

Leonard Weisgard / The Little Island / 31
Virginia Lee Burton / The Little House / 32
Gail E. Haley / A Story a Story / 32
Chris Van Allsburg / Jumanji / 33
Nonny Hogrogian / Always Room for One More / 34
Uri Shulevitz / The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship / 34
Gerald McDermott / Arrow to the Sun / 34
Elizabeth Orton Jones / Prayer for a Child / 35
Richard Egielski / Hey, Al / 35
David Diaz / Smoky Night / 35
Ingri d’Aulaire / Abraham Lincoln / 36
Maurice Sendak / Where the Wild Things Are / 36
David Wiesner / Tuesday / 36
Marcia Brown / Cinderella, or the Little Glass Slipper / 37
Nicolas Sidjakov / Baboushka and the Three Kings / 37
Ed Emberley / Drummer Hoff / 37
Chris Van Allsburg / The Polar Express / 37
Beni Montresor / May I Bring a Friend? / 39

Life Begins at Forty

Nonny Hogrogian / One Fine Day / 40
Louis Slobodkin / Many Moons / 41
Nicholas Mordvinoff / Finders Keepers / 41
Thomas Handforth / Mei Li / 42
Edgar Parin d'Aulaire / Abraham Lincoln / 42
Leo Politi / Song of the Swallows / 42
Barbara Cooney / Chanticleer and the Fox / 42
Brian Selznick / The Invention of Hugo Cabret / 42
Marc Simont / A Tree is Nice / 43
Blair Lent / The Funny Little Woman / 43
Margot Zemach / Duffy and the Devil / 43
Leo and Diane Dillon / Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People's Ears / 43 (this husband-wife duo were born five days apart)
Peggy Rathmann / Officer Buckle and Gloria / 43
Roger Duvoisin / White Snow, Bright Snow / 44
Robert McCloskey / Time of Wonder / 44
Marcia Brown / Once a Mouse / 44
Leo and Diane Dillon / Ashanti to Zulu: African Traditions / 44
David Wisniewski / Golem / 44
David Macaulay / Black and White / 45
Kevin Henkes / Kitten's First Full Moon / 45
Paul O. Zelinsky / Rapunzel / 45
Paul Goble / The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses / 46
David Wiesner / The Three Pigs / 46
Stephen Gammell / Song and Dance Man / 46
Eric Rohmann / My Friend Rabbit / 46
Dorothy P. Lathrop / Animals of the Bible / 47
Ezra Jack Keats / The Snowy Day / 47
Chris Raschka / The Hello, Goodbye Window / 47
Lynd Ward / The Biggest Bear / 48
Arnold Lobel / Fables / 48
Robert Lawson / They Were Strong and Good / 49

Fifty+

Peter Spier / Noah's Ark / 51
David Wiesner / Flotsam / 51
John Schoenherr / Owl Moon / 53
Beth Krommes / The House in the Night / 53
Emily Arnold McCully / Mirette on the High Wire / 54
Maud Petersham / The RoosterCrows / 56
Ludwig Bemelmans / Madeline's Rescue / 56
Evaline Ness / Sam, Bangs, and Moonshine / 56
Trina Schart Hyman / Saint George and the Dragon / 56
David Small / So You Want to Be President? / 56
Berta Hader / The Big Snow / 57
Katherine Milhous / The Egg Tree / 57
Allen Say / Grandfather's Journey / 57
Miska Petersham / The Rooster Crows / 58
Ed Young / Lon Po Po/ 59
Mary Azarian / Snowflake Bentley / 59

Senior Division

Elmer Hader / The Big Snow / 60
Barbara Cooney / Ox-Cart Man / 63
William Steig / Sylvester and the Magic Pebble / 63
Feodor Rojankovsky / Frog Went A-Courtin' / 65
Marie Hall Ets / Nine Days to Christmas / 65
Marcia Brown / Shadow / 65
Alice Provensen / The Glorious Flight / 66
Martin Provensen / The Glorious Flight / 68
Simms Taback / Joseph Had a Little Overcoat / 68
Mordicai Gerstein / The Man Who Walked Between the Towers / 69

MORE NUMBER CRUNCHING

Before I provide the following stats, I should confess that I’m numerically-challenged. Remember earlier in this blog when I had to add 55 and 30 in order to figure out the librarian’s age? I used a calculator. And the only reason I ended up saying “55 + 30 = she’s not working there these days” was because I didn’t really trust the answer the calculator provided. I wasn’t sure if 55 + 30 really did equal 85. Somehow that number seemed wrong. I go through life with an unbalanced checkbook. I break into hives if I have to give someone change for a dollar. I count on my fingers most of the time.

I totally blame my teachers. My grade school math teacher had a couple missing fingers and I spent the most of the class period staring at her hands (how did she hold that chalk?) instead of watching what she wrote on the blackboard. (I’m not surprised she became a math teacher, though; counting on her fingers wasn’t an option for her.) Then she retired and we got a new teacher who had all her digits, but spent most of her time screaming and screeching at the class. Her favorite threat, shrieked in a voice quaking with anger was, “If you don’t quiet down, I’m going to give you an assignment that will ROCK YOUR SOCKS!” On the one hand, the phrase was so funny that we kind of wanted to laugh, but on the other (fully-equipped) hand, her bug-eyed rage was so palpable that she terrified us. She made me too nervous to learn math. (And, okay, it probably didn’t help that I spent most of the class period reading THESE HAPPY GOLDEN YEARS under the desk instead of studying fractions.)

Anyway, with that background in mind, I punched a lot of numbers into the calculator, added and divided, and I think I’ve figured out that the average age for a Caldecott winner is 47.5 years.

The average age for a Newbery winner is 52.1 years.

The earliest Caldecott-winning book whose illustrator is still alive is the 1955 awardee CINDERELLA by Marcia Brown. Incidentally, Ms. Brown is now 90 years.

But the very oldest still-living Caldecott artist is Marc Simont, who won in 1957 for A TREE IS NICE, and is now 93.

The earliest Newbery-winning book whose author is still alive is 1968’s FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER by E.L. Konigsburg.

The oldest living Newbery-winner is 92-year-old Beverly Cleary. Jean Craighead George is 89 and Sid Fleischman will turn 89 soon.

SURRENDER SURPRISES

When the Newbery announcement was made a couple weeks ago many of us were surprised by the Honor Book THE SURRENDER TREE : POEMS OF CUBA’S STRUGGLE FOR FREEDOM by Margarita Engle. I will admit that I’d never heard of it before then. A couple other people have told me the same thing. Having now read this novel-in-verse, I think it’s a pretty good choice. THE SURRENDER TREE covers fifty years -- and numerous wars -- in Cuban history as Rosa (based on a real person, Rosario Castellanos Castellanos), her husband Jose, and later a young girl named Silvia, run hospitals and nurse the country’s freedom fighters. Although I felt the storyline was sometimes constrained by its historical underpinnings (the expected confrontation between Rosa and her nemesis, “Lieutenant Death” never happens, perhaps because it never occurred in real life), the book does provide a strong sense of place and time. The free-verse is generally smooth and absorbing, only occasionally hitting a discordant note when it relates prosaic information at the expense of its poetic form. Though perhaps not on anyone’s radar for Newbery recognition, THE SURRENDER TREE’s status as an Honor Book will now draw young readers to what might have been a hardsell title; they will be rewarded with an inspiring story, well-told.

Through the intervention of a kind friend, I now have an ARC (advance reading copy) of THE SURRENDER TREE for my Newbery collection. It was pointed out to me that a printing error in the ARC caused Jose’s name to be printed as “Jos” throughout the pre-publication copy. Finished book on the left, ARC on the right:


I always find these little mistakes fascinating -- and a good example of why most ARCs request that reviewers check any quotations from the ARC against the final published copy.

A SPECIAL GIFT

Yesterday’s mail brought a special gift from another kind friend -- a signed copy of CHANGE HAS COME : AN ARTIST CELEBRATES OUR AMERICAN SPIRIT, which highlights the words of Barack Obama with illustrations by Kadir Nelson. The artist, who just won the Sibert and Coretta Scott King Awards for his Negro Baseball League history, WE ARE THE SHIP, pairs quotes from our 44th president with “very spontaneous drawings” documenting the excitement of election day and our unfolding new chapter in American history. This small book makes a great historical keepsake -- and a great gift. Best of all, (gosh, this is beginning to sound like a commercial) you can purchase signed copies of CHANGE HAS COME directly off the illustrator's website: www.kadirnelson.com.


A KERR CLASSIC

I’m equally enthusiastic about the new Marshall Cavendish Classics series which, beginning this spring, is reissuing out-of-print titles that deserve rediscovery and recognition. Their first list includes GENGHIS KHAN by Demi and LITTLE SISTER AND THE MONTH BROTHERS by Beatrice Schenk de Regniers, illustrated by Margot Tomes, as well as one of my all-time favorites, IF I LOVE YOU, AM I TRAPPED FOREVER? by M.E. Kerr. Ms. Kerr’s second young-adult novel concerns a high school senior who learns some powerful lessons of the heart during a life-changing year in which he loses his girlfriend, falls in love with an older woman, and reunites with his long-absent father. Both hilarious and sharp-edged, this sophisticated novel remains as fresh and powerful today as it was the day it was published in 1973 -- and the last line is a real killer. Unfortunately, I fear that the dustjacket illustration may prevent many young male readers from picking up this book, and that’s a real shame because this is a rare look at love and romance from a male perspective -- and I think a lot of teenage boys would be fascinated by IF I LOVE YOU’s cocky narrator and his narrow view of life’s “winners” and “losers.”

Guys: wrap the book in newspaper, or slap the dustjacket from THE GRAVEYARD BOOK over this one, or just read it under your desk (only not during math class or you’ll be counting on your fingers the rest of your life), but make sure to READ THIS BOOK!

There’s a reason they’re calling it a “classic.”

HATS OFF TO YOU

Finally, I just wanted to say a big thank you to everyone who has recently left comments for me on this blog or sent notes to my mailbox (Newbery13@aol.com.) I really appreciate it. And thanks to those who sent over new readers by linking my recent Aretha’s Hat entry to their blogs. After I finished writing that piece, I realized that the official mascot of Collecting Children’s Books, needs a hat too.

I'm already working on a couple blog topics for this coming week -- one seasonal and one a strange story that I just learned about a famous illustrator. I'll hope you'll be back to read them.

Thanks for dropping by.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Hats Off

These are bad times in Motown.

The auto companies -- once the lifeblood of this city -- are barely holding on.

The Detroit Public School System is wrestling with a deficit of over four hundred million dollars.

And our former mayor just got out of jail today; his ex-girlfriend is still serving time.

No wonder we cling to any ray of sunshine we can find. Last week we got a big boost when our hometown girl, Aretha Franklin, sang “America” at the inauguration of President Obama. And in the days since, people can’t stop talking about That Hat. Everybody wants one just like it. And the Smithsonian doesn’t just want one like it -- it wants the actual hat that Aretha wore at the inauguration! I guess I just assumed that Ms. Franklin purchased her headdress at some swanky showroom on 5th Avenue in New York City or Rodeo Drive in L.A. So I was shocked to discover that she bought it right here in Detroit, at an unprepossessing storefront shop called “Mr. Song Millinery” sandwiched between an abandoned business and the "Praise Him Beauty, Barber and Nail Salon" on Woodward Avenue...only four blocks from where I work!

That’s the most exciting thing that’s happened within four blocks of me all year.

In fact, I was so excited by this news that, on the way to work today, I pulled over in front of the shop, rolled down the window, leaned into the passenger seat and shot this photo:


Yeah, I could have gotten out of the car to take the picture, but I was running late, plus it was pretty cold outside. (Besides, I was afraid one of my co-workers might drive by, see me taking pictures of a millinery shop, and think I was the biggest dork in the world.)

On the way home from work, I stopped my car on the other side of the street and took this pic:


Luke Song, the Parsons-educated designer who created That Hat has been swamped with orders ever since the inauguration. Who would have thought that Detroit would get so much positive press during our darkest days -- all because of a hat? To celebrate this event, I decided to order a few hats myself...to share with some of our fictional friends....

Like the quiet old lady
And the kid in the bed,
Every children’s book character
Should have a hat on their head.


Whether you’re Harriet
Or whether you’re Hitty,


Whether you’re Horton-sized
Or Little, itty-bitty.


You may be a Giver,
May be a receiver,


Maybe you’re Wally
Maybe you’re Beaver.


Whoever you are,
If you reside in a book.
You need to get hep
To fashion’s new look.

Holling needs headgear,
Shakespeare a chapeau.


But Bart Cubbins has too many.
(If he asks for more, just say no!)


Thanks to Detroit,
For starting this styling.
Somewhere, I think,
William Steig may be smiling.