Sunday, March 29, 2009

Sunday Brunch with Frozen Books and Fortune Cookies

Today’s children’s book brunch features freeze-dried literature, looks at a book called LOOKS, shows how the paperback edition of a novel brought two sisters closer together, and reveals the only Newbery-winning title that became a Classics Illustrated comic book.


This covergirl from Cynthia Kadohata’s Newbery-winning novel KIRA-KIRA gets my vote as worst-airbrushed, worst-Photoshopped book image of the past five years:

I don’t know how this poor kid was clothed when she posed for the original photograph, but I think it’s obvious that the black thing she’s wearing (a blanket? a coat? some kind of curly animal pelt?) was ‘Shopped-in later. I can’t decide whether she looks more like a girl wrestling with a black sheep, Margaret Dumont in an old Marx Brothers’ movie, or the Octo-Mom in her seventh month of pregnancy.

And whoever trimmed the outline of this figure must have used a pair of blunt plastic kindergarten scissors because they chopped the edges so severely that the top of her head is almost perfectly square (you can click on the image to enlarge it), her hair is flat, and I think they actually cut off the tip of her nose!

And speaking of her nose: Is she wearing sunblock or one of those “Breathe-Right” nasal strips? Otherwise, why is her nose a completely different color than the rest of her face?

Actually, the purpose of this entry isn’t too complain about how baah-d (c’mon, she does look like a sheep!) this particular image is, but to show an interesting comparison between the hardcover and paperback versions of the book.

Here is the front panel of the hardcover dustjacket. It features one badly Photoshopped girl (presumably the narrator Katie) alone in the field:

However, if you spread the book open you can see that a second girl -- presumably Katie’s ill-fated older sister Lynn -- is pictured on the back cover. (And, to give props to the designer, this image is excellent -- no obvious airbrushing or Photoshopping here, no right angles on her head, no Band-aids on her nose.) You’ll notice there is quite a distance separating the two girls in this image though.

A year or so later, the paperback was issued and the exact same photos were used, but now Lynn has turned the corner and joined Katie on the front cover:

I wonder why this decision was made. There is a starkness, and an element of loneliness to the original cover; perhaps adding the second figure makes the book appear a little friendlier and more accessible to young readers.

My guess is that adults (those people who buy hardcover books for libraries and birthday presents) prefer the first cover, but kids (who buy paperbacks for themselves) like the second version better.


I bought a bottle of Diet Coke at work the other day, but by lunchtime the soft drink had gotten warm. Figuring I could cool down the pop by sticking it in the freezer for a few minutes, I ran to the staff lounge, opened the freezer compartment of our refrigerator and found it was full of...books.

Yep, the entire freezer was full of library books individually wrapped in plastic shopping bags.

This happens fairly often. The preservation people on the library staff use the staff refrigerators to remove mold from old books. If you ever find mold on any of your old books, you can do the same at home. All you need to do is place your moldy book in a plastic grocery bag, squeeze out the excess air, and seal it. Then you must leave the book in the freezer for a full seven days. When the week is over, remove the book from the freezer and the mold should come off with a damp soapy sponge.


It sounds like a dumb old joke:

Q. Why did the boy put his kitty in the freezer?
A. He wanted to have a ‘cool cat.’

But talking about frostbit books reminded me that the husband-and-wife writing team known as “The Gordons” once kept a cat in their freezer.

The Gordons wrote books for adults. His parents, who either had a sense of humor or absolutely no imagination, named him Gordon Gordon. During WWII he worked in counterespionage for the FBI. Eager to prove that women could be detectives too, his wife Mildred decided she’d write a mystery story. After the war, the two collaborated on a number of well-regarded mystery and suspense novels including FBI STORY and MAKE HASTE TO LIVE.

The Gordons were known for always keeping manuscripts in the freezer compartment of their refrigerator. What better way to save a work-in-progress in case of house fire?

So when I say the Gordons kept a “cat” in their freezer, I’m talking about their fictional feline creation, who was featured in the books UNDERCOVER CAT (1963), UNDERCOVER CAT PROWLS AGAIN (1966), and CATNAPPED! (1974.)

Because UNDERCOVER CAT dealt with three young siblings, it had the most youth appeal of any book by the Gordons and it was quickly snapped up by Disney Studios. But there was only one problem. The name of the title character was “Damn Cat” (so called because the kids’ father was always tripping over him in the dark.) Of course such a name wasn’t suitable for a Disney film...especially one starring Hayley Mills! I mean, she didn’t star in Pollyanna for nothing. So the movie cat was renamed “Darn Cat” and subsequent editions of the book -- published especially for young readers -- had a new title:

You’ve heard of books being “dumbed-down” for children.

This one was damned-down.


Someone recently told me that they don’t like to read any children’s book that involves bullying or exclusion. I remember hearing that Madeleine L’Engle gobbled up mystery novels like popcorn...but refused to read any involving the murder or abuse of a child.

When it comes to reading, do you have any self-imposed limitations of this type?

I’m not really referring to simply avoiding genres. We all have certain preferences in that regard (i.e. “I don’t read fantasy,” or “I don’t like suspense novels,” etc.) I’m specifically talking about certain themes or plot elements that will will stop you from even picking up a book.

In my case, I steer clear of novels in which dogs get sick and die. Been there, done that, don’t want to dwell on it if I don’t have to. So obviously I’ve never read MARLEY AND ME and don’t intend to see that movie.

Is there any one topic that will prevent you from reading a novel? Or are you open to anything?


Does anyone remember this logo from years past? It appeared in the upper left hand corner of a comic book series that retold classic novels in graphic format. Begun in 1941 and continuing for the next thirty years, CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED was a rather ambitious series that introduced a broad range of literature to young (and often not-so-young) readers in an easy-to-read, visually-pleasing format. Just because they were “comics” doesn’t mean they always contained simplistic stories; titles included LORD JIM by Joseph Conrad, CRIME AND PUNISHMENT by Dostoyevsky, and novelized versions of Shakespeare’s plays. Most of the books featured in CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED were from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (though some went as far back as THE ILIAD.) That’s why I was shocked when I recently discovered one issue based on a twentieth century children’s book -- and not just any book, but the 1924 Newbery winner THE DARK FRIGATE by Charles Boardman Hawes:

Considering the literary stature of most of the other titles in this series, I’m surprised (but sort of delighted) to see that a fairly modern children’s book like THE DARK FRIGATE was considered for inclusion.

I’m sure that educators looked down on CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED at one time, but are they really much different than today’s graphic novels based on classic works of literature?


This blog began with a comparison of the hardcover and paperback versions of KIRA-KIRA. I’m always fascinated to see the same title interpreted in different ways for different editions.

Although the recent young adult novel LOOKS by Madeleine George falls prey to the ubiquitous “headless teenager phenomenon,” I still found the stark red-and-silver cover -- which presents shadow figures of its two protagonists -- to be quite striking. The forthcoming paperback version presents a variation on the same theme. The hardcover is on the left and the paperback the right:

I think I like the hardcover best. ...But in truth it doesn’t make any difference what covers were used -- the book itself is pretty amazing. The story concerns the friendship between a hugely-overweight high school student and her anorexic classmate. It sounds like a bad joke, doesn’t it? (In fact, we’ve all heard the bad joke: “If only Mama Cass had given that ham sandwich to Karen Carpenter.”) But those who dismiss LOOKS as a typical “problem novel” will miss one of the best YA novels I’ve read in a long time. Both protagonists are realistically, even achingly, portrayed. Meghan, despite her large size -- actually, because of her large size -- is invisible in the eyes of her classmates, yet brilliantly observant of everything around her; then there’s Aimee, a poet who can control what food she eats though she cannot control her recently broken family. Even the minor characters are fresh and three-dimensional. One of the things I liked best about this novel is that, when Meghan and Aimee finally meet (after warily circling each other for over half the book), they never discuss their eating disorders, nor do they attempt to “cure” or “save” each other. Both remain the same size on the final page of the book as they were on page one -- yet they’ve deeply changed as well. It’s hard to believe this is Madeleine George’s first novel; there’s a real maturity in the way the author maintains suspense, slowly building the story and sparingly sharing details about the characters (just when we’re beginning to wonder about Meghan’s background, we meet her family and it adds another whole dimension to her personality.) The prose is sophisticated, the dialogue is witty (yet, as a true measure of the author’s skill: what’s not said is frequently as important as what’s being said), and the book itself is wise and thought-provoking. LOOKS introduces us to a fascinating new voice in young-adult fiction and I can’t wait to see what comes next from Madeleine George.


Finally, I thought I’d pass on this apropos message that I got from a fortune cookie yesterday at lunch:

Keep turning those pages -- and thanks for visiting Collecting Children’s Books.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

They Killed Him with Kindness. Literally.

Trying to find the stories behind old books can be frustrating.

In today’s world, authors are as close as a click of a mouse. They blog and vlog and Twitter. Some even chart their day-by-day writing progress on the web. But this is a recent development. Authors used to work in near-isolation and the stories of how and why they created their books were often never shared. If you try to track down that information today, you may only find a vague reference in an article...a sentence from a speech...a line from an interview....

Sometimes you only uncover half of a story.

But sometimes half a story is all you need to know.

Joseph Krumgold burst into the field of children’s books with ...AND NOW MIGUEL. This story of a New Mexico boy growing up in a family of sheep herders won the 1954 Newbery Medal. At the time Mr. Krumgold accepted the award he was already working on ONION JOHN -- probably never dreaming that his second effort would also win the Newbery in 1960, making him the first author to ever win that award twice.

These days ONION JOHN is not considered one of the great Newbery choices -- especially since two of that year’s Honor Books, THE GAMMAGE CUP by Carol Kendall and MY SIDE OF THE MOUNTAIN by Jean Craighead George -- have gone on to become classics. But I loved ONION JOHN as a kid. Today, however, I can see some of its flaws; I am not the first to note that its narrator, twelve-year-old Andy Rusch, serves more as an observer than a participant -- and that it’s actually Andy’s father who changes and grows during the course of the novel. Still, Joseph Krumgold gets a lot right. He knows how boys think and feel and act and his themes of father-son conflict, identity, communication, self-determination, and “good intentions gone wrong” are strong and timeless. The novel is set in the small All-American town of Serenity, New Jersey, where young Andy's father runs the local hardware store. Mr. Rusch has big plans for his son's future (MIT, space travel) while Andy would be satisfied to just take over the hardware store someday. Andy becomes friends with Onion John, an eccentric European immigrant "well along in years" who believes in superstitions and lives in a run-down hut on Hessian Hill. When Mr. Rusch visits this hovel, he decides that his Rotary Club will take on Onion John as their next "project," building him a new house so he can "live like the rest of us." Serenity proclaims "Onion John Day" and, quicker than an episode of television's EXTREME MAKEOVER, the townspeople build and furnish a house for this loner. The very next day, Onion John -- not understanding modern technology -- fills his stove with newspaper to light it, turns on the switch, and ends up burning the house down. When the local citizens decide to rebuild this home, Onion John leaves town rather than accept a life of conformity. He just wants to be left alone.

Critic Carolyn Horovitz could not fully accept the characterization of Onion John, finding him "a personification of an abstraction." With his superstitions, spellcasting, and nonchalant attitude toward work, he does appear to be the archetypal "free spirit" of fiction.

That's why I was surprised to learn that Onion John was a real person and that most of the events in the book actually happened.

In fact, Joseph Krumgold's original manuscript referred to the town by its real name: Belvidere, New Jersey. Amazingly, Krumgold also called all the characters by their real-life names! It wasn't until his publisher expressed a concern about lawsuits that Belvidere became "Serenity" and the names of the characters were fictionalized.

Much of the plot is true as well. Apparently the town of Belvidere really did adopt their local eccentric and he was "treated with loving kindness in a way that [distorted] his values. He [was] destroyed by the love of this town."

You see, in real life Onion John did not escape injury when his new house caught on fire. Instead, his misuse of the electric stove caused an explosion that cost him his life.

The people of Belvidere took up a collection to bury him.

The publication of ONION JOHN several years later caused local citizens to remember him again. Joseph Krumgold recalled:

On Christmas Day in the morning, I got a phone call from a very fine gentleman who runs the furniture store. He said, "I've been reading that book you wrote. We never bought him a headstone." I thought, The story starts all over. We're going to raise enough money and buy him a headstone, and we're going to have an "Onion John Day." By God, that's what they did as soon as the frost was off the ground! I was an honored guest at the ceremony....

When I read that anecdote, I immediately set about doing more research. Who was this "Onion John" that Joseph Krumgold wrote about? Are there stories in old New Jersey newspapers about the Rotary Club building his house? Are there stories about his accidental death? Was the headstone ceremony covered in the media? I began looking for interviews with the author and then scouring the internet for details. The only thing I found was a brief comment from a man whose mother and aunt knew the real Onion John and once showed him the remains of Onion John's ill-fated house. I pictured myself someday taking a trip to Belvidere, New Jersey and looking for those remains myself. I pictured myself wandering through the local cemetery and coming across a fancy tombstone, perhaps ornamented with a sculpted onion on top, commemorating "John Claiblin, AKA Onion John." I wondered if the headstone would contain any words about the man or the role that the townspeople -- with only the best of intentions -- played in his death.

But then I began thinking...if Joseph Krumgold changed the names of the people involved in this story, it's quite possible that "Onion John" is a made-up name as well. Perhaps he was really called "Onion Jack" or "Onion Bill." Maybe it wasn't an onion at all. Maybe he was known as "Pumpkin Paul" or "Lettuce Tom," in which case I could wander Belvidere's cemeteries for days, walking right past headstones with carved pumpkins or heads of lettuce on top.

This is why I say that finding the stories behind old books is frustrating. If the book ONION JOHN was published today, we'd most likely know a lot about the true story that inspired it. But since it was published back in 1959, all we really know today is that Onion John -- if that was his real name -- actually lived in a place called Belvidere, New Jersey and that Joseph Krumgold memorialized him in a book. We only know half the story.

But maybe that's just as well. The character in the book just wanted to be left alone by do-gooders and nosy-parkers and concerned citizens. And I suspect his real-life counterpart wouldn't want a children's book blogger rushing into Belvidere, unspooling microfilms of old newspapers and tramping through muddy cemeteries looking for ornate onions and polished pewter pumpkins affixed to tombstones. He's probably buried under a modest stone that simply says "Rest in Peace." And I suspect that's the way he would have wanted it.

Written by Joseph Krumgold
Illustrated by Symeon Shimin
Crowell, 1959

Why the book is collectable:

It won the Newbery Medal -- Krumgold’s second.

First edition points:

Bound in red cloth with black printing on spine.

White paper endpapers.

The dustjacket has a price of $3.00 on the front flap.

The backpanel of the dustjacket contains reviews of ...AND NOW MIGUEL.

The copyright page includes the words “FIRST PRINTING.”

Difficulty in finding first editions:

The book is not as difficult to find as many other Newbery winners, perhaps it had a larger-than-normal print-run due to the success of ...AND NOW MIGUEL. It is also not a hugely-popular novel. Nice first editions can often be found for as low as $50 to $75.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Arts and Sciences

They say that the study of science opens up a world of possibilities.

I suppose that's true, but I have to admit I didn't enjoy my high school science class.

The teacher was a sterotype: bowtie, pocket protector, thick glasses, eyebrows permanently singed from leaning over Bunsen burners.

My lab partners were freaky. The girl on my left enjoyed dissection way too much and was prone to gleefully shouting out, “This frog’s guts look just like the inside of an eggroll!” The boy on my right kept stealing beakers and test tubes from the equipment locker because “my brother can use this stuff in his meth lab, man.”

Halfway through the semester I dropped Science and started working in the school library during that period.

Considering my teenage apathy for the subject, you may be surprised to learn that whenever I visit a used bookstore these days I invariably make a beeline for the science section. (And speaking of bees, did you know that scientists still don't know exactly how bumblebees are able to fly? No, I didn't learn that in biology class; I got that from the Robert Cormier novel THE BUMBLEBEE FLIES ANYWAY. Once again, literature trumps science.) The reason I rush to the science shelves is that I'm hoping to find a copy of this book:

Most old science textbooks are virtually worthless, yet 1947's ATOMICS FOR THE MILLIONS is highly valued by children's book collectors. A true first edition (identified by its herringbone-patterned endpapers, price of $3.50 on both front and back flaps of the dustjacket, and notice on the copyright page stating “The quality of the materials used in the manufacture of this book is governed by continued postwar shortages") of ATOMICS FOR THE MILLIONS can be sold FOR THE THOUSANDS. I've seen copies priced as high as $1500.

What makes this book so valuable? Is it because the lead author, Dr. Maxwell Leigh Eidenoff, was part of the Atomic Bomb Project at Columbia University and the University of Chicago?

No, it has more to do with the fact that its co-author, Hyman Ruchlis, was a science teacher at Brooklyn’s Lafayette High School.

While working on the book, Mr. Ruchlis asked one of his students at Lafayette High, a gifted young artist, if he would provide the illustrations for the volume. The student agreed to do the artwork in exchange for $100 and -- now here’s a kid after my own heart -- a passing grade in class.

This kid also got his name on the title page:

ATOMICS FOR THE MILLIONS was the first-ever book illustrated by Maurice Sendak. He was only nineteen when it was published and it would be another four years before he illustrated his first children's book, THE WONDERFUL FARM by Marcel Aymé. Since that time, of course, Maurice Sendak (WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE; IN THE NIGHT KITCHEN) has become one of the premiere children's book creators of our time.

Is it any wonder that so many book collectors want a copy of Mr. Sendak's very first published work...even though it is a science textbook? Here is his debut illustration from Chapter One of ATOMICS -- and chapter one of his career:

Reportedly, Mr. Sendak wasn't happy with his illustrations for this volume (he later inscribed one copy of the book with the phrase, "My first + worst") and it clearly is the work of a young artist -- a little primitive, a little messy and unpolished, but also bursting with enthusiasm, talent, and unfettered creativity.

It's fascinating to look at the wide array of illustration styles Maurice Sendak employed in these pages. In fact, it's easy to imagine the young artist going off in any number of career directions after finishing this book.

He could have specialized in portraiture or caricature:

He could have illustrated nonfiction and historical novels:

(Incidentally, you can click on any of these pictures to supersize them.)

He could have gotten into advertising illustration:

(And what a far cry those bunnies are from the rabbit he later drew for Meindert DeJong's SHADRACH!)

He could have illustrated funny middle-grade fiction:

Or worked in comic books:

This one looks like a panel from a newspaper comic strip:

And of course he could have continued illustrating science and technical books:

Or branched out into animation:

...But do you think that anyone looking at this illustration:

would have predicted a career as a picture book illustrator? I'm not sure I would have.

You'll recall that ATOMICS FOR THE MILLIONS started with a picture of a road. It ends with one as well. And, of the dozens and dozens of varied illustrations Sendak contributed to the book, I think that last picture is my favorite:

Reminiscent of an editorial cartoon, the illustration depicts mankind at the crossroads after dropping the atomic bomb. But I read other significance into this picture as well. To me it symbolizes the young Maurice Sendak who has just spent the past two hundred and fify pages showing us the breadth and depth of his talent. Now he's at the crossroads, ready to start his career. Which direction will he go?

Science books? Advertising? Comic strips? Editorial cartoons?

He had a world of possibilities to choose from.

How lucky we were that he ended up following the road that led to children's books.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Sunday Brunching with a Friend of a Friend

It’s the first Sunday of spring and today’s picture-intensive blog examines an urban legend as it relates to children’s books, provides a list of novels to get us through this depressin’ Depression, and looks at some buildings that look like books.


Someone recently told me that if you’re ever forced at gunpoint to withdraw money from an ATM, you should enter your PIN in reverse. The machine will give you the money you request, but will also secretly summon the police.

The person who related that story also warned me not to flash my lights at any car driving without its headlights -- or I’d be shot as part of a “secret gang initiation rite.” A few months earlier, that same person told me I should send a postcard to a sick kid in Scotland.

It turns out that all of these tales are untrue. They’re urban legends or “friend of a friend” stories. If anyone ever shares these kinds of questionable tales with you, the best place to check their validity is, a clearinghouse for debunking urban legends.

This past week I had the opportunity to test a story I've heard all my life. Legend has it that each year, on the day of the vernal equinox, one is able to balance eggs perfectly on end. ...So on Friday I tried it out for myself and -- pictures don’t lie! -- you can see that it really worked:

I really was able to get EGGS standing on end!

When I reported this amazing accomplishment, the very same person who told me about the reverse PIN suddenly became a skeptic -- and even printed off a page from Snopes that seemed to debunk my experiment. It read:

Every year on the vernal equinox (on or about March 21), one of the two days per year in which the length of day and night are the same, we hear about a magical property of this day that allows eggs to be balanced on end. Rarely does a year go by in which a local TV news station doesn't send a reporter out to a neighborhood park to capture images of people delightedly placing eggs on the ground and watching in amazement as the eggs stand on end. Rarely do we see any new stories reporting that this same feat can be achieved every other day of the year as well.

Yeah well, I’m not sure I buy that. The day after the vernal equinox, I tried the exact same experiment again and -- as you can plainly see! -- I was no longer able to get EGGS to stand on end!

It obviously only works on the first day of spring.

Moral of story: 1) Snopes isn’t always correct, 2) EGGS may not be Spinelli’s best book, but it does make a mean omelet.


I was trying to figure out which book from my collection best celebrates the spirit of the season and came up with FROM SPRING TO SPRING by Lois Duncan.

Ms. Duncan has had a rather unusual career. Most of her peers in the field of children’s and young adult fiction focus on writing novels alone, with perhaps an occasional article or short story on the side. While Duncan has written some well-regarded and very popular novels (including DOWN A DARK HALL, I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER, and KILLING MR. GRIFFIN) she has always continued to publish widely in other venues: articles in the slick women’s magazines, nonfiction in regional periodicals, stories and poems in Sunday School papers. I’m sure some of these smaller publications didn’t pay much, but the author had a lot to say and wanted to get it out there for people to read.

She eventually collected many of the family-centered poems she wrote for small magazines in FROM SPRING TO SPRING and illustrated the book with black-and-white photographs of her own family and friends. She signed my copy “Welcome to my ‘family album.’”

What a keepsake this book must be for members of the author’s family.

So many people -- not just published authors, but regular folks too -- write poetry, jot down stories and memories, and take pictures of their families. It made me realize that anyone could create a “family album” like Lois Duncan’s. Just gather up any poems you’ve already written -- or start writing. Go through old notebooks to find any family memories or stories you’ve jotted down -- or start jotting. And select some favorite photos you’ve snapped over the years -- or start snapping. Then run down to Kinko’s and have copies printed and bound. If you start it now as a springtime project, you’ll already have your holiday shopping done months ahead of time.


I just purchased the new young adult novel ROAR by Emma Clayton. This futuristic thriller about a pair of separated twins -- one living in barricaded London and the second kidnapped and reported as dead -- has been getting a lot of attention on the internet. I haven’t read it yet, so can’t comment on the quality of THE ROAR itself, but did notice two unusual things about the volume and wondered if they are unique to this book or early indications of an upcoming trend.

The first was this note on the back cover:

I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like that before. In the past we’ve had quotes from a book, as well as full pages of text, printed verbatim on the back of dustjackets as teasers, but this is the first time I’ve ever seen the reader invited to look inside at a specific page. And who wouldn’t be enticed enough to read that page -- just to see what the big deal is about page 339? Hey, it gets a prospective reader to open the book. It’s interactive. And I think it’s an intriguing gimmick that might just work.

On the other hand, I wasn’t so enthused when I opened the front cover of THE ROAR, turned the endpaper, turned the half-title page, encountered the title page, the copyright page, the book’s dedication, and then found this:

I could hardly believe that a blurb from Eoin Colfer is printed on its own page -- especially so deep within the book. I’ve never even seen a paperback novel do that -- much less a hardcover. It seems intrusive and unnecessary and, well, rather cheesy to me.

The quote on the back of the book seems to indicate that the publishers have a certain confidence in the story -- that anyone who reads page 339 will be compelled to devour the entire book. But tossing in the Eoin Colfer plug seems to betray that confidence, making it seem like the publisher, Chicken House/Scholastic, thinks that even after starting the book, readers are going to need a push from Mr. Artemis Fowl to get going.


Here’s another odd item I found at the bookstore. PAISLEY HANOVER ACTS OUT is a breezy novel by Cameron Tuttle about a high school girl who gets kicked out of her dream yearbook class (it’s overcrowded) and is forced to take drama instead. The book is packaged in a folded box (decorated in -- what else? -- chick-lit pink and orange) complete with Velcro fastener. Open it up and the paperback novel is secured in a pocket on the right side while a facsimile of Paisley’s notebook (filled with drawings, scrawled notes and observations) is in the left-hand pocket.

It’s an enjoyable, if gimmicky, idea. I’m just glad HARRIET THE SPY wasn’t issued with an accompanying notebook; it would have ruined that book’s integrity. (I’ll pause here so that whoever is currently publishing the “new” Harriet volumes can e-mail their boss to say, “I’ve got the greatest idea. We’ll republish HARRIET and include a separate notebook full of Harriet’s writings to go with it!”) Oh Paisley Hanover, what have you wrought?


Speaking of publicity gimmicks, I was intrigued by a couple ARCs (Advance Reading Copies) I recently encountered. Although I just discovered them, both are actually from 2007 (it takes a while for hot new trends to make their way to the midwest), and although one involves an adult book, which is technically outside the purview of this children’s book blog, both are so visually arresting that I wanted to share them here.

In this day and age, it’s possible for anyone of any age to find “adult oriented materials” on the internet with a single click of the mouse. In fact, you'd probably think I was spreading an urban legend if I told you there was a time when such things were strictly monitored and sold mainly by mail order with both a provision (“to be enjoyed by consenting married adults within the confines of their own home”) and a guarantee (“your order will come delivered in a plain brown paper wrapper to assure your privacy.”)

That same retro strategy was used when promoting Daria Snadowsky’s racy young adult novel ANATOMY OF A BOYFRIEND. The cover of the ARC is on the right; the brown paper wrapper that covered it is on the left.

Does a brown paper wrapper make the book more provocative or is it a new low in publicity gimmicks? I vote for the latter. It’s a disgrace. It’s shameful. It’s tacky. And I’m moving this book up to the top of my “to be read pile” right now. (Okay, maybe the brown paper wrapper gimmick does work.)

The ARC for the adult crime novel HEARTSICK by Chelsea Cain utilized a darkly humorous gimmick, as it was packaged in a plastic police evidence bag labeled with a case number, initials (ARC!), and date (9/4/07 -- the date of publication.)


The other day someone looked at me, sighed heavily, and said, “When are you going to get a haircut?” No, I’m not going to reveal who made that comment. Not even a hint. Except to say that she gave birth to me. I explained that I’d just read an article that said haircuts are less-than-essential expenditures in today’s rough economic climate. Face it, you know times are hard when even the President of the U.S. is growing a vegetable garden on the White House lawn. This reminded me of all the books I’ve read about kids getting soup-bowl haircuts and growing beans in backyard gardens during the Great Depression. Back when I first read them, these books were called "historical novels." Now they are timely “how-to manuals” about how to face the future. Here are a few good ones, both well-known and nearly-forgotten:

BLUE WILLOW by Doris Gates

BUD, NOT BUDDY by Christopher Paul Curtis


DUFFY’S ROCKS by Edward Fenton


IVY LARKIN by Mary Stolz


MOONSHINE by Gary L. Blackwood


OUT OF THE DUST by Karen Hesse


SOUP and its many sequels by Robert Newton Peck.

TRACKS by Clayton Bess


I just now finished KEEPING SCORE by Linda Sue Park, which was published in early 2008. Better late than never. Ms. Park has written a good, old-fashioned, well-rounded story about a baseball-crazy Brooklyn girl and her friendship with a soldier who is sent to Korea. During one scene, Maggie and her mother visit the Brooklyn Central Library which “had been built to resemble a book. The entry area was the spine,and the two big wings of the building fanned out to either side, like a book that was partly open. For Maggie that was the clincher: It was surely the most wonderful building in the world.”

I had never heard of this library’s unique design, so of course I had to track down a photo on the internet:

While doing that research, I discovered that the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (well, I’d call it the “National Library of France,” which I know isn’t very sophisticated...but is still better than “That Big French Liberry.”) is designed to resemble four large, open books:

But the very best book-centric building of all has to be the Central Library of Kansas City, Missouri, which features bindings of famous volumes, including CHARLOTTE’S WEB!

Now I want to take a field trip to “check out all these books” in person.

I like the Kansas City library best because it’s the most eye-catching. If I hadn’t read about the design of the Brooklyn and French libraries, would I have noticed their resemblance to books on my own? I’d like think so, but then I’m not the most architecturally-astute person in the world. For example, I never knew that all the streets and buildings in Washington D.C. are laid out in a grid to match secret Masonic symbols. A friend of a friend told me. ...And speaking of odd stories about buildings, did you know that the top floor of the Dallas hospital where President John F. Kennedy died is supposedly empty, yet it’s maintained by a full staff of top doctors and nurses and guarded by armed Secret Service guards? And that Jackie O used to visit there every year on JFK's birthday? It’s true, it’s true...I knew somebody who knew somebody who used to work there.

What? You think I need to visit again?

Okay, I’ll check it out later today, right after I make a batch of Neiman Marcus cookies. You’ll never guess where I got the recipe!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Real-Life Kids of P.S. 8

The principal then led her to class. The room was large, with windows up to the ceiling. Row after row of students, each one unlike the next. Some faces were white, like clean plates; others black like ebony. Some were in-between shades. A few were spotted all over. One boy was as round as a water jar. Several others were as thin as chopsticks. No one wore a uniform of blue, like hers. There were sweaters with animals on them, shirts with stripes and shirts with squares, dresses in colors as varied as Grand-grand Uncle's paints. Three girls even wore earrings.

While Shirley looked about, the principal had been making a speech. Suddenly it ended with "Shirley Temple Wong." The class stood up and waved.

Amitabha! They were all so tall. Even Water Jar was a head taller than she.

"Hi, Shirley!" The class shouted.

Shirley bowed deeply. Then, taking a guess, she replied, "Hi."

IN THE YEAR OF THE BOAR AND JACKIE ROBINSON concerns a young Chinese girl who arrives in the United States on a Sunday afternoon and begins attending Brooklyn's P.S. 8 the very next morning. Although she's unable to speak English and doesn't understand western customs, Shirley soon develops new friendships and a passion for that most American of sports, baseball, in a story that celebrates both cultural assimilation and staying true to one's heritage.

Bette Bao Lord's only children's book has become a perennial favorite among young readers, due to its sympathetic, three-dimensional protagonist, its time-honored themes of identity and adjustment, and its humorous, yet touching prose. Given the novel's verisimilitude, it's not surprising to learn the story is largely based on the author's own childhood experiences in the late 1940s. Ms. Lord has said, "I look back to those years of Americanization, learning English, going to P.S. 8, as a wonderful time of my life. I was a happy immigrant. A lot of credit has to go to my parents saying, 'Bette, you can go out into the new world, you can speak another language, you can become Westernized, you came come home to us and still everything is harmonized.'" Many of the characters and scenes from the novel were taken directly from the author's life, as when Shirley gets a pair of black eyes from the school bully, but refuses to tell her parents what happened. Ms. Lord recalled, "The new American part of me knew that I couldn't snitch. The old Chinese part of me knew that not obeying my parents' demand was unworthy. So they took me to an even higher authority--the police. But we were living in America and I kept my silence. It worked out fine. Later, the girl and I became fast friends." In fact, in the novel Mabel-the-bully is the character who ends up showing Shirley how to play ball.

I wonder what ever happened to the real-life Mabel.

We do know what happened to a couple other classmates. In the book, Shirley becomes good friends with a girl named Emily Levy, who introduces herself by saying, "I don't play anything but board games and charades. I read books, lots of them. I practice the cello two hours a day. My father's a psychiatrist. My mother's a committeewoman. I have two older brothers and sisters, and we are all progressives." In real life, her name was Emily Wortis, and she grew up to become the poet and biographer Emily Wortis Leider.

IN THE YEAR OF THE BOAR AND JACKIE ROBINSON also contains a secondary character named Irvie, a shy kid who's obsessed with spiders and afraid of girls. In the novel's biggest scene, the Dodgers win the sixth game of the 1947 World Series and "forgetting thirty-nine generations of Confucian breeding, Shirley hugged anyone in reach" while another girl grabs Irvie and "as he stood stiff as an icicle, she tap-danced about, nudging him with a shoulder, patting him on the cheek, closer and closer till they were nose to nose, and he fled into the street."

That's the last time we ever see Irvie in the novel, but I can assure you that he is not still running through the streets of Brooklyn. In real life, Irvie was actually the twin brother of Emily.

And it turns out that Emily and Bette were not the only kids from P.S. 8 who became writers.

Twenty-three years after he ran out that door, "Irvie" published his first book for kids, THINGS THAT SOMETIMES HAPPEN. Since then he's published dozens more -- historical stories, fantasies, realistic fiction, even a graphic novel. He's had a couple Newbery Honors (THE TRUE CONFESSIONS OF CHARLOTTE DOYLE and NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH) and finally won that award for CRISPIN : CROSS OF LEAD.

In real life, Irvie was Avi.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Wearing o' the Green

Are you wearing green today?

I’m not sure if I am.

See, I’m a little colorblind.

No, I don’t go through life viewing the world like a black-and-white movie the way Jonas does in Lois Lowry’s THE GIVER. I can see every color, but occasionally -- depending on the lighting and the particular shade of color involved -- I have trouble with reds and greens. Especially greens. This can be a problem when you’re involved with children’s books. Look at all the greens I tangle with on a daily basis:

There’s Mr. Toad and the Green Knight and Shrek.

There's Green Knowe and Green Gables.

There’s John Green and Bette Greene and Eloise Greenfield and the publisher Greenwillow.


But the greenest of all are the “Frog and Toad” books by Arnold Lobel: FROG AND TOAD ARE FRIENDS (1970), FROG AND TOAD TOGETHER (1972), FROG AND TOAD ALL YEAR (1976), and DAYS WITH FROG AND TOAD (1979.) Now comes word that a new, never-before-published volume, THE FROGS AND TOADS ALL SANG, is slated for publication this spring. These books were inspired by a summer vacation in Vermont during which Mr. Lobel spent much of his time observing the frogs and toads at a nearby pond -- amphibians which sometimes found their way into the house as “pets” for his children. Written in simple “I Can Read” style, these wise and funny tales about two best friends create, in the words of critic George Shannon, “a world of friendship and comedy, obsession and gentleness, foolishness and thoughtfulness, in which story, song, and laughter were the greatest gifts.” Rarely has their been such a seamless combination of prose and pictures, a synergy which resulted in one volume -- FROG AND TOAD ARE FRIENDS -- receiving a Newbery Honor for its distinguished writing, while another -- FROG AND TOAD TOGETHER -- received a Caldecott Honor for its excellence in illustration.

Now about those illustrations...

They’re green.

Well, of course Frog and Toad are green. Frogs and toads are, by nature, green. But everything else pictured in these books is green as well: the walls of their houses, the books they read, the clothes they wear, even the cookies they eat -- green, green, green, green!

Yet somehow Lobel makes it all work, using a wide spectrum of shades, tints, and hues to create an amazingly variegated pastoral setting.

Arnold Lobel was only fifty-four years old when he died in 1987. At his memorial service, his friend and colleague James Marshall stated “Arnold had one of the most exuberant and original palettes in books.”

He added, “There is a particular green. If God created one truly hideous color, it is this green, somewhere between bile and phlegm. Most artists wouldn’t touch it. But Arnold used this green all the time - and he made it beautiful, amusing, interesting.”

I’ve just spent the past hour looking at some of the Frog and Toad books, trying to find the “particular green” Mr. Marshall is referencing. It may have been “hideous” or bilious or phlegmatic in the paintbox, but every shade of green on the page really is beautiful, amusing, and interesting. I have to admit that my eyes occasionally strayed to the text, finding equal enjoyment in the gently-comic tales of Frog and Toad planting seeds, taking long walks, flying kites, and dreaming. These are the kind of stories that never grow old; future generations will enjoy them just as much as kids do today. They are classic works of children’s literature that have become a permanent part of our culture. I may not be able to identify every shade of color Mr. Lobel used in the illustrations, but I can tell you that it’s indubitably and indisputably an indelible green.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Sunday Brunch for the Ides of March

Today’s Sunday brunch features a list of children’s books to celebrate the Ides of March, as well as my dissenting opinion on this year’s Printz winner, and a rather melancholy story about Robert Westall. Plus, I get buried by Neil Gaiman.


There are children’s books for nearly every holiday and occasion, but when I started hunting for titles on the Ides, I came up blank. Then I realized I was spelling it wrong. Here’s the list that I finally put together:

I’D LIKE TO BE by Steven Kroll (1987)
I’D RATHER THINK ABOUT ROBBY by Merrill Joan Gerber (1989)
PEOPLE I’D LIKE TO KEEP by Mary O’Neill (1964)
I’D RATHER HAVE AN IGUANA by Heather Stetson Mario (1999)
WHERE I’D LIKE TO BE by Frances O’Roark Dowell (2003)
I’D LIKE TO TRY A MONSTER’S EYE by Judith Thurman (1977)
I THOUGHT I’D TAKE MY RAT TO SCHOOL by Dorothy M. Kennedy (1993)
I’D RATHER BY EATEN BY SHARKS by Elaine Moore (1995)
IF I’D KNOWN THEN WHAT I KNOW NOW by Reeve Lindbergh (1994)
I’D RATHER BE DANCING by Mary E. Ryan (1989)
TODAY I THOUGHT I’D RUN AWAY by Jane Johnston (1986)


Like most everyone, I try to keep up with popular culture -- what books people are reading, what movies they’re watching, and what gets people talking and thinking. However, the biggest gap in my “pop culture” knowledge is the late sixties and early seventies. This may sound strange, since I was certainly around back then. In fact, that era -- my late childhood and early teenage years -- is remarkably vivid for me. The problem has to do with being at that “in-between age” at the time -- too young to get involved in adult matters, too old to be interested in children’s activities. For example, when people talk about the great films of the early seventies, such as THE GODFATHER, I have nothing to say; most of those movies were rated R and I didn’t get to see them. Conversely, I’m clueless when people discuss SESAME STREET; I was already eleven or twelve when that TV series premiered and considered it a “baby show.” Consequently, I have very few cultural references for one of the periods in my life during which I felt most fully alive.

I thought about that this week when I came across two books in the library. One was BLESS THE BEASTS AND CHILDREN by Glendon Swarthout. I was surprised to find it in the children’s section because back when it was first published in 1970, it was very much an adult novel. A movie version was soon released and I remember seeing this paperback edition everywhere back then. The name of director Stanley Kramer meant nothing to me then; I was more impressed that the kid from LOST IN SPACE was pictured on the cover. But still, it was an adult book and it never even crossed my mind to read it. This week, nearly forty years later, I finally borrowed the book from the library. Now all I can say is “wow.” BLESS THE BEASTS AND CHILDREN concerns five troubled boys who -- sent away to camp and dubbed “The Bedwetters” by the camp director -- make a covert, overnight journey to free a herd of doomed buffalo at an animal preserve. This tightly-written, almost archetypal story may suffer from a bit of trippy overwriting (“They quivered. Their toes sang songs. Their hearts beat poetry. Through the tingling gates of their fingertips their souls were liberated.”) but it’s still a powerful and unforgettable novel. Apparently it’s used a lot in high school English classes these days. In my day, it was kept in the adult section of the library and I wasn’t allowed to check it out. I'm also currently reading ESCAPE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN by Alexander Key. Published in 1968, I’m sure this book was not in my local library when I was a kid, as I know I would have read it. The first time I ever heard the title was when the Disney movie adaptation was released in 1975. By then I was in high school and felt I was much too old to see a “kids movie." A couple generations have passed since the book was published and the movie was made. A new film adaptation, RACE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN, opened this weekend and first editions of the Alexander Key novel now sell for hundreds of dollars. When I saw the book on the library shelf this week, I brought it home. It’s about time I read it. One of the best things about being grown-up is having the ability to fill the gaps in my pop culture knowledge -- and finally reading the adult books I was once too young for, as well as the children’s books I once felt too old for.


I have to admit, until I came across BLESS THE BEASTS AND CHILDREN in the library the other day, I wasn't aware that he was the same author who had written several children's books with his wife Kathryn. (Obviously not one of my smarter moments; how many authors named "Glendon Swarthout" could there possibly be?) The Swarthouts' most notable collaboration was the 1966 nailbiter WHICHAWAY, which is set almost entirely atop a thirty-foot windwill, where the son of a rancher is stranded with two broken legs unable to get down. The lean, cinematic prose that distinguishes both WHICHAWAY and BLESS THE BEASTS AND CHILDREN obviously made Glendon Swarthout a favorite of Hollywood moviemakers. Several of his books were made into films, including the westerns 7th CALVARY and THEY CAME TO CORDURA; THE MELODEON, which became a TV movie starring Joanne Woodward; and John Wayne's swan song THE SHOOTIST, with a script adapted by Swarthout's son Miles. But I was most surprised to discover that Glendon Swarthout also wrote the novel WHERE THE BOYS ARE, which later became the prototypical "spring break" movie of the same name in 1960.


This morning I checked Amazon to see what kind of reader reviews BLESS THE BEASTS AND CHILDREN had received. The review that tickled me most was this one:

BLESS THE BEASTS AND CHILDREN was like most books. It had its good parts, bad parts, and the parts that you can't make up your mind on.

But I was most impressed to see that nearly a hundred people had submitted reviews for this novel. The other day I wrote a blog entry called “You Know It’s a Good Book When...” Now I have a new answer for that:

You know it’s a good book when...almost one hundred people take the time to post their opinions about a decades-old book on

Incidentally, in my last blog I solicited ideas for my “You Know It’s a Good Book When...” list. Here are some of the wonderful responses:

Anne said:

I know it's a good book (or a great book!) when it offers comfort in times of sorrow or change or unrest; there are books I trot out over and over in such times, and they are like trusted friends, comforting me.

I totally agree. When my grandmother died, I took a copy of RUFUS M. by Eleanor Estes to the funeral home with me.

Peter’s Mother: Leave that book in the car!
Peter: If the book stays in the car, I’m staying in the car.

So I stayed in the car and read while everyone else went inside. The next day my mother made me leave the book home...but the whole time I was in that awful funeral home staring at my dead grandmother, I wished I had RUFUS M. with me....

Sandy D said:

You know it's a good book when you return your library copy and buy it in hardcover (even though you're on a tight budget), because you know you're going to keep it forever.

Been there, done that! When I read Norma Johnston’s THE CRUCIBLE YEAR, I couldn’t even return the book to the library until I’d ordered a copy for myself from the bookstore.

Sam said:

You know it’s a good book when you discover that you have strong opinions about the book jacket -- such as when you find yourself forced to tear the bookjacket off because the character in the picture simply doesn't look like the character in your head.

Perhaps we finally have an explanation for all the headless kids on dustjackets!

Rasco from RIF said:

I am not a person to walk up to strangers and start talking about a specific book "out of the blue"...although I am MORE than happy to talk about books. However, I know it is a good book when I almost mow people down to get to someone holding one of my all time favorites. Why? I am SO eager to know if the person feels the same strong kinship to the book as I do.

I’m too shy to do that...but whenever I see someone with one of “my” books I wish I had the nerve to approach them.

Jeanne K. said:

When I was homeschooling, I recall neglecting my four children for several days while I plowed through Susan Cooper's Dark is Rising sequence.

However, I'd say you know it's a good book when you read while you're cooking...or even driving!

I’ve read while cooking, but never while driving. A cooking accident may result in ruined meal and a phone call to 1-800-Chicken-Delite, but a driving accident could result in a ruined car and a phone call to 911!

Amanda said:

You know it's a good book when you get mad at Hollywood for ruining it with a movie.

Melody Marie Murray said:

You know it’s a good book when you join a society or an internet discussion group dedicated to the book. When you update the wikipedia entry for the book because it's not quite enthusiastic enough. When you refuse to see the movie based on the book because you can't bear to risk tainting the magic.

Stephanie said:

You know it's a good book when, years after you first read it, you're still recommending it to absolutely everyone you know.

Or when you wish you could hang out with the characters.

Or when you see something in a store, and it reminds you of something a character from your book would own. Good books sneak into your everyday life.


The “Stat Counter” on this blog allows me to see how many times a day someone visits Collecting Children’s Books and, frequently, what brought them here. I guess it’s a sign of our bad economic times, but I’ve noticed that more and more people visit looking for a way to get rich quick. In fact, the other day someone landed here by Googling the phrase “Can I get rich from writing a children’s book?”

The answer is NO.

Or perhaps I should say it’s next to impossible...but it can be done if you’ve got that exceedingly rare, once-in-a-blue moon combination of talent and good luck. (See “Rowling, J.K.”) But I think I can say with certainty that if you approach the idea of writing a children’s book with the single goal of “getting rich,” it’s probably not going to happen.

Lately I’m getting lots of visits, presumably from young people, Googling the phrase “Ways for Kids to Get Rich.”

If I knew the answer to that, I would have retired at age eighteen instead of facing a future of working forever because my retirement fund was depleted by the current recession.

Still, if someone comes here with a question, I’d like to be able to provide some answers. So here are three books about young people who strike it rich.

The always-inventive author Jean Merrill published THE TOOTHPASTE MILLIONAIRE in 1972. This brief, amusing novel concerns a sixth-grade boy who balks at the idea of spending seventy-nine cents for a tube of toothpaste and decides to make his own. Through a combination of luck and talent (again, see “Rowling, J.K.”), young Rufus soon finds himself manufacturing his product under the simple brand name of “Toothpaste.” The book, which contains lots of math problems, was originally conceived as a school reader (the title page includes the unusual note “Prepared by the Bank Street College of Education") but continues to be read and enjoyed as a mainstream novel and is still available in paperback today. I’ll have to track down a recent copy of THE TOOTHPASTE MILLIONAIRE and see if they’ve updated some of the prices included in the text. By today’s standards, seventy-nine cents for a tube of toothpaste is a steal!

Bill Brittain’s ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD (1979) is a fun story about a kid who wishes he had “all the money in the world” -- and gets it! Unfortunately, the leprechaun who grants Quentin’s wish is quite literal-minded, so the young protagonist actually does end up with “all the money in the world” piled high in his yard while every country around the globe goes bankrupt. (Hmm...maybe this book is nonfiction. Most countries are bankrupt these days; now all we need to do is find the kid with all the money in his yard.) Incidentally, those who think they can get rich writing for kids probably assume that a famous author like Bill Brittain spends all his time making big financial deals with publishers and fending off movie producers who want to film his stories. I guess that's not true...because when ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD was optioned for a television special in 1983, Mr. Brittain said he didn’t know anything about it until he happened to read a mention of the show in his local newspaper!

Finally, I've got to include UNEASY MONEY by Robin F. Brancato, a 1986 young adult novel about a New Jersey teenager who wins over two million dollars in the state lottery. It’s a funny and warm book in which Mike learns the expected lesson that money isn’t everything...though it’s certainly nice to have. Ms. Brancato wrote a number of strong, well-regarded novels in the late 1970s and early 1980s including BLINDED BY THE LIGHT, SWEET BELLS JANGLED OUT OF TUNE, and my personal favorite, COME ALIVE AT 505. Strangely, UNEASY MONEY appears to be her last published novel and she wasn’t heard from again until a couple years ago when she released a nonfiction book called, simply, MONEY. I would love to see some new fiction from her now; I was a big fan of her novels.

So...there you have it: three novels about kids getting rich -- by working, by wishing, and by luck. If you’re interested in finding more books about how to "get rich quick," just visit your local library. What particular section of the library? Considering our current economic crisis: fantasy!


The other day I came across the story of how Robert Westall came to be a writer. Or perhaps I should say a "published writer," as he'd been writing fiction from the time he was twelve years old. In fact, during his high school years he wrote a novel every summer -- though he described his younger self as "a bad writer, the worst kind of writer."

Robert Westall became a journalist and didn't return to fiction again until middle-age. He spoke of attempting an historical novel which he read aloud to his son Christopher who "found it so comically dreadful that tears of laughter used to stream down his face."

When Christopher was twelve, he joined a group of boys who built an encampment in the woods. When their corrugated iron house developed a leak, they invited Mr. Westall into their inner sanctum to help repair it. This event, plus a dream about his own childhood during World War II, caused the author to realize "I wanted to share childhoods with my son." He began writing THE MACHINE-GUNNERS in longhand as a gift to Christopher. Westall recalled, "He was the most savage of critics -- if a part bored him he'd pick up a magazine and start reading that instead. The parts that bored him, I crossed out, which is perhaps what gives the book its pace. But I had no thought of trying for publication."

Years later, when THE MACHINE-GUNNERS was published, it won the Carnegie Medal and sold over one million copies.

...A couple days ago I came across another autobiographical sketch of Robert Westall and learned this story has a postscript. After noting that he wrote all his books for his only child -- and even based the hero of THE DEVIL ON THE ROAD on Christopher -- the author ended his essay with this sad, perhaps bitter, and certainly melancholy note: "When he was eighteen, he died on his motorbike, instantly. It was the way he'd have chosen to die. He didn't leave me a single crappy memory, so I count myself lucky, though it's harder to write books now that he's gone."


Someone recently asked if I could help identify a partially-remembered book. Here is the description:

It was a picture book about a young girl who imagines what life would be like if she didn't have any parents and could do whatever she wanted; the fantasies go from joyful freedom and independence to loneliness and isolation. The setting is mostly on a beach and she imagines having to use sand and seaweed and seawater for all of her necessities. Unfortunately, I don't remember a fragment of the title or author's name, but I do remember that the illustrations were delicately drawn and detailed and it may have been done in 2 or 3 color printing with a limited palette.

This description didn’t ring any bells for me. I asked a picture book expert for some help and they suggested it could be a Byrd Baylor/Peter Parnall title, but I haven’t been able to find a matching book among Baylor’s titles either.

Any ideas?


There has been a lot of recent talk about the Newbery Award going to books that are not kid-friendly. Some experts have suggested that the winning titles are geared for “special” rather than general readers, and that the prize-winners are often “unconventional” and “quirky.”

I have one response to that: Newbery, meet Printz.

This year’s Printz winner, JELLICOE ROAD by Melina Marchetta, strikes me as a literary novel (which is good) that not many young adults are going to embrace (which is bad.) Since the announcement of the award, I have read a variety of responses to this Australian import. One reader stated that he couldn’t make it past the first five pages. Another reader said she gave up after a few chapters “and I usually never quit reading a book.” Even some of the novel’s biggest supporters admit they initially found the book confusing and that it didn’t all fall into place until the final pages; some said they then felt compelled to immediately reread the novel, at which time they gained a far greater appreciation for the book.

I was quite anxious to read JELLICOE ROAD -- and even read it twice if necessary.

Having now read the book, I’m somewhat disappointed that it won the Printz. The double-tracked plot, which pairs the contemporary, first-person story of Taylor -- abandoned by her mother and now boarding at the Jellicoe School -- with an account of several teenagers who resided in the area a generation earlier, is intriguing if somewhat confusing in execution. The characters remain rather cold and remote and at times I felt the author had to spend so much time on the machinations of the two-tiered plot that Taylor -- and particularly the teenagers from the past -- never fully came alive. I also felt that many of the plot devices -- a hermit kills himself in Taylor’s presence, a school building catches fire, and, particularly, rumors of a serial killer on the prowl -- seem overblown and too dramatic while others -- a long-standing “war” between young people who live near or visit Jellicoe Road -- remain under-explained.

This isn’t to say that JELLICOE ROAD is not worth reading. The theme of a teenager’s quest for identity is compelling, the prose is frequently haunting, and the plot -- despite its flaws -- is clever and intriguing. But is it the top young adult book of 2009? I remain unconvinced. To quote the previously-cited reviewer comment from -- which may become my future mantra for MOST books: “It had its good parts, bad parts, and parts that you can't make up your mind on.”

I will credit JELLICOE ROAD for provoking a lot of interesting discussion -- from both the book’s proponents and nay-sayers -- and of course any discourse on young adult literature is always a good thing.


As I mentioned earlier, it’s pretty unlikely you can get rich writing a children’s book.

And it’s IMPOSSIBLE to get rich writing a children’s book blog.

In fact, it’s reached a point where I don’t even want to open my mail these days. Most of it is BILLS that I can’t afford to pay. And then there are those statements from my retirement fund which is losing so much money that the concept of “retirement” is beginning to seem like a pipe dream.

But, happily, I did receive some amazing packages in the mail this week, as reported in the following three items:


CHAINS, by Laurie Halse Anderson, was my favorite book of 2008. The British edition was recently published and I was surprised and excited to receive an inscribed copy directly from the author:


It’s very frustrating to follow children’s books all year and then, when award season rolls around, discover that you’ve missed one of the top prize winners. That’s what happened to a friend-of-a-friend, who couldn’t find a first edition of one of this year’s Newbery Honor Books, SAVVY by Ingrid Law. Luckily, I had an extra copy of that novel and passed it on to this collector. I did not expect anything in return, so was shocked when I received a first edition of this year’s Caldecott winner, THE HOUSE IN THE NIGHT, in the mail. That in itself would have been amazing, but I was shocked-beyond-belief to see that it was not only signed by illustrator Beth Krommes...but it was actually signed ON the day she won the Caldecott!


And if a signed Caldecott isn’t cool enough, how about a copy of this year’s Newbery winner, THE GRAVEYARD BOOK, personally inscribed by author Neil Gaiman:

I never thought I’d be happy to see my name on a tombstone...but I was delighted to be Newburied by Neil Gaiman.

To misquote Andrew Marvell:

The grave’s a fine and private place
Though not a thing I want to face.
Yet death becomes a lot less scary
When your GRAVEYARD’s named Newbery.

Thanks for visiting Collecting Children’s Books!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

You Know It's a Good Book When...

When Elizabeth Borton de Trevino won the Newbery Award for I, JUAN DE PAREJA in 1966, she told a story about reading Sigrid Undset's KRISTIN LAVRANSDATTER as a child:

I got hold of the book first. I sat in a corner with that novel and could not do anything but wash and dress mechnically, eat what was put in my hand, sleep reluctantly, and read, for two weeks. Next, my sister seized the book and she was tended, as I had been, and relieved of every household task and duty until, sighing, she turned the last page. Then my mother said, "All right, girls, take over. It's my turn." And she never moved or spoke to a soul until she had finished it. My father did not care. He was rereading, for the tenth enchanted time, the African journals of Frederick Courteney Selous, the great English hunter, and while we were in medieval Norway, he had been far away in darkest Africa, with all the wild forest around him. That is the kind of family we were.

I have never read KRISTIN LAVRANSDATTER, but after hearing that account, I really want to go out and get a copy. I love hearing stories about the power that books have to transport and change us. Many blogs ago, I mentioned my own reading of Gary Pauslen's DOGSONG. At first I wasn't too impressed with the novel, but a little later I went outside and noticed snow on the ground and felt a cold wind blowing past. Then I did a doubletake. The white stuff on the ground wasn't was a bed of flowers! And it wasn't freezing was the middle of June. DOGSONG had transported me from the midwest in summer to the Arctic in winter. Now that's the sign of a good book!

A very old lady once told me that she knew she was reading a good book when she couldn't set it down -- even to perform household tasks. "If I'm reading a good book," she said, "I have to prop it up on the windowsill to read while I'm washing the dishes."

Here are a few other "signs of a good book":

You know it's a good book when it keeps you reading past your bedtime. ...And a great book will keep you reading until dawn.

You know it's a good book when you take it into the bathtub with you...even when you're taking a shower. (Hey, it was a paperback.)

You know it's a good book when you can't stop wondering what happened to the characters after the story ends.

You know it's a good book when you take it with you on your fifteen-minute coffee break...then don't return to your desk for four hours.

You know it's a good book when you feel compelled to read it while eating dinner. Even though you have a dinner guest.

You know it's a good book when it continues to make you laugh or cry even the second time you read it.

You know it's a good book when it reveals something new and surprising even on the third and fourth time you read it.

You know it's a good book when you dream about the characters.

You know it's a good book when you're reading it on a bus or subway...and end up missing your stop.

You know it's a good book when you pre-order the author's next title six months before it's released, hoping that it will be even better.

You know it's a good book when you happen to see a copy on the shelf at a bookstore or library...and feel like you've just run into an old friend.

You know it's a good book when you feel PERSONALLY OFFENDED when you hear someone else criticize it.

You know it's a good book when you find yourself carrying it around even after you've finished reading it, just hoping that someone will ask you about it.

...And a great book is one that you carry around -- in your heart and in your head -- for the rest of your life.

What are your own "signs of a good book"?

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Her Mother Once Sat on Hans Christian Andersen's Knee

Looking for a first edition of Madeleine L'Engle's A WRINKLE IN TIME?

Join the club.

Published in 1962, the book's small first printing mostly ended up in schools and libraries. A few non-library copies still exist, of course, but on the rare occasion that one comes on the market, it usually sells for thousands of dollars. That's why I was shocked when an old book-collecting friend told me that he'd purchased a first edition for only $45.

"How in the world did you swing that?" I gasped.

"All I did was ask."

It happened about fifteen years ago, when the internet was still relatively new. One day while surfing the web, this man -- a teacher who didn't have a lot of money to support his habit -- happened upon a message board devoted to the subject of book collecting. I'm not sure whether it was hubris or naïveté that motivated him to post a message stating that A WRINKLE IN TIME was his favorite childhood book and asking if anyone knew where he could buy an "inexpensive first edition"...a question somewhat akin to asking if anyone had the Hope diamond for sale -- cheap! Instead of being laughed right off the internet, he got a response from a bookseller offering the book for only $45! When it arrived, he was surprised to discover that it was also signed by the author.

A SIGNED COPY of the Holy Grail of children's books...for only $45? I was stunned.

He went on to tell me that he thought the book was once owned by Ursula LeGuin, as Madeleine L'Engle had inscribed it to "Miss LeG."

Yes, that would have been pretty amazing. But the truth was even more amazing. Knowing a little bit about theatre, I was able to tell him that "Miss LeG" was the nickname of the great stage actress Eva Le Gallienne. Madeleine L'Engle had started her career as an actress and worked with Eva Le Gallienne on stage; when A WRINKLE IN TIME was published, a quote from her old friend "Miss LeG" appeared on the back cover: "I read A WRINKLE IN TIME with great interest and found myself completely absorbed in it, but I was particularly impressed by the way it continued to haunt me. I couldn't get it out of my mind -- it has a curious magic, it casts a spell over one. It is a most exciting and original work -- but, apart from the actual story, it has things to say that are immensely valuable, stimulating and provocative."

So not only did this book collector stumble upon a first edition of A WRINKLE IN TIME (rare!), it was also inscribed (rarer still!!) to someone who was quoted on the back of the book (that rarest thing of all -- an association copy!!!)

Nowadays the name Eva Le Gallienne is not well-known. She devoted her career to that most ephemeral, yet indelible, of the arts: live theatre. (Ephemeral because a stage performance exists only in the present moment; indelible because a great performance burns in the memory forever.) Though she appeared on stage for nearly seventy years, very little of Miss LeG's work was recorded for posterity. She did a few live dramas during "television's golden age", got an Oscar nomination at age 82 for one of her rare film roles (in RESURRECTION), and did an episode of ST. ELSEWHERE a few years after that.

One of the things I find most fascinating about Eva Le Gallienne, however, is her lifelong connection with children's books. In retrospect, it almost seems predestined. When Eva's mother was growing up in Denmark, the elderly Hans Christian Andersen visited her school. Noticing that Eva's mother was the smallest child in the class, he placed her on his knee and shared sips of barley water with her while he spent an hour reciting fairy tales to the room full of students. Eva would later say, "Brief as it was, this meeting with Hans Christian Andersen, and the sense of comforting closeness that seems to have been a part of it, gave my mother, as she grew older, a feeling of having known the man; and this feeling she has passed down to me." Although Ms. LeG's stage work ranged from performing in Pulitzer prize winning plays (ALISON'S HOUSE) to the classics (ROMEO AND JULIET; THE CHERRY ORCHARD), she also starred in and directed adaptations of two children's books, PETER PAN and ALICE IN WONDERLAND. She also tried her hand at writing for children with an animal tale called FLOSSIE AND BOSSIE in 1949 and a collection of Andersen stories, SEVEN TALES, in 1959. It's important to remember that this was well before the trend of "celebrity children's book authors." It's quite clear that Miss LeG's books were written not because she had a famous name, but because she had something she wanted to SAY. Ursula Norstrom published both of these books and the fact that she used two of her own favorite artists -- Garth Williams and Maurice Sendak -- to illustrate them shows how much she regarded the author's writing. Decades later, Miss LeG read Barbara Wersba's outstanding 1968 young adult novel, THE DREAM WATCHER, and asked to meet the author. Ms. Wersba, herself a former actress, was rendered almost mute in the presence of this great stage star, who eventually asked her, "Why don't you write me a play?" When Ms. Wersba said, "I don't know how to write a play," Miss LeG responded: "Learn." A few years later, Barbara Wersba's adaptation of THE DREAM WATCHER opened in Connecticut, starring Eva Le Gallienne. The brand-new playwright recalled opening night: "At the evening's end, as the curtain calls began, and as Miss LeG was led onto the stage by the young actor who played opposite her, a kind of thunderstorm broke. People cheered, and wept, and applauded, and stamped their feet, as she took curtain call after curtain call. As the applause continued, I ran into the lobby where refreshments were being served, grabbed a glass of champagne, and, without spilling a drop, ran up the back stairs of the theatre and handed the glass to Miss LeG when she came offstage. It was one of the happiest moments of my life."

That production of THE DREAM WALKER never made it to Broadway, as initially planned. It would have been nice if it had. I'll always wish I'd seen it. And a stage triumph based on a young adult novel would have been a fitting capstone to the career of an actress who always had an interest in children's books. She died in 1991 at age 92. I wonder what ever happened to her library of books, which Barbara Wersba described as "one of the finest I'd ever seen."

Well, we know where ONE of the books ended up.

I think Eva Le Gallienne -- Miss LeG -- would have been pleased that it now resides with a young teacher who didn't have thousands of dollars to spend...but just wanted to own it because it was his favorite childhood book. She understood about children's books.