Sunday, May 31, 2009

Sunday Brunch for HUNGRY Readers

Among other topics, today’s Sunday Brunch discusses the HUNGER GAMES phenomenon, lists some books about spelling bees, and explains why I now blush when I see the book PAT THE BUNNY.


Back in the late seventies, I got very interested in the field of entertainment. In that world, I obsessively read VARIETY and even subscribed to THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER. I knew what a Nielsen “ratings share” meant, could translate Hollywood trade headlines (“B.O. BOFFO IN BEANTOWN!”; “STIX NIX HIX PIX!”), and learned an entire new vocabulary of show-biz lingo. Back then I was the only person in my circle who knew what “sweeps month” was all about. I was the only one who knew that, in “the business,” the word “web” referred to a television network.

Well, over the past thirty years, that certainly changed. Now, thanks to TV shows such as ET and ACCESS HOLLYWOOD -- as well as increased coverage of entertainment news in the media -- everyone is glib about these matters. We follow the box office charts in the newspapers, get constant updates about Susan Boyle on, and even little kids know when sweeps month rolls around.

When I first began working in the field of children’s books, I marveled every time I saw an ARC (advance reading copy) of a forthcoming novel. How cool was it to read a new book months before it hit the bookstores? I felt like I was part of a small, select circle of “literary insiders” who had this opportunity. I felt special.

But now, once again, the world has caught up with my special interest. Thanks to the web (the internet kind, not the “television network” kind) and blogs, people are growing much more savvy about the publishing industry. Nowadays, everyone knows about ARCs -- and everyone wants them. Why sit around waiting for a book to be published months from now when you can get an ARC right now? Especially if you can get it free?

I remember the good old, six months ago...when the most frequent search bringing readers to this blog was “What’s that book about a babysitter who makes soda pop come out of faucets?” That innocent era is long gone. Today’s most frequent search request is “How do I get an ARC of CATCHING FIRE by Suzanne Collins?” or “Where do I get a FREE ARC of CATCHING FIRE by Suzanne Collins?”

CATCHING FIRE is the second volume in the series that began with THE HUNGER GAMES. In case you’ve been in a coma for the past year (or perhaps living in S.A. Bodeen’s compound) THE HUNGER GAMES is a futuristic novel in which twenty-four young people are chosen by lottery to participate in a fight-to-the-death competition which is broadcast on television. Nearly everyone who has read this breathlessly-exciting story of sixteen-year-old Katniss trying to survive knives, spears, and fire is desperate to read the second volume, CATCHING FIRE, which will be published on September 1, 2009.

A week or two ago, Scholastic sent ARCs of this novel to selected readers. This weekend copies were distributed at the Book Expo in New York.

Now the children’s book world is divided into two categories -- the Haves and the Have-nots.

And it raises some interesting questions.

When a Have posts a blog or listserve message about the book, are they merely being informative...or are they “lording it over” everyone else? (Tip to the Haves: avoid phrases such as “Nah-nah!” and “I’ve got what you don’t have, I’ve got what you don’t have!”)

When a Have-Not posts a covetous comment, are they being cute...or are they insanely jealous? (Tip to Have-nots: don’t try the “I’m sick...and may not make it till September” ploy. If you’re that desperate, go to eBay and fork over $100 for an ARC. Some of the Haves are already selling their copies over there.)

Anyway, if Scholastic wanted to whip readers into frenzy by issuing these ARCs early, they have succeeded.

I think there is only one way they can top this when the final volume is published next year.

I suggest that they only release one ARC.

Yeah, just a single copy.

Then readers can enter a lottery in order to win it. Twenty-four finalists will be chosen and these latter-day Indiana Joneses will compete in a televised fight-to-the-death match to win the ARC. Can you imagine a fourteen-year-old kid slugging it out with a sixty-year-old librarian? A pair of booksellers launching flame-throwers at each other? A blogger skilled in numchucks going after a book reviewer whose only talent is a catty tongue? And what about the inevitable show-mance between two young Suzanne Collins fans?

Twenty-four readers.

One ARC.

Be the first person to read it....or die trying.

How “hungry” are you?

Watch the premiere of “THE HUNGER GAMES” GAMES

On CBS, coming Fall 2010.


The other night I taped the National Spelling Bee off television and, in typical fashion, the tape cut off two minutes before the contest ended. But that’s okay -- I later learned who won in the newspaper. And I’d already seen enough to realize how dumb I am.




I have a hard enough time remembering that there are two Rs in “embarrass” or two Cs and one L in “broccoli.”

Still, it’s great to see kids getting recognition for being smart.

Unlike other endeavors, such as sports and music, that are performed by both adults and children, spelling bees seem to be geared toward young people only. That got me wondering how many books there are on this topic, so I stopped at the library to see if Debbie the Desperate Librarian had any appropriate bookmarks. She did not, though -- in honor of this week’s National Bee -- she did have a bulletin board display which included dustjackets of appropriate titles under a banner that said “READ THESE BOOKS AND YOU COULD 'BEE' THE NEXT SPELLING CHAMPEON.”

Obviously, Debbie never won a spelling bee herself. Anyway, here are a few of the dustjackets she had stapled to the bulletin board:

SPELLBOUND by Karon Luddy


PINKY AND REX AND THE SPELLING BEE by James Howe and Melissa Sweet

THE SPELLING BEE AND ME by Gail Small and Kendra Yoshinaga





Are there any others I should add to this list?


Despite my confusion over embarass and brocolli -- I mean, embarrass and broccoli -- there was once a very brief time in my life when I could spell pretty well. Back in sixth grade, after many weeks of studying, I actually won the class spelling bee and received a dictionary from our local newspaper. I still remember the day I won (it happened to be Valentine’s Day and I was wearing my lucky shirt) and the summer Saturday when a mail truck pulled up outside delivering the dictionary -- the first time I ever got a special delivery or saw my name on the cover of a book.

Now my name is almost rubbed off the front cover. The spine is unattached. The sides are frayed. The pages are bent. But I always have this book on my desk...just a foot away from me. I use it nearly every single day.

One year after winning this book, I lost the seventh-grade spelling bee on the first round. No wonder I treasure my dictionary. It reminds me of how fleeting success can be.


Last week’s Sunday Brunch asked the question “Is Razzles a gum or a candy?”

Now there’s a new book that asks the question “Is it a duck or a rabbit?”

DUCK! RABBIT! by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld looks at the same optical illusion:

while two voices debate what, exactly, the figure is. This single joke is beautifully sustained for over thirty pages in a funny and thought-provoking book about perception.

I also noticed an optical illusion on the cover of Rich Wallace’s latest, PERPETUAL CHECK:

I found this story of competing chess-playing brothers a little thin in plot and character-development, but kids who enjoy the game will want to take a look at this novel.

Finally, did you notice the illusion on the cover of this year’s Newbery winner?

Being such an observant and detail-oriented book-lover, I of course noticed the optical illusion immediately!


Who am I kidding? I did not notice the optical illusion on the cover of THE GRAVEYARD BOOK immediately. Heck, I didn’t notice it the first 5000 times I handled the volume or saw the cover illustration in blogs, in magazines, or anywhere else.

Truthfully, I didn’t notice it at all until someone pointed it out to me this week.

Now I feel as dumb as I did when I lost the seventh-grade spelling bee in the first round.

No wonder I felt compelled to lie about it.

Speaking of lying, Justine Labalestier has a new novel coming out this fall called LIAR.

Earlier I spoke about ARCs being released before the publication of a book. Here is another example of pre-publication publicity -- a promotional pamphlet containing excerpts from a book.

This one, promoting LIAR, contains an intriguing letter from the editor (“Will you like this novel, knowing you’re about to be lied to? Will you like being betrayed by a character page after page?”), followed by excerpts from the text.

It’s very intriguing.

I have been thinking for a while that Justine Larbalestier is poised for bestselling success. Could this be the book that finally does it? Stay tuned.


A lot of people I know and trust thought that Jake Wizner’s 2007 debut novel SPANKING SHAKESPEARE was the best thing since Shakespeare himself. I have to admit that I wasn’t a fan, finding the protagonist unlikable and a lot of the humor (especially the scatological stuff) to be forced and a distracting disservice to the text. Now Mr. Wizner’s got a brand-new book out and if the cover illustration promises HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL, the title should tell you otherwise. I mean HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL was rather tame...a nice PG film. This book is closer to one of those movies you rent from the backroom of the video store. You’ve heard of George Carlin’s “seven dirty words”? On the first page of this book, I counted THIRTEEN new words to add to Carlin's list!

Since it’s nearly impossible to review a book of this type without devolving into all kinds of NC-17 puns, I think I’ll just say for now that CASTRATION CELEBRATION did make me snicker and even laugh out loud a few times and there is no doubt that a lot of kids will like this fast-paced story of teens attending an arts camp at Yale.

For the purposes of this blog, however, I want to point out that the book contains some references to classic children’s books!

Unfortunately, once you've read the author’s riffs on PAT THE BUNNY and WINNIE-THE-POOH, you may never look at those books the same way again....

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

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

From Fan to Friend

It was a hot summer afternoon. I had taken a vacation day off work, so happened to be home when the mail arrived. One of the items was a red-white-and-blue Priority envelope. The return address label said "M.E. Kerr."

Even though I'd been corresponding with Ms. Kerr for several years, it was still something of a shock -- and a thrill -- to see the handwritten name of my favorite author on a piece of mail. I'd been a fan for over thirty years...but never expected to have her as a personal friend.

I eagerly opened the package and was surprised to find a paperback "uncorrected proof" of her next book, YOUR EYES IN STARS, inside.

Of course I already knew a little about the book from Ms. Kerr's earlier letters. I knew it was set in New York state and that it concerned two girls -- one whose father ran the local prison and the other a visitor from Germany. I knew it was set in the years before World War II. But I didn't know that an advance copy would be available this early -- or that I'd be lucky enough to get one.

Needless to say, I was very eager to read it!

I sat down, opened the book to the title page, but was a little disappointed to see that M.E. Kerr had not autographed it. Then I turned the page and saw that she had signed it -- on the dedication page! I gasped out loud when I saw what it said:

I never expected to see my name on the dedication page of any book -- much less a novel by my favorite writer. I was overwhelmed to think I'd made the transition from "fan" to "friend."

It was the fall of 1972 when I first saw the name "M.E. Kerr." I was the kind of kid who liked to read the "professional journals" on the reference desk of my local branch library. And it was while reading those magazines -- Publishers Weekly, Booklist, School Library Journal -- that I learned about M.E. Kerr's first young adult novel, DINKY HOCKER SHOOTS SMACK! The reviews were raves, but the story sounded dizzying to me: a cat-loving boy who wanted to be a librarian? A mouthy fat girl? Another girl with emotional difficulties who rhymes sentences when nervous? And what did the title mean anyway?

The book didn't show up in my local library until the following summer, but I still remember the exact day I brought it home and how it felt to meet Tucker and Dinky and Natalia and P. John for the first time. The author's voice -- a perfect blend of humor and melancholy -- seemed to speak directly to me. And the climax of the story, when the title phrase appears graffiti-style "on sidewalks, on curbstones, on walls, on the sides of buildings. and on the doors of automobiles" seemed then (and now) to be one of the most perfect, emotionally-overwhelming scenes I'd ever read. As soon as I finished the last page, I turned to the front of the book and began reading DINKY HOCKER SHOOTS SMACK! over again.

And that's how it went with every successive Kerr title -- IF I LOVE YOU, AM I TRAPPED FOREVER?; THE SON OF SOMEONE FAMOUS; IS THAT YOU, MISS BLUE...the list goes on and on. It wasn't for a few more years that I learned M.E. Kerr's real name was Marijane Meaker and that, long before she was Kerr, she had spent the fifties and sixties writing the best-suspense-books-ever as "Vin Packer," nonfiction as "Ann Aldrich" and "M.J. Meaker," and magazine fiction under all kinds of pseudonyms. (She later adopted the name "Mary James" when writing for middle-grade readers.) I spent some wonderful weekends visiting cobwebby old bookstores trying to track down each of those older titles, such as Vin Packer's THE EVIL FRIENDSHIP or THE DAMNATION OF ADAM BLESSING.

Many years later, when M.E. Kerr had her own website, run by another fan-turned-friend, Michelle Koh, I finally got up the nerve to contact Ms. Kerr and ask if she would autograph some of my books. I'd never done that before, but just really wanted to let her know how much her books had meant to me for over thirty years. We have kept in touch ever since then, and I've found the person behind the books -- Marijane Meaker -- to be just as funny, wry, thoughtful, kind, and big-hearted as one would expect from her novels. And it goes without saying that she knows how to tell a great story or anecdote in her letters...just like she does on the pages of her novels.

I'm so glad that our correspondence -- a rare, old-fashioned correspondence on paper with stamps and envelopes -- has continued for these last few years, so glad that I somehow made the transition from "fan" to "friend."

Incidentally, you saw what she inscribed in the proof copy of YOUR EYES IN STARS. Some months later, I received the hardcover edition:

The comment about "my turn" is quintessential Meaker. Marijane knew that I began writing fiction, switched over to nonfiction, but wanted to return to fiction-writing -- and she has consistently encouraged me in that endeavor. Going back as far as the 1950s, she has always encouraged other writers to create, to persevere, to publish. Over twenty years ago, she established the Ashawagh Hall Writers Workshop in East Hampton and continues to teach there today. Many published books have come out of that group -- often with the name "Marijane Meaker" mentioned in the acknowledgements or on the dedication page. That's a measure of how helpful and inspiring she is, as a teacher -- and as a friend. And now that I know the thrill of seeing my name on a dedication page, someday I hope it will be "my turn" to reciprocate by putting the name of MY "friend and fellow writer," M.E. Kerr, on the dedication page of a novel I write.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Sunday Brunch with Razzles (whatever they are!)

Back when I was a kid, they introduced a new kind of candy called Razzles. Or maybe it wasn’t a candy at all...but gum instead. See, when you popped a Razzle in your mouth it started off as a sweet, hard, candy-like disk, but soon dissolved into chewing gum. The back of the package advertised a contest for kids: submit a brief essay answering the eternal question “IS RAZZLES A GUM OR A CANDY?” and you could win a brand new Schwinn. For years I saved my empty Razzles wrappers, carefully smoothing them out and setting them aside for the day I finally figured out the answer (was it a gum? was it a candy?) and could submit my bang-up contest entry. Well, time kind of got away from me and when I finally gave serious thought to writing my prize-winning essay I realized I had unfortunately surpassed the “open to U.S. residents twelve and younger” contest rule. Guess I should have gotten around to it before I was 34 years old. Maybe it’s just as well. I probably wouldn’t have won, as I still don’t know the answer to the “IS IT A GUM OR A CANDY?” dilemma.

It’s one of life’s unanswerables.

This past week has had me pondering a few more of those eternal questions:

Is Pluto a planet or not a planet?

Is a particular Cynthia Rylant book for kids or for grown-ups?

Are children’s book fans “nerds” or the coolest people in the world?

These are some of questions discussed in today’s Sunday brunch, as well as a few other facts and opinions on children’s books old and new.


Earlier this week I blogged about the youngest Caldecott Honor winner of all time, thirteen-year-old Plato Chan, who was born just as the discovery of Pluto was announced, was only a vowel-movement away from being named for that planet and, in a freaky-weird Mark-Twain/Halley’s-Comet-like coincidence, died the very same year Pluto lost its status as our ninth planet.

In response to this, Laurel Kornfeld submitted some interesting links that support Pluto getting its planetary status reinstated. These include Laurel’s own Pluto blog as well as a Pluto advocacy site. whose motto is “Dwarf Planets are Planets Too!”

This got me wondering how the Pluto controversy has been covered by children’s books. First I thought I’d consult my friend Debbie (the desperate librarian) who seems to have a bookmark for every occasion. So I stopped at her library yesterday and asked if she had any that pertained to Pluto. This is what she gave me:

“Um, actually, I’m looking for books about the Pluto controversy,” I said.

“What’s controversial about Pluto?” she responded. “Now Goofy, he’s a controversial character! Is he a dog...or is he a human...or what?”

“That’s one of life’s unanswerables,” I agreed.

“Just like Razzles,” murmured Debbie. “I still don’t know whether it’s a gum or a candy.”

Well, of course I could have stood around debating that topic for hours, but instead came home and did a little research on the computer. Considering that Pluto was just demoted as a planet in 2006, there are already a fair number of children’s books published on the subject.

Here’s a reading list:

THE DWARF PLANET PLUTO by Kristi Lew / Benchmark Books, upcoming in 2009

PLUTO : A DWARF PLANET by Gregory Vogt / Lerner Books, upcoming in 2009

ICE DWARVES : PLUTO AND BEYOND by David Jefferis / Crabtree, 2008

BOY, WERE WE WRONG ABOUT OUR SOLAR SYSTEM by Kathleen V. Kudlinski / Dutton, 2008

PLUTO : DWARF PLANET by Christine Taylor-Butler / Children’s Press, 2008

PLUTO : FROM PLANET TO DWARF by Elaine Landau / Children’s Press, 2008


PLUTO : A DWARF PLANET by Ralph Winrich / Capstone, 2007

WHEN IS A PLANET NOT A PLANET : THE STORY OF PLUTO by Elaine Scott / Clarion, 2007

I’m also reminded of a fun verse in Douglas Florian’s recent, superb poetry collection COMETS, STAR, THE MOON, AND MARS : SPACE POEMS AND PAINTINGS:

Pluto was a planet.
But now it doesn't pass.
Pluto was a planet.
They say it's lacking mass.
Pluto was a planet.
Pluto was admired.
Pluto was a planet.
Till one day it got fired.

If Pluto ever gets its planetary status back, Mr. Florian may have to rewrite that poem.


With Memorial Day tomorrow, I’ve been thinking about an unusually memorable novel by Cynthia Rylant, quite unlike anything else she has written.

I HAD SEEN CASTLES concerns seventeen-year-old John Dante, who leaves his Pittsburgh home for the trenches of Europe in World War Two. Spare, eloquent prose describes John’s first love, the trauma of combat, and how the war shaped the rest of his life.

Because the novel concerns an elderly man looking back at his past, I HAD SEEN CASTLES seems unlikely fare for young readers. In fact, when the book was published in 1993, Harcourt made the unusual decision of promoting it for both adult and young audiences. While it’s true that some young readers will not understand the sense of loss and regret that informs this character study, some adults may also dismiss the book -- which is less than a hundred pages -- as rather slight, more a short story than a novel.

But for “special readers” -- whatever their age -- I HAD SEEN CASTLES will be an unforgettable experience...and the labels “adult book” or “children’s book” really won’t matter at all.


Someone recently contacted this blog with a query:

One of our staff members would like to find a book from his childhood. His teacher read it to him in the late 60s, but he thinks the book was well known by then, so its copyright was earlier. Here is what he remembers:

In the story a boy escapes from an orphanage, injures his leg while climbing over a fence. He is “laid up” for awhile as the leg heals, and eventually lives with a farm family and everything works out. The family took him in and was very supportive.

Does anyone have a clue as to what the title might be?

The plot actually does sound familiar to me, but it seems like something I read fairly recently, not an older book.

Does anyone have any ideas I can pass on to the person who asked this question?


For the past week or so I’ve been getting a few hits from a blog called “”

This confused me, as I thought “daddy types” was a dating category on Craigslist.

As it turned out, is a “weblog for new dads” which recently ran a piece on Donald Barthelme’s THE SLIGHTLY IRREGULAR FIRE ENGINE. I had written about that title a few weeks earlier, expressing outrage that it won the National Book Award for Children’s Books many years ago.

Daddytypes disagreed with my premise. That’s great. I’m all for discussion and argument about children’s books and didn’t even mind that Daddy referred to me as a “traditionalist reactionary children’s book nerd,” as I’m sure I’ve also indulged in some name-calling on this blog from time to time.

However, I did find it odd that, since daddytypes holds this nerd in such contempt, he’d poach the picture of THE SLIGHTLY IRREGULAR FIRE ENGINE that I scanned for my blog in order to use it on his blog (his image matches the creases and lines on my original.) That’s a little like borrowing my car in order to run me down with it.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about the “nerd” comment this week and can’t decide if I should reject it or embrace it.

To tell you the truth, I probably do resemble a nerd when I go out to lunch and sit there in a crowded restaurant reading something like...I don’t know...CADDIE WOODLAWN.

Maybe even MISS HICKORY!

But it would be very easy for me to exchange one of those books for something by, say, Chuck Palahniuk.

Exchange my glasses (yeah, I wear ‘em) for contacts.

Remove Razzle from mouth and insert chewing tobacco. Then spit.

Add a piercing and/or tattoo for decoration.

Come to think of it, why bother carrying a book at all (reading is so nerdlike!) when I could listen to an iPod instead?

I probably would fit in much better. No one would glance over and immediately think “nerd.”

But I wouldn’t be me at all.

And when you think about it, what’s so cool about being exactly like everyone else? A member of the herd?

I think there’s much more to be said for being an iconoclast...a nonconformist...a lone wolf...a rebel...a free spirit.

When you think of it like that, the adult male who dares to sit in public reading CADDIE WOODLAWN, as well as the adult female who sits there reading GREEN EGGS AND HAM -- neither caring what anyone thinks! -- may be, in their own way, the coolest people in the room.


Much of today’s blog has been about trying to distinguish one thing from another: candy from gum, adult books from kids’ books, nerds from the herd.

Sometimes it’s a near-impossible task. I wonder how many times someone visits a library or bookstore seeking a particular book and accidentally leaves with something completely different.

Considering the following...


The above image of THE LITTLE HOUSE reminds me of a recent article I read in Publishers Weekly. 2009 is the one hundredth anniversary of Virginia Lee Burton’s birth. Although she has been gone since 1968, her books continue to be read and loved today. I was excited to read that Houghton Mifflin has big plans to celebrate the author’s centenary until I read the details.

For example, they have just published a new edition of Burton’s Caldecott classic THE LITTLE a condensed board book.

Unanswerable question: why tamper with perfection?

Then I read that they are planning a new edition of her 1943 book KATY AND THE BIG SNOW, complete with a glittery cover and “snow stickers.”

Unanswerable question: Is it a book or a TOY?

I’ll leave you with that question to ponder.

I’m still pondering whether Razzles are a gum or a candy.

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

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Leap of Faith

This past Sunday I blogged about "invisible editors" -- those nameless, faceless people who edited some of the most important children's books of the past and sometimes even changed the lives of aspiring writers by scrawling a line or two of advice on a rejection slip.

Today I'm thinking about invisible readers.

A friend once told me that, as part of a project sponsored by her synagogue, she used to write letters to Jewish families in Russia.

I said, "That must have been interesting. What were their letters like?"

"Oh, we never got any letters back from them!"

She explained that in those days before perestroika, Soviet Jews were forced to practice their religion underground. Letters written by my friend and her group were smuggled into the country and covertly shared with members of the faith as a show of community and support.

"That must have been odd," I said, "writing into a vacuum."

"It was like a one-sided conversation."

"What did you write about?"

"At first I mostly talked about the Jewish holidays and how we celebrate them here," she said. "But after that topic ran out, I had to dig pretty deep. And when I realized they weren't going to question anything I said, weren't going to judge me -- weren't going to answer at all!-- I found myself opening up a lot more than I expected, sharing things I wouldn't ordinarily share and revealing things about myself I wouldn't normally reveal. It was kind of...freeing. Liberating."

The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. I understand things are much easier for Jewish families now living in that region. I have not seen my friend for several years, but I've often thought of what a unique experience it must have been -- writing to invisible readers, sharing secrets with strangers.

But it recently struck me that perhaps her experience wasn't unique at all.

Aren't most writers in the same situation?

Whether writing a letter or a novel or even a blog...

Whether motivated by a need to share, a sense of ego, or the conviction that one has something important to say...

Every time a writer puts pen to paper, they are making a leap of faith, unsure -- yet desperately hoping -- there will be an invisible reader on the other side.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Caldecott Orbit

This is Clyde Tombaugh. He was only 24 years old and fresh off his family's Kansas farm when he discovered the planet Pluto.

This is Venetia Burney, an eleven-year-old British schoolgirl, famous for naming another world.

And here's Plato Chan, who was only twelve when he drew the pictures for a children's book called THE GOOD-LUCK HORSE. He became the youngest illustrator, by far, to ever receive a Caldecott Honor award.

These three young people of accomplishment lived very different lives but are all connected by the events of March 13, 1930. That was the day Arizona's Lowell Observatory announced the discovery of the ninth planet in our solar system. Astronomers had long suspected that the orbit of Uranus and Neptune was affected by the pull of an even more distant, unknown body, but no one had ever been able to prove the existence of this unseen planet.

Growing up on farms in Illinois and Kansas, Clyde Tombaugh was fascinated by space. He spent evenings studying Jupiter and Mars though a homemade telescope. He dreamed of going to college and majoring in astronomy, but those dreams were dashed when a summer storm ruined a harvest and made further education an economic impossibility. Nevertheless, Clyde sent the Lowell Observatory a collection of drawings he'd done of the planets and was almost immediately offered a job working with their latest camera telescope. Over the next year he photographed the night sky, trying to locate the mysterious "Planet X." Finally, in February of 1930, he found photographic evidence. After further study, the Lowell Observatory announced the discovery of this new ninth planet on March 13, 1930.

The next morning, the news of this new planet appeared on the front pages of the world's newspapers. In Oxford, England, a retired librarian read the article to his granddaughter over the breakfast table. When she learned that the new planet had yet to be named, eleven-year-old Venetia Burney -- who had an interest in both space and mythology -- immediately suggested the name Pluto, for the Roman god of the underworld who, like the planet, could also be invisible to the human eye. Venetia's well-connected family forwarded her suggestion to the Lowell Observatory, where Tombaugh and his colleagues were considering naming the planet Atlas, Zeus, Cronus, Zymal, Minerva, or Constance. Constance? Finally, members of the Observatory voted on the name and Pluto won unanimously. The official brand-new name for "Planet X" was announced on May 1, 1930.

Okay, by now you are probably wondering what this has to do with children's books.

Earlier I mentioned the youngest person ever to get a Caldecott Honor, Plato Chan. The son of a Chinese diplomat, Plato was born in New York, but grew up in Germany, France, and England. He began drawing at eighteen months and by the age of six was designing patterns for French fabric companies. He had several public exhibitions in Europe and painted a portrait of England's queen, which he hand-delivered to Buckingham Palace. When World War II broke out, Plato's father was sent to an internment camp in Germany and the rest of the family finally returned to New York. It was there that Plato's mother, Chih-Yi, adapted a traditional Chinese tale for her son to illustrate. THE GOOD-LUCK HORSE was published in 1943, when Plato was barely thirteen years old.

The book contains both pen-and-ink illustrations:

and color:

I particularly like the energy of the endpapers:

The following year, THE GOOD-LUCK HORSE was named a Caldecott Honor Book. 1944 also brought the publication of Plato's second book, THE MAGIC MONKEY, which was written by his year-older sister, Christina (apparently another child prodigy!)

At this point you are probably wondering what the story of Caldecott-Kid Plato Chan has to do with Clyde and Venetia.

As mentioned earlier, the discovery of the new planet was announced on March 13 and appeared in the newspapers on March 14, 1930. That's the day young Venetia came up with the name for the planet.

March 14, 1930 was also the day Plato Chan was born. When his parents learned a new planet had just been announced, they took the news as a great portent for their son's future and decided they would name him after this new discovery.

Unfortunately, at that time the new celestial body was still being called "Planet X" -- so for the first several weeks of the baby's life the poor kid was known as...X.

On May 1, when the name "Pluto" was publicly revealed, Mr. and Mrs. Chan were extremely disappointed. Wasn't Pluto the guardian of Hades? Wasn't that an awfully dark and depressing name to give a newborn? Even "X" was better than "Pluto"! That's when someone suggested that, since the baby had a rather serious, philosophical demeanor, "Pluto" could be changed to "Plato."

So that's why the illustrator of THE GOOD-LUCK HORSE went by the name of Plato Chan...and not Pluto Chan...or X Chan...or Atlas, Cronus, Zymal or Zeus Chan.

And thank goodness they didn't name the planet Constance or Minerva. That would surely have embarrassed young Mr. Chan. Johnny Cash's "Boy Named Sue" would have nothing on "A Boy Named Minerva."

As for "whatever happened to?" the subjects of this story, Pluto lost its status as a planet on August 24, 2006. It's now considered a "dwarf planet," though some scientists disagree with that decision. Clyde Tombaugh eventually did go to college and study astronomy. He had a long and important career in the field before dying at age 90 in 1997. Venetia Burney (later Venetia Phair) became a mathematics and economics teacher and died just a couple weeks ago, also at age 90.

The boy named after the planet remains something of a mystery. I've never heard whether his father returned from internment, nor have I learned why the young artist never illustrated another book after THE MAGIC MONKEY. Plato apparently remained involved with children's books throughout his teens, appearing at literary events with his sister and performing "chalk talks." But finding information about the years after that is about as hard as finding Pluto in the night sky. According to his 2006 obituary, Plato Chan attended Columbia and Yale, married an eye doctor, and lived in Philadelphia. But did his future include art? I don't know.

I'm fascinated, though, that all three of the people discussed in today's blog are best known for things that happened when they were quite young. One discovered a planet, one named that planet, and the third -- almost named for the planet -- became the first and only child artist to ever receive a Caldecott Honor.

It must have been in the stars.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

All This, and Bugs Bunny Too

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

by Lauren Tarshis
Dial Books for Young Readers, 2009

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who were these perceptive editors?

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


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


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

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


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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Pure and Applied Research about Henry Reed

When I was a kid, I wanted to spend my summers with Henry Reed in Grover's Corner, New Jersey.

I couldn't imagine anything more fun than helping Henry and his friend Midge douse for water, hunt for truffles, babysit bratty kids, and stage a big show. And who wouldn't want to accompany them on their riotous coast-to-coast road trip across the United States?

Created by author Keith Robertson (and aided by illustrator Robert McCloskey) Henry Harris Reed is an early teenager who has spent most of his life overseas because his father is in the diplomatic service. In the summer before eighth grade, he comes to visit his Uncle Al and Aunt Mabel in Grover's Corner, New Jersey, just outside of Princeton. It's a sleepy town of only nine houses, but Henry shakes it up when he opens his own business (HENRY REED, INC., 1958), specializing in "pure and applied research." With his new friend Midge Glass, the protagonist digs for oil, launches his pet beagle in a hot balloon, and (like another literary Henry before him, Henry Huggins) sells earthworms to fishermen. By the end of that busy summer, the name of the business has been changed from "HENRY REED, INC." to "REED AND GLASS ENTERPRISES, INC." Of course I used to wish it had been "REED AND GLASS AND SIERUTA ENTERPRISES, INC."

The following summer, Henry returns to the United States, touching down in San Francisco to join the Glass family on a road trip back to New Jersey (HENRY REED'S JOURNEY, 1963.) During the trek, they inherit a parakeet, visit Disneyland, get adopted by Hopi Indians, and make a stop at the Grand Canyon -- where Midge drops the family car keys over the rim. Every moment of the trip -- and the book -- is enjoyable, but I've always been disappointed by how truncated the journey is. Once Henry and Midge make it to Missouri -- barely halfway home -- the book reaches its conclusion and the rest of the trip is wrapped up in less than ten pages.

Many fans think HENRY REED'S BABYSITTNG SERVICE (1966) is the funniest book in the series. This story picks up right where JOURNEY left off, telling us about the remainder of Henry's second summer in the States as he and Midge begin a new business (no wonder they rushed home from that road trip!) At first the protagonist dismisses babysitting as "a sissy job," but is soon matching wits with his creepy little client Belinda Osborn, setting up a sixties-version of a day-care center, and getting even with a pair of teenage neighbors who are, in the words of Midge, "stuck up, rude, conceited, selfish, uninteresting, overbearing, loud, and dumb."

The following summer, Henry returns to Grover's Corner again (HENRY REED'S BIG SHOW, 1970) with the idea of becoming a stage director or producer. Less focused than the previous books, BIG SHOW has Henry and Midge toying with the idea of producing a music festival, a renaissance event, a play, and finally a rodeo. Although the earlier volumes are also products of their era (JOURNEY, for instance, features references to Tab Hunter), this book contains talk about Woodstock, protest marches and even a visit by long-haired musicians in a flower-covered vehicle performing a number called "Never Mow the Lawn When It's Wet." Strangely, these plot devices -- considered very contemporary at the time -- now make BIG SHOW the most dated book in the series.

Most of us assumed that the adventures of Henry Reed ended there, but author Keith Robertson surprised everyone with one final volume, HENRY REED'S THINK TANK, which was published in 1986, five years before the author's death. In this go-round, Henry and Midge set up a business to solve neighborhood problems, such as helping a girl who needs a bigger allowance and a chubby boy seeking approval from his father. The story is set at the end of the "big show" summer, which means Henry should be at least sixteen in this volume...but he is portrayed as if he were much younger. Perhaps the author realized Henry was growing up too quickly and wanted to find of way of keeping his series running a little longer.

These brief summaries of the books don't really convey what makes them so memorable. I think the success of Henry Reed can be attributed to several factors:

* The nonstop excitement and activity in each book. Henry and Midge seem to be at the center of every adventure that hits Grover's Corner -- in fact, they usually instigate it. What kid reading these books wouldn't want to be in the middle of all that fun?

* The character of Henry isn't purposefully funny. He rarely cracks jokes or acts silly. This bespectacled kid is practical, earnest, and has a deadpan approach to most of the hysteria going on around him as he studiously records these experiences in his journal. Because he seems so doggone serious he ultimately becomes the funniest character in the books.

* The illustrations by Robert McCloskey are the perfect match for Keith Robertson's prose. Two-time Caldecott winners don't illustrate many chapter books, so it's quite a big deal that Mr. McCloskey agreed to do this series. Even Keith Robertson said, "I don't think the books would have been nearly as successful if they hadn't had these illustrations."

Considering how popular this series once was, it's disappointing to realize that only HENRY REED, INC. and HENRY REED'S BABYSITTING SERVICE remain in print today -- and that's in paperback only. And I'm surprised by how little information I can find about these books. Details can be gleaned from an author profile interview there...and even from a study of Robert McCloskey by Gary D. Schmidt...but there's still not a lot of information much out there.

But remembering that Henry Reed was always all about doing "pure and applied research," I still did my best to gather together ten interesting facts:

1) Most intriguing is that the character of Henry Reed was based on...a female fourth-grade teacher! According to Keith Robertson:

I always had in mind a female fourth-grade schoolteacher. It seems rather ridiculous, but we had a friend who taught school, and it always seemed that wherever she was, there was trouble. There was all sorts of activity, and things went wrong -- not her fault, of course. Just a turmoil!

Obviously, I couldn't write a book about a fourth-grade teacher and have children read it. I converted her into a boy, who was Henry, joined by a girl, Midge. Some incidents resemble what my children did in a similar area of New Jersey. Essentially, Henry is based on a fourth-grade teacher.

2)While Henry may have been based on a female teacher, his image seems to be a self-portrait by illustrator Robert McCloskey:

3) In the early pages of the very first book, Henry asks his uncle to call him "Hank" and that's what he's called by Uncle Al repeatedly through the series. Midge refers to him as "Hank" as well. Yet everyone (and that includes you, doesn't it?) thinks of him as "Henry." (I know I do!)

4) Robert McCloskey and the designer of HENRY REED'S BABYSITTING SERVICE had some fun with the name of the publisher, Viking, using a diaper pin for the letter "V" on the spine:

Kids who see the book at the library today probably have no idea what that pin represents. Aren't diapers now attached with double-sided sticky tape?

5) HENRY REED, INC. won a William Allen White Award, which is voted on by schoolchildren in Kansas. Mr. Robertson and his wife drove there for the award ceremony (could this have been the inspiration for Henry's Reed's upcoming road trip?) and then visited several schools. The last stop on the tour was Robertson's old hometown of Caney. But the author was stopped outside town by the chief of police. He didn't know what was happening until a high school band and baton-tossing majorettes suddenly appeared and marched in front of the car to his old grade school. He would later dedicate HENRY REED'S JOURNEY "To all Henry's Kansas friends who made him feel so welcome."

6) The dustjacket of HENRY REED'S JOURNEY referred to the book as "a unique Baedecker." I had no idea what that meant back when I was a kid (maybe another name for "trip," like "expedition" or "peregrination"?) In fact, I didn't find out what it meant until today when I Googled it. We didn't have the internet in the sixties and seventies. Plus I wasn't very bright.

7) Although all the books are presented in the form of journals written by Henry Reed, the author had originally intended to write part of HENRY REED'S JOURNEY from the perspective of Midge, but his editor -- the famous May Massee -- said that it didn't sound like a girl and made Mr. Robertson rewrite that section in Henry's voice instead.

8) Speaking of changes, HENRY REED'S BIG SHOW was originally titled HENRY REED'S GREAT RODEO.

9) Robert McCloskey was very unhappy with the appearance of HENRY REED'S BIG SHOW and told Gary Schmidt that the volume "looked like it came out of a Xerox machine." Even though he lived until 2003, Robert McCloskey never illustrated another book after HENRY REED'S BIG SHOW in 1970.

10) When HENRY REED'S THINK TANK was accepted for publication, Viking asked Robert McCloskey to illustate it, but he refused. The book was therefore published with no illustrations. However, the dustjacket by Gail Owens contains three notable errors. First, as a blog reader pointed out to me several months ago, the name of the town is wrong on the sign:

It's "Grover's Corner," not "Grovers Corners."

Secondly, according to the text of the books, this sign should not say:

but should have an "AND" instead of an ampersand.

Finally, how come Henry isn't wearing his glasses on the cover? They're his most distinguishing personal characteristic throughout the series!

Please don't tell me he went and got contacts.

I know these are minor details, but Henry Reed is a detail-oriented guy.

I wonder if he'll appreciate all this research I've done about him.

Hey, maybe there's still hope that he'll let me join his research business someday!

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Sunday Brunch for Mothers and Others

Today’s Sunday brunch contains the usual randomness on children’s books old and new, including a few special items for Mother’s Day. I’d also like to take this opportunity to wish any mom who’s reading this a very happy day -- especially mine. One of my mother’s favorite hobbies is finding typos, spelling mistakes, and grammatical errors in this blog. ...And she does find a LOT of them. It’s the perfect job for a mother: pointing out your mistakes but making you a better person in the process. I truely haate too thinnk how unreadible this bog wood be wihtout her kind asistance. Im very greatfull.


The Mummy Market by Nancy Brelis
The author only wrote one book -- but it’s near-perfect. Some editions are titled THE MOTHER MARKET -- probably because “mummy” misleadingly conjures up images from Ancient Egypt

Moon, Have You Met My Mother : The Collected Poems of Karla Kuskin
Over four decades of classic poetry in one classy volume.

The Inner City Mother Goose by Eve Merriam
Fowl character, foul language.

Mama, Do You Love Me? by Barbara M. Joosse
Such a popular book that it was republished in a “Tenth Anniversary Commemorative Edition.”

A Chair for My Mother by Vera B. Williams
Caldecott Honor and Reading Rainbow favorite.

Ramona and Her Mother by Beverly Cleary
Most paperback editions of this book feature a cover illustration of Ramona making a mess with a toothpaste tube, but I’ve always loved the dustjacket from the original hardcover, which captures a quiet moment between Mrs. Quimby and an unusually contemplative Ramona.

Mom, the Wolf Man, and Me by Norma Klein
When Norma Klein decided to write her first children’s book, she vowed to complete the novel by writing ten pages a day for ten days. This book was the result.

Mama by Lee Bennett Hopkins
The well-regarded poet took a rare foray into fiction with this novel, which contains autobiographical elements.

Mama Don’t Allow by Thacher Hurd
A famous song inspired this award-winning picture book.

My Mama Says There Aren't Any Zombies, Ghosts, Vampires, Creatures, Demons, Monsters, Fiends, Goblins, or Things by Judith Viorst
It took a few years, but Judith Viorst finally came up with a title even longer than ALEXANDER AND THE TERRIBLE, HORRIBLE, NO GOOD, VERY BAD DAY.


Have you ever noticed how many children’s books dealing with social issues have the words “mom” or “mother” in the title?

There are books about adoption (DID MY FIRST MOTHER LOVE ME? by Kathryn Ann Miller; WE DON’T LOOK LIKE OUR MOM AND DAD by Harriet Langsam Sobol), addiction (SOMETIMES MY MOM DRINKS TOO MUCH by Kevin Kenny and Helen Krull), divorce (MOM AND DAD DON’T LIVE TOGETHER ANYMORE by Kathy Stinson), illness (MY MOM HAS HEPATITIS C by Hedy Weinberg and Shira Shump), disability (MOM CAN’T SEE ME by Sally Hobart Alexander), and abuse (MY MOM HAS A BAD TEMPER by Beverly H. Hopkins.)


Yesterday I visited the library children’s department staffed by the woman I call Debbie, the Desperate Librarian. She was fuming because no one had signed up to attend that afternoon’s mother-daughter reading group event. I asked what novel they were supposed to discuss and it was -- get this -- ONE OF THOSE HIDEOUS BOOKS WHERE THE MOTHER DIES by Sonya Sones. I suggested that perhaps that particular novel wasn’t the best selection for Mother’s Day weekend, but Debbie disagreed, arguing that “all the best books feature motherless kids.” She then showed me some new bookmarks she’d just created on her computer.

She said kids haven’t been picking up these bookmarks -- “even though they’re free!” -- and that next time she’ll try printing them “on fluorescent-colored paper -- maybe hot pink or bright yellow -- and maybe adding some fun graphics.”

Yeah, that’ll do it, Deb.


Our library recently received a copy of this year’s Caldecott Honor, A COUPLE OF BOYS HAVE THE BEST WEEK EVER by Marla Frazee. I wasn’t wild about the rather pedestrian narrative (I know, I know, the Caldecott rewards art, not writing), plus I felt the two boys looked a little too much alike, but the book did contain some nice images. I was particularly impressed by a picture of the two boys looking at the sunset, although it seemed kind of familiar. Then I remembered that Ms. Frazee had done a similar illustration for the dustjacket of Deborah Wiles’ EACH LITTLE BIRD THAT SINGS.

True, they’re not identical, or even too close to tell apart (like the two boys in BEST WEEK EVER) but they have similar evocative qualities and I like them both a lot.


A few months ago I wrote about how excited I was to receive a limited special edition of MY FATHER’S DRAGON by Ruth Stiles Gannett as a Christmas present. The copy I received was number 88 out of only 125 that were printed. Considering the population of the United States is over 300 Million, that means (if I’m figuring right) that only one out of 2.4 Million people own a copy of this book. WOW...that’s pretty amazing!

Now comes word that Little Brown is publishing a special limited edition of BREAKING DAWN by Stephenie Meyer. The hardcover will include a DVD containing music and interviews with the author. It will be published on August 4 and limited million copies. Which means that only one out of 300 Americans will be able to own a copy of this book., wow....that’s...not so amazing.


Speaking of limited editions, a bookseller recently offered me this rare keepsake from the 1972 Newbery-Caldecott Award Banquet. It’s a mug that honors Newbery winner MRS. FRISBY AND THE RATS OF NIMH (Robert C. O’Brien) on one side and Caldecott winner ONE FINE DAY (Nonny Hogrogian) on the other.

It’s too special to drink from...but looks great on display.


Wouldn’t it be exciting to have a famous children’s book writer as a mother?

Apparently it’s not.

I was amused to read how some kids felt about their literary moms.

Lois Duncan’s daughter once accompanied her mother to a writers’ conference. When they returned home, the daughter excitedly told her siblings: “It was unbelievable! Mother made speeches, and people took notes, just like she was somebody important. Afterward they all went crowding up to talk to her and ask questions and ask for autographs. And at dinner, everybody wanted to sit next to her!”

Duncan said her family listened to this news in “stunned silence.” Finally her son responded, “I hope you didn’t give it away. I hope you didn’t tell them that back home she’s just an ordinary mother.”

E.L. Konigsburg had a similar experience. When a teacher asked Ms. Konigsburg’s daughter “How does it feel to live with a famous mother?” her daughter replied, “Famous? My mother’s just a mother. Why, I’d never argue with anyone famous, and I argue with my mother every day!”

Finally, after winning the Newbery Award for THE SUMMER OF THE SWANS, Betsy Byars got a questionnaire in the mail from a group of students. One question was, “What do your children think of having a Newbery Award winning mother?”

Ms. Byars recalled: “My husband was reading the questions at the table, and as he got to that one he turned to our fourteen year old daughter and said, ‘Well, what do you think of having a Newbery Award winning mother?’ And she gave that shrug that only fourteen year olds can give and said, ‘Well, it’s no big deal.’”


I (obviously) read a lot of children’s and young adult books, but every now and then I get the urge to try something a little different. I’ll think “I haven’t read a bestseller in a year” so I’ll rush out and read a book off the New York Times list. Or I’ll decide to read another Pulitzer-prize novel and then cross it off my “Pulitzer list” (only sixty more to go.) And sometimes I’ll choose a classic novel that I haven’t read before. That’s what happened this week when I picked up a paperback copy of MIDDLEMARCH by George Eliot, a book which everyone else in the world -- but me -- has apparently read and loved. I think I was always put off by its extreme length. But now that even the slightest young adult novels are clocking in at 400+ pages, MIDDLEMARCH doesn’t look so daunting. I began reading it the other night and fell asleep twenty-six times during the introduction, but now that I’m actually reading the novel, I’m starting to like it. We’ll see if I make through all 900+ pages.

Do you feel compelled to finish every book you begin?

Or do you feel you have the right -- even the duty -- to set aside an unfulfilling book in hopes of finding something better?

I have to admit that I seldom intentionally give up on a book. Whenever I put down a partially-finished volume, I always plan to get back to it. Someday. But often someday never comes. So maybe I’m just lying to myself when I say, “I’ll get back to it eventually.”

Incidentally, I recently learned of an intriguing “formula” for how long one should stick with a book before giving up on it. Someone said that you should subtract your age from 100 and then read that many pages in a book before giving up.

So if are 12, you subtract 12 from 100 and read 88 pages before giving up.

If you’re 65, you subtract 65 from 100 and read 35 pages before setting it aside.

The idea is that the older you get, the more definite you are about what you like. At age 12 you’re still developing your tastes and need at least 88 pages to get a sense of whether you appreciate a book. Plus you become more educated about literature and “what makes a good book” as you get older. Most of all, the older you get, the less time you have left to waste on mediocre or bad books.

I don’t know if I agree with this “formula” but I thought it was intriguing.

If I follow this plan, I only need to read 50 pages of MIDDLEMARCH before I decide to continue on.

My brother would have to read 52.

And, let’s see, our mother would only have to read.....

Well, I won’t say IS Mother’s Day after all!

Happy Mother’s Day, everyone!