Sunday, June 28, 2009

A Sunday Brunch with Hick'ry Sticks and Candy Sticks

Today’s Sunday Brunch blog starts off with a song and, among other topics, lists some titles about summer school and summer camp, and discusses Michael Jackson’s influence on books for young readers.


School days, school days,
Dear old golden rule days.
'Readin' and 'ritin' and 'rithmetic,
Taught to the tune of a hick'ry stick.
You were my queen in calico,
I was your barefoot bashful beau,
You wrote on my slate,
“I love you, Joe,”
When we were a couple of kids.

Everyone knows this song, right?

We used to sing it in grade school, probably not understanding the references to calico or slates -- and completely unaware that if our teacher ever raised one of those hick’ry sticks to us, we could sue the school seven ways to Sunday. I wonder if kids today still sing this song in music class. ...Oh yeah, most school systems have cut music classes due to lack of funding for arts education.

One of the reasons the song is embedded in my brain is because, every September on the first day of school, my mother would wake us up singing this song.

She had a different song for the last day of school in June. And, unlike “School Days,” this one seems to be almost unknown. I did a few Google searches for the lyrics, but found only one vague reference -- as opposed to “School Days” which yields thousands of online hits.

Here are the lyrics for the end-of-school song:

Put away your books and papers,
Closing time has come.
School is over, studies ended,
Now we’re going home.
School’s a very fine place to be
Nothing like it for you and me.
Now we turn our faces homeward quite merrily.

Does this song ring a (school) bell for anyone? To place it in context, I should add that my mother learned the song when she was going to school in Southern Indiana. She would not want me to reveal the decade. So suffice it to say that she attended school in Southern Indiana...when Roosevelt was president.

Notice I didn’t say which Roosevelt.


That line from “School Days” provided the title for a 1978 novel by Robbie Branscum. Known for her rural novels, Ms. Branscum had a rather unlikely background for a modern author. Born in 1934 on a farm outside Big Flat, Arkansas, she was raised in extreme poverty by her sharecropper grandparents and was forced to drop out of school by eighth grade. She was married at fifteen, divorced at twenty-five, and spent several years farming and collecting welfare.

One thing Robbie Branscum always had going for her was a love of reading. THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF ARKANSAS says, “The one-room school she attended held two orange crates filled with books, books that offered her an escape from her abusive grandmother and a glimpse into worlds far beyond her own.” As an adult she would discover public libraries.

Her first children’s book, ME AND JIM LUKE was published 1971, and was followed by twenty more including the aforementioned TO THE TUNE OF A HICKORY STICK, as well as a trilogy about a girl growing up in the Arkansas hills (JOHNNY MAY, 1976; THE ADVENTURES OF JOHNNY MAY, 1984; JOHNNY MAY GROWS UP, 1987), an Edgar Award-winning mystery, THE MURDER OF HOUND DOG BATES (1982), and an autobiographical novel called THE GIRL (1987.)

Years after the author’s death, her daughter Deborah, also a writer, wrote this about her mother: “As a country gal who grew up barefoot, she was never comfortable in cities, formal clothing, or places more than two floors high. Once she traveled to San Francisco for a meeting with an editor on one of the top floors of a downtown skyscraper but never made it. She fled the elevator on the second or third floor and the editor had to come down and meet with her in the ladies room.”

That “country gal” attitude comes through in novels which are, by turns, humorous, painful, honest, and authentic in providing a clear-eyed look at often economically-deprived rural youth.

Although no longer in print, Robbie Branscum’s work deserves rediscovery by twenty-first century readers.


The lyric “school is over, studies ended,” may be true for most kids...but some are about to turn right back around and start summer school. I actually took a couple summer classes back when I was in grade school. Several decades later I can’t remember a thing I learned in those classes, but do remember that I learned something about duplicity that summer. Every day at eleven, an older student came around to each classroom with a wheeled cart, delivering doughnuts to the teachers. We students didn’t get any. I still remember the very affected, “adult” way this girl would chat and laugh with the teachers, as the teachers decided whether they wanted plain or frosted or powdered-sugared. And then, while the teacher would dig around in her purse for fifteen cents to pay for the treat, the doughnut girl would gaze around the classroom as if to say, “Look how important I am. The rest of you peons are sitting in a hot classroom with math books. But I’ve got a cart. And doughnuts. I Am...the Doughnut Girl.” Sometimes the teacher would give the D.G. a quarter and say, “Keep the change” and the girl would loudly reply, “FOR ME?” and then s-l-o-w-ly put it in her pocket, making sure we all saw her.

Then, after all her deliveries were made, she’d come back down the hallway, s-l-o-w-l-y passing our classroom door with her clattering cart...and powdered sugar on her face!

We hated her.

The worst thing about her was that, every single morning I’d see her standing outside the school door with her best friend, smoking cigarettes and slamming all the teachers: One teacher never gave her a tip. Another one was “a fat pig who shouldn’t eat doughnuts anyway.” Then, in the midst of all this complaining, some of those very teachers would come right up the walkway to enter the building and this girl would hold her cigarette behind her back, put on a Big Smile (and I capitalize those two initials intentionally) and chat in that very affected, “adult” way about how she’d see them later that morning with their doughnuts.

The teachers seemed perfectly charmed -- although, looking back, I can’t help but believe that some of them saw right through her act. I mean, surely they saw the smoke from her lighted cigarette rising from over her shoulders and the back of her head?

So anyway, I got through summer school without learning anything academic, but I did encounter a girl I can put in a novel someday. ...And speaking of novels, here are a few summer school stories to share. Some of the kids, like Stanford Wong, are attending because they flunked a class during the regular school year. Others, such as the protagonists of THE WILD GIRLS, are attending an elite summer session for young writers.

THE FARTHER YOU RUN by Davida Hurwin. A watered-down sequel to the heart-wrenching A TIME FOR DANCING.

SUMMER SCHOOL : WHAT GENIUS THOUGHT THAT UP? by Henry Winkler and Lin Oliver. Yeah, that Henry Winkler -- writing again about his dyslexic alter-ego Hank Zipzer

STANFORD WONG FLUNKS BIG TIME by Lisa Yee. And if Stanford wants to be on the basketball team, he needs to pass summer school English.

THE LIGHTNING THIEF by Rick Riordan. Even demigods have to attend summer school.

THE GREAT INTERACTIVE DREAM MACHINE by Richard Peck. Summer school kids create a computer that fulfills dreams.

EMPRESS OF THE WORLD by Sara Ryan. Attending a summer program for gifted teens, a girl finds an unexpected romance.

CASTRATION CELEBRATION by Jake Wizner. Teens. Arts program. Sex.

THE METHOD by Paul Robert Walker. Albie’s summer high school drama program helps him accept both himself and others.

THE WILD GIRLS by Pat Murphy. This was one of my picks for the Newbery a couple years back. It didn’t win...but should have at least been an Honor Book.


Those who successfully avoid summer school might still find themselves with a bus ticket for summer camp.

Summer camp can be a grim, life-altering experience (see THE GOATS by Brock Cole) or much more lighthearted (HAIL, HAIL, CAMP TIMBERWOOD by Ellen Conford; THERE’S A BAT IN BUNK FIVE by Paula Danziger; SLOT MACHINE by Chris Lynch.)

For a while there, THE GOATS was a very big deal -- mentioned frequently in critical studies, assigned for school reading, often cited as one of the “very best” children’s books of recent years. ...Maybe it’s just me, but I rarely hear Cole’s novel discussed these days. Has this book’s reputation lost some of its luster?

Following a discussion of THE GOATS with comments on Bill Adler’s LETTERS FROM CAMP pretty much defines the phrase “going from the sublime to the ridiculous.” But one has to acknowledge the huge success of the latter title, which was first published in 1961 and has been a part of our culture ever since. Is there any beach house or cabin that doesn’t have a waterlogged paperback copy of LETTERS FROM CAMP sitting on a windowsill or shelf? It’s perfect beach reading, composed of silly missives supposedly sent by campers to their parents and illustrated by children’s book stalwart Sid Hoff. Adler knew he had a good thing with this idea and went on to publish MORE LETTERS FROM CAMP (1966), HIP KIDS’ LETTERS FROM CAMP (1971), STILL MORE LETTERS FROM CAMP (1973) and AGAIN, MORE LETTERS FROM CAMP (1976.)

I especially got a kick out of this volume, which was published in 2000:

Talk about things changing with the times, now the kids are sending e-mails -- and the book was written by the author’s son, Bill Adler, Jr!


Like everyone else who was alive back then, I remember exactly where I was when I heard Elvis Presley died. It was startling news...but I felt a bit removed from the ensuing media hoopla. After all, Elvis was from an earlier generation and had been a big star long before I was even born. And, let’s face it, he was awfully old when he died...all of 42.

Then came this week’s news about an iconic figure from my own generation. Even though he was 50 -- eight years older than Elvis -- my first thought was: “Wow, he died so young!”

Michael Jackson was only a couple months older than I am, so of course I felt as though I’d grown up with him. I was never a huge fan of his music, but I’ll admit I bought a few of his 45s when I was growing up. (If you are under the age of thirty, I guess I need to explain that a “45” was a vinyl disc, about the size of a Lean Cuisine Pizza -- only thinner -- that produced music when played on a machine called a stereo.) And even though I didn’t have any of his later recordings, they were of course, ubiquitous on the radio and TV and really were the “soundtrack of our lives.” And I always followed the news about Michael Jackson in newspapers and magazines -- though I was often horrified by what I read.

In the last couple days I’ve been wondering if Michael Jackson was only relevant to people my age or older. Do kids growing up today know him, or did they view him as a distant, elderly figure? After all, he hadn’t had a hit record in ages.

However, looking at some recent children’s and young adult books, I was surprised to see how often his name was cited. Often the comments were fairly rude (in one of the following titles, a character wonders about “the whereabouts of Michael Jackson’s old nose.” Ouch.) but the fact remains, he WAS mentioned in dozens of contemporary books for contemporary readers. Here are just a few, published within the last couple years:

BLACK RABBIT SUMMER by Kevin Brooks ("Bad?" Pauly grinned. "You mean baad like Michael Jackson? ...")

SO NOT HAPPENING by Jenny B. Jones.

STONEWALL HINKLEMAN AND THE BATTLE OF BULL RUN by Sam Riddleburger and Michael Hemphill.

DEAD GIRL DANCING by Linda Joy Singleton ("... Gloves? I thought, surprised. That style went out with Michael Jackson.)

GEEK CHARMING by Robin Palmer.

BETWIXT by Tara Bray Smith.

BOY MINUS GIRL by Richard Uhlig.

GAMER GIRL by Mari Mancusi.

SUCK IT UP by Brian Meehl (“When I think of vampires, I think Dracula, Lestat, Michael Jackson...”)

There are also reference to MJ in several of Meg Cabot’s popular novels; NICK & NORAH’S INFINITE PLAYLIST by by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan; this year’s Printz winner, JELLICOE ROAD by Melina Marchetta, and one of last year’s Newbery Honors, FEATHERS by Jacqueline Woodson.

That’s pretty amazing. And it makes me wonder if Michael Jackson, for all his baggage, will eventually have an even bigger role in future children’s books. Twenty years ago, who would have thought Elvis Presley would one day be a title figure in numerous volumes:


Then there’s the sad story of Farrah Fawcett. Her death was the lead-story for all of five hours before she was pushed off the front pages by Michael Jackson. Farrah hasn’t had a huge role in children’s books so far, though a few titles make reference to her famous haircut and the YA novel FREAK SHOW by James St. James contains a snarky putdown. But believe it or not, she too is briefly cited in a Newbery Honor Book -- CRAZY LADY by Jane Leslie Conly.


Thanks to all who contributed comments on this past week’s blogs.

I was fascinated to hear Jane Yolen’s insights on the PRINCE OF EGYPT movie and books:

When "Prince of Egypt" came out, I wrote the picture book, Lynn Reid Banks did the novelization. Or an accompanying novel. We took the money and ran. Neither book (or movie as far as I know) ever made its money back.

But I accomplished what I set out to do when I finally accepted it: elevating the language back to the Biblical language from the movie's Yo Mo, leaving out the car chase (well, the chariot chase) etc.

And Monica Edinger has me very curious about why Rose Kennedy had the book PENROD in her boudoir:

This March I had a tour of the JFK Presidential Birthplace which was bought back by the family decades later and restored under Rose Kennedy's direction in 1967. Fascinating in terms of her memory, her wish to memorialize her son, and more. But I write because I was completely fascinated that she arranged to have a copy of Penrod on display in her private "boudoir" --- a tiny room of the master bedroom. Have always wondered what she meant by that. I mean, Penrod isn't exactly typical boudoir reading matter.

Daughter Number Three contributed some comments on Virginia Lee Burton. She has some material on Ms. Burton at her blog and points us toward some special events and showings at the Cape Ann Historical Museum.


A friend sent me this marketing piece for Kate DiCamillo’s forthcoming children’s book, THE MAGICIAN’S ELEPHANT. It’s a piece of chocolate shaped just like an elephant:

Of course I am now faced with a dilemma. Do I eat the chocolate or save it for a souvenir?

It does look rather tasty.

And I wonder how long it will last if I don’t eat it. I mean, if I put it away with all my other book ephemera, won’t it eventually melt and ruin all my other children’s book souvenirs?

Whenever I’m faced with this type of dilemma I always think of Laura and Mary from LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE.

Do you remember the Christmas scene in the original made-for-tv movie in which Mr. Edwards arrives on Christmas with gifts for each of the girls -- including a tin cup and a piece of striped candy. Mary stares at hers reverently and says, “I”m going to save mine.” Laura says, “I’m not!” and chomps into it.

The scene in the book is a little more austere. In the novel, Laura takes one lick -- just one -- from her candy stick, while Mary “who was not so greedy” saves hers for later.

I guess there are two types of people in this world: you’re either a Mary, disciplined enough to save things for a rainy day...or a Laura, who can’t wait to take a big bite of life.

So far I haven’t decided what I’m going to do -- have it for dessert tonight or let it sit around till it turns waxy and white. (Gives new meaning to the phrase “white elephant.)

While I’m deciding, let me take this opportunity to say thanks for visiting Collecting Children’s Books. Hope you’ll return.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Boys of Summer

Even though "Young Adult Literature" is a fairly recent genre, there has always been literature about young adults.

I'm thinking about a couple such books today -- one a novel, the other a play -- that predate the YA designation, yet fit the genre well. Both are humorous summertime romances featuring earnest young men caught up in the heart-sputtering lunacy of first love.

Published in 1916, Booth Tarkington's SEVENTEEN tells the story of midwestern teenager William Sylvanus Baxter, whose professed lack of interest in girls ("I never saw one in my life I'd care whether she lived or died!") immediately dissolves when he sets eyes on Miss Lola Pratt, a beguiling town visitor who clutches her pet dog like a fashion accessory and speaks in babytalk ("Me 'fraid oo's a no'ty, no'ty ickle dirl!" Translation: "I'm afraid you're a naughty, naughty little girl.") One look at Lola and William is borrowing his father's dress-suit, buying cigarettes, and jockeying for position among Miss Pratt's myriad of suitors. Reading SEVENTEEN nearly a hundred years after it was published, it's easy to see why the book is no longer read in schools. The dialect ascribed to an African-American handyman is stereotyped and the epithets William casually uses to describe him are fairly shocking. On the other hand, the novel's humor holds up marvelously well. I found myself laughing outloud many times at Miss Pratt's babytalk (though an 'ickle of that goes a long way), at the bratty behavior of William's tattling little sister, and at the protagonist's oversized emotions, occasional priggishness, and romantic fervor -- proving that, despite many changes in society, the agonies and ecstasies of being "seventeen" remain the same throughout the ages.

SEVENTEEN reminded me of another title that explores similar themes -- AH, WILDERNESS by Eugene O'Neill. If you only know O'Neill from his somber dramas (LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT; A MOON FOR THE MISBEGOTTEN), you'll be pleasantly surprised by this, his only comedy. ...And if you're one of those people who doesn't like to read plays, here's a tip: just think of them as Instant Message conversations without the abbreviations and emoticons. Set over the Fourth of July holiday in 1906, AH, WILDERNESS! concerns Richard Miller, a sixteen-year-old lovestruck kid growing up in smalltown New England. Given to quoting The Rubaiyat and grandly making Important Statements About Life, Richard is so devastated when his first romance ends that he goes out with a wild older woman and has too much to drink. It may sound racy, but there is a real innocence to Richard, and the play as a whole, which is very appealing. It's also extremely funny, though the humor here is more gentle than in the Tarkington novel. Unlike SEVENTEEN, O'Neill's play continues to be enjoyed by modern audiences and was revived on Broadway as recently as 1998. And it still makes a great reading experience.

Over the years, readers of young adult books have complained there are not enough love stories for teenage boys.

Here are two that were published long before "YA Books" even existed as a genre.

But can SEVENTEEN and AH, WILDERNESS! really be classified as young adult books? I guess that depends on perspective. Although both works feature teenage protagonists, they are part of a larger canvas that also includes adult characters. Both devote many scenes to the boys' frustrated (yet very loving and sympathetic) parents; AH, WILDERNESS also includes a sad romance between two forty-somethings. Adult audiences will view William's and Richard's humorous antics with a rueful sense of nostalgia...but I think there is still enough immediacy and realism in these characterizations that contemporary teenagers will see themselves in these boys as well. Though published long ago and -- at least in the case of SEVENTEEN -- containing some politically incorrect material, the timeless emotions of first love prevent these summertime romances from ever going out of season.

SEVENTEEN : A TALE OF YOUTH AND SUMMER TIME AND THE BAXTER FAMILY ESPECIALLY WILLIAM by Booth Tarkington; illustrated by Arthur William Brown. Harper and Brothers, 1916.

AH, WILDERNESS! by Eugene O'Neill. Random House, 1933.

First edition points:

SEVENTEEN -- orange cloth cover with title and author's name imprinted on both spine and front panel. "Published March 1916" and the code "B-Q" must be on the copyright page. A tissue-guard should be present between frontispiece and title page. The dustjacket (pictured above) has the title and subtitle on both the cover and spine. The price is $1.35.

AH, WILDERNESS! -- blue cloth cover with O'Neill's signature stamped in gold on front and the title in gold on the spine. "Published October 1933" on copyright page. The dustjacket (pictured above) should have a price of $2.50.

Difficulty in finding first editions:

Both books are available and can usually be found for under $200 each.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Famous Authors, Cheap Paperbacks

This blog is usually devoted to the fine books. The important books.

The kind of books we discovered in libraries as kids and checked out over and over.


But it's sometimes fun to acknowledge the less fine books. The less important books.

The kind of books we discovered on a rack in the drugstore that spun around and around.


Those titles are all paperbacks based on TV series of the 1970s -- specifically HAPPY DAYS, ROOM 222, and WELCOME BACK, KOTTER.

I've always been fascinated by the whole concept of movies and television shows being "novelized" into paperback books. I guess I can understand the motivation for publishing them: it's another way for a movie or TV studio to make subsidiary money from their product -- similar to bundling BATMAN or SHREK toys with Happy Meals. But I'm most intrigued by the consumer angle. Who, exactly, is the audience for these books? Certainly no one is drawn by their overall quality; almost invariably they are cheaply manufactured paperbacks with stock photos on their covers. The writing is usually adequate at best. They seem to be created with unsophisticated readers -- even nonreaders -- in mind. But what's wrong with that? At the risk of sounding patronizing, there's something kind of touching about a nonreader liking a movie or TV show so much that they want to keep savoring it, understand it better, and have a piece of it for their own, so that -- perhaps for the first time in their lives -- they reach for a BOOK to achieve those things.

I've been thinking about paperback novelizations ever since I wrote a blog entry about young-adult author Hila Colman this weekend. Listed among her many books was the title THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE. At first I thought she may have written a novel that inspired the 1967 Julie Andrews musical. Instead I discovered that she'd made her only foray into movie novelizations with a paperback adaptation of THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE. As a rule, novelizations are written by generally unknown authors; some appear to be issued under pseudonyms. But doing a bit of research this week, I discovered that a surprising number of well-known children's authors have published TV and film tie-ins over the years.

Norma Klein had already published MOM, THE WOLFMAN AND ME and several other children's books before doing a novelization of the 1973 disease-of-the-week TV movie SUNSHINE, a bestseller that remained in print for years and years.

Another Norma -- Norma Fox Mazer -- had already been a National Book Award finalist when she wrote a novelization of the (flop) movie SUPERGIRL in 1984.

Patricia C. Wrede had written many successful fantasies before joining the STAR WARS franchise with children's novelizations of the THE PHANTOM MENACE (1999), ATTACK OF THE CLONES (2002) and REVENGE OF THE SITH (2005.)

YA fantasy writer Garth Nix wrote one book in the X-FILES franchise, THE CALUSARI (1997) before deciding that this type of writing-for-hire "really did not suit me." Other children's authors who wrote paperbacks based on TV series are Colleen O’Shaughnessy McKenna, who produced a couple volumes about "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman" and Marjorie Weinman Sharmat, who did one for the teen comedy SQUARE PEGS.

Other novelizing novelists include Stephanie Calmenson (THE ADDAMS FAMILY, 1991), Patricia Hermes (MY GIRL, 1991), and William Kotzwinkle who put ET : THE EXTRATERRESTRIAL IN HIS ADVENTURE ON EARTH (1982) and SUPERMAN III (1983) between paperback covers.

Two novelizations that perplex me are Sherwood Smith's THE BORROWERS (1997) and Laurie Lawlor's LITTLE WOMEN (1994.) Why novelize movies based on well-known and still-in-print children's books?

Todd Strasser is probably the King of Novelizations. After starting his career with such well-received YA novels as ANGEL DUST BLUES and FRIENDS TILL THE END, he began alternating original fiction with paperback adaptations of such hit movies as FERRIS BUELLER'S DAY OFF (1986), HOME ALONE (1991), FREE WILLY (1993), and many more.

Incidentally, even classic writers have been known to dabble in novelizations. Before World War II, both Margaret Wise Brown and Rachel Field adapted Disney cartoons into children's books -- though they were hardcover volumes and not paperbacks. Beverly Clearly did a four-book series based on the TV sitcom LEAVE IT TO BEAVER. And in 1966 Isaac Asimov produced a paperback novelization of the science fiction flick THE FANTASTIC VOYAGE.

Looking at this long list of illustrious hardcover authors, I wonder what led them to write these TV and movie tie-ins. I have never heard any of these writers address the issue, so one can only surmise.

Perhaps they did it for income. Writing children's books doesn't always pay the rent, so perhaps a paperback publisher -- to borrow a line from both a book AND a movie -- made an offer they couldn't refuse.

Perhaps they just wanted to try something new or different with their writing.

Perhaps they were actually fans of the TV show or movie in question. ...I can envision Isaac Asimov enjoying FANTASTIC VOYAGE, can't you?

Perhaps they wanted to expand their own audience. A successful movie novelization can be a big bestseller. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that more people purchased Patricia Hermes' novelization of MY GIRL than bought her own novel WHAT IF THEY KNEW? I imagine SUNSHINE sold better than most of Norma Klein's original novels.

And who knows? Maybe every now and then some fan of SUNSHINE recognized the name "Norma Klein" on the cover of one of her original books and decided to give it a try. It's probably happened to Todd Strasser, Patricia Wrede, and all the others as well.

Imagine a kid going from a a reader of cheap paperback actually reaching for an original novel.

Talk about a happy ending right out of the movies.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

A Sunday Brunch with Tweets

“Do you always watch for the longest day of the year and then miss it? I always watch for the longest day in the year and then miss it."

That’s a line from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s THE GREAT GATSBY and -- since today actually is the longest day of the year -- I’m repeating the quote here so that none of us will “miss it.” June 21 is also Father’s Day. Today’s Sunday brunch features a little about summer, a bit about Father’s Day, and the usual random thoughts and observations about children’s books old and new.


The beginning of summer always makes me think of Robert Lipsyte’s seasonal series, which began with 1977’s ONE FAT SUMMER. This autobiographical novel introduces Bobby Marks, a fourteen-year-old boy struggling with his weight, his parents, girls, and a summer job mowing the lawn for a wealthy man. Although he eventually deals with his weight issue, Bobby faces other problems during subsequent summers, working at a camp in SUMMER RULES (1981) and spending the summer before college employed by a laundry in THE SUMMERBOY (1982.) This trilogy, focusing on summer jobs, summer romances, and growing up, continues to be read and enjoyed by kids today. Mr. Lipsyte won the 2001 Margaret A. Edwards Award for his contributions to young adult literature.

And now let me be presumptuous enough to suggest a name to future Edwards Award committees: Norma Fox Mazer. Beginning with I, TRISSY in 1971, Ms. Fox Mazer has published a steady run of emotional, thought-provoking, topflight books in a wide variety of genres, from realistic fiction (UP IN SETH’S ROOM, 1979), to fantasy/time travel (SATURDAY, THE TWELFTH OF OCTOBER, 1975), to historical (GOOD NIGHT MAMAM, 1999.) I particularly admire her short story collections DEAR BILL, REMEMBER ME? (1976) and SUMMER GIRLS, LOVE BOYS (1982.) Over the years the author has received a scattering of awards for individual volumes. A FIGURE OF SPEECH was a National Book Award finalist. AFTER THE RAIN was a Newbery Honor. TAKING TERRI MUELLER won the Edgar Award. But what she needs now is a career-award acknowledging the breadth of her work, the strength of her prose, her literary experimentation, and her rare ability to write about disadvantaged or lower class characters with great integrity.

Norma Fox Mazer for the Margaret A. Edwards Award! Pass it on.


At the height of the “Series of Unfortunate Events” craze, the pseudonymous author published LEMONY SNICKET : THE UNAUTHORIZED AUTOBIOGRAPHY. This pastiche of letters, music, historical photographs and other ephemera is the kind of volume that young Snicket fans would likely pore over with a magnifying glass. I can imagine myself doing the same thing as a kid. But as an adult, this mishmash of a book gave me a headache. The content was unorganized, the tone was purposefully arcane, and I felt like I was trapped in someone else’s inside joke. However, I do have to say I loved one page of the book. This one:

It shows a group of sailors who are identified as Sailor Gantos, Sailor Eager, Sailor Kerr, Sailor Whelan, Sailor Cleary, Sailor Snyder, Sailor Sones, Sailor Seibold, Sailor Walsh, Sailor Selznick, Sailor Creech, Sailor Danziger, Sailor Konigsburg, Sailor Lowry, Sailor Scieszka, Sailor Griffin, Sailor Snicket, Sailor Dahl, Sailor Woodson, Sailor Bellairs, Sailor Kalman and Sailor Peck.

Obviously Lemony Snicket is a fan of children’s books too.


Walking through the library stacks, I’m always surprised by the large number of books by Hila Colman. I recently did some research and discovered that Ms. Colman died on May 15, 2008, just a couple months short of her ninety-ninth birthday. By that point, her place in children’s and young adult literature had been supplanted by more contemporary and, frankly, better authors -- but she still should be remembered as a pioneer in the field of teenage fiction. From 1957 (THE BIG STEP) to 1990 (FORGOTTEN GIRL), Hila Colman broke ground by tackling such then-daring topics as teenage marriage, religion, divorce, and minorities. Today Colman’s agenda-driven novels may seem superficial and blandly “safe,” yet there’s little doubt that, during the fifties and sixties, these books provided both insight and comfort to young readers struggling with some heavy real-life issues. Her work also served as a bridge from the wholesome books of the fifties to the more hard-hitting novels of today -- and for that she should be celebrated.


In other obit news, I’m sorry to report that a legendary name in children’s books died March 4, 2009.

Richard Berkenbush was neither a writer nor an illustrator, yet his name appears in a classic picture book that has sold over 1.5 million copies and is still going strong.

Back then, he was known as “Dickie” and a typo caused his last name to be spelled wrong.

Here’s how it appeared in print:

On this page:

of this book:

MIKE MULLIGAN AND THE STEAM SHOVEL concerns a man and his old steam shovel digging a foundation for Popperville’s town hall. But as author-illustrator Virginia Lee Burton approached the end of her story she realized that she’d, quite literally, dug her characters -- Mike and his steam shovel Mary Ann -- into a hole and didn’t know how to get them out again.

Ms. Burton read her manuscript to a group of children and young Dickie Berkenbush suggested that Mary Ann could remain in the town hall basement as a furnace. Years later, Mr. Berkenbush recalled how he came up with the idea: “My father had a garage in town that had a steam heating system, so I was familiar with it.”

The author was so thrilled that she gave the boy an acknowledgment smack in the middle of the book!

Richard Berkenbush grew up to become a fire chief and police chief in West Newbury, Massachusetts, where he died earlier this year at age 84.

Mary Ann the steam shovel -- now Mary Ann the furnace -- is presumably still keeping visitors warm at the Popperville town hall.


MIKE MULLIGAN AND HIS STEAM SHOVEL is one of the rarest and most sought-after volumes for children’s book collectors.

We are lucky enough to have a first edition in our library’s collection, so I thought I'd share it here.

You’ve already seen Mike and Mary Ann breaking through the front cover of the dustjacket above. Here is the back cover the jacket:

The yellow spine simply says "MIKE MULLIGAN AND HIS STEAM SHOVEL" followed by an abbreviation for the publisher, "H.M. CO.” with no mention of the author’s name at all.

Take off the jacket and you’ll see this beige cloth cover with an illustration imprinted on it:

The double-spread illustration on the endpapers demonstrates Mary Ann’s capabilities:

Among other first edition points:

The front flap of the dustjacket should have a price of $1.50 at the top; the back flap should have an ad for Burton’s first book, CHOO-CHOO.

The title page must have the date “1939” at the bottom, just over the words “THE RIVERSIDE PRESS -- CAMBRIDGE.”

If your book does not state 1939 on the title page, it is not a first edition.

If it does state 1939, congratulations. You own a book worth $10,000.


Last Sunday I solicited quotations from children’s books. I really liked all the quotes that people sent in:

Monica E. quoted Lewis Carroll:

Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister
on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had
peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no
pictures or conversations in it, `and what is the use of a book,'
thought Alice `without pictures or conversation?'

Grrlpup quoted Louise Fitzhugh’s HARRIET THE SPY:

Sometimes you have to lie.

and LIZARD MUSIC by Daniel Pinkwater:

My ears were filled with lizard music.

Jeanne K. suggests:

And the rest is silence, Shakespeare! from HALF MAGIC.

Emily submitted this one from THE MAGIC PUDDING by Norman Lindsay:

"Apologies are totally inadequate," shouted Uncle Wattleberry. "Nothing short of felling you to the earth with an umbrella could possibly atone for the outrage."

and Penni from Australia quoted A.A. Milne:

Where am I going? I don't quite know
What does it matter where people go?
Down to the woods where the bluebells grow.
Anywhere, anywhere, I don't know.


Everyone seems to be twittering about Twittering these days. I have not gotten on the bandwagon yet -- and probably won’t. (I can't imagine trying to constrain myself to only 140 characters?) But I have noticed that several fictional characters have begun tweeting. Here are some of their comments:

Hey gang! Slipped the kid a mickey in his hot milk. As soon as he dozes off, get your cottontails over here for a PAR-TAY!!!
-- The Quiet Old Lady from GOODNIGHT MOON by Margaret Wise Brown

I’m having a terrible, horrible...well, Twitter doesn’t allow me enough space to explain how bad my day has been!

Aw can it, Alexander. At least you can Tweet your entire name!
-- Pippilotta Delicatessa Windowshade Mackrelmint Ephraim’s Daughter Longstocking from PIPPI LONGSTOCKING by Astrid Lindgren

-- Milo from THE PHANTOM TOOLBOOTH by Norman Juster

How does this thing work anyway?
-- THE WAY THINGS WORK by David Macaulay

We're suing for copyright infringement!
-- Mr. and Mrs. Twit from THE TWITS by Roald Dahl

Sor5y for miStaKKes, I am TweetttttiNg left-handed bec23se of molten silver acdident.
-- Johnny Tremain from JOHNNY TREMAIN by Esther Forbes

Just give it time, Johnny. I eventually learned how to tweet left-handed. Now I'm a compulsive multi-tasker!
-- Deenie from DEENIE by Judy Blume

-- the kid from LOVE YOU FOREVER by Robert Munsch

What am I up to? Sorry, I can’t tell you what I’m doing until September 1, 2009.
-- Katniss from THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins

Twitter’s OK, but I prefer Crayola.
-- Harold from HAROLD AND THE PURPLE CRAYON by Crockett Johnson

So I told my maid to send me a tweet and she started doing birdcalls!
-- Mrs. Rodgers from AMELIA BEDELIA by Peggy Parish

-- “Anonymous sender” from DINKY HOCKER SHOOTS SMACK! by M.E. Kerr

But it doesn’t look as good if I can’t format my tweets on separate lines!
-- Billie Jo from OUT OF THE DUST by Karen Hesse

-- The Snowman from the book of the same name by Raymond Briggs

Click Clack Twitter!
-- Farmer Brown’s Cows from CLICK CLACK MOO : COWS THAT TYPE by Doreen Cronin

My dumb family accidentally left me on this dumb island. Someone come get me. My GPS coordinates are 33°44 11” N 118°16’ 47” W. Hurry up, I don’t want to spend the night here alone. Thx.
-- Karana from ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS by Scott O’Dell

This Twitter account has been suspended due to user inactivity.
-- Mandy from LETTERS FROM THE INSIDE by John Marsden


Finally, I’ll close with a brief Father’s Day story about Ezra Jack Keats, whose groundbreaking picture books include the 1963 Caldecott winner THE SNOWY DAY.

Mr. Keats grew up in New York, the son of poor Polish immigrants. His father Benjamin, a waiter at a Greenwich Village coffee shop, was wary of Ezra’s interest in art and worried that he would never make a living in this field. According to the illustrator’s website:

Despite his desire to discourage Ezra, Benjamin brought home tubes of paint for his son under the pretense of having traded bowls of soup to starving artists. “If you don’t think artists starve, well, let me tell you. One man came in the other day and swapped me a tube of paint for a bowl of soup.”

When Ezra was a teenager, he painted a portrait of his parents. He recalled, “When I asked them to pose, my father wanted to wear a shirt and tie, but I painted him as he was, in his undershirt and work pants.”

A year later Ezra graduated from high school, winning the senior class prize for excellence in art. The day before the ceremony, his father collapsed and died on the street and Ezra had the sad duty of identifying Benjamin's body. Afterwards he claimed his father’s wallet and “found myself staring deep into his secret feelings. There in his wallet were worn and tattered newspaper clippings of the notices of the awards I had won. My silent admirer and supplier, he had been torn between his dread of my leading a life of hardship and his real pride in my work."

Happy Father’s Day -- and thanks for visiting Collecting Children’s Books.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Curious George Teaches Us about Recycling!

H.A. Rey was born in 1898 and his wife Margret was born in 1906.

Who would believe they'd still be alive and publishing books in 2009?

What's that? They're not still alive? Mrs. Rey died in 1996 and Mr. Rey died back in 1977...?

But...but they've got a brand-new book out!

Their names are right on the cover: want me to look on the title page?


See, there are the names MARGRET & H.A. REY again. All in caps! In color even!

Oh, what's this at the bottom of the page...?

Other smaller print?

Yeah, this book appears to be written by someone named...Monica Perez. And it's illustrated "in the style of H.A. Rey" by Anna Grossnickle Hines.

I guess I shouldn't be surprised. It's not a new phenomenon. The library where I work owns the 1998 title CURIOUS GEORGE MAKES PANCAKES "based on the original character by Margret and H.A. Rey" (no author or illustrator mentioned), as well as 2003's CURIOUS GEORGE AND THE BIRTHDAY SURPRISE (author unattributed, but "illustrated in the style of H.A. Rey by Martha Weston"), and CURIOUS GEORGE GOES TO A CHOCOLATE FACTORY (a 1998 volume with illustrations "in the style of H.A. Rey by Vipah Interactive.") That last one really slays me, with its blatant grab for both Rey and Roald Dahl fans. And unless "Interactive" is Vipah's last name, the book appears to be illustrated not by an individual...but by a company!

Most people know the story of H.A. and Margret Rey smuggling the original CURIOUS GEORGE manuscript out of France on home-made bicycles just hours before Paris fell to the Nazis. Published by Houghton Mifflin in 1941, the book became a classic and spawned a half dozen legitimate sequels -- "legitimate" meaning they were written and illustrated by the Reys themselves. Unfortunately CURIOUS GEORGE PLANTS A TREE doesn't add any luster to the reputation of the series. In this very purposeful tale, George learns to "reduce, reuse, recycle" and then causes some mischief when he collects items from neighbors for the science museum's "Green Day" celebration. The heavy-handed book concludes with "20 kid-friendly tips for a greener world." Hey, want a tip on how the publisher could have saved a few trees...? The writing is generic, the illustrations are pallid. And, all told, wouldn't you rather read a book that's "inspired" than one that's "inspired by"? CURIOUS GEORGE PLANTS A TREE (and ...VISITS A CHOCOLATE FACTORY and ...TAKES A TRAIN and ...VISITS A TOY STORE) dilute the power and magic of the creators' original works. So why monkey around with success?

On the other hand, who better to teach us about living green than Curious George... considering how many times he's been reused and recycled himself?

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

"Dealing" with William Speak-a-piece Whackery and Alfred O-Lord Tennisball

A couple days ago I blogged about the children's card game Authors. Several people wrote to say they remembered this game from FAMILY SABBATICAL, a 1956 novel by Carol Ryrie Brink, and a sequel to 1952's FAMILY GRANDSTAND. So I pulled my copies of these books off the shelf and finally got around to reading them this week. Now I understand why so many people like them.

Carol Ryrie Brink (1895-1981) started her career with a bang. Her second novel for young readers, CADDIE WOODLAWN, won the 1936 Newbery Medal and has become something of a classic. Although she continued to successfully write for both children and adults, her later books -- with perhaps the exception of BABY ISLAND -- are generally forgotten these days. Yet many people have told me that FAMILY GRANDSTAND and FAMILY SABBATICAL were among their childhood favorites. The latter titles were based loosely on the experiences of Ms. Brink's own children who, like the fictional Ridgeways, were raised in a midwestern college town.

FAMILY GRANDSTAND introduces twelve-year-old Susan, her scientifically-minded brother George, and their eccentric-yet-wise little sister Dumpling. Growing up in Midwest City with their college professor father and writer-mother, the Ridgeway kids live just a block-and-a-half from the college football stadium and are able watch the games from a tall tower built above the attic of their quaint old home. As an added bonus, the star quarterback of the university football team, Tommy Tokarynski, is a friend of the family. Tommy's fear that he may fail chemistry and get cut from the team is just one of the many subplots in this episodic novel which also concerns the Ridgeways' several pets, the siblings' varied attempts to earn money, and their busy plans for celebrating George's birthday, Halloween, and Homecoming. Though some of these elements may be familiar, the characterizations are fresh (particularly Dumpling, who "did not have to speak; she only had to look thoughtful to impress people"), the dialogue is often funny, and the college-town setting -- and especially that cool tower on top of the house -- gives the novel an extra kick.

FAMILY SABBATICAL is set the following year, when the Ridgeways kids (like the real-life Brinks) visit France while their father takes his sabbatical. Their fish-out-of-water experiences ("it was a nuisance that French people insisted on speaking French.") add humor to a story in which the kids see the sights, befriend an elderly princess, and pass on some bad habits to their French tutor, who ends up learning such rude phrases as "phooey" and "shut up." This is the book in which the kids play Authors, calling the writers names such as "William Speak-a-Piece Whackery" and "Alfred O'Lord Tennisball." They even create their own rules:

George and Susan loved to play Authors, but they did not play it in the usual way. Instead of asking for the eauthors and books by their right names, they changed the names just a little, so that the other player had to guess what was wanted. For instance, if George said, "I want a card called 'The Heck of the Resperus' by Henry Wads-of-gum Tall-fellow," Susan would reply, "I'm sorry, I don't have 'The Wreck of the Hesperus' by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, but please give me 'Snow-Plow' by John Whiteleaf Grennier."

George would would scratch his head a minute, trying to think, and then he would reply, "Okay here is 'Snow-Bound' by John Greenleaf Whittier, and don't me if I've got 'Barbara Itchy' by the same guy...."

Although FAMILY GRANDSTAND and FAMILY SABBATICAL were published over fifty years ago, I'm surprised by how well they hold up today. There may be a few moments that now give us pause -- such as an Indian dance the kids perform on Thanksgiving -- and the writing occasionally seems dated ("'Oh, a picnic,' they cried, hurrying to get trays" -- just one of the many times the young Ridgeways awkwardly speak in a single voice), but the plots still retain interest and there is just enough sass in the dialogue to prevent sugar overload. One of the themes that runs through both books is loss and recovery. Some things -- such as the turtles George receives for his birthday -- are lost forever. Most are later recovered (a canary freed from its cage; a doll dropped in a castle dungeon; a locket the princess lost as a child and the Ridgeways find years later.) In one case, George intentionally leaves his prized collection of rocks hidden in a French grotto "like a buried treasure" for someone to find later. ("Imagine the shouts of glee, the joyous cries of surprise!" the princess prophesizes.) I thought about that scene as I looked at the inscription in my copy of the book. I bought FAMILY SABBATICAL off eBay for $25.50 a few years ago. I have no idea who Matile was. Certainly the grandchildren who might be "old enough and interested" in reading the book in 1957, are now old enough to be grandparents themselves. I don't know how or why the original owners gave this book up...but it felt like I'd found buried treasure when I discovered it on eBay.

I also thought it was interesting that Carol Ryrie Brink inscribed this copy on June 14, 1957 -- 52 years to the day before people mentioned the title FAMILY SABBATICAL on this blog.

...Incidentally, there also appears to be a reference to the game Authors in LITTLE WOMEN. In Chapter Twelve, Jo says, "Let's have a sensible game of Authors to refresh our minds" and later Beth is shown "collecting the scattered Author-cards." I thought this was particularly intriguing, since one day Louisa May Alcott herself would be one of the authors featured in most decks of Author cards. Also, when LITTLE WOMEN was published in 1868, the game of Authors was still fairly new. I guess Louisa May wanted to keep her story timely. If she'd written LITTLE WOMEN a century or so later, she might have had Jo and Beth playing Ms. Pacman or Donkey Kong.

FAMILY GRANDSTAND by Carol Ryrie Brink; illustrated by Jean MacDonald Porter. Viking, 1952.

First edition points: "1952" date on title page; "First published by the Viking Press in October 1952" on verso. Rust cloth cover with vignette illustration. $2.50 price on dustjacket.

FAMILY SABBATICAL by Carol Ryrie Brink; illustrated by Susan Foster. Viking, 1956.

First edition points: "1956" date on title apge; "First published by the Viking Press in April 1956" on verso. Yellow cloth cover with vignette illustration. My dustjacket is price-clipped, but I believe the original price was $3.00.

Difficulty in finding first editions: FAMILY GRANDSTAND can be found as low as $25-30; FAMILY SABBATICAL is harder to find, so the price may be $75 or more.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Sunday Brunch with Cards and Quotes

Today’s Sunday Brunch features more random opinions and observations about children’s books old and new.


All our local high schools videotape their graduation ceremonies, which are later broadcast (again and again) on community-access cable. I’m sure most viewers flip right past when switching channels. After all, what could be more boring than watching hundreds of students, from Amy Aames to Zachary Zukowski, march across a stage in caps and gowns to receive their diplomas? But I always stop to watch. I’m fascinated to see how much things have changed since my own high school graduation decades ago. (Since when do the students hug their principal and teachers when crossing the stage? That never happened in the seventies.) And I’m equally fascinated by the expressions on the kids’ faces: excited, bored, tearful, trying-to-look-cool, scared.... Some things are timeless.

I actually spent my graduation day throwing up.

I don’t know if I had the flu or a bad case of nerves or what...but I threw up before leaving the house...threw up in the snow outside the school (I graduated in January)...and threw up out the car window going home.

Looking ahead to a future of fame and fortune (hey, isn’t that what graduation is all about?), I tried to laugh it off, thinking it might someday make a funny anecdote in my autobiography.

Then came a future devoid of fame and fortune and today, rather than finding it humorous, my Regurgitation Graduation instead strikes me as being fairly, well, pathetic. And I can’t even claim it as a unique experience because half the people I talk to these days tell me, “Dude, I threw up at my graduation too!”

I grit my teeth in order not to respond, “Yeah, but in my particular case, I wasn’t drunk... dude.

Watching the Class of 2009 crossing the stage with such promise and hope on TV and remembering my own wretched past (“Could you please hold my mortarboard while I vomit?”) made me start thinking about graduation scenes in young adult novels. Though an important rite of passage for teenagers, I can’t recall many truly memorable high school graduations in fiction.

The one I remember best comes at the conclusion of MY DARLING, MY HAMBURGER by Paul Zindel (1969.) I read this novel before I even started high school, but was still being moved by the melancholy tone of the scene as the characters reflect on how much they changed between the start of senior year and graduation.

A graduation ceremony provides the framework for Stella Pevsner’s 1981 novel I’LL ALWAYS REMEMBER YOU...MAYBE. As the protagonist sits through her commencement, she recalls her high school romances, which are presented in flashback.

In Larry Doyle’s 2007 debut, I LOVE YOU, BETH COOPER, the senior class valedictorian uses his commencement address to declare his love for an unattainable girl. Although technically published as an adult novel, this funny and frantic book seemed like YA fiction to me and I imagine the forthcoming movie version will also appeal mostly to teens.

Finally, I can’t believe I’m including a Christopher Pike paperback here...but I will say that the three-volume “Final Friends” series is probably the best thing this usually-slipshod author has ever written. I expected a fast-moving plot and lots of suspense and surprises -- but perhaps the biggest surprise was how strong the characterizations were. In this third volume of the trilogy (after THE PARTY and THE DANCE), the characters finally reach the end of their senior year -- and what could be more fun than high school graduation with a murderer still on the loose?


An adult book about an elderly custodian probably falls outside the purview of “Collecting Children’s Books,” but since the story is set in a high school and has lots of young supporting characters -- and since this is one of my all-time favorites -- I want to mention it here. Mackinlay Kantor’s VALEDICTORY first appeared as a SATURDAY EVENING POST story in 1938. I discovered it as a teenager in a paperback anthology and loved it. When I left the book sitting around, my father read the story and loved it. Then he passed it on to my mother and she loved it. Since then I’ve given the story to several friends and -- guess what? -- they loved it too. But I only give it to special friends because I know I’d be hurt and take it personally if they didn’t love it. One day, years after reading this story in the anthology, I was browsing in a used bookstore and discovered that VALEDICTORY was printed as a hardcover novella in 1939. This story of Ty, an elderly janitor working his last high school commencement before retiring, is not just a wonderful character study, but also a reminder of how every person touches other lives, sometimes unknowingly. And that high school commencement is not the only “graduation” we face in a lifetime of moving on.


The end of the school year brings summer vacation. To get in the mood, I’ve been reading a new paperback called VACATIONS FROM HELL, which contains five stories about young vampires and witches by Gen X young-adult authors Libba Bray, Cassandra Clare, Claudia Gray, Maureen Johnson, and Sarah Mlynowski. This volume follows on the heels of PROM NIGHTS FROM HELL (stories by Meg Cabot, Stephenie Meyer, Kim Harrison, and Lauren Myracle) and LOVE IS HELL (Scott Westerfeld, Melissa Marr, Justine Larbalestier, Gabrielle Zevin.) There seems to be a trend of novelists contributing entries to themed paperback anthologies. The results are often uneven. Many novelists are not particularly skilled at writing short fiction. Some of their efforts have a “written to order” feel about them. But I wanted to mention these books because I think short story volumes are often overlooked by readers. And fans of the above writers may be interested in seeing them work in a different genre. Certainly any “completist” interested in collecting every work by their favorite author will want to track down these types of volumes.


Thinking about summer vacation reminds me of the year we had a tent in our backyard. Many hot afternoons were spent inside the tent playing kids’ card games: Old Maid, Fish, War, and Authors.

Does anyone else remember the game of Authors? Various classic authors were represented like this:

You dealt the cards out among all the players and then tried to collect all four titles by an author to get a set. For example, if you had Charles Dickens’s PICKWICK PAPERS, you would ask another player if they had OLIVER TWIST. If they did, you’d add it to your hand and keep playing. If not, your turn was over. The next player, having heard you were collecting Dickens, might then ask you for CHRISTMAS CAROL. Or they might be searching for Mark Twain or Louisa May Alcott.

Reading up on the game today, I was surprised to discover the game was originally begun in the 1860s and then issued by Parker Brothers in 1897.

When I played this game at age six or seven, I had no idea who Nathaniel Hawthorne, William Makepeace Thackeray or Alfred, Lord Tennyson were. (In fact, the only book I probably knew in the entire card game was Dickens’s A CHRISTMAS CAROL.) And I remember the pictures on the cards being black-and-white (or perhaps sepia) and the print being very tiny. But looking back I see that the game did affect my “cultural IQ,” so that when I heard those names later in life I knew they were authors and could even list some of their works.

I just did some searching on the internet and discovered these cards are still available. There is even a special deck focusing on children’s authors that includes Dr. Seuss, A. A. Milne, Meindert DeJong, Rudyard Kipling, Hans Christian Anderson, Lewis Carroll, Charles Perrault, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Brothers Grimm, Joel Chandler Harris, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Beatrix Potter, and J. M. Barrie.

I wonder if any kids actually play Authors today. Probably not...unless there’s a Playstation version.

I’m waiting for the Nintendo Wii edition.

Can you imagine dancing with A.A. Milne or kickboxing with Laura Ingalls Wilder?


I haven’t read it yet, but I’m intrigued by a new book called THE HEIGHTS by Brian James, which is a modern young adult novel inspired by Emily Bronte’s WUTHERING HEIGHTS:

A few years ago Gordon Korman wrote JAKE, REINVENTED, which was inspired by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s THE GREAT GATSBY:

I know there are many novels based on classic fairy tales and legends. Robin McKinley’s done a couple. Jane Yolen too. And Donna Jo Napoli has made a cottage industry of it. But I’m wondering if there are any other books for young people, like THE HEIGHTS and JAKE, REINVENTED, that are based on specific, well-known novels of the past. Could this be a trend for the future?

Do contemporary retellings of classic novels represent a paucity of imagination for modern writers (1) Pick classic novel. 2) Change old-timey names to something cool like Aidan and Summer. 3) Move setting from English village to Greenwich Village, etc., etc.) or do they serve a purpose in drawing attention to classics? I can definitely see a high school teacher using both THE HEIGHTS and WUTHERING HEIGHTS in the classroom, or having students compare and contrast JAKE and GATSBY as an assignment.


Those who follow this blog may remember my not-so-recent pledge to read MIDDLEMARCH. More than a month has passed and I’m now only on page 360...out of 890. Depressed by how slow that was going, this past week I picked up a short modern classic and knocked it off in a couple at least I could feel I'd accomplished something. The book I chose was THE GREAT GATSBY (no, not JAKE, REINVENTED -- the real thing) and I loved it from the very beginning to its stunning, oft-quoted final line:

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Gosh, I love that line. I’m dying to find some way to squeeze that quote into conversation one of these days.

And it got me thinking about famous quotations from children’s books. A couple that immediately came to mind:

It is not often someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer.
Charlotte was both.

--CHARLOTTE’S WEB by E.B. White.

Have a carrot.
--THE RUNAWAY BUNNY by Margaret Wise Brown.

I do not like green eggs and ham. I do not like them, Sam-I-am!

Don't cry because it's over. Smile because it happened.
--Dr. Seuss (was this from a book as well?)

I’ll love you forever and like you for always-- (Ack! Enough! Do you want a repeat performance of my high school graduation here???)

Anyway, what wise or witty sayings do you recall from Milne or Travers or Sendak, etc? What quotations from children’s books would you put in your personal copy of FAMILIAR QUOTATIONS?


This past week’s conversion from analog to digital television got me thinking.

Technology is always changing -- and those changes are often permanent.

Remember record albums? They were replaced by CDs. ...And when was the last time you saw a record album?

Remember the age of videotapes, when we had entire stores full of videos for rent? Today a store like Blockbuster only has DVDs...and there are new things coming down the line that will put DVDs out to pasture with our old videotapes.

Now electronic reading devices are impacting the world of books. As more and more books are read only on a Kindle, fewer and fewer hard copies of those titles will need to be printed. That just stands to reason.

But what happens when today’s Kindle is replaced by tomorrow’s “next big thing” in electronic reading devices?

What exactly happens to all the books you read on your Kindle when Kindle no longer exists?

When a book goes out of print -- a real book with ink on paper -- there are still thousands of copies out libraries, in homes, in used bookstores. But what happens when Kindle books -- made of pixels and light -- go "out of print"? I can’t see anyone making the effort to upgrade a midlist or poor-selling book for the next reading device. ...And remember, there won’t be as many paper copies left behind either, since much of the original audience read those titles on Kindle and there wasn’t a need to publish them on paper.

I used to worry about preserving old children's books...and now we also have to worry about books that only existed as letters on an electronic screen. How will save those stories?

So we read on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly toward books of the past.....

Thanks for stopping by.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Badass Librarians of '46

We all know the "librarian" stereotype: the bespectacled, withdrawn loner hiding behind a thick book at a reference desk, emerging only to whisper "shhh!"

Most modern librarians will tell you this sterotype no longer exists.

I question if it ever did.

Looking back through history, I see librarians who traveled to remote, sometimes dangerous, locations to share books with people who had none. I see those who fought hard to start the first children's libraries. I see defenders against censorship who, at times, stood up to entire communities.

Last night I was looking at a thesaurus, trying to find just the right word to describe these pioneers. Courageous? Daring? Gritty? Plucky (no, that one in itself is a stereotype, usually followed by the word "little," as in "the plucky little librarian!") Then I happened upon the phrase "badass" and decided I'd make an exception to my blogging-policy of using only language suitable for the Disney Channel. According to some sources, badass behavior is tough, even extreme -- yet worthy of admiration.

"Badass" is a compliment.

And it describes the librarians who served on the 1946 Newbery committee and made what was probably the most daring selection in the entire history of that award -- up to and including today.

One of that year's Honor Books begins with an idyllic scene of typical California teenager Sue Ohara and her brother Kim arriving home from school on a Friday afternoon. A dog waits with wagging tail. There are cookies in the cookie jar and chitchat about the glee club and debate team. The next afternoon Kim mows the lawn and Sue mails Christmas presents to family and friends. Then comes Sunday and that day -- December 7, 1941 -- changes everything:

Sue herself felt suddenly shelterless in this icy storm. Here were she and Kim, American-born; as American as baseball -- ice cream cones -- swing music. No, as American as the Stars and Stripes. Here they were, American from their hearts out to their skins. But there skins were not American. Their skins were opaque, their hair was densely black, their eyes were ever so little slanted. And their names were Sumiko and Kimio.

THE MOVED-OUTERS by Florence Crannell Means tells the story of these two Japanese-American teens as they and their family are forced from their home and sent to relocation camps, first in California and later in Arizona. Novelist Florence Crannell Means was noted for writing books about minorities (RAFAEL AND CONSUELO, 1929; SHUTTERED WINDOWS, 1938) and this is one of her best. Living in the west, Ms. Means was able to personally visit the Amache Camp, where the fictional Oharas reside, as well as invite some interned young people into her own home. That up-close perspective on life in the relocation camps gave THE MOVED-OUTERS its detailed sense of authenticity. Against this vivid backdrop, the Oharas adjust to the hardships of encampment with an almost pioneering spirit, while Sue begins her first romance and the increasingly-bitter Kim flirts with the idea of joining a gang. Today you can find a number of great books for young readers on this sad chapter in American history, from memoirs (FAREWELL TO MANZANAR by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston) to novels (WEEDFLOWER by Cynthia Kadohata; BASEBALL SAVED US by Ken Mochizuki) to nonfiction (THE CHILDREN OF TOPAZ by Michael O. Tunnell and George W. Chilcoat), many which might be considered more genuine, historically accurate, or "politically correct" than THE MOVED-OUTERS. But the Means novel stands out as one of the earliest titles in this genre -- and, though purposeful, it's a compelling and heartfelt work. I find it remarkable that the book was published while the war was still ongoing -- and even more remarkable that it never feels like "wartime propaganda." THE MOVED-OUTERS neither defends nor criticizes the government's decision to intern American citizens, but instead focuses -- often heartbreakingly -- on the human consequences of this act. Kim builds a carrying case to bring the family's faithful old dog to the camp; when they learn that no pets are allowed, a decision is made and "the handsome carrying-case became Skippy's casket." An afternoon pass allows Sue and Kim to leave camp, but as they approach a drugstore to get an ice cream soda -- "just an American boy and girl like everyone else" -- they are confronted by a sign saying "NO JAPS WANTED HERE." When a relative is killed in the war, Kim tries to enlist in the service but learns "We're still classified enemy aliens." Even in the final pages of the novel, when Sue permanently leaves the camp and earnestly thinks, "O world, world! give us just a little chance. Let us be human. Let us prove that we are Americans," a nearby woman pulls away and "stares coldly" at the protagonist.

In a 1993 LIBRARY TRENDS article, Kay E. Vandergrift wrote, "The reception to The THE MOVED-OUTERS proved to be a mixed one. In spite of its literary awards, many schools and libraries did not purchase this book. Anti-Japanese feelings, even against the Nisei or those born and educated in this country, still ran high at its time of publication on February 28, 1945, especially on the West Coast where large numbers of Japanese Americans had been very successful prior to Pearl Harbor. There has always been the suspicion that it was, at least in part, personal greed and racial prejudice directed against these successful 'foreign-looking' immigrants which helped to fuel the negative feelings toward these citizens. When Japanese Americans were relocated, their property was often sold to others for less than its actual value. Those more sympathetic to the Nisei were often embarrassed by the actions of this country's War Relocation Authority and did not want to expose their shameful actions to young people. For these reasons, THE MOVED-OUTERS did not achieve the readership or visibility it deserved and was, for a long time, one of those Newbery Honor books available but not generally known by young people."

It's been over sixty years since THE MOVED-OUTERS was named a Newbery Honor (or "runner-up," as they were called in those days), taking its place beside that year's winner, STRAWBERRY GIRL by Lois Lenski. I don't know who served on the 1946 Newbery committee; I doubt any of the members are still alive. But re-reading the novel today, I'm amazed by what a brave choice those librarians made, picking a book about a controversial -- and, at that time, still very contemporary -- subject, knowing there could be a public outcry and that many libraries would not even purchase the novel.

...Yet if we were able to go back in time and praise these past librarians for their courage, I suspect they'd demure -- explaining that they were simply doing their job, selecting a well-written, thought-provoking, character-driven novel to honor -- and what's so brave about doing the right thing?

Yeah, but how many of us would have made the same type of decision in those tense wartime years? It's easy to laugh at the stereotyped librarian-figure but, in truth, those pioneers were really tough -- and truly worthy of admiration. They were badasses long before the word was invented.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Sunday Brunch

Among other subjects, today’s Sunday Brunch looks back at Loretta Mason Potts and looks forward to a reappearance by Grandma Dowdel.


Mary Chase only wrote two children’s books, but both became cult classics.

LORETTA MASON POTTS (1958) and THE WICKED PIGEON LADIES IN THE GARDEN (1968) may not have been hugely popular when first published, but today these eccentric fantasies are well-remembered by select readers who clamor to have them re-issued in new editions or are willing to pay hundreds of dollars for first editions.

I must admit I came to the party late, not discovering these titles until I was an adult. Because I lack the visceral childhood-connection experienced by many fans, I’m probably more apt to see some pretty major flaws in these books -- but I think I can still recognize what’s made them so appealing to generations of kids. Both titles present beguiling, but increasingly evil, fantasy worlds and both feature unusual-for-their-era “bad girl” protagonists.

LORETTA MASON POTTS begins with scenes of fifties-style domestic tranquility, but we soon realize that things aren't what they seem in the Mason household. First of all, Mr. and Mrs. Mason are separated/divorced -- another unusual element for a children’s book of that time -- and then there are Mrs. Mason’s mysterious Friday night trips out of town.... When Colin hears a rumor that he once had an older sister, he does some investigating. In the attic he finds a portrait of a baby -- smoking a cigarette! -- and then follows his mother when she goes to visit a twelve-year-old girl living with Mr. and Mrs. Potts, a milkman and his wife. It turns out that this girl -- Loretta Mason Potts -- is Colin’s sister, a hellion who insisted, from a very young age, that she wanted to live with the Potts family. Now out of control and no longer wanted by the Pottses, Loretta returns home to live with the Mason family. The oddball premise of bratty Loretta trying to fit into Colin’s more traditional family could have sustained an entire novel in itself, but the author adds an odd twist to the tale: the reason Loretta was drawn away from home in the first place was because she had fallen under the spell of some little people living behind the Potts’s property. Soon these little people -- led by an old General and a beautiful Countess -- have tunneled an entrance into the Mason house and are drawing Loretta, Colin, and their younger siblings into a world of lavish tea parties and indoor sled rides where rudeness and backtalk are actively encouraged. Chase does a great job depicting the appeal of bad behavior. Kids will be equally aghast and thrilled by Loretta’s wicked antics and sassy mouth. And the world of the little people does have its first, but danger soon looms for the Mason family. Unfortunately, this is a novel that begins stronger than it ends. Larger-than-life Loretta fades into the background as the story goes on and it’s ultimately an adult character, rather than the children, who saves the day.

Ten years later, Mary Chase returned with a second children’s book, THE WICKED PIGEON LADIES IN THE GARDEN, that shares several similarities with its predecessor. This time the bad-girl heroine is Maureen Swanson, “a hard slapper, a shouter, a loud laugher, a liar, a trickster, and a stay-after-schooler.” One afternoon, after spraying a neighbor-lady with a hose, Maureen hides out in the long-abandoned Messerman mansion, where she meets a leprechaun, discovers portraits of the seven Messerman daughters, and steals a bracelet. We learn that the Messerman girls, though raised to be kind and charitable, grew up to be selfish and inconsiderate. They also have the ability to transform into pigeons. In a rather jarring plot twist, Maureen travels back in time and joins the snotty sisters for a brief spell. A less-developed work than LORETTA MASON POTTS, this book again shows that what seems to be an ideal world -- a beautiful home full of music, elegant trappings, and seven stairstep sisters -- has an evil underside. Nominated for a Dorothy Canfield Fisher Award, THE WICKED PIGEON LADIES developed quite a cult following over the years and was republished as THE WICKED WICKED LADIES IN THE HAUNTED HOUSE in 2003, with illustrations by Peter Sis.

Although the plots feel somewhat cobbled together and the author certainly leaves a lot unexplained, one can understand why these stories remain indelible for so many readers. The characterizations are strong and the horror elements -- a giant doll crashing into a tiny home, a flock of menacing pigeons waiting just outside a window -- pack a punch. Both novels have a rather adult sensibility that was unusual for books of the fifties and sixties. There’s a mention of suicide in LORETTA MASON POTTS and at one point a mother must ponder a Sophie’s-Choice-like decision. And I’m struck by the somewhat horrifying fact that children in both books -- Loretta and the Messerman sisters -- willingly leave their parents with no qualms or emotional distress. Does this speak to a dark childhood fantasy? Or does the fact that Mrs. Mason ultimately risks her life to save her children and the Messermans pine away and die without their daughters reveal an even stronger childhood fantasy?


Perhaps Mary Chase only published two children’s books because she spent most of her career writing for a different medium. She was best-known as a playwright. Her greatest success, HARVEY, won the Pulitzer Prize for drama and was made into a film starring James Stewart. I was surprised to discover that stage great Tallulah Bankhead got a Tony Award nomination for a play that had its origins in LORETTA MASON POTTS.

Although LORETTA MASON POTTS was not published until 1958, the manuscript was actually written in 1953. Over the next fifteen years, Mary Chase tried adapting this story for the stage with varying degrees of success. First she wrote a version called LOLITA, which was staged at Virginia’s Barter Theatre in 1954. Although not a hit, several producers were enchanted with a character named Mrs. Purvis and suggested that Chase write a play focusing solely on this figure. The resulting play, MIDGIE PURVIS, concerns an upperclass matron who, through a series of comic mishaps, takes a vacation from her family and social responsibilities. The play opened on Broadway in February 1961 with Tallulah Bankhead playing the lead role. Although it ran only twenty-one performances before closing due to poor reviews, Bankhead received her one and only Tony nomination for this show.

Mary Chase went back to the original source material as she continued trying to adapt LORETTA MASON POTTS for the stage. Other versions were known as LORETTA and LORETTA AND THE LITTLE PEOPLE, until it was finally staged as MICKEY. This final revision, which uses both live actors and puppets, was published in 1968 and remains in print today.


Tallulah Bankhead’s Broadway triumphs included THE LITTLE FOXES and THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH, but it’s the transitory nature of theatre that even legendary performances live only in the memories of those who saw them. Today -- if she’s remembered at all -- she’s best-known for her TV roles with Batman and Lucille Ball or from a 1960s horror flick called DIE, DIE, MY DARLING. A smoker, a heavy drinker (her last words were “codeine...bourbon....”) and druggie (she once said, “Cocaine isn't habit forming. I should know -- I've been using it for years”), Bankhead was also a wit and a raconteur whose eyebrow-raising epigrams were usually rated NC-17. Considering this background, I don’t know whether Tallulah would be appalled or amused to learn she has a presence in modern children’s books. She’s quoted in one of Ian Falconer’s “Olivia” stories, DREAM BIG (2006); there’s a young character named after her in Laurence Yep’s CHILD OF THE OWL (1977); and E.L. Konigsburg featured her ghost in a 1986 novel.

UP FROM JERICHO TEL may be Ms. Konigsburg’s most eccentric novel -- the story of two outsider kids who encounter the spirit of a dead actress (referred to only as “Tallulah” here) who grants them the power of invisibility while they search for her missing necklace. The author does a good job bringing Bankhead to life (well, she’s dead in the novel, but you know what I mean!) and creates some very clever quotes for her (“Kids are amateur adults”; “The difference between going to school and getting an education is the difference between picking an apple and eating it”) but it's the fantasy elements that make UP FROM JERICHO TEL probably my least favorite Konigsburg book. I admire the author for trying something different, but I vastly prefer her more realistic stories of everyday kids running away to live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art or casting spells and making flying potions. Hmm...flying in a museum...maybe those other books aren’t so “realistic”...but you know what I mean!


The invisible kids in UP FROM JERICHO TEL aren’t the only things that fade from view. I was looking at my copy of this book and noticed how the dustjacket has faded over time. Originally the spine was the same deep red color as the front and back panels of the dustjacket, but over the twenty-three years the book has sat on my shelf, the spine has faded to a pale pink:

Faded djs aren’t a problem where I work. We remove all dustjackets before the books hit the shelf. Unfortunately, we then end up with faded books. Here’s our library copy of UP FROM JERICHO TEL. The cloth cover was originally a muted green, but now the spine and the top edges of the panels have turned bright blue:

It's probably expecting too much for a book to remain pristine for nearly a quarter century. I mean, do you still look the same as you did twenty-three years ago? Everything changes over time. Sunlight, UV lighting, and just normal handling can fade and damage a book. I guess there are ways to avoid the dreaded “fade.” Some mylar wrappers promise to cut down on UV damage. There are ways to chemically treat a book or dustjacket to retain the original color as well. And of course one could always wrap one's books carefully and store them deep inside a dark box. But volumes hidden away in boxes cannot be read or shared...and isn’t that the whole purpose of a book? I prefer my books to be slightly beaten-up and faded than not read at all.


Of course Kindle readers don’t have to worry about their books fading. When they experience “the fade,” they just need to put in a new battery. Is this the future of books? Last Sunday I wrote about the recent Book Expo in New York City where ARCs (advance reading copies) of forthcoming books were distributed freely. HarperCollins broke with tradition by giving out “eBooks” rather than their standard paperback galleys. A friend sent me these examples, which are printed on laminated cards:

Using the PIN number on the back of the card, one can go online and read these new books from a Sony Reader, iPhone, Smartphone, or Windows or Macintosh computer. Access to these files ends at a pre-determined date. Will there come a time when all ARCs are issued this way? Will paper ARCs eventually fade away?


Until such a time as ARCs do fade away, I will continue to collect them. Actually, the only ones I actively collect are a) ARCs of award-winning books, b) ARCs by very favorite authors, c) ARCs that are unusual for some reason (i.e. titles getting a lot of “buzz,” titles I feel will someday be important, or ones that I think need to be read right away so I can keep up with others in the book world...yeah, the old “keeping up with the Joneses” thing.) If someone sends me an ARC to review, or as a gift, I don’t always purchase the hardcover edition later on. However, if I go out of my way to find an ARC on my own, I have a policy of always purchasing the hardcover. It’s an expensive policy...but it’s a point of honor for me. For example, last weekend I purchased an ARC of Richard Peck’s newest, A SEASON OF GIFTS, off the internet. This one fits all my criteria for buying an ARC: a) the book is part of the award-winning series that began with LONG WAY FROM CHICAGO), b) Richard Peck is one of my very favorite authors, c) this book will be getting a lot of talk so I need to read it early in order to keep up with others in the book world. When the hardcover is released in September, I’ll definitely be getting a copy for my collection as well.

Now if only the ARC would get here!

I ordered it last weekend and knew it probably wouldn’t arrive early in the week.

But by Thursday I thought there was a chance -- Just imagine...a whole new book about Grandma Dowdel! -- so I could hardly wait to get home and see if it had arrived.

No luck on Thursday.

I then figured it would definitely arrive by Friday -- Remember, LONG WAY FROM CHICAGO was a Newbery Honor and its follow-up, A YEAR DOWN YONDER, won the Newbery! -- and I rushed home to check the mailbox.

No luck.

On Saturday I spent the whole morning, padding to the window outside -- Did I mention that A SEASON OF GIFTS is a Christmas story? Gosh, I love Christmas stories! -- until I saw the mailman coming.

No luck again!

Why is this ARC taking so long to arrive? How are they delivering Pony Express? If it takes any longer, the hardcover will already be published, reviewed, and remaindered!

I took tomorrow off work for other reasons, but expect I'll spend part of the day sitting in front of the mailbox waiting for the postal carrier like a kid kneeling in front of the chimney on Christmas Eve waiting for Santa Claus.

If -- I mean "when" -- this ARC arrives, I’ll review it here.


Of course A SEASON OF GIFTS is just one of the forthcoming titles I’m looking forward to reading. And speaking of anticipation, I have to remember to set the VCR to tape the Tony Awards tonight. What does that have to do with children’s books? Well, you never know. Who would have thought Tallulah Bankhead would have been in a play that had its origins in a children’s book?

Besides, a trio of current Broadway shows were once children’s books: THE LITTLE MERMAID, MARY POPPINS, SHREK.

WICKED is based on an adult book by children’s book author Gregory Maguire.

And although IRENA’S VOW has an original script and is not an adaptation, this true story has also been told in the children’s book IN MY HANDS : MEMORIES OF A HOLOCAUST RESCUER by Irene Gut Opdyke and Jennifer Armstrong.

It’s always good to see children’s books adapted for stage and screen. A blog reader recently informed me that the early teen romance FLIPPED by Wendelin Van Draanen is going to be made into a Rob Reiner movie -- and filmed right here in Michigan!

Recent tax incentives have brought a lot of moviemakers to Michigan in the past year. It’s great to have this new industry in the state because our previous lifeblood business -- auto manufacturing -- isn't doing so hot. You’ve no doubt read about that in the newspaper...unless your newspaper has folded or, like ours, cut down from daily delivery to three days a week.

The world keeps changing -- industries fail, newspapers disappear, dustjackets fade. But as long as there are old books to go back to...and new books to look forward to...we can at least keep reading.

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