Wednesday, October 28, 2009

"Hey, Let's Put on a Show!"

The musical MARY POPPINS is currently packing 'em in on Broadway. Filled with memorable melodies -- "Jolly Holiday," "Chim Chim Cher-ee," "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" -- and featuring moments of stage magic such as Bert dancing upside-down on the proscenium arch and Ms. Poppins flying up to the rafters of the theatre, the show is said to be a real crowd-pleaser.

My reaction?


It all seems kind of old-hat to me. After all, I performed in that show well over forty years ago.

Of course our production wasn't on Broadway, it was in our basement. And there were only three people in the cast. And two in the audience. But still, it was Theatre.

Our version of MARY POPPINS was based on the movie, then in its original release. (Yeah, I'm old.) The girl across the street played Mary P and my brother and I played Everyone Else. We acted out the movie scenes as we remembered them and whenever we got to a musical number, we'd run over to the record player, play the song from the LP, and loudly sing along with it.

You may recall that the movie began with Mary Poppins sitting on a cloud as she applied lipstick and powdered her face. Our play began with Mary Poppins (girl across the street) sitting on a cloud (our washing machine) primping with her lipstick (red crayon) and powder puff (cotton ball) while the movie's overture blared on the record player.

As I said, there were only two people in the audience: my parents. Can you imagine them sitting there as that overture dragged on and on, watching the girl across the street repeatedly pat her face with a cotton ball...for three or four minutes? I'm not sure how much of our show they ended up watching. I seem to recall they were still there as we flung ourselves around the pole in the center of the basement screaming "A Spoonful of Sugar," but they were long gone by our big "Let's Go Fly a Kite" finale, having found a polite way to tell us to go fly a kite so they could escape upstairs to grown-up things like newspapers and coffee and earplugs.

I remembered that experience -- my first and last acting job -- today after receiving a comment from blog-reader Reg about a school textbook:

There was an old copy of Adventures in Reading at our house -- I think it had belonged to my mother and I just about memorized it. A newer edition was assigned to me at some point in late grade school (late 1960's) but it had lost some of its magic by then though it was much less moralistic. One of my favorites was missing: Inside a Kid's Head which was a play. I had visions of staging it. I may have to find a copy...

The first thing I did was look up the play INSIDE A KID'S HEAD, which turned out to be an early work by Jerome Lawerence and Robert E. Lee, who would later go on to write such stage hits as INHERIT THE WIND.

But Reg's comments got me thinking: what is it about kids putting on plays? I know beyond a doubt that I had never seen any type of stage production before we did our underground (figuratively and literally) version of MARY POPPINS : THE MUSICAL. I'll venture to say that most little kids haven't seen any professional plays before they dig through boxes of old clothes and perform their first show in basement, attic, or garage. The urge to perform, to play-act, to tell a story, seems almost universal among kids. There's a reason those Mickey and Judy's "Hey, let's put on a show!" musicals touched a chord with movie audiences.

You'd be surprised by how many times I mention a children's book to someone and they respond, "I once made up a play based on..." (THE SATURDAYS by Elizabeth Enright...or Louise Fitzhugh's HARRIET THE SPY...or Sendak's WHERE THE WILD THING ARE.) Other former-kids have told about they used dolls or stuffed animals to stage bedroom-floor productions of WINNIE-THE-POOH and the the "Little House" series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. ("I had a doll whose eyes had fallen out," one woman told me. "She played the part of Mary Ingalls.")

Considering this innate interest that many children have for drama, there are surprisingly few BOOKS containing plays for young people. Back in 1977, Alfred Bradley adapted several of Michael Bond's Padington Bear stories in a volume called PADDINGTON ON STAGE. In the introduction, Mr. Bond explains, "Over the years lots of children have written in asking, 'Why isn't there a Paddington play?' and as many again have told of their efforts in schools, or at home in the spare room, the garage, or outside in the garden, to put on a play of their own."

The seventies also brought us three children's plays by Joan Aiken, WINTERTHING, THE MOONCUSSER'S DAUGHTER, and STREET. In 1990, Donald R. Gallo published CENTER STAGE : ONE ACT PLAYS FOR TEENAGE READERS AND ACTORS, a so-so volume that contained works by YA writers such as Susan Beth Pfeffer, Lensey Namioka, and Walter Dean Myers.

Over the years there have been a handful of other books containing drama for young readers, as well as picture books (YO! YES? by Chris Raschka), novels-in-verse (WITNESS by Karen Hesse) and multi-voiced stories (SPEAK by Paul Fleischman; NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH by Avi) which would make good performance pieces -- especially for the classroom.

Oh, and I guess I should mention that old stalwart, PLAYS MAGAZINE, which every library seems to own, though I've never actually seen any kids reading it. When I was growing up, it always seemed so dry and foreboding. Did anyone out there ever read it? Perform plays from it?

The fact that volumes of children's plays are in short supply makes me think that there isn't much of a market for them.

Perhaps kids find them off-putting -- too formal, too constrictive and circumscribed -- with all those stage directions and word-for-word dialogue.

The kids and former-kids I know seem to prefer making up their own plays, or at least adapting them on their own from children's stories.

Were you one of those kids?

Were you Mary Poppins, applying red crayon to your lips while sitting on a washing machine?

Were you Charlotte the Spider, crawling around on your hands and legs and waiting for your big death scene?

Were you Peter Pan, jumping off the edge of the garage roof?

Do you remember a time when you not only read about your favorite book characters, but also pretended to be them?

Sunday, October 25, 2009

A Sunday Brunch with Tombstones

Today’s Sunday Brunch includes a couple Mock Newbery lists and takes a macabre Halloween walk through a graveyard of Newbery and Caldecott winners.


This is the time of year when a lot of us get serious about the Newbery and Caldecott Awards. Which fall books have the buzz? Which spring titles are starting to lose momentum? Which titles will ultimately be announced, then immediately blogged and twittered and argued and defended come January?

To get a sense of what people are discussing, I always like to seek out Mock Newbery polls on the internet.

The Allen County Public Library of Fort Wayne, Indiana has been running a Mock Newbery for several years. Here is the list of the titles they are currently considering:

REALITY CHECK / Peter Abrahams
ANYTHING BUT TYPICAL / Noral Raleigh Baskin
WILD THINGS / Clay Carmichael
CATCHING FIRE / Suzanne Collins
BORN TO FLY / Michael Ferrari
WILD GIRL / Patricia Reilly Giff
EMMALINE AND THE BUNNY / Katherine Hannigan
SCAT / Carl Hiaasen
COMFORT / Joyce Moyer Hostetter
MELONHEAD / Katy Kelly
LOVE, AUBREY / Suzanne M. LaFleur
WHEN THE WHISTLE BLOWS / Fran Cannon Slayton
WHEN YOU REACH ME / Rebecca Stead
SACRED MOUNTAIN : EVEREST / Christine Taylor-Butler
PEACE, LOCOMOTION / Jacqueline Woodson

The Allen County Public Library will be adding a few more titles to this list before the end of the year.

Here are their Mock Caldecott nominees, with a few more titles to be added to this list as well in the coming months:

OUR ABE LINCOLN / written by Jim Aylesworth, illustrated by Barbara McClintock
REDWOODS / Jason Chin
CHICKEN LITTLE / Rebecca and Ed Emberley
HELLO, BABY! / Fox, illustrated by Steve Jenkins
A BOOK / Mordecai Gerstein
BIRDS / written by Kevin Henkes, illustrated by Laura Dronzek
CITY I LOVE / by Lee Bennett Hopkins, illustrated by Marcellus Hall
THE NEGRO SPEAKS OF RIVERS / written by Langston Hughes, illustrated by E. B. Lewis
TSUNAMI! / written by Kimiko Kajikawa, illustrated by Ed Young
ONE BEETLE TOO MANY : THE EXTRAORDINARY ADVENTURES OF CHARLES DARWIN / written by Kathryn Lasky, illustrated by Matthew Trueman
LISTEN TO THE WIND : THE STORY OF DR. GREG AND THREE CUPS OF TEA / written by Greg Mortensen, illustrated by Susan L. Roth
AMIRI AND ODETTE : A LOVE STORY / written by Walter Dean Myers, illustrated by Javaka Steptoe
HIGHER! HIGHER! / Leslie Patricelli
DUCK! RABBIT! / written by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld
A WHIFF OF PINE, A HINT OF SKUNK / written by Deborah Ruddell, illustrated by Joan Rankin
ALL IN A DAY / written by Cynthia Rylant, illustrated by Nikki McClure
BUTTON UP! : WRINKLED POEMS / written by Alice Schertle, illustrated by Petra Mathers
CORETTA SCOTT / written by Ntozake Shange, illustrated by Kadir Nelson
RED SINGS FROM TREETOPS : A YEAR IN COLORS / written by Joyce Sidman, illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski
ALL GOD’S CRITTERS / written by Bill Stains, illustrated by Kadir Nelson
GERTRUDE IS GERTRUDE IS GERTRUDE IS GERTRUDE / written by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Calef Brown
HOOK / Ed Young

The Anderson Bookshops of Naperville, Illinois have also run Mock Newbery contests for several years now. Here is their current list of 2009 up for consideration:

11 BIRTHDAYS / Wendy Mass
ANYTHING BUT TYPICAL / Nora Raleigh Baskin
BURN MY HEART / Beverley Naidoo (but is this book eligible?)
CAROLINA HARMONY / Marilyn Taylor McDowell
THE DAY OF THE PELICAN / Katherine Paterson
THE DEVIL’S PAINTBOX / Victoria McKernan
FAITH, HOPE, AND IVY JUNE / Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
FLYGIRL / Sherri L. Smith
GONE FROM THESE WOODS / Donny Bailey Seagraves
NOTES FROM A DOG / Gary Paulsen
WHEN THE WHISTLE BLOWS / Fran Cannon Slayton
WHEN YOU REACH ME / Rebecca Stead
WILD THINGS / Clay Carmichael

An observation, not necessarily an opinion: both the Allen County and Anderson Newbery lists seem heavily-weighted toward female authors.


Whoever does win the Newbery and Caldecott will be feted at next summer’s American Library Association convention. I collect the programs from these banquets. Here is the most recent program, along with the CD containing the acceptance speeches of the winners, which I received as a birthday present last week:


The most recent entry in this blog contained some information about, and scans from, the first edition of THE STORY OF MANKIND by Hendrik Willem Van Loon.

An anonymous reader has provided a link to a fascinating website about the first Newbery winner. Maintained by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, this site provides some intriguing details about various editions of Van Loon’s book -- and a plethora of images.

Incidentally, I meant to mention a curious thing about THE STORY OF MANKIND in my last blog: the dustjacket of the first edition lists three different prices:


The first and last numbers are lined-through, with only $5.00 remaining completely visible; this was the advertised price for the first edition. I have no idea why $4.50 is listed since, to my knowledge, the book never sold for that price. I’m assuming that the $5.50 is there in case the publisher later wanted to increase the price. Rather than print a brand new dustjacket, the publisher (or possibly the bookseller) would merely need to cross-out $5.00 and leave $5.50 as the current cost.

By the way, these prices are substantially higher than the average cost of a children’s book in the 1920s, which generally averaged $2.00.


It’s Halloween -- or “All Hallows’ Eve, as his father calls it -- in 1943 Rowlesburg, West Virginia. In the dead of night, young Jimmy Cannon and his older brother sneak out of the house to investigate a mystery involving their father and his secret “Society”...a mystery that leads the boys to the embalming room of the local funeral home. Halloween is the link between each episode in this novel which explores Jimmy’s relationship with his taciturn father, a railroad foreman. On Halloween 1945, Dad and his friends find a way to close the local school for the first day of hunting season. On Halloween 1946, Jimmy and his football team compete in a championship game. The following Halloween, Jimmy accompanies his father to work and the next year his father saves his life. First time-author Fran Cannon Slayton presents a strong portrait of a rural community in transition. Jimmy’s present-tense narration gives immediacy to an era when diesel trains began to replace steam engines -- yet the well-defined historical setting never overwhelms the human dynamics of this story, as Jimmy strives to understand the man who is his father. Because the novel consistently rings so true, the occasional false note (could Jimmy really “have forgotten” the death of an uncle until he sees him in the aforementioned funeral home?) is especially jarring. Still, the novel feels real, the conclusion is moving and, on the whole, WHEN THE WHISTLE BLOWS is a strong debut that marks Fran Cannon Slayton as a talent to watch.

WHEN THE WHISTLE BLOWS by Fran Cannon Slayton. Philomel, 2009.

First edition points: $16.95 price on dustjacket. Full number line on copyright page must read 1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2.

Why the book may be collectable: This well-received novel may be an award contender; notice it appears on both the Mock Newbery lists above. Also, as a first book by a new writer, it may become more valuable as the author’s fame increases with future books.

Difficulty in finding first editions: Published in June, the book may already be in later printings...but I imagine some first printings are still on the shelves at bookstores.


Halloween is the one day a year we celebrate scary stuff, such as ghosts, witches, skeletons, and neighbors who give trick-or-treaters toothbrushes instead of Hershey bars. (Shiver.) But for many people, fear is a year-round thing. I recently saw a list of the “worst fears” of many Americans. It got me wondering if how children’s books could alleviate or exacerbate particular phobias.

For example, many people report to be afraid of snakes. I would think a book like Bernard Waber’s THE SNAKE : A VERY LONG STORY might help alleviate this fear for some readers. ...On the other hand, I would not give someone who hates snakes Susan Patron’s THE HIGHER POWER OF LUCKY. Particularly if that person is a boy.

If you’re afraid of spiders, steer clear of THE SPIDER AND THE FLY by Mary Howell, with illustrations by Tony DiTerlizzi. On the other hand, CHARLOTTE’S WEB may lessen your phobia.

Afraid of flying? A nice book like Betsy Byars’ COAST TO COAST may help. But Gary Paulsen’s HATCHET -- the one with, you know, the dead pilot and the plane plunging toward the ground -- is not for you.

If you’re afraid of the dark, Jeanne DuPrau’s CITY OF EMBER and Ouida Sebestyen’s THE GIRL IN THE BOX will make you hysterical. Better stick with THREE BUCKETS OF DAYLIGHT by Robbie Branscum.


The skeleton on the cover of OPEN ME UP : EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE HUMAN BODY might seem appropriate for Halloween:

but actually this book is more insightful than scary. Written by Laura
Butler and six other authors (did you know that in library cataloging, any book with over three writers is attributed to the first author only and the others are clumped under an “et al” designation, so their names never appear in card catalogs or electronic cataloging systems? It’s true.), OPEN ME UP is one of those massive informational volumes that publisher Dorling Kindersley specializes in. This look at the human body explains how we’re made (starting with DNA), how our organs function, how our bodies change over our lifespan, and what can go wrong through sickness. The busy double-page spreads, illustrated in a staggering array of styles (photographs, historical reproductions, drawings, comic strips) often employ metaphors to relate information; for example, blood cells are depicted as characters in video game while the flow of blood is represented in a series of sailboats. The wide-ranging content and over-the-top presentation are head-spinning, yet detail-oriented science fans and, conversely, casual browsers will find the book informative and fun.


This year’s Newbery winner, THE GRAVEYARD BOOK by Neil Gaiman, seems particularly appropriate for Halloween reading. And it got me wondering how many other children’s books are set in and around cemeteries. Here are a few:

MIDNIGHT IN THE CEMETERY by Cheryl Harness; illustrated by Robin Brickman
THE GATHERING ROOM by Colby F. Rodowsky
KING OF THE CATS by Joseph Jacobs; illustrated by Paul Galdone
THE BUG CEMETERY by Francis Hill; illustrated by Vera Rosenberry
TOMBSTONE TEA by Jeanne Dahme

Can you think of any more?


A couple days ago I was looking at the “Find a Grave” website and discovered quite a few familiar names.

Yeah, it’s a little macabre, but here are the final resting places of several Newbery and Caldecott winners.

I hope you don’t mind me giving away their plots.

You can click on the links to find additional pictures, info, and photograph credits at the Find a Grave site.

1923 winner for THE VOYAGES OF DR. DOLITTLE, Hugh Lofting.

1926 winner for SHEN OF THE SEA, Arthur Bowman Chrisman.

1930 winner for HITTY : HER FIRST HUNDRED YEARS, Rachel Field.

1946 winner for STRAWBERRY GIRL, Lois Lenski.

1952 winner for GINGER PYE, Eleanor Estes.

1958 winner for RIFLES FOR WATIE, Harold Keith.

1965 winner for SHADOW OF A BULL, Maia Wojciechowska.

1969 winner for THE HIGH KING, Lloyd Alexander.

1944 winner for MANY MOONS, Louis Slobodkin.

1954 winner for MADLINE’S RESCUE, Ludwig Bemelmans, who is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.


In WHEN THE WHISTLE BLOWS, Jimmy Cannon experiences six Halloweens -- or “All Hallows’ Eves” -- from 1943 to 1949.

In one of my favorite books, THE DAY I BECAME AN AUTODIDACT by Kendall Hailey, the young protagonist marks the day with this passage:

Another Halloween, we’re all a year older. I remember when I first saw MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS and hear Marjorie Main (who I always wished lived at my house) say that line, I was so shocked. I didn’t think time could be measured by anything but your birthday. The thought of time passing with each moment is a concept I have yet to accept.

When I was a kid, Halloween was one of my favorite holidays. Just think: a special night celebrated mostly by kids! Dressing up in disguise. Going out after dark. Pillowcases full of candy.

There was always something both magical and scary about Halloween.

Year after year, relatives who we saw all the time would come to our door in costume and we wouldn’t recognize them.

One Halloween I watched an entire three-act opera play out when a girl talked a boy she liked into throwing an egg at the house of a boy she liked even better.

The only time I’ve ever seen a bat in my life occured on Halloween, as I looked up at a tall bare tree and saw the bat swooping around the highest branches.

But unlike Kendall Hailey, I was very aware that I was getting older every Halloween. Each year I’d traverse a little farther in my trick-or-treating, each year I’d stay out a little later. And I was always aware that eventually my trick-or-treating days would be over -- which was another scary thought to contemplate on that scariest of holidays.

Even when we outgrew trick-or-treating, my brother and I would celebrate Halloween by playing spooky music from the window and hanging a ghost and a witch outside for the little (were we ever that little?) trick-or-treaters.

Then I got a job that required me to work every night till nine p.m. For the next ten years I pretty much missed Halloween completely. When I eventually left that job for a position that freed up my evenings, Halloween seemed very different. I still celebrated by eating chili, cider, and doughnuts -- our family’s traditional Halloween dinner. I still sought out a scary book or movie to enjoy on Halloween night. But it seemed like most of the magic and mystery was gone.

One Halloween morning, as I drove to work, I thought, “Halloween just isn’t as exciting as it used to be.” Immediately, as if on a cue, a blanket-sized sheet of plastic flew up off the road, wrapped around my radio antenna, and plastered itself against the window so that I couldn’t see a thing as I drove blindly down the expressway for about twenty seconds. Finally, the plastic whipped away in the wind. Whew! Late that evening I went for a walk and thought, “Except for that incident on the road, this Halloween hasn’t been too exciting.” Once again, as if on cue, I felt something grab me by the collar. It was pitch dark. Eleven at night. No one was on the street but me. But something had me by the collar! It turned out that a low-hanging branch from a tree had hooked itself onto my collar as I walked. I hurried home after that and, as I stood in the kitchen taking off my jacket, the phone suddenly rang, making me jump about six inches from the floor. I answered it and no one was there.

After that, I didn’t find myself wishing for any more Halloween excitement for the next several years.

But then...a few years later...Halloween fell on a Saturday. It was a bright and sunny afternoon and, as I got out of the car in front of my favorite Chinese restaurant, I thought, “This sure doesn’t feel like Halloween.”

As soon as I said that, the door of the restaurant opened and a witch came out.

Well, it was a young woman dressed as a witch: black dress, pointed hat, green make-up.

Then I entered the restaurant and stood frozen in shock. Inside, it was pitch dark. There was only one small candle on a table. Confused, I waited in the doorway, letting my eyes adjust to the darkness. “Electricity’s out,” said the restaurant owner, “but we’re still open. The stove is still working. I’ll bring you a candle.”

Eating in a dark restaurant on Halloween. I couldn’t resist. I said, “Okay, I’ll sit over--” and threw my hand back to point where I was going.

And hit something.

While I’d been standing there, unbeknownst to me, the witch had come back into the restaurant and was standing behind me.

When I lifted my hand to point, I’d backhanded her across the face!

Of course I apologized profusely and she said she wasn’t hurt, but still...I felt terrible as I sat there that afternoon in a pitch-black restaurant, lunching by candlelight, green make-up smeared across my hand.

It appears that every time I complain that grown-up Halloweens are unexciting, I conjure up some new scares out of thin air.

Maybe I’d better quit complaining.

Have a Happy Halloween.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Yeah, I Made a Misteak

If you dropped by for brunch last Sunday you may recall seeing this little gem:

Notice the confident prose? The authorial assurance? The cocky (some might even say “know-it-all”) tone?

Man, when you visit the Collecting Children’s Books blog, you can always count on that guy Peter knowing his stuff!

A couple hours later, though, I received this comment from Wendy:

Seriously, what is this about The Story of Mankind being originally published for adults? The author addresses children quite clearly in his text. No matter the imprint that published it, can you convince me that it was actually considered an "adult" book at the time?

I immediately thought, “But...but everyone knows that book was originally published for adults...”

Long pause.

“...wasn’t it?”

Suddenly I wasn’t so sure.

Today I did a little library research on the matter. Checking the 1921 volume of BOOK REVIEW DIGEST, I discovered that nearly all the contemporary reviews of THE STORY OF MANKIND referred to it as a book for children. Still, I thought it would be a good idea to “go right to the source,” so when I got home from the library, I got out my own copy of the 1922 Newbery winner.

Unfortunately, the book is on my tallest bookshelf and the only way I could retrieve it was by standing on my tiptoes and then gently nudging the volume to the edge of the shelf with a coat hanger. (Don’t worry, it’s a plastic coat hanger.) Looking at THE STORY OF MANKIND, I realized why most used bookstores place this volume in their adult history section; I could also understand why so many people (including, yes, me) have thought it was originally published for adults. It has the look and feel of an adult book (I suspect that publisher Boni and Liveright did not have a separate children’s division at the time) and nowhere on the dustjacket is there an indication that it's a book for young readers -- except buried within two quotes that refer to the author’s previous volume, ANCIENT MAN. Even the text of the book, though lively and readable, doesn’t make too many concessions to the juvenile audience. Nevertheless, if you read closely, you will recognize THE STORY OF MANKIND really is written for kids, with passages such as “It is very difficult to understand the people of bygone ages. Your own grandfather, whom you see every day, is a mysterious being who lives in a different world of ideas and clothes and manners. I am now telling you the story of some of your grandfathers who are twenty-five generations removed....” The book also concludes with “An Historical Reading List for Children.”

So...I must concede that I made a big error when I said that MANKIND was published as an adult book in last Sunday’s blog.

Still, it was almost worth being wrong to have this opportunity to spend an hour or two today with my copy of THE STORY OF MANKIND. It’s one of the most valuable books in my collection. Every time I talk about how much a book is worth, I feel like I have to add that I’m actually as poor as a church mouse. But occasionally a very special book turns up that I feel the need to rescue, so I charge it on a wing and a prayer (the prayer: “Please don’t let me lose my job until I get this book paid off!”) and then torture myself for weeks thinking, “Did I do the right thing? Am I going to regret this?”

I’ve owned my copy of THE STORY OF MANKIND for about ten years now (in other words, I think I just finished paying it off) and have never regretted this purchase. First editions of this book aren’t impossible to find (remember, check out the ADULT history section at your favorite used bookstore!) but copies with dustjackets almost never turn up. My copy has a dustjacket, though it’s in fragments and most of the dj’s spine is missing:

But what makes this one extra special are the extras inside. They include a photograph of author Hendrik Willem Van Loon, which was used to promote the book:

Also “laid in” is an invitation to a Van Loon exhibition that was held many years later, in 1942, as a benefit for refugees from the Netherlands East Indies:

Even better is a TLS from Mr. Van Loon. When I first heard the book included a “TLS,” I thought it was a clipping from the Times Literary Supplement. Turns out that, in the world of bookselling, a TLS is a “typed letter, signed.” This one is on stationery from Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, where Hendrik Van Loon was a professor of Social Sciences. I have no idea why the stationery says “Office of the President” or who Van Loon is addressing as “Lin.” He seems to indicate Lin is his best friend. If you click on the image below, you should be able to read the letter, which reveals a lot of the author’s humor and personality. And get a load of the dated contractions and the flying caps:

And here is a copy of the inscribed page that Van Loon references in his letter, along with a sketch of one of the “critters” falling asleep over one of HIS books:

Incidentally, the inscription is dated “24 November xxi,” just five months after Van Loon completed the manuscript (a note at the end of the book says Van Loon finished the book on “Saturday, June 26, xxi.”) and several months before THE STORY OF MANKIND won the very first Newbery Medal as the “most distinguished contribution to American literature for children” in 1922.

Yes, it is a children’s book.

And, yes, I made a mistake.

Not my first, won’t be my last. Some would say my whole life has been nothing but one mistake after another.

...But adding this special copy of THE STORY OF MANKIND to my collection was definitely not one of them.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Sunday Brunch with Dragons and Flying Kids

Welcome to Sunday Brunch at Collecting Children’s Books. Today’s entry looks at “placeholders” and “marriages” in book collections, provides a list of fictional kids who can fly, and discusses the dragons who celebrated my birthday.


I’ll never forget the day I discovered online bookselling. After a lifetime of scrounging around used bookstores or dealing directly with dealers, I learned there were several internet sites -- including AbeBooks, Bibliofind, and Interloc -- which allowed you to type in the titles you were seeking and see a list of the copies currently available from booksellers all around the world.

That first day I went crazy inputting all the titles I was seeking for my collection and was astounded that so many of the books were available.

So many books, yeah. But here’s the other part of that equation: I had so little money.

I definitely had to make some difficult choices.

One of the titles that turned up that day was the 1931 Newbery Honor Book DARK STAR OF ITZA by Alida Sims Malkus. I had never even seen a copy of that book before. Another title that popped up was THE MOVED-OUTERS by Florence Crannell Means, a novel I really loved and had always wanted to own.

Each book cost about $45 and I could only afford to buy one. Decisions, decisions -- should I get the book I’d never seen before or the one I already knew and loved?

I went with love.

While I’m very happy with my copy of THE MOVED-OUTERS, in retrospect it was a bad choice. Because it turns out that THE MOVED-OUTERS isn’t terribly hard to find, but DARK STAR OF ITZA is! In fact, in the fifteen-plus years since I made that decision, I have never again seen a copy of DARK STAR OF ITZA for sale.

About a week ago, a bookseller on the west coast wrote to offer me a copy of DARK STAR OF ITZA for my collection. She hastened to tell me that it was not a first edition, but a third printing without a dustjacket...but wondered if I could use it as a “placeholder” in my collection.

I definitely said yes.

As the word suggests, “placeholders” are reading copies of books that essentially hold the place for another copy you are seeking. Let’s say you collect hardcover copies of Beverly Cleary books, but can only find RAMONA THE PEST in paperback; in order to make your collection complete, you might put that paperback on the shelf with the others as a placeholder until a hardcover becomes available. In my case, I collect Newbery first editions. Since a first of DARK STAR hasn’t turned up in the past fifteen years, I will put this third printing on my shelf -- to read, to use as a reference -- until the time comes that a first edition turns up.

This third edition of DARK STAR OF ITZA arrived in the mail a couple days ago, and though I haven’t yet read it, I’m so happy to finally see what the book looks like, and hold a copy in my hands:

It seems like it will be a very intriguing novel. Unlike a lot of early books about “children from foreign lands,” THE DARK STAR OF ITZA was created by people with firsthand knowledge of the region. Alida Malkus visited the Mayan ruins while writing the book and illustrator Lowell Houser was one of the official artists for the excavations at Itza, where he copied Mayan murals and sculptures for the Carnegie Institution. Here are the stunning endpapers:

Maybe a first edition of this book will turn up some day, but in the meantime I have this “placeholder” on my shelves to consult, and read, and share here on this blog.

Incidentally, I asked the bookseller how in the world she ever came across this rare old volume and she told me she found it at sale that was “swarming with dealers.” She added, “For once age rather than agility had its reward. Nobody else recognized it.”


The controversy continues. The internet continues to buzz about David Small’s graphic memoir, STITCHES, getting a National Book Award nomination in the category of “Young People’s Literature” even though it was published as an adult book. You can read two different perspectives on this issue in the Heavy Medal and Chasing Ray blogs. Both make some compelling arguments and I still haven’t made up my mind where I stand on it yet!

Jonathan is correct in stating that a book doesn’t have to be published for kids to be eligible for the Newbery.

Did you know that the following Newbery winners and Honor Books were originally published as adult books:

1922 Newbery Medal : THE STORY OF MANKIND by Hendrik Willem van Loon

1927 Newbery Medal : SMOKY, THE COWHORSE by Will James

1964 Honor Book : RASCAL by Sterling North

1972 Honor Book : INCIDENT AT HAWK’S HILL by Allan W. Eckert

I also wonder if Constance Rourke’s 1935 and 1937 Honor Books, DAVY CROCKETT and AUDUBON, were originally published for adults. The latter title, especially, seems to be shelved in the adult section of many libraries. More research required.

Now I have a question: since adult books are eligible for the Newbery, are they also eligible for the Printz Award, which honors young adult books? It would be ironic if they weren’t.


Many years ago, I took an “Introduction to Poetry” class in a small chilly classroom in an almost-empty building. The windows at the back of the classroom looked down on about a mile of empty space -- broken only by an abandoned swingset and ending in a distant wooded area. It always seemed to be snowing. The very first poem we read was called “Out, Out--” by Robert Frost. The instructor asked us to describe the poem in ten words. I wrote down: “Boy sawing wood gets hand cut off and dies.” Darn...nine words. I changed it to “Vermont boy sawing wood gets hand cut off and dies.”

The instructor spent the next ninety minutes going over the poem line by line, identifying every metaphor, showing how each word had multiple meanings, pointing out things I’d never seen before. By the time the class was over, my head was spinning with all the things I’d never even noticed before about the poem. As I stood up to put on my coat, I looked out at the snow falling on the swingset and heard a girl in the next row whisper, “When he explained all the hidden stuff in that poem, I got, like, the chills..”

I was thinking about that incident this week while researching STITCHES. Looking around the internet, I came across an interview with David Small in which he was asked if he had any favorite images in the book. he responded, “I like the transition pages where the stitches in my neck transform into the staircase in our house.”

What? I’d read STITCHES twice and hadn’t even noticed that image myself. It made me wonder how many other images and “hidden stuff” I missed in that book...and all the other books I read. I quickly got my copy of STITCHES down from the shelf and found those pages.

Then I got, like, the chills.


On Thursday evening, I dropped by the library and discovered Debbie the Desperate Librarian in a funk. That afternoon, caught up in the media excitement over the “Balloon Boy” flying above Colorado, she’d hurriedly made a set of bookmarks featuring novels about kids who can fly. Now she was bummed, as it turned out the kid really hadn’t been trapped in his family’s homemade flying craft. In fact, it was looking more and more like (dare we say it?) a hoax.

“Now what am I going to do with two hundred and fifty Balloon Boy bookmarks?” Debbie wailed.

I said, “I’ll take one.”

“Now I only 249 more to get rid of,” she sighed.

But, really, I don’t think it’s such a big problem. So what if the Balloon Boy never actually flew? The kids in these books did:


Thanks to everyone who sent birthday wishes this past week; it was much appreciated.

I also wanted to share a couple book-related birthday gifts I received.

I have a friend who has a personal and professional relationship with Ruth Stiles Gannett, author of the classic children’s book MY FATHER’S DRAGON. That 1949 Newbery Honor Book was followed by two sequels, ELMER AND THE DRAGON and THE DRAGONS OF BLUELAND. The last book, in particular, is almost impossible to find -- but a few months ago I happened to come across a copy. Knowing my friend needed the book for a work-related project, I gave it to him. On my birthday, I received a package in the mail containing this book, which my friend no longer needed. Imagine my surprise (and delight) when I opened it and discovered he’d had Ruth Gannett inscribe it to me:


My birthday present also included these...

...Dragon games!

Throughout history, a lot of American figures have been especially beloved overseas. For example, there’s the whole Jerry Lewis/France thing. And then there’s David Hasselhoff and Germany. But those are the kind of exports that make the U.S. look kind of...bad.

But I never knew until recently that MY FATHER’S DRAGON has always been big in Japan. Now HERE is an export we can be proud of -- a wonderful American children’s book shared with, and loved by, kids from Texas to Tokyo!

MY FATHER’S DRAGON has been made into a Japanese anime and, as you can see, has also inspired board games.

Now if I could only find someone to teach me Japanese so I could read the instruction booklet!


As if those other “Gannett Gifts” weren’t enough, I also received a copy of one of her lesser-known works, THE WONDERFUL HOUSE-BOAT-TRAIN:

and it too was inscribed:

My friend knew I’d be especially pleased to receive this first edition without the dustjacket because I already owned...a dustjacket without the first edition.

Adding a dustjacket to a jacketless volume is often referred to as “marrying” a book and jacket.

Like marriage itself, it’s not an act you want to enter into lightly.

Slapping a dustjacket from a later printing or a book club edition onto a first edition book is wrong. Let me rephrase that: it’s okay to do it if you acknowledge the misrepresentation, just as it’s acceptable to make facsimile (i.e. photocopied) dustjackets and use them on books. The only problem is when people try to pass off these variant djs as the originals and sell them as such. When buying a first edition book, it’s always important to check the first edition points for the book AND the dustjacket. Examples of first edition points on a dustjacket may include the price, various codes printed on the flaps, the absence of review quotations, etc.

Many people -- including me -- feel that if you are CERTAIN both the book and the dustjacket are TRUE first editions, it is okay to unite them in matrimony. I’m sure some purists and snobs would disagree with this, but my argument is that, as two separate entities, it’s pretty much impossible to EVER know if an older book is wearing the dustjacket it was born with. Unless it comes from a private collection and has had the same owner all its life, the book has probably been sold and resold over the years and the dustjackets may have been swapped-out over time -- not to trick or hoax anyone in a “my-kid-is-trapped-in-a-balloon-over-Colorado” way, but just to exchange a grubby torn dj with a more presentable cover.

But again, you must be CERTAIN that you are placing a true first edition dustjacket on a true first edition book.

In the case of the WONDERFUL HOUSE-BOAT-TRAIN, I was certain.



I took another trip through town to see the scarecrows from children’s literature and found a few more I missed the first time around.

Here’s Jack-Be-Nimble jumping over the candle stick. Sorry I couldn’t get the whole candle in the picture, but I was already backed up against the store window facing the scarecrow; the only way I could have gotten the complete picture was to have gone in the store and taken the photo from inside. Hmm...come to think of it, I guess that’s why these scarecrows are on display -- to bring people into the local businesses.

Who’s afraid of... (Hint: the answer isn’t “Virginia Woolf.” Extra hint: note the three pigs he's holding.)

Can’t catch me, I’m the...

Tinkerbell in front of a wig store:

The Cat in the Hat in the Plastic Bag:


I was thrilled to receive the following comment this week about a blog entry on Eleanor Estes’ book A LITTLE OVEN:

Hello. I am Eleanor Estes' granddaughter, Polly. I was actually looking for a copy of "A Little Oven" myself. I have a very old copy that is not in very good condition. I'm a teacher and would like to have it on hand to read to my kids. I just had to write something to you guys because it is so nice to hear these stories. My mom Helena will be so tickled to hear what you guys have written. My grandma was a wonderful woman and I'm so happy to know that she touched others’ lives the way she did mine.

Thanks, Polly, for dropping by. Eleanor Estes is one of my very favorite authors. And I’m sure A LITTLE OVEN has special meaning for your family, as an important character is named after your mother...and I believe the story was based on an incident from her life. Your students should be really excited to learn their teacher is the daughter of “Helena” from the book!


When you work in a library, you are surrounded by ghosts. Every shelf you pass contains books you recognize, books you’ve read and remember. A lot of times I’ll check out a book and see my own writing and initials inside, indicating I was the one who assigned the call number long ago.

As I’ve mentioned before in this blog, I’ve embarked on reading all the Pulitzer Prize winners for fiction. This week I checked out THE SHIPPING NEWS by Annie Proulx and noticed my printing and initials on the title page verso:

We did not receive this volume until a couple months after it won the Pulitzer and I remember holding the book at my desk for a couple extra days (oh come on, all catalogers do it!) thinking I’d read the novel before sending it on to Book Prep.

Well, reading just a few pages of the clipped, terse, difficult writing made me throw up my hands -- and throw the book into the “Ship to Book Prep” bin.

I couldn’t stand the writing stye. It actually seemed to physically affect me -- clashing in my ears and making my shoulders squirm.

However, now that I’m intent on reading the Pulitzers, I checked the book out and told myself I’d plow through it no matter what.

So I started reading it again this week and at first the prose was a bit off-putting. But then I got used to it. And after a while I found myself thinking, “You know, this is pretty...brilliant.”

Now I love this book.

And that got me thinking about all the other books I’ve disliked or set aside over the years. Would I like them better if I revisited them now? People do grow and change over time. Life experiences shape us, give us different perspectives....

Of course, one could look at it from another angle and wonder if books that we loved in the past would disappoint us now...but I’m not sure that would be true for me. When I love a book, I tend to go back and re-read it every few years. And I tend to keep loving them.

But I’ve never gone back to books I’ve disliked.

Now I’m wondering if I should!

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

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Q & A

I should start with a big THANK YOU to everyone who leaves comments on this blog.

It seems every day I read some great comment here and immediately jot down a response on a scrap of paper and slip it in my pocket, meaning to post it after work...but then I lose the scrap of paper, or I accidentally send it through the washing machine, or -- those rare times I don't lose it or Whirlpool it -- I simply can't read the words I jotted down because my handwriting is so bad!

But this week I did save three legible notes, so wanted to answer them here.


First, Eric asked about the National Book Award nominations: "What are the chances STITCHES gets some recognition in the adult nonfiction category?"

I would not have expected an adult nonfiction nomination for David Small's STITCHES...and, as it turns out, the book did not receive a nomination in that category.

By the same token, I also would not have expected to see it nominated in the Young People's category...and, as it turns out, it was!

As most have heard by now, the NBA nominations in the category "Young People's Literature" are:

STITCHES / David Small
JUMPED / Rita Garcia-Williams

Since these finalists were announced yesterday, people have been wondering how STITCHES -- conceived of and published as a book for adults -- ended up in this category. Is it because David Small is best known as a creator of children's books? Because the "graphic novel" style resembles a book for young readers rather than adults? Because this autobiography mostly concerns Small's childhood and teenage years? From what I've read on the net today, STITCHES was nominated for the youth award because that's the category in which Norton, the book's publisher, submitted it. That's funny...they published it as an adult book. It will be interesting to see how it fares against the other contenders in November. I'll try to write a comparative review of all five titles before the awards are given, as I did last year.


In Sunday's discussion of past National Book Award finalists -- which included four nominations for Bill and Vera Cleaver (GROVER, WHERE THE LILIES BLOOM, THE WHYS AND WHEREFORES OF LITTABELLE LEE, and QUEEN OF HEARTS) -- I mentioned that the Cleavers were continually ignored by the Newbery committee. Bybee wrote to ask, "Do you think Vera and Bill Cleaver were overlooked because they were a team of writers?"

That's an intriguing question. Several illustration teams have won the Caldecott Award, including Maud and Miska Petersham and Leo and Diane Dillon, but all the Newbery winners to date have flown solo. ...However, there have been just enough Newbery Honor teams (Richard and Florence Atwater for MR. POPPER'S PENGUINS, Mary and Conrad Buff for BIG TREE, among others) to suggest that there probably isn't a real prejudice against tandem writing.

Still, one wonders why the Cleavers never claimed even an Honor Award. Their characters were realistic and colorful, their narrative style was compelling, and they usually placed their stories in brilliantly-realized settings, including Appalachia and the deep south, that were often ignored by children's books. Part of the problem is that the Cleavers may have been slightly ahead of their time. Although written with good taste, many of their early novels dealt with topics that were then considered somewhat taboo, including suicide, illegitimacy, and mental health issues.

Though a half-dozen of their novels could have been serious contenders for a Newbery or Newbery Honor, it's downright shameful that their masterpiece, WHERE THE LILIES BLOOM, failed to make the cut. Strangely, some reference books actually do list this title as a Newbery Honor. Even the credits for the film adaptation make that claim. But WHERE THE LILIES BLOOM was not a Newbery book. It is, however, the only Vera and Bill Cleaver book still in print. It's too bad that the Cleavers never received that one major award which might have secured their place in the field of children's literature. If they had, perhaps more of their titles would be available today.


Finally, Helen Frost -- whose new book CROSSING STONES is one of the year's best -- wrote in with this comment:

I have a question that I think will be of interest to other authors, and perhaps non-authors, as well, so I'll post it here in the comments rather than as a private email to you.

When signing books, especially first editions, does the value of the book increase or decrease with a personal inscription <...>? I know the personal value increases, but what about the collector's value? Does it make a difference if the person to whom it is inscribed is also an author? In general, what is the most valuable inscription, to a collector who doesn't know the author?

The answer to this one is "it all depends on the collector." I think any of us who love books and authors like to have books inscribed directly to us. I know I do! As you say, this definitely increases a volume's personal value.

However, lately I've heard that many collectors want the author to simply SIGN and DATE the volume, with no additional inscriptions. They want a uniform look to their collection, with every volume bearing just a signature and date. There is some sense to that. Many collectors like to give books to, or trade books with, their friends and it makes things easier when there are no additional names inside; other collectors plan to leave their books to a library or institution someday and don't want the volumes to contain extraneous messages beyond a simple signature. However, I have heard that some authors don't like to "simply sign and date" their books because they're afraid the "collector" plans to turn right around and re-sell the book on eBay or elsewhere for a higher price; these authors feel it's not quite fair that their signature has just increased the value of a book (sometimes substantially) yet the only person who benefits from it is the person doing the reselling. That makes sense too.

Though I personlly have no problem buying a book with a generic inscription to someone I don't know, many collectors do have a resistance to owning a volume that says, for instance, "To Bill, from Richard Peck." One exception would be, as you suggest, if the book is signed from an author to another noted person -- whether that person is an author or famous for some other endeavor. And the value goes up if the there is some association between the signer and signee. For example, that book generically signed "To Bill from Richard Peck," might be worth a few dollars. However, if the book is signed "To Avi from Richard Peck" it might be worth a little more. If there was some connection between the writers (i.e. "To Avi, Thanks for the research material you lent me while I wrote this book, from Richard Peck") it would be valued higher and if the book were actually dedicated to Avi and signed on the dedication page by Richard Peck, it would be worth even more.

Incidentally, I was at one of your book signings (I treasure my signed first editon of KEESHA'S HOUSE!) and you did something I've never seen an author do before: you asked everyone who was getting your autograph to also sign their autograph in a copy of one of your books. I thought that was a wonderful idea -- on so many levels. Who knows how many future writers, teachers, doctors, astronauts, maybe even future presidents have signed your books? Those volumes could someday be very valuable as well.

But of course, as we all know, even when a book doesn't actually have monetary value, it's usually still worth treasuring.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Everything You Need to Know

Today is a special day for anyone who loves children’s books.

It’s my birthday!

Just kidding.

I mean, it is my birthday too, but the real reason for celebration is that October 13 is the publication day for EVERYTHING I NEED TO KNOW I LEARNED FROM A CHILDREN’S BOOK : LIFE LESSONS FROM NOTABLE PEOPLE FROM ALL WALKS OF LIFE, a stunning new volume edited by Anita Silvey.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that Anita Silvey is a friend and I have worked “behind the scenes” on many of her books. Formerly the editor of Horn Book Magazine and publisher of Houghton Mifflin Children’s Books, Ms. Silvey is one of the bright lights -- perhaps the brightest light -- in the field of children’s literature. She has been a great source of information and inspiration to me since I first worked with her over a decade ago, contributing biographical and critical essays to her volume CHILDREN’S BOOKS AND THEIR CREATORS -- an indispensible source for anyone interested in kids’ books and the people who write them. Since that time, I’ve contributed to THE ESSENTIAL GUIDE TO CHILDREN’S BOOKS AND THEIR CREATORS, done background research for her publications 100 BEST BOOKS FOR CHILDREN and 500 GREAT BOOKS FOR TEENS (two more volumes that should be on everybody’s bookshelf) and even contributed a short story to her anthology HELP WANTED : SHORT STORIES ABOUT YOUNG PEOPLE WORKING.

A couple years ago Ms. Silvey asked if I would help her do some research for a new project -- a volume in which notable individuals would discuss their favorite childhood book and explain how it had impacted their lives. I did the best I could to track down sources of information as well as find addresses for famous folk, but the material was difficult to obtain and I felt bad that my input to this project was somewhat limited.

So I was very pleased and humbled when I received a copy of the finished book in the mail with this wonderful inscription:

How’s that for a birthday present?

But even without the inscription, this would be a book I’d treasure.

An oversized volume, EVERYTHING I NEED TO KNOW I LEARNED FROM A CHILDREN’S BOOK is beautifully-designed and graphically appealing. Divided into six sections -- Inspiration, Understanding, Principles & Precepts, Vocation, Motivation, and Storytelling -- each double-page spread contains first-person commentary from an author, actor, athlete or other notable explaining the importance of a particular children’s book in his or her life. A sidebar provides background information on the book, while the opposing page contains an excerpt of the text, which frequently features an illustration.

Reading the personal essays, it’ s fascinating to note how often a children’s book kindled a young person’s future career aspirations. Oceanographer Robert Ballard recalls his favorite book TWENTY THOUSAND LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA by Jules Verne. Steve Wozniak was inspired by Tom Swift’s ability to invent. William C. DeVries, who performed the first successful artificial heart transplant, has vivid memories of the Tin Woodsman in THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF OZ pleading, “I will bear all the unhappiness without a murmur, if you will give me a heart.”

Other young readers drew life lessons from their favorite books. TV executive Les Moonves learned about curiosity from Babar. Tiki Barber, Donna Shalala, and Edward Villella were inspired by the determination of the Little Engine that Could. Perri Klass cites Harriet the Spy for teaching the value of observation.

Still others report on the titles that first taught them the simple pleasure of reading. For coach Rick Reilly, it was the Encyclopedia Brown series by Donald Sobel. For Roger Ebert, it was THE SATURDAYS and other books about the Melendy family by Elizabeth Enright.

EVERYTHING I NEED TO KNOW I LEARNED FROM A CHILDREN’S BOOK is the type of volume you can browse through, dipping into an entry here and there -- or you can read from cover to cover. It’s the type of book that gets you thinking of the children’s titles that changed your own life, and asking friends about the books that shaped their lives. I think many of us will find ourselves nodding in agreement with this statement from Lynda Johnson Robb: “Children’s books stabilize me; they are my roots; they help me in times of stress. They help me connect happy memories, to those I love, to the generations in my family. They provide comfort.” And I like Anita Silvey’s own conclusion that, “When we give children books, we become part of their future, part of their most cherished memories, and part of their entire lives."

That’s something to consider as the holiday gift-giving season approaches.

And how about getting a copy of EVERYTHING I NEED TO KNOW I LEARNED FROM A CHILDREN’S BOOK for yourself while you’re at it? Then set it out on your coffee table when guests come over and listen to the conversation that flows when people start recalling their childhood favorites...the books that they've never forgotten...the books that changed their lives.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Sunday Brunch with Assorted Scarecrows

Today’s Sunday Brunch includes two book reviews, a retrospective of the National Book Awards...and a variety of scarecrows.


This past week German writer Herta Mueller won the Nobel Prize for Literature. I’m sorry to say that I’d never heard of her before now. When reading the announcement of the award, I came across a startling piece of of information I had not heard before. Did you know that Harry Potter also received a Nobel Prize?

That’s right!

Harry Potter won the 2005 Nobel Prize for Literature.

I guess that merits an explanation. According to one of the articles I read, the Swedish Academy, which awards the prizes, labors hard to keep nominations and winners a secret until the announcement is made. They never deliberate over the internet for fear their e-mail be hacked. If an Academy member wants to read one of the nominated author’s books in public, he’ll often put a different dustjacket on the volume to throw people off track.

On the rare occasions when committee members meet in restaurants or other public places, they use code words to refer to the nominated authors.

Last year’s winner, France’s Jean-Marie Le Clezio was known by the code name "Chateaubriand.”

2007 winner Doris Lessing went by the name “Little Dorritt.”

And the 2005 winner, Harold Pinter, was known to the award committee winners as “Harry Potter.”

Who knew they gave Nobel Prizes to fictional teenage wizards?


Ask any group of kids what kind of books they prefer and one of the most frequent responses will be “funny books.” Yet humor remains one of our least-respected genres of fiction. Take a look at any list of award-winning titles and you’ll notice very few humor books; Beverly Cleary published more than a dozen laugh-out-loud volumes for kids but didn’t win the Newbery until she added a slightly more serious edge to her writing in DEAR MR. HENSHAW. Cleary is one of thirteen authors interviewed by Leonard S. Marcus in FUNNY BUSINESS : CONVERSATIONS WITH WRITERS OF COMEDY, a volume that examines the role of humor in writing for children. The Q&A format features the usual questions (each profile begins with the question “What kind of child were you?”) before moving on to wonderfully specific questions about the author’s work (it’s clear that Marcus is a fan of these writers and knows their books inside-out) and going off on some fascinating tangents with queries about family relations, theater-going, and childhood holiday celebrations. Some of the authors, such as Jon Scieszka, reveal humorous anecdotes from their past, but there is also poignancy in Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket) recalling how the Holocaust affected his perspective (“Things...can happen...not because you’re a bad person, but just because they sometimes do”) or Dick King-Smith remembering World War Two (“Even a bad joke is better than nothing.”) Judy Blume (who admits that her work often makes her laugh out loud while writing it), Carl Hiassen (who never laughs at his own writing), and Anne Fine (who believes “Humor is a healing art, both for the reader and the writer) are among the authors profiled in this insightful and engaging volume. Photographs, letters, and manuscript pages accompany the text. The often heavily-edited typescripts illustrate just how difficult humor-writing can be.


Watch the internet on Thursday to see which books are chosen as finalists for this year’s National Book Awards. Of course I’m always most fascinated to see what’s named in the category of Young People’s Literature. Rebecca Stead’s WHEN YOU REACH ME seems likely for a nomination, but otherwise…who knows? The NBAs always promise few flukes and surprises.


Let’s take a look back at some of the early NBA finalists and winners. Were the best books generally chosen, or have the winning titles been mostly forgotten by now?

The National Book Awards began in 1950, with only three categories. That year’s winners were THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM by Nelson Algren (fiction), RALPH WALDO EMERSON by Ralph L. Rusk (nonfiction), and PATERON BOOK III AND SELECTED POEMS by William Carlos Williams (Poetry.)

A category for children’s books did not exist until 1969 when Meindert DeJong won for JOURNEY FROM PEPPERMINT STREET. Other finalists were THE HIGH KING by Lloyd Alexander, CONSTANCE by Patricia Clapp, THE ENDLESS STEPPE by Esther Hautzig, and LANGSTON HUGHES by Milton Meltzer. In retrospect, JOURNEY FROM PEPPERMINT STREET seems a way of belatedly honoring DeJong for his earlier, better work. Nowadays PEPPERMINT is out of print and not considered one of his best.

1970 : A DAY OF PLEASURE : STORIES OF A BOY GROWING UP IN WARSAW by Isaac Bashevis Singer beat out WHERE THE LILIES BLOOM (Vera and Bill Cleaver), POPCORN AND MA GOODNESS (Edna Mitchell Preston), SYLVESTER AND THE MAGIC PEBBLE (William Steig), and THE YOUNG UNITED STATES, 1783-1830 (Edwin Tunis.) Singer’s autobiographical volume, also now long-forgotten, seems like another “career prize,” possibly awarded as much for his adult work as for his children’s books.

1971 : THE MARVELOUS MISADVENTURES OF SEBASTIAN by Lloyd Alexander won over GROVER by Vera and Bill Cleaver, BLOWFISH LIVE IN THE SEA by Paula Fox, FROG AND TOAD ARE FRIENDS by Arnold Lobel and THE TRUMPET OF THE SWAN by E.B. White. Yet another example of a noted author winning an NBA for one his lesser-known works.

1972 : THE SLIGHTLY IRREGULAR FIRE ENGINE, OR THE HITHERING THITHERING DJINN by Donald Barthleme was clearly chosen by judges way-too-impressed by Barthelme’s work for adults. No one in the field of children’s books took this children’s book seriously. Many of the other finalists, however, were excellent. They include: THE ART AND INDUSTRY OF SAND CASTLES by Jan Adkins, WILD IN THE WORLD by John Donovon, THE PLANET OF JUNIOR BROWN by Virginia Hamilton, HIS OWN WHERE by June Jordan, THE TOMBS OF ATUAN by Ursula K. LeGuin, MRS. FRISBY AND THE RATS OF NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien, HILIDID’S NIGHT by Cheli Duran Ryan, AMOS AND BORIS by William Steig, and FATHER FOX’S PENNYRHYMES by Wendy and Clyde Watson.

1973 : THE FARTHEST SHORE by Ursula K. LeGuin beat nominees THE HOUSE OF WINGS by Betsy Byars, TROLLS by Ingri and Edgar Parin d”Aulaire, JULIE OF THE WOLVES by Jean Craighead George, CHILDREN OF VIETNAM by Betty Jean Lifton and Thomas C. Fox, THE IMPOSSIBLE PEOPLE by Georgess McHargue, THE WITCHES OF WORM by Zilpha Keatley Snyder, and DOMINIC by William Steig. Never out of print in the past three decades, THE FARTHEST SHORE is probably one of the NBA’s stronger choices.

1974 : Eleanor Cameron’s THE COURT OF THE STONE CHILDREN bested A HERO AIN’T NOTHING BUT A SANDWICH by Alice Childress, THE WHYS AND WHEREFORES OF LITTABELLE LEE by Vera and Bill Cleaver (and isn’t it nice to see them getting so much NBA love -- this is their third of four nominations -- when they were always passed over for the Newbery?), THE TREASURE IS THE ROSE by Julia Cunningham, SUMMER OF MY GERMAN SOLDIER by Bette Greene , GUESTS IN THE PROMISED LAND by Kristin Hunter, A PROUD TASTE FOR SCARLET AND MINIVER by E.L. Konigsburg, A FIGURE OF SPEECH by Norma Fox Mazer, POOR RICHARD IN FRANCE by F.N. Monjo, and DUFFY AND THE DEVIL by Harve Zemach. The now-out-of-print winner, a cerebral fantasy, beat out a number of much more emotionally-charged novels.

1975 : Virginia Hamilton’s M.C. HIGGINS THE GREAT was the winner in a field that included THE DEVIL’S STORYBOOK by Natalie Babbitt, DOCTOR IN THE ZOO by Bruce Buchenholz, I TELL A LIE EVERY SO OFTEN by Bruce Clements, MY BROTHER SAM IS DEAD by James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier, JOI BANGLA : THE CHILDREN OF BANGLADESH by Jason Laure and Ettagale Laure, WORLD OF OUR FATHERS by Milton Meltzer, REMEMBER THE DAYS by Milton Meltzer (two nominations in one year), WINGS by Adrienne Rich, and THE EDGE OF NEXT YEAR by Mary Stolz. I especially love the last two titles on this list, but have to admit the Hamilton is a well-regarded choice. This was the first time the same book won the NBA and the Newbery.

1976 : A solid, old-fashioned novel, BERT BREEN’S BARN by Walter D. Edmonds took the trophy over TO THE GREEN MOUNTAINS by Eleanor Cameron, AS I WAS CROSSING BOSTON COMMON by Norma Faber, OF LOVE AND DEATH AND OTHER JOURNEYS by Isabelle Holland, THE STAR IN THE PAIL by David McCord, EL BRONX REMEMBERED by Nicolasa Mohr and LUDELL by Brenda Wilkinson. I always thought that BERT BREEN’S BARN had the feel of a classic, but it doesn’t appear to have caught on the way I expected.

1977 : THE MASTER PUPPETEER by Katherine Paterson won. The other finalists were NEVER TO FORGET : THE JEWS OF THE HOLOCAUST by Milton Meltzer, OX UNDER PRESSURE by John Ney, ROLL OF THUNDER, HEAR MY CRY by Mildred D. Taylor, and TUNES FOR A SMALL HARMONICA by Barbara Wersba. This was the first national prize recognition that Katherine Paterson received; soon she would become the most-honored author in children’s books.

1978 : THE VIEW FROM THE OAK by Judith Kohl and Herbert Kohl beat HEW AGAINST THE GRAIN by Betty Sue Cummings, MICHLING, SECOND DEGREE by Ilse Koehn, ONE AT A TIME by David McCord, and CALEB & KATE by William Steig. This year an out-of-left-field nonfiction book beat out a forgettable list of candidates. I think this may be the single weakest slate of NBA contenders in the history of the award.

1979 : Katherine Paterson scored again with THE GREAT GIILLY HOPKINS, leaving the following titles in the dust: THE FIRST TWO LIVES OF LUKAS-KASHA (Lloyd Alexander), QUEEN OF HEARTS (Vera and Bill Cleaver), HUMBUG MOUNTAIN (Sid Fleischman) and THE LITTLE SWINEHERD AND OTHER TALES (Paula Fox.) What’s so extraordinary about Katherine Paterson’s double NBA win is that within the same general time period she also won two Newberys for different titles!

From 1980 through 1986, the National Book Awards operated as the American Book Awards. The first year under that new name had two children’s categories -- for hardcover and paperback books, and as time went on the categories continued to multiply like Henry Huggins’ guppies, so that eventually there categories such as Hardcover Nonfiction and Paperback Picture Book. The paperback awards were especially odd, as they would often honor books published many years earlier in hardcover. Occasionally (and ridiculously) past NBA finalists would be nominated again when they turned up in paperback. For example, Lloyd Alexander’s 1969 finalist, THE HIGH KING, was nominated again as a paperback in 1981. It was insanity! Eventually the children’s categories were dropped completely and did not return when the American Book Awards reverted back to the National Book Awards in 1987. An NBA category called “Young People’s Literature” eventually reappeared in 1996.

1996 : PARROT IN THE OVEN : MI VIDA by Victor Martinez was the the first book to win in this category. Its competition included WHAT JAMIE SAW by Carolyn Coman, A GIRL NAMED DISASTER by Nancy Farmer, THE LONG SEASON OF RAIN by Helen Kim, and SEND ME DOWN A MIRACLE by Han Nolan. I believe the latter book was either a paperback original, or published simultaneougly in hardcover and paperback.

1997 : In a rather weak field, Han Nolan -- nominated for the second time in two years -- won for DANCING ON THE EDGE. Other contenders were THE FACTS SPEAK FOR THEMSELVES by Brock Cole, SONS OF LIBERTY by Adele Griffin, WHERE YOU BELONG by Mary Ann McGuigan, and MEAN MARGARET by Tor Seidler.

1998 : HOLES by Louis Sachar won -- the second time a book scored both the NBA and the Newbery. The four other finalists were THE SECRET LIFE OF AMANDA K. WOODS by Ann Cameron, JOEY PIGZA SWALLOWED THE KEY by Jack Gantos, NO PRETTY PICTURES : A CHILD OF WAR by Anita Lobel, and A LONG WAY FROM CHICAGO by Richard Peck.

1999 : WHEN ZACHARY BEAVER CAME TO TOWN by Kimberly Willis Holt took the prize over SPEAK (Laurie Halse Anderson), THE BIRCHBARK HOUSE (Louise Erdrich), THE TROLLS (Polly Horvath) and MONSTER (Walter Dean Myers.) In retrospect, do you think ZACHARY is the strongest book on this list? I don’t.

2000 : HOMELESS BIRD by Gloria Whelan beat out finalists FORGOTTEN FIRE by Adam Bagdasarian, THE BOOK OF THE LION by Michael Cadnum, MANY STONES by Carolyn Coman, and HURRY FREEDOM : AFRICAN AMERICANS IN GOLD RUSH CALIFORNIA. This may be the second weakest slate of NBA contenders in the history of the award.

2001 : TRUE BELIEVER by Virginia Euwer Wolff took the top spot, with the other four nominees being THE TIGER RISING by Kate DiCamillo, WE WERE THERE TOO! : YOUNG PEOPLE IN U.S. HISTORY by Philip Hoose; A STEP FROM HEAVEN by AN NA, and CARVER : A LIFE IN POEMS by Marilyn Nelson. When the Printz Awards were announced a couple months later, A STEP FROM HEAVEN won the top prize, with TRUE BELIEVER relegated to Honor Book status.

2002 : And the winner was...THE HOUSE OF THE SCORPION by Nancy Farmer. Other finalists were FEED by M.T. Anderson, 19 VARIETIES OF GAZELLE : POEMS OF THE MIDEAST by Naomi Shihab Nye; THIS LAND WAS MADE FOR YOU AND ME : THE LIFE AND SONGS OF WOODY GUTHRIE by Elizabeth Partridge, and HUSH by Jacqueline Woodson. It was a big year for SCORPION, which also picked up Newbery and Printz Honor Awards.

2003 : Polly Horvath took top honors with THE CANNING SEASON. The other lucky four were Paul Fleischman’s BREAKOUT, Jim Murphy’s AN AMERICAN PLAGUE, Richard Peck’s THE RIVER BETWEEN US and Jacqueline Woodson’s LOCOMOTION. Polly Horvath’s books are an acquired taste; obviously that year’s committee appreciated her off-beat work. I still haven’t finished reading THE CANNING SEASON.

2004 : GODLESS by Pete Hautman won, reflecting this category’s continued domination by young adult, rather than children’s, books. The finalists were HONEY, BABY, SWEETHEART by Deb Caletti, HARLEM STOMP : A CULTURAL HISTORY OF THE HARLEM RENAISSANCE by Laban Carrick Hill, THE LEGEND OF BUDDY BUSH by Sheila P. Moses, and LUNA by Julie Ann Peters.

2005 : THE PENDERWICKS by Jeanne Birdsall was the winner. WHERE I WANT TO BE (Adele Griffin), INEXCUSABLE (Chris Lynch), AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MY DEAD BROTHER (Walter Dean Myers) and EACH LITTLE BIRD THAT SINGS (Deborah Wiles) filled out the scorecard. Yeah, I know, I just got finished saying that the NBA tilts toward young adult titles, and then in 2005 they awarded the prize to an old-fashioned middle-grade novel. Still, I think it was the right choice.

2006 : THE ASTONISHING LIFE OF OCTAVIAN NOTHING, TRAITOR TO THE NATION, VOLUME 1 : THE POX PARTY by M.T. Anderson was the winner. The other finalists were KETURAH AND LORD DEATH by Martine Leavitt, SOLD by Patricia McCormick, THE RULES OF SURVIVAL by Nancy Werlin, and AMERICAN BORN CHINESE by Gene Luen Yang. OCTAVIAN is clearly one of the great modern books, so its selection will always reflect well on the NBA.

2007 : Sherman Alexie’s THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN took top honors with the other four finalists being SKIN HUNGER by Kathleen Duey, TOUCHING SNOW by M. Sindy Felin, THE INVENTION OF HUGO CABRET by Brian Selznick and STORY OF A GIRL by Sara Zarr. People were surprised a couple months later when PART-TIME INDIAN didn’t get Printz recognition.

2008 : WHAT I SAW AND HOW I LIED by Judy Blundell was the somewhat surprising winner in a field that included CHAINS by Laurie Halse Anderson, THE UNDERNEATH by Kathi Appelt, THE DISREPUTABLE HISTORY OF FRANKIE LANDAU-BANKS by E. Lockhart and THE SPECTACULAR NOW by Tim Tharp.


At the end of her interview in FUNNY BUSINESS, author Anne Fine is asked, “What’s the best part about being a writer?” The response: “The silence. Definitely the silence.” In his memoir, STITCHES, writer-illustrator David Small explores the dark, soul-killing aspects of silence. Growing up in 1950s Detroit, Small lived in a silent, unloving home punctuated by an unspoken current of anger (“Mama had her little cough...once or trice, some quiet sobbing, out of sight...or the slamming of kitchen cupboard doors. That was her language.”) When he was fourteen years old, Small had surgery that resulted in losing his own voice; in typical fashion, his parents never told him he was suffering from cancer until he accidentally uncovered the truth. Their response? “Well, the fact is, you did have cancer...but you didn’t need to know anything then...and you don’t need to know about it now. That’s final!” Small tells his story mainly through illustration, with only a minimum of text. The superb artwork has a cinematic flow, occasionally utilizing metaphor (an analyst is depicted as the White Rabbit from ALICE IN WONDERLAND) and moments of surrealism in an otherwise unflinchingly honest, often horrifying, memoir. Written for adults, STITCHES doesn’t exploit the author’s brutal childhood, nor does it wallow in self-pity; instead, it ultimately tells how a damaged young man recovers his voice, both literally and -- through therapy, leaving home at an early age, and discovering his talent (“Art has given me everything I have wanted or needed since”) -- figuratively. STITCHES is a triumphant literary accomplishment by a creator who has triumphed over unspeakable odds.


I use the Wikipedia all the time, but was unaware that a “Conservapedia” -- an online encyclopedia “with articles written from a conservative viewpoint” -- even existed until this week when I heard about the Conservative Bible Project, which plans to remove “liberal bias” from contemporary versions of the Bible by creating “a fully conservative Bible.”

Upon hearing this news, I immediately checked to see if it was a joke.

It wasn’t.

I’ll leave the soundness of this idea to theologians. Right now I’m having nightmares about what the Conservapedia would do if they ever set their sights on children’s books.

The results could look something like this:


THE HIGHER POWER by Susan Patron

BOY MEETS GIRL by David Levithan




THE GIRL OF BLACKBIRD POND by Elizabeth George Speare

GOD by Pete Hautman


The other morning I was leaving for work when I saw a goose walking down the middle of the street. I grew up in the city, where the biggest birds I ever saw were pigeons. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I actually saw a goose live-and-in-person. I couldn’t believe how big they were -- well over three feet tall with their necks stretched out. And they continue to fascinate me. So, back to the other morning: I was leaving for work, saw this big, tall goose walking down the middle of the street, and stopped to stare. And then I noticed there was another goose waddling behind him. And then another. They continued to march solemnly past me, single file, as if they were in a parade. I counted eleven of them! I wish I’d had my camera with me that morning.

Later that day I told someone about the experience and said, “It reminded me of this children’s book called MAKE WAY FOR DUCKLINGS.”

“Everything reminds you of a children’s book,” they replied.

People tell me that a lot.

So yesterday I was driving down a local street when I passed this scarecrow on the side of the road:

Well, of course I immediately thought about WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE, but since I’d just been rudely accused of being over-invested in children’s books, I decided maybe I was just projecting my interest onto something completely unrelated. Geese aren’t ducklings. Scarecrows aren’t Sendak characters.

However, as I drove further down the street, I came across this scarecrow:

Now I knew I wasn’t seeing things! And as I drove on, I saw other familiar figures -- all related to children’s books! I rushed back home for my camera.

I don’t know if one person made all these or whether it’s a community competition or what, but clearly there’s a theme to all the scarecrows decorating the streets.

Here’s the scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz:

I’m not sure about this one, but because there are nursery rhyme titles and images on her outfit, I think she’s supposed to be Mother Goose:

Here’s Little Miss Muffett and the spider:

And the man from CAPS FOR SALE:

There was a crooked man:

And here’s Curious George, along with the (rather chunky) Man with the Yellow Hat:

The king from “Sing a Song of Six Pence”:

Here’s Jack and Jill:

And Pippi Longstocking, who is even holding a sign that says, “Read a good book!”

So you see, it’s not just my over-active imagination connecting everything I see to children’s books. Everything I see really IS connected to children’s books!


Yesterday was my mother’s birthday. She turned [CENSORED!] years old. The other day she told me that she’d recently had a dream about swinging on a wooden backyard swing. Last year on her birthday, my mother was using a cane because of arthritis. This year she is using a walker. Is it any wonder she has dreams about the freedom of standing on a swing and flying back and forth? My mother grew up in an era where kids memorized and recited poems and Bible verses for school (Bible verses in a public school!) When telling me about her dream, she began to recite an old poem she remembered from her childhood. She wasn’t sure of all the words, so I said I’d look it up for her. Here it is -- a belated birthday present for my mother, and a gift to anyone else who remembers playing on the swings as a child:

The Swing

by Robert Louis Stevenson

How do you like to go up in a swing,
Up in the air so blue?
Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing
Ever a child can do!

Up in the air and over the wall,
Till I can see so wide,
River and trees and cattle and all
Over the countryside--

Till I look down on the garden green,
Down on the roof so brown--
Up in the air I go flying again,
Up in the air and down!

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