Sunday, July 25, 2010

Sunday Brunch with Peppers

More random thoughts and facts about children's books, old and new.


Gardening is a brutal business.

I learned that lesson the hard way this week, after I proudly sent my friend a picture of my first green pepper:

I also sent her pictures of the entire green pepper plant:

As well as my pole beans:

Her response?


Okay, it's true, the packets of seeds did say something about thinning out the seedlings when they got to be a couple inches tall, but I wasn't sure exactly what that meant. Was I supposed to move all the plants into a bigger pot? (I didn't have any bigger pots.) Was I supposed to transplant them individually into several smaller pots? (I didn't have any extra pots either.)

No, accordng to my gardening-expert friend, I was supposed to get a big pair of scissors and just chop half the plants down at the dirt-line!

I have to admit I was a aghast. Isn't the whole point of gardening to, like, grow things? To watch tiny seeds unfurl from the rich black earth and turn their faces toward the sun? To bud and flower and then produce vegetables?

Apparently that is true for only some of the seedlings.

The rest are fated to be chopped off at the knees.

I asked my friend if I couldn't just gently transplant the crowded plants into new containers and she said that wouldn't work because of their delicate root systems.

Well, we'll see about that. Delicate roots or not, I went to K-Mart and bought a new pot, then took three of the pepper plants and transplanted them into that container. I may not be much of a gardener, but I know about children's books...and in the world of children's books, transplanted kids such as Anne Shirley, Mary Lennox, Maniac Magee, and Harry Potter, always take root and grow in their new surroundings.

After lovingly transplanting those peppers into this new container...

...I unmercifully chopped the remaining pepper plants down, feeling like some kind of depraved murderer.

While doing so, I thought about children's author-illustrator Tasha Tudor, known for wearing rustic bonnets, spinning her own wool, and growing magnificent gardens:

Now I've learned you can only get a garden that nice by killing half your plants. If beans and peppers could talk, they'd probably have only two words for quaint little Tasha:

Serial killer.


Maybe I wouldn't have felt so bad about mowing those plants down if they hadn't been peppers -- a word that has a lot of meaning in the children's book world. Who hasn't read -- or at least heard of -- FIVE LITTLE PEPPERS AND HOW THEY GREW by Margaret Sidney?

The first thing to know about the author is that "Margaret Sidney" wasn't her real name. She was born Harriet Mulford Stone (1844-1924) and grew up in New Haven, Connecticut, the daughter of wealthy parents. She attended a ritzy private school and was a card-carrying member of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

The more I research children's writers, the more I discover that the truly great books often have their roots in the author's own childhood. This was true for Harriet as well. While growing up, the Stone family frequently visited the rural countryside, and that was where the wealthy young heiress imagined a "little brown house" where she could live quietly and simply, as opposed to her fancy New Haven society life. Over time, she imagined a family that would live in the house with her: a widowed mother called Mamsie Pepper and five Pepper children: Ben, Polly, Joel, Davie, and Phronsie -- short for Sophronia.

(Thank goodness Mamsie Pepper was never told to thin her herd. Then we'd have FOUR LITTLE PEPPERS or THREE LITTLE PEPPERS or just MAMSIE PEPPER, CHILDLESS WIDOW.)

Writing under a pseudonym, Ms. Stone introduced the Pepper Family in two short stories that appeared in the children's magazine WIDE AWAKE in 1878. The stories proved so popular that the author was contracted to write a twelve-part serial, which ran in the 1880 issues of the same magazine.

The publisher of WIDE AWAKE, David Lothrop, also owned a book publishing company, so he encouraged Ms. Stone to adapt the stories into a book, which was published in 1881...then he married her the same year.

Depicting the humble experiences of a poor, but happy, family, FIVE LITTLE PEPPERS was an immediate hit with readers. The Peppers' fortunes drastically change at the end of this novel, so the next three books in the series, FIVE LITTLE PEPPERS MIDWAY (1890), FIVE LITTLE PEPPERS GROWN UP (1892), and FIVE LITTLE PEPPERS : PHRONSIE PEPPER feature a more properous family no longer struggling to make ends meet. Some readers feel this change in economic status damaged the appeal of the series, though many others were just happy that the storie continued. Even after the author hinted the series was ending with PHRONSIE PEPPER, there was such an acclaim for more stories that eight more volumes followed...though some feel these books have a tired, repetetive quality.

According to the Wikipedia:

All of the later books take place much before the third book in the original series. To read the six key books in chronological order, rather than by publication date, they would be read approximately in this sequence:



At one point, the author and her husband moved to Concord, Massachusetts and bought "Wayside," a house in which Nathaniel Hawthorne and Louisa May Alcott had each once lived. After becoming widowed in 1892, the author purchased "Orchard House," the home in which Louisa May Alcott wrote LITTLE WOMEN. She lived there for ten years until it was taken over by an historical organization.


Who doesn't love Beverly Cleary's 1955 book BEEZUS AND RAMONA?

It's the story of grade-schooler Beezus struggling with the fact that sometimes she just doesn't love her pesky preschool sister Ramona.

Now here comes this new movie and Beezus is...FIFTEEN?

And Ramona seems to have skipped the years from the original BEEZUS AND RAMONA (age 4), RAMONA THE PEST (age 5), RAMONA THE BRAVE (age 6), RAMONA AND HER MOTHER and RAMONA AND HER FATHER (age 7) and RAMONA QUIMBY, AGE 8 and RAMONA FOREVER (still age 8) and gone directly nine years old.

Does it work on the big screen?

I don't know; I'll probably wait for the DVD.

Personally, I'm still ticked they changed the title from BEEZUS AND RAMONA to RAMONA AND BEEZUS. Why change what's been a successful title for fifty-five years>? And everyone knows the oldest child should have their name first anyway. It's only right. It's only fair! (Of course the fact that I'm an oldest child has nothing to do with that opinion....)

In the grand scheme of things, my opinion doesn't matter anyway.

What I was most curious about was author Beverly Cleary's opinion.

And apparently she's very happy with the movie.

When director Elizabeth Allen took Ms. Cleary a early copy of the film -- a day Allen described as "probably the scariest day of my life -- Beverly Cleary's first response after the movie ended was "Joey King (who plays Ramona) deserves an Oscar!"

Later the 94-year-old author attended a local premiere of the BEEZUS AND RAMONA -- I mean, RAMONA AND BEEZUS! -- riding a golf cart "festooned with ribbons" and announced to the crowd, "If you like car chases, guns and fightsm then this movie is not for you."


I've been trying to collect first editions of all Beverly Cleary's books for many years now. I've been very fortunate in tracking down nearly all her books, including her elusive first book, HENRY HUGGINS (1950), but BEEZUS AND RAMONA remains, by far, the most difficult to find. I think I once saw a copy listed for something like $350 -- way beyond my budget -- but it promptly sold.

Seems like this book either had a smaller printing than some of the other Cleary titles, or many more fans eager to snap up first editions.

Now the movie will probably make it even more expensive...and even more hard to find.

But I will persevere!


Earlier in this blog I mentioned "Anne Shirley" as a famous orphan from the world of children's books. She is, of course, the protagonist of ANNE OF GREEN GABLES.

Several years ago I taped the 1934 film adaptation of ANNE OF GREEN GABLES off TV; it's a nice little movie. But I was surprised to see in the credits that the part of Anne Shirley was played by an actress named...Anne Shirley.

How did that happen?

Can you imagine the casting call? "Seeking young actress to play Canadian orphan. Must be sixteen or younger. No taller than five-foot-two. And must be named Anne Shirley in real life as well."

Of course the answer is much more prosaic. The lead role was played by a young actress originally named "Dawn Evelyeen Paris." Although she'd already appeared in about forty movies under her birth name, she ended up changing her name to "Anne Shirley" when she played that role on film in 1934.

(Thank goodness this did not become a trend. Can you imagine Selena Gomez changing her name to Beezus Quimby, or going to see that new movie EAT PRAY LOVE "starring Erin Brockovich and Harry Osborn"?)

Anyway, this made me wonder how often authors inadvertently give their characters names that are also shared by movie stars.

I can think of a couple examples:

The hero of ASK FOR LOVE AND THEY GIVE YOU RICE PUDDING by Barbara Corcoran and Brad Angier is named "Robby Benson."

And one of the characters in Norma Johnston's YA novel THE IMAGE GAME is named "Brock Peters."

Brenna Yovanoff's forthcoming THE REPLACEMENTS features a character named "Stephanie Beecham," only one vowel away from the actress named Stephanie Beacham:

Do you know any other examples of characters in books who accidentally have the same name as a well-known actor or actress?


My recent entry -- following Fuse #8's blog on children's books that need to be re-illustrated -- brought some intriguing mail from readers.

Nancy discussed American authors setting fantasy novels in Great Britain; Helen mentioned the bad artwork in a Zilpha Keatley Snyder book, and Sudipa reminds me -- as she and her co-horts do every week -- that they offer a wide assortments of gifts, flowers, and cakes from their shop in India.

Well, forget that last one.

Nancy does make a good point about fantasy, though. In my blog I had mentioned that Nancy Bond, William Sleator, and Patricia McKillip had, as young American authors, set their debut novels in Great Britain. Nancy responded:

...readers immersed in fantasy who first became writers in the 70s simply had few models for what an "American" or less traditional fantasy world might be like, and thus few pathways to imagine how to implant fantasy into their native American landscape.

This is an aspect of "write what you know" that is often overlooked, but is quite real. "What you know" is also about what you recognize from reading; what imaginative possibilities are open to you.

This was all to change with the development of urban fantasy shortly thereafter. Thus (for example), a Holly Black could come along and confidently set a portal to fairyland in a NYC subway, because folk like Charles DeLint and Emma Bull had opened that imaginative pathway.

Good point. It would be interesting to know if Bond, Sleator, McKillip, et al, would have set their debut fantasies in their native United States if they were writing those books today.

As for books that need to be re-illustrated, Helen Schinkse suggested:

I was going to say Zilpha Keatley Snyder's _Black and Blue Magic_, but I think that has been reprinted already. The original hardback's illustrations were terrible (this was before Snyder's publisher teamed her up with the brilliant Alton Raible), and I seem to remember reading that they hurt its sale to libraries.

A small correction: Ms. Snyder's publisher did not team her up with Alton Raible. I've always heard that publishers don't like it when authors submit illustrations with their manuscript -- unless the author is a writer-illustrator. Otherwise, publishers like to select the illustrator for each manuscript.

But Zilpha Keatley Snyder did not know this. She was teaching at California's College of Marin when her first book, SEASON OF PONIES, was accepted for publication by the first publisher who saw it. (That in itself is a feat!) Ms. Snyder then asked a fellow instructor in the art department, Alton Raible, if he'd submit some illustrations for her book. Jean Karl was impressed by Raible's artwork and offered him a contract as well. For the next fifteen years or so, Mr. Raible illustrated ALL of Zilpha Keatley's novels to great effect, including her three Newbery Honors, THE EGYPT GAME, THE HEADLESS CUPID, and THE WITCHES OF WORM.

The only Snyder title that Raible didn't collaborate on was BLACK AND BLUE MAGIC and Helen Schinske is right: the illustrations in that book -- by an artist named Gene Holtan -- were terrible.

Here is the dark and undiscernable cover:

And a murky interior illustration:

And this portrait of the protagonist looks more like something you'd find on the funny pages ("Jughead called. He wants his nose back.") than within a children's book.

The illustrations were called out in some of the reviews, and I'm not surprised to hear that the awful artwork impacted library sales. I was a huge Zilpha Snyder fan as a kid and BLACK AND BLUE MAGIC was the only Snyder book that was not carried by the Detroit Public Library at the time. I asked one of the librarians why none of the DPL branches had this book and she said the library system had decided not to purchase it because of the poor quality of the illustrations.


I had a lot more I planned to write for today's blog -- including a list of books for Lindsay Lohan to read in prison and maybe something about this weekend's Comic Con -- but the afternoon is nearly over, I'm still in my pajamas, and I need to run to the store, and then come home and chop down more plants with a big old machete and a heavy heart.

Much of this week will be spent working on a chapter of the book I'm writing with Elizabeth Bird and Julie Danielson. Maybe you can help by providing some first-hand anecdotes for that chapter. I am curious about the following:

Which children's books that the critics love do you, personally, hate?

And which children's books that the critics hate do you, personally, love?

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


Wendy said...

As I've mentioned in various places around the Internet: I'm pretty sure they didn't call the movie BEEZUS AND RAMONA because it isn't based on the book BEEZUS AND RAMONA but is rather about the characters Beezus and Ramona. Makes perfect sense to me.

I've wondered and polled my friends who love both the Ramona books and Cleary's YA novels: who did Ramona and Beezus grow up to be? Since I think all four of her teenage protagonists reflect aspects of Cleary herself, it seems like a reasonable question. I like to think that Ramona grew up to be Barbara in SISTER OF THE BRIDE, and almost certainly, Beezus grew up to be Sister Sue in JEAN AND JOHNNY (rather than the glamorous Rosemary).

Speaking of Beverly Cleary's YA, one book I dislike that almost everyone around me adores is FIFTEEN. I couldn't see the appeal or special-ness of THE HUNDRED DRESSES, and I think MANIAC MAGEE is dumb. On the other hand, I think Lois Duncan is a neglected genius, I wish the world had noticed the Babysitters Club spinoff CALIFORNIA DIARIES, and anyone who knocks THE TATTOOED POTATO AND OTHER CLUES will get a swift kick from ME.

GraceAnne LadyHawk said...

I hate The Giver. Hate hate hate.

Maybe it is because I love science fiction/fantasy, and find the whole premise meretricious.

I never teach it, in children's or YA literature, because I never ever want to read it again, I don't care how many people love it.

Bybee said...

I'm not at all fond of The Tale of Desperaux. I can't understand why it is so loved. That's an hour of my life I'll never get back again.

One of my great-grandmothers was named Sophronia. Her nickname was "Phronie".

Joanne R. Fritz said...

I agree with Bybee -- I never understood the appeal of TALE OF DESPEREAUX. But then again, I loathe being addressed as "Dear Reader."

On the other hand, I love THE GIVER. Sorry, GraceAnne. The spare, unemotional prose is achingly lovely. The ending was the only unsatisfying part.

I have to disagree with Wendy, also. I think Maniac Magee is wonderful. There's a Newbery that I think deserves the medal.

I also love HATCHET, even though my kids hated it.

The only Newbery winner I really detest is M.C. HIGGINS THE GREAT. So boring! Agreed with my kids there.

The one picture book I hate that so many of my customers seem to love is LOVE YOU FOREVER by Robert Munsch. Blech!

See, Peter? You've already got disagreement right here in the comments. Isn't it great?

Connie said...

Just a quick note on Nancy Bond - the reason she set her first book in Wales was because she had spent a year there studying at the school of librarianship in Aberystwyth. It was first-hand experience and that magical coastal part of Wales casting its spell on her - not any homage to British fantasy writers. Her later books were set closer to home - Best of Enemies in Concord; The Voyage Begun (which should be way better known) in slightly futuristic Cape Cod; and Another Shore (one of the best time-travel fantasies of all-time) set in an historic recreation of an 18th century fort in Canada ... all "new world" books.

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ChrisinNY said...

In a very small voice- Diary of Anne Frank. I know she died; I know she had issues with trying to find her place in the world and her family. I just didn't love it as a child/early teen even though I knew I was supposed to do so.

Daughter Number Three said...

Crispin: The Cross of Lead left me completely cold. It seemed like a retread of much better books.

Linda said...

For more on the Five Little Peppers:

hschinske said...

Thanks for the correction on Alton Raible! I should have checked the details a bit more.

Not a children's book, but Margery Allingham's _The Tiger in the Smoke_ has a character named Johnny Cash.

Helen Schinske

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MelissaT said...

I must have really liked 5 Little Peppers as a kid. About halfway through reading the book I scratched the surface of my eyes. I was put on bed rest and no reading. I have really vivid memories of holding my less injured eye open and sneakily reading the rest of the book. Funnily enough, the only thing I really reall remember from the book was issues about sewing by poor light and worsening eyesight. I must try and find a copy to reread.

And I have to confess, I don't think I like Chrlotte's Web at all. As I'm starting to work my way through Fuse's top 100 list I know I'm going to have to confront it again.