Hanging on to past triumphs is a big mistake.
One of my past triumphs was scoring in the 98th or 99th percentile in the "Vocabulary" section of the standardized Iowa Test back in fourth grade. Man, I was so proud of that score! I bragged about it to everyone. (Conveniently neglecting to mention that I also scored in the 49th percentile in "Map Skills" on that same test.) For years I skipped right past the "It Pays to Increase Your Word Power" section of READERS DIGEST. I had no need for it; I scored in the 98th or 99th percentile in Vocabulary, after all! And over the years I didn't use the dictionary as much as I should have.
So how did I fare in the end?
I still have a GREAT vocabulary for a fourth grader!
Not such a great vocabulary, though, for an adult.
I learned this the hard way recently. First I ordered a chenille bedspread without really knowing what "chenille" is. I thought it was a fabric that was soft and quilted and puffy. Well, I got one thing right: it IS a fabric. But it's not soft and quilted and puffy. It's rough and nubby and thin and it just sort of puddles on top of you as you try to fall asleep at night. It's awful. Never again will I order a product by mail without consulting a dictionary.
Then, the other day I was reading an author's note in the back of a novel and the a author stated, "I am a pedant. I insist that people pronounced "flacid" flak-sid, which is dictionary-correct but defies onomatopoeic instinct; when I force them to look it up, they grow enraged and vow to keep saying flassid anyway. I never let anyone get away with using "enervated" to mean "energized," when the word means without energy, thank you never much."
Of course I've been using the word "enervated" all my life to mean "full of energy" and "vital" and "invigorated."
At least now that I know better, I have a good explanation for why I haven't blogged in well over a week. I was feeling a bit worn down and tired. Enervated, you might say. I guess it was a consequence of too much work to do, too many errands to run, staying up too late, and temperatures pushing ninety all week.
But things are finally starting to slow down, I'm going to have some extra time to catch up on my sleep (thank goodness for holiday weekends), and the weather has developed a definite autumnal chill.
Now I'm feeling en...er, energized and ready to start the fall season with blog blazing.
I now feel clear-eyed and clear-headed and am only confused about one thing. Why did that author refer to herself as a "pedant"?
Isn't that some kind of necklace...?
HAVE I STAYED TOO LONG AT THE FAIR
The end of summer always means the Michigan State Fair in these parts. Unfortunately, economic problems have caused our fair -- once the oldest in the nation -- to close down for good in 2010.
Our annual visit to the State Fair every Labor Day was such an important part of my childhood. It's hard to believe that this year there are no animal stalls full of livestock. No cow sculpted out of butter. No fly-specked cakes bearing blue ribbons. No "Girl with the Body of a Snake." No Whack-a-Mole. No amusement park rides. Or elephant ears. Or hot-dog-on-a-stick. What about the Ulysses S. Grant house, which always sat on the fairgrounds?
I'm sad that this part of my childhood is gone. And maybe even more sad that kids today won't be able to experience this end-of-summer/start-of-fall event.
Last year at this time I included a list of children's books about state and county fairs. I'm going to repeat it again now because -- with some of our major fairs closing -- the only place that some kids will ever be able to experience the excitement of a fair is within the pages of a book:
THE COTTON CANDY CATASTROPHE AT THE TEXAS STATE FAIR by Dottie Enderle
A spun-candy machine malfunctions in this picture book romp.
NIGHT AT THE FAIR by Donald Crews
A busy, colorful look at a fair after sundown.
DANGER AT THE FAIR by Peg Kehret
A brother and sister encounter thieves in this fun and suspenseful tale.
FAIR WEATHER by Richard Peck
The backdrop of this book isn’t just a state fair, but the 1893 World’s Fair, an event that reveals a changing future to a rural family. I love this book, but have always found the content just a bit skimpy, wishing that maybe another two or three episodes had been added to the novel to make it feel complete.
SO LONG AT THE FAIR by Hadley Irwin
A teenage boy spends a week working at the state fair and reflecting over the recent suicide of a friend.
CHARLOTTE’S WEB by E.B. White
Who can forget the momentous appearance of Wilbur, Charlotte and the gang at the County Fair?
THIMBLE SUMMER by Elizabeth Enright
The events of Garnet’s special summer culminate at September’s County Fair in this Newbery winner. Doesn’t the following passage take you there?
It was a whirling, jingling, bewildering collection of noise and color and smell. Everything seemed to be spinning and turning; merry-go-rounds, the Ferris wheel, the whip cars. There were dozens of tents with peaked tops and scalloped edges, and little colored flags flying from them. Citronella grabbed Garnet and Garnet grabbed Citronella, and they bounced up and down shrieking with excitement. Mr. Freebody was calmer. “I always like a fair,” he said.
THE SILHOUETTE BIOGRAPHIES
Every now and then, someone will tell me that their favorite childhood books were "biographies of famous people when they were kids." They always add, "These books were illustrated with silhouette illustrations."
What they're referring to is the "Childhoods of Famous Americans" series, which was published by Bobbs-Merrill for several decades, beginning in 1932. The books were published in a uniform edition with blue covers:
though some fans say remember another edition of this series bound in orange.
The books explore the childhoods of noted individuals, usually focusing on the attributes that would later lead them to fame (a la THOMAS EDISON, BOY SCIENTIST; MOLLY PITCHER, GIRL PATRIOT; ELI WHITNEY, BOOK MECHANIC.) Sometimes the titles reflected the childhood names of the subjects, leading the reader to think, "Aleck Bell? ...Oh, Alexander Graham Bell!"
In terms of content, the books may have been found in the "Biography" section of the library, but would best be described as "fictional stories about real people." Invited dialogue abounds and, as mentioned, events are slanted to highlight the courage, craftsmanship, or citizenship that would later make them famous.
Though the books were written by a wide variety of authors (mostly unknown, though I did notice one by Newbery-winning equine author Marguerite Henry) and illustrated by a number of different artists, they were stylistically similar -- particular in their use of silhouettes in the illustrations:
I was surprised to discover that the "Childhoods of Famous Americans" series is still being published in paperback by Aladdin. The original texts are used, though I imagine the texts have been re-edited. The titles occasionally have. For example, JIM THORPE, INDIAN ATHLETE has been changed to JIM THORPE, OLYMPIC CHAMPION.
SILHOUETTES MAKE A COMEBACK
One thing that has changed in the Aladdin paperback editions of the "Famous Childhoods" series are the illustrations. New artists have been hired to update the books and silhouettes are no longer utilized. This is ironic because silhouettes are now being used with great frequency on contemporary children's book dustjackets.
I've also noticed a trend toward using generic male and female icons on dust jackets:
Kenneth Oppel's latest novel adds a monkey silhouette to the mix. At least that is new and different!
WHY HAVE THE DUCKS STOPPED QUACKING?
Something strange is happening in the pond behind my house.
Ever since moving in, I've enjoyed watching ducks-by-the-dozen sit bobbing in the water, splashing and dipping their heads below the surface. Occasionally they climb over the bank and tramp across the grass, individually or in groups.
And all day I'd hear "Quack-quack-QUACK."
Even in the dead of night I'd hear an occasional sleepy or disgruntled "quack" coming from the direction of the pond.
But about a week ago the quacking stopped!
The ducks are still there, but now they swim and tramp around in almost total silence.
Admittedly, I'm city-born-and-bread and this is the closest I've ever been to wild ducks in my life...so I have no idea if this is a natural event that occurs every autumn, or whether there is something wrong with these birds. Can ducks get laryngitis? (Seems like Donald Duck always had a case of it; I never could understand anything he said in cartoons.)
But thinking of birds-gone-silent reminded of this title I read as a teenager:
Published in 1972, WHY HAVE THE BIRDS STOPPED SINGING? was Zoa Sherburne's last novel. It's a problem novel/time-slip fantasy in which a teenage girl on a class trip suffers an epileptic seizure and wakes up a hundred years back in time, living in an era when this disease is not understood by society.
Nearly forty years have passed since the publication of this novel and I'm hard-pressed to think of any other children's or YA book that features a character with epilepsy. Can you?
The same is true for diabetes. Sure, there are a few purposeful books -- both nonfiction and fictional -- aimed at the young diabetic. But among mainstream novels, I can think of only a couple that feature kids with this chronic condition. There's SWEETBLOOD by Pete Hautman and SUGAR ISN'T EVERYTHING by Willo Davis Roberts -- and in both these cases diabetes is the main conflict in the storyline.
Can you think of any titles in which a young character just happens to have epilepsy or diabetes -- and those issues are not the primary focus of the plot?
ZOA AND OTHER FORGOTTEN YA WRITERS
After reading WHY HAVE THE BIRDS STOPPED SINGING? as a teenager, I was curious to learn more about the author's other books. It turns out my library didn't have any. I didn't continue searching for them and haven't thought much more about Zoa Sherburne since then. But in writing today's blog I did a little research and discovered she wrote over a dozen YA novels between the mid-fifties and mid-seventies. According to CONTEMPORARY AUTHORS, she tackled such taboo topics as "alcholic parents, mental illness, racial prejudice, and compulsive eating disorders." These would have been dicy topics in fifties and sixties and may be why my library didn't own the books. Surely TOO BAD ABOUT THE HAINES GIRL, a novel about a pregnant teen, would have been deemed extremely controversial when published in 1967.
I guess Zoa Sherburne may be another member of the "lost generation of young adult writers."
There has always been some controversy over when the YA genre really began.
Some say it started with the publication of Maureen Daly's SEVENTEENTH SUMMER in 1942.
Others claim it began in 1967 with S.E. Hinton's THE OUTSIDERS.
But if you look carefully, you'll discover a number of high-profile authors who wrote for and about teenagers throughout the fifties. Many of them, such as Mary Stolz, continue to be remembered -- though she is perhaps best-known now for her middle-grade books (THE NOONDAY FRIENDS) and easy readers (EMMETT'S PIG) than for the YA novels (WHO WANTS MUSIC ON MONDAY?; TO TELL YOUR LOVE) on which she really built her reputation. A number of teen romance writers -- Betty Cavanna, Rosamond du Jardin, Lenora Mattingly Weber -- continue to endure in that their books can still be found in libraries and, in some cases, have even had paperback editions published in the twenty-first century.
But the YA authors that really intrigue me are those who had thriving careers in the fifties, sixties, and even the early seventies, but are almost unknown today.
Zoa Sherburne is one.
James L. Summers is another.
He began by writing stories about teenagers for magazines such as SEVENTEEN and SENIOR PROM. Several of these tales were collected in his first book, OPEN SEASON, which was published in 1951. Over the next two decades, he published over thirty YA novels, including GIRL TROUBLE, PROM TROUBLE, TROUBLE ON THE RUN, THE TROUBLE WITH BEING IN LOVE (hmm, I'm seeing a theme in these books.)
He also wrote OPERATION ABC, THE SHELTER TRAP, TIGER TERWILLIGER, SENIOR DROPOUT, and many more.
Yet despite his prolific output, Mr. Summers didn't seem to leave much of a footprint in the field of young adult literature. His novels are all but unknown today. I've never seen them in any public library, never seen the author's name mentioned in any articles about early writers of YA fiction.
I think I need to read a couple of these books and try to figure out why.
Incidentally, the author blurb on the dust flap of THE WONDERFUL TIME mentioned that both of Mr. Summer's childen, Richard and Julie, were planning to become writers.
I wonder if they ever made it....
Another member of the "lost generation of young adult writers" is Amelia Elizabeth Walden.
One profile of the author states, "Walden is credited as being an innovator in what she terms 'a new genre in American literature, the young adult novel.'"
Though she published nearly fifty books for young adults between 1946 and 1977, I doubt any contemporary teen has heard her name.
Does anyone reading this blog remember reading any of her books?
I haven't read a single one, though I actually own the author's own copies of her first three titles:
Several years ago, someone listed ALL of Ms. Walden's own copies of her books for sale on eBay. Each had her own bookplate inside:
Although I hadn't read these books, I thought that the author's status as an "innovator" in the field should make them important and collectable. So I began placing low bids and won the first three books one-two-three. ...Then someone swooped in and bought all the remaining books before I had time to catch my breathe. Ah well, I imagine the author's earliest books would probably be deemed the most important.
Now if only I could find time to read them!
READY FOR A REVIVAL?
Although I referred to Amelia Elizabeth Walden as a member of the "lost generation," perhaps she is better known than I give her credit for. After all, the Assembly on Literature for Adolescents recently launched an award named for this author.
According to the ALAN website, the winning title must be "a work of fiction, ideally a novel (stand-alone or part of a series); be published within one year prior to the call for titles; be published in the United States but may have been published elsewhere prior; and possess a positive approach to life, widespread teen appeal, and literary merit.
That "positive approach to life" condition is one thing that separates this award from something like the Printz, which carries no such provision.
According to the award guidelines, "positive approach to life" means that the winning book must "treat teen readers as capable and thoughtful young people; offer hope and optimism, even when describing difficult circumstances; have a credible and appropriate resolution, and portray characters involved in shaping their lives in a positive way, even as they struggle with the harsh realities of life."
The award, which includes $5000 in prize money, was first given in 2009. That year's winner was MY MOST EXCELLENT YEAR : A NOVEL OF LOVE, MARY POPPINS, AND FENWAY PARK by Steve Kluger. The finalists were: AFTER TUPAC AND D FOSTER by Jacqueline Woodson, GRACELING by Kristin Cashore, THE GRAVEYARD BOOK by Neil Gaiman, ME, and THE MISSING, AND THE DEAD.
The 2010 winner was FIRE by Kristin Cashore. The other finalists were MARCELO IN THE REAL WORLD by Franciso X. Stork, THE MONSTRUMOLOGIST by Rick Yancey, NORTH OF BEAUTIFUL by Justina Chen Headley, and THE SWEETHEART OF PROSPER COUNTY by Jill S. Alexander.
WE GET LETTERS
Thanks so much to everyone who responds to this blog with public or private e-mails. I'm always pleased when something on Collecting Children's Books strikes a chord with someone and inspires them to write in with a comment or opinion.
This week I was especially intrigued by a note from Helen Schinske, responding to my comments on TO KILL A MOCKINBIRD. I had said, "It seems to me that Harper Lee’s novel is a perfect example of an 'honorary children’s book' -- a title originally published for adults that has been embraced by young readers, assigned for school, and is pretty much considered a book for all ages these days."
Ms. Schinske responded:
Good God, I hope not. There's far too much context they won't get (in a book for adults lots of stuff didn't need to be spelled out), and most kids, especially white kids, will get entirely the wrong message. Just because it's ostensibly from a child's point of view doesn't make it children's literature, or even young adult literature. It's actually very much an adult point of view conveyed INDIRECTLY through a supposedly ignorant child narrator.
Moreover, this is a book about racism, but it's not about black people to any great extent. It's mostly about white people, and seems to expect white readers. While there are certainly some black readers who've loved the book, I get a definite impression from the discussions I've seen that most do not.
Agree? Disagree? I know the book is on most high school reading lists, and I've seen it assigned as early as seventh grade. But is that too young for kids to fully understand this novel? Or will young people "get" different things out of this novel at, say, age twelve, then they would on a second reading at age eighteen or a third reading at age forty? I'd like to think their understanding would broaden and grow over the years...though I've already admitted how my vocabulary stalled on a fourth grade level. I'd hate to think the same thing would happen to someone who read the book "too young." And what if they never returned to the novel at all? I've heard stories of people who had a book foisted upon them at a too young age, and ended up never finishing it and never wanting to pick it up again.
I'm also intrigued by the idea that most African Americans may not love this book. Frankly, I've never considered this issue. I know that Oprah Winfrey has described TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD as her "all-time favorite novel," but Oprah doesn't speak for all blacks any more than I can speak for all whites. I'd love to see a study done on how people of different races, regions, and ages react to this novel. Now -- while we're celebrating the 50th anniversary of MOCKINGBIRD -- would be a good time for someone to pursue such a study.
Thanks for reading Collecting Children's Books. Hope you'll be back. Have a great holiday!