My all-time favorite scene from the movies is that moment in the Jane Fonda/Vanessa Redgrave film JULIA when playwright Lillian Hellman (played by Fonda) becomes so frustrated with her writing that she throws her typewriter out the window.
I have lived that scene in my imagination many times.
Many decades have passed since Hellman's era. Now we use computers instead of typewriters, but the impulse remains the same and there have been many times in my life when I've looked down at my uncooperative computer and thought what a dandy projectile it would make.
One of those instances occured this morning, when I had to spend an hour uninstalling, then reinstalling a piece of malfunctioning software.
I considered it again when I looked at some of the notes I'd written down for this blog and couldn't decipher a word I'd written:
Oh yeah, I was looking at the notes upside down.
So I righted them and -- guess what? -- I still couldn't read them!
No wonder I feel so frustrated and frozzy today.
What does the word "frozzy" mean?
And what is a "prinz"? (No, it's not a mispelled young adult book award.)
Read on for the answers in today's Sunday Brunch, featuring an eclectic mix of info and opinion on children's books.
READING AND WRITING
Two recent children's books with a focus on reading and writing recently caught my eye. In MY LIFE AS A BOOK by Janet Tashjian (Henry Holt & Company) twelve-year-old Derek -- dubbed a "reluctant reader" by his teacher -- insists that he actually likes reading ("If everyone just left me alone with Calvin, Hobbes, Garfield, Bucky and Satchel, I could read all day") but would prefer having his own summertime adventures "instead of reading about someone else's." Since his idea of adventure includes making hand grenades out of avocados and uncaging a monkey being treated by his veteranarian mother, Derrick soon finds himself attending Learning Camp. The lessons he learns there -- plus a family vacation in which he investigates a mystery from his own past -- don't make a Derrick a big reader, but he does finish one of his assigned books and learns that "even if reading is hard, everyone needs stories." Large print, lots of white space, and clever stick-figure drawings that define words in the text make this a natural for other reluctant readers looking for something a little more challenging than the Wimpy Kid series.
The text is even bigger and the white space is even whiter in WORD AFTER WORD AFTER WORD by Patricia MacLachlan, yet this easy-to-read book still packs a powerful punch. When a author named Ms. Mirabel visits their fourth-grade classroom, dispensing wisdom about writing and life, a group of students is inspired to write their own poems and paragraphs. Patricia MacLachlan has written some near-perfect books (SARAH, PLAIN AND TALL; THE FACTS AND FICTIONS OF MINNA PRATT) and some bogged down by sentimentality (JOURNEY; BABY -- and yes, I know, I'm the only one who dislikes these books.) There's only one show-offy misstep in her latest -- a scene in which Ms. Mirabel reads samples from several children's books, including a couple of MacLachlan's own -- but otherwise this story of how several kids use writing to confront troubling personal issues (a sick mother; a parental separation; a new baby in the family) is sometimes funny and often extremely touching without become sugary or over-sentimental. Ms. Mirabel may inspire more than the characters in this book to put pen to paper. Some young readers may finish WORD AFTER WORD AFTER WORD and discover that they are also young writers.
THE BLUE AND THE ORANGE
Last week I wrote about the "Childhoods of Famous Americans" books, a much-loved series from the past that related the youthful experiences of notable individuals in a fictionalized format that included manufactured events and imaginary dialogue.
Some readers remembered the books as being blue:
while others recalled orange volumes:
Some remembered seeing both colors on their library shelves and wondered if the blue books were about male subjects while the orange featured females.
I did a little poking around this week and discovered that the series was printed in blue bindings from its inception in 1932 through the early 1960s. During that time all volumes apparently utilized silhouette illustrations. Beginning in the 1960s, the books changed their bindings from blue to orange and also switched from silhouette illustrations to more modern black-and-white illustrations, always accompanied by one color, such as green:
Beginning in the late sixties and early seventies, the style of the books was revised yet again to include a glossy cover with illustrated vignettes from the subject's life:
These volumes, like the orange books before them, also included black-and-white line drawings with one color overlaid. These are actually the versions of the "Childhoods of Famous Americans" books I remember from my grade school years in the late 1960s.
BAKED PUMPKINS AND OTHER BOOK FOOD
As I looked at those last couple covers and remembered others from the series, I was suddenly hit with a craving -- for pumpkin!
I'm almost certain that reading one of those "Childhoods of Famous Americans" volumes with the illustrated covers back in grade school caused me to beg my mother to bake me a pumpkin. One of those books -- and I wish now that I could remember which one! -- had a scene in which a boy's mother was cooking dinner. One of the items baking in the oven was a whole pumpkin which filled the house with a spicy aroma. She then took it out of the oven and -- here's where it gets vague for me -- either sliced it up for dinner or scooped the contents onto the plate. Being a big pumpkin pie fan, that scene really made an impression on me and I asked me mother if she would bake a pumpkin for us. After saying "no" about ten times, she finally relented. I can't remember if she just used our old Halloween pumpkin or actually went out and got a new one. All I remember is that -- as good as it smells baking in the oven, all sprinkled with cinnamon and nutmeg -- baked pumpkin is a far cry from a pumpkin pie.... Of course I was only about nine at the time. Maybe I would like it now. I imagine it tastes like squash...a vegetable I hated back then but really like now. Hmm...fall is here and pumpkins are appearing at the grocery store. I may have to try this recipe again!
This may also be the autumn that I finally try my hand at Spaghetti Carbonara. My favorite writer, M.E. Kerr, mentions this dish in several of her young adult novels and it always sounds so good (what's better than pasta and bacon?) until she adds that some people like to put a raw egg on top. Well, I guess I won't be one of those people (I almost spit up my popcorn with Sylvester Stallone drank that glass full of raw eggs in ROCKY) but the rest of the ingredients are so inviting that I need to try making this meal very soon.
What fictional meals have caused you to rush to the kitchen and pull out your recipe book?
Over the years I've heard that many readers hunger for "Turkish Delight" from the "Narnia" series by C.S. Lewis. If you're interested in making this sweet treat, just click here for a recipe.
BACK TO BIOGRAPHY
Last week's discussion of the "Famous Childhoods" series, brought a few letters asking about the "Signature Biography" series.
Beginning in 1952 with THE STORY OF BUFFALO BILL by Edmund Collier and continuing through at least 1967 with the fifty-first volume in the series, THE STORY OF JACQUELINE KENNEDY by Alida Sims Malkus (does anyone know of a Signature Biography after that date?) the books were published by Grossett and Dunlap. They always featured the subject's signature on the front cover, as in these volumes about Winston Churchill and Dwight D. Eisenhower:
Many readers recall the illustrated endpapers, which showed an illustrated timeline of events in the subjecdt's life:
Like the "Famous Childhoods" series, I believe the "Signature Biographies" also included invented dialogue, but the focus was the subject's entire life, as opposed to the youthful experiences primarily captured in the "Childhoods" series.
FICTION AND NONFICTION
One of the things that dates the "Famous Childhoods" series is its reliance on imaginary dialogue. This was true of many, if not most, juvenile biographies of the day. Nowadays, such books would be called "fictionalized biographies" or "novels based on the life of...." and stored on the fiction shelves, rather than nonfiction.
I've been thinking about the differences between fiction and nonfiction writing lately. Not all writers are adept at both. Some have no interest in crossing between fields. But this got me wondering if any authors have become so enthused about a world they captured in nonfiction that they later wrote a novel using that background. And has anyone ever done factual research for a novel and then written an accompanying nonfiction book? I can think of two recent examples.
In 2002, Chris Crowe wrote MISSISSIPPI TRIAL, 1955 an unusually strong novel set against the backdrop of the Emmett Till murder case. The following year he published a nonfiction account of that event: GETTING AWAY WITH MURDER : THE TRUE STORY OF THE EMMETT TILL CASE.
Susan Campbell Bartoletti took the opposite tack -- going from nonfiction to fiction in writing about the Holocaust era. In 2006 she published HITLER YOUTH : GROWING UP IN HITLER'S SHADOW, an informational book that received a Newbery Honor. She followed this up in 2008 with THE BOY WHO DARED, a novel about Helmuth Hübener, one of the young people profiled in HITLER YOUTH.
Can you think of other examples where an author wrote a novel and nonfiction work on the same subject?
PRINZES AND FROZZIES
Wandering through the library stacks this week, I came across this historical oddity from 1973, T.A. FOR TOTS by Alvyn M. Freed:
A condescending, handprinted text and subpar illustration explain the concept of transacational analysis for kids...or, as they are called in this book, "little boys and girls."
According to the introduction, T.A. FOR TOTS:
...is designed to help little boys and girls get acquainted with themselves, to find out that they are not frogs, but princes and princesses. By talking straight to their mothers and fathers and other important people, they will be able to avoid some of the unhappiness that most grown-ups now experience.
The book explains:
You and I have three people inside of us. Bossy Me (acts like mom or dad), Thinking me (learns and makes sense), Feeling me (Is happy, sad, hurt, or angry, likes to play.) These three make us act like we are three different people. Can you recognize the three people inside of you?
T.A. FOR TOTS tells kids that, " At one time all boys and girls were PRINZES." (The author explains that "Prinze is woman's Lib for 'prince' or 'princess.'") He continues:
Then along came some people called Ma and Pa who changed the little Prinzes...
into FROZZIES! (a footnote tells us that "frozzies" are "girlfrogs and boyfrogs.")
It gets worse:
And for many years they wandered around feeling frozzy.
Until later they discovered that WARM FUZZIES
could change them back into--
My favorite run of pages in T.A. FOR TOTS starts with page 166:
Followed by -- what else? -- page 167:
Then comes...167 and a half!
Followed by 168:
Have you ever seen such a thing in a children's book before? Even in THE STINKY CHEESEMAN? I can't explain it, except to say...well, it was the seventies.
AT LEAST IT CLEANS UP WELL
You may noticed that our library's copy of T.A. FOR TOTS, pictured above, was downright dirty and grubby. I had a container of "Clorox Disinfecting Wipes" in my office and they really did a good job cleaning off the cover:
People often ask about cleaning grubby books. I'm sure every case is different. And that a professional would punch me in the nose for using Clorox Wipes on a book...but it worked. In this case the book had been rebound and had a shiny cover. I never would have tried it on a cloth bound book. But it's worth trying on library rebounds. Just test a little on a less obvious place (for instance, a corner of the back cover) before using it on the front an obliterating half the letters so the title reads "T.A. ROTS"
I was also interested in this printing statement on the copyright page of T.A. FOR TOTS:
Wow, this book sold a lot of copies in the first five years!
T.A. FOR TOTS must have been hot back then. (Okay, let's be honest here: did any of your parents have this book in this house? Did your parents ever try to commune with Feeling You, Thinking You and Bossy You? Did they ever call you "My little prinze" or chastise you by calling you a "Little frozzie" in public? ...Do you still speak to them?)
One of the reasons these print figures intrigue me is that I suspect they are much larger than most printings today. I have no way of knowing this for sure, but I think first printings much be comparatively small these days. Consequently, brand new books are arriving in stores already in their second and third printings. My bookstores copies of THE ETERNAL ONES by Kristen Miller all arrived as third printings. And Nancy Werlin's latest novel, EXTRAORDINARY, was unpacked this week and turned out to be second printings. This is great for the authors' royalty statements, of course, but lousy for us collectors, who now have to cheat our favorite independent bookstores by running all over town trying to find a first printing somewhere else and spending our money there.
AMELIA WALDEN REDUX
Thanks to all the readers who sent in names of many other "forgotten young adult writers" of the 1950s and 1960s. I'm going to track their books down and will probably blog about them at a later date. I was intrigued by this note from Roger Sutton:
Amelia Elizabeth Walden wrote some of the great crypto-gay YA novels. Although most of her books featured standard boy-girl romances, the most intense relationships were frequently between a jock and her female coach or between two girls. I don't know what Walden's story was but her books provided pre-Stonewall gay kids with some heady stuff.
Since I haven't yet read the Walden novels, I can't really comment...except to say: Amelia Walden, meet Margery Bianco!
Although best known for such children's books as THE VELVETEEN RABBIT, Ms. Bianco also wrote a couple young adult novels, WINTERBOUND (a Newbery Honor) and OTHER PEOPLE'S HOUSES. These books -- particularly the latter title -- feature "handsome" girls who go by boy's nicknames, wear androgynous clothing and hairstyles, and enjoy hobbies which were then considered masculine, such as woodworking.
I wonder if these novels read the same way in the 1930s as they do to modern-day readers.
A MOMENT OF HOPE
Last night I watched a TV movie based on Jeffrey Deaver's mystery novel, THE DEVIL'S TEARDROP. (Quick, can anyone figure out Jeffrey Deaver's connection to children's books? Answer: his sister, Julie Reece Deaver is the acclaimed author of SAY GOODNIGHT GRACIE, FIRST WEDDING ONCE REMOVED and other good books for kids.) The hero of THE DEVIL'S TEARDROP is a former member of the FBI who specializes in the documents. In this story, he was called back to the FBI to investigate the source of written clues from a crazed bomber. I especially liked the final scene, in which the protagonist and his new love interest sat looking at an aging postcard and the document specialist said, "Paper seems so fragile...but it lasts longer than almost anything."
In today's increasingly Kindled world, I found those words very hopeful.
Thanks for visiting Collecting Children's Books. Providing that life doesn't get too frozzie, I'm hoping to do at least one mid-week blog in the next few days. Hope you'll be back!