Saturday, September 24, 2011

Sunday Brunch with Goats and Birds

Today's Sunday Brunch revisits the book President Bush was reading when America was attacked, has a link to a Nancy Drew website, and wonders if the Printz Award really has much clout.


Two weeks ago, on the tenth anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, I wondered why we didn't hear more about MY PET GOAT, the "children's book" that played a supplementary role in the tragic events of that day.

As it turned out, the correct title is actually "THE Pet Goat" and it's not a stand-alone book, but a story from an elementary school reader. Still, it's a part of history and it remains surprising to me that more book collectors haven't grabbed up READING MASTERY II : STORYBOOK I, the volume that contains this story -- especially since copies can be found for as little as one dollar!

Taking my own advice, I ordered a copy of this book-for-a-buck for my own collection. It arrived yesterday:

Though the textbook is credited to Siegfried Engelmann and Elaine C. Bruner, no authors are listed for the individual stories; perhaps Engelmann and Bruner wrote them all. The tales in the book are flatly-written and contain no spark or finesse. Here is the first page of "The Pet Goat" and one its illustrations:

For the life of me, I can't figure out the diacritical marks used in the stories. Most seem to represent long vowel sounds, like the "o" in "goat" and the "a" in "day." Yet they are used inconsistently (where is the long vowel for the "a" in "cape"?) or in ways I don't quite get. (In another story the "o" in "horn" is repeatedly marked, but that's not a long vowel sound, is it? And what are the marks over every "ng" about? AND WHERE IS THE CAPITALIZATION in the story?

And I hate to be one of those "my childhood was better than today's childhood" types, but I have to say that the school readers from my day were beautifully illustrated in a number of styles. I can still remember many of the full-color pictures from my own grade school textbooks. The illustrations in this book are also done by a number of different (uncredited) artists, but they're terrible! Look at this one:

However, I'll give the illustrations plenty of credit for trying to reverse sex-role steretyping. One story takes place in a railway yard and one of the track workers is a woman. In other story, a dog stops two robbers from escaping and -- although the sex of the robbers isn't mentioned in the text -- they are shown to be women, an unusual and refreshing choice:

Finally, I noticed that the volume has this "THIS BOOK IS THE PROPERTY OF" label inside the cover:

Ah memories! Did your schoolbooks also contain this label? I remember this identical form turning up in all my textbooks starting around the time I finished grade school (1971) right up through high school. And it appears it's still being used today. Strangely, I don't ever recall filling out the form. (For one thing, we weren't even allowed to take textbooks out of the classroom before seventh grade.) But I do remember being fascinated by these labels as a kid. I was always tempted to fill one in myself -- in pencil, so I could erase it before the teacher noticed.

Wouldn't it be fun to go through a collection of old textbooks and find the childhood signatures of people such as Barack Obama, Michelle Robinson (Obama), and so many other young people who grew up to be famous figures?


There are already enough books and websites about Nancy Drew to satisfy avid fans of the teenage detective.

But if you're just a casual fan, or you have an interest in the monetary value of Nancy Drew books and memorabilia, you might want to take a look at the October 2011 issue of COUNTRY LIVING magazine, which contains a brief piece about the collectability of Nancy.

The article tells us that the first volume in series, THE SECRET OF THE OLD CLOCK, published in 1930, is now valued at $5000 for a mint copy first edition:

If signed by author Mildred Wirt (who wrote 23 volumes as "Carolyn Keene") the value increases to $10,000.

Volumes from the forties can be worth around $200. The article mentions that Nancy's hairstyle here was reminiscent of Lauren Bacall's hair:

This volume from 1953 is valued at $140. The article mentions Nancy's "prim" look but doesn't compare her to anyone else:

I wondered if she wasn't then being modeled after fifties stars June Allyson and Doris Day:

You can also access an online feature from COUNTRY LIVING magazine which lists the plots of all 56 Nancy Drew books here.

Believe it or not, I've only read one Nancy Drew book -- THE CLUE OF THE TAPPING HEELS, also known as the one where Nancy gets locked in a trunk and, from inside, tapdances a message in Morse code. This must have been the book that started my lifelong case of claustrophobia!


Okay, I don't have any definitive facts and figures here to back up what I'm going to say. I'm sort of writing from observation and intuition. Maybe those of you who work directly with young adults in libraries or who publish YA books can tell me if I'm on the right track here or if I'm all wet.

But I've come to the conclusion that, as much as I love the Printz Award, it doesn't have the same kind of clout that the Newbery Award does.

Every year when the Newbery is announced, the winning title and Honor Books immediately hit the bestseller list. And, to a greater or lesser extent, these books continue to sell well over time. Winning the Newbery gives an author star quality, even if he or she had been a midlist author in the past. It's like someone said about winning the Oscar: once you've won the prize, every time your name is seen in print, right up through your obituary, it will be preceded by two words: "Oscar winner..." The same is true for Newbery medalists.

But is it true for Printz winners?

Though I'm sure that winning the Printz gives an author greater visibility and more opportunities, I'm not sure it's the life-changer that the Newbery is.

Looking at a list of the eleven winners to date, I don't see too many titles that have become wildly and continually popular with readers. The lone exception may be LOOKING FOR ALASKA by John Green, though perhaps part of its popularlity is due to the author's own self-promotion and connection with readers through social media sites. It might have been equally popular without that gold seal. Have the careers of An Na, Angela Johnson, and Geraldine McCaughrean (to name just three) really taken off in sales or wider popularity since winning the Printz? I'm not sure.

I guess I'm thinking about these things ever since reading this rather sad interview with Rick Yancey at the Bookshelves of Doom blog. Two years ago, Mr. Yancey received a surprise Printz Honor for his YA debut, THE MONSTRUMOLOGIST. I have to admit, I was not a fan of that novel. But many readers were and the book ended up being published in nearly twenty countries. The author's second YA novel, THE CURSE OF THE WENDIGO was published last year and I thought it was vastly better than the first book. In fact, we selected this title for our top-five shortlist when I was one of the judges for the LA TIMES Book Awards.

You would think a Printz Honor would guarantee an author some career momentum for at least the next decade, but the Bookshelves of Doom piece reveals that Yancey's series is now being ended by his publisher, even though the author original planned his story to play out over several more volumes. The publisher's reasoning? "We think we've spent too much on these books already. We're not prepared to spend any more."

It doesn't make a lot of sense to me. And I can hardly imagine this happening to an author continuing a series that received a recent Newbery Honor.

Is the Printz the "red-headed stepchild" of youth literary awards?

Will it always be this way or will this fairly-young award acquire, over time, the prestige of the Newbery and Caldecott?


For the past few months, people have been talking about the enormous coincidence that two of this year's likely Newbery contenders -- Gary Schmidt's OKAY FOR NOW and Jack Gantos' DEAD END IN NORVELT -- feature eerily similar dustjacket illustrations.

Here's another coincidence: two other likely contenders share similar titles and a fantasy plot element reminiscent of Mary Chase's 1968 cult classic THE WICKED PIGEON LADIES OF THE GARDEN.

Of the two titles, THE APOTHECARY is the more ambitious, broadly-focused novel, but also the more problematic. Set in 1952, the story concerns a fourteen-year-old American girl who moves to London with her parents. Janie's friendship with Benjamin, the son of the neighborhood apothecary, turns into a wild ride of espionage and globe-hopping when it's revealed Benjamin's dad is an alchemist working with other international scientists to prevent a nuclear apocalypse. Janie's measured, almost frosty, first-person narration sometimes tells more than it shows, but the story is well-paced and exciting. A novel like THE APOTHECARY requires the reader to suspend disbelief as the characters work with herbal elixirs that make them speak only the truth (fun!), become invisible (even more fun!), turn into birds (funnest of all!), or reduce a person into a pile of salt and then be restored to human form (that one is really stretching it.) The story occasionally suffers from an issue common to many fantasies: what I like to call "convenient magic." That is, just as the characters are backed into a corner, someone comes up with a facile magical solution to the whole mess. For example, enthralled readers will completely accept the major storyline that has Janie and Benjamin stowing away on a Norwegian vessel to help suppress a nuclear bomb, yet the small scene in which a scientist whips up some special paint that changes the ship's appearance will have some readers muttering, "How con-ven-i-ent!" On the whole, though, THE APOTHECARY is a lively and involving novel that will appeal to a broad range of readers. And Ian Schoenherr's artwork adds a nice touch to the story (why oh why can't we have more illustrated novels for kids?) The hint of a sequel in the book's final pages will cheer readers who want to spend more time with Janie and Benjamin; others will wonder how any sequel can trump a novel in which the characters have already saved the world from nuclear extinction?

In THE APOTHECARY, Janie and her friends transform into birds to escape capture by the "bad guys." Humans living in the form of birds is also a major plot component of Kathleen O'Dell's THE AVIARY, but it is the only fantasy element of this more tightly-focused historical mystery. Almost twelve, Clara has spent her entire life living in the Glendoveer mansion with her mother, the housekeeper for anicent Mrs. Glendoveer. Overprotected and friendless (she's not even allowed to leave the house due to a "bad heart"), Clara is beginning to chafe at the restrictions placed on her life. But a word spoken by one of the birds kept in the backyard aviary soon has Clara and a secret new friend exploring the mystery of the kidnapping and murder of Mrs. Glendoveer's children many decades earlier. Stories of a character from one era (in this case, the late nineteenth century) exploring a family mystery from the past have garnered a lot of Newbery attention in recent years (MOON OVER MANIFEST, WALK TWO MOONS, etc.) and THE AVIARY likely deserves some award consideration as well. Clara is a likable character, slowly and believably asserting her independence for the first time, the plot is suspenseful and exciting, and the novel as a whole is reminiscent of the great books that Zilpha Keatley Snyder published in the late sixties and early seventies -- stories grounded in reality, but with just enough magic to attract fantasy fans as well.


Just when I was dismayed to discover the existence of two Facebook groups called "I Haven't Read Much" and "I Haven't Read Too Many Books Since High School," I was heartened and delighted to learn there is also a Facebook group called "My Favorite Book is THE GIVER."

I don't know if children's author extraordinaire Gary D. Schmidt is a member of that group, but I loved reading the following quote from him:

On my desk are a dictionary and a thesaurus, books by Emerson and Whittier and Longfellow and Darwin, Henry David Thoreau’s journals, a collection of Churchill’s war speeches, two volumes of Shaker hymns, some Tolkien, some Avi, some Katherine Paterson, some Elie Wiesel, THE GIVER, and a statue of a greyhound that has been in my family for four generations.

My own desk is too small and crowded to keep any books on it, but when I lived at my old house, my computer chair backed up to a book shelf where I kept all my M.E. Kerr books within easy reach. Now that I have a library of my own, my M.E. Kerr books are a bit farther away...BUT she also has a special shelving range which, from top to bottom, only contains her books -- an honor afforded no other author in my collection.

Now I have to get up from my desk to reach her books...but they are worth the walk!

What special children's books do you keep on your desk -- or within a handy distance?

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


Daughter Number Three said...

I wonder if the diacritical marks in the goat story are meant to indicate particular sound combinations that are being stressed in that specific lesson? That way, it could be used inconsistently throughout the book.

I agree that's a boring bit of text. It was probably researched and tested to within an inch of its life before printing.

Jenny Schwartzberg said...

As for Rick Yancey's Monstrumologist series, the author announced shortly after that interview that the publisher had agreed to publish a fourth book. I'm not sure if there will be more after that but definitely a fourth book. Disclaimer, I haven't read the series either, just caught echoes of the furor in my general Internet reading.

Anonymous said...

Since the publication of the interview you reference with Bookshelves of Doom, the publisher has agreed to publish a fourth volume in the Monstrumologist series, after a fan write-in campaign that moved Simon & Schuster to reconsider its decision not to publish any more books in the series. As to the larger issue of the Printz Awards, I can only speak for myself. The selection of THE MONSTRUMOLOGIST as an honor book raised it out of obscurity and undoubtedly increased its modest sales. It is my personal opinion that had it not been recognized a fan write-in campaign for more books would have been unsuccessful.
Rick Yancey

ChrisinNY said...

I keep a few favorite children's books in easy reach (and separated from the rest of my stash):
Gone Away Lake (and its sequel)
The Wicked Enchantment
The Diamond in the Window

They are my "go to" books when life, health, boredom or other nasties are problematic.

Laura Canon said...

I was always fascinated by the County/Parish line in the back of the textbook, even after I knew what it was for. It made it seem like life in Louisiana must be so...exotic! Parishes!

Peter D. Sieruta said...

Hi Daughter Number Three,

Yes, isn't it awful? You'd think they could have found a president something more interesting to read during his visit!



Peter D. Sieruta said...

Jenny and Rick,

Thanks for the update on The Monstrumologist issue. I loved the second book and now ocnsider myself a fan of the series.

And thanks for your insight into how the Printz affected the book's sales and popularity, Mr. Yancey. It is good to hear the Printz had more clout than I thought!

Thanks for visiting,


Peter D. Sieruta said...


ME TOO! I almost mentioned the County/Parish thing in the blog, but figured I was the only one who was intrigued by that as a kid! You're right, "exotic" was the word for it!


Peter D. Sieruta said...

Chris in NY,

People keep mentioning THE WICKED ENCHANTMENT to me, but I've never read it. Now that I hear it's one of your "go to" books, I'm definitely going to make a point of reading it!



Bybee said...

I love the woman robber picture!

In my 5th or 6th grade math book, there were several blank spaces on that form in the front of the book. I filled it all in with the names of movie stars and cartoon characters. At the end of the year, the teacher kept me after class and asked if I'd written those names in the book. I said yes. "Get your eraser out," she said.

KateCoombs said...

I own extra copies of a trio of favorite out-of-print books; you know, in case one should manage to disappear. They are Margot Benary-Isbert's The Wicked Enchantment (yep, me too!), Ellen Kindt McKenzie's Taash and the Jesters, and Eleanor Farjeon's The Silver Curlew.

My complete Diana Wynne Jones collection is also close at hand!

Nicole said...

Peter --

I believe the diacritical marks are from DISTAR (among other things, it's used in the beginning lessons of "Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons."

Fawn (Skat the Cat) said...

Maybe these diacritical marks are meant to show some expressions. I think this book has a rich and powerful storyline that you have to take minutes to reflect.

Reading is my Life said...

Within reach of my computer, I have my entire collection of Diana Wynne Jones books, my Patricia Wrede and Sally Watson books, and my battered old Trixie Belden mysteries. Also a dictionary, two thesauruses (thesauri?), a baby name book, and the New York Public Library Desk Reference book. There's more, but those are the ones within reach. (It is a floor to ceiling bookcase though.)

That goat story is awful! One wonders if the president picked the book or if that's the story that particular class had reached in the reader. It's hard to believe there weren't better books at hand!

Anonymous said...

the diacritical marks are the distar orthography. It's goal is teaching kids how to read, not so much to be a good story. The book didn’t win the award as much as the system the author created. The marks are slowly dropped each level as the children master those word. The president read that story because that was the story of the week for that class.