This morning is gray and cold. The wind is whistling down the chimney. I just went out on the deck and watched four honking geese come in for a splash-landing in the pond. Meanwhile, a squirrel was chasing up and down the limbs of a bare tree, as if trying to find his way out of a maze. It's a "coming of winter" morning, as Truman Capote would say -- which is the reason I'm starting off today's blog with Capote's "A Christmas Story." I know, it's a little early in the season, but I didn't want to start with my Joe Paterno entry. That comes later -- along with other random stuff about children's books old and new.
IT'S FRUITCAKE WEATHER
Imagine a morning in late November. A coming of winter morning more than twenty years ago. Consider the kitchen of a spreading old house in a country town. A great black stove is its main feature; but there is also a big round table and a fireplace with two rocking chairs placed in front of it. Just today the fireplace commenced its seasonal roar.
A woman with shorn white hair is standing at the kitchen window. She is wearing tennis shoes and a shapeless gray sweater over a summery calico dress. She is small and sprightly, like a bantam hen; but, due to a long youthful illness, her shoulders are pitifully hunched. Her face is remarkable—not unlike Lincoln’s, craggy like that, and tinted by sun and wind; but it is delicate too, finely boned, and her eyes are sherry-colored and timid. “Oh my,” she exclaims, her breath smoking the windowpane, “it’s fruitcake weather!”
Yeah, I know Truman Capote's "A Christmas Memory" isn't technically a work for children. In fact, its mix of nostalgia and poignancy is probably best appreciated by adults. But it does feature a child protagonist, and every kid in the United States probably reads it in a school textbook before they're twelve-years-old. And, in 2006, fifty years after its original publication in an adult magazine, the story made its debut as a children's book:
It's one of my all-time favorites and if the above passage made you want to read it again or (where have you been?) read it for the first time, you can even read it on the internet, here or here. I'm not sure who posted the story and I'm sure it's all kinds of illegal, but it's out there so you might as well read.
If you're around my age, you may remember the wonderful (and wonderfully faithful) 1960s TV special made from this story. Geraldine Page won an Emmy for her performance. If you want to revisit the movie, or see it for the first time, it's available in six parts on Youtube:
I must admit I was a bit put off by one of the first viewer comments is from a kid who says, "im watching this cause my homework nd i dont like 2 read."
If you think it's still too early for Christmas memories, you might prefer Capote's other holiday classic, "A Thanksgiving Visitor." This story was also originally published for adults, but was co-opted for kids with this 1996 illustrated edition:
It was also made into a TV movie, for which Geraldine Page won her second Emmy. And it's also available on Youtube in five parts, starting here:
FROM THE SUBLIME TO THE RIDICULOUS
If you've been following the shocking and shameful events at Penn State this past week, you may have had an experience similar to mine.
Reading Joe Paterno's biography on the Wikipedia, I noticed the different "categories" were Paterno's name is included:
Penn State Nittany Lions football coaches
people of Italian descent
American children's book writers
Children's book writers?
Though it's undoubtedly strange to see him listed there between Dillwyn Parrish and Katherine Paterson, he made the list by virtue of this 2007 children's book he wrote with his wife Sue:
He was also the subject of a 1974 children's book SIX DAYS TO SATURDAY by Jack Newcombe:
Jerry Sandusky, the criminal at the center of this case (oh, I shouldn't say that because he's "innocent until found guilty"? Sue me for slander) also wrote a book, although thankfully it's not a children's book.
Talk about flaunting it.
Talk about hiding in plain sight.
When I first looked this book up on Amazon.com last weekend there were only a couple customer reviews.
Now there are over one hundred.
Few, if any, of those reviews are from people who have actually read the book. Most are just using the space to comment on the Penn State case. I find this fascinating. I've bemoaned the fact that when bookstores close, folks can't find a place to share their thoughts and opinions with like-minded people -- "book people." It looks like they have found a way now...by visiting online bookstores.
I was sorry to hear about the death of Family Circus creator earlier this week. Although he never illustrated a children's book, his newspaper comic usually provided either laughs or smiles of recognition in its depictions of how kids think and feel. (Though he did run to those "Ida Know" and "Not Me" into the ground, didn't he?)
He also produced some cartoons that advocated literacy. My co-writer Julie Walker Danielson shared this one with me:
and now here is one I'm sharing with Julie -- and you:
R.I.P., Mr. Keane.
HEAVY MEDAL SHORTLIST
Over at the Heavy Medal blog , Jonathan Hunt and Nina Lindsay have announced their Newbery shortlist. The titles are:
THE ADVENTURES OF SIR GAWAIN THE TRUE by Gerald Morris
AMELIA LOST by Candice Fleming
HEART & SOUL by Kadir Nelson
I BROKE MY TRUNK by Mo Willems
THE MONEY WE’LL SAVE by Brock Cole
A MONSTER CALLS by Patrick Ness
OKAY FOR NOW by Gary Schmidt
PENDERWICKS AT POINT MOUETTE by Jeanne Birdsall
THE TROUBLE WITH MAY AMELIA by Jennifer Holm
WONDERSTRUCK by Brian Selznick
How'd you do?
I was tickled to read Jonathan's later comments about three titles that almost made the cut:
PIE by Sarah Weeks
MO WREN, LOST AND FOUND by Tricia Springstubb
NEVER FORGOTTEN by Patricia McKissack
It was like hearing rumors about which titles almost, but not quite, become Honor Books for the Newbery.
SEUSS BY WHO?
Last night on ANTIQUES ROADSHOW an original drawing by Dr. Seuess was valued at $6000. The appraiser went on to mention that there are a number of fakes on the market. Checking the ROADSHOW's website, I found this article which states that as many as 80% of the "Seuss" drawings in circulation are fakes. The article gives some tips on separating the real stuff from the phony.
Blog reader and bookseller Pamela Grath from Dog Ear Books in Northport, Michigan recently wrote a blog entry about two of her favorite childhood books, BEYOND THE PAWPAW TREES and its sequel, THE SILVER NUTMEG, both written and illustrated by Palmer Brown.
After reading her enthusiastic comments, I wanted to get my hands on these books myself. Fortunately, my library had both titles in stock.
Published in 1954, BEYOND THE PAWPAW TREES is the story of Anna Lavinia, a young girl with a wandering father and a mother who stays home all cooking pawpaws. Torn between her mother's motto, "Never believe what you see," and her father's rule, "Only believe what you see," Anna Lavinia lives a strange claustrophic life, never attending school, never even leaving her family's property. Then comes the strange "lavender blue" day when Anna's mother sends her daughter off to visit an aunt in a remote location. The girl's adventures traveling on a train and through a desert by camel are nonsense of the first order. I must admit that I am not a fan of nonsense fiction at all. I'm far too literal minded. In fact, reading the book, I wondered if a brief reference to Anna Lavinia being locked in a broom closet by her mother as a punishment was the key to the story; could her fanciful adventures be nothing but the dreams of a captive child? Whatever the case, BEYOND THE PAW PAW
TREES is nonetheless distingusihed by its lyrical language, songs and poems (the book is full of them) and precise line drawings. If you do a search around the internet, you will see that many, many people love this book. First editions cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Its 1956 sequel, THE SILVER NUTMEG, also has a cult following. This one is more a fantasy than a nonsense story, as Anna Lavinia discovers another world on the other side of the Dew Pond, where she makes a new friend and solves a romantic mystery. Once again, the language shines, as in this passage describing the tingling feeling of life on the other side of the water:
It was something like the touch of clean cool sheets after a bath on a hot susmmer night, or the smell of the first burning leaves in atuumn. It was like the taste of the first wild strawberry in springtime, or the sound of a train's whistle far off at midnight in winter. It was a little, too, like the tickle before a sneeze, or the thrill that comes when the knot in the ribbon of a gift just begins to loosen. It was like all these things rolled together, ony it was even better.
If you have a taste for whimsical stories, filled with beautiful imagery (a hedgehog floating into a yard on a windy day) and precise, exquisite drawings, these books are for you. The good news is that you don't even need to track them down in unweeded library collections or spend hundreds for a used copy. The New York Review of Books recently reissued PAWPAWS and NUTMEG will be re-released next spring.
Since reading the two Anna Lavinia books, I have been trying to track down information about author-illustrator Palmer Brown.
Strangely, there is almost nothing out there.
So far I've learned that he was born in 1919, educated at Swarthmore College and got a Master's from the University of Pennsylvania, and served four years in the military during WWII. No word about a family, hobbies, avocations.
One source said that he didn't begin drawing until he wrote PAWPAWS and decided to illustrate the book. Another source included this quote about his first book, "“If it has any moral at all, it is hoped that it will always be a deep secret between the author and those of his readers who still know that believing is seeing.”
Although his Contemporary Authors bio lists his career as "Illustrator and author of children's books," and adds that he contributed to WOMAN'S DAY and GOURMET magazines, is it really possible to make a lifetime living from just five middle-selling books (in addition to the two above, he also wrote three stories about mice: CHEERFUL (1957), SOMETHING FOR CHRISTMAS (1958) and HICKORY (1978.) What to make of the twenty year gap between the last two books? Why didn't he ever illustrate books for other authors? How come he never published a collection of poetry and verse since his novels contain so much of it?
These are some of the questions I'd love to ask this now-92 year-old author.
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