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!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Brunch for September 18

The days are getting shorter and so is the length of today's blog.


I'm missing our hummingbirds!

They've left Michigan on their great migration, so sitting on the deck is now a lot less fluttery and fun. I still haven't taken down the hummingbird feeders, but I should. It's downright depressing to watch ants swandive into a feeder, swim around in the nectar...then drown. Not that I'm feeling much interest in these insects since reading EVERYONE SEES THE ANTS by A.S. King. I loved the author's eccentric PLEASE IGNORE VERA DIETZ, but her new YA novel feels like a flop to me (hey, some ants swandive; others bellyflop.) I'm astonished it's getting starred reviews and great word of mouth. What am I missing? I'll read it again if someone can present a compelling argument.

To celebrate the fall, I've been buying a pot of chrysanthemums every time I go to the grocery store and have lined them up around my teeny-tiny gardening plot:

Twenty minutes after taking this picture, the sun rose over the top of the house and lighted up all the mums like fire. By then I couldn't find my camera.

One of the best parts of autumn is that this is the time of year when we all get serious about book awards. Over at School Library Journal, Nina Lindsay and Jonathan Hunt have started up their Heavy Medal blog, which focuses on the Newbery Award. At the Horn Book, Robin Smith and Lolly Robinson have begun "Calling Caldecott," a blog devoted to you-know-what. And a new blog called Printz Picks plans to focus on possible Printz contenders. Should be a fun fall!


Speaking of the Newbery, one title that seems to be quietly picking up buzz is BLUEFISH by Pat Schamtz. The story concerns new-kid-in-school Travis who, at thirteen, is struggling with the loss of his pet dog, his guardian-grandfather's newfound sobriety, and his own illiteracy. But things slowly start to change when Travis gets help with his reading from an understanding teacher and meets two new classmates -- bullied Bradley and an extroverted funny-girl known as Velveeta, who tells part of the story in first-person sections. The relationship between Travis and Velveeta -- both dealing with loss, alcoholic families, and miscommunication -- is particularly involving. The novel's pared-down prose, larger-than-life, yet completely believable characterizations, and realistically offbeat dialogue are spot-on. (Though if this novel does receive Newbery recognitition, its occasional salty language will leave THE HIGHER POWER OF LUCKY's "scrotumgate" in the dust.) This novel gets so much right on so many levels that the only disappointment lies in the bookmaking. For a story about a kid with reading difficulties, why is the text's font so small? And why are the cover illustration and title (not fully explained until the final chapters) so offputting? Because of these issues, the book may be a hardsell to young readers, but once they open the pages, they'll be hooked by this BLUEFISH.


It's always fun to see the titles of children's books -- whether famous or lesser-known -- appear in other works of ficton. Two titles are mentioned in BLUEFISH. Velveeta is reading Markus Zusak's THE BOOK THIEF while poor reader Travis struggles through Jim Kjelgaard's HAUNT FOX. The latter title is rather surprising since the book has been out of print for many years. However, many of Jim Kjelgaard's other books are still around in paperback. Though not as

popular as they once were, they deserve recognition and rediscovery. Born in 1910, Kjelgaard spent his early adulthood working as a trapper, factory worker, and plumber's assistant before making the decision to write for children. His first book, FOREST PATROL (1941) was based on the experiences of his brother, who wanted to be a forest ranger.

Kjelgaard then began a steady career of writing magazine fiction for adults and as many as five books a year for kids. Most of his work stemmed from his love of nature and animals -- particularly dogs. He's probably best known for a series about three generations in a family of Irish Setters: BIG RED (1945), IRISH RED (1951) and OUTLAW RED (1953.)

Unfortunately, Kjelgaard's life and career were cut short by a mysterious illness whose effects left the author so depressed that he succumbed to suicide at age forty-nine.

Some of his books are available in paperback and at libraries, but I'm hardpressed to think of a contemporary author who writes naturalistic dog stories in a similar style. In fact animal stories (with the exception of humorous talking mouse stories, with three Newbery winners -- Lois Lowry, Cynthia Voigt, and Richard Peck -- all publishing such this year alone!) seem to have fallen out of favor in the past couple decades. Will they ever return?


Thanks to all who wrote in with answers to my query about Janet Lambert books. I'm definitely going to track down some of her books, starting with STAR SPANGLED SUMMER, which so many recommended.

I was especially fascinated by this comment from blog reader CLM:

"One flaw with Lambert for a modern reader is that the men are all groomed for West Point but (other than actress Penny Parrish) the women's role is primarily to support them and they rarely even go to college. As I recall, the one character who attends Barnard dies in a car crash!"

There used to be a legend in YA fiction that gay characters always ended up dying in car accidents. This is the first time I've heard of a character who decides to go to college getting killed in a car crash!

But it started me thinking....

For those of you who are fans of "teen romance novels" of the fifties and sixties written by authors such as Betty Cavanna, Anne Emery, Rosamund DuJardin, and the rest: do the girls in these books usually have career aspirations or do they, like CLM describes in Lambert's books, simply long to be married, have kids, and support their husbands?

I've honestly never read any of those old-school romances. I've read plenty of YA novels from the seventies till today which contain romantic elements, but in those books the girls always seem to have career goals and aspirations of their own. I wonder if that's simply because they were written in a post-feminist period...or if even the 1950s books featured girls who had both career interests and an interest in romance and marriage. And IF girls in novels by Cavanna, et al, longed for both, was that true to the time, or simply done to make the protagonist more interesting? I would think a book in which a girl's only desire is to support her man would be pretty dull. Someone should write a research paper exploring how true such books were to their era.

Come to think of it, someone should write a research paper exploring whether the characterizations of boys were true to their time as well. It seems that in most of the books I read -- even those published in the forties and fifties -- boys had big dreams and lots of goals for the future. Strangely, one of the most honored children's writers of the twentieth century, Joseph Krumgold, wrote against that tide. In his first Newbery winner, ...AND NOW MIGUEL, the protagonist doesn't dream of leaving home for the big city, attending college, or finding a special career; he wants to be a sheep herder like his father. Six years later Krumgold won the Newbery again for ONION JOHN. In this novel, the protagonist's father talks about his son someday going to MIT or becoming an astronaut, while all young Andy wants to do is stay home and run his father's hardware store someday. However, it seems to me that such conventional boys were actually "unconventional" for male characters in fiction even back in the fifties....


I think I've told this embarrassing story before, but it bears repeating with this entry.

Many decades ago, back when RIFLES FOR WATIE was the latest Newbery winner, Mrs. Sieruta went in the hospital and had her first baby -- me. Coming out of the delivery room, she seemed to recall my father saying the baby was a boy. A few hours later she woke up and a little nun (though Mrs. Sieruta wasn't Catholic, the hospital was -- so most of the nurses wore habits) came in carrying the baby. She said, "Here's your brand new daughter!" and my mother said, " husband said it was a boy."

Back then, hospitals put little bracelets on each baby -- blue for boys, pink for girls -- with the baby's last night spelled out in beads.

The nun pointed at my pink bracelet and said, "It's a girl."

My mother said, "Are you sure?"

The nun said, "Well, there's only one way to find out for sure."

She unpinned my diaper and said, "'re right" and handed the new me to the new mom and sat down beside the bed to restring our last name with a set of blue beads.

It's an oft-told tale in our family, but one I've quit telling in recent years because hospital no longer seem to use beads to identify babies. From what I understand, they just wear clear plastic name tags, the same as adult patients.

I did some searching online and the only references to beaded hospital bracelets I could find referred to them as "vintage." (Yeah, I just loved to find out that I'm now "vintage.") But I did find picture frames you can buy for showing off your new baby and the baby's hospital bracelet:

which you will notice is just a plastic band. (Actually, that image is small that the band looks sort of like an EPT test strip which would make areally tacky photo, wouldn't it?)

So...if beaded bracelet and vintage and plastic bands are hip and today, why does the cover of Han Nolan's new, contemporary novel about a teenage mom, PREGNANT PAUSE, feature an old-school bracelet motif?

ARE the beads used anywhere today? Or are modern readers going to look at the cover and thing, "What's THAT supposed to be?"

Are kids going to get it?

Or is putting a beaded bracelet on the cover akin to putting a typewriter on the cover of one of Lauren Myracle's "instant messaging" computer novels?


Look what the owner of my favorite bookstore gave me this week:

I've always known that "cool people read" but it's nice to share that thought with others as I carry around this bookbag!

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

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Because I Grew Up Reading Children's Books...

If you grow up reading children's books, you'll carry enough images and associations with you to last a lifetime.

I thought about that at 5:45 this morning.

Actually, I think about it all the time -- especially since buying a house last year.

I've always heard that you have to make decisions and concessions when you purchase a home. Do you want the house with the huge kitchen or the one with the big backyard? Would you prefer a walk-in closet or an extra bathroom -- you can't have both?

In my case, I wanted a single-story house. Then I discovered one with a basement just right for a library and changed my mind.

I also would have preferred a house with lots of windows, but when I found one that had a back patio facing a beautiful duck pond, I opted for the pond.

I still love the pond but, you know, I sort of miss having windows!

It's not that the front of the house has NO's just that the front window looks out at a tiny courtyard -- and the back of the neighbors' garage. The window in my bedroom looks into the same same courtyard -- and the side of the neighbors' house. Everyone who visits says the same thing: "You're really tucked away back here" or "This house is kinda dark" or "Wow, you are really sequestered from the world!"

Because I grew up reading children's books, my dark windowless existence sometimes has me imagining that I live, like Sam Gribley in MY SIDE OF THE MOUNTAIN, in the dark confines of a hollowed-out tree. Or underground, like the mouse family in MRS. FRISBY AND THE RATS OF NIMH.

Lying in bed at night, I can only see one small square of sky from my bed.

Because I grew up reading children's books, this tiny patch of sky makes me feel like Harriet the Spy or Dave Mitchell from IT'S LIKE THIS, CAT -- New Yorkers who lived in the concrete canyons of Manhattan and could probably only see a postage-stamp view of the sky from their beds as well.

Today at 5:45 AM, I suddenly woke up, almost blinded by bright light. My pillow seemed to be glowing in the dark. It took me a second to realize where the light was coming from. The full moon had risen directly into the small square of sky above my window...

...and the moonlight shining on my pillow had woken me up.

(Okay, that looks more like a sonogram than a brightly lighted bed...but you try finding your camera without turning on any bedroom lights, stubbing your toe in the darkness, clicking your camera's on/off switch, selecting the correct setting, and snapping the shutter -- and then tell me how good your photographic skills are in the pre-dawn darkness!)

Because I grew up reading children's books, the whole scenario reminded me of one of my favorite childhood books. First published in England as THE MAGIC BED-KNOB:

Then later merged with a sequel and published in one volume known as BEDKNOB AND BROOMSTICK:

I've only been awakened by moonlight a few times in my life, but every time it happens I'm reminded of the scene in Mary Norton's novel where three siblings, Carrie, Charles, and Paul, discover the village eccentric, Miss Price, on the lawn with a sprained ankle. As they help her home, Paul carries a broomstick that he found on the ground nearby, explaining to the others that Miss Price must have sprained her ankle falling from it; he'd seen her flying on the broomstick for several nights:

"Paul, why didn't you tell us you'd seen Miss Price on a broomstick?"

"I dunno."

"But, Paul, you ought to have told us. We'd have liked to see it, too. It was very mean of you, Paul."

Paul did not reply.

"When did you see her?"

"In the night."

Paul looked stubborn. He felt as if he might be going to cry. Miss Price always passed so quickly. She would have been gone before he could call anyone, and they would have said at once, "Don't be silly, Paul." Besides, it had been his secret, his nightly joy. His bed was beside the window, and when the moon was full, it shone on his pillow and wakened him. It had been exciting to lie there, with his eyes fixed on the pale sky beyond the ragged blackness of the cedar boughs. Some nights he did not wake up. Other nights he woke up and she did not come. But he saw her often enough, and each time he saw her, she had learned to fly a little better. At first she wobbled so, balanced sideways on the stick, that he wondered why she did not ride astride. She would grip the broomstick with one hand and try to hold her hat on with the other, and her feet, in their long shoes, looked so odd against the moonlit sky. Once she fell -- and the broomstick came down quite slowly, like an umbrella blown inside out with Miss Price clinging to the handle.

Because I grew up reading children's books, I've held that image in my mind for nearly fifty years: the young boy awakened by bright moonlight, the amateur witch learning to fly her broomstick right outside his window....

So is it any wonder that this morning, after being awakened by bright moonlight (and wandering around in the dark and stubbing my toe, and taking those photographs), that, when I finally got back to bed, I continued staring up at the moon floating in that tiny square of sky for another half hour...hoping I'd see Miss Price, or some other amateur witch, flying her broomstick through the night and silhouetted against the moon?

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Sunday Brunch for 9/11/11

Today's Sunday Brunch looks back at 9/11, asks if you've ever heard of an author named Janet Lambert, and gathers together a bunch of comments that tell us where children's writers do their writing.


Just sitting on the deck of my house, I see the world change from day to day. Yesterday morning I saw a green apple fall from one of the trees out back. My tomato plants are starting to shrivel and turn brown, and I worry that we won't have enough warm weather for the remaining tomatoes to ripen. The hummingbirds haven't been to the feeder in two days and I wonder if they've already left us for their great migration. And every night it seems the chirping of crickets gets softer and softer. I know that one evening I'll step outside and hear only silence. It seems so funny that I can note these minute changes on a daily basis, yet huge chunks of time -- such as the ten years between September 11, 2001 and September 11, 2011 -- can pass in a blink.

In fact, it seems like no time has passed at all.

I don't even need to close my eyes to remember exactly how I felt that morning when the world seemed to be falling apart.

You too?

A few weeks later I happened to be in New York and, of course, went to "Ground Zero" which looked exactly the same as it did on TV: with beams and girders sticking into the air like reaching arms and smoke still rising from the ground. The smell was awful...and you could even taste it in your mouth. I can even taste it now if I think about it.

It seems as if I can find a children's book connection to any event -- and that includes 9/11.

Of course, in this case, a children's book was front-and-center during the whole thing that morning.

Remember MY PET GOAT?

It was the book that President Bush was reading to a classroom of Florida students when he was notified of the tragedy.

In a way it's odd how littlepublicity MY PET GOAT received in the days after 9/11. You would have expected it to hit the bestseller list. You would have expected to hear the author interviewed on TV. You might even have expected a tawdry "Special September 11 Edition" of the book.

Yet none of that happened and, even ten years later, details about the book remain murky.

Over time we learned that it wasn't an individual book but rather a short story in a school textbook called READING MASTERY II : STORYBOOK 1 by Siegfried Engelmann and Elaine C. Bruner.

And the media didn't even get the title right! It wasn't MY PET GOAT but, instead, THEPET GOAT. According to Wikipedia, it's "the story of a girl's pet goat that eats everything in its path. The girl's parents want to get rid of the goat, but she defends it. In the end, the goat becomes a hero when it butts a car thief into submission." I'm not even sure who wrote this story. Some attribute it to Engelmann and Bruner, but my experience is that textbook editors generally select short stories from previously published books or assign the writing to freelance authors.

I'd sure love to know who wrote this story which suddenly played a role in one of my important days in a nation's history. And I'd love to read it. I just looked online and discovered that copies of READING MASTERY II : STORYBOOK I are available for as a low as $1.00 a piece. Maybe I should get one for my book collection to represent the day that everything changed for our country.


Most of the 9/11 children's books I've seen have been thin informational volumes geared for school and public libraries.

Can you think of any examples of GREAT September 11 books for kids -- whether picture books, novels, or nonfiction?

FIREBOAT : THE ADVENTURES OF THE JOHN J. HARVEY by Maira Kalman comes to mind.

What else?

LOVE IS THE HIGHER LAW by David Levithan is an interesting YA novel on the subject, but I'm not sure it's a truly great book.

THE MAN WHO WALKED BETWEEN THE TOWERS by Mordicai Gerstein isn't a 9/11 book per se, though this story of the Twin Towers does quietly acknowledge that the towers are now gone. We'll never know, but it's interesting to ponder whether this book would have won the 2004 Caldecott if the events of 2001 had not occurred and the towers were still standing. Did the memory of September 11 play any role in its selection?

Come to think of it, were the events to 9/11 reflected in any Newbery choices?

Four months after September 11, 2001, the Newbery went to a book very far away -- in both time and place -- from what was still so heavy on our hearts and minds. The winner was Linda Sue Park's A SINGLE SHARD, a novel set in 12th century Korea. (On the other hand, the story does concern two pieces of beautiful pottery being senselessly destroyed and the protagonist carrying on despite maybe there's a tiny connection?) Actually, if you look at a list of the ten Newbery winners since September 11, 2001, you'll note that very few take place in contemporary America.

CRISPIN : THE CROSS OF LEAD by Avi and GOOD MASTERS! SWEET LADIES! by Laura Amy Schlitz are set in medieval England; THE TALE OF DESPEREAUX by Kate DiCamillo is a fantasy. Cynthia Kadohata's KIRA-KIRA, Lynne Rae Perkins' CRISS CROSS, Rebecca Stead's WHEN YOU REACH ME, and Clare Vanderpool's MOON OVER MANIFEST are all set in America's past from 1917 to 1979 (with a bit of the future included in WHEN YOU REACH ME.) The only two Newbery winners set in the present day since 2001 are THE GRAVEYARD BOOK by Neil Gaiman and THE HIGHER POWER OF LUCKY by Susan Patron, though reviews of both books pointed out that these stories seemed to take place in another that the occasional mention of computers and cellphones actually seemed jarring. I'd like to draw some grand conclusion from all this, suggesting that we're still shying away from the post-9/11 world -- but then the Newbery always has had a lot of historical fiction winners, so perhaps that would be unfair.

I've been on Facebook for a few months now (feel free to "friend" me unless you're a mean person -- in which case, don't bother) and posited this question: "Did 9/11 have any effect on young adult fiction?" then offered my own theory: "I'm thinking of the untold number of YA dystopian novels featuring teenagers trying to survive in barren, wasted worlds after the "ultimate disaster" has occurred. And what of the other literary phenomenon of the past decade: vampires? More than scary stories of horror (and romance), do they really represent a longing to avoid death through supernatural immortality?"

Jenny S. replied: "Personally I think it's a combination of 9/11, anxieties about global warming, Afghanistan and Iraq, political and economic turmoil, etc. that have contributed to the general angst that makes dystopian novels generally very popular in this time period."

Sean B. replied: "I think the popularity of dystopian and vampire themes pre-dates 9/11. I remember reading Noah's Castle way back in the late 70s and the Anne Rice books in the 80s. 9/11 has probably contributed to the dystopian fad, but I think its been growing in popularity for a long time. First the cause was the Cold War, then overpopulation, now global warming. And vampires have become more and more trendy as we've become more youth-oriented (tho I confess...I do still love The Lost Boys...)"

Yes, I know that both genres have been around for decades, but I do find it odd (and somehow telling) that dystopian and vampire books have been pretty much taken over the YA field in the past ten years.

Facebook friend Liz B. offered this: "I just have to mention Mal Peet's new novel, LIFE : AN EXPLODED DIAGRAM in this context. Spanning 1960s to 2001, it's an exploration of how war affects subsequent generations, how love can survive maiming and brutality, how one's personal life is shaped by huge political events. And it is a dream to read."

Hmm...could THIS be the great September 11 novel I've been looking for?

I happen to have a galley that my bookstore friend gave me. I plan to start reading it this afternoon.

Seems like a fitting day for it.


Although the novel begins on September 10, 2001 and is set not far from the Pennsylvania crash site of Flight 93, Edward Bloor's A PLAGUE YEAR concerns a different American tragedy: the effect of methamphetamine addiction on a small town. The story is narrated by Tom Coleman, a junior high student whose main goal is to attend college in Florida and leave Blackwater, PA, far behind. During a school year in which his class studies Daniel Defoe's JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEAR and performs a play about that seventeenth-century catastrophe, Tom watches as a meth crisis consumes his hometown, bringing with it violence and murder while turning friends and neighbors into "zombies." Bloor's novels are always ambitious -- stuffed with subplots, characters, and thought-provoking insights. A PLAGUE YEAR is no exception. The author is painting a large landscape here, rather than a small portrait, so the story is overpopulated (readers may need to keep a list of who's who), filled with big scenes (including more than one major robbery at the grocery store where Tom works) and seems to be written in a purposefully-exaggerated way. How else to explain that nearly every person in Tom's life seems to be struggling with some form of substance abuse? Yet despite the novel's heightened reality and narrative sprawl, there are occasional lowkey moments involving family dynamics, friendship, romance, and personal hypocrisy which are stunningly limned. It's a scary, emotionally-draining ride and although I just finished it yesterday, I already want to read this powerful novel again.


Looking at Edward Bloor's website today, I made an interesting discovery.

In addition to the Bloor novels so many of us know and love (including TANGERINE, CRUSADER, and TAKEN), he has also written a novel available only in the e-book format.

It's called MEMORY LANE and is described this way:

Memory Lane, America’s most popular new theme park, promises to provide its guests with “golden memories.” Choose any week—from 1950 to the present—and Memory Lane will recreate it for you in amazing detail: the foods, the clothes, the TV shows, even the schools. You will soon forget about the present and start living in the past.

But is that a good idea?

Alice hopes Memory Lane will provide a week of personal healing and of family bonding. Instead, Alice and her cousins Patrick and TJ find themselves struggling with a pair of psychotic bullies, and with the pain of young love, and with a shocking family secret that was, perhaps, better left buried in the past.

Smart, funny, and frightening, Memory Lane is Edward Bloor’s most powerful and insightful novel to date.

Gee, now I want to read it. But I like books with paper pages. I hope I'm not going to have to break down and get a Kindle just to keep up with all my favorite authors in the future!


My brother sent me an e-mail the other day asking me the value of a first-edition of Road Dahl's CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY.

The question was asked on a TV quiz show.

I didn't have a clue, but guessed $500.

Boy, was I wrong!

My brother wrote back to say that, according to the quiz show, the correct answer was $4000.

I then did some searching on the internet and discovered that while some first editions of this book are available in the $4000 range, there are also some in the $8000 to $12,000 range!

And if your copy is signed by Roald Dahl it may be worth as much as $19,000!

I don't have a copy of this book myself -- not even a paperback.

But if you have a hardcover copy, hurry over to the shelf to see if you have a first edition. From what I've read, it must be published in the United States by Knopf in 1964 (strangely, it was published here in America three years before it was published in England.) The binding is red, the lettering on the spine is gold, and the top edges of the pages are stained red. There must be no ISBN on the dustjacket and the publishers' colophon, found on the last page of the book, contains six lines of text. Later printings only contain five lines.

If your copy meets those specifications...congrats!

And if it's also signed by Roald Dahl...BIG congrats!


I recently came across a small collection of dustjackets by a teen writer from the 1950s and 1960s named Janet Lambert.

I must admit, I never heard of her.

Of course I wasn't around in the 1950s...well, I wasn't around for most of that decade, but I spent much of the sixties in public and school libraries and don't ever recall seeing the author's name either. Of course they are not the kinds of books I probably would have read in the sixties, but you'd think I would have picked up the name by osmosis -- the way I know Betty Cavanna, Adele DeLeeuw, Rosamund Dujardin and other romance writers of the era by name without having read any of their books.

Anyway, I figured Janet Lambert must have been less popular than those other gals since I never heard of her before.

Then I did some searching online and discovered that her novels are very collectable. No, they're not up there in CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY territory, but first editions of the Lambert books are often in the $300 price range.

Who knew?

According to Wikipedia, she wrote 54 novels between 1941 and 1969 and most appear to be included in small series such as the "Penny Parrish" series, the "Jordan Famiy" series, and several others. I'm wondering now if her books did not appear in my libraries because they were considered "series books" or if they were there and I just didn't notice them.

Was Janet Lambert a widely popular author or a "niche" author beloved by a select few?

Based on their value today, her books are still sought after by collectors today. There are even a couple webpages devoted to them. And it appears that a few were even republished in paperback during the past decade.

Has anyone read these books?

What did you think of them?


I was amused to read what author Fran Manushkin listed as a her occupation on her Facebook page: "Writing in bed as a full-time children's book writer."

This got me wondering where other children's authors do their writing.

Poking around on the internet today, I came up with these answers:

Tricia Springstubb (author of MO WREN, LOST AND FOUND): "the library where I work in the children’s room. I’m very strict about all this! I have a desk by a window that looks out on the street, so I can watch people go by."

Gary D. Schmidt (OKAY FOR NOW) : "I have a study in a small outbuilding away from the house. It has a desk, a lamp, more books than should be in any one room, and a woodstove. I work at a typewriter, and keep lots of scrap paper around me. This means, by the way, that if anything comes out pretty awful, I can just open the woodstove and burn it all. The feeling of relief is remarkable."

Ellen Wittlinger (HARD LOVE): "I have a small writing room in my home. It's overcrowded with books and papers, but it's my nest."

Maggie Stiefvater (SHIVER) : "Anywhere, so long as I have my headphones on. I do have a lovely desk that I spend a lot of time at, but I write on planes and couches and floors as well."

Jack Gantos (DEAD END IN NORVELT) : :"I have an office at home where I write. Plus I travel a lot (I visit students in schools and at book conferences) and so I write on airplanes, in restaurants and coffee shops, and just about anywhere an idea strikes me. I always have a pen and journal in my pocket so I write when the idea is fresh to me."

Sandra Scoppettone (TRYING HARD TO HEAR YOU) : "I always thought it would be wonderful to write in a diner or a cafe, but I've never been able to do it. What I do is to sit down at my desk in my office at about 9 in the morning and write until about noon or one."

Eion Colfer (ARTEMIS FOWL) : "I write in my office in the garden. It is close to the house but even crossing the garden is enough for me to feel I am going to work."

Betsy Byars (SUMMER OF THE SWANS) : :"When I started writing, I was living in a very small apartment with my husband and two little daughters. I wrote on the kitchen table. I'd keep my typewriter beside my place, and I'd push it aside to eat and then pull it back in front of me. Now I have a studio and a computer, but anyone who really wants to write will find a place."


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