Sunday, October 30, 2011

Sunday Brunch with Watercolors, Rachel Field, Tickletown, Halloween, and Teenage Girls Trying to Keep Their Heads Above the Water

I guess this blog entry requires no introduction; the title tells you everything you need to know.


Does anyone remember INTERIORS, Woody Allen's extremely serious 1978 movie -- regarded by many as an homage to Ingmar Bergman?

Most audience members left the theater feeling like they wanted to jump off a tall building or stick their head in the nearest oven.

I left thinking, "Gee, I really identify with the character of Joey."

I'd like to report that the character of "Joey" was an intelligent, wealthy, and debonair man-about-town, beloved by all.

In actuality, "Joey" was a mousy middle-aged woman played by the bespetacled Mary Beth Hurt. She was depressed and looked-down-upon because she had a creative spirit, but absolutely no artistic talent.

I can relate.

I've tried all kinds of things: writing, playwriting, gluing together felt Santa Claus figures...I've never been much good at any of it, despite having a creative spirit that impels me to keep trying such things.

It would be bad enough if I confined these creative endeavors to some little basement studio -- but no! I always have to put them out there for everyone to see. So everyone saw the one-star (one out of four) review my play got when it was reviewed in the local newspaper. And everyone sees my felt-and-yarn Santa Claus when I hang it on the wall every Christmas. ("Oh, that' Did you make that in kindergarten?" "Actually, I was nineteen years old.")

My Facebook friends (feel free to "friend" me at "Peter Sieruta" on Facebook) heard about -- and sometimes saw photographs of -- the succession of test pies I made this past summer. That story had a happy ending when Sarah Weeks -- author of the new middle-grade novel PIE -- praised my lattice-topped sour cherry pie at a booksigning. This made me realize that, while practice doesn't necessarily "make perfect," it does make things better.

So now I've embarked on another creative endeavor. When I moved into this house, I thought, "Oh, I'll just paint my own pictures to put on the walls." Never mind that I'd never painted any pictures before -- it looked easy! So I went out and bought a wooden watercolor kit that had little drawers and latches and even a fold-out easel. A year passed and the walls are still bare. So about a month ago, I finally cracked open the kit and every weekend since I've painted a "test picture" -- just like all summer I baked "test pies" -- in preparation for the day that I'm finally ready to do a big painting to put over the fireplace. At the rate I'm going, I think I'll be ready in a hundred and twenty-three years.

This was my first painting:

Someone on Facebook asked if the crossing guard was suicidal and getting ready to jump from a ledge.

I used a photo of two childhood friends to inspire my second painting:

Can't tell you how glad I am that these friends are not on Facebook.

Used another old photo for Test Pic #3, which I titled "Borrowed Cat":

Friends suggested I either try drawing it upside down or get a copy of the book DRAWING WITH THE LEFT SIDE OF YOUR BRAIN. I haven't tracked down the book yet, but I did try it again, using the upside-down technique, which seemed to help:

Yesterday, I painted this one, inspired by my brother's memory of baking potatoes in curbside bonfires when we were kids -- back before ecology was an issue and burning autumn leaves was banned:

The first person I showed it to didn't "get" the whole baked potato thing and suggested I write "POTATO" in the middle of the painting and then draw arrows pointing to each of the kids' hands. Obviously, this same person would have told Whistler to write "MOTHER" in the center of his painting and then draw an arrow pointing to the old lady in the rocker!

Anyway, what's the point of this whole "art exhibit," since it has nothing to do with children's books?

Nothing, really, except I know that when many of us re-read childhood favorites, we're taken back to the world of our youth. I've found that painting these pictures from my own childhood (however badly!) also takes me back to those days. I remembered "borrowing" that cat from a neighbor to take the porch photograph forty years ago. When painting the bonfire picture, I remembered how the leaves smelled in the fire and how charred our potatoes would get in the fire. I remembered how black the smoke was and how it hurt to breathe. So many people I know -- my contemporaries! -- tell me they can't remember going to kindergarten, or can't remember the names of childhood friends. I guess I'm trying to "save" mine now, on paper, before I start forgetting too.

I don't just collect children's books...I also collect memories.


Last year at this time I shared the cover image of the October 1934 issue of CHILD LIFE magazine. I found it in a book of vintage Halloween art and was surprised to see that this one issue alone had work from at least three Caldecott winners (Dorothy Lathrop and Berta and Elmer Hader) as well as two Newbery winners, Rachel Field and Dorothy Lathrop:

Since then I have acquired a copy of the magazine itself. It's considerably more dogearred and tattered than the one pictured above, but it's still a lot of fun to look at -- especially at Hallween time.

The cooking column was written by Clara Ingram Judson, who is listed as "a well-known expert on home economics," who would later be better known as three-time Newbery Honor biographer. In this issue she provides a fruit salad recipe that contains "equal parts of whipped cream and mayonnaise."

Ah, so we finally know who to blame for our long midwestern nightmare -- that potluck, office party, church social staple: ambrosia salad!

Who knew a children's book author was behind it?

The other thing that surprised me about Ms. Judson's column is that it doesn't contain all the usual warnings that would have been found in our kid-cautious era. It's full of instructions to "light the stove," "dice fruit," and pour things into "boiling hot liquid."

Can you imagine this column today? "Ask an adult to turn on the stove," "have mom cut up the fruit for you," "stay away from boiling liquids!"

I was also tickled by Tickletown -- a monthly two-page comic strip by Lois Lenski. In this edition, the children of Tickletown celebrate Cabbage Night (their version of Devil's Night) by putting Deacon Dandelion's garden bench on Old Lady Bluenose's porch roof. On Halloween, Peter Prunepit has a party where "the boys ducked for apples and ate pumpkin pie." Walking home they see a ghost, which turns to be Farmer Sauerkraut's white horse."

Beneath the comic strip we are told in teeny-tiny print:

"Moral note: The Tickletown sisters, the Tickletown brothers
Deserve to be scared, for they scare others!"

The ads are also intriguing. I was particularly struck by this one, pitching Remington Typewriters for elementary grade children. I've never seen typewriters suggested for kids that young. When I was in school, we learned to print in firs grade, learned cursive in fourth grade, and didn't see a typewriter until ninth grade at the earliest.

Nowadays, of course, keyboarding actually is taught in elemenatary schools -- though on computers, and typewriters -- while cursive has been done away with completely.


Although much of CHILD LIFE seems dated today, a two-page drawing by Dorothy Lathrop which frames Rachel Field's poem "Something Told the Geese," still holds up well toay.

Thinking about Rachel Field's (1894-1942) contributions to literature today, I'm convinced she was one of the most gifted and wide-ranging writers of the twentieth-century. This is especially impressive when you consider she didn't even learn to read until she was ten years old. Except for reading and writing, she was an unimpressive pupil and was only allowed to enter Radcliffe College as a "special student," studying writing but not allowed in a degree program. She was also permitted to spend two years in a playwriting program at Harvard. Most of her plays were written for children and she earned enough from drama royalties to buy a cottage (which she named "Playhouse") on the coast of Maine.

Her output was extraordinary. She published plays, poetry, and novels for children -- ofen as many as four volumes a year. Some she illustrated herself. She is best known today for HITTY: HER FIRST HUNDRED YEARS, a story told from the perspective of a wooden doll. She and illustrator Dorothy Lathrop first noticed the doll in the window of an antique shop and pooled their money to purchase it. The book they created about Hitty was acknowledged as an instant classic. It was the first book by a female writer to win the Newbery Medal; some sources also say it was the first book with American themes to win that award. (Personally, I think that honor goes to Will James' SMOKY, published three years earlier.) Among her other famed chilren's book are the Newbery Honor CALICO BUSH (1931) and the lesser-known but no less brilliant circus novel HEPATICA HAWKS (1932.) She also wrote the poem "Prayer for a Child" which, published as a stand-alone volume, won the 1945 Caldecott Medal for illustrator Elizabeth Orton Jones.

Ms. Field did not marry until she was past forty. She and her husband would later adopt a daughter named Hannah. Although she continued to write for children, the author switched focus to adult novels at this point, publishing TIME OUT OF MIND (1935), ALL THIS, AND HEAVEN TOO (1938), and AND NOW TOMORROW (1942.) All three were made into movies (ALL THIS, AND HEAVEN TOO, with Bette Davis is especially great...and, speaking of Halloween, has a nice little "All Hallow's Eve" sequence) and the later two books were considered strong contenders for the Pulitzer Prize.

Rachel Field died of pneumonia after cancer surgery in 1942. She was only 47 and we can only imagine how many other brilliant works she might have written had she lived another few decades. Maybe that's just greedy thinking, though, since she left us wih so many lasting works.

And I am still left wondering if we've ever had another creator with such wide-ranging talent: plays, poetry, children's fiction, adult novels, a Newbery, a Newbery Honor, a Caldecott text, two Pulitzer contenders -- plus she illustrated many of her own books!

I'm also wondering if anyone can answer three questions I have about this author:

Does anyone know where the original Hitty doll is? Is she owned by a library or museum?

Does anyone know what happened to her daughter Hannah?

Finally, I've read that Ms. Field was well-loved by her friends for designing personalized Christmas cards, and for giving them copies of her own books which, originally printed in black-and-white, she had hand illustrated with oolor paints. Has any collector ever come across any of these cards or books? Wouldn't it be a coup to find one?


Some authors seem to disappear into thin air.

Such was the case with Dale Carlson, an author who published her first children's book in 1964 and released books fairly consistently through the next couple decades.

I was particularly fond of the offbeat books she published with Atheneum in the 1970s, including THE MOUNTAIN OF TRUTH (1972), about a camp for young people in the mountains of Tibet, THE HUMAN APES (1973), about a group of humans disguising themselves as apes, and BABY NEEDS SHOES (1974), which revolved around the subject of gambling. THE MOUNTAIN OF TRUTH was considered particularly daring, as I recall, because one of the young characters was labelled "a practicing homosexual" -- probably the first time that phrase was ever used in a mainstream novel for kids. Although Ms. Carlson continued to publish into the 1980s, she eventually disappeared from the scene.

The other day I was roaming around the web and found her!

Since 1993, Dale Carlson Bick has been running the Bick Publishing House.

According to the company's website:

The mission of Bick Publishing House for Teens/Young Adults is to relate modern science and its ethics, communications arts, philosophy, psychology to the teenager's world, so they can make their own responsible decisions about their own lives and future. The Life Sciences books in the series are presented with accessible texts, with glossary of terms, illustrations, index, resources, bibliography,websites.

The mission of Bick Publishing House for Adults is to bring professional information to the general audience in mental illness and recovery, addictions and recovery, in the art of living with disabilities, and in wildlife rehabilitation.

I was intrigued to see that Bick has re-issued many of Dale Carlson's earlier books. Yes, the cover illustrations aren't up to standard:

but I'm sure the novels are still as odd and intriging as they were in the seventies.

If you have fond memories of this author and her books, you might want to track them down too.


Looking through a stack of recent YA novels, I noticed a strange trend in cover illustations:

Stay out of the water, girls. Even bathtubs are dangerous places in the world of YA fiction:


Earlier this week friend sent me this link to a Publishers Weekly article about the large rise in sales for e-books.

But I was most struck by this ent by Karen Chase, who has apparenty published her own novel as an e-book:

My belief is the publishing cycle will reverse from what it has been. Authors and publishers will put out an e-book, then paperback, then hardcover or special editions. It makes more sense to launch books softly, gain the following, and then invest when readers cry for more.

I never thought of that before. Do you think Karen Chase is right that publishing may turn things around, first releasing e-books and only publishing special edition hard covers if the market demands?

I'd hate for that to happen.

But in this topsy-turvey new world of publishing, anything is possible....

Thanks for visiting Collecting Children's Books. Hope you'll be back soon. And I hope Halloween brings you a cup of cider, a bag of candy corn, and a nice bright candle for reading ghost stories in the dead of night!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Missing Moms and Deleted Dads : Newbery's Orphans

Psst, want a quick tip on how to win the Newbery Medal?

Kill the parents.

It's the surest way to get your book that seal of gold.

Don't believe me?

Well, just take a look at a list of all ninety Newbery winners from 1922 to 2011. You've got enough parentless protagonists there to fill up an orphanage, plus a couple foster homes.

Before citing specific examples, I guess we need to exclude certain genres from our list. Let's start by removing nonfiction and biographical titles. Some of the subjects of these biographies were indeed orphans in real life, but the authors really had no choice in the matter; they had to work with the known facts. So we're getting rid of:

1922: The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Willem van Loon
1934: Invincible Louisa by Cornelia Meigs
1940: Daniel Boone by James Daugherty
1951: Amos Fortune, Free Man by Elizabeth Yates
1956: Carry On, Mr. Bowditch by Jean Lee Latham
1966: I, Juan de Pareja by Elizabeth Borton de Trevino
1988: Lincoln: A Photobiography by Russell Freedman

Next we need to cut folklore, short stories, and poetry from the list. So we'll say goodbye to:

1925: Tales from Silver Lands by Charles Finger
1926: Shen of the Sea by Arthur Bowie Chrisman
1938: The White Stag by Kate Seredy
1982: A Visit to William Blake's Inn by Nancy Willard
1989: Joyful Noise by Paul Fleischman

Animal and doll stories should also be excluded since only a few of these books mention the family backgrounds of their characters:

1927: Smoky, the Cowhorse by Will James
1928: Gay Neck, the Story of a Pigeon by Dhan Gopal Mukerji
1930: Hitty, Her First Hundred Years by Rachel Field
1931: The Cat Who Went to Heaven by Elizabeth Coatsworth
1945: Rabbit Hill by Robert Lawson
1947: Miss Hickory by Carolyn Sherwin Bailey
1949: King of the Wind by Marguerite Henry
1972: Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O'Brien
2004: The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo

The final genre we can omit are "ensemble novels" -- narratives in which a large number of characters play fairly equal roles. Some of these characters may come from two-parent families while others are missing a parent:

1948: The Twenty-One Balloons by William Pène du Bois
1955: The Wheel on the School by Meindert DeJong
1979: The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
1997: The View from Saturday by E.L. Konigsburg
2006: Criss Cross by Lynne Rae Perkins
2008: Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! by Laura Amy Schlitz

This leaves us with a total of 63 novels, certainly a large enough number to provide an adequte statistical sampling.

Would you believe the 34 of these 63 novels feature protagonists who are either missing a mother, a father, or both?

It's true.

Here's the list of books in which the mother is either dead or permanently "out of the picture":

1941: Call It Courage by Armstrong Sperry
1943: Adam of the Road by Elizabeth Janet Gray
1961: Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell
1967: Up a Road Slowly by Irene Hunt
1971: Summer of the Swans by Betsy Byars
1973: Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George
1980: A Gathering of Days by Joan W. Blos
1985: The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley
1986: Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan
1995: Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech
1998: Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse
2011: Moon over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool

Here are the books where Dad is dead or gone:

1924: The Dark Frigate by Charles Hawes
1933: Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze by Elizabeth Lewis
1935: Dobry by Monica Shannon
1962: The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth George Speare
1974: The Slave Dancer by Paula Fox
1983: Dicey's Song by Cynthia Voigt
2010: When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

And the largest category: orphans, or kids whose parents (like Lucinda's in ROLLER SKATES) may be alive but do not appear in the story:

1937: Roller Skates by Ruth Sawyer
1944: Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes
1953: Secret of the Andes by Ann Nolan Clark
1959: The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare
1962: The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth George Speare
1969: The High King by Lloyd Alexander
1987: The Whipping Boy by Sid Fleischman
1991: Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli
1993: Missing May by Cynthia Rylant
1996: The Midwife's Apprentice by Karen Cushman
2000: Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis
2002: A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park
2003: Crispin: The Cross of Lead by Avi
2007: The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron
2009: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

That leaves us with only 29 titles in ninety years in which the protagonists has both parents:

1923: The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting
1929: The Trumpeter of Krakow by Eric P. Kelly
1932: Waterless Mountain by Laura Adams Armer
1936: Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink
1939: Thimble Summer by Elizabeth Enright
1942: The Matchlock Gun by Walter Edmonds
1946: Strawberry Girl by Lois Lenski
1950: The Door in the Wall by Marguerite de Angeli
1952: Ginger Pye by Eleanor Estes
1954: ...And Now Miguel by Joseph Krumgold
1957: Miracles on Maple Hill by Virginia Sorensen
1958: Rifles for Watie by Harold Keith
1960: Onion John by Joseph Krumgold
1963: A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle
1964: It's Like This, Cat by Emily Neville
1968: From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg
1970: Sounder by William H. Armstrong
1975: M. C. Higgins, the Great by Virginia Hamilton
1976: The Grey King by Susan Cooper
1977: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor
1978: Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
1981: Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson
1984: Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary
1990: Number the Stars by Lois Lowry
1992: Shiloh by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
1994: The Giver by Lois Lowry
1999: Holes by Louis Sachar
2001: A Year Down Yonder by Richard Peck
2005: Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata

But that number is cut even further when you consider how many of the protagonists on that list may have both parents, but spend most of the book separated from them (such as Tommy Stebbins off voyaging with Doctor Dolittle -- not to mention the young people in RIFLES FOR WATIE A WRINKLE IN TIME, FROM THE MIXED UP FILES..., THE GREY KING, HOLES, and A YEAR DOWN YONDER.) Then there are those who have both parents, but are not with both of them, including the heroes of DEAR MR. HENSHAW and SOUNDER who are separated from their fathers.)

Of course there is a reason for all of this.

Creating a protagonist who is missing one or both parents establishes immediate conflict and gives the young character an emotional edge.

It also gives this character the independence and autonomy to have adventures without those stuffy old adults getting their noses into the act.

Can you imagine Mrs. Kincaid hanging out with Claudia and Jamie at the Met, telling them to stay out of that dirty fountain water and keep their hands off those coins -- stealing is wrong?

Or Mr. Yelnats shadowing Stanley at Camp Green Lake, threatening to sue the warden for mistreating his kid?

Wouldn't work.

Still, it's quite amazing to think -- when all is said and done -- that less than twenty of the ninety Newbery winning books feature intact families who stick together from first to last page.

Considering these statistics, the next Newbery winner is likely to be Avi's latest, CITY OF ORPHANS.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Sunday Brunch with a Hitch

Today's Sunday Brunch asks who calls the shots when reading a book -- the author or the reader? We also look at Halloween books and those great old Alfred Hitchcock anthologies from the sixties.


If nothing else, this week's fuss over the National Book Award nominations has given more publicity to two titles, SHINE by Lauren Myracle and CHIME by Franny Billingsley, than they've probably received in all the months since they were published.

Now I'm wondering if we're ever going to hear what Paul Harvey used to call "the rest of the story," from one of the judges or a member of the National Book Foundation. Because something about this incident still doesn't feel right....

This is my second year serving as one of the judges for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. I well remember how, last year, the chair of our committee had to fill out official forms listing each finalist's title, author, and other pertinent info before submitting our list to the administrators. It seems almost impossible to believe that this info was casually transmitted via a single phone call for the National Book Awards. And I can't help but wonder how many eyes saw the error after that. SOMEONE prepared the official press release. SOMEONE prepared the official announcements. SOMEONE wrapped the book that was revealed to the public during those announcements. So we're talking about an error that was compounded many times over....

I must hand it to author Lauren Myracle, for handling the situation so graciously. In an interview for School Library Journal, she said that she "felt like poor Carrie, invited to the prom just to have pig's blood dumped on her head," but ultimately feels "insanely blessed and humbled by how much love has been beamed my way." You can read the whole interview here.

After being dragged "inside out and back again," it sounds like Lauren Myracle is "okay for now."

But I still want the full story!


Did any copies of SHINE with the NBA "finalist" sticker on the cover make it out to bookstores?

If you see one, you might want to pick up a copy.

Could be worth something.

And even if it doesn't have monetary value, it will be a good conversation piece. Because I imagine that all of us in the children's book community will be talking about this incident for years at come.


I have spent the last couple days hanging out at Elizabeth Burns’ School Library Journal blog, A Chair, A Fireplace, and a Tea Cozy, wielding an imaginary ruler and rapping the knuckles of any reader who admits to skipping ahead in a novel to peek at the ending.

It all started when Liz wrote a blog called “So I Flipped to the Back of the Book…” which began:

So, I’m reading Lauren Myracle’s Shine and I do something — Well. To some, something unforgivable.

You see, there was something happening in the book and, well, I couldn’t wait. I had to know whether someone was going to be OK.

So I flipped to the back of the book, skimmed a little, got the answer to my question, and returned to my reading.

Hello, I’m Liz, and I read the end of books.

Hello, Liz. Put your hand out, palm down.


That’s what you get for paging ahead to the end of a book!

Little did I know that Liz had so many fellow chapter-skippers. Within a few hours of her original post, she had over a dozen responses, ALL of whom admitted to peeking at the endings of books. They said things like:

Sometimes, it’s because I’m reading historical fiction and I want to know beforehand how much is real and how much is made up. Sometimes it’s because it’s really intense and I want to know if things turn out good or bad. Sometimes it’s because I’m bored and I want to know if it’s worth finishing the book.


I have to release the OMG what is going to happen tension.


Oh I always read the end when there is too much suspense for me.

That's when I had to step in with my two own cents:

Geez, I’m going to send all you guys to Mrs. Peregrine’s Home for Peek-culiar Readers. Whatever happened to patience, forbearance, and self-control? I guess my feeling is that the author crafts his or her book in a very precise way. If they wanted to reveal the ending first, they’d write the book in that fashion: “Gentle Reader, I married him!” followed by an extended 500-page flashback showing how Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester met and fell in love. So I give the author due respect and read the book the way it’s presented.

I think this should be especially true if one is reading the book for review. How can we tell if the author has done an adequate job planting clues, foreshadowing, and maintaining tension if we skip to the end and don’t actually experience those things for ourselves as readers?

I’ve never been a fan of e-readers, but I think I’m going to develop a new type of Kindle for Certain Type of Readers: anytime someone tries to skip ahead to the end of a book, they will get a ZAP from the machine. That’ll teach ya. : )

You'll notice I added a smiley emoti-con at the end of my diatribe, just to show I'm not really a fanatic on the subject.

It's funny that the topic came up this very week, as I just struggled with an adult novel for the sole purpose of getting to the final rewarding lines. In truth, I'd been struggling with SO MUCH FOR THAT by Lionel Shriver for MONTHS. I'd read two of the author's previous books (WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN and A PERFECTLY GOOD FAMILY) and found them brilliant, but SO MUCH FOR THAT was a slow go. Part of the problem was the subject matter: terminal cancer. Not a fun read. However, the book came with a reading guide and one of appended essays written by the author was called "Why Reading This Book Is Not a Big Drag."

She supplies a number of reasons including "It's fun to read. ...Yes, the book is funny." I actually didn't laugh once when I read it.

Another of Shriver's reasons: "It has energy. ...That's right -- this novel, I have heard repeatedly, is a 'page-turner.'" Obviously I did not find that to be true either, or it wouldn't have taken me all summer and half the fall to read it!

I was most intrigued by this reason: "It has a happy ending." Shriver warns us, "Do not, whatever you do, flip to the last page now if you haven't read the rest of the book, but I do fancy that the final couple of lines of SO MUCH FOR THAT are the best (and also the simplest) of any novel I've written. It's a real up yours ending, a 'Take that!' After I bashed out that little paragraph on New Year's Day 2009, I couldn't wipe the smile off my face for the rest of the night."

I must admit that this promise of a "happy ending" was what kept me slogging through the book over the past few weeks. I couldn't figure out how the author would be able to achieve this -- especially with the mortally-sick characters in her story dropping like flies in the final chapters. As the end of the novel grew closer, I became more and more intrigued and ultimately stayed up till 4:00 AM, just to reach those final lines of the book, which were promised to be happy ones.

I couldn't imagine how they could be.

But they were!

The author totally pulled it off!

But I don't think they would have had nearly as much power, or been nearly as satisfying to me as a reader, if I'd peeked ahead to read them in advance. Taken out of context they would have meant very little. And knowing them ahead of time truly would have ruined the last chapters of this cold and almost cruel novel. I was so glad that I had stuck with it and followed the author's instructions to "Do not, whatever you do, flip to the last page now if you haven't read the rest of the book."

...Which brings me to the main point of this long and somewhat unwieldy blog entry:

In the land of the book, who is king? (Or queen?) Do we as readers have the right to read a book any which way we'd like -- sampling it here and there, peeking ahead to the ending, reading the story in a nonlinear fashion? The reader is the one who buys (or at least borrows) the book and is devoting precious hours of their life to this narrative. Isn't it their right to read the book any way they choose?

Or should the author -- the creator of this story and its characters -- have the final say? They've crafted their novel in very specific ways, hoping to create a singular emotional journey for readers. Do writers have the right to tell us "Do not, whatever you do, flip to the last page...." Isn't it their right to expect us to read the book exactly as they've written it?

When a book is published, does the author transfer ownership of the novel to readers? At what point does the author diminish control? When does it change from "their book" to "our book"?

Who should be the final arbiter of how a book is read -- author or reader?

I really don't know the answer to these questions, but they are fun to ponder.


Okay, this little entry doesn't have a thing to do with children's books -- or books of any kind. But I did want to add that I smile every time I see the title of Liz Burns' aforementioned blog, "A Chair, A Fireplace, and a Tea Cozy." Even though one of my grandfathers came from England, as an American male I've never had much truck with tea cozies. In fact, I don't think I've ever even seen one in real life. But every time I see the words "tea cozy," I'm reminded of a story my aunt once told me.

My aunt was in the Air Force for many years. Shortly after World War II she was stationed in Great Britain. One year, at their office Christmas party, an English girl, who worked on base in a civilian capacity, gave an American employee a hand-knitted tea cozy as a present.

The American woman had no idea what a tea cozy was.

The next night they were all invited to a fancy Christmas dinner at someone's country estate. The American woman showed up wearing the tea cozy on her head. Yes, she thought it was a hat! Everyone found it so funny that this lady ended up being the hit the party (though, unfortunately, wearing tea cozies as hats never did take off as a fad.) Still, every time I see Liz Burns' blog title, I think of that poor American lady walking into that traditional English Christmas party with a tea cozy on her head and can't help but smile.


Yes, Halloween really is just eight days away.

Last Sunday I solicited your ideas for spooky-type books that we could give out as part of Neil Gaiman's All Hallows Read project.

Lin wrote in to say "I'm hard pressed to think of a Halloween book for upper elementary (except for Bradbury's HALLOWEEN TREE.) For scary: Of course, the 'Scary Stories' trilogy by Alvin Schwartz, BUT ONLY if they are the Stephen Gammell illustrations. Picture books: NIGHT OF THE GARGOYLES by Bunting, pictures by David Wiesner."

Alison said: "In our house, our Halloween library is mainly limited to picture & board books. THE LITTLE OLD LADY WHO WASN'T AFRAID OF ANYTHING was a particular favorite. As my kids aged, we found very few middle grade books that they really attached to Halloween, with the exception of the already mentioned 'Scary Stories,' and David Lubar's 'Warped and Creepy' Weenie series. OH & I did run out last year & get my 12 year old Susan Rich's HALF-MINUTE HORRORS after reading about here, I believe. That was a fun little book!"

Thanks, Lin and Allison, for those great suggestions. I was about to compile a list of my own when, wouldn't you know, Monica Edinger and Betsy Bird beat me to it by publishing this one -- with video, no less! -- listing a lot of recent books just perfect for the holiday!

They sure beat me to the punch, didn't they?

But I guess at Halloween, it's the early bird that gets the gummi-worm.

Here are a few more Halloween books that are fun to read:

THE BEST HALLOWEEN EVER by Barbara Robinson (2006) which continues to the adventures of the Herdman kids from THE BEST CHRISTMAS PAGEANT EVER)

THE LITTLE LEFTOVER WITCH by Florence Laughlin (1960), a "cozy" (but not tea cozy) story that starts on one Halloween and ends on the next Halloween. I try to read this one every year.

A NEWBERY HALLOWEEN by Martin H. Greenberg and Charles G. Waugh (1993) collects spooky stories and chapters from the works of Newbery-winning authors.

WILLIE BEA AND THE TIME THE MARTIANS LANDED by Virginia Hamilton (1983) takes us back to the Halloween when Orson Welles' "War of the Worlds" radio broacast terrified the country.

ED EMBERLEY'S DRAWING BOOK OF HALLOWEEN by Ed Emberley (2006) shows how to draw witches, monsters, and other holiday-themed illustrations.

Finally, here'a a gallery of R.L. Stine covers just right for the season:

I hate to admit that I was seduced by all these covers. I love Halloween, and I love Halloween artwork, so all these books reached out to me (with cold, creaky skeleton fingers) demanding to be bought and read. I did buy them and I did read them. And, predictably, they were all pretty bad. In fact, as quickly as I read them I ended up donating them to used booksales. But what does it say about the power of the artwork that, even now, looking at this covered, I'm halfway tempted to track them down and read them again....?


How cool is this?

Chuck Palahniuk's new, definitely-not-for-kids, horror novel, DAMNED, features an eleven-year-girl as its protagonist.

Her opening lines will either warm the heart or chill the soul of all us children's book lovers:

"Are you there, Satan? It's me, Madison."


Speaking of spooky books for kids, here is a blast from the past.

Does anyone remember the series of oversized, wonderfully-illustrated Alfred Hitchcock anthologies for young readers that Random House published in the sixties and early seventies? Doing an internet search today, I came up with the following titles. Is my list complete? Also, have I found the right illustrations for the original covers of these books? There are a few variant covers out there, since some of the cover illustrations changed in later hardcover or paperback printings.










One of the things that made these books unique was that, despite their "commercial" appeal (with a well-known director and TV personality on the cover!), they were not considered subpar literature, but seemed to be purchased by many school and public libraries. And why not? The stories in these volumes were written by such literary luminaries as Cornell Woolrich, Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Patricia Highsmith.

Does anyone have any memories of reading these books as kids?

And do you think they would still be popular if re-published today, or would the Hitchcock imprimatur no longer work> Do kids still know who he was? Or would we now be subjected to the same books with Scare Tactics' host Shannen Doherty posing ont the cover, with a bubble (and bubble-headed) quote, "Are you scared? You should be! These are SCARE TACTICS BOOKS!)


Caldecott winner Chris Rashka has written his first novel, SERIOUSLY, NORMAN:

My bookstore buddy attended an author event and picked up several signed copies of the book. I bought one from her on Friday. Obviously the published modeled the author's title page "byline" off his real signature because, looking at my copy of the book, it's hard to tell which one is real and which is Memorex:

This volume has got me thinking about the whole phenomena of picture book writer-illustrators who also have the ability to write novels.

I should make it clear: I am not talking about picture-book AUTHORS, such as Jane Yolen and Eve Bunting, who can write in many different genres from pioture books through young adult novels.

No, instead I'm talking about those rare people who start off both writing and illustrating picture books...and later prove they can write full-length novels as well.

I can only think of a short list:

William Steig, who won a Caldecott and had Newbery Honors
Kevin Henkes, who won a Caldecott for KITTEN'S FIRST FULL MOON and wrote Newbery Honor OLIVE'S OCEAN
There's Allen Say who, after many picture books, wrote THE INK-KEEPER'S APPRENTICE
Mordicai Gerstein, Robert Lawson, and Ludwig Bemelmans moved easily between these genres

Can you think of many others?


Though everyone knows "you can't judge a book by its cover," you also know (from the discussion of R.L. Stine covers above) that I'm a sucker for certain types of illustrations -- and can sometimes be drawn to a book by its front cover.

It actually happened to me this morning.

While trying to track down the cover illustrations for the Hitchcock anthologies, I came across this cover:

TEN TALES CALCULATED TO GIVE YOU SHUDDERS was edited by R. Ross Olney, and issued by cheapie-dime-store publisher Whitman in 1972.

I have no idea how good this book will be, but I was so drawn in by the cover that I decided I wanted to read it. Fortunately, many copies were for sale online -- most for under five dollars. So I ordered an inexpensive copy today -- to read on Halloween.

I hope the book arrives before October 31.

And I hope you'll be back before then too. Thanks for reading Collecting Children's Books!

Monday, October 17, 2011

Okay, Let's See If We've Finally Got This Right....

Sunday Brunch for October 16

Today's Sunday Brunch revisits this week's National Book Award snafu, discusses some recent book-signing events I attended, and asks how you're celebrating "All Hallow's Read."


As I write today's blog, the national memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is being dedicated in Washington, DC.

This got me wondering.

There are nearly 2500 chilren's books about Martin Luther King listed on The vast majority are dreary, cardboardy, standard-issue volumes in educational series, usually written with an eye toward library sales.

While there have been a couple outstanding picture-book biographies of King (Caldecott Honor MARTIN'S BIG WORDS, written by Doreen Rappaport and illustrated by Bryan Collier), I'm hard-pressed to think of an equally strong biography for middle-grade or young-adult readers.

Can you think of one?

Martin Luther King is probably one of the top subjects for school reports, yet it seems that all we have to offer young readers are average-quality books with encyclopedia-quality prose.

Isn't it about time for a major biography written for kids?


I had Wednesday off work, first to meet with a handyman about home repairs, then to take my parents on some errands across town. I knew this meant missing the live announcement of the National Book Award finalists, but I figured I’d be able to get them off the internet when I returned home.

Who knew I’d end up missing all the excitement?

As most everyone knows by now, shortly before noon author Virginia Euwer Wolff announced the following five titles as the finalists in the category of Young People’s Literature:

MY NAME IS NOT EASY by Debby Dahl Edwardson
SHINE by Lauren Myracle
OKAY FOR NOW by Gary D. Schmidt

When I got home from my errands in the late afternoon, I immediately checked the internet and discovered there were SIX titles listed – all of the above, plus CHIME by Franny Billingsley.

Well, how did that happen? Traditionally there are only five books in each NBA category!

Doing a little searching on the internet, I learned that some time after Ms. Wolff announced the five nominees above, the National Book Award stepped forward to add CHIME to the list.

How come? Well, as School Library Journal reported, “Someone screwed up.”

Reportedly, the names of the finalists were transmitted by telephone and somebody transcribed the titles incorrectly.

Everyone immediately thought of those sound-alike titles SHINE and CHIME, but the NBA wasn’t telling. They decided to leave all six books on the list. Though the public will never know for sure which title wasn’t really supposed to be there, I imagine that some of our children’s book world’s insiders and cognoscenti know the truth. This is exactly the type of literary mystery that Elizabeth Bird and Julie Danielson and I try to crack in the book we’re writing for Candlewick Press….

Incidentally, although a draft of our book is now in the first stages of being edited, there may still be time to squeeze in a few more mysteries and true tales behind famous children’s books. So if you know of one, feel free to send it to me, Betsy, or Jules or, as Alfred Hitchcock might’ve called us, “The Three Investigators.”


One of the most interesting aspects of the National Book Award controversy is that everyone who saw six titles listed -- including me! -- immediately wondered why. After all, there have ALWAYS been five finalists in each category, right?


Back in the day (or I should say, "back in my day"), the National Book Awards had varying numbers of finalists from year to year.

An NBA category for young people's books didn't even exist until 1969. For the first three years of the award, there were indeed five finalists.

However, in 1972 the field expanded to eleven books: THE ART AND INDUSTRY OF SANDCASTLES by Jan Adkins; WILD IN THE WORLD by John Donovon; THE PLANET OF JUNIOR BROWN (Virginia Hamilton), HIS OWN WHERE (June Jordan), THE TOMBS OF ATUAN (Ursula K. LeGuin), MRS. FRISBY AND THE RATS OF NIMH (Robert C. O'Brien), HILDIDID'S NIGHT (Cheli Duran Ryan), THE BEARS' HOUSE (Marilyn Sachs), AMOS & BORIS (William Steig), FATHER FOX'S PENNYRHYMES (Clyde and Wendy Watson) and that year's controversial winner, THE SLIGHTLY IRREGULAR FIRE ENGINE OR THE HITHERING THITHERING DJINN by Donald Barthelme.

In 1973, there were seven finalists.

There were ten finalists in 1974 and 1975, but seven in 1976 when the award went to BERT BREEN'S BARN by Walter D. Edmonds (it seemed an old-fashioned and somewhat out-of-left-field choice back then...but it's a book I've never forgotten and I suspect it holds up very well today.)

From 1977 to 1979, there were five finalists every year.

At that point the young people's category was dropped, not to be restored until 1987. Since its return, there have been five nominees each year.

So it has been a long time since we've had more than five finalists, but it did used to happen some time back.

And you know what?

I liked it.

I think some years there really could be more than five neat-and-tidy top titles. And occasionally expanding the field to seven or ten or even eleven volumes just made it more fun -- spotlighting some books that might have been otherwise neglected and adding to the discussion of what was best. I'll always be grateful that 1975's "top ten" finalists included three of my personal all-time favorites: I TELL A LIE EVERY SO OFTEN by Bruce Clements, WINGS by Adrienne Richard, and THE EDGE OF NEXT YEAR by Mary Stolz. Would they have made the list if it was shrunk to five? Maybe yes, maybe no. But they at least got recognized when the list was expanded.

My feeling about the number of National Book Award finalists is similar to my feeling on Newbery Honor Books -- the more the merrier!


I feel like a television network interrupting regular programming with this special bulletin.

Just in: Lauren Myracle has withdrawn SHINE from NBA consideration.

According to this article from the Huffington Post, she was pressured by the organization:

Lauren Myracle has pulled "Shine" from consideration in the young people's literature category. Her decision, announced Monday by Amulet Books, follows a miscommunication last week between judges and the award's sponsors. Myracle was on the original list of five nominees, but the National Book Foundation than announced that her book had been confused with Franny Billingsley's "Chime" and was not a finalist.

The foundation soon changed its mind again and decided there would be six nominees. Myracle said in a statement that she was asked by the foundation to withdraw to "preserve the integrity" of the awards process.


I'm often envious of my friends who live in or near New York City; they seem to have myriad opportunties to attend booksigning events at stores and libraries and library conferences. Life is not like that here in the midwest, where author events are few and far between. However, this past week was such a whirlwind of booksignings that I almost felt I was visiting the Big Apple. This was mainly because the Great Lakes Booksellers Association conference was being held locally and a number of authors, in town for that event, agreed to visit local bookstores to meet fans.

The only drawback to these events was that they occurred during a week in which they received a lot of competition from Detroit sports events (one booksigning was interrupted by an audience member shouting "Tigers win, seven to five!" while another was held on the day of the annual Michigan/MSU football game.) but enough book fans turned out to make the literary events successful.

Wednesday night for the event for Sarah Weeks, author of the "Guy Strang" and "Oggie Cooder" books, now on the road to celebrate her latest, and perhaps best-yet, book, PIE.

Ms. Weeks spoke about her inspiration for writing this warm-hearted mystery. I was particularly struck by the fact that the author's two sons don't really enjoy reading and have never even read their mom's books. However, they did give their mother with a unique and personal insight into how boys' minds work -- and provided her with lots of material for her stories! I was also gratified to learn that Sarah Weeks reads mostly children's and YA books on her own time!

During her presentation, the author spoke about Oggie Cooder's hobby, "charving" -- which involves carving cheese with his teeth into the shapes of all fifty states. Now when Ms. Weeks visits schools, kids put their charving examples on display for her. Sometimes they use tortillas instead of cheese because it lasts longer.

Personally, I found the whole charving thing a little gross...and wondered what talent those kids will display if William Kotzwinkle ever visits their schools to promote his Walter-the-dog series.

On the other hand, writing about pie was a great idea, because now when Ms. Weeks makes author visits, she is greeted by pies.

In fact, fans brought a total of eleven pies to this event.

Two of them were mine: one sour cherry pie and one caramel apple:

I'd never made a pie in my life until earlier this summer when my bookstore buddy gave me an ARC (advance reading copy) of PIE; Sarah Weeks' novel inspired me to try my hand at making my own pies. Those of you who have followed my Facebook postings (feel free to "friend" me at "Peter Sieruta") over the past few weeks have heard me talk about the succession of "test pies" I've been making in preparation for this author event.

I'm happy to say it paid off!

During her presentation, Ms. Weeks mentioned seeing a "beautiful latticed cherry pie" on the table. Be still my pie-making heart -- she was talking about my pie! Afterwards, she even posed for pictures holding my pie. She asked me to pose with her, but I was far too shy. Heck, I was almost too shy to talk to her. The irony, of course, is that she was the nicest person in the world -- the kind of person you'd like to be friends with. (Holden Caufield wished he could be friends with Eustacia Vye; I wish I could be friends with authors.) Later, Ms. Weeks had a slice of the sour cherry pie, then came up to me and raved about the filling and crust! Several other people told me they liked it too, including one who said it reminded her of the pies her YaYa made. Turns out "YaYa" means "grandmother" in Greek. And I heard that some of the kids in attendance said their favorite item on the table was my caramel apple pie -- probably because it was oozing with warm caramel and melted Heath bars...but, hey, I'll take praise wherever it comes from.

Don't worry, I won't get a big head over it.

...Okay, maybe my hat size did increase momentarily when Sarah Weeks said she thought I could have a second career in pie making!

But my head quickly deflated when I remembered that, despite holding many different jobs over my lifetime, I've never had anything that can remotely be called a "career" of any type.

Saturday afternoon I attended an author event for Lisa McMann, a native of Holland, Michigan back in our state to promote her new novel THE UNWANTEDS.

Though I have not read this book yet (just bought it on Saturday), I've heard many good things about it and can't wait to dive in.

The book, about artistic kids being purged from a futuristic society, was inspired when the author's children brought home notes saying that arts classes were being cut at their school. Writing the book was very much a family project, with Ms. McMann's son and daughter offering suggestions for some of the magic feats performed in the novel. Her son also designed this illustrated postcard (signed and numbered by the author) which Lisa McMann handed out with the sticker below. We book collectors love this kind of ephemera:

I'd write more about this author event, but I'd rather spend the time time starting to read THE UNWANTED, the first book in a series which Lisa McMann hopes will fill seven volumes.

This afternoon I attended the last author event. Canadian-born Moira Young, who now lives in England, was here in America's heartland to discuss her first book, the smash-hit BLOOD RED ROAD.

It was particularly interesting to hear the author read from earlier versions of the novel, written in the third-person instead of the first, and featuring the protagonist at age eight, rather than the eighteen-year-old she is in the published book.

It was also fascinating to learn which literary and even film influences the author tapped into when writing this book -- everything from the writings of Joseph Campbell and the movies GONE WITH THE WIND and THE SEARCHERS. A former professional actress who once sang and tap-danced on London's West End, the author gave particularly riveting readings from her book. My bookstore buddy, who has hosted hundreds of booksignings over nearly three decades felt that Moira Young gave one of the very best author presentations she has ever witnessed.


Halloween is two weeks away. How do you plan to celebrate it?

According to Neil Gaiman, we should observe the holiday by giving books.

I think it's a fun idea.

My only problem is that the list of book recommendations on the website comes from HarperCollins and (surprise, surprise) contains only HarperCollins books.

I think I'll make an alternate list of Halloween books not published by HarperCollins and post it in next Sunday's blog, in plenty of time for the big day.

What titles do you think I should add?

Remember, they don't necessarily have to be new books that can be purchased at bookstore. They can be older books borrowed from the library and handed to a friend.


When I was a kid in the 1960s and 1970s, there were a handful of children's books that seemed to be ubiquitous -- turning up on everyone's bookshelves as well as in just about every used bookstore you visited. Among these titles were THE PINK MOTEL and MAGICAL MELONS by Carol Ryrie Brink, and DAVID AND THE PHOENIX by Edward Ormondroyd. I think they must have been among the earliest volumes issued by children's book clubs, as they seemed to be EVERYwhere when I was growing up. I've learned over subsquent years that DAVID AND THE PHOENIX was a personal favorite of many kids who grew up in the late fifties and early sixties.

In Anita Silvy's EVERYTHING I NEED TO KNOW I LEARNED FROM A CHILDREN'S BOOK, American cultural critic Gerald Early cites DAVID AND THE PHOENIX as an influential novel from his own childhood.

Writer Marc Tyler Nobleman felt the same way about the book and recently stated, "I continue to be surprised whenever I find that someone whose work I loved in a younger day has almost no or literally no online presence -- barely a photo and nary an interview. But then I get excited because it means maybe I can be the one to help change that."

Mr. Nobleman did help change that -- by tracking down now-eighty-six year old author Edward Ormondroyd, and publishing a lengthy two-part interview with him here and here . It's a fascinating look back at one author's experiences and at "long forgotten" novel that, apparently, many people have never really forgotten.


For the last couple years, my town's annual autumn scarecrow festival has provided me with lots of blog fodder. One year the theme was children's books. The following year it was movies...with many of those movies (WIZARD OF OZ, etc.) having a children's book source. This year the theme was "American Pop Culture Icons," so I took my camera downtown with hopes of snapping some scarecrows inspired by children's books.

Unfortunately, between scarecrows representing Michael Jackson, Austin Powers, the Oscar Weiner Mobile (very cute), Dolly Parton (you can just imagine what that scarecrow looked like!), I only saw one figure representing a children's book character, the Cat in the Hat:

I hope next year's theme brings us more children's book figures stuffed with straw. It's become an annual tradition for me and I was disappointed that this year's festival only included one.

Thanks for visiting Collecting Children's Books. I'm hoping to return with at least one more blog entry before next weekend, so hope you'll check back this week!