Sunday, January 8, 2012

First Sunday Brunch of 2012

Welcome to the first Collecting Children's Books Sunday Brunch of 2012.

Obviously we're running a bit late, since it's now January 8.

Unfortunately, the year got off to a bad start for my family...but I'm hoping that the "in like a lion, out like a lamb" description of March also holds true for entire years. That is, if 2012 starts badly, it's bound to end well. Let's hope that's true -- for everyone!


Thanks to everyone who wrote in with suggestions for books to read on Christmas Eve.

One title that came up several times was THE COTTAGE HOLIDAY by Jo Mendel, a book in the Whitman "Tuckers" series.

Books about the Tucker Family were one of my childhood guilty pleasures. They sold for a dollar in the toy section of my local Woolworth's and, though I only bought two, I read them over and over as a kid. As an adult I've purchased a couple more, but never realized THE COTTAGE HOLIDAY was a Christmas favorite until a couple weeks ago when blog reader Linda said, "Peter, you must find a copy!"

Well, guess what?

I did!

In fact, I found it online for only $3.98!

It just arrived in the mail this week, and though my copy is a bit grubby and there are a couple torn pages, it's perfectly readable and now sitting beside my own desk, just waiting to be read!

I'm not waiting till next Christmas to read it either. I'll probably get to it in the next couple weeks -- which is fitting because, considering how unproductive I can, the Christmas tree and wall decorations will probably still be up for two more weeks!

Incidentally, the back of every Tucker book was, I believe, always pretty much the same. The background color varied from book to book but the illusrations of the Tuckers remained the same, as did the boxed "It's Tucker Time!" description of the series:

It's a masterpiece of marketing ("Time for fun! Time for excitement!" Time for picnics, parties, vacation trips, adventures -- even mysteries!") that practially begs the reader to pick up the book.

All those exclamation points!

I love it!

Of course nowadays it would never be presented in cursive writing, as so many kids can't read cursive anymore....


Another holiday book I'm trying to track down is STAR MOTHER'S YOUNGEST CHILD by Louise Moeri. I became interested in this title when I saw a Facebook posting by poet Helen Frost (author of last year's HIDDEN and this year's STEP GENTLY OUT) in which she described her cures for "Christmas nostalgia," which included reading the Moeri book for the thirtieth Christmas in a row. If Helen Frost is that devoted to this book, I need to read it!

This also got me thinking of Louise Moeri and her books. I've only read a couple, but maybe I'll try to read them all this coming year. Just looking at the titles and subject matter proves what a broad range she has as a writer. There are fantasies (THE UNICORN AND THE PLOW), frontier stories (SAVE QUEEN OF SHEBA), YA problem novels (FIRST THE EGG) and books about social issues, such as DOWNWIND, which concerns a nuclear meltdown. I remember being highly impressed by her novel THE FORTY-THIRD WAR, about a boy fighting in Central America's conflicts -- an unusually timely (in 1989) and challenging book for an American writer to attempt.

There is not much info available on the author, but I did find this quote about her writing career in Contemporary Authors: "The thing that kept me going is a picture I have in my mind. I see myself as a very old lady in a rest home with a blanket over my knees with a choice of two statements to make: `I tried very hard to write-- gave it everything I had' and `how I wish I had tried harder'."

Apparently she's still giving it everything she has. Though 87 years old and apparently ailing (on her Facebook page she lists her main activity as "chemotherapy"), she has published two adult novels in recent years -- one in paper, and one only in a digital edition!


Thinking about Christmas Eve books got me wondering about New Year's Eve reads.

Do you know any good ones?

And can you think of any titles geared to specific years?

My first thought was perhaps Tomie de Paola's "26 Fairmount Avenue" books, but I'm not sure that each volume represents a different year.

One intriguing title comes to mind -- a title that also shows the downside of highlighting a specific year in fiction.

That title is CINDERELLA 2000, a young adult romance by Mavis Jukes.

Published in the fall of 1999 to commemorate the new millenium, the book was released in a rather inexpensive format (small trim size, no dustjacket, glossy illustration printed on its cardboardy cover, low price) which made it clear that this was probably an ephemeral offering not destined for years of success.

The following year it was released in paperback, with the title captioned "Looking Back..."

In other words, what seemed so dazzling and "new" in the fall of 1999 was already history by 2001.

Thinking back, though, this might be a nice book to add to an historical children's book collection -- the only (?) example of how YA fiction celebrated, however briefly, the new millenium.


A new novel by Christopher Paul Curtis is always an occasion. His first book, THE WATSONS GO TO BIRMINGHAM – 1963, received a Newbery Honor and is acknowledged as a modern classic. His next effort, BUD, NOT BUDDY, won the Newbery, and he received yet another Newbery Honor for ELIJAH OF BUXTON in 2008. And there will special interest in his newest novel, THE MIGHTY MISS MALONE -- due out this Tuesday – because the protagonist will be familiar to readers of BUD, NOT BUDDY.

Called the “The Mighty Miss Malone” by her alliteration-loving father, Deza is a smart, happy twelve-year-old girl. Although the Depression has hit the Malones hard -- Father can’t find work and there’s no money to get Deza’s rotting teeth fixed -- the protagonist is growing up secure in the love of her stable family, which includes her fifteen-year-old brother, Jimmie, who has a rare talent for music. Like ELIJAH OF BUXTON, this novel also begins as a series of vignettes -- Deza’s teacher offers an unexpected gift; Jimmie steals a pie from a neighbor; Father is involved in a boating accident; the world awaits the 1936 Joe Louis-Max Schmeling boxing match (also highlighted in Andrea Pinkney’s recent novel BIRD IN A BOX) -- before settling into a more conventional plot-driven narrative when Father leaves home to find work and, uncharacteristically, breaks contact with the family. Eventually, the Malones leave Gary, Indiana in order to find Father, ending up in a Flint, Michigan "Hooverville."

Anyone who writes about children's books should probably have a hotkey on their computer for the words "the plucky protagonist." While the phrase is clearly overused, it's almost always applicable. It certainly is here, as "the plucky protagonist" makes the best of life in the shantytown, then embarks on a daring solo trip to Detroit, hoping to bring together her now-broken family. Christopher Paul Curtis has written another big-hearted historical novel full of memorable characters and events. Though it contains a few flaws (Jimmie's lack of height is presented as a major issue in the first half of the book, but disappears in the second; Deza's repeated misuse of the word "geologically" seems patronizing to this otherwise intelligent narrator), THE MIGHTY MISS MALONE deserves its place on the shelf with the author's previous books -- all classics in the making.


Although the hardcover of THE MIGHTY MISS MALONE will not be released till Tuesday, I was lucky enough to get an ARC (advance reading copy) of the novel last week from my bookstore buddy.

So often when I read an ARC, I'm saddened by the fact that it contains fascinating background information that will not appear in the hardcover edition of the book. I always wish this info was available to every reader. I felt that way again when I saw the "Dear Reader" letter at the front of THE MIGHTY MISS MALONE ARC which explains how Mr. Curtis came to write the book.

I thought I'd share a bit of it here, for those who are interested:

The foundation for this book was the question that kept popping up during many "author visits" I made to schools and communities. This question was always asked by a girl, and she would preface it by saying, "Mr. Curtis, I like your books, but...."

The inevitable "but."

I'd developed a set answer for these girls. It ran along the lines of, "There are so many wonderful women authors doing books about girls, and if you
really want a story about a girl, who is more qualified to do it, me or you?"

Not the best answer in the world; and it bothered me. I felt like I wasn't being completely honest. But when I thought about the question later, I couldn't come up with a better reply. However, mulling over question set in place the foundation for this book.

The first bricks in Deza's story were laid by a reporter for the DETROIT FREE PRESS, Cassandra Spratling. Ms. Spratling invited me to speak at an African American mother-daughter book club in Detroit. She told me the club had read BUD, NOT BUDDY and would love to have me address the group. I said I'd be happy to.

Big mistake.

Before I was introduced, several of the moms pulled me aside and said in rather threatening tones, "We really like your stories, but..."

To quote Bud, "Here we go again."

"...what we'd
really like to know is what business that little girl in the Hooverville had kissing a stranger like Bud Caldwell the way she did."

We've all heard about the two reactions humans have when confronted unexpectedly by a threatening situation: fight or flight. I discovered there's a third response: heavy rationalization. I replied, "Oh, you're just getting his side of the story,
she has a completely different take on what happened."

I saw that wasn't enough and added, "Besides, you know how boys just love to lie about these things."

Rationalization or not, I found this a fascinating response and only wish it were available in the hardcover edition so that readers of BUD, NOT BUDDY will understand the discrepancy between the "kissing scene" that is presented in both books.

Some readers may be disappointed that the Deza and Bud story (trumpeted with the dustjacket tagline: "Deza Malone from BUD, NOT BUDDY is back!") has such a small role in THE MIGHTY MISS MALONE, but placing too much of an emphasis on their brief encounter might have tilted the focus of the book. The succinct, two page scene presented here strikes me as particularly well-played.


The lesson I have to keep learning over and over is that no one -- and that includes intelligent, informed people of good will -- is ever in 100% agreement on the merits of any single book.

Oh sure, there are titles that nearly everyone loves -- such as CHARLOTTE'S WEB, WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE, and many more. But I guarantee that if we got a big group of children's book fans together, we'd discover that at least a few of them are ambivalent toward...or even downright hate CHARLOTTE'S WEB and WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE.

I was reminded of that last week when reading School Library Journal's Heavy Medal blog on "the ones that got away" -- titles that readers believe should have won the Newbery but didn't.

The comment that made me rear back in my seat came from that extraordinary writer Nancy Werlin -- and I mean that both literally (she wrote a novel called EXTRAORDINARY) and descriptively (she's a great writer.) However, I was shocked when she mentioned 1964 as a bad Newbery year, calling the winning title, IT'S LIKE THIS, CAT "that piece of mindless drivel" and adding, "The honor books don’t shine in memory for that year, either (RASCAL by Sterling North and THE LONER by Ester Wier). A bad committee. It happens."



Maybe it's a boy-thing. Or maybe it's because I'm such a huge fan of New York City, the book's setting. Or maybe it's because I'm a lot older than Ms. Werlin and remember the sixties, the book's time period, so well. But whatever the case, I really like this book. And while even I might agree that it's not in the top 10% of all Newbery winners, I think it's a fine choice.

I also don't agree about those Honor Books. RASCAL is pretty much a classic, and I regard THE LONER as one of the great unknown Honor Books of all time.

As I said: even intelligent, informed people of good will are going to disagree on books!

But the line that really got me thinking was this: "A bad committee. It happens."

It got me wondering if there were any Newbery years in which the committee made across-the-board excellent picks or, conversely, choose nothing but stinkers?

We've already acknowledged that not everyone is going to agree on anything, but just speaking in GENERAL terms, are there years where MOST readers would GENERALLY AGREE the committee did a bang-up job?

And years where MOST readers would shrug and say, "Bad committee. It happens."

Take a look at this complete list of winners and Honor Books to refresh your memmory.

Granted, there are a lot of factors involved in any year's selections -- starting with the pool of eligible books. It's possible that some years have an abundance of riches while other years are so weak that the committee must pick the best of a bad lot.

Looking at the list myself, I don't see any single year where I think every title is amazing...except a couple times when only one Honor Book was chosen (for instance, 1991 when MANIAC MAGEE won and THE TRUE CONFESSIONS OF CHARLOTTE DOYLE honored, and 1999 with its duo of HOLES and A LONG WAY FROM CHICAGO.)

Otherwise, I think 1975 may be my favorite year, with the medal going to M.C. HIGGINS THE GREAT and Honors won by FIGGS & PHANTOMS, MY BROTHER SAM IS DEAD, THE PERILOUS GARD, and PHILIP HALL LIKES ME, I RECKON MAYBE. In this case, I love all the Honor Books and admire (but am not emotionally connected to) the winning title.

I used to think that 1967 was a stellar year as well, with FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER winning and JENNIFER, HECATE, MACBETH, WILLIAM MCKINLEY, AND ME, ELIZABETH and THE EGYPT GAME honoring...but the remaining honors, THE BLACK PEARL (not Scott O'Dell's finest) and THE FEARSOME INN, seem a step down in quality from the other three titles.

It's even harder to pick across-the-board weak years. While there are a few middling years (2007 comes to mind), it seems that nearly every year contains at least one good, surprising, or inspired choice. It may not be in the gold medal position, but at least it received recognition.

Perhaps it's silly to expect any single slate to appeal to any one person. The honored books cross a wide range of genres and are written in many styles -- so somewhere out there, for sure, there is someone who loves every title I hate, and hates every title I love.

But still, I'm curious: what do YOU think were the Newbery's best and worst years?


By now you have probably read that Walter Dean Myers has been named the National Ambassador for Young People's Literature.

You've also probably heard about the backlash, if "backlash" means one inflammatory article that talks about how kids should be reading Homer and Virgil instead of contemporary YA books. Whatever. I'm still perplexed by the article's timeline (the author says he taught at a Flatbush middle school some years ago, yet mentions Myers's 2010 novel LOCKDOWN as among his students' favorites.)

All I know is that the influence of Walter Dean Myers's books, and the importance of his work as ambassador, will be remembered long after that article in the newspaper is used to wrap fish or line a birdcage.


Well, I've been saying for years that I don't want an e-reader.

Now I've learned that my favorite author will be publishing her next novel only in the e-book format.

What's a reader to do?

Stay tuned to see what happens next!


And I hope you "stay tuned" to Collecting Children's Books throughout 2012. There's lots to look forward to in the coming months, including the Newbery, Caldecott, and Printz announcements in just a couple weeks.

Thanks for visiting -- and Happy New Year!


Anonymous said...

Peter I think 2006 is a close second if not a toss up between 06 & 07.

Glad you're back in rare form.

Wendy said...

There are few years where I've read EVERY honor book, so I'm not a very good judge; and like you there are several years where I think everything is great except one title. But I would draw attention to 1981 (Jacob Have I Loved, The Fledgling, A Ring of Endless Light) as particularly solid. And the 1940s in general look really good for honor books. Weak years, as you say, are harder (and I think more influenced by personal preference); I haven't made myself read honor books, except for from the Secret of the Andes year, so I've avoided those I thought I wouldn't like, and/or if they haven't stood the test of time, they haven't come into my path. I didn't really like anything from 2007, though.

I love It's Like This, Cat too--and I'm female, and not old enough to remember the era, though I do love New York too.

Sherry said...

Strong years: 1971, 1981, 1986. Like you all I can't find any years where ALL the books are particularly poor choices, although when you get back to the early years of the award I haven't read so many of the honor books that I really can't judge.

I haven't thought about Save Queen of Sheba by Louise Moeri in a long time, but I do remember enjoying it probably twenty or thirty years ago. I'm showing my age.

Bybee said...

The comments about "bad committee" made me think of the 1970s Pulitzer committee. They couldn't agree 2 or 3 times during that decade.

Thanks for putting up that picture of The Cottage Holiday. Oh, Tuckers! Time for fun!

P. J. Grath said...

Thanks for adding THE MIGHTY MISS MALONE to my book order list, Peter. A Michigan connection adds to its attraction for me.

lin said...

Re: e-books. A lot of the e-books are available in different formats, such as pdf files(Smashmouth is good about this), so you could download them to a computer and read them that way. No e-reader required! I'm not sure if you can print them out at all, or if they only print one page at a time, so you may not be able to read the book in bed. Not ideal, but better than having to compromise your admirable principles. Just cross your fingers your author is not going Amazon only.

clovehanna said...

Love my books.Love my Kindle. I travel a lot and it is really super to be able to load several books onto a device that fits in my purse (now if only I could read it during takeoff and landing). I reserve the e-reader for "lesser" / "fluffier" books though (I am reading the Game of Thrones series on it now) not books I think I will want to have forever on the shelf.

Daughter Number Three said...

I can't resist mentioning another great Emily Cheney Neville book, completely unlike It's Like This, Cat: Traveler from a Small Kingdom.

Alison said...

Peter, I enjoyed reading the comments from Christopher Paul Curtis about female response to his books. I can see why he would answer them with the "I'm a boy, I write about boys" response. But it put me in mind of my favorite book in middle school, THE OUTSIDERS & what a shock it was for me to find out that it was written by a GIRL lol

Jess said...

Like Anon., I might go with '06 as a weak link - it was the first year I participated in a Mock Newbery. We had Criss Cross on our discussion list and I loathed it - I was appalled when it won. Although I do like 2 honors from that year - Princess Academy and Hitler Youth, and must confess to not having read Show Way.

Tricia Springstubb said...

Wowzer--what a post! Very happy to be discovering this blog, and looking forward immensely to the new Curtis novel.
Tricia Springstubb

Brooke said...

My advisor in library school, Maggie Kimmel, was on the Newbery Committee in 1974 and was often quite candid about what it was like. During her year, the committee was completely divided over which of two books should win the gold: The Slave Dancer or The Dark is Rising. It was a tie, and the argument got so heated that all other books simply fell into the background. Finally, at 5:00 a.m. the committee chair stood up and said something to the effect of, "That's enough! I say Slave Dancer wins, and Dark is Rising will be the only honor book." The rest was history.

Prof. Kimmel's theory is that whenever you have a year with just one Newbery Honor book, a similar argument took place in the committee meeting. Heh.