Information and opinions on children's books old and new, delivered Sunday Brunch style.
I'M OKAY, MY BOOKS ARE OKAY
A few years ago, soon after the publication of Gary Schmidt's THE WEDNESDAY WARS (his second Newbery Honor, after LIZZIE BRIGHT AND THE BUCKMINSTER BOY) the Michigan-based author had a speaking engagement/booksigning at a local library. As I've frequently mentioned on this blog, I am in awe of all my favorite writers -- and very much starstruck. Couple this with my natural shyness and you are not going to see me asking questions from the audience or making smalltalk with an author while my books are being signed. I can't do those things! However, when I attended that event (which was wonderful) I had a question I was just dying to ask Gary Schmidt. So I did what any other shy person would do in that situation: I begged my friend to ask the question for me!
Here was the question my friend asked: "Mickey Mantle appears in your novel but comes across as an awful person. Was the scene based on something that happened in real life? If not, weren't you concerned about depicting a real person so negatively in your novel?"
Gary Schmidt said that the scene in the book was completely fictional, but since stories of Mantle's cruel streak were legendary, he had no qualms about depicting the famous Yankee player in such a bad light. Later, someone who worked on the book sent Mr. Schmidt a note saying that scene rang true because they had once witnessed Mickey Mantle's bad behavior in person.
In the years since THE WEDNESDAY WARS, Gary D. Schmidt has continued publishing outstanding novels such as TROUBLE and last year's OKAY FOR NOW, which was nominated for the National Book Award and recently won School Library Journal's Battle of the Books.
This past week, Gary Schmidt was in town again for a presentation/signing. Because this event was sponsored by a school system and a big turnout was expected, I did not attend. (Plus, if I had gone, I would have had to leave work early. Besides, I was even more in awe of his talent since reading OKAY FOR NOW and probably would have made a fool of myself if I were there.) Fortunately, my bookseller buddy was providing books for the event and kindly offered to get my copies of OKAY FOR NOW signed for me.
This past Friday I picked up the books and was thrilled to see the inscriptions.
My first copy is very rare -- a large bound manuscript that was released even before the ARC (advance reading copy):
Next is the ARC of OKAY FOR NOW:
Finally, he signed my hardcover copy of OKAY FOR NOW:
A day or two before the signing, my bookstore buddy received this ARC in the mail:
I am not, however, the first person to ever read this copy.
My bookstore friend spent the last couple days reading the novel before telling me to drop by the bookstore this morning and pick it up. I asked what she thought of the book, but she did not want to influence my opinion. So she simply said, "You'll have to read it yourself."
And now I can!
A NEW STICKER
Just bought a copy of Walter Dean Myers' latest novel, ALL THE RIGHT STUFF, and noticed a silver sticker on the cover:
Is the sticker used only on books published during the author's tenure as Ambassador, or does it go on all of his previous books? It's great to see this honored acknowledged, but do you think this sticker will draw readers to the book? Or, more specifically, draw young readers?
REVIEW : DYING TO KNOW YOU
In the history of young adult fiction, can you remember a narrator ever complaining about his prostate problems? I can't. But then most YA protagonists are somewhere between the ages of thirteen and eighteen...not sixtysomething widowers like the unnamed narrator of Aidan Chambers' new novel, DYING TO KNOW YOU.
OTHER ADULT NARRATORS
Aidan Chambers is known for breaking with convention in his books for young people. His use of an adult narrator in DYING TO KNOW YOU got me wondering if there are many other books for children and teenagers that employ older narrators. Of course there are many cases where the protagonist is a grown-up looking back on experiences from his or her youth. But I'm thinking of something a little different here. I'm thinking of books FOR and ABOUT young people that are related by an adult who also appears in the story. The only ones that come to mind for me at the moment are two novels by Scott O'Dell. In KATHLEEN, PLEASE COME HOME, at least part of the book is narrated by the mother of a teenage runaway, while CHILD OF FIRE is told by the parole officer working with the book's teenage protagonist. Perhaps FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER would also qualify as a book with an adult narrator, although she only speaks in the first person during the framing device at the beginning and end of the novel. Can you think of any other books for kids with adult narrators?
MEET ME AT 84, CHARING CROSS ROAD
Many years ago I happened upon this paperback copy of Helene Hanff's 84, CHARING CROSS ROAD at a local bookstore:
THAT's how crazy I am about this epistolary "love story" between a New York writer and a London bookseller. Since then I've read the book dozens of times, won a first edition for $25 at a library auction, went to see the stage production during a blizzard, and have seen the Anne Bancroft/Anthony Hopkins movie both in an empty theatre and at home on video. Throughout those years I have shared the book with many special friends.
I think anybody who loves books would love 84, CHARING CROSS ROAD.
Author Helene Hanff wrote several other books including UNDERFOOT IN SHOW BUSINESS, THE DUCHESS OF BLOOMSBURY STREET, and -- a real favorite -- LETTERS FROM NEW YORK.
In all these books, Helene herself pops off the page: larger-than-life, warm-hearted, gregarious -- the kind of person you would want as a friend. (Indeed, many readers felt so attached to her that they'd visit her in New York and even call her up on the phone.) Despite having such a "presence" on the page, Ms. Hanff was rather mysterious and private and no one seems to know much about her personal life. That's why I was thrilled when I recently came across this "biography" of the author:
HELENE HANFF : A LIFE could well be one of the worst books I've ever read!
I'm assuming this book was self-published -- and points out the importance of those often unsung heroes and heroines of publishing: editors. You don't realize how important they are until you read an unedited book like this one, filled with typographical errors and copy-editing mistakes. On one page Helene is described as attractive, on another she's homely. One minute she hates fiction, the next minute she loves novels. We're told that Helene doesn't drive and then, a little later, she hops into "her small red sedan" to visit someone. An relative listed as MIA in World War II is referred to as both her second cousin and her brother.
But beyond that, the book is poorly-written on every level. The chronology is off. Huge events, such as Helene's romance and engagement are described and then dropped (we see her trying on her wedding gown and packing her bags, then her fiance leaves town on a short trip and -- this romance -- is -- never -- mentioned -- again!) Other scenes -- complete with much dialogue, inner thoughts, and plodding descriptions ("Once in her apartment Helene took a long shower and feeling hungry decided to eat a big piece of pumpkin pie and to drink a glass of milk. She started reading some notes on education while she ate but was soon very sleepy so she went to bed for a short nap") -- are so odd that they feel completely fabricated. For example, I have always understood that, as depicted in 84, CHARING CROSS ROAD, Helene Hanff moved to a new apartment on E. 72nd Street in 1956 and remained there the rest of her life. What to make of this biography's description of a homeless Helene living pretty much as a bag lady until a connected friend gets her a job outside New York City as a postmistress and librarian? I didn't believe much of this book. However, if you are a fan of the author -- hungry for more info on her life -- you'll still be interested in this awful volume for the little glints and glimmers of the author's life that might be true.
And I do admit I liked the appended bibliography that lists all the books in Hanff's famous home library. She even owned a few children's books -- classics by Carroll and Milne, as well as, most intriguingly, a copy of THE DARK IS RISING by Susan Cooper. That last one really surprised me, as Hanff was known for her strong dislike of Tolkien.
In 84, CHARING CROSS ROAD, Ms. Hanff makes reference to writing several children's history books during the 1960s. I've seen a few of them and they are typical of the dreary informational "book report" volumes you frequently saw in libraries back in that era.
This new biography also tells about a young-adult book she was commissioned to write in the 1960s, about the political radicals of the time:
Published by Harper in 1964, TERRIBLE THOMAS is the story of a kid running rampant in a NYC apartment. Shades of Eloise. Kirus Reviews described it as a "tedious tomfoolery."
PLAQUE BUILD UP
While Helene Hanff's children's books may be long-forgotten, her best-known work, 84, CHARING CROSS ROAD is so beloved that a commemorative plaque has been placed at the former location of Marks & Co., the bookshop that inspired her memoir.
I did a quick internet search and found several in Europe. Here's one honoring Erich Kastner, author of EMIL AND THE DETECTIVES, in Germany:
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