Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Paper Anniversary

It’s been one year since I began writing this blog.

It probably would have made more sense to start Collecting Children’s Books on January 1, 2008 -- new year, new blog. Yet there I was, spending a gray afternoon on the last day of the year, signing up for a Blogspot account and trying to figure out how to properly format a post and scan pictures onto the internet. Then I sat back and waited for visitors. Wow, was I excited to see that someone from Reston, Virginia was checking out my blog every few minutes. I had a fan! Then I realized that all AOL connections are filtered through Reston, VA and that this “fan” was just ME, logging on over and over to see if anyone else had visited. ...But, over time, I did start getting visitors from all over the world. And it was extraordinary to think that something I’d typed while sitting in my bedroom wearing pajamas was being read by someone in Dubai or Vietnam or New Zealand. True, according to the Statcounter, most of those visitors came here looking for information on “Ferdinand the Bull tattoos” and “Ashley and Mary-Kate’s new book” but, least they did drop by.

As much as I enjoy writing this blog, there have been many times I’ve complained the work was too time-consuming and draining and vowed I’d give up the entire project at the end of the year. But now the end of the year is here and I no longer feel that way. Part of human nature is simple curiosity about what lies ahead. I’m anxious to know what’s going to win the book awards next month and I want to write about that. I’m curious to see how the recent changes in the publishing industry (editors losing jobs, long-time imprints shutting down) affect the future of children’s books. Are review journals on their way out (tick-tock, tick-tock) now that so many bloggers with professional backgrounds are reviewing books for free on the web? Are dependable midlist authors going to find it harder to sell their manuscripts as publishers increasingly devote their time and money to the “next big thing”? And what role is the Kindle going to play in the years ahead?

Still, the focus of this blog has always been -- and always will be -- books from the past. And there’s still so much to explore, so many mysteries to solve. In fact, I’d like to close out this year by sharing a mystery that just occured. A few days before Christmas, I received a white envelope in the mail. The return address listed a post office box in “N.K. RI.” I had not ordered any books from Rhode Island, so opened the envelope with some curiosity. Inside I found these two volumes:

Well, I couldn’t figure this out at all! I had NOT ordered anything from Rhode Island (I later looked up a list of cities in that state and found one called “North Kingston,” so perhaps that’s what “N.I.” stands for) and I certainly hadn’t ordered an 1878 copy of SELF-HELP : WITH ILLUSTRATIONS OF CHARACTER, CONDUCT, AND PERSERVERANCE by Samuel Smiles or a Betty Crocker cookbook from 1943! There was no letter or bill of sale in the package at all. Inside the cookbook was a torn scrap of paper that said “$5.99" -- which seemed to be written on the back of an old math or science exam. A torn scrap in SELF-HELP stated “$19.95” on the back of a bridge scorepad containing the words “1st rubber, 2nd rubber” (at least I hope it was a bridge scorepad.)

It was the craziest thing.

Books just don’t randomly arrive in the mail from total strangers. Yet there I sat with two unexpected volumes in my lap.

However, since I never met an old book that I didn’t like, I have begun looking at these titles trying to find some clue to how they ended up here with me. So far I remain stumped in that regard, though I am finding some fascinating information within their pages. The Betty Crocker book (and she must be Betty Crocker Senior since she looks nothing like the lady on the frosting cans today) was published during wartime and I’m learning so much about rationing that I never knew. Take a look at this section which tells the reader to watch their “P’s and Q’s" (points and quantities) when buying meat:

Other headings state “MEAT IS SCARCE...EXTEND IT!” (accompanied by a drawing of a woman with a skillet in one hand grabbing a cow by the tail with her other hand) and “TO HELP YOUR COUNTRY, SAVE EVERY BIT OF FAT THAT COMES INTO YOUR KITCHEN!”

The book is obviously dated, with spot art featuring aproned-housewives with rolling pins and laden trays making food for menfolk who sit waiting to be served. Even the section about cooking for swingshift workers doesn’t show Rosie the Riveter, but a housewife waving her husband off to work before going into the kitchen to prepare his “refreshing, energy-giving, between-meal snack” of “tomato juice, fried slices of meat loaf, vegetable relishes, rye bread, prune whip, cookies, tea or milk.”

I also like the chapter on parties (“in war-time, more than any other time, we need friendly get-togethers to keep up our morale, give us refreshment and relaxation. But cooperation and simplicity in entertaining are necessary now”) which provides tips for a “Victory Garden Supper” and “Short Notice Weddings” (food includes heart-shaped chicken sandwiches, angel food cake, and salted nuts. No buns-in-the-oven at these quickie nuptials.)

And here’s something I’ve never heard of before -- and seems surprising coming so soon after the Great Depression -- a “Hobo Party” in which the guests dress in rags, supper is served as a “hand-out” from the back porch, and the centerpiece is a “miniature artificial fire with stewing kettle over it”:

As for the SELF-HELP book (exactly who sent me this and was there a not-so-hidden message in the title?), I haven’t gotten a chance to read through it yet, but I love this inscription in the front:

In case that spidery, perfect handwriting is too light to read, I’ll translate:

Was given to William Platt, Jan. 1879 for constant attendance during the year 1878, by the Third Congregational Sunday School.

“Life hath no trials that a cheerful face, a sunny heart, and a hand in God’s hand will not lighten.”

As 2008 draws to a close, I want to wish everyone a cheerful and sunny new year. Hope you’ll visit Collecting Children’s Books in 2009, where I’ll try to monitor present and future trends, while always looking back at books from the past and asking such eternal questions as:

Where can I learn more about wartime rationing?

What’s prune whip?

Would it be considered politically-incorrect to host a “Hobo Party” today?

Who is William Platt and how did I end up with his book?

And yes, how did these two books end up here on my shelves?

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Christmas Gifts and Collecting Tips

I received some wonderful Christmas presents this year -- from a stack of socks to a box of baklava to a gift that, like the offerings in “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” will arrive at my door a dozen times next year: a subscription to Vanity Fair magazine.

For the purposes of this blog, however, I’d like to focus on the books I received, and offer up some collecting tips along the way.

On Christmas Eve afternoon, I was just putting on my boots to run out and do some last-minute shopping when a FedEx truck pulled up and brought two envelopes to my door. The first one contained this book:

As many know, John Green’s latest young-adult novel was issued in two different editions: one with a yellow cover and the other blue/green. Earlier this year I expressed my frustration over not being able to find a copy of the latter edition. A blog-buddy who had an extra copy of the blue/green book had sent it to me and, while I’m sure it wasn’t intended as “Christmas present” per se, the fact that it arrived on Christmas Eve sure made it feel that way. I was very pleased and grateful.

COLLECTING TIP FOR PAPER TOWNS: If a book is issued with variant dustjackets and you’re a “completist collector” like me, you’ll probably want to get both editions. If you collect for investment purposes, you’ll want to get the edition with the smallest print run (I still don’t know whether Dutton did a 50/50 split on the yellow and blue dustjackets or if they really did print fewer of the dark dj.) However, if you collect simply for the love of books, you’ll of course want to get the cover that appeals most to you...after all, you’re going to have to live with this book on your shelf for a long it should be one you enjoy looking at.

As the FedEx driver (who was beginning to remind me of Santa) headed back to his truck (which was starting to look like Santa’s sleigh), I opened the second envelope. It contained a sheaf of loose photocopied pages and when I turned them over I saw:

About a week ago I wrote a blog entry about owning a Dennis the Menace Christmas book as a very young child. I remembered it was a Little Golden Book but had never been able to track another copy down. I wasn’t even sure of the title. Almost immediately I received a comment from a blog-reader named Andrea suggesting the book was DENNIS THE MENACE WAITS FOR SANTA CLAUS. She was right! Now why hadn’t I been able to figure that out? When I’d searched for the book in the past, I’d used terms such as “Dennis the Menace” and “Christmas” -- but you’ll note that the word “Christmas” is not in the title of the book...which is why it never turned up. I also searched using the name of Dennis’s creator, Hank Ketcham, and (thinking I was very smart) even tried the variant spelling “Ketchum,” but that didn’t work either...because this Golden Book doesn’t even carry Mr. Ketcham’s name. The text is attributed to Carl Memling and the illustrations were done by Al Wiseman. If it wasn’t for Andrea, I may never have figured out the title of this book. And if it wasn’t for another blog-buddy, who sent me a photocopy of the book “until you track down a copy of your own,” I would not have been able to spend this Xmas with this Xerox, re-reading a holiday favorite from my childhood.

It’s funny, in my original blog entry I spoke about a scene in which Dennis and his father pick up a Christmas tree and, on the way home, Dennis says the fresh fir “smells better ‘n peanut butter.” In my mind I had a very clear memory of this and could see the tree tied to the roof of the car and Dennis sitting in the backseat. But look how different that scene is depicted in the book:

I even got the dialogue wrong! However, many many other scenes and images in the book came back to me as I read DENNIS THE MENACE WAITS FOR SANTA CLAUS. I remembered the snow outside Dennis’s bedroom window, the decorations on the walls of his house, his attempts to paint all his old toys to look like new, and especially a scene in which Dennis wakes up his parents in the middle of the night asking if he can decorate the tree and his mother lets him hang one ornament -- an apple tied with a blue ribbon:

COLLECTING TIP FOR TRYING TO TRACK DOWN A BOOK FROM YOUR CHILDHOOD: Memories fade as we get older (I’m learning this the hard way!), so don’t cling too tightly to what may be a faulty recollection. And remember to try every possibility when attempting to find an old book. Don’t assume that just because a book is about Dennis the Menace and it takes place at Christmas that the word “Christmas” will be in the title. Don’t assume that, just because Hank Ketcham created Dennis and wrote the comic for umpteen years, that his name will be on the book. Always be as expansive as you can when hunting down books. I always harp on this when discussing collecting children’s book with other people and then turned around and made the same mistake myself!

The next day was Christmas and this was one of the first gifts I opened from my brother:

I couple weeks ago I wrote a blog entry about this new novelty book, SCARED OF SANTA : SCENES OF TERROR IN TOYLAND by Denise Joyce and Nancy Watkins, and even printed a related photo from our family album featuring my little brother:

So I was not unacquainted with SCARED OF SANTA when I opened my brother’s Christmas present...but I was certainly shocked when I looked inside and found this inscription:

I did not realize that my brother works just a block or two away from the offices of the Chicago Tribune where Denise Joyce and Nancy Watkins serve as editors. When he read my blog entry about SCARED OF SANTA, he e-mailed Denise and Nancy and asked if he could bring over a copy of the book and have it signed. What a surprise! My open-mouthed look of shock when I saw the “older bro” inscription probably mirrored the expression on my “younger bro’s” face when he sat on Santa’s lap -- minus the tears.

COLLECTING TIP: It’s always nice when your friends and relatives get involved in your hobby. I can’t tell you how many books in my collection are signed simply because a friend or relative heard an author was appearing in their area and went out of their way to get a book signed for me. As for SCARED OF that Christmas is over, many bookstores are deeply discounting their remaining holiday titles before putting them away for the year. So now's a good time to pick up a discounted copy of SCARED OF SANTA (or any other seasonal book on sale) and save it up for next Christmas!

Finally, a book-buddy gave me 60th Anniversary Edition of Ruth Stiles Gannett’s MY FATHER’S DRAGON. Issued in a slipcase with a red ribbon, this edition is first class all the way:

But what makes it especially noteworthy is that it’s part of a limited edition of 125 numbered and signed copies. Mine is #88:

It’s rare for any book to be so well-loved that it’s reissued in a 60th anniversary edition and rarer still for it to be signed, but through a lucky confluence of events -- Ms. Gannett was both a young author (MY FATHER’S DRAGON was published when she was only twenty-five) and remains alive and well today (still signing books at age eighty-five) -- we now have a special signed edition of a classic novel.

COLLECTING TIP FOR MY FATHER’S DRAGON: The fact that so few of these slipcased, signed editions were published makes it an automatic collector’s item. Though the book was just released, I can’t imagine there are too many copies left at this point. Although somewhat pricey, it’s probably better to get a copy today than to wait and have to pay twice as much in the future -- if, that is, any collector will be willing to part with their own copy.

I won’t be willing to part with my copy of MY FATHER’S DRAGON or any of the books discussed above. I’m so grateful to have them on my shelves -- and so grateful to those who gave me these great presents this Christmas.

To misquote Dennis the Menace once again: these gifts were even better than peanut butter!

Monday, December 29, 2008

Auld Acquaintance

Late in December many newspapers and magazines do a final list of all the notables who passed away during the past year. Here are some of the children’s book creators we said goodbye to in 2008. If you know of any others that I missed, please let me know and I’ll add them.

Graham Percy died January 4 at age 68

The Auckland-born artist illustrated over 100 books for children including a 1997 edition of THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS. According to his obituary in Great Britain’s INDEPENDENT, while Graham Percy was hospitalized “during his last illness, there was a moment when he frowned and his hands moved over the sheet. The nurse asked him if he needed morphine. He said no, that he was just working out a drawing."

Phyllis A. Whitney died February 8 at age 104

Though probably best known for her adult works of romance and suspense, Phyllis A. Whitney wrote a number of popular mysteries for young readers. THE MYSTERY OF THE HAUNTED POOL won the first Edgar Allan Poe Award for “Best Juvenile” in 1961. Three years later she won again for THE MYSTERY OF THE HIDDEN HAND. Ms. Whitney began writing her autobiography (as yet unpublished) when she was 102 years old.

Julia Cunningham died February 27 at age 91

Poetic prose distinguished the work of Julia Cunningham, whose novels included ONION JOURNEY, BURNISH ME BRIGHT and the National Book Award nominee THE TREASURE IS THE ROSE. She is perhaps best known for 1965’s DORP DEAD, a tale of psychological horror. A 2001 reissue of included an afterward by critic Betsy Hearne. Upon reading Ms. Hearne’s explication of the novel, Julia Cunningham remarked, “She doesn’t really get it."

Michael de Larrabeiti died on April 18 at age 73

English author Michael de Larrabeiti wrote for adults as well as children. His fantasy trilogy about London runaways (THE BORRIBLES, 1976; THE BORRIBLES GO FOR BROKE, 1981) and THE BORRIBLES : ACROSS THE DARK METROPOLIS, 1986) was considered controversial for its language and violence. Some characters in the books are send-ups of the Wombles, fictional characters created by Elisabeth Beresford, which achieved great popularity in books, television shows, and songs during the 1970s.

Ted Key died May 3 at age 95

Ted Key’s is best known for creating a comic strip about Hazel the maid -- a character who came to Key in a dream, then ran for years in the Saturday Evening Post, as a syndicated newspaper feature, and in a long-running TV series starring Shirley Booth. Kids knew his comic “Diz and Liz” which ran in Jack and Jill magazine, his animated cartoon characters Peabody and Sherman, his children’s books such as THE BIGGEST DOG IN THE WORLD (1960), which was later filmed as DIGBY, THE BIGGEST DOG IN THE WORLD, and his screenplays for the Disney films MILLION DOLLAR DUCK and THE CAT FROM OUTER SPACE.

Tasha Tudor died June 18 at the age of 92

A hugely popular author and illustrator, Tasha Tudor received Caldecott Honors in 1945 for MOTHER GOOSE and in 1957 for 1 IS ONE. The nostalgic, pastoral world depicted in her watercolors was a reflection of her real life, as she dressed in nineteenth-century clothing, grew her own food, and lived in an old-fashioned home without running water or electricity. According to her obituary in the Los Angeles Times, “In the early 1990s, Tudor announced that she was quitting public appearances, partly because it was hard to find someone who could watch the house and knew how to milk a goat.” The bonnet-wearing, goat-milking author did, however, drive a car.

Sue Alexander died July 3 at the age of 74

The author of NADIA THE WILLFUL and other well-received children’s books was one of the founders of the Society of Children's Book Writers
and Illustrators, which began in 1968 and now has over 20,000 members. The winner of the Society’s “Sue Alexander Most Promising New Work Award” was originally chosen by Ms. Alexander herself; now that she is gone, members of her twenty-year writing group will make the annual selection.

Thomas M. Disch died July 4 at the age of 68

Thomas Disch received a Hugo Award and multiple Nebula Award nominations for his adult science fiction, but is known in field of juvenile literature for THE BRAVE LITTLE TOASTER, a story that originally appeared in the August 1980 issue of THE MAGAZINE OF SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY and was published as a children’s book in 1986. Despondent over his health and finances, the inveterate blogger made his last LiveJournal entry just two days before committing suicide.

Richard Kidd died July 21 at age 56

A British illustrator and author, Richard Kidd entered the field of children’s books with ALMOST FAMOUS DAISY! (1996), a picture book praised for its mixed-media artwork. He later began writing mysteries for older children, including THE GIANT GOLDFISH ROBBERY and THE TIGER BONE THIEF. Mr. Kidd drowned while swimming under the Dunsulan Falls while visiting the Philippines.

Bjorn Berg died in July at age 84

A newspaper artist for over fifty years in his native Sweden, Bjorn Berg is known in the field of children’s books for illustrating several of Astrid Lindgren’s titles about a boy named Emil, reportedly using his own towheaded son as the model for that character. He also illustrated the “Mrs. Pepperpot" books by Alf Proysen. Mr. Berg was nominated for the Hans Christian Andersen Award in 1972.

Pauline Baynes died August 1 at the age of 86

Pauline Baynes won the 1968 Kate Greenaway Medal for providing nearly 600 margin illustrations to Grant Uden’s A DICTIONARY OF CHIVALRY (can you imagine a reference book like this winning America’s Caldecott?) However, she is best known for her collaborations with J.R.R. Tolkien (illustrating his FARMER GILES OF HAM, among others) and C.S. Lewis. Her artwork for Lewis’s “The Chronicles of Narnia” was, according to her obituary in Great Britain’s INDEPENDENT, “the definitive representation of the extraordinary land beyond the wardrobe.” The same obituary notes that Lewis praised the illustrator to her face, but complained behind her back that she “couldn’t draw lions.” Book collectors take note: Baynes’s first commissioned illustration work was a children’s title called QUESTION MARK -- though no copy of the book is known. Let’s start looking for it!

Jeannette Eyerley died August 18 at age 100

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, author Jeannette Eyerley tackled tough topics such as drugs, abortion, and alcoholism in issue-oriented young adult novels such as DROP-OUT and BONNIE JO, GO HOME. Eyerley said she began writing problem-novels because her own teenage daughters complained about “teenage gum drops” and suggested she write about “real kids with real problems.” The girls later said they didn’t remember making that comment.

Coleen Salley died September 18 at the age of 78

Although her children’s books included 2002’s EPOSSUMONDAS, Coleen Salley was best-known as a storyteller in her native New Orleans. She was featured in a 1992 Visa commercial telling Cajun stories and every door of her French Quarter home was filled with autographs and drawings by children’s book creators who came to visit.

Ellen Tarry died on September 23 at age 101

A biracial author who wrote about African American children in four picture books published between 1940 and 1950, Ellen Tarry is best known for MY DOG RINTY, which was illustrated by Marie Hall Ets and published in 1946. The book was praised for its depiction of a middle-class Harlem family dealing with everyday issues.

Dirk Zimmer died on September 26 at age 64

Born in Germany, Dirk Zimmer immigrated to the United States in 1977 where he found success as an illustrator, providing the artwork for books such as IN A DARK, DARK ROOM by Alvin Schwartz and THE IRON GIANT by Ted Hughes, as well as titles by John Bierhorst, Ann M. Martin, and Eric Kimmell. He was struck by an automobile while walking near the Hudson River and died from the injuries.

Eleanor Spence died September 30 at age 79

A former teacher and librarian, Australian author Eleanor Spence was known for tackling challenging issues in a number of well-regarded novels for young readers. She received the “Book of the Year Award” from the Children’s Book Council of Austrailia in 1964 for THE GREEN LAUREL and again in 1977 for a novel concerning autism, THE OCTOBER CHILD.

Margery Gill died October 31 at age 83

Though she illustrated dozens of books, including Susan Cooper’s DAWN OF FEAR and OVER SEA, UNDER STONE, Margery Gill never received the recognition accorded to many of her peers. Her obituary in Great Britain’s GUARDIAN noted that when Puffin Classics reissued the 1961 edition of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A LITTLE PRINCESS this year -- a volume especially notable due to Ms. Gill’s pen-and-ink illustrations -- the title page listed the artist as “Margery Hill.” When the illustrator heard of this error, she reportedly laughed.

Marylin Hafner died October 31 at age 82

Like Dirk Zimmer, Marylin Hafner also died of injuries sustained in a pedestrian car accident. Many will remember her cartoon “Molly and Emmett,” which ran first as a back-cover feature in LADYBUG magazine and later in CRICKET. She also illustrated many books for children including IT’S CHRISTMAS by Jack Prelutsky and A CARNIVAL OF ANIMALS by Sid Fleischman.

Ivan Southall died on November 18 at age 87

With his 1971 young adult novel JOSH, Ivan Southall became the first and only Australian to ever win Great Britain’s Carnegie Medal. His other well-regarded books include ASH ROAD (1966) and LET THE BALLOON GO (1968.) In 2003 he won the Phoenix Award, which is given to a book published twenty years earlier without having won a major prize, for his 1983 novel THE LONG NIGHT WATCH.

Dorothy Sterling died December 1 at age 95

Although she herself was caucasian, Dorothy Sterling played a major role in publishing early works about the African American experience, including FREEDOM TRAIN : THE STORY OF HARRIET TUBMAN, a biography which has been in print for over fifty years, and the 1959 novel MARY JANE, which describes the battle for desegregation from the perspective of a young black girl. Sterling’s family was long active in civil rights and once had a cross burned in their front yard.

Though these authors left us in 2008, they will never truly depart as long as their books continue to be read.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Brunching and Blogging on a Blustery Day

Here in the Detroit area, the holiday-season weather has been bizarre.

A week ago Friday we had so much snow that work was canceled. Last Sunday the temperatures hovered around zero. However, yesterday was so warm that my visting brother and I went out in the car with the windows rolled down. Overnight, the winds began to moan.

This morning I woke up to discover no cell phone service and only an intermittent connection to the internet. According to the radio, over 300,000 people are without power in the metro region, with many telephone towers on the fritz as well.

Rather than take the risk of blogging on unstable lines, I'm postponing today's Sunday Brunch. Hope you'll come back in a day or so for my next blog entry. Thanks for your patience and I hope everyone is having a happy holiday season.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas, Periodically

Where is Lydia’s Christmas tree?

As far as that goes, where is Lydia herself?

The topic of today’s blog was supposed to be holiday stories that were originally published in adult magazines -- and later became children’s books.

The jumping-off point was going to be “A Christmas Tree for Lydia” by Elizabeth Enright. Although Ms. Enright is best-known for her Newbery winner THIMBLE SUMMER and her juvenile novels about the Melendy family, she was also an accomplished short story writer, whose work appeared in many of the top magazines of her day -- and was collected in several anthologies for adult readers. Her story “A Christmas Tree for Lydia” first appeared in the December 1947 issue of WOMAN’S HOME COMPANION and was later issued as a book by Enright’s usual publisher, Farrar, in 1951. Few people know this title, possibly because it was published as a “gift book” -- so tiny it could be slipped in a Christmas stocking -- rather than a regular trade volume. I doubt many libraries owned it, since it would be too small to control. I have -- or had -- a copy of the book A CHRISTMAS TREE FOR LYDIA and it was almost impossible to keep track of. At first I placed it in the middle of a shelf, between two standard-sized books, but it was so short and thin that it would usually work its way to the back of the shelf where it could not be found. Eventually I moved it to the end of the shelf, though every time I grabbed another nearby book -- or even just brushed against the shelf with my hand -- A TREE FOR LYDIA would tumble to the floor. When I vacuumed, even the vibrations of that appliance would make delicate little LYDIA fly off the shelf and, more than once, it nearly got sucked into the bag of the vacuum. (Fortunately, I don’t vacuum often enough for this to have been a major issue.) Anyway, last night when I decided to write about A CHRISTMAS TREE FOR LYDIA in my blog, I could not find it. I was up until 4:00 AM (on Christmas Eve!) using a flashlight to find the book on my shelves, running my fingers over the spines of dusty volumes (I dust even less than I vacuum) hoping to feel where it may have slid between two larger books. In the back of my mind, I vaguely remember putting it somewhere “where it can’t get lost.” So now of course it IS lost. Either that, or it really did get sucked up by the vacuum at some point. Even though I can't show you my copy, there is a cover image just above, which I poached off someone else's blog. And that really is close to the size of the actual volume.

Another Christmas book that had its origins in a magazine is THE LIGHT AT TERN ROCK by Julia L. Sauer, which was published by Viking in 1951. Those who are only familiar with the HORN BOOK as an “informational” magazine may be surprised to learn it used to print the occasional piece of fiction, especially around the holidays. That’s where Ms. Sauer’s story was first published.

Earlier this year there was an internet-based fuss about whether Neil Gaiman’s THE GRAVEYARD BOOK could be eligible for this year’s Newbery since part of the story had been previously published. THE LIGHT AT TERN ROCK should lay rest to that argument. Here is a book that was named a Newbery Honor even though its copyright page clearly informs the reader “originally published in The Horn Book under the title “The Light at Christmas.” (I hope I have not begun a brand-new internet-based fuss to revoke TERN ROCK’s status as a Honor Book.)

Finally, there’s the modern classic THE BEST CHRISTMAS PAGEANT EVER, written by Barbara Robinson and published by Harper in 1972. This short novel had its origins as an even shorter story called “The Christmas Pageant,” which appeared in McCall’s Magazine.

Many years ago I had the opportunity to review THE BEST CHRISTMAS PAGEANT EVER for a reference book. Having not read the book for many years at that point, I was surprised by how weak it seemed to me. The narrator is not only nameless, but she really doesn’t participate in the story at all. And the Herdman kids, though wonderfully portrayed as a group (“They lied and stole and smoked cigars (even the girls) and talked dirty and hit little kids and cussed their teaches and took the name of the Lord in vain and set fire to Fred Shoemaker’s old broken-down toolhouse”) were pretty much interchangeable and indistinguishable as characters. The editor of the reference publication sent my essay back, suggesting that I was being “a bit too hard on the book.” So I went back to re-read it and discovered that she was right. Although, not perfect, there’s a lot to love about this book -- and who isn’t both amused and moved by little Gladys Herdman appearing as a pageant angel “with her skinny legs and her dirty sneakers stick out from under her robe, yelling at all of us, everywhere: ‘Hey! Unto you a child is born!’”

Considering how many famous holiday stories were originally published in magazines (not forgetting Truman Capote’s masterpiece, “A Christmas Memory,” first printed in the December 1956 MADEMOISELLE), it’s sad to realize how few general periodicals publish fiction at all these days. As far as that goes, many of these publications (WOMAN’S HOME COMPANION, MCCALL’S) are now gone and those that remain are struggling to hang on. What a loss if we didn’t have such publications to bring us new Christmas stories at all in the future.

And speaking of losses, I’m still flummoxed over what happened to my copy of A CHRISTMAS TREE FOR LYDIA. Is it tucked behind some larger books on my shelf? Did I put it someplace for “safekeeping” -- so safe that I’ve now forgotten where? Did it tumble under the bed, under a chair? Or should I finally change the bag on that vacuum cleaner just to make sure it’s not in there...?

Really, it could be anywhere.

I’m hoping that LYDIA eventually turns up. I know it won’t be today. It may not even show up during this holiday season. ...I’ll probably find it next summer. Yet when I do, I imagine that reading it will transport me back to this Christmas when snow was on the ground and the tree was decorated and lighted up with gifts piled beneath. A good book can take you back to Christmas for sure.

Really, a good book can take you anywhere.

Merry Christmas to everyone.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

A Mostly Christmas Brunch

Christmas is coming. Unfortunately, it’s coming a little too fast for me, with half my cards unsent, half my presents unwrapped, and only half the tree decorated. And I need more than another half day to catch up.

Today’s Sunday brunch contains some happy Christmas thoughts and a couple sad author stories.


The first Christmas book I remember owning featured Dennis the Menace. I want to say it was a Little Golden Book. The only thing I remember now is a scene where Dennis and his father go pick up a Christmas tree and, on the way home in the car, Dennis says the fresh fir “smells better ‘n peanut butter.” I have no idea what happened to this book. (Where do Little Golden Books go when they die? We all had them as kids...and then one day they’re gone. They don’t carry them in libraries. Even most used bookstores don’t have them. So where do they go?) Periodically over the years I’ve tried to track down a copy of this book, but it doesn’t seem to exist. Did I dream it or -- as so often happens in the world of book-collecting -- will one fall into my lap one day when I least expect it? Like during the middle of July hotspell? I actually still have my second Christmas book. Entranced by the animated version of A CHRISTMAS CAROL on TV (starring Mr. Magoo!), my parents got me this copy of the Dickens original, published by the Peter Pauper Press. It only cost a dollar. It was a dollar well spent, as I still have this book decades later and still re-read it during the Christmas season every couple years. Sometimes when I read A CHRISTMAS CAROL I have the fleeting thought that it’s derivative and stereotyped. Isn’t the name “Scrooge” kind of obvious? Haven’t we seen the story of a character visiting their past in a million TV movies? Then of course I remember that “Scrooge” didn’t mean “scrooge” until this story was published, that A CHRISTMAS CAROL isn’t derivative -- it’s the book that everything else (like those million TV movies) is derived from. It’s not stereotyped; it’s the archetype.


Every year my bookstore friend calls late on the afternoon of Christmas Eve and asks what I’ll be reading that night before bedtime. We both like to read something special on the night before Christmas. I usually read a mix of old and new. Sometimes it’s the aforementioned Dickens book, Truman Capote’s classic story “A Christmas Memory,” or Thornton Wilder’s haunting short play, THE LONG CHRISTMAS DINNER. And I always read the Christmas chapter in Betty MacDonald’s adult memoir ANYBODY CAN DO ANYTHING; titled “Let Nothing You Dismay,” it’s a strange, scary, yet Christmasy story about Betty’s encounter with a loony woman named Dorita who helps Betty and her sister plan a holiday party for a large company...when she’s not ringing doorbells at midnight, following Betty from store to store as she Christmas shops, and emerging from the Seattle fog to ask menacing questions such as “How would you feel if something happened to your children?” I also like to read a new book every Christmas Eve. Last year it was Tomie De Paola’s holiday memoir CHRISTMAS REMEMBERED. This year it will probably be LET IT SNOW, the just-released paperback containing three young-adult short stories by John Green, Maureen Johnson, and Lauren Myracle.


I just realized that three Caldecotts winners, 1960’s NINE DAYS TO CHRISTMAS (illustrated by Marie Hall Ets; written by Ets and Aurora Labastida), 1962’s BABOUSHKA AND THE THREE KINGS (illustrated by Nicholas Sidjakov; written by Ruth Robbins), and 1986’s THE POLAR EXPRESS (written and illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg) have Christmas themes. In addition, there are a number of Caldecott Honors about the holidays.

However, I can’t think of any Newbery winner that focuses on Christmas. Of course there are great holiday scenes and chapters in some of the winning books (including the “I Wonder as I Wander” conclusion to Katherine Paterson’s JACOB HAVE I LOVED) but are there any Newbery books that take place completely during the Christmas season? Even looking at the list of Newbery Honors, I can only find one -- NICHOLAS : A MANHATTAN CHRISTMAS STORY by Anne Carroll Moore, back in 1925.

Have I missed any?


No, this doesn’t concern the Ludwig Bemelmans’ heroine (she spells her name “Madeline”) but is instead about Madeleine L’Engle, who turned Christmas sadness into Christmas joy.

We’ve all heard the horror story of how Ms. L’Engle submitted her novel A WRINKLE IN TIME to almost thirty publishers before it was accepted. Her husband Hugh Franklin recalled one publisher returning the manuscript just two days before Christmas and his wife’s “brave but futile attempts to keep the joyous season joyous that year.” (To quote a blog reader, “There's nothing good about people, especially right before the holiday season.” That applies to editors and writers.) But this story has a very satisfying ending. Not only was WRINKLE eventually accepted and went on to become an award-winning classic, but L’Engle even got to make up for her sad Christmas by creating a new Christmas story for herself and her readers, THE TWENTY-FOUR DAYS BEFORE CHRISTMAS, a lesser-known book about the Austin family which was published in 1964. It makes perfect week-before-Christmas reading.


Another fun week-before-Christmas book is Carolyn Haywood’s SNOWBOUND WITH BETSY, which was published in 1962. The story concerns the days before Christmas when Betsy and her family are snowed-in, along with a family rescued from a stalled car. The story is filled with lots of pre-holiday activities, including cookie-baking. I was a bit put-off by the number of times Betsy smelled the “odor” of Christmas cookies in the air. Maybe it’s because I always associate “odor” with bad smells, but that word seemed really off to me. I wonder why Haywood didn’t refer to the “scent” or “aroma” of the cookies instead.

Of course that is probably the type of thing only an adult thinks of, not a child. I didn't read SNOWBOUND WITH BETSY until I was in my forties. As a kid I devoured all of Haywood’s books about Eddie, but ignored Betsy completely. I decided to remedy that situation many decades later by reading several of the Betsy books. And let me tell you, it takes a special kind of courage for a middle-aged male to belly up to a lunch counter, order a hamburger with fries, and then sit reading B IS FOR BETSY right out in public.


A sad segue from Christmas stories to note that today is the twentieth anniversary of the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. This event has a children’s book connection in that one of the victims was Theodora Cohen, the only child of authors Susan and Daniel Cohen. Mr. Cohen is most famous for his compilations of ghost stories and urban legends, among many other volumes for kids and adults. The Cohens examine the tragedy in a sad and angry memoir, PAN AM 103 : THE BOMBING, THE BETRAYALS, AND A BEREAVED FAMILY’S SEARCH FOR JUSTICE.

Earlier this week blogger Fuse #8 discussed the new movie HOTEL FOR DOGS, based on Lois Duncan’s 1971 children’s book and reported that Ms. Duncan has now written a sequel called NEWS FOR DOGS. I didn’t know that! Fuse #8 (aka Elizabeth Bird) added, “This answers my own personal question; is Lois Duncan still around? Awesome. Well forget the cute animal stories, can she please write us some more scary middle grade novels now? My library's edition of DOWN A DARK HALL is getting lonely.” Ms. Duncan is another author who faced personal tragedy in her life. Around the time her spooky 1989 novel DON’T LOOK BEHIND YOU was published, her youngest daughter Kaitlyn was shot to death. Strangely, some of the events in DON’T LOOK BEHIND YOU paralleled Kaitlyn’s murder -- which was at first deemed “random” by the police. In 1992, the author published WHO KILLED MY DAUGHTER?, a powerful nonfiction account of her own search for justice. At one point, I believe the author vowed not to write any more scary titles, but has since written at least one, GALLOW’S HILL (1998), as well as a paperback called PSYCHIC CONNECTIONS : A JOURNEY INTO THE MYSTERIOUS WORLD OF PSI, borne of her own attempts to use psychics in solving her daughter’s murder.

Incidentally, Lois Duncan maintains a website ( where she updates readers on her doings and even sells autographed copies of some of her books. FROM SPRING TO SPRING is a nice album of poetry (illustrated with photos of the author’s own family) and HOW TO WRITE AND SELL YOUR PERSONAL EXPERIENCES is a great book for writers which I use a lot. I’ve ordered a few titles from Ms. Duncan, including WHO KILLED MY DAUGHTER?, which she inscribed “In memory of Kait.”


While searching for Christmas titles in the library, I came across three older books that I have never read, but look very intriguing:

First there’s CHRISTMAS WITH THE SAVAGES by Mary Clive. Published in 1955, it’s said to be a humorous fictionalized account of the author’s own experiences spending the holidays with relatives in a large country house just before the first World War.

Born in 1907, Mary Clive is still very much alive at age 101!

Next I found a 1952 volume called CHRISTMAS EVE, written by Alistair Cooke and illustrated by Caldecott winner Marc Simont. Originally broadcast as “typical American Christmas stories” on the BBC, these three tales were presented, according to the dustjacket, “to our readers in the proud certainty that if they are not traditional American Christmas stories, they soon will be.”

Did that come to pass? I must admit I’ve never heard of these stories before, but I’m willing to give them a try.

Finally I uncovered SNOW FOR CHRISTMAS by Vernon Bowen:

I don’t know if this humorous story of a boy scientist who learns how to make snow (or, as the dustjacket informs us, “TOO MUCH SNOW”) is good or not, but the Kurt Wiese cover illustration is sure a winner!


And here’s a holiday genre I never expected to see: science fiction. TO FOLLOW A STAR : NINE SCIENCE FICTION STORIES ABOUT CHRISTMAS, edited by Terry Carr, contains such stories as “The New Father Christmas” by Brian W. Aldiss, about a Santa who “does not leave new toys but carries off old people.”

Yikes, with all the AARP solicitations I've begun receiving, I think I'll leave Santa an extra portion of milk and cookies just in case he gets any ideas about me.


Finally, I wanted to share two Christmas presents that I received this week.

I generally buy books from my local independent bookstore, only relying on if I’m in a pinch or for non-book items. I prefer giving my book-business to local merchants. Besides, I hate how Amazon keeps track of your purchases and then hounds you about them. You buy one book -- just one book! -- about a transsexual private detective...and then for the rest of your days you get e-mails from Amazon saying, “Since our records indicate you have a interest in TRANSSEXUALS, you might be in interested in...” (insert name of latest book on that topic, such as TRANSGENDER SURGERY FOR DUMMIES.) But, as I said, I do buy some non-book items through Amazon. Last night I was wrapping presents and picked up a box that had arrived from Amazon the previous day. I opened it, expecting to find a gift item I’d ordered for a family member. Instead I found this book:

ANNIE LEIBOVITZ AT WORK? I never ordered this. They must have shipped me the wrong item by mistake! I turned to the back cover and read, “Annie Leibovitz in her own words. How she made her pictures. The most celebrated photographer of our time talks about Hunter S. Thompson, the Rolling Stones, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Demi Moore, Whoopi Goldberg, the Blues Brothers, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Keith Haring, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Patti Smith, George W. Bush, William S. Burroughs, Kate Moss, Queen Elizabeth, fashion, war, advertising, lighting, cameras, and the ten things she is always asked.”

Hmm...I may not have ordered it -- but now I desperately wanted to read it!

That’s when I fished around for the packing slip and discovered that the book had been sent to me as a Christmas gift from a favorite friend! It’s funny that she knew I’d like to read this book before I even knew the book existed. And what a fun way to uncover it -- wrapping gifts for others and unexpectedly finding a gift for myself!

I also received another gift from a book buddy that couldn’t have been more perfect, as it combined three of my favorite things -- Christmas, children’s books, and (being a collector) limited editions! It’s a handmade Christmas tree ornament featuring an iconic image from a famous children’s book. Being a bad photographer (someone once jerked a camera right out of my hand as I was about to tell my to say cheese, exclaiming “Don’t let Peter take the picture! He takes LOUSY pictures!”), the photograph below can’t really convey the color palette or just how nice this ornament is:

Do you recognize it? Think Caldecott 1943. This is only one of fifteen ever made and it now has a permanent home on my Christmas tree!

Big thanks to these special friends for their special gifts -- and a big thank you to everyone who reads this blog. I will try to post another entry or two before Christmas, but until then I hope everyone has a happy holiday season filled with fir trees that smell better ‘n peanut butter...Christmas carols to sing or A CHRISTMAS CAROL to read...old books, new books...the "odor" of cookies baking in the oven...snow, but not "TOO MUCH SNOW"...wonderful presents to give and get...and good reading for Christmas Eve.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Flashlights, Scissors, and a Clothes Dryer Named Joshua

Bad times have hit the book industry. Profits are down. Publishers are restructuring. Editors are being laid-off. (Hmm, I wonder how they like being rejected. Don’t worry, guys, just keep submitting that resume! I’m sure it will end up in some nice tall slush pile at a reputable publishing house and you'll get a response in, oh, six to twelve months.) It's too bad all this is occurring during the holidays -- a time generally considered a season of celebration. To lighten the mood a little, I thought it might be nice to read about how a few children's and young-adult authors celebrated their first big sale, the publication of their first book, or their first award.

Lois Duncan (KILLING MR. GRIFFIN; I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER) grew up publishing articles and fiction in small, low-paying periodicals, so she considered it a very big deal when she finally had a piece accepted by a "slick" woman's magazine -- GOOD HOUSEKEEPING. The day the magazine was due out, Ms. Duncan drove to the nearest drugstore and parked outside at 8:00 AM, waiting for the delivery truck. When the magazines arrived, the young author rushed inside, only to find them bundled with twine in front of the magazine rack. A clerk told her that they probably wouldn't be unpacked until later that afternoon. Too anxious to wait, Duncan went to the office supply section and found a pair of scissors, paid for them at the checkout counter, then walked over to the magazine racks and clipped open the twine securing the bundle of GOOD HOUSEKEEPING magazines. She sat down on the floor to read her article...and then bought twenty copies.

M.E. Kerr/Marijane Meaker (DINKY HOCKER SHOOTS SMACK!; SOMEONE LIKE SUMMER) knew that the best way to get her work read by magazine editors was to have a literary agent -- but it's near-impossible to get an agent when you're a young, unpublished writer. That's when she came up with a plan. She had stationery printed up with the heading "Marijane Meaker, Literary Agent" and began marketing the work of several new writers -- Laura Winston, who wrote for women's magazines; Mamie Stone, who wrote confessions; Edgar Stone, who wrote detective stories, and Winslow Albert, who wrote articles. One day she received a letter saying that a story by one of her clients, Laura Winston, had been accepted by the LADIES HOME JOURNAL for $75. Later, when one of Ms. Meaker's roommates read the letter, she exclaimed that the letter didn't say $ said $750! That night Laura Winston (aka Marijane Meaker, who also happened to be Mamie Stone...Edgar Stone...and Winslow Albert) took all her roommates out to the famous New York restaurant Ruby Foo's for a Chinese feast.

The late, great Pam Conrad (PRAIRIE SONGS; WHAT I DID FOR ROMAN) celebrated the publication of her first book, I DON'T LIVE HERE!, by buying a gold chain and a single gold bead. From then on, every time she published a children's book she added a gold bead to the chain and every time she published a young-adult book she added a pearl.

Mary Stolz (THE NOONDAY FRIENDS; CAT IN THE MIRROR) was invited to the Harper office to receive the news that her first novel, TO TELL YOUR LOVE, had been accepted for publication. Based on her nonchalant reaction to the acceptance, editor Ursula Nordstrom decided that Ms. Stolz was a pretty cool customer. What she didn't know was that, after leaving the Harper office, Stolz walked to Grand Central Terminal and got on a train home to New Rochelle...not remembering until the conductor asked for her ticket that she had driven her car into the city that day.

Jean Craighead George (MY SIDE OF THE MOUNTAIN; FRIGHTFUL'S MOUNTAIN) had a similarly discombobulated reaction to learning she'd won the Newbery Medal for JULIE OF THE WOLVES. After putting down the phone, she "serenely opened a can of dog food and handed it to a guest who dropped in, put the book I had been reading in the refrigerator, and washed a batch of clean clothes."

Speaking of clothes washing, when Bill Brittain (THE WISH GIVER; THE FANTASTIC FRESHMEN) sold his first story "Joshua" to Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, he used the two hundred dollars to buy his family a much-needed clothes dryer, which they thereafter referred to as "Joshua."

The day that George Shannon (LIZARD'S SONG; UNLIVED AFFECTIONS) received the first copy of his first book, THE GANG AND MRS. HIGGINS, he was so excited that he took a flashlight to bed with him -- so he could shine the line across the room and see the book during the night.

E.L. Konigsburg (ABOUT THE B'NAI BAGELS; THE VIEW FROM SATURDAY) and her family were so thrilled when her first book, JENNIFER, HECATE, MACBETH, WILLIAM MCKINLEY AND ME, ELIZABETH was accepted that they danced around the living room together; later when that book was named a Newbery Honor Book and FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER won the gold -- in the same year! -- the excited author said she did a "Zorba Dance."

Lloyd Alexander (TIME CAT; THE HIGH CAT) labored for many years before selling his first book, an adult novel called AND LET THE CREDIT GO. Upon getting the news, he raided the family grocery money and hurried to the local party store to buy some French champagne. Due to the new author's disheveled, frantic appearance (not to mention his ancient 1932 car parked outside) the clerk demanded to see Mr. Alexander's money before taking the champagne off the shelf.

Upon learning he'd won the Caldecott Medal for NOAH'S ARK, Peter Spier (RAIN; CHRISTMAS) boarded a plane to the American Libary Association convention. He'd been told to keep the news secret, but ended up sitting next to an editor whom he knew. When she asked why he was headed for Chicago, he muttered something about going on some publishing business.

The editor smiled at him and said, "Congratulations."

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Today's Brunch Includes Teeny-Tiny Authors

When I was a kid a local radio station would devote one Sunday morning in December to nothing but Christmas carols, calling it “Music to Wrap Presents By.” This year I wish they’d play “Music to Blog By.” Because that's what I'll be doing rather than preparing for the holidays as I should be. Today’s Sunday Brunch contains some facts and (controversial) opinions on literary awards, very young authors, a phantom book, and a Christmas pig.

I love award shortlists. I’ve previously written about the period in the early 1970s when the American Library Association publicly issued lists of “nominees” for the Newbery Award. In my early teens at the time, I tracked down every listed book that I could -- and the pool of nominees was so varied that it contained nonfiction, picture books, and YA novels so advanced they were only shelved in the adult section of my library. As I read intensely in the months leading up to the Newbery announcement, I learned to appreciate those diverse genres, learned what made a good book, and learned a lot about evaluating and critiquing. I’ve always wished the American Library Association would try this experiment again. I can see classrooms of kids reading the nominated titles and voting for their own favorites. I can see the Newbery getting wider visibilty -- not just a news story for one day in January, but something that’s discussed for weeks in advance of the announcement. I’m all for a Newbery shortlist. Or even a long list of nominated titles. If they could try it out in the seventies, there’s no reason they can’t try it again today.

In the meantime, there is a new award with a shortlist. It’s the William C. Morris Award, which honors a young adult book by a first-time author. The shortlist was announced this past Monday:

A CURSE DARK AS GOLD by Elizabeth C. Bunce

GRACELING by Kristin Cashore


MADAPPLE by Cristina Meldrum


By chance, I had already read two of the nominated titles. I HATED them! But that’s good. I mean, what’s the point of a shortlist unless it serves as fodder for debate? I’m currently reading the other three titles. I’ll be writing a blog evaluating the five books sometime before the January 26 announcement. Maybe you’d like to join me in reading all five and we can meet back here to cheer on our favorites, argue the merits of our least-favorites, and either pat each other on the back for having good taste if the Morris committee agrees with our top choice -- or commiserate with each other if the committee picks the “wrong book.”


One thing I like about the Morris Award is that all the authors are new. The nominated titles will be judged on the merits of that book alone, with no thought to the author’s previous works, past award snubs, etc. Of course those things are not supposed to be considered in evaluating any award. But sometimes I think they do come into play.

Just for the sake of being controversial, let me throw out this thought: does anyone think that the Caldecott Medal, in particular, is often a “career” award given to an artist whose “time has come” -- someone who has labored in the field of children’s book illustration for many years and never won before? Of course there are exceptions -- new or newish illustrators who win the Caldecott right out of the box, or artists whose individual works merit a second, even a third (hello David Wiesner) award. Yet when I look at the list of winners for the last twenty years or so, I see so many famous names and wonder if members of the committee thought (and I say “thought” because they could never speak this out loud during deliberations), “Oh thank goodness that” (Chris Raschka, Kevin Henkes, Paul Zelinsky, Allen Say, etc., etc.) “illustrated a worthy book this year; they’ve deserved this award for so long and now we can finally make it happen.”


In a second, sophomoric attempt to engender controversy and get more hits on my blog, does anyone think it would be a good idea if the Caldecott, Newbery, and other children’s and young-adult book awards skipped a year if no book was deemed distinguished enough to win? There is a precedent for this. The Pulitzer Prizes sometimes decide not to name a winner in certain categories; Great Britain’s Carnegie Award had three years (1943, 1945, and 1966) when the prize was “withheld as no book was considered suitable.”

I’m not sure how I feel about this. On the one hand, why reward a subpar book in a weak year? On the other, I’d feel awfully cheated if no winner was announced.


The other day I came across an odd little book from 1931 called THE DIRY OF SYLVIA MCNEELY. Those who complain about the frequent typos in this blog (and they’re all family members) may be disappointed to learn that “diry” is not a typographical error on my part. Instead, it’s just one more misspelled word in a volume FULL of misspelled words. That’s because Sylvia McNeely was only nine years old when she kept this diry -- I mean diary. According to the dustjacket, Sylvia’s journal for the year 1929 “was never touched by adult hands until the year was up, and her mother sent it to the publishers without the author’s knowledge or permission.” (Mother! You read my diary? How could you?) Simple and straightforward, this diary presents an accurate (if occasionally mundane) account of a young girl’s daily life at home, at school, and visiting people in the “hospitle.” (During the course of the book, nearly everyone she knows seems to fall ill, go in the hospital or die. There is occasional humor in the diarist’s dry reportage (Sunday, January 6. “I went to Sunday school. Miss Craigin as usual asked us if we knew our lessons and as usual I said no.”) and those who think that kids misspelling words is “cute” will love most of the entries here (“I tried to right a poem but I didn’t seceed.”) My favorite entry is for Monday, March 4. In addition to noting that Herbert Hoover was made “presindent” of the United States that day, Sylvia notes: “Oh, Mother nearly won a prize. She sent a story to a contest. The name of it was the jumping of place.” Actually, it was called THE JUMPING-OFF PLACE and its author, Marian Hurd McNeely, received a Newbery Honor for this book. It’s one of the hardest Newbery titles to find in first edition, though a paperback was just issued by the South Dakota State Historical Press. I recently found a copy and will be reviewing the book in a forthcoming blog. Incidentally, Mrs. McNeely was prevented from reading or submitting any future "diries" written by her children. Between the time she sent Sylvia's manuscript off to the publisher and the time it was released, she was struck and killed by a car as she disembarked from a bus near her home. Really. No word on who was driving.


Wondering if Sylvia McNeely was the youngest writer of all time, I decided to do some research. I know there are publishing houses that specialize in books written by kids (I previously blogged about Landmark Editions which published a book by Dav Pilkey when he was still a teenager), but wanted to know if any mainstream, commercial houses had published books written by any thumbsucking, Pampers-wearing, Zweiback-spewing carpet crawlers. Not that I’m, like, jealous of their early success or anything. According to the 1974 Guinness Book of World Records, an English girl named Janet Aitchison wrote a book called
THE PIRATE’S TALE when she was only five-and-a-half. It was published by Penguin when she was six-and-a-half in 1969. Thinking it must be a work of genius by a child prodigy, I tracked down a copy and was shocked to discover how awful this picture book truly was. Take away the bright and distracting sixties-style illustrations by Jill MacDonald and you’ve got a flatly-written, episodic, and nonsensical story that sounds as if it were written by a five-and-a-half year old. Or maybe someone even younger. I’m shocked that Harper (what were you thinking, Ursula Nordstrom?) ended up reprinting this book in the United States in 1970.


As it turned out, Little Janet Aitchison did not belong in the Guinness Book in the first place. By 1982 the Guinness editors had discovered an even younger writer who had published her first book way back in 1964. So Guinness kicked Janet to the curb and replaced her with Dorothy Straight, who was only four when she wrote HOW THE WORLD BEGAN in 1962. It was published by Pantheon in 1964. Written and illustrated in one night (you don’t say!) this little volume does offer a bit of charm as it catalogs the God’s creation of the world (“AND THEN HE PAINTED GREEN ON THE GROUND AND A BEAUTIFUL SUN. AND AFTER THAT, HE INVENTED CLOUDS, AND FROM THE CLOUDS, RAIN. AND THEN HE INVENTED LIGHTNING AND LIGHTNING CLOUDS AND STORM CLOUDS. THEN HOUSES AT LAST, AND FURNITURE. AND DOLLS.”) As you can see from the cover illustration, Straight was probably not considered a contender that year’s Caldecott. Still, it appears this book remains well-loved by readers and collectors. Only a couple copies are available for sale at the present time and they range in price from $100-$250. I wonder if any signed copies are available. And I wonder if she signed them in crayon.


Compared to Dorothy, Janet, and even Sylvia, authors such as Gordon Korman (who published his first book, THIS CAN’T BE HAPPENING AT MACDONALD HALL when he was fifteen) and S.E. Hinton (who published THE OUTSIDERS at seventeen) seem positively geriatric. Then there's Katharine Hull and Pamela Whitlock, two English schoolgirls who, at ages fourteen and fifteen, happened to meet while seeking shelter from a rainstorm. Though they attended the same school, they didn’t know each other well, but during their rainy refuge the two discovered they both shared an interest in writing a book “by children, about children, for children.” Without letting anyone else know their plans, the two began their book -- at first writing alternate words, but eventually decided to write alternate chapters. Writing under a deadline (“To make us work hard and fast we made a vow to cut off all our hair on a certain day if the book was not finished by then. So it jolly well was.”) the book took ten months to write. After revising each other’s work, they mailed it to author Arthur Ransome (with return postage!) and he eventually presented this manuscript (written on both sides of the paper in two different handwritings) to his publisher, calling it “the year’s best children’s book.” THE FAR-DISTANT OXUS was released to great success in 1937 and, unlike those one-book wonders Sylvia McNeely, Janet Aitchison and Dorothy Straight, Hull and Whitlock actually went on to write several more books for young readers including ESCAPE TO PERSIA, THE OXUS IN SUMMER and CROWNS.


Incidentally, the dustjacket for THE FAR-DISTANT OXUS above is from 1960 and I discovered something quite interesting on the backflap -- a phantom book!

The back flyleaf contains an ad for a new book by Pamela Whitlock called THE BROCKENS : A COUNTRY FAMILY. The extensive summary describes the nine Brocken children and calls this book “not an adventure story, but a story of people and of many adventures.” A banner at the bottom says, “To be published next year.”

Yet the book never saw print! I wonder what happened to it. Is it possible that some copies were printed but never distributed? Or is a manuscript copy still hidden in some dusty drawer at a publishing house? What a great “find” that would be.


This week I happened across a book I had not seen before, PIPPIN THE CHRISTMAS PIG by Jean Little.

I read many of this author’s books as a kid and particularly liked LOOK THROUGH MY WINDOW. (I also remember that I first encountered the word “sallow” in one her’s funny the odd things one remembers.) Over the years I’ve occasionally seen signed copies of Jean Little’s books; she sometimes writes great long inscriptions -- the kind us book collectors love -- which is pretty surprising since she is visually impaired.

Published in 2004, PIPPIN THE CHRISTMAS PIG is set on Christmas Eve, as a group of barn animals brag about how their ancestors assisted at the navity (the donkey provided transportation to Bethlehem, the cow gave her manger, the sheep gave fleece to cushion the hay, etc.) When Pippin asks what role pigs played in the event, she is told, “ The very idea! The child was a king. The holy stable was no place for pigs.”

The story is simple and heartfelt and I also like the illustrations by Werner Zimmermann -- particularly this spread a bluejay on a branch watching Pippin run away during a blizzard:
Something else that struck me about this book was the first endpaper, which contains a line that says “A gift for--” and a place to sign one’s name.
I thought that was a rather odd logo to include in a book, as it presumes that every copy of the book that’s sold will be given as a gift, when of course that is not true. (Most, for example, are probably sold to libraries.) Still, I suppose that EVERY book is, in one way or another, a gift -- a gift from the author, a gift to the reader.

Which reminds me: only ten more shopping days till Christmas -- and books make the best gifts.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Why Didn't I Think of That?

The inventor of the Pet Rock did not get much respect.

The guy who came up with the idea, a California advertising executive named Gary Dahl, made a million off that 1970s fad, but instead of getting kudos, Dahl likely heard this common response: "What a simple idea! Anyone could have thought of it." And while it's true that the idea was rather simple (A rock. In a box. With instructions on how to care for it.) and that anyone could have thought of it, the point is: no one did think of it before Gary Dahl came along. I doubt he was bothered by these complaints; he was probably too busy counting his profits.

Writers often find themselves in the same situation. They write for years, hone their craft, but hardly make any money. And people are always bothering them with that unanswerable question, "Where do you get your ideas?"

Yet when a writer does come up with a one-in-a-million idea, do they hear applause? No, instead they hear: "What a simple idea! Anyone could have thought of it."

Sadly, I even heard myself repeating that same phrase yesterday while I was Christmas shopping. I was at my favorite bookstore when a customer bought three books and asked to have them gift-wrapped. Always anxious to see what titles are hot, I moseyed over to the front counter and saw the clerk wrapping a book called SCARED OF SANTA : SCENES OF TERROR IN TOYLAND by Denise Joyce and Nancy Watkins. According to the back of this paperback volume: Nothing says Christmas quite like innocent children shrieking with terror as a stranger dressed in red drags them kicking and screaming onto his lap. Now this time-honored rite of passage is celebrated with a hilarious collection of more than two hundred and fifty priceless photos of kids' traumatic trips to Santa's workshop. Scared of Santa offers a cornucopia of photographic funnies—from sixty-year-old family heirlooms to last year's howlers—along with delightful commentary on those unforgettable childhood visits to scary ol' Saint Nick. Paging through this imminently-browsable volume and, to borrow a line from a Christmas song, laughing all the way, I said to the bookstore clerk: "What a simple idea! Anyone could have thought of it. I mean, everyone has pictures just like this in their photo album. Don't you?" "No," she replied, "I was raised a Jehovah's Witness." Oops. I turned to a nearby customer to get some support, but noticed he was wearing a yarmulke. Okay, not everyone has a scared-of-Santa picture in their album. But my family does. And how many times have I looked at this photo, never once thinking it was a BOOK just waiting to be written? A book which customers are now buying in multiple copies and having gift-wrapped. A book that's currently in's top 1000 bestselling titles. A book that people are going to find in their stockings this Christmas morning and will no doubt take down from the shelf every holiday season from now on to enjoy. Denise Joyce and Nancy Watkins seized on an iconic holiday image shared by so many families and are now offering over two hundred variations of it in a little holiday book that will make readers laugh and sigh and remember. What a simple idea. Why didn't I think of it?

...Incidentally, I'd also like to add that in the picture from my family album, I am NOT the brother who is crying. Instead, I'm the one who grew up to say, "Why didn't I think of that?" and, oh brother, that makes me feel like crying now!

Sunday, December 7, 2008

A Past, Present and Future Brunch

Movable books, wordless books, and a Newbery winner with a bum rap are among the topics of today’s Sunday brunch which, as usual, offers up random information and opinions on children’s books from the past and present. And, hey, the first item is even about a book from the future!


A couple weeks ago, a book buddy in Connecticut told me there was an ARC (advance reading copy) of Shaun Tan’s forthcoming book, TALES FROM OUTER SUBURBIA, for sale on the internet for only eight dollars. Remembering what a collector’s item the author’s previous title, THE ARRIVAL, has become, I quickly ordered a copy. The seller described the book’s condition as “slightly bent on the right side, pages are fine otherwise.” When it arrived, the volume turned out to be more than “slightly” bent. The top and bottom corners were crushed from first page to last, and there was another big indention in the middle that ran through the entire book. As bent as the cover and pages were, the CONTENTS of the book -- Tan’s stories and illustrations -- are even more bent! This is a seriously strange volume. THE ARRIVAL showcased Mr. Tan’s artwork and proved he could sustain a full-length narrative without a single word of text. TALES FROM OUTER SUBURBIA proves that in addition to being a magnificent artist, Shaun Tan is a master of the written word. These short elliptical tales, by turns mystical and fantastic, will ignite the imagination and leave the reader thinking long after the last (bent) page is turned. There’s the story of “foreign exchange student” who sleeps in a teacup and travels on a wind-driven leaf, Grandpa’s tale of a calamitous pre-wedding sojourn with Grandma, a vignette about a “nameless holiday” in which beloved objects are placed on the roof as offerings, and an explanation for what happens to all the poems people write but “never let anyone else read.” The illustrations -- in black-and-white, sepia, and full color -- encompass a variety of styles, ranging from primitive to comic to fine art, and will leave readers wondering if the eccentric pictures inspired the twisted stories or the twisted stories inspired the eccentric pictures. Whatever the case, I predict that this book will be one of 2009’s most-talked about (not to mention most thought-about and sought-after) titles. Order your copy now and get ready for a mind-bending experience.


Shaun Tan’s hypnotic and dreamlike THE ARRIVAL tells a novel-length story without uttering a word -- a rare achievement. It’s even hard to write a picture book without words, though the genre includes some classics (THE SNOWMAN by Raymond Briggs, the “Carl” books by Alexandra Day) and Caldecott winners, most notably David Wiesner’s recent FLOTSAM, as well as his 1992 winner TUESDAY, which only contains four words of text (“Tuesday evening, around eight.”)

I was thinking about this a few days ago when I came across the book THE MARVELOUS MISADVENTURES OF FUN-BOY by Ralph Cosentino, a humorous volume whose illustration style reminded me of Japanese anime.

Though advertised as "wordless," this book made me realize that writing without words (is that an oxymoron?) is easier said than done. Presented in panels, the two-page tales in Cosentino’s book are sometimes truly wordless:

But words do sneak into the volume in the form of sound effects (a boy shouts “Wheeee!” on a slide and “oouff!” when he falls off) and, in fact, understanding a tale is sometimes contingent on reading the words within the illustration:

It’s good to see that sometimes words are necessary.


I don’t think we need to worry about wordless volumes taking over the children’s book world (what would M.T. Anderson’s Octavian Nothing be without words? Nothing.) but there does seem to be a trend toward emphasizing art over text in books for young adults and children. Of course graphic novels are a legitimate, respectable genre and can be considered a true art form, but I wonder about this new trend of re-imagining established works of children’s fiction in graphic form. 2009 is going to bring new versions of Gertrude Chandler Warner’s Boxcar Children as graphic novels. At first I found this an intriguing idea...until I learned the new volumes are only going to be 32 pages a piece. Those aren’t books. They’re comic books. Besides, considering the state of today’s publishing world and the fact that many people in that industry have been laid off in recent weeks, I worry that there will soon be less emphasis on nurturing new talent and more emphasis on recycling old, popular books by dead authors (who can’t demand more money) into graphic form. I will venture a guess that HarperCollins -- which has prostituted the Laura Ingalls Wilder books into so many unnecessary remakes that the series should now be called LITTLE HOUSE OF ILL REPUTE (or LITTLE HO for short) -- will soon be offering these titles as comic boo-- I mean, graphic novels. Give them time. Five...four...three...two....


Speaking of picture-dependent books, my friends at the bookstore told me that they couldn’t keep Rufus Butler Seder’s book GALLOP! on the shelf last Christmas season. Now another holiday is upon us and Mr. Seder has a new book out, SWING!

Using a technique called “Scanimation,” these amazing volumes create motion right before your eyes on the page of a book. GALLOP! focuses on animals (chimps swinging from trees, turtles swimming) while STRIKE! has a sports theme, with kids biking, skating, and kicking soccer balls. How is it done? According to the author’s website “the technique combines parallax perception (your angle of view) with moirĂ©-style multiple-line patterns to create the illusion of motion. When a scrambled image layer is viewed through a striped decoder layer, a series of sequential pictures is revealed to your eye, and your brain links this succession of images together, creating the illusion of motion.”


All I know is that these books are infinitely browsable and lots of fun. In the greater scheme of things, they’re probably no more than this decade’s Magic Eye (remember “put your nose against the page, then slowly raise your head until the picture emerges in 3-D”?) but, nonetheless, anyone who collects toy, movable, and novelty books will want to add these volumes to their shelves as an example of a new and fascinating technological breakthrough.


Last week’s discussion of endpapers led Sarah Miller (author of the outstanding Annie Sullivan novel, MISS SPITFIRE : REACHING HELEN KELLER) to write: “I'm more partial to textured endpapers than artwork. (Have you seen GREETINGS FROM PLANET EARTH? The endpapers feel sorta like the surface of the moon looks. The Pinkney's book on Ella Fitzgerald also sport a great texture/color combo.)”

I do remember those neat endpapers from GREETINGS FROM PLANET EARTH by Barbara Kerley and also recall some similarly impressive textured endpapers for PAINT THE WIND by Pam Munoz Ryan, also published last year. I’ve often wondered why only occasional books merit these types of special touches -- textured endpapers, colored endpapers, an embossed drawing on the front cover of a book, the author’s signature in gold ink on the front panel, etc. Do these things show that the publisher considers this a book of exceptional merit or distinction? Was there extra money in the book’s budget for these additions? Were they negotiated by the author? I’d love to know. And I wish more books were similarly bedecked and bedazzled.


The other day I came across this children’s book by Margaret Atwood.

I did not know that this Canadian literary author had ever written a children’s book. The copy I discovered, published by Groundwood in 2006, was a reprint of a 1978 McClelland and Stewart edition and contained this note from the author:

I drew this book in the very early days of children’s book publishing in Canada. We could use only two colours, as three would have been too expensive to print; hence the blue, the red, and the odd brown that is a combination of the two. I hand-lettered the entire book for the same reason: to save on costs. I had a background in poster design and printing – in my university days in the late fifties I’d had a little serigraph poster business that I ran on the ping-pong table – so I knew how to do the lettering. The drawings were black and white pen-and-ink – I then indicated to the publisher which of the two colours should go where. The techniques were primitive - -there were no computers then – and the results look a little primitive as well, but I remain very fond of this book, for sentimental reasons.

I enjoyed the intriguing info about Ms. Atwood’s life (the poster business run on the ping-pong table) and career (illustrating and hand-lettering a book) but was surprised that the late 1970s would be considered “the very early days of children’s book publishing in Canada.” Is that really so? I guess I need to research that myself. Even though I’ve spent my whole life in the Detroit area -- watching Canadian TV and listening to Canadian radio stations -- and can see Canada right across the river when I look out the windows at work, I’m woefully uninformed about the publishing practices of my next-door neighbors.


THE DAY BEFORE YESTERDAY, December 5, was Ann Nolan Clark’s birthday. She was born December 5, 1896.

YESTERDAY, December 6, was the anniversary of Ann Nolan Clark’s death. She died December 6, 1995 at the age of 99.

This author has been on my mind ever since I read a discussion of her Newbery-winning book SECRET OF THE ANDES on “Heavy Medal : A Mock Newbery Blog” which can be found here:

Anyone interested in the Newbery...and what may win the Newbery next month...will love this blog, which is written by Sharon McKellar and Nina Lindsay. I find it informative, opinionated, occasionally frustrating (like, when their opinions don’t agree with mine), but always fascinating. Ms. McKellar recently decided to tackle the great 1953 Newbery Medal controversy. You know the one. It’s the argument everyone uses when they want to diss the Newbery: “One of the most popular books of all time, CHARLOTTE’S WEB didn’t even win the Newbery! That year it went to a book called SECRET OF THE ANDES which NOBODY likes!” McKellar decided to read both books “with Newbery criteria in mind” to figure out “why SECRET OF THE ANDES might have been the winner although CHARLOTTE’S WEB has certainly stood the test of time/popularity better.”

You can go to the Heavy Medal blog to read all of Sharon McKellar’s conclusions, but I’ll quote a couple lines here: “I found SECRET OF THE ANDES to be a quite outstanding book. The language is poetic. Rich and sometimes heavy, the novel is full of lush descriptions, profound thoughts, and quietly strong characters.”

I breathed a sigh of relief when I read that. Although I grew up disliking ANDES as well, probably because of the CHARLOTTE controversy, a few years ago I went back to read the book when I wrote an essay on Ann Nolan Clark for the volume CHILDREN’S BOOKS AND THEIR CREATORS, edited by Anita Silvey, and came to similar conclusions: “Winner of the 1953 Newbery Medal, the novel is often cited as an especially poor selection because it defeated E.B. White’s CHARLOTTE’S WEB. The controversy may cause readers to overlook many excellent qualities found in Clark’s book, including beautiful, rhythmic prose and a rich appreciation for the Incan heritage. Its minor flaws -- plot elements that strain credibility and a slow, introspective tone -- do not prevent SECRET OF THE ANDES from being a rewarding work.”

Actually, as I read many of Clark’s books in preparation for writing that essay, I realized what an important and talented writer she was. An employee of the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Inter-American Educational Foundation, she explored Native cultures in many outstanding poetic works including IN MY MOTHER’S HOUSE and a series of readers that were written in both English and Navajo.

Here, for endpaper fans, are the Jean Charlot endpapers of her beleaguered (but, c’mon, it’s really a good book) SECRET OF THE ANDES:

TODAY, December 7, is Pearl Harbor Day. The best Pearl Harbor novel I know is UNDER THE BLOOD-RED SUN by Graham Salisbury -- definitely worth tracking down if you haven’t read it yet.

TOMORROW, December 8, brings the announcement of the five titles shortlisted for the William C. Morris YA Debut Award. 2009 will be the first year this award is presented (the debut of the Debut Award!) According to the American Library Association:

The William C. Morris YA Debut Award celebrates the achievement of a previously unpublished author, or authors, who have made a strong literary debut in writing for young adult readers. The work cited will illuminate the teen experience and enrich the lives of its readers through its excellence, demonstrated by:

* Compelling, high quality writing and/or illustration
* The integrity of the work as a whole
* Its proven or potential appeal to a wide range of teen readers

I can’t wait to see what books are nominated. I intend to read all five and then evaluate the titles on this blog. I hope you will join me in reading and discussing these books.

TWO WEEKS FROM THURSDAY is Christmas. Many years ago my favorite writer, M.E. Kerr (AKA Marijane Meaker) placed an ad in her Long Island paper saying that she wanted to start a writer’s group. The huge response lead to the creation of the Ashawagh Writers’ Workshop in East Hampton, a group that Ms. Meaker still leads. Oh how I would love to be a member of that class, though I must say that one can also learn a lot just from reading her books -- a lot about writing, a lot about life. I never stop learning from them. Marijane Meaker reports that the writers of Ashawagh Hall have come up with a good idea for the holiday season: “Last night the class voted to buy as many books for gifts as possible. As you know the book business, like so many, is in chaos. So many top editors being fired.”

Good idea! I took tomorrow off work to do some Christmas shopping and will spend most of that time in bookstores. Maybe if we all “buy as many books for gifts as possible” we can help, in some small way, to save the publishing industry.