Thursday, January 10, 2008
You really CAN'T judge a book by its cover.
There's a volume on my shelf whose spine says TOMMY AT THE GROCERY STORE. That's the title of a picture book written by Bill Grossman and illustrated by Victoria Chess. However, if you take the volume off the shelf you will see that it's not really TOMMY AT THE GROCERY STORE at all. Someone has altered the pages to create a brand new book called BILLY'S RISE TO POWER. For the most part, the illustrations remain the same, but a new rhyming text has been taped over TOMMY's words. This new story parodies the career of William Morris, the library promotions director at HarperCollins, and was presented to him when he retired from the company. Inside are a few loose Polaroids of Bill Morris at his retirement party, including one of him cutting the cake:
I never met Bill Morris, but have heard nothing but wonderful things about him. At the time of his death in 2003, several trade journals published tributes to Mr. Morris and his infectious enthusiasm for children's books. He sounds like one-of-a-kind and I'm so glad to have this one-of-a-kind book honoring the man and his career.
How did I come to own it? Shortly after Mr. Morris's death, much of his personal library was sold by an auction house in New York. I knew nothing about this at the time, but learned about it later. From what I understand, boxes of books were sold in random "lots." There was great interest in his collection of titles by Maurice Sendak, but most of the other lots sold for very reasonable prices. Soon individual books began to turn up at New York bookstores, selling for $30-$60 a piece. I'm all about preserving the history of children's books, so made it a mission to collect as many of these books as I could find. Thus I have books signed to Mr. Morris by Jennifer Holm, Jean Craighead George, Bruce Brooks ("For Bill -- Always the reader (and friend) I like most to please"), Francesca Lia Block, Walter Dean Myers, and dedication copies of books by Laurence Yep and Pam Conrad/Brian Selznick. I have no idea where the rest of his collection went (I heard a rumor that some of his books ended up at a thrift store) but I always keep an eye out for other volumes that may have belonged to him. While my favorite remains the one-of-a-kind BILLY'S RISE TO POWER, I also have a soft spot for IN THE FOREST OF YOUR REMEMBRANCE, a collection of Bible retellings by Gloria Jean Pinkney and illustrated by Jerry Pinkney. Signed by both (and with a drawing by Mr. Pinkney), it's poignantly inscribed "Dear Bill, Miracles are given everyday." It's dated September 5, 2003, just days before his death, and may well be the last book he ever received as a gift.
My collection of Bill Morris books feels like something of a gift to me as well. I don't really feel like I'm the "owner" of these books. I prefer to think that I'm their "caretaker," holding these books and preserving this part of literary history, until they -- like the rest of my personal collection -- are eventually passed on to a library where they can be shared with writers, researchers, librarians, and others interested in the history of children's books.