Thursday, February 21, 2008

Members of the Club

For the past couple months I’ve been using this book-collecting blog to snobbishly discuss first editions, rare volumes, and one-of-a-kind pieces of ephemera. But I should also acknowledge that the world of children’s book collecting is huge -- big enough for anyone with an interest in the field to find a place at the table.

People collect for all kinds of reasons (because they truly love children’s books…out of a sense of nostalgia…perhaps as an investment…) and the focus of their collections can range from specific authors or illustrators to subjects as diverse as circuses, firefighting, ABC books, and elephants. Collecting isn’t just for those with high-end tastes and big bank accounts. For every collector trying to track down a signed, first edition of THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN or LITTLE HOUSE IN THE BIG WOODS, there’s another trying to complete a set of Goosebumps paperbacks, buying them for a dollar a piece at the local thriftshop.

Some favorite books in my collection only cost fifty or sixty cents. Does anyone remember this one:

Or how about:

I got them from the Scholastic Book Club at school and I still treasure both books. I also treasure my memories of the Scholastic Book Club itself. Two, maybe three times a year, our teacher would hand out an ordering form that showed a picture of each available book, accompanied by a brief description. The pamphlet was only three or four pages, but I would pore over it as if it were a thousand-page Sears catalog, debating the merits of this book versus that one. Should I go for quantity and spend my $2 on four fifty-cent books, or shoot for quality and get three sixty-cent volumes that seemed more interesting? There was such diversity in the offerings too, with books ranging from classics (BLUE WILLOW by Doris Gates) to silly movie tie-ins (why DID I buy that novelization of THE LOVE BUG?) to books about magic tricks and UFOs. Toward the end Scholastic even started selling posters and I remember one that everyone in our class had to have: a very "seventies" magenta-tinted photograph crowded with teenaged faces (probably students sitting in the bleachers at a football game or something.) Superimposed over that, etched in white, was an oversized face of a mournful-looking girl. The accompanying quote was something about feeling lonely in a crowd. We all found it profound in a seventh-grade kind of way.

After much debating about which books to choose, we’d turn in our order forms and money to the girl in charge. (Always a girl. Girls were Responsible. Boys were Not.) As I recall, the girl in charge (hereafter G.I.C.) either got all her books free or at least got a few extra titles free with her order. But I don’t think that was the main draw for being the G.I.C. The best thing about being the G.I.C. (it seemed to me, the boy who wanted to be the B.I.C.) is that the day the books arrived, the G.I.C. got to skip part of her classwork, sit at a table in the back of the room, and open that huge box, pulling out handfuls of shredded packing material and then reaching deep inside to lift out stack after stack of fresh, brand-new books. She'd then sort them into separate piles matching each student's order and call each of us to the back of the room where she'd hand us our books and cross our names off her list. What power!

I still remember the time my friend Jody got to be the G.I.C. -- the amount of time she spent selecting her free books; the cashier-like way she collected our money and put it in a file box; the whispered G.I.C. conversations with our teacher. I also remember that she was off sick the day the books arrived and some other G got to open the box and pass them out. Since we lived across the street from each other, I brought Jody's books home for her that day. I still remember the bright sky, the snow on the ground, and how Jody threw her head over her right shoulder and HOWLED when she opened the door and saw me standing on the porch with her books in hand.

(Still, she was a good sport. Later on, when I was the one off sick from school she lent me her Scholastic Book Club copy of MEMBER OF THE GANG by Barbara Rinkoff.)

I now wonder what genius came up with the idea for the Scholastic Book Club. Who arranged for these books that, even then, would have cost $3.95 or $4.95 in hardcover and .75 or .95 in paperback to be sold at such deep discounts, allowing a lot of kids who probably never before owned a book to have a few of their own? Who came up with the idea of calling it a book "club"? It had no president, no meetings, no membership dues, yet it was something we all wanted to belong to. Even kids who hated reading wanted to be part of it, and would bring in their quarters and nickels to buy a joke book or puzzle volume from the Scholastic Book Club.

An inveterate shelf-snooper, I'm always amazed today when I peruse someone's bookshelves and see they're still holding onto a couple old Scholastic titles thirty or forty years after they purchased them. These modest little paperbacks cast long shadows over our lives. I have read FOLLOW MY LEADER by James B. Garfield and THE WEDNESDAY WITCH by Ruth Chew dozens of times over the years. (I just noticed that my copy of WEDNESDAY WITCH is the first printing from September 1968. The paperback actually predates the hardcover edition -- which used the same witch-riding-a-vacuum cover art -- by three years.) And I'm not the only one. When adults talk about their favorite childhood books, they invariably mention paperbacks they bought from this book club. Just mentioning the above two titles here is going to increase the number of hits my blog gets today, as people Google "witch on vacuum" or "blind boy with leader dog story."

Just writing about these books makes me want to track down other Scholastic Book Club titles from the same era and add them to my collection. Maybe I'll get some of the books I couldn't afford with my $2 limit back then. I'll order them off the internet and, when the books arrive in the mail, I'll open the boxes, remove the packing material, and stack the books on my desk -- at last the B.I.C.


Anonymous said...

Hooray for the BIC! I loved the Scholastic Book club. Would have purchased every book in it, but my allowance never stretched that far.

Flo522 said...

What a jolt from the past...Scholastic Book Club...I remember buying books with my allowance when I was a kid...when I taught school, my students bought books and with the "freebies", I furnished my classroom library so all the students could take them out...I still have several banana boxes full of Scholastics stored away in a closet from 25 years ago when I stopped teaching...The best was when my own kids were in high school and needed a "classic" the next day...lo & behold, I pulled a much needed title from the box of old Scholastics, a little dog earred from many readings but intact and with a price of .50 cents!!!

Anonymous said...

When I was a kid my favorite was definately green eggs and ham. Boy how things have changed!
Well actually my 5 year old really likes that book, but his latest he likes is Archy the Flying dolphin.
He loves dolphins. It's all about dolphins. Last year it was Spiderman, his new hero is Archy!
So if your kids like dolphins as much as mine, this book is the one!!

Anonymous said...

I lived for the Scholastic book orders when I was a kid. My mom gave me free reign in my selections. I sometimes ended up with books like your Love Bug (in my case the novelizations of the Benji movies, or "Going Coconuts"--that Donnie and Marie movie set in Hawaii), but I also got some gems. I still have my Scholastic copy of From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, and when I pulled it off the shelf last year to give my son to read, I was excited to find my original order form tucked into the book, used as a bookmark. I perused the list of titles that had been available 30 years ago, and was glad to see I'd picked Mixed Up Files over the Hannah Montana equivalent of the day.

My kids are elementary-aged now, and they bring home a Scholastic form once a month. Too many of the titles now are TV or movie tie-ins. Lots of Sponge Bob or Care Bears or High School Musical, fewer classics. Sadly, my son is no longer excited by the book orders because we already own all the good books they offer, and he doesn't want the rest.

Anonymous said...

Still have my treasured Scholastic Book Club edition of "How to Care for Your Monster" by Norman Bridwell (of 'Clifford' fame) from third grade, way back in 1971!!!

Peter D. Sieruta said...

It sounds like the Scholastic Book Club had a universal appeal and influence on all of us!

K Laird: I wish I could have bought every book too! Thanks for reading my blog!

Flo522: I'm jealous of all the Scholastic books you've got squirreled away. Hang on to them, because they're definitely keepers. Thanks for visiting!

Anonymous: I'd heard that the Scholastic Book Club had devolved into a TV and movie club lately. It's really sad. I think it's fine to have a FEW silly books on each list to appeal to reluctant readers, nonreaders, or just people (like us) who want a mix of things to read...but it's a real shame to learn that good books are pretty much ignored these days because they're pushing Hannah Montana, Jonah Arizona, or Diana Indiana. Keep trying to track down GOOD books in the library and bookstore for your son. He sounds like a smart kid and he deserves the best!

Leo: I was going to call you "Mr. Landry" because I was so impressed to have a famous author visiting my blog. ...Then I realized that if you were in third grade in 1971, you're about five years younger than I am. How great that you still have your copy of HOW TO CARE FOR YOUR MONSTER after all these years. As I mentioned in the blog, everybody seems to hang on to one or two of their old Scholastic books for decades. It really does show the lasting importance of books in kids' lives. ...And now you're having the same impact on today's kids with your picture books! Keep up the great work. I'm thrilled that you visited my blog!

Anonymous said...

Hi Peter,

Thanks for your kind words! I've been a big fan of your HB pieces over the years, I think we have a lot of mutual pals over there. I've got quite a collection of children's books myself that I've collected over 20 years working as a children's bookseller, so your blog has been great to discover. I look forward to checking in often!


Anonymous said...

I still have my SBC copy of THE WEDNESDAY WITCH, too.

Although the first book I remember ordering from them was IMOGENE'S ANTLERS by David Small.

Alison said...

Had to smile reading while reading this blog. I am still holding onto my tattered SBC editions of "The Witch of Blackbird Pond", "The Dollhouse Caper" & "The Outsiders", to name a few.

I remember sitting with my mom, going over every title, and my mom, much like I do now, ordering books for us that she loved as a child (Laura Ingalls Wilder & Misty).

Though SBC order forms have become filled with TV & movie crossovers, as you say, there are still SO many great books made available to young readers in the monthly flyers.

And let's not forget the Scholastic Book Fairs. I had the pleasure of organizing the annual event at my kids' elementary school 6 years in a row & it was the HIGHLIGHT of my years of parent voluntarism.

Scholastic Books is still a wonderful resource for bringing a huge number of titles, good or bad, into the hands & hearts of young readers.