Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Winged Words

This incident describes my entire life in a nutshell: During my first week of high school, I met a friendly, frizzy-haired girl named Karen. One day, as we sat waiting for English class to begin, I heard Karen tell someone, “My favorite book of all time is THE HOSPITALITY OF THE HOUSE. It’s the best book I ever read!” I can’t tell you what book we studied in English class that day, nor can I tell you what happened to Karen, who moved away after eleventh grade and was never heard from again. But I can still remember that her favorite book was THE HOSPITALITY OF THE HOUSE. In fact, from the moment she first mentioned the title in English class, I was on a mission to track that book down and read it! At some point I discovered it was a suspense novel by Doris Miles Disney, so every time I visited a bookstore or library, I’d check the mystery section for that title. Along the way I discovered other Disney books (THE CHANDLER POLICY, TRICK OR TREAT) which I read and enjoyed, but THE HOSPITALITY OF THE HOUSE continued to elude me. Finally...finally...would you believe FOURTEEN YEARS LATER...I found the book and read it, wondering if there was anyone else in the world who'd track down a book for over a decade just because he once heard a nearly-forgotten friend recommend it.

What is it about “word of mouth” recommendations that intrigues me so much? Every time I hear someone exclaim over a book, I feel a burning need to read it too. Why? Do I feel left out? Do I want to share in the other reader's excitement and enthusiasm? Or am I just trying to figure out what makes readers tick? I recently had a similar experience on this blog. In response to an entry on Newbery mysteries, Fuse #8 -- whose informative and enjoyable blog (http://www.schoollibraryjournal.com/blog/1790000379.html) is on my daily reading list -- posted the following:

“This is only a mystery in the sense that I can't figure out why it isn't available or in print. The Newbery Honor winner The Winged Girl of Knossos by Erick Berry is perhaps one of the best American children's books out there. Try finding it sometime, though. Rare doesn't even begin to describe it. If you do get a chance to read it, it's pip. I believe it won the honor in 1929. Fingers crossed that it gets its due someday.”

Well, as soon as I got this word-of-mouth recommendation, I knew I had to read the book too. Fortunately, I didn’t have to track it down for fourteen years. I actually owned a copy, though I’d never read it. I also had a letter written by Erick Berry, which I stumbled across in a bookstore some years ago. Addressed to a book reviewer who’d written a favorable critique of Berry’s JUMA OF THE HILLS, the letter includes a plug for a couple of Herbert Best books (in private life, Erick Berry was Mrs. Herbert Best...though she neglects to mention that fact in her letter.) The note also reveals that Harcourt had turned down her latest manuscript. Since the book Berry published after JUMA was WINGED GIRL OF KNOSSOS, and it marked her move from Harcourt to Appleton-Century, I can only assume that WINGED GIRL was the manuscript that Harcourt rejected. Once again, a publisher rejected a book that went on to be named a Newbery Honor. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Editors, take heed! Writers, take heart!
(Click on image to see full-size letter.)

I’m frankly shocked that Harcourt rejected this book. It's an unforgettable novel with a fascinating setting (Crete, thirty-five hundred years ago), a headstrong and independent protagonist, and a plot filled with forbidden romance, poisoned pots of honey, and daring escapes -- not to mention the heroine’s penchant for bull-vaulting and coasting through the air on handmade gliders -- all coming to a thrilling conclusion that melds the fictional characters’ fates with the few known facts about the sudden collapse of Crete’s civilization.

Perhaps what surprised me most about this book is how readable it remains, some seventy-five years after publication. The prose is clear and fast-paced; the characters’ personalities and relationships feel relevant to modern readers. Anyone with a taste for Tamora Pierce and Megan Whalen Turner would probably adore this novel and I join Fuse #8 in wondering why THE WINGED GIRL OF KNOSSOS isn’t in print. I think if some enterprising editor bought the rights to this story, got rid of Berry’s stylized illustrations (which she based on real Cretan murals, but nevertheless give the volume a dated look), removed a few of the more overtly offensive racial references, and then promoted the book properly, they might have a surprise hit on their hands. (Today a hit book, tomorrow a hit movie with Dakota Fanning doing backflips over Brahmins.)

As I said at the beginning of this entry, word-of-mouth recommendations always get to me. And I’m so glad Fuse #8 told me about THE WINGED GIRL OF KNOSSOS.

Now I’m telling you about it.

Pass it on.

written and illustrated by Erick Berry
D. Appleton-Century Company, 1933

What makes this book collectable:

It’s a Newbery Honor Book.

It’s a difficult-to-find title that deserves a renewed audience.

Unlike many early “geographical-historical” stories for children, such as THE DUTCH TWINS, THE JAPANESE TWINS, etc., this one is not just a superficial cut-and-paste look at another culture, but was researched when the author traveled to Crete and studied the island.

First edition points:

Yellow cloth binding with blue text and a blue head of a bull on the front panel.

A price of $2.00 and the numbers 2741 followed by four asterisks at the bottom of the front dustjacket flap.

The date “1933” on the title page and the words “First Printing” on the verso.

Difficulty in finding first editions:

Quite rare, and even old library copies usually sell for upwards of $150. However, in the world of book-collecting you never know what will turn up. I bought a great-looking first edition in a dustjacket from a Chicago-area bookdealer for only $20!


Anonymous said...

Oh, thank heavens. You're probably the first person I've run across who also heard of this title, let alone read it. I am, however, exceedingly jealous that you have your own edition. I can ransack the Central Children's Room collection here at NYPL if I want, but I've no personal edition to pour over any old time I like. Thanks for talking it up. I'm currently trying to convince the New York Review of Books that this one's worth reviving.

Anonymous said...

Just reading your blog makes me almost crazy, because any book you mention that I have not yet read immediately goes on my list of books to track down. In fact, I just got The Mummy Market through interlibrary loan to read to my children after reading about it here. Believe me, I completely understand why hearing of a good book sends you on the hunt! Thanks for your blog.

Peter D. Sieruta said...

Fuse #8: Maybe we can start a word-of-mouth movement to get this book republished. Unlike many older books, it still holds up very well and I think modern kids would love it!

Anonymous: Thanks for your kind words. I hope you and your kids love MUMMY MARKET as much as I do.

Saints and Spinners said...

I've asked for Winged Girl through Interlibrary Loan, but my hopes are not high. I am a bit gobsmacked that the only two copies that appear to be floating around that are for sale are in the 150-160 dollar range. Then again, Zigger Beans, by Diana Redfield Massie, was going for 250.00 dollars at one point. What does one need to do to lobby for a book getting back into print? It seems so selfish to keep them out of print and yet claim that the copyright still holds. No one's making money off of the copyright!

Lee said...

Is it still covered by copyright? If not, you could scan it and make it available for everyone online. I'd certainly download a PDF copy.

Anonymous said...

I also requested this through ILL after your recommendation and just finished reading it yesterday. What a wonderful book! I would happily hand this to many readers in our library if it were available.

Anonymous said...

Replying to fuse #8, In 1946 my sixth grade teacher at The School in Rose Valley, Rose Valley PA, read aloud to my class from The Winged Girl of Knossos for about 30 minutes each school day, right after lunch hour. Although I'm sure there were other books she read to us, this is the ONE I remember to this day. I can recall the class begging for her to continue beyond the 30 minutes to finish a chapter.

buy jeans said...

The permanence of the internet makes this kind of joke even more amusing. I just saw this today, and it wasn't until the photo was MENTIONED in the post that I looked at it closely and scrolled back up to the date to see if it was an AF.