Sunday, March 30, 2008

Egg-free Sunday Brunch

Welcome to another Sunday brunch at Collecting Children's Books, featuring random facts and opinions on children's and young adult books. No omelets or poached eggs are available on today's buffet. After eating Easter-egg-salad sandwiches for an entire week, I don't want to see another egg till next spring.


Did anyone "go green" by turning off the lights last night from 8:00 to 9:00 PM? My brother said it was highly publicized in Chicago and he joined in the effort. I didn't hear word about it here and -- as far as I could see -- all lights remained blazing in these parts. I was reminded of this long ago picture book by Don Freeman:

The little boy in the coonskin cap is called Thacher in the book. But did you know he was also called Thacher in real life? Yes, this story is based on an actual electrical outage experienced by Freeman's author/illustrator friends Edith and Clement Hurd. The star of the book, young Thacher Hurd, grew up to became a famous children's book creator in his own right, perhaps best known for the award-winning picture book MAMA DON'T ALLOW.


I always get a kick of discovering inside jokes in books. Yesterday I was reading Steve Kluger's new young adult work MY MOST EXCELLENT YEAR : A NOVEL OF LOVE, MARY POPPINS & FENWAY PARK and enjoying the scenes in which the characters prepare to put on a talent show. This is the kind of fun book that's not written as a straight narrative but is instead composed of letters, baseball scorecards, signs, IMs, and other ephemera. When I got to the point where the program for the "Freshman Follies" was printed, I recognized the book's editor was listed as one of the kids performing in the pageant. (Her vocal selection? "So Unsexy.") Catching that made me feel like a real "insider!" Now I'm wondering if the other "kids" named in the Follies program are also real.

This makes me wonder how many other "real live people" get their names inserted in their friend's books. I remember Paul Zindel once wrote that his favorite part of his (brilliant, groundbreaking) novel THE PIGMAN was the big party scene because he got to include the names of his real-life friends (as well as some enemies) among the list of partygoers at John and Lorraine's big bash.


Beverly Cleary didn't name the title character of her Newbery winning DEAR MR. HENSHAW after a real live person. She found the name in the newspaper obituaries!


A few weeks ago, my cousin in Macon, Georgia alerted me to a new children's book. She owns a sewing center and this book arrived as part of her standing order from a publisher of craft and quilting books, Martingale & Company. Because it was unusual for this company to issue a work of fiction, she was drawn to read THE TALE OF ALICE'S QUILT by Jennifer Blomgren, really enjoyed it, and arranged to get me a copy. (Thank you!) I enjoyed the book as well. I've always liked books that show a character learning a new hobby or job. Perhaps this is the reason TV shows like DANCING WITH THE STARS and TOP CHEF are so popular: it's fascinating to see the creative process unfold as someone learns to make something -- whether a dance, a meal, or, in this case, a quilt -- come to life. THE TALE OF ALICE'S QUILT is about a young girl who discovers some antique quilting pieces in an old trunk, learns they were made by a long-deceased great aunt, and determines to finish the quilt herself. Although I thought the story lacked the immediacy of many children's books, it's quite readable and often touching. Admittedly, I'm probably not the key audience for this volume. However, I gave it to my mother to read and she reported that "tears streamed down my face the whole time I was reading it." Sounds like the perfect Mother's Day gift for those who start their shopping early. I also want to say I think it's a great idea for "niche publishers" to include children's books among their offerings. Kids who discover this book (which includes instructions for making a quilt) today may grow up to become tomorrow's crafters and quilters.


Another nice things about THE TALE OF ALICE'S QUILT is that it contains illustrations -- something that almost no middle-grade novel does anymore. Color ones yet! I miss the old days of illustrated intermediate novels and wonder if they disappeared because kids thought illustrated chapter-books were "babyish" or if it was just a way of saving money for the publishers?


When Patrica MacLachlan's incandescent short novel SARAH, PLAIN AND TALL was published many people commented on how perfectly the illustrations matched the text. There was only one problem: the book was not illustrated. But MacLachlan had created such a perfect text that many readers were able to visualize the story as they read it and later "remembered" seeing the illustrations. Now THAT'S great writing!


I'm noticing a new trend in ARCs (advance reader's copies) these days. For many years they were issued to the book review market with bland cardstock covers. Over the past fifteen years or so, most have developed a sharper image, with color covers that depict the eventual dustjacket. Now I'm seeing unillustrated covers once again:

I don't know if this is a cost-saving measure for the publisher or just a way to quell the fast-growing ARC market. Many collectors love to get our hands on ARCs, but maybe this is a way of making them a little less appealing and desirable to less-serious collectors. But SERIOUS collectors (like me!) don't really care what the exteriors look like; we're more concerned about what's inside.


I see that Margaret Peterson Haddix has a new series beginning next month. The first volume is called THE MISSING: FOUND. I won't reveal what I've read in reviews; half the fun of reading Haddix's books is watching her amazingly inventive plots unfold. I don't think there's another writer out there right now who consistently comes up with these types of fantastic, mind-bending plots in book after book. What an imagination! And the best part is, kids love her novels! I've already got my copy pre-ordered.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Seeing Myself in Print

Someone recently told me they'd learned to knit by borrowing a "how to" book from the library and following the instructions.

I was amazed and impressed.

I've spent a lifetime borrowing "how to" books from the library with very limited success.

First there was the origami book. I mastered the paper crane immediately. Of course that was only on page one. I never did figure out how to fold the jackrabbit on page two...much less the Eiffel Tower on pages 160-161 or the complete "Twelve Days of Christmas" display shown on pages 180-219.

Next came the ventriloquism book that averred anyone could "throw their voice" across a room, up or down the stairs, or into a closed jar. Oh how I practiced ("Let me out! Let me out! I'm over here, trapped in the pickle jar!") It didn't work.

Then came the magic books. Didn't work. The craft books. Didn't work. The teenage diet, exercise, and self-improvement books. Didn't work (actually, they might've worked...if the reader had fulfilled his end of the bargain.)

The most important "how to" book from my youth was SEE YOURSELF IN PRINT : A HANDBOOK FOR YOUNG WRITERS by Nan Gilbert. I didn't know it then, but "Nan Gilbert" was a pseudonym for Mildred Gilbertson, who also wrote some of the books in the "Tuckers" series (see blog entry from March 25) under the name Jo Mendel. And SEE YOURSELF IN PRINT was illustrated by Jacqueline Tomes, who did the Tuckers' art as "Jackie Tomes."

I checked this book out of my elementary school library over and over, would have checked it out of the junior high library too if the librarian hadn't been so mean (the only librarian I've ever encountered who DIDN'T want her books to circulate), and borrowed it from the public library so often that it was practically on "permanent loan" in my bedroom at home.

SEE YOURSELF IN PRINT offered some time-honored tips for young writers ("If you want to write well, then read, read, READ -- and write, write, WRITE.") and actually gave some pretty good advice on deciding what to write about, how to present the material, and where to market it. This how-to book didn't promise miracles, but its hopeful tone, emphasized by capital letters ("What's STOPPING You?"), suggestions of long-term success ("Later, when you are selling can approach an agent legitimately and confidently") and killer last line ("Good luck. I'll be seeing you -- in print") had me ready to drop out of grade school and hang out my shingle as a freelance writer.

Thank goodness I didn't. Even though I followed every bit of Gilbert's advice, submitting manuscripts with "pleasantly wide" margins and industriously keeping an index card file (noting name of piece, wordage, date completed, market list, date sent, date returned, etc.), I never sold a thing. I couldn't figure it out. I attempted what Gilbert called "tiny tot" stories (the book assured us that this was the standard term editors all across the industry used for little kids. I doubt it, and it makes me cringe to think I ever submitted stories to the "Tiny Tot Story Editor" at this or that magazine) and I modeled my own efforts off the published stories Gilbert included in the book (her stories always featured characters with unlikely names such as "Jock" and "Bing") but still I never got anything published. I couldn't put my finger on it, but SOMEthing was missing. (Oh yeah...talent.)

Another twenty years passed before I ever "saw myself in print" and I don't know whether that was coincidental -- or whether Gilbert's book really worked. Maybe SEE YOURSELF IN PRINT is like one of those slow-release medications that you take today and then start working a couple months (or DECADES!) later.

I do know the book meant a lot to me as a kid and I still recall it very fondly. Besides M.E. Kerr's inspiring BLOOD ON THE FOREHEAD : WHAT I KNOW ABOUT WRITING, I can't think of too many recent writing guides for young people. I do know that SEE YOURSELF IN PRINT sure wouldn't cut it today. The cover illustration is unbelievably dated. (Kids, see that machine on the back cover? It's what we used to call a typewriter. Yeah, kind of like a computer but without a screen or lights or Youtube. It did have a bell on it, but only to remind you to take your right hand off the keys and slam a lever on the side of the machine.) Beyond that cosmetic difference, the entire world of publishing has changed since the book was released in 1968. The dozens of "slick, glossy" magazines for teens that Gilbert cites are no longer published, much less the multitude of Sunday School weeklies she calls the "ideal place to get a toehold in the exciting world of publication." Reportedly many now-famous authors (such as Lois Duncan and, I believe, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor) got their start in that world...but there just doesn't seem to be a place for aspiring writers to get that "toehold" today.

Then I think...oh, yeah...maybe there is a place kids can express their thoughts these days and even "see themselves in print...."

It's called blogging.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

War and Peace

A few years ago I heard an elderly woman make this poignant statement: "Seems like this country has been at war my entire life. I was born during World War I, got married during World War II, my son went to Vietnam, my grandson and granddaughter went to Iraq...and we'll probably still be at war when I die." She was right. The country was still at war when she died last year.

I wonder if today's kids have a similar sense that they are living during wartime. Is it an immediate concern or just something they flip past when changing channels on the TV? That's pretty much what Vietnam was for me, growing up in the late 1960s -- a distant conflict that had little to do with our everyday lives. I was young, naive, and more interested in reading books than following current events.

It wasn't always this way, I know. Back in the 1940s, World War II seemed to affect every aspect of life -- up to and including children's books. If you had a copy of Alice Dalgliesh's 1944 novel THE SILVER PENCIL,

you would have seen this notice on the copyright page:

That same message appeared on hundreds of other books published during the World War.

Last night I was looking at a copy of FOG MAGIC, a 1944 Newbery Honor Book by Julia Sauer

and noticed this statement on the front flap of the dustjacket

which I really admired because it not only explained the publishers' wartime responsibilty, but also promised the reader that their enjoyment of the book would not be compromised. And smart kids probably figured out that the phrase "there is more here than meets the eye" would apply to nearly every book they'd ever pick up and read.

My copy of Eleanor Estes' RUFUS M. (another 1944 Newbery Honor Book)

does not contain the usual book description or author biography on the back flap of the dust jacket. Instead, it features an advertisement urging readers to buy war bonds.

I can't say enough good things about Eleanor Estes' series THE MOFFATS (1941), THE MIDDLE MOFFAT (1942), and RUFUS M. (1943.) (A fourth volume, THE MOFFAT MUSEUM, was published decades later in 1983.) Distinguished by their keen understanding of children's thoughts and emotions, their funny-yet-touching plots, and their warm depiction of family life, the books should also be recognized for the comfort and support they gave child readers during World War II. Though no specific dates are given, the Moffat children are growing up during World War I. Schoolkids march to the train station with flags and flowers to see the soldiers off for camp. Rufus and his classmates knit washcloths for the "sojers" overseas. His teacher displays a flag with four blue stars -- "one for each of her four soldier brothers." At home the Moffats face rationing, squeezing food coloring into margarine to make it look like butter, then having to decide whether to thinly spread their allotment over several slices of bread or have one slice of bread with a really good thick layer of margarine. All these events mirrored the experiences of children reading the books during World War II, and the final chapter of RUFUS M., "Better Times are Coming Now," in which armistice is declared, must have been particularly comforting to children reading the book in 1943 -- two years before their own war would end.

From a collecting perspective, notices of wartime printing regulations and ads for war bonds help identify when a book was published. More than that, they place a book in historical context. I love finding them in old books I encounter, as they take me to another place and time in American history. They also remind us that our country eventually made it through that war and somehow we'll keep doing it.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Guilty Pleasure : THE TUCKERS

Every reader, no matter how serious, probably has a few "guilty pleasures" tucked away on a back shelf. Imagine picking up a first edition of ULYSSES and finding a copy of Nancy Drew's THE CLUE OF THE TAPPING HEELS wedged behind it. Or sliding a vellum edition of PILGRIM'S PROGRESS off the shelf only to have Judy Blume's BLUBBER tumble out after it.

Pictured above are two of my guilty pleasures: volumes in "The Tuckers" series, written by "Jo Mendel" and published by Whitman in the early 1960s. Woolworth's used to sell them for a dollar -- smack in the middle of the toy section. I have no idea where I got the dollar to buy the first one. I just remember walking to Woolworth's on the last day of school and gripping that dollar in my fist until it got damp as I tried to decide which one of the books on display I should select. The design was uniform, but each had a different colored spine: brown, red, blue, yellow, etc. I think I was drawn to HERE COMES A FRIEND! because it featured the Tucker kids running barefoot across a field -- perfect symbolism for summer vacation, which had just begun that afternoon for me. And months later I bought TROUBLE ON VALLEY VIEW on a rainy morning that similarly matched the illustration on the cover of the book. I never bought another one. They were already several years old when I purchased the first two, and I think Woolworth's soon thereafter replaced The Tuckers with the kind of cheesy TV tie-in books that Whitman was infamous for publishing.

But I must admit I read these first two volumes over and over and over, drawn into the drama and fun of the happy Tucker family -- emotional big sister Tina, nine-year-old twins Terry (typical boy) and Merry (typical girl), family cypher Penny, and preschooler Tom who is always described as having a "deep, sober, older-than-five voice," or "a voice as deep as a well." There was just something so...well...PERFECT...about this family. They got to motor their own boat ("The Tub") across the lake by themselves.When they got in fights, they didn't hold grudges for days or generations. Instead: "'Kiss and make up' was a rule in the Tucker house, carried out in a gay ceremony which took the sting out of being at fault." When their cat gets injured, Penny even dons a nursing outfit to take care of it. How perfect is THAT?

Of course as an adult I can see the flaws in the books. Nearly every page contains a cringe-worthy line or phrase ("Gay banter was tossed from father to son and back again, revealing their gladness to see each other.") Fans of "Tom Swifties" could have a field day counting how many times the Tuckers smile valiently, shout gladly, and murmur prayerfully.

But it's too easy to make fun of the books as an adult. The truth is: they impacted me greatly as an eight- or nine-year-old kid. I still remember Terry and Tom (of the "deep grandfather voice") digging and diving into a cave full of mud on a Sunday morning. I still recall Tina's concern that her family wouldn't measure up to a wealthy neighbor and the emotional "rightness" of the moment when she banged her head and was glad because it gave her the opportunity to squeeze out a few tears she'd been holding back all day.

I also have to say that Whitman did a better-than-average job producing the books. Every volume had a color scheme and the sketchy illustrations (by Jackie Tomes...any relation to Margot?) are printed in a single color (brown in HERE COMES A FRIEND!, blue in in TROUBLE ON VALLEY VIEW.) Because the perspective shifts from Tucker to Tucker within each book, each chapter is headed by a sketch of that chapter's star. And the endpapers are downright Penderwickian:

At the top of this blog entry, I referred to The Tuckers as guilty pleasures. I probably shouldn't feel guilty. Despite the flaws in the writing, despite the near-perfection of the Tucker kids, these books obviously still have a great hold over me. I still have my original two volumes, though the pages are turning brown around the edges like autumn leaves. And I'm still talking and thinking and blogging about them nearly forty years after I selected them from the Woolworth's rack.

A bit of background:

Writing under the pseudonym "Jo Mendel," most of the books in the Tuckers series were written by Gladys Baker Bond, who is apparently still alive at age 95, and Mildred Gilbertson (aka Nan Gilbert) who lived from 1908-1988.

This is the complete series of novels:

The Wonderful House, 1961
The Special Secret, 1961, Bond
The Adventures of Plum Tucker, 1961, Gilbertson
Trouble on Valley View, 1961, Gilbertson
The Cottage Holiday, 1962
Tell a Tale of Tuckers, 1962, Gilbertson
Here Comes a Friend!, 1963, Bond
The Turn-about Summer, 1963, Gilbertson
That Kitten Again!, 1964, Bond

I cannot find a reference to who wrote the first book, and both Bond and Gilbertson claim credit for THE COTTAGE HOLIDAY in reference books. After the initial eight volumes were published, there were apparently a handful of picture book length Tucker stories published in the "Whitman Big Tell-a-Tale" series.

My Holiday Tradition

I just learned about an old-time Easter tradition.

I don’t know if this game was well-known across the country or confined to just the Detroit area. But back in the early 1920s, when my uncle was growing up in this city, it was an annual tradition for boys (sorry, that’s the way I heard it; no girls allowed) to go out on Easter afternoon with a decorated egg in hand. In those days they didn’t have egg decorating kits featuring six different pastel colors or oil-based dyes that made swirly psychodelic patterns. Instead, you just boiled onion skins and dyed all your eggs red. Then on Easter you’d carry around your red egg and look for another boy (I told you: no girls allowed!) holding an egg. When you met, you tapped your eggs together. If your egg cracked, you had to give it to the other boy. If his egg cracked, he had to give it to you. If your egg was tough enough, you might end the day with a couple dozen eggs.

I thought this tradition might have died out over time, but recently learned of a family that began playing this game in the 1950s and continue to this day. I kind of wish they’d invited me over to play yesterday, as I would gladly have given up most of my twelve dyed eggs rather than eat egg salad sandwiches every day for the rest of this week.

Instead of tapping eggs, yesterday I engaged in one of my own personal holiday traditions: I went to a suburban library and donated a big box of books.

Most libraries accept used books which they either add to their circulating collections or sell for a couple bucks at annual booksales.

Because collecting books is my hobby, I always seem to have extra volumes to donate -- ranging from interesting galleys and advance reading copies to nearly pristine new books in a number of different genres. My problem is actually GETTING these books to the library. Like everybody else, I’m busy working all day and can’t get to the library except late in the evening or on weekends. When I’ve tried to donate books at those times, I’m usually told “The person in charge of donations isn’t here right now. Can you come back during NORMAL business hours?” (No.)

Then I discovered a library that makes it easy to donate books. They actually have a big dropbox for donations located right outside the building. Because the dropbox is open 24/7, it’s really convenient to swing by there at any time of the day or night and slide a few books down the chute. Over time I’ve developed a tradition of my own. It usually takes me a couple months to accumulate enough books to fill a box or bag...and since I’m always off work on holidays...and since most of the major holidays are about two months apart, I make a point of timing my book-donating visits to coincide with those holidays. Martin Luther King Day. Easter. Memorial Day. July Fourth. Labor Day. Thanksgiving. Traffic is always light on holidays; the library is closed and the parking lot is empty. It’s so easy to just breeze by on those holiday afternoons and slide book after book into the dropbox, grateful they offer this convenient way of donating.


Yesterday afternoon, as I dropped off my Easter donation of forty or fifty books, I was bothered -- as always -- by one thing. This library is one of the nicest around; in fact, it’s located in a very, very wealthy community. Every time I donate there, I struggle with guilt, thinking I SHOULD be giving my books to a library system in a middle- or lower-income city -- a place that can really use my offerings and might even add them to their collection so they can be enjoyed by many instead of sold for $2 a piece, as I suspect this wealthy library does with most of the volumes I donate. Yet those lower-income libraries are the very places that make it so difficult (“Can you come back during NORMAL hours?”) to donate.

I can’t help but think that if these less well-off libraries could somehow find a way of making book donating easier, they’d be surprised by the quality and quantity of books they'd begin receiving. I just looked online and discovered that book dropoff boxes cost between a thousand and fifteen hundred dollars. That's a lot of money for any struggling library to spend, but it might be a good investment. Or perhaps someone could cobble together a dropbox out of an old crate or backyard shed. You know the old phrase: If you build it, they will come.

I know I would. In fact, I’d be there next Memorial Day...then July Fourth....Labor Day....Thanksgiving....

Sunday, March 23, 2008

But oh such beautiful chickens!

Welcome to Sunday brunch at Collecting Children's Books. On the menu: random facts, opinions, and anecdotes about Easter books.


There are thousands of children’s books about Christmas, but I can think of very few that focus primarily on Easter -- and most of those are picture books, such as THE EASTER BUNNY THAT OVERSLEPT by Priscilla and Otto Friedrich (illustrated by Adrienne Adams) and THE BUNNY WHO FOUND EASTER by Charlotte Zolotow (illustrated by Betty Peterson.) When it comes to fiction for older readers, I can only come up with a handful. A DREAM FOR ADDIE by Gail Rock takes place during the Easter season. Ursula Dubosarsky’s recent inscrutable novel THE RED SHOE (“Inscrutable” : a fancy way of saying “I didn’t get it.”) is set during Easter week 1954. Jane Yolen’s masterwork THE DEVIL’S ARITHMETIC begins on Easter, but quickly segues to a Passover seder. I vaguely remember reading a Sheri Cooper Sinykin novel set during Easter vacation (possibly A MATTER OF TIME?) and didn’t one of Carolyn Haywood’s “Eddie” books have the young protagonist find a nest of bunnies inside an old Easter basket half-buried in the garden? But after that, I’m hard-pressed to recall any others. Can anyone think of any more children’s and young adult novels with an Easter theme?


If you collect holiday books, here’s a tip. Try to hunt for them about six months in advance of the big day. There’s a Christmas book I’ve been trying to get (THE CAROLERS by Georgia Guback) for ages, but the only time I think about it is when the Christmas season rolls around...which, of course, is exactly the same time everyone else thinks of this book and is trying to get it -- making it impossible to find. For sheer availability, and the lowest prices, I should be searching for this one in mid-July, when people are jumping in pools, not decking the halls. The same is true for Easter books. Don’t search eBay or any other online source in March and April. Wait till about October and you won’t have any competition bidding on those books.


Nowadays when I go to the library, I see signs for all kinds of kid-friendly events: book clubs, library sleepovers, movies, and career counseling. Even though I practically lived at the library when I was growing up, I don’t recall any special events geared for young people back then. Everything was aimed at adults: tax preparation lessons, knitting groups, lectures on building a stock portfolio. The only time I recall attending a special library event was one damp spring evening when a lady demonstrated how to make Ukrainian Easter eggs or, as she called them, “pysanky.” She finished up her presentation by selling all the supplies you’d need to make your own “pysanky” at home. Because I lived too far away to run home, get money, and return to the library before they closed, I instead ran to the pay phone in the lobby (“pay phones” -- something we used to make telephone calls with before cellphones were invented) and called my mother, begging her to bring the piggy bank from my windowsill (it wasn’t actually a pig; it was shaped like a rat) up to the library ASAP. When she drove up fifteen minutes later, I pulled the rubber stopper from the bottom of my rat bank and fished out as many dollars bills and quarters as I could, then ran back into the library to buy packs of dye, cubes of beeswax, and a couple styluses.

For the next several weeks my brother and I sat hunched over a card table in the living room, using candles to melt beeswax in our styluses, then sketching designs onto eggs. It was a painstaking process, applying multiple layers of wax, submerging the eggs in progressively darker dyes, and finally melting all the wax off the egg with a candle to reveal the brilliant artwork underneath. Well, my brother’s artwork was brilliant. A regular Van Gogh with a stylus, his finely-detailed eggs looked like something you’d see in a magazine. Having neither the talent nor the patience for “pysanky” (heck, I couldn't even pronounce the stupid word!) my eggs featured one or two lumpy stripes (as opposed to my brother’s zillions of stripes and checks and squiggles) and usually came out all muddy brown (as opposed to my brother’s jillions of sky blues and hot pinks and butter yellows and aqua greens.) Plus, mine always smelled bad and had black scorch marks because I invariably burnt the eggs trying to melt the wax off.

How well I remember giving our Ukrainian eggs to all our aunts that Easter:

Brother: Here’s an egg I made for you!

Aunt (cradling egg gently in her hands): This is just beautiful! I’m going to put it in my china cabinet and display it forever.

Peter: And here’s mine.

Aunt: Ah...well...I think I’ll just poach this one up for breakfast in the morning!

Sad, sad, sad. But remember when I said our library didn’t hold events like career counseling? Now I think the pysanky demo was just some form of career counseling in disguise. Look how we ended up. Seven or eight years later, my brother was going to art school and I was making Egg McMuffins at McDonald’s. (I scorched those, too.)


I can only think of one Easter picture book that won the Caldecot: 1951’s winner, THE EGG TREE by Katherine Milhous. I wonder if any kids today are inspired by this Pennsylvania-Dutch themed book to create their own Easter egg trees? I imagine that at some point in the past this might have been a school project, but in these more secular times, probably not.


Back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Wilma Pitchford Hays wrote a series of short historical novels all centered on holidays. EASTER FIRES concerns a peace treaty between Texas colonists and Native Americans that was celebrated by building bonfires. Hayes ends her introduction with “For more than a hundred years bonfires have blazed each Easter Eve on the hilltops about Frederickburg, Texas. Fires will burn this Easter and for many years to come.” I have never heard of this tradition. EASTER FIRES was published in 1959; I’d be curious if this tradition has continued into the twenty-first century.


Another Easter book in my collection was written by Elizabeth Yates, who won the Newbery for AMOS FORTUNE, FREE MAN. In AN EASTER STORY she uses a flimsy fictional narrative -- a series of Easter week conversations between Debra and her older, wiser cousin Con -- to explore the meaning of the holiday. The book has some nice moments, but the erudite Con is clearly a mouthpiece for the author, as she casually tosses off paragraph after paragraph of religious instruction. Published by Dutton in 1967, I can’t imagine a mainstream publisher releasing such a book today; now it would probably only be published by a small religious press.


The most famous children’s book editor of all time, Ursula Nordstrom, would probably not have published Yates’ EASTER STORY. But she did publish Margaret Wise Brown’s THE RUNAWAY BUNNY, as well as hundreds of other important and influential works. On one occasion she was served rabbit stew at a business dinner, but pushed the plate away, commenting, “I’m sorry but I can’t eat this. I publish rabbits.”


There has been a long tradition of rabbit protagonists in children’ books. Who can forget Peter Rabbit, THE RUNAWAY BUNNY, and the lapine heroes of Robert Lawson’s RABBIT HILL and THE TOUGH WINTER? Then there’s PAT, THE BUNNY (I’m joking, I’m joking.) Here’s a lesser-known rabbit that needs rediscovery -- GILDAEN : THE HEROIC ADVENTURES OF A MOST UNUSUAL RABBIT by Emlie Buchwald. I remember reading this novel in the early 1970s and liking it a lot. In fact, I think I’ll try to track down a copy soon.


One problem with introducing a book like GILDAEN, then saying something like “I think I’ll try to track down a copy soon” is that someone reading this blog may now decide THEY want to read the book too -- and track down the very last copy of GILDAEN before I can get my hands on it. My response? “Oh well, I’ll just keep searching.” I love the idea that my enthusiasm for an old book may lead others to discover it too. I would never have known about some of my favorite books and authors if someone else hadn’t recommended them to me at some point. Or perhaps I DID know about them, but didn’t really appreciate them until I heard a fellow reader or fan extol their virtues. For example, someone recently told me how much they loved the work of Kurt Wiese. I hadn’t thought much about Wiese before, but the more I heard about his work, and the more I looked at his books, the more I began to appreciate him too. Now I’m a fan -- and competition for anyone else seeking his books. But that’s what us book collectors do: we egg each other on. And for now, let me join Kurt Wiese in wishing all:

Friday, March 21, 2008

Goodbye Iki, Hello Ramsey : A Photo Essay

Pioneers heading west by wagon train used to say they were "going to see the elephant," meaning they were headed off on a new adventure and didn't know exactly what they would experience around the next bend, through the next forest, or beyond the next hill.

Over time the phrase has acquired other meanings. Veterans of certain battles, as well as survivors of disasters, claim that only others who have been through these events -- those who have also "seen the elephant" -- can truly understand their shared experience.

For me, the phrase has a different meaning. Every work day for nearly eighteen years, I have -- quite literally -- gone to see the elephant. Her name is Iki and she resides on the main floor of the library where I work. (Note: you can click on each photograph to see a larger image.)

Born in Sri Lanka, Iki was an elephant who performed with the Ringling Brothers Circus. When she died, her remains were given to the science department at this university. Students spent eight years studying the creature, then re-assembled Iki's skeleton for display in the Science and Engineering Library. By the way, Iki's name is pronounced "Icky." (After seeing her desiccated trunk displayed in the plastic case below her head, I understood why.)

Every morning I give a little nod to Iki as I enter the building, then stand in her shadow as I wait for the elevator. Sometimes one or two of the library employees who work on the first floor will greet me with a cheerful, "Hi Mike!" Which would be very nice except for the fact that my name is Peter...and I've worked there for, you know, nearly EIGHTEEN YEARS!

Up on the seventh floor, I sit in the same cubicle where I've sat for all those eighteen years, cataloging books. If I need a break, I can go look down on the campus from the window facing north.
Or I can go to the south windows and view an entirely different country -- Canada. That's right, when you live in Detroit, Canada is SOUTH of the United States. If you read Christopher Paul Curtis' recent Newbery Honor Book, ELIJAH OF BUXTON, you may recall that Elijah traveled north to Michigan and went south when he returned to Canada.

I guess I'm feeling nostalgic about my workplace because today is the last day I'll be working in that library on a regular basis. Starting next week, I'm moving to a new office in a different library.

I'll be working in the Ramsey Room -- which houses a closed collection of rare children's books.

It is named after Eloise Ramsey (1886-1964) a former associate professor of education who was considered an authority on children's literature. She seeded the collection with four hundred volumes from her own personal library. Now the "Eloise Ramsey Collection of Literature for Young People" contains over 15,600 special books.

I'm going to be working on various projects, including cataloging books into the collection and digitizing others on a fancy new scanner. I won't lack for work. In fact, I already have a backlog:

My only concern is that, after eighteen years of working with a fairly large staff, I am now assigned to the Ramsey Room all by myself. I'll be there all day every day without a single soul in sight. Unless you count A.A. Milne, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Edward Lear, Hans Christian Andersen, and Beatrix Potter:

Unless you count Howard Pyle and Laura Ingalls Wilder:

The Brother Grimm, looking grim:

L. Frank Baum and Mary Mapes Dodge:

Or Robert Louis Stevenson and Leon Sphinx:

Now I have to admit, I'm a loner by nature. I'm not what you call a social person by any stretch of the imagination. But I may start going stir-crazy without having a single person to talk to. I think it will just be a matter of time before I start talking to all these statues and busts on a daily basis:

"Hi, Mr. Milne. Hello, Grimms. What's happening, Trixie? How you doin' today, Mark? (Or should I call you Sam?)"

Someone told me that talking to these inanimate objects is not a cause for concern. I should only start to worry when they begin talking back to me!

The other day, as I moved my books and belongings into the Ramsey Room, I began to feel particularly despondent, despairing over how lonely the coming months and years will be.

Then a wise woman spoke up.

"Do you know how lucky you are to work in a room filled with nothing but rare children's books? Hasn't that always been your main interest? You are going to learn some amazing things about the history of children's books here. And just think how much you'll have to BLOG about!" she said, adding, "Don't think of it as losing ten or twelve friends in your old office. Think of it as making over 15600 NEW friends in the Ramsey Room!"

I said, "You're right! That's a great way to think about it. Thank you, Louisa May."

She said, "You're welcome, Mike. I mean Peter."

Thursday, March 20, 2008

If Only, If Only....

Writers provide us with some of the best moments of our lives. Sometimes they even change our lives. Yet they never know it.

Sure, once in a while they'll do a booksigning or speaking engagement and hear, "I love your books!" Every now and then the mail carrier brings a heartfelt letter of appreciation.

But in general that mysterious bond between writer and reader remains unspoken, with the writer sending out his or her "letters to the world" and the reader silently taking, but seldom giving back.

A few years ago I thought I might have the opportunity to give something back to an author whose work had meant a lot to me. Best known for her historical novel PRAIRIE SONGS, Pam Conrad was one of those authors who seemed capable of anything. In a career lasting less than a dozen years, she produced contemporary middle grade novels, ghost stories, picture books, young adult fiction (my favorites -- WHAT I DID FOR ROMAN and TAKING THE FERRY HOME), an adult novel, a biography, and the classroom Columbus Day staple, PEDRO'S JOURNAL.

In early 1995 I came across an autobiographical essay she'd written. Describing her childhood, Conrad said, "I used to be able to amuse myself with just two things -- a spalding and a deck of cards. Nanny had taught me to play solitaire and to build delicate castles of cards. During the summers I would get to go stay with Nanny for a week -- alone -- just me and her and PopPop. And all I'd need was a deck of cards and a spalding. And maybe a couple of books. My favorite books to read during those days were the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. There was also a book I will never forget, but have never been able to find again, called BALLET IN THE BARN."

Well, if there's one thing I'm good at, it's finding old books. And I thought it would be a wonderful surprise and tribute to Pam Conrad if I could track down a copy of this book and send it to her with a note saying how much her work had moved and inspired me.

I looked up BALLET IN THE BARN, learned the author's name was Regina J. Woody, and added the book to my "want list" -- a folded sheaf of papers I took to every used bookstore in town and later carried to New York where I checked the W-for-Woody section at the Strand and any other used bookstore I could find. Nearly every day I'd check the online used book sites to see if a copy was available, but never saw a single one listed. Ah well, I thought, it'll turn up someday. After all, Ms. Conrad's had discussed her recent, successful treatment for cancer and ended with the words, "As I write this I am only 47 -- not young to your way of thinking, I know, but I hope to live another 47 years. That's another lifetime -- plenty of time to tackle old ideas I've been mulling over and new ideas that keep popping up."

I figured that some time in the coming months or years -- in Pam Conrad's second lifetime -- I would find a copy of BALLET IN THE BARN for her.

A few months later, in early 1996, I opened the newspaper and saw the obituary. She barely made it to 48 -- her life ultimately as fragile as those "delicate castles of cards" she once built with her grandmother.

A dozen years have passed since then and would you believe I have still never seen a copy of BALLET IN THE BARN? I've occasionally seen it listed on-line at over $200 a copy. But I don't have an extra $200 -- and even if I did have that kind of money to honor Pam Conrad, it would probably be better spent as a donation to cancer research in her name. So instead I just keep on visiting used bookstores and checking out the W-for-Woody section. I know a copy will turn up one day for just a few bucks, and when it does, I'll donate it to the library where I work and instruct them to include a "In Memory of Pam Conrad" bookplate inside.

Yet she'll never know it.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Social Event of the Easter Season

Two little rabbits spend their days playing games such as "Jump the Daisies" and "Run Through the Clover." When they're thirsty, they drink cool, clear water from the spring and when they're hungry, they graze in a patch of dandelions. But the male rabbit is pensive and finally admits to his companion: "I just wish that I could be with you forever and always." When she agrees, the two don dandelions and clasp hands as their friends from the forest dance in a wedding circle around the happy pair. From this brief description, it's hard to believe that Garth Williams' THE RABBITS' WEDDING was one of the most controversial books of the 1950s. The clue to the controversy can be seen in the cover illustration below:
.Still can't figure it out? Good. That shows how much we've progressed as a society from 1958, when Harper published this oversized (9 x 12) picture book and a firestom of controversy broke out because the female rabbit was white and male rabbit was black.

A columnist from Florida's Orlando Sentinel wrote, "As soon as you pick up the book, you realize these rabbits are integrated. One of the techniques of brainwashing is conditioning minds to accept what the brainwashers want accepted." The Montgomery Home News referred to the book as "integrationist propaganda," leading Alabama State Senator E. O. Eddins to state, "This book should be taken off the shelves and burned." It wasn't burned, but the Alabama Public Library did remove the book from circulation and place it on special closed shelves.

Though this rabbity ruckus would be debated in the pages of Time, Newsweek, Life, and over 7000 newspapers, the author-illustrator remained calm. "I was only aware that a white horse next to a black horse looks very picturesque--and my rabbits were inspired by early Chinese paintings of black and white horses in misty landscapes," said Garth Williams, and offered this final word on the subject: "THE RABBITS' WEDDING has no political significance. I was completely unaware that animals with white fur were considered blood relations of white human beings. It was written for children from two to five who will understand it perfectly."

And he was right. Children did understand this gentle romance...and have kept the book in print for fifty years.

Written and illustrated by Garth Williams
Harper and Brothers, 1958

Why the book is collectable:

Because it's a modern classic.

Because Garth Williams' work has illustrated such classics as CHARLOTTE'S WEB, STUART LITTLE, and the "Little House" series.

Because of The Controversy.

First edition points:

Bound in illustrated paper boards.

The dustjacket has a price of $2.50 at the top of the front flap. At the bottom fo that flap are the numbers "30-70" and "no. 7999A." The bottom of the back flap states "no. 8000A."

No indication of edition or printing on copyright page, though a Library of Congress Catalog number (LC 58-5285) is listed.

Difficulty in finding first editions:

Some copies are available, generally running $100-$200 or higher.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Sometimes It Pays to Ask the Right Questions...

I had just purchased a volume from a used book dealer when she asked what other titles were on my "want list." I gave her a copy of my current list but, as it turned out, she had none of those books in stock. Normally I would have just thanked her and moved on, but for some reason I felt compelled to ask, "Do you have anything really odd or unusual?"

She thought for a moment, then said, "Well, I do have a dummy book...."

"What's that?"

"The binding says it's called THE GIANTS OF LILLIPUTANIA, but the pages inside are blank.What makes this one interesting," she said, "is that it once belonged to Lois Lenski. She was employed by this publisher in the 1920s and used the volume as a journal of her work.""I'll take it!" I said.

The book is mostly blank, but many pages are filled with notes in Ms. Lenski's distinctive, neat handwriting.I am going to have to do some reseach on Lenski's life and career, because I'm still not clear what type of position she held at Platt and Munk publishers. Many of the pages make it seem she was selling books directly to stores such as Woolworth's, yet other pages appear to indicate she was involved in book production, with extensive notes on specific illustrations that were sent to printers, the dates they were due back, the dates proofs were received, etc.

Though I need to do a lot more research on what, exactly, these notes mean, for now I'm just satisfied reading all the titles (LITTLE SUNBEAMS BOOK, LITTLE CHUMS BOOK, ROSEBUD STORIES) Lenski painstakingly recorded, trying to decipher the meanings behind the different measurements and cost allocations scattered throughout the pages, and enjoying the notes and paper samples which are affixed to the pages not with tape or staples -- but with straight pins!

It's certainly a one-of-a-kind volume and I never would have known about it if I hadn't asked, "Do you have anything really odd or unusual?"

...and Sometimes You Don't Have to Ask at All

Sometimes you ask a question and you get a nice surprise. Other times you don't have to ask at all.

That's what happened three or four years ago, when I published an article in a small magazine devoted to children's books. Soon thereafter I received a package in the mail containing a beautifully-crafted miniature volume. The accompanying note was from a woman named Anna Olswanger, who said she'd enjoyed my article so much that she wanted to give me a copy of a limited edition book she had published called SHLEMIEL CROOKS. Based on a true story involving her great-grandfather, the book was exquisitely bound, with marbled endpapers, and a statement identifying this copy as number 96 out of a limited edition of 495 copies. Since that time I have received three more volumes from Ms. Olswanger, each a small work of art, and each containing a heartfelt story based on her family history or culture. I was pleased that something I'd written had affected her so much, but more than that, I was touched and honored that she would reach out to me -- completely unsolicited -- and share her family stories with a total stranger.

Needless to say, these small books have a very special place on my shelves.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Paper or Plastic?

When I first began buying used books by mail, about half arrived with the dustjacket in its original state, while the other half were encased in plastic dustjacket protectors. Sitting side-by-side on my shelves, I couldn't help but notice how much nicer the latter books looked. The mylar protectors gave these volumes a bright, fresh, downright spiffy (first AND LAST time that word will be used on this blog!) appearance. They reminded me of library books -- and who doesn't love the way library books look? Those without the mylar covers looked sad and almost naked in comparison. Their cover art and titles didn't "pop" (another twee word I think I'll avoid in the future) but seemed dull, dreary, and lifeless. Over time I also noted the utilitarian benefits of mylar as my "naked" jackets began to suffer the effects of rubbing, tearing, and chipping at the spine ends; those with dustjacket protectors didn't have similar blemishes, tears, or chips off the old book.

I then decided I wanted all my dustjackets protected, but had no idea where to purchase these types of covers. I asked around at antiquarian bookstores and discovered that some sold these covers individually -- with prices running anywhere from thirty cents for a Beatrix-Potter-sized volume to maybe a dollar-fifty for a Van-Allburg-sized behemoth. Later I learned you could even order them in large quantities directly from library supply companies such as Brodart and Demco. Today all you need to do is visit eBay and type in "Brodart, covers" and you'll find a wide variety of shapes, sizes, and prices.

Every serious collector I know covers his or her dustjackets in these protectors, though I'm sure each one has personal preferences when it comes to brand, style (some protectors come on a roll; others as separate pieces), size, weight and glossiness. Some may prefer to fold the protector into place, while others tape it for a snugger fit. (I'm sure ALL agree that one NEVER EVER tapes it onto the book!)

Although I love my mylar covers, I will say that, once I cover a book, I sometimes miss the tactile experience of touching the original dustjacket -- especially those rough, papery, matte-like jackets still occasionally produced. (Recent examples included THE WILLOUGHBYS by Lois Lowry and THE AURORA COUNTY ALL-STARS by Deborah Wiles; actually, all of Wiles' novels have featured beautifully-illustrated matte covers.) It should also be noted that covering a book in mylar does not prevent the original dustjacket from sun damage. (And can some scientific-type explain to me why the sun can BLEACH some dustjackets to the point where you can't even read the title on the spine, yet in other cases it DARKENS the dustjacket to similar detrimental effect? ...And while we're at it, why does the sun lighten some people's hair in the summer and darken others?)

At least one book dealer I know deacidifies their dustjackets, describing this as a chemical treatment which "does not restore paper to its original condition, but stops any further browning, brittleness, and acid deterioration." I think I'm going to look into this next to learn whether we can all do this at home, or whether it's a process best left to professionals. I definitely do not want to submerge my valuable WRINKLE IN TIME dustjacket in some type of chemical solution and see it disintegrate into a million pieces!

Saturday, March 15, 2008

An Icy Blast from the Past : A DAY ON SKATES

Some years ago, a friend of mine went to Florida on vacation and visited one of the big amusement parks. When she returned, she mentioned the killer whale that did backflaps in a pool, the dolphins that grabbed fish right out of their trainers' mouths, and the water-skiiers who ended their routine by forming a pyramid on each other's shoulders. But mostly she wanted to talk about the ice-skating show she'd seen.

"An ice-skating show -- in Florida?" I responded.

"Yeah, it was pretty weird," she admitted. "But when you're walking around in hundred-degree heat and come across an air-conditioned building, you'll stop to see anything."

According to my friend, the ice-skating show was held in a small, dark theatre. There wasn't any ice on the tiny stage, just some kind of skatable Teflon-like surface. The houselights dimmed and wintry music began to play. Then a girl began gliding back and forth across the Teflon -- a routine which got real old real fast considering the stage was only about ten feet wide. The girl was dressed sort of like Peter Pan, though she had a couple cut-out glittery snowflakes pinned to her shoulder and hat. When her routine was over, she went to the front of the stage and gave a big wave to the crowd, saying in a squeaky voice, "Hi! I'm Jackie Frost!"

The audience, stupified by the heat, did not respond.

So Jackie said again, "Hi! I'm Jackie Frost!" Long pause. "Hi!"

No response. She should have known right then that the "audience interaction" part of her program was going nowhere, but still she persevered.

"Boy it's hot here!" she squeaked, exaggeratedly using the back of her arm to wipe sweat off her forehead. (I believe they call it "flop sweat.") She marched to the front of the stage and addressed the audience: "Hey, where am I, anyway? I'm supposed to be in New York, painting the leaves in Central Park red and gold and etching lace on all the windowpanes! But this is much too hot for New York. Where am I?"

A heckler in the front row shouted, "You ARE in New York!"

Clearly, this was not the expected answer and it threw Jackie off her script. She looked around wildly, and pointed to a teenage girl in the audience and said, "Do you know where I am?"

The girl said, "You ARE in New York."

Jackie appeared even more desperate and began looking for a sympathetic face. Finally she saw a sweet-faced grandmotherly type in the second row. "It's so hot in here that I think I MUST be in Florida," she said, then pointed to the older woman and said, "Is that where I am?"

"No," the woman replied. "You're already in New York."

By this point, Jackie Frost knew she'd lost her audience and just wanted to get this show over with, so she ad-libbed and skipped ahead in her script, saying, "Well...uh..wherever I am, I...uh...have to get to New York to paint the trees and windowpanes. I need to jump on the wind's back and fly from...uh...Florida to New York!"

Then to the tune of "New York, New York," a guy as big as a linebacker skated onto the stage dressed as the wind. (Don't ask.) He lifted Jackie over his head and began spinning faster and faster in place. I don't know if he accidentally let go of her or if she was so unnerved by the audience's previous response that she let go herself, but she ended up flying out of his arms, zooming over the first two rows of the audience and crashing in the aisle.

"At first we thought it was part of the act," my friend reported. "Especially since the guy on stage just stood there, with his arms still raised over his head and a dumb look on his face, not saying a word."

"What happened next?"

"Well, like two minutes went by and Jackie Frost kept laying there and nobody said anything. Then finally they turned up the houselights and told us all to leave using the other aisle."

"Was she okay?"

"I think so. By then the guy dressed like the wind finally went down to help her and I heard her saying, 'I'm okay, don't touch me, I'm okay, don't touch me.'"

I've included this rather long introduction to show that cloying, corny routines personifying Jack (or Jackie) Frost simply don't work. They didn't work when my friend went to Florida in the 1990s and they didn't work in 1934 when Hilda Van Stockum began her Newbery Honor Book A DAY ON SKATES : THE STORY OF A DUTCH PICNIC with an extended riffon "Father Frost" descending on a Dutch village, where he turns raindrops into snow and water into ice with a few puffs of his magical breath. Fortunately, the story soon becomes much more naturalistic as Dutch twins (not THE Dutch Twins, but a different pair) named Evert and Afke prepare to go on all-day skating picnic with their classmates and teacher. During the course of the day, they skate far out the long canals, stop for "snow pancakes" and korstje (a Dutch cake), experience some scares when Evert falls under the ice and gets locked in a church bell tower, and travel home by horse and sleigh in the dark.

A DAY ON SKATES strikes me as a rather odd Newbery Honor Book. Eight inches tall and eleven inches wide, the forty-page volume resembles a picture book. In fact, its double-column text (another oddity) is so frequently interrupted by Van Stockum's line drawings and full-page color paintings that some have suggested this book, publishedbefore the inception of the Caldecott Medal, would have been more worthy of that award than the Newbery. As a story, it certainly does not hold up to that year's Newbery recipient, DOBRY, one of the finest (and least known) of the early winners. Reminiscent of HANS BRINKER, A DAY ON SKATES features mild adventures -- mostly starring the boys; Afke and the other girls seem like they can barely skate without holding on to a pole...and when Evert considers Afke for his explorers' club, he expects her to be the cook. Despite its few flights of Father Frost fancy, the book does a nice job of creating a wonderfully wintry atmosphere and providing details of Dutch life in both the prose and illustrations. The foreword by Edna St. Vincent Millay seems another oddity, as she had nothing to do with the publication of this volume as far as I know and her patronizing comments ("You will meet in these page no dull little Miss Good, no tiresome little Master Naughty") are dated even by 1934 standards.

Written and illustrated by Hilda van Stockum
Foreword by Edna St. Vincent Millay
Published by Harper and Brothers, 1934

Why the book is collectable:

It's a Newbery Honor Book.

It's an ODD Newery Honor Book.

The illustrations are superb.

It was the author's first book.

First edition points:

Bound in blue cloth with black printing and illustrations on the front panel.

Price of $2.50 at top of front dustjacket flap; advertisement for the book THE SPIDER'S PALACE on the back flap.

The title page has "19" and "34" printed on either side of the Harper colophon.

The words "FIRST EDITION" and the publishing code "E-I" are on the next page.

Difficulty in finding first editions:

Extremely difficult to find in any edition, but Harper copies are the most difficult to find at all. I imagine the price for a good copy would be somewhere north of $200 at the least.

Friday, March 14, 2008

The Buck Stops Here

Yesterday's blog entry about getting my Robert Cormier books inscribed-by-proxy reminded me of another book-signing event I attended (this time in person!) at the same store. Because this incident concerns an adult novel, I wasn't sure if it exactly fit the parameters of my blog...but since the novel in question is Judith Guest's ORDINARY PEOPLE and since that book has been embraced by teenagers and is now part of the curriculum at many high schools, I've decided it's enough of a young-adult novel to be discussed here.

Judith Guest was considered a home town girl since she was not only born in Detroit, but was also the grand-niece of Edgar Guest, long known as Michigan's poet laureate. Her first novel was that rare thing -- an unagented book that was plucked from the "slush pile" at Viking and published to huge success 1976. Not only was it a bestselling novel, but it was also made into a 1980 movie starring Donald Sutherland, Mary Tyler Moore, and Timothy Hutton that won the Oscar for best picture.

When her next book, SECOND HEAVEN, was published in 1982, the Birmingham Bookstore hosted a Sunday afternoon wine-and-cheese reception with a book signing. Though I wanted very much to attend, I was put off by the whole idea of a wine-and-cheese reception. Certain words and phrases unnerve me. "Wine-and-cheese reception" is one. "Hors d'Oeuvres" is another. Let's not even talk about "crudites." All these phrases speak of a place and a culture where I don't belong. Birmingham is the kind of snooty quaint town where Italian ice vendors sell their wares to young couples -- women in white summer dresses and men with tan jackets slung over their shoulders -- who then walk down the street nibbling the flavored ice off tiny spoons before hailing a horse and carriage for a ride around the downtown park. But I'm from Detroit, where you stand on the street in a T-shirt to buy an orange popsicle from the Good Humor man, then lick your wrists as the melting popsicle runs down your arms. So I don't fit in at Birmingham wine-and-cheese receptions!

...Still, I reminded myself that Judith Guest had written a book called ORDINARY PEOPLE and I was certainly an ordinary person, so maybe I wouldn't be completely out of place at this event. So on Sunday afternoon I went to the Birmingham Bookstore to have my books signed. There was a long line of people snaking its way down one wall. In the center of the room was a table covered with a white tablecloth (real cloth, not paper!) and trays filled with cubes of cheese speared with toothpicks (shudder.) Also white wine in clear plastic cups. Conversations were well-modulated in a Birmingham-kind-of-way (as opposed to the boisterous Motor-City-kind-of-way.) I always get a thrill out of seeing authors "in real life," so kept sneaking peeks to the head of the line where Judith Guest sat signing her novel. The couple in front of me were telling everyone within earshot that the husband had known Judith Guest when he was a kid; his older brother had even briefly dated Judith in high school. But this guy's real claim to fame was that his nickname as a kid was "Bucky" and, since Buck Jarrett is the name of the character whose tragic death propels the plot of ORDINARY PEOPLE, he wondered if perhaps Guest had named "her Buck" after him. Oh sure, I thought, trying not to roll my eyes. Judith Guest just happened to name an important character after some kid she hadn't seen in her thirty years. Riiight. Meanwhile, this couple's two little girls, about nine and ten years old, were running around the store and kept returning to the line where, time after time, they'd stand on tiptoes and sip wine out of their parents' plastic cups. Another example of how the wealthy suburbs differ from the city. In the suburbs that's considered cute...maybe even sophisticated; in the city we call it contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

Finally, the line inched to Judith Guest's table. The couple in front of me approached her and I leaned forward eagerly, waiting to hear Ms. Guest tell the guy she didn't remember him and certainly hadn't named any character after him! I was almost looking forward to seeing the expression on his face when he turned around to leave in shame, dragging his two pie-eyed preteens behind him. When he got to the table, he was more tentative than boastful as he began, "I don't know if you remember me, but you used to go out with my brother...."

Judith Guest jumped out of her seat like a jack-in-the-box. "BUCKY!" she shouted, grabbing his hand and pumping it up and down. "Of course I remember you!"

The man said, "I wasn't sure if you would...."

"Of course, of course! I'm so glad to SEE you!"

The man introduced his wife, who said, "We've always wondered if you named the character Buck in ORDINARY PEOPLE after my husband."

"I certainly did!" replied Judith Guest. "You know, I always loved that name. Buck. So strong. So boyish and masculine. I just LOVED it and thought it was just perfect for the character in my book."

Well, the couple was just beaming by this point and I have to admit that even I (gleefully awaiting this guy's downfall five minutes earlier) was suddenly smiling as I watched this reunion occur right before my eyes. Judith Guest wrote something long (and no doubt wonderful) in the man's book. Later, after she signed mine ("For Peter, best wishes,") I thought about chasing the man down the street and having "the real Buck" also sign my book. I should have. For weeks afterward, I told everyone met that I had stood next to "the real Buck from Ordinary People" at a book signing. Borrowed glory. It's so very, very sad.

This incident also taught me something important about the way writers' minds work. It taught me that their minds are always working. Even back as a teenage girl, Judith Guest had taken a liking to the name "Buck," held it tight for safe keeping, and thirty years later pulled it out to use in a book. I guess the same thing is true of me, saving up the details of this story from 1982 -- the cheese-and-toothpicks, the boastful man, the girls on their tiptoes -- and sharing them today, twenty-six years after the fact.

Nothing is ever wasted on a writer -- or a blogger.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Embarrassing Robert Cormier

For people who share the same DNA and grew up in the same house, my brother and I couldn't be more different -- especially when it comes to books and reading.

When we were very young, our mother used to read aloud to us. If, at some point, I needed a bathroom break, I'd ask her to stop and demand "Don't read anymore till I get back!" Halfway down the hall, I'd turn around, worried that I would somehow miss the story, and remind her: "Don't start again without me!"

My brother, on the other hand, would get up and say, "I'll be right back. You can keep reading without me" and wander off to the bathroom, then into the kitchen for a snack, stop to look out the window, then into his bedroom to play with his Lite-Brite set, and listen to a record, all the while occasionally yelling back, "Keep reading. I can still hear you!"

Of course he actually couldn't hear her -- which was the whole point. He'd rather wander the house, stare out the window, play with his toys, or listen to records than find out how Pooh was going to get unstuck from Rabbit's doorway.

And so it's gone on through the decades. If you were to ask me today what my favorite book is, I'd say, "Oh...let me think about it...there's so many to choose from!" Ask my brother his favorite book and he'll immediately tell you, "Archie's Pals 'n Gals, July 1969 issue."

Still, for all our differences, we usually come through for each other when times are tough.

Take, for example, the time that Robert Cormier came to town.

He was scheduled to appear at the Birmingham Bookstore -- a snooty store in a snooty suburb. Robert Cormier, whose brilliant and controversial novels had changed the landscape of young-adult fiction, was one of my personal heroes -- but his bookstore appearance was scheduled for a weekday afternoon and I had just begun my first full-time job and couldn't possibly get the day off work.

Happily, my brother volunteered to take my books to the store and have them signed. Wasn't that nice of him? (He also said it would cost me $5.)

The big day arrived. I advised my brother to get there extra early because "Robert Cormier is a VERY famous author and I'm sure the booksigning will be very crowded!"

My brother arrived early, but he was the only one there. When he walked into the store with a couple Cormier books in his hand, the store manager was so relieved she almost hugged him. "Now Mr. Cormier isn't here just yet, but if you just wait patiently, he should be here very soon. Till then, why don't you just browse for a few minutes."

Browsing in a bookstore. Yeah, my brother was going to LOVE that.

Soon there was a small fuss at the back of the store and the manager came running over to my brother. "He's here! He's here! We're serving him a light lunch in the backroom, but then Mr. Cormier will be right out to sign your books!" She dragged my brother to a chair at the back of the store and pushed him into it: "Now you just sit HERE and think of all the questions you'd like to ask Mr. Cormier."

Of course my brother, who had never picked up a Cormier book in his life before I'd handed him my copies that morning, didn't have any questions at all to ask the author. Except maybe, "How was your light lunch?"

A word should be said about Robert Cormier here. A former journalist, he had published several adult novels before entering the young-adult field in 1974 with THE CHOCOLATE WAR, an explosive look at tyranny and individualism played out within the closed society of a Catholic boys' school. With his next two YA books, the mysterious and complex I AM THE CHEESE (1977) and his unflinching study of terrorism, AFTER THE FIRST DEATH (1979), Cormier sealed his reputation as one of the most important writers young adult fiction had ever produced. He was also known as one of the nicest men in the literary world and took special delight in meeting his readers. He even gave his own phone number to a character in I AM THE CHEESE and, for many years, fielded calls from teenage readers asking to speak to the fictional character of Amy Hertz. With this kind of literary reputation, it was shocking -- and downright shameful -- that only one person had turned out for his signing session at the bookstore. It also explains why the bookstore manager was in such a state that day, grabbing my brother and forcing him into a chair. Soon she was dragging Mr. Cormier from the backroom as well, telling him to come and meet his "biggest fan"!"Right this way, right this way," she babbled to the famous author and then pushed HIM into a chair facing my brother. Robert Cormier smiled and shook my brother's hand. The bookstore manager came around behind my brother and put her hands on his shoulders. "This young man has been waiting to meet you for over an hour. I think he must be your biggest fan in the world! Tell Mr. Cormier how much you like his books," she said, squeezing her fingers into his shoulders and getting more and more desperate with each word: "Tell him which one you like the best. Go on: Tell him!"

Mr. Cormier looked at my brother quizzically and my brother responded, "Actually...actually...I've never read any of them."

Later on I asked him, "Do you know how embarrassing that must have been for Mr. Cormier? Can you IMAGINE how he must have felt? Why didn't you just lie! Why didn't you say they were all so great you couldn't choose a favorite?"

"I couldn't think with that old lady squeezing my shoulders like that," he said. "Besides, what if he started asking me questions about the books? Like who my favorite characters were or what my favorite scenes were?"

"Well, that's a good point," I conceded, "but I still feel bad that the only person who showed up for the entire booksigning was one non-reader."

"At least you got your books signed," said my brother. True. After telling Mr. Cormier that the books were for someone else who actually DID read his books, the author nicely inscribed them. And I love that he signed them "Bob," just like we were good friends. In fact, if anyone should happen to see this book on my shelf, I'd probably just let them go ahead and think that my great good friend "Bob Cormier" had signed it for me -- never admitting that he signed it by proxy and got humiliated in the process.

No wonder I never came through on the $5 I promised my brother.