Friday, May 30, 2008

Weeding is Fundamental

I love to read, but hate to weed.

Yet as every book collector knows, there are times when -- despite double-shelving, despite horizontal stacking -- you simply run out of space. Of course there are sometimes ways to work around this. I know people who have rented storage units for their books. I heard of someone who bought a backyard storage shed for his paperback novels and, when that was filled, he bought another...and then another...until his property looked like a small town crammed with miniature houses. And then there is the man whose bathtub is filled with books.... Yes, this is a true story -- and I have no idea where or how or if he bathes.

As any gardener will tell you, weeding is necessary if you want your garden to thrive and grow. I guess the same is true for a book collection. How can we add new and better volumes if our shelves are already choked with unnecessary items of sometimes dubious merit? For me, weeding is often painful. The Newbery first editions stay. Certain authors stay. Some books remain because they were treasured gifts, or because they remind me of a certain time and place in my life. Some have special stories attached to them. Usually I'm able to come up with a least a few that, I deterimine, I'll probably never read again and can probably live without. (Though I have to admit, there have been times I've gone back and bought another copy of a book once hastily weeded out.) When I pull a book from my shelves, I get some comfort from the fact I'm going to donate it to the library where, presumably, many other people will enjoy it.

I often daydream about my books (or maybe I should call them my ex-books) sitting on library shelves for decades and decades bringing pleasure to hundreds of readers, even after I'm long gone. But in truth, libraries are often downright cold-blooded about weeding! One children's librarian -- a ruthless weeder (try saying that five times!) if there ever was one -- told me, "Libraries have space issues too. If a book hasn't circulated in the past three years, it's outta here!"

"But...but what if the 'perfect reader' for that book -- the one kid whose life will be changed by that one book! -- walks in tomorrow and you no longer have that title in the collection?" I asked.

"Then they can interloan it from another library," replied Ruth Lessweeder.

I guess. Provided the other library hasn't also weeded it. Besides, some of the most important books in my life are ones I just stumbled across on the library shelf as a kid. That's not going to happen if a book's already been weeded out.

A very wise librarian once told me, "When we add a new book to the collection, it may not be checked out tomorrow...or next year...or even ten years from now. But a hundred years from now, someone is going to need that book and they'll be glad we have it." I agree with that philosophy. I even believe that libraries should keep old, old books that contend insects spring forth from spontaneous generation and boys become doctors and girls become nurses. Not because we believe such things these days, but because those books serve an historical purpose, telling us where we once were and how far we've progressed since then.

The reason I'm thinking about this issue is because we're getting ready to weed out the children's book collection at the library where I work.

The good news is that no one plans to get rid of our "only" copy of any title. If we just have one copy of a book, it will remain.

(The other good news is that there's a children's book collector named Peter on the staff who will throw himself, Barbara-Fritchie-like, in front of any book that he thinks should not be weeded out.)

What we plan to do might best be termed "thinning the herd." We have multiple copies of many titles here and, as one librarian said yesterday as we strolled through the stacks, "How many copies of WITCH OF THE CUMBERLANDS do we really need?"

I didn't tell her that I actually have my own copy of this mostly-forgotten 1974 novel by Mary Jo Stephens at home because I love it so much. I do tend to agree our FIVE library copies could judiciously be pruned down to one or two without too many complaints. But even weeding multiple copies can be tricky. For example, do you keep the old, frayed copy in its original binding -- the book closest to the author an publisher's original intent -- or do you keep a rebound copy so sturdy it will last for decades?

And what will become of all the books that are weeded out? I imagine some will be donated to other libraries (who, in turn, will eventually weed them out.) Some will be sold for a dollar or two at a library book sale. I did have to smile when someone said the library had once considered -- perhaps in jest, perhaps not -- giving away the duplicate copies to patrons. So if someone came to the circulation desk with a stack of books and it turned out the computer had some of the volumes listed for withdrawal, the patron would be told, "These three books are due back July 5."

"But what about the other five books?"

"Oh, you can just keep those."

Wouldn't THAT be neat?

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

My Favorite Writer

People often ask me who my favorite writer is.

I’ve had the same answer ever since the day DINKY HOCKER SHOOTS SMACK! turned up at my branch library in the spring of 1973:

M.E. Kerr.

I remember the first time I read DINKY HOCKER, laughing hysterically yet deeply touched by its honesty and humanity. As soon as I read the last line of the novel, I immediately turned to the first page and began reading it all over again. From that point on, I knew I couldn’t wait for each new Kerr book to be received by my local library; instead, I had to get each one at the bookstore as soon as it was published, though money was scarce and buying even one or two hardcovers a year was something of a luxury. LIttle did I know, during those early years, that “M.E. Kerr” was just one of several pseudonyms that the author (real name Marijane Meaker) had employed during an already long and distinguished writing career.

Think about your own favorite writer, and the often agonizingly-long wait between the publication of each new novel. Then imagine suddenly learning that your author has written, oh, twenty or thirty other books you never knew about under names as varied as Vin Packer, Ann Aldrich, Marijane Meaker, and M.J. Meaker. What a miracle! This was long before you could buy books on the internet...long before the internet I spent many years on a wonderful treasure hunt, traveling hither and yon to a variety of dusty old bookstores trying to track down all these new/old books.

In 1990, another pseudonym was introduced: Mary James, who wrote intermediate grade novels.

I love all of Marijane Meaker’s books -- but the Kerr young adult novels remain my very favorites.

To celebrate the author’s birthday, today’s blog is a retrospective of all the M.E. Kerr books, from DINKY HOCKER SHOOTS SMACK! to last year’s SOMEONE LIKE SUMMER.

Published in the fall of 1972, DINKY HOCKER SHOOTS SMACK! announced a major new voice in young adult fiction.The novel is hysterically funny, yet the dramatic climax packs a real emotional wallop. I was lucky enough to see the typewritten copy of this manuscript at the Kerlan Library in Minnesota and was shocked by how few edits were made in the book. I remember that editor Ursula Nordstrom made one suggestion about toning down the description of a character’s clothing and another suggesting a line in the book would quickly become dated but, other than that, the typewritten manuscript was pretty much word-for-word what you will read in the finished volume. Still in print and still popular, DINKY HOCKER SHOOTS SMACK! seems to me an almost timeless novel.

1973’s IF I LOVE YOU, AM I TRAPPED FOREVER? was the first book M.E. Kerr wrote in the first person and nearly every Kerr book since then has employed that perspective. In this sophisticated novel, by turns wryly funny and melancholy, high schooler Alan Bennet learns some hard lessons about the vagaries of love. The last scene is a knockout.

THE SON OF SOMEONE FAMOUS (1974) employs a dual first-person perspective in relating the story of a famous son living incognito in a small town and his down-to-earth classmate Brenda Belle Blossom. There are some especially funny scenes in this one.

Based on the author’s own experiences attending an Episcopal boarding school in Virginia, IS THAT YOU, MISS BLUE? (1975) is among my very favorite novels. A large cast of characters, described with both scathing wit and deep sympathy, make this perhaps the most haunting of all the author’s stories.

How special was it to get TWO M.E. Kerr novels in 1975? LOVE IS A MISSING PERSON tackles issues of wealth, race, and romance in Seaville, New York -- the setting for many of Kerr’s best books. This subtley-written book should not be dismissed. I didn’t realize how good it was until I read it couple times.

Relationships between the haves and the have-nots are a consistent theme in Kerr’s books. Another dual first-person narrative, I’LL LOVE YOU WHEN YOU'RE MORE LIKE ME (1977) is a fun summer romance. This was the last time the author used the word “love” in the title of one of her books; she discovered it was scaring off male readers!

Because it is used so frequently in schools, GENTLEHANDS (1978) is among the author’s most popular and best-loved novels. The story begins as a summer romance, but soon takes on deeper significance when the protagonist's grandfather is revealed to have a Nazi past. GENTLEHANDS raises powerful moral questions but provides no easy answers for the reader. A stunner.

Only M.E. Kerr could pull off a funny and romantic novel featuring a pair of dwarves as narrators! LITTLE LITTLE (1981) was, according to the author, a very difficult novel to write, but most will agree this eccentric and pithy novel is a success.

In WHAT I REALLY THINK OF YOU (1982) Kerr once again tackles a tough subject, religion in today's media-savvy society, with characteristic humor and humanity. One of her lesser-known books, it deserves recognition and redisovery.

Something totally different, ME ME ME ME ME : NOT A NOVEL (1983)features stories from the author’s youth in Auburn, New York, and is "must read" for any M.E. Kerr fan.

The romance between a middle-class German-American teenager and the daughter of a wealthy Jewish comedian would seem doomed, but narrator Henry has a few tricks up in his sleeve in this comic novel. M.E. Kerr always hoped they’d make a movie of this one starring the late comedian Alan King.

In 1985, Kerr published I STAY NEAR YOU : ONE STORY IN THREE, a volume that spans three generations from World War Two to the mid-1980s. Readers who like short stories will be enjoy the connections between these three interrelated tales.

NIGHT KITES (1986) has a unique place in literature as the first novel -- for young people OR adults -- to feature a gay male (the narrator's older brother) living with AIDS. At the time Ms. Kerr wrote this book, she deliberately included many topical, contemporary references because she assumed a cure for the disease would soon be found and the book would have a limited shelf life. Twenty-two years later, the book remains in print.

M.E. Kerr began her first and only series with FELL (1987), the fascinating story of a high schooler who enters a private school under false pretenses, joins a secret club, and solves a crime. The mysteries continued in FELL BACK (1989) and FELL DOWN (1991.) Many fans wish Kerr would write “just one more” Fell book.

Operation Desert Storm, as the first Gulf War was called, is the focus of LINGER (1993), an intense story given new immediacy and resonance due to the continued military action in Iraq today.

The author broke new ground with DELIVER US FROM EVIE (1994), setting her novel in rural Missouri (where she once attended college) and featuring a title character whose identity is as impossible to restrain as the powerful river that eventually floods the family farm. I’m only sorry that the Printz Award for young adult books did not exist when this book was published; surely it (and many of the other Kerr novels before it) would have been recognized for its excellence.

Another groundbreaker, “HELLO,” I LIED (1997) features a mansion, a reclusive rock star and an urbane teenager surprised by the unforseen possibilities of the human heart. Despite its awful cover, this is a mature, sophisticated, and unforgettable book.

The above list of titles proves M.E. Kerr knows a thing or a two about writing, and she explains her craft in the nonfiction volume BLOOD ON THE FOREHEAD : WHAT I KNOW ABOUT WRITING (1998). The author’s writing tips are accompanied by examples from her novels and short stories. ...Speaking of which, I hope that a smart publisher someday gathers up the short fiction Ms. Kerr has contributed to various anthologies and publishes a collected volume of her short stories.

A good, old-fashioned novel peopled with interesting characters, WHAT BECAME OF HER (2000) is a story about past misdeeds impacting the present. And a doll with his own passport. Strangely, the most eccentric aspects of this story were based on real events. Even the doll was real.

Most of the author’s work has been contemporary, so many readers were surprised by SLAP YOUR SIDES (2001), a World War Two novel about a Quaker family whose oldest son opts to be a conscientious objector rather than serve in the military. Those who liked the WWII elements in I STAY NEAR YOU and ME ME ME ME ME will particularly enjoy this thought-provoking full-scale novel about that era.

During the 1990s, Marijane Meaker wrote several novels for younger readers under the name Mary James. SNAKES DON’T MISS THEIR MOTHERS (2003) was the first Kerr novel also written for that younger age group, a talking-animal story dedicated to the Animal Rescue Fund of the Hamptons, where the author has done volunteer work.

Marijane Meaker revisits her childhood home of Auburn, New York in YOUR EYES IN STARS (2006), an historical novel concerning the friendship between two girls, one a visitor from Germany, in the months leading up to the Second World War. How could I not love this book? She dedicated it to me!

Kerr always seems to be on the cutting edge of any issue and her most recent novel, SOMEONE LIKE SUMMER (2007) was published exactly at the moment when the topic of immigration was on the front page of every newspaper. This love story between a small town girl and a Colombian immigrant is written with ease and grace. The pages fly past in this thought-provoking modern take on a summer romance.

That brings us up to today and I have to admit that I’m just as anxious for a new M.E. Kerr book in 2008 as I was back in 1973.

She’s still my favorite author, but in recent years she also become a friend.

I'm reminded of the final lines of CHARLOTTE’S WEB: “It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.”

So is Marijane Meaker.

Happy Birthday Marijane!

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Sunday Brunch for Memorial Weekend

For those who aren’t out celebrating Memorial Day weekend with picnics and backyard barbecues, you’re invited to a Sunday Brunch featuring random thoughts, facts, and opinions regarding children’s books.


Several years ago, Andrew Clements published FRINDLE, a much-loved novel for intermediate readers that went on to become a major bestseller. The dustjacket illustration by this year’s Caldecott-winner Brian Selznick is now iconic:

So it’s not surprising that Mr. Clements’ publishers chose to use variations of this same illustration on many of his subsequent books. Whenever I go in a bookstore and see a volume featuring a face and a big old hand prominently holding something important (a pen, a report card, etc.) I know Andrew Clements has a new book out. Here is a sampling of some of the covers. Can you find the ringer I tossed in -- a movie advertisement that so resembled a Clements cover that I did a double-take the first time I saw it in the newspaper?


A previous blog entry discussed how rare it is for children and teenagers to publish books. But I’ve just come across one that was published by a high school junior in 1971:

I was impressed by the subtlety of the presentation. If such a book were published today, I’m sure the young author’s picture would be on the cover or, at the very least, some banner would blare, “WRITTEN BY A TEENAGER, FOR TEENAGERS!”

I haven’t read the book yet, but it sounds very intriguing, relating Brown’s first-person experiences roughing it in the woods where she “boiled milkweed pods in water, drank sassafras tea, and ate roasted grasshoppers from a stick.”

I would think the book would still appeal to teenagers in this era of “living green” and (speaking of eating grasshoppers) watching SURVIVOR on television.


I love reality TV. The other day I was discussing a current reality show with a friend who has worked in the field of children’s books for many years. She wistfully said, “I just wish we could find some way to use such reality shows to launch new children's book creators!”

Why not?

Wouldn't that be a great concept for a reality series? Doesn’t everyone want to a write a children’s book these days? Every time I mention my work, people either tell me, “Oh, I love children’s books!” or “I’ve always wanted to write a children’s book!”

Okay, let’s give them a chance. They can try out for...well, let’s call it PROJECT NEWBERY or FINDING THE NEW SEUSS or WRITE ON! or ROWLING FOR DOLLARS.

Obviously it wouldn’t be a major network "American Idol" type of show, but more of a niche series on a network farther up the cable dial, like A&E or Bravo. You get ten or twelve aspiring children's writers and find some cool, funny, quick-witted children’s book person to host the show (paging Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith) and a panel of judges. Maybe one judge is a supportive fellow children’s author. Another is a ruthless agent. The third is a nasty editor (I can offer a list.)

And of course the weekly writing assignments would have to be humorous and entertaining:

1) Each contestant is given a dog to take care of for a day. Hilarity ensues. Then they have to write a story about the dog.

2) Each contestant has to attend a modern high school for a day. Hilarity ensues. Then they have to write a fictional story using what they learned about high school life.

3) A 24-hour write-off in which each contestant has to write a 100 page children's book in one day. Hilarity ensues as contestants yawn and fall out of their chairs while writing.

The viewers see each contestant reading parts of their stories out loud to the judges (of course the film editors would include REALLY bad sections so they can show the judges wincing, as well as really good sections which make the judges nod and smile.) All the complete stories would be included on the show's website so viewers at home could read the whole texts.

At the end of each show the judges praise the best stories, criticize the worst and someone is handed a "rejection slip" and, in a nod to children’s book character Philip Hall, told to “Get on out of here.”

The final contestant standing gets a publishing contract and the series is timed so the winning book is available the week after the show ends. Because of the TV exposure, the book becomes a bestseller.

Hey, I'd watch it.

(But then I even watched YOUR MAMA DON’T DANCE.)


I continue to be amazed at the imagination of Margaret Peterson Haddix, who creates the most mind-blogging plots in children’s books. We don’t usually see Ms. Haddix’s name on lists of famous or bestselling writers, but many kids will tell you she’s one of their favorites authors and her “Shadow Children” series has sold in the millions.

Now she’s back with FOUND:

The prologue opens with first-day airline employee Angela DuPre working the busy ticket counter at an airport gate. She glances out the plate glass window at the runway lights in the distance and suddenly the lights are blocked by an airplane rolling into the terminal. Yet the control tower says no plane has landed.

Angela walks down the ramp and steps onto the plane, but sees no one inside. Then she looks down at the passenger seats and discovers that each seat holds....

Well, you’ll have to read the book to find out what happens next. I can almost guarantee you won’t be able to stop after reading that prologue.

And with the author’s history of bestsellers, I suspect a first edition of this book could become collectable.


When I was a kid, we had to go to school for a half day on Memorial Day. Around eleven a.m. all the classes would gather in the gym for a program. First we’d sing the national anthem, then someone would read the poem “In Flanders Fields.” Back then it seemed like the poem went on forever. I guess it seemed that way because we were all so anxious to get out of school early and race home to picnics and swimming pools (Memorial Day usually marked the first “swimming day” of the year.) Just now I looked up the poem and was amazed by how short -- and how meaningful -- it actually is. I'm including it here today for all those Memorial Days at school when we should have listened to the words, but didn't.

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

After the poem, someone would play taps and we were instructed to quietly, quietly walk out of the gym without a word. No racing, no pushing, no laughing, no talking -- almost impossible demands for a group of several hundred restless grade-schoolers. There’d be an occasional whisper or laugh from a kid, quickly followed by a teacher’s “Shh!”

And then dead silence.

I can still remember the eerie, almost unnatural quiet broken only by the sounds of our footsteps on the hardwood floors as we walked away faster and faster -- finding it impossible to remain so sad, so serious, so deathly silent when summer waited on the other side of the gymnasium doors.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

An Infinity of Stories

I learned about infinity from the cover of this book.

As a little kid, I spent a lot of time staring at the cover of THE GOLDEN BOOK OF 365 STORIES. It featured a boy and girl in side-by-side beds reading a copy of...THE GOLDEN BOOK OF 365 STORIES. The illustration on the cover of THEIR book featured the same boy and girl in side-by-side beds reading a copy of THE GOLDEN BOOK OF 365 STORIES. Presumably, if you had a magnifying glass or a microscope you'd be able to see another illustration of a boy and girl in side-by-side beds reading yet another copy of THE GOLDEN BOOK OF 365 STORIES on and on into infinity....

That's pretty heady stuff for a four-year-old to think about and it made me dizzy if I dwelled on it too long.

Luckily, opening the cover and reading the stories provided the perfect antidote to that kind of distress. Written by Golden Books stalwart Kathryn Jackson and illustrated by Richard Scarry before he became really famous, THE GOLDEN BOOK OF 365 STORIES : A STORY FOR EVERYDAY OF THE YEAR was published in 1955. The title is something of a misnomer as about half of the entries aren't stories, but poems. Many of the tales feature talking animals, though my favorite entries back then (and still today) were realistic stories such as "Shush!" which concerns a brother and sister who do the dishes for their napping mother. She wakes up to the sound of a broken plate but, instead of yelling at them, bakes them "round, crisp, sugar cookies."

Even though it's been well over forty years, I can still remember my mother sitting down every afternoon to read me each day's entry, starting with the wintertime stories, progressing through "The Springtime Bunny" in April, to a summertime story about a vacation mix-up, to the Christmas tales and poems that bring the volume to a close. I also remember being jealous that my brother got an exciting story about a boy who punches his antagonist in the stomach on HIS birthday but the entry for my birthday was a bland, sugar-sweet poem about twins ("Two of us, two of us climb the stairs, / Two of us, two of us say our prayers.")

My copy of THE GOLDEN BOOK OF 365 STORIES is missing its spine. The plastic coating has peeled off the cardboard covers. Inside, the pages are splotchy and stained.

Are you thinking, "Wow, what a mess!"?

I'm thinking, "Wow, this book was loved."

Flash forward thirty years -- which is equivalent to reading the book thirty more times. Some close friends had a young son and I wanted to find him a special book for Christmas. I remembered how much I enjoyed THE GOLDEN BOOK OF 365 STORIES as a boy and thought it would be the perfect gift for five-year-old Austin. I assume the book was in print at that time (it's still in print today) but did I go out and buy him a copy? No, that would be too easy! Instead, I decided to write him his own personalized 365-page volume. It would have been smart to start this project very early in the year but, since I didn't think of the idea till early November, I spent the next six weeks feverishly writing 365 stories and poems. I illustrated it too, though my frighteningly bad artwork was more "scary" than "Scarry." By the time I finished the project (about three days before Christmas) AUSTIN'S BEDTIME BOOK was so thick I had to put it in two separate binders (January through June and July through December) and had such severe carpal tunnel syndrome from all that typing that I couldn't button my shirt. But Austin loved the book and every time I was at his house during the next year, he'd ask me to read him that day's story.

Flash forward ANOTHER fifteen years -- equivalent to reading THE GOLDEN BOOK OF 365 STORIES or AUSTIN'S BEDTIME BOOK fifteen times each. My carpal syndrome is all gone. Austin is about twenty and living in another state. In fact, I haven't heard from him in years. Then one day, out of the blue, I receive a package in the mail from Chicago. Inside is a letter from Austin, saying that he'd recently come across his copy of AUSTIN'S BEDTIME BOOK and had spent time re-reading it, overwhelmed that someone had created all those stories and poems just for him. (Mercifully, he did not comment on the bad artwork.) Included in the package was a spiral bound collection of his own poems and stories called THROUGH THE YELLOW TAPE.

Experimental, edgy, raw -- and containing more four-letter words than I ever knew existed! -- Austin's work was startling and uncompromising, a far cry from the bedtime stories I once wrote for him about pirates and baby brothers and trips to the zoo. He definitely has his own voice and that's a good thing. He never said so, but I'd like to think that the book I wrote for him all those years ago somehow had an influence -- not in style or content, for sure -- but just in relaying the concept that stories are meant to be shared.

And maybe someday Austin will write a story for a kid who, a generation later, will write a story for a kid...who will write a story for a kid...who will write a story for a kid...on and on into infinity....

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

My Potential Comfort Food Becomes Someone Else's Take-away Meal

Here in Detroit, Vernors Ginger Ale is the beverage of choice. Unlike other brands of ginger ale, which are usually colorless in appearance and dry in taste, Vernors is a golden-colored drink, very sweet and tangy, and gives off so many tiny bubbles that your first sip is usually followed by a sneeze. It's definitely a comfort food in these parts. If you've got the flu, you sip Vernors to settle your stomach. If you've got a cold, you heat Vernors and drink it to quiet a cough. If you're depressed, you pour Vernors into a glass containing two or three scoops of ice cream to make a "Boston Cooler" -- which is named after Boston Blvd. in Detroit, not the city in Massachusetts. (Some years ago there was a movement to rename these ice cream floats "Detroit Coolers," but it never quite took off.) People who were raised in Detroit and then move away often request that remaining family members send them shipments of Vernors from time to time. If you grow up with certain comfort foods, it's hard to go without. And if you're not from here, you don't know what you're missing.

I guess the same is true of "literary comfort foods."

Back in the early 1990s I began to hear a lot about an old series of children's books by Maud Hart Lovelace. Beginning with BETSY-TACY, which was published in 1940, and continuing through BETSY'S WEDDING in 1955, the ten books trace the experiences of best friends Betsy and Tacy of Deep Valley, Minnesota, from before they start school until marriage.

I became curious about these books after reading two appreciative articles by writer/editor (and Betsy-Tacy fan) Ilene Cooper -- one in the review journal Booklist and the other in the New York Times. I began hearing people refer to the series as "literary comfort food," meaning comfortable stories that welcome you back again and again when you need to get away from daily stress and strife. I later learned there was even a Betsy-Tacy Society and a "Tacy's House" in Mankato, Minnesota that hosts lawn parties and neighborhood walks.

Boy, it sounded like a lot of people LOVED these books. Yet I had never even heard of them! Having spent a lot of time in my local library as a kid, I think I can say with absolute certainty that these books were not included in my library's collection. Nor do I recall seeing paperback copies anywhere. (I did find a reference to a 1962 Scholastic paperback printing of BETSY AND TACY GO DOWNTOWN.) So I guess it all goes back to what you grow up with. Just as regional comfort foods New England clam chowder and Louisiana gumbo weren't part of our midwestern diet back then, Betsy and Tacy seemed to be a "literary comfort food" that somehow bypassed my part of the world in the 1960s and 1970s as well.

A few years ago, I decided to remedy the situation by finally reading the Betsy-Tacy series. Most of the libraries I tried either didn't have the books or just owned one or two volumes. A few of the titles had been issued in paperback by then, but not all of them. Then I looked online and saw the going price for many of these books was in the HUNDREDS of dollars. So I put my plan on the backburner and went on to other reading.

Sometime after that, I was visiting New York and stumbled upon the entire ten-volume series at a used bookstore -- for only $4 a piece! They were nice later printings with dustjackets and I was thrilled to get them. When I returned from my vacation, I told a couple co-workers who shared a cubicle about my great find in NYC. Having also grown up around here, they had never heard of the Betsy-Tacy books either and asked if they could borrow them. "Sure, I probably won't get around to reading them for a while," I said, and brought the books in the next day.

For the next week, every time I approached their cubicle during lunch break, my two co-workers would each be hunched over a Betsy-Tacy book and either wave me away because I was interrupting Important Reading or stop to tell me about some interesting scene in the book:

Co-worker: Listen to this -- Betsy, Tacy and Tib just wrote a love letter to the king of Spain!

Me: Who's Tib?


Co-worker: Guess what Betsy's sister ends up doing for a career?

Me: I dunno. Girls didn't have many options at the turn of the century. Did she become a teacher?

Co-worker: No, she becomes an opera singer!


Co-worker: Guess what! Betsy ends up getting MARRIED!

Me: I know.

Co-worker: How did you know?

Me: The name of the last book is BETSY'S WEDDING.

Co-worker: Oh...oh, yeah.

At the end of that week, my co-workers told me they wanted to buy the books from me...because they absolutely couldn't live without them! They'd each keep five of the volumes. Well, what could I say? I'd gotten such a kick out of their enjoyment of Betsy-Tacy all week and, hey, when it comes to children's books, I'm all about sharin' the love. So of course I sold them the books. As any chef will tell you: if there's one thing better than EATING comfort food, it's preparing it for someone else. This picture of Betsy and Tacy might just as well be called, "Peter's co-workers leaving the library with the books they just bought":

Several years have passed since then. Those two co-workers have moved on to other jobs, but I love the idea that they're probably still reading their Betsy-Tacy books whenever they crave literary comfort food. I still haven't read the books. But one of these days I'll get around to ordering them from interlibrary loan and actually sit down and read the entire series -- book in one hand, Vernors Ginger Ale in the other.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Another Sunday, Another Brunch

Here's another serving of random thoughts and information on children's books old and new.


Last night on TV’s Antiques Roadshow, someone brought in an old high school yearbook that featured a student named Marion Morrison. He later became the iconic film star John Wayne.


But mine doesn’t include any movie stars. As you might guess it includes a favorite writer of children’s books:

“Betsy Bard” said her career goal was “to become an illustrator.” Instead she became the writer Betty MacDonald, famous in the world of children's books for her “Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle” stories and the highly collectable stand-alone novel NANCY AND PLUM. I love these books, but love her four adult books THE EGG AND I, THE PLAGUE AND I, ANYBODY CAN DO ANYTHING and ONIONS IN THE STEW even more and have read them dozens of times each. Betty MacDonald has a huge fanbase that’s perhaps even stronger in Europe than it is in the United States. Fans make pilgrimages to Seattle, the city where Betty spent her childhood, and visit Vashon Island, where she wrote all of her books. (It's now the home of another famous children’s writer, Karen Cushman.) I refer to the author as “Betty” because that’s what most of her fans call her -- as if she were a friend or acquaintance. Many people have said they’d like to write a biography of Betty. I’m one of them. As screamingly hilarious as her adult memoirs are, those who have researched her life know she experienced her share of sadness and even tragedy. Several years ago, a childhood friend of Betty’s, Blanche Caffiere, published a memoir that included some interesting scenes, but still left readers wanting to know more about Betty MacDonald.

After Betty’s too-early death (she wasn’t even fifty when she died) Lippincott issued a book called WHO ME? : THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF BETTY MACDONALD. The book is highly sought after by Betty fans, many of whom don’t realize it’s only a compilation of previously published material. There have also been rumors that Betty wrote a fifth volume of adult memoirs, much darker in tone than her earlier books, but it was never published. I’d give just about anything to read it. As you can tell, I am somewhat obsessed with this wonderful author.

(How many other people would actually own her high school yearbook?)


Those who follow this blog know that M.E. Kerr is my all-time favorite writer and an all-time favorite friend.

Because she has written under many different names and her books have been released in many different editions over the years, collecting M.E. Kerr is a never-ending process and I love the fact that something new is always turning up. One subset of my Kerr collection is foreign-language editions of her books. Here are the covers of the French edition of her first book, DINKY HOCKER SHOOTS SMACK! and the Italian edition of one of her more recent books SNAKES DON’T MISS THEIR MOTHERS:


It used to cost $11 to $13 to fill my gas tank. Yesterday it cost $42. Before we all end up in the poorhouse, I’m wondering if old-fashioned bartering will make a comeback. On Friday I was at my favorite independent bookstore, bragging that I had just found an advance reading copy of one of this fall’s most talked-about titles, THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins -- a novel so engrossing I’m having a hard time putting it down at night:

My bookstore friend then asked if I could come in the next morning and help her with a project. I said, “Well...I don’t know if I can get up that early on a Saturday.”

She said, “If you do, I’ll give you a manuscript copy of THE HUNGER GA--"

“What time should I be here?” I quickly responded.

It’s great to have an “ARC” of a forthcoming book, but manuscript copies (letter- sized paper in a plastic spiral binding) are even more rare. They are sent out to bookstores and other interested parties months before even the ARCs are published.

So the next day I showed up bright and early to help out (okay, it was actually eleven a.m. but that IS early on a Saturday) and my bookstore-friend gave me this copy:

She said, “I would have given it to you whether you came today or not.” (NOW she tells me!) Either way, I’m so glad to add it to my collection -- especially since THE HUNGER GAMES seems destined to be one of 2008’s best.


It crossed my mind today that someone could create a great collection of homemade J.K. Rowling/Harry Potter memorabilia. So many bookstores produced their own bookmarks, postcards, and other ephemera to celebrate each new volume in the Potter series -- and it would be fascinating to gather these things all together into a single collection. My bookstore passed out this tiny book of “spells” to commemorate the publication of the last Potter volume this past summer:

This limited edition booklet (my copy is number 317 out of 500) includes several different incantations for protecting oneself from inclement weather and escaping into a different dimension or time. My favorite is the “Book Hop” on page seven, which allows the spell-caster to enter a novel’s fictional world. Here are the instructions: “Set the book on a table with your wand touching its open pages and yell as loudly as possible, ‘In liber veritas!’”

I have to admit I haven’t actually tried the spell.

Hey, I don’t need a wand or magic words to enter the fictional world of a novel.

I just open the book and start reading.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Books are Like a Box of Cracker Jack

Forrest Gump once said that life was a like a box of chocolates.

I think that books are like a box of Cracker Jack -- because quite often you find a surprise inside.

Here are three surprises I recently encountered in children's books.


Last year I heard some good things about a debut novel called FIRST LIGHT by Rebecca Stead. Although I'm not a big fan of fantasy, I do like books with wintry settings, so decided to give this one a try.

I bought the book at my favorite independent bookstore, brought it home, opened it up to read, and was surprised to find the author's signature on the title page!

It's not uncommon to find an older signed book at a used bookstore, but this was the only time I've ever picked up a brand new book at a store and discovered it had already been signed. (And no, Rebecca Stead had not done a book signing event at this store.) So how did it happen? I can only come up with a couple possible explanations. One is that perhaps Ms. Stead did a signing at another store and autographed a bunch of extra books, which were later returned to the distributor and resold to other bookstores. Or perhaps the author, who lives in New York, came to the midwest to visit family or friends, happened to drop into my bookstore and (as all authors do) checked to see if her book was on the shelf. When she saw that it was, she covertly pulled out a red felt tip and mischievously signed her name -- an unlikely scenario, but fun to imagine.

If Rebecca Stead ever comes to this area to do a booksigning, I guess I could ask her theory on the matter. (But then why would I need to attend the booksigning when my copy is already autographed?)


Every so often someone will ask me why children's book publishers almost never publish books that are written by children. Oh I don't know. Could it be because...they're usually not very good? I know the old arguments: kids have fertile, unspoiled imaginations unfettered by the conventions that limit jaded adult writers. But they also generally lack the polish and technique that's required to write a readable book. I think it's just as well. We've already seen what happens to child actors once grown. Do we really want to create another whole population of twentysomething has-beens? ("There's Janie. So sad. Won the Pulitzer at twelve...washed up at seventeen. Is it any wonder she drinks?" or "Poor Ethan. Michiko Kakutani just slammed his new novel in the Times. That kind of thing is tough on a fourth-grader.")

There is one publishing house that specializes in books written by children for children. Landmark Editions ( sponsors the "David Melton Memorial Written & Illustrated by...Contest for Students" which annually publishes books representing young writers in three different age categories. In terms of quality, most of these books would not fare well compared to volumes published by mainstream publishers, but I don't think that's really the goal of Landmark Editions, whose mission statement mostly talks about awakening creativity in young people.

I was looking at a Landmark volume recently and noticed the back pages list previous winners. None were familiar names, until I came across the following. (Please click on the picture to enlarge the image.)

In 1987, Landmark Editions published WORLD WAR WON by then-nineteen-year-old Dav Pilkey, who has since gone on, of course, to write and illustrate dozens of works including the Caldecott Honor Book THE PAPERBOY and the hugely-popular "Captain Underpants" series.

I imagine a first edition of Pilkey's first book would be highly collectable these days.


A bookselling friend of mine recently sent me a book for free:

RIVER OF THE WEST is a lesser book by Armstrong Sperry, who is best known for his Newbery-winning classic CALL IT COURAGE. I wasn't quite sure why my friend had sent the book until I opened the front cover and...MWAH!

Knowing how much I like unusual or offbeat inscriptions, my friend knew I'd find this red lipstick print pretty irrestistible. I noticed that the book's original owner (a seventh grade girl in 1954, according to the inscription) referred to the kiss as her "trademark" and I envisioned her going through life adding her trademark to every book she owned, every letter she wrote, every document she signed:

Please leave an extra quart of cream today. Thanks.

I can explain about the letter I left for the milkman -- really!

("Do I have to actually sign this divorce decree, or can I just use my trademark kiss?")

Then I began doing some research and discovered that this girl is not the only one who kisses books. I found examples of authors (such as Linda Barry and STAR TREK's Nichelle Nichols) who have signed their books with lipstick prints and, even better, anonymous kisses planted in random books -- including a kissable copy of Colleen McCullough's THE THORN BIRDS and a volume of children's poetry by Rachel Field called TAXIS AND TOADSTOOLS that a reader felt compelled to kiss.

All I can say is that someone must have really, really loved those books!

A surprise early appearance by a now-famous unexpected kiss....

You never know what you will stumble upon when you open a children's book.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

She Even Called Me "Mr."

Some kids have favorite baseball teams or favorite singers. I had a favorite publisher.

Visiting the library as a child, I constantly checked out books by E.L. Konigsburg and Zilpha Keatley Snyder -- and at some point realized that all their titles were published by Atheneum. After a while I began to associate the name "Atheneum" with "quality." It was like the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for children's books. I became a "brand snob," seeking out other volumes from this publisher and discovering new favorites by authors such as Sylvia Louise Engdahl, Barbara Corcoran, William D. Hayes, Barbara Wersba, and Peter Zachary Cohen. Maia Wojciechowska published her first children's novel, SHADOW OF A BULL, with Atheneum, won the Newbery, then soon moved on to greener pastures. Conversely, two-time Newbery winner Joseph Krumgold left Crowell and came to Atheneum to publish his third and final children's novel, HENRY 3.

I loved most of these books but often wished I could have my own copies rather than keep carting them back and forth to the library in my newspaper-route saddle bags. But Atheneum books were never reprinted in paperback then -- and I certainly couldn't afford to buy hardcovers.

Then one day I went to the B. Dalton bookstore and saw a copy of E.L. Konigsburg's JENNIFER, HECATE, MACBETH, WILLIAM MCKINLEY AND ME, ELIZABETH on the paperback shelf.

It turned out to be the very first book that Atheneum was publishing in their new paperback line, Aladdin Books. I quickly looked through the shelves and found another, Wojciechowska's SHADOW OF A BULL with a blood-red cover. I'd finally found copies of these books I could afford...copies I could put on my shelves and take down to look at or read any time I felt like it. I wanted to thank someone!

But who?

I decided to write Atheneum Itself. Using my father's old manual typewriter and both index fingers, I typed a "To Whom It May Concern" thank you note to the publisher, saying how happy I was that they were now publishing books I could afford. I even included a "wish list" of other Atheneum titles I wanted to see in paperback.

A couple weeks later I opened the mailbox and found an envelope from Atheneum:

And inside was not just a form reply, but an actual letter from Jean Karl, the famous editor who had started the children's department at Atheneum, discovered and guided the careers of so many famous authors, and had edited dozens of my favorite books. (If you click on the image, the letter will enlarge so you can read it better.)

I was under no illusions that my original letter looked like it came from an adult -- not with all of its strike-overs and inky fingerprint marks (some of the keys on that manual typewriter stuck and always had to be pried off the ribbon), not to mention the bad grammar and misspelled words (hey, YOU try spelling Wojciechowska correctly!) -- so I was thrilled that Ms. Karl responded in such an adult, nonpatronizing way. She even called me "Mr." It wasn't until years later that I realized this was probably one of the reasons she was such a great editor: she didn't look down on kids, but treated them with respect.

In the coming seasons, I continued to purchase as many Aladdin books as my paper route money would allow: the long-awaited paperback publication of FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER; a true story about young test pilots called LET X BE EXCITEMENT by Christie Harris; Robert C. O'Brien's eccentric first novel, THE SILVER CROWN. Nearly forty years have passed since those first books were released. Aladdin continues to thrive as a paperback publisher. I'd like to think my early "hearty support" and "enthusiasm" had something to do with it, but who'd believe that? I guess the person we should thank today is the same person I thanked in 1972: Jean Karl -- the editor who published so many great books at Atheneum, who created the Aladdin paperback line, and even called thirteen-year-old boys from the midwest "Mr."

Sunday, May 11, 2008

A Mother's Day Brunch

Welcome to a Mother’s Day Brunch at Collecting Children’s Books. Today’s entry is a mamacentric collection of thoughts, opinions and information dedicated to all the mothers out there -- especially mine!


Who doesn’t remember this volume, which has been around in one form or another since 1916?

When I dug out my old copy today, I was surprised by how many of illustrations (by Blanche Fisher Wright) were still emblazoned in my memory. I remember nearly every single one, including Little Jack Horner:

When you’re a kid you hear a lot of things you don’t quite “get” -- but you figure you’ll understand them when you grow up. I remember not understanding some of these nursery rhymes as a child and I hate to admit this, but...I still don’t understand some of them now. Take “Oh, Dear!” which reads:

Dear, dear! what can the matter be?
Two old women got up in an appletree;
One came down, and the other stayed till Saturday.

What the...? Why did the two old women climb the tree and why did one stay for so long? And it doesn’t even rhyme.

Originally published by Rand McNally, the book’s checkerboard pattern became so well known that it’s now published by the Checkerboard Press.


Here’s a book from my collection, written by Leclaire Alger. I think it’s so odd that she began to sign this book on the front of the dustjacket -- something I’ve never seen any author do before. (Look just below the title.)

She eventually gave up on that idea and signed it inside. I believe “Mother Alger” is actually the author’s mother-in-law:

Alger only wrote three novels: JAN AND THE WONDERFUL MOUTH ORGAN (1939), DOUGAL’S WISH (1942) and THE GOLDEN SUMMER (1942.) Ever heard of her? Twenty years later she adopted a pseudonym and published a dozen more highly-acclaimed books, some of which were honored by the Newbery and Caldecott committees. ...But that is a story for another blog entry.


Today we probably wouldn’t blink an eye at this story, but in 1972 MOM, THE WOLF MAN AND ME was considered quite a shocking book.

Although I’m sure there were other “illegitimate children” in juvenile literature before 1972, this novel’s protagonist Brett was one of the first to talk about the fact that her parents never married. And, to make the story even more modern, Brett’s mom is living with another guy in anticipation of possibly getting married.

Reportedly, Norma Klein produced this novel in less than two weeks by writing ten pages a day. She continued to write at a prolific rate for the next two decades: picture books, middle-grade novels, young adult books, and adult fiction. One of her most successful books was actually a paperback novelization of the TV movie SUNSHINE. Her own work was usually edgier than that. She toppled taboos at every turn and was quite vocal about not getting the credit she deserved for her work. Her death at age fifty remains somewhat shrouded in mystery. I’ve only seen one book that alluded to the cause of death...and then only in a footnote.


In 1984, Thacher Hurd adapted the traditional song “Mama Don’t Allow” into a riotous picture book.

MAMA DON’T ALLOW won the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award in 1985. Nearly twenty years later, I found out that the Horn Book Magazine had decided to sell their library, which contained copies of nearly every book the magazine had reviewed. I was upset to learn this great collection was being dissolved and when the books started turning up for sale on the internet, I tried to “save” as many as I could. I thought it was especially important to preserve the Horn Book’s own copies of the Boston-Globe-Horn Book Award winners. Most are now sitting on shelves, with a “HORN BOOK” ink stamp on the front endpaper. Many are autographed, such as my copy of MAMA DON’T ALLOW, which also includes a sketch by Thacher Hurd!


Elizabeth Enright wrote some of the greatest children’s books of the twentieth century, but not many know that she also published several volumes of eloquent, beautifully-written stories for adults. One day I happened across the British edition of her adult volume DOUBLEFIELDS and discovered it was poignantly inscribed by Enright’s oldest son Nicholas.

Michele Murrary was not nearly as well-known as Elizabeth Enright. In fact, she had just begun her career in children’s books, publishing two well-received novels, NELLIE CAMERON and THE CRYSTAL NIGHTS -- the latter nominated for the Newbery Medal during that brief era when Newbery nominations were released to the public. Michele Murphy died at age forty in 1974; we can only wonder about how many great children’s books she might someday have written. I have never found autographed copies of her two children’s books, but I did find an adult volume of poetry that one of the author’s children signed:


Author Crescent Dragonwagon has posted a thoughtful and sometimes painful essay about her mother, writer/editor Charlotte Zolotow, at Look for the May 10, 2008 entry. For a fictional look at their relationship, you might also like to read Crescent Dragonwagon’s novel THE YEAR IT RAINED.


One of the authors that Charlotte Zolotow discovered was Paul Zindel. A former high school science teacher, Zindel had written the play THE EFFECT OF GAMMA RAYS ON MAN-IN-THE-MOON MARIGOLDS, which would eventually go on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Ms. Zolotow saw an early production of the play on PBS and asked Zindel if he had ever thought about writing for teenagers. His first young adult book, THE PIGMAN, is one of the all-time greats, and he went on to write many more enduring novels. Anyone who has ever read Zindel’s complete body of work knows that he had a troubled relationship with his own mother. Many of his works feature variations on the same mother -- a high-strung kleptomaniac nurse who usually shows up with a milk bottle in hand. A milk bottle would seem to be a metaphor for a mother’s love and nurturing, but in Zindel’s books and plays it’s used as a method of humiliation. Despite the difficult, often shrewish, mothers who appear in Zindel’s dramas and young adult novels, when he eventually wrote his one and only picture book, this was the poignant title:

I find that so telling.

Happy Mother’s Day, everyone!