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.
THE PRE-SIGNED BOOK
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?)
A FAMILIAR FACE
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 (http://www.landmarkeditions.com/Scripts/index.asp) 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.
SEALED WITH A KISS
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 signature...an early appearance by a now-famous author...an unexpected kiss....
You never know what you will stumble upon when you open a children's book.