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!


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