Sunday, June 29, 2008

Last Sunday Brunch in June

It’s the last weekend in June and I’ve prepared a Sunday brunch of random facts and opinions on children’s books. The menu includes a pizza made in Cleveland, a serving of pye, and some summer whine..I mean wine. Dig in!


Normally Anaheim, California is best known for Disneyland...but this weekend the city of flying teacups is hosting the American Library Association’s Annual Conference. The highlight for children’s book enthusiasts is tonight’s presentation of the Newbery and Caldecott Medals to Amy Laura Schlitz (for GOOD MASTERS! SWEET LADIES!) and Brian Selznick (for THE INVENTION OF HUGO CABRET.)

Every Newbery-Caldecott Banquet has its own lore. Eleanor Estes tripped and fell as she got up to give her speech in 1952. Linda Sue Park gave the medal to her father right in the middle of her speech. Robert C. O’Brien bowed out of delivering his own acceptance speech. William Steig gave a notably brief speech and far too many authors have given speeches that were far too long. It will be interesting to hear what happens at tonight’s event. Both authors have broken new Newbery/Caldecott ground, with Ms. Schlitz winning for a book of dramatic monologues (the first volume of its type to get the Big N) and Mr. Selznick winning for a picture book over 500 pages long.

Former medalist Susan Cooper (who won the Newbery for THE GREY KING) once referred to the newly-crowned winners as “midsummer monarchs,” and it's true that it won’t be long before we begin anticipating what books will win next year’s awards. But tonight belongs to Good Masters, Sweet Ladies, and Hugo Cabret.


It happened again on Friday.

I subscribe to several listserves devoted to children’s and young adult books. Librarians submit “stumpers” -- books that patrons are seeking, though they can’t recall the titles. On Friday a librarian wrote that a patron was a looking for a book about a New York city girl who returns home early from a family vacation and ends up getting a part in a Woody Allen movie.

If I had a dime for every time someone wrote in asking about this book!

The title is THE RISE AND FALL OF A TEENAGE WACKO, published in 1981.

Three other stumpers I frequently see are:

“Does anyone know the title of a book about two 'outsider' girls who form a friendship based on their shared psychic abilities?”

That book is I’M NOBODY! WHO ARE YOU?, published in 1974.

Then there’s “I’m trying to remember a book about a girl who suffers from nightmares, steals small items from stores, and has mysterious scars on her hands.”

That’s STEP ON A CRACK, published in 1978.

Finally, there’s this stumper: “Does anyone know an epistolary novel about two girls who send each other letters while they are on summer vacation? I remember that one girl is opposed to riding in cars because she’s concerned about pollution.”

That one is THERE’S A PIZZA BACK IN CLEVELAND, pubished in 1972.

What all these books have in common is that they were written by the same author: Mary Anderson. (PIZZA was co-authored by Hope Campbell.)

Active in the 1970s and 1980s, Mary Anderson was never a hugely-popular author, nor did she win any awards. I believe all of her books are now long out of print.

But obviously they have never been forgotten by readers -- and that includes me.

I often ask myself what it is about Mary Anderson’s novels that makes readers remember them ten, twenty, thirty years after publication and try to track them down? Is it the characters? The plots? Or some ineffable quality that’s impossible to name?

I too have been drawn back to these books every few years. When I begin re-reading them, I tell myself that I will objectively figure out what makes these stories linger in the mind and haunt the reader...but after a few pages I forget that I’m trying to be a literary detective and find myself falling completely into the enjoyment of reading these books.

Could that be the secret of why people remember Mary Anderson’s novels -- that they are simply really, really good books?

Or is there something else between the lines that draws us in and makes us never forget?


Well, I knew the first two as children’s books by Eleanor Estes, but had never heard of Johnny Pye until I stumbled across JOHNNY PYE AND THE FOOL-KILLER in the library stacks the other day. I was surprised I didn’t know it -- especially since it was written by Stephen Vincent Benet, who won the 1929 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for JOHN BROWN’S BODY and the classic 1937 short story THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER.

The book concerns a “biddable” orphan boy who seeks to avoid the “fool killer” (death) by sampling life as a snake-oil salesman and merchant, trying out the military, and considering politics before, inevitably, accepting death as an elderly man. This moving and old-fashioned story has the feel of a fine folktale.

Published in 1938, this novella-length book is so short that I was able to read the entire thing during my half-hour lunch break at work. Though the book I held in my hands was seventy years old, many of the pages were uncut and I frequently had to wipe off my lunch knife and score the edges so I could continue reading the story.

No wonder I felt like I was discovering something new and unknown as I read JOHNNY PYE AND THE FOOL-KILLER; I was actually the first person to EVER read the library's copy. Imagine that!


It has to have been a full year ago that my friend in California told me that A DARKLING PLAIN by Philip Reeve was a great book and urged me to read it. Unfortunately, it turns out that DARKLING PLAIN is the fourth and final volume in a series called “The Hungry Cities Chronicles.” My friend said it wouldn’t make any difference if I plunged directly into the fourth volume, but I felt it wouldn’t be right if I didn’t read the other three volumes first. So I rushed out and got paperback copies. I read MORTAL ENGINES right away and, even though fantasy isn’t my favorite genre, I enjoyed this fast-paced and inventive novel. That was last summer.

Just today I finished reading the second volume, PREDATOR’S GOLD and enjoyed that as well.

I’m going to start #3, INFERNAL DEVICES, tomorrow, but considering my track record (and the fact that the book is over 400 pages) who knows when I’ll finish it.

Incidentally, A DARKLING PLAIN is nearly 600 pages.

I expect to finally finish it by Christmas.

...Christmas 2009.


There’s nothing a blogger loves more than getting plenty of hits on his blog.

For the past couple days I’ve had about two hundred new visitors. Of course I was ecstatic. But I noticed that they were all coming to read the exact same entry -- from February 24, 2008. I went back and re-read that entry and couldn’t see anything that might suddenly attract all that attention.

Today I discovered that a school library listserve had been discussing the “Mickey Mantle scene” in Gary Schmidt’s THE WEDNESDAY WARS and that someone had posted a link to my blog entry containing Mr. Schmidt’s explanation of that scene. I believe my blog is the only place on the internet (till now, at least) that offers this information -- and of course I am thrilled to share it with anyone and everyone who drops by here. This blog is all about sharing information on old and new children’s books.

However, I have to say I was slightly chagrined to see that, with maybe one or two exceptions (out of 200+ new visitors) nobody hung around to look at anything else on the blog. Wouldn’t you think that school people...readers...would have their curiosity sufficiently piqued by the WEDNESDAY WARS information that they’d at least look at a few more blog entries just to see what other info on children’s books is available here? Whatta bummer.


So to all the REGULAR VISITORS here, I’d like to extend a big THANK YOU for your continued readership and support.

I'm grateful to the old friends who suggested I start this blog and the new friends who have either posted comments here or sent me e-mails (at

And I'm grateful to those anonymous readers whose cities keep showing up in my “stat counter” from Australia (wow -- around the world!) and Berkeley, California...Williamsport, PA...just down the 696 expressway from me in Ann Arbor and Brighton, MI...Manchester, NH...Indianapolis ...Kansas...Stowe, VT...Germantown, MD...and dozens of others. (And if you log in through America Online, I don't know WHERE you live, because all AOL visitors are funneled through Reston, VA.)

As a way of saying thanks:

Have you all read DANDELION WINE by Ray Bradbury?

I somehow missed this title growing up -- but one of my co-workers, who is very widely-read, always talks about DANDELION WINE being her all-time favorite. In fact, she talked about it so much that I finally had to read it myself!

And of course I fell in love with it...because everybody loves this book.

A couple years later, I was able to repay the friend who introduced me to this book by telling her that Ray Bradbury would be appearing at a local bookstore. She was able to have her battered paperback of DANDELION WINE signed and thank Ray Bradbury in person for writing her favorite book.

I think anyone who loves children’s books would enjoy this collection of inter-connected stories about twelve-year-old Douglas Spaulding’s summer in tiny Green Town, Illinois. Tinged with fantasy and nostalgia, DANDELION WINE celebrates the simple joys of being young and alive. And it’s the type of book that deepens as the reader ages -- and begins to notice the intimations of mortality and loss that lurk in the shadows of summer.

If you haven’t read it before, you might want to give it a try.

If you have read it before, you might want to read it again.

It’s the perfect summertime gift to share with others.

Pass it on.


P. J. Grath said...

I hope you've gotten some hits from readers who found you via my link from "Books in Northport." And thanks for explaining the Reston, VA, phenomenon. I didn't know about that and wondered who was reading me out there.

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Daughter Number Three said...

I found your blog a few weeks ago while Googling Ellen Raskin, and immediately wanted to read everything you had written, so I share your dismay about the 200 enthusiasts who don't have the time or curiosity to look around a bit. Maybe they will come back later, like I did.

Loved the glancing reference to John Donovan's I'll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip. Is that in your collection?

And thanks for reminding me about Dandelion Wine. I've added it to my list of books to get.

Anonymous said...

A big thank you from an Ann Arbor reader. Your blog is my favorite book blog because you convey that personal connection to books so well. I also like the bits of local history you share. My only problem with your blog is that my already unwieldy list of books-to-be-read is getting longer and longer!

Anonymous said...

I've never read Mary Anderson's books, but your thoughts remind me that many of my childhood favorites were not by award-winning authors and are now out of print, yet I still think of them fondly and wish I had my old copies. It's yet another reminder of how different books speak to different readers in ways that no gold or silver sticker can.

Regarding the Hungry City Chronicles, I'm relieved you started with Mortal Engines. With all due respect to your friend, I can't imagine jumping into Book 4 and having a bloody clue what was going on!

Peter D. Sieruta said...

Dear P.J. Grath: I have indeed gotten many hits from "Books in Northport." Thank you for the link. My computer is so old that I can't include links on this blog, but if I could, I'd definitely return the favor. Here's something funny about Reston, VA: I also use AOL and when I started this blog I only had a few hits a day...but noticed that someone from Reston, VA was visitng ALL THE TIME. I thought, "Wow, this blog has a real fan!" Then I realized that all of AOL's users are funneled through Reston and that I myself was creating all those hits from Reston every time I logged on to my own blog! Thanks for reading, Peter

Hi Daughter Number 3. Thanks so much for visiting; I appreciate it! I actually don't have a copy of the John Donovan novel in my collection. Did you know that his niece, Stacie Donovan, wrote a young adult novel called DIVE that explored similar themes? Stacie is also responsible for another of those "phantom books" I am always looking for. According to several sources, she wrote a book called NOTES FROM ASHAWAGH HALL, about a writing class on Long Island. I am intensely interested in this book because my friend Marijane Meaker (M.E. Kerr) created and leads that writing group. Although I've seen the book listed in various places, I have never been able to lay my hands on a copy. I suspect it was never published...yet I do still see it listed here and there. So I keep looking! Anyway, I hope you enjoy DANDELION WINE as much as I do, and thanks again for reading my blog. Peter

Hi Ann Arbor Anonymous. I am just down 696 from Ann Arbor, in Farmington Hills. Thanks for your very kind comments. Speaking of "books to be read" lists, you should see mine! I'm hoping to make a dint in my list over the Fourth of July weekend. Hope you have a good holiday too. Peter

Hello Lisa. Thanks for your kind comments. I'm glad I started with MORTAL ENGINES as well. My friend told me that when he read DARKLING PLAIN he didn't know what was going on for the first fifty pages, then became totally captivated. I'm doing it the old fashioned way: Book 1 followed by Book 2 followed by Book 3...! Thanks again, Peter

Anonymous said...

I read Dandelion Wine over spring break in 7th grade, and went looking for a pair of "Royal Crown Cream-Sponge Para Litefoot Tennis Shoes." I ended up with a pair of white Nike court shoes (leather, with a blue swoosh), and every spring after that I HAD to have a pair of those shoes, all the way into college. Just recently I bought a pair of Keds that are a similar style, and they made me think of Douglas and his Cream-Sponge Para Litefoot tennis shoes.

And don't feel too bad about the people who only visited one post. I often visit one post that I find interesting, then I subscribe to the RSS feed to see if I like the blog over time. I know that I found your blog quite a while ago and subscribed to the RSS feed, but never actually visited the site again until I wanted to see the comments on a post a few weeks later. :-)

Chersteen said...


My Mom, Mary Anderson, is the author of over 30 books for children/young adults and she found your blog about her books "teenage Wacko" and "Step on a Crack" and "Pizza back in Cleveland", and forwarded it to me. She intends to comment as well but I wanted to say, we are both so pleased that her books have had such an impact on readers! Its of course bittersweet since those are all out of print now, (she never had the best representation from her publishers in my opinion,) but they are still in libraries and she has received lots of fan mail over the years. I am one of her biggest fans myself! "I'm Nobody Who are you" is one of my favorites. She's a fantastic writer and a truly awesome person, too! A native New Yorker and a class act. Feel free to write to her at

Chersteen Anderson Colby :-)

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