Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Sounds of Sunday Brunching

One of the books I discuss in today’s blog, RAPUNZEL’S REVENGE (written by Shannon and Dean Hale; illustrated by Nathan Hale) features the kind of old-fashioned, cartoon sound effects I haven’t seen since I used to watch BATMAN on TV as a kid. We hear a magic glass capsule crush between thumb and index finger (CRISH!), the sound of Rapunzel using a lariat (FWIP!) and falling in the water (SPLOSH!), and the growl of attacking beasts (ROWR!) Today’s Sunday brunch offers some random thoughts and information on children’s books, complete with sound effects.


That’s the sound of walking through a noisy street fair and then finding sanctuary in a quiet bookstore. Ann Arbor’s annual Art Fair was held this past week and though I have not been there in many years, I remember going several times as a kid. Throngs of thousands browsed the booths that ran up and down the busy streets of this university town. The art was nice, but I was more interested in escaping the blazing sun and deafening din by visiting every bookstore in sight. This was the seventies when the city had all kinds of bookstores, including the very first Borders ever; stores that sold mainly university texts; esoteric book boutiques located at the top of wobbling wooden stairways or down in dark basements that specialized in titles for women’s libbers (as feminists were called back then) or hippies or those with an interest in the paranormal, as well as dusty used bookshops on almost every block.

Is there anything better than stepping off a hot, crowded street and finding refuge in an air-conditioned bookstore?

Today I buy books willy-nilly -- keeping a few favorites, but mostly giving the rest away to libraries after I’ve read them. But back then I only had maybe twenty dollars to spend on books for the entire year, so when I brought that money to Ann Arbor each July, I shopped very wisely -- picking books I knew I’d want to keep forever. And I still do have most of them. If I spin my chair around right now, I can actually touch three of them on the shelf a few inches behind me: THE SON OF SOMEONE FAMOUS by M.E. Kerr, IS THAT YOU, MISS BLUE? by M.E. Kerr, and A HEART TO THE HAWKS, a novel by Don Moser who, as far as I know, hasn’t written a book since.

Incidentally, my only major art purchase in all the years I visited the Art Fair, is this painting of “The Round People” by Frank Stephan Pollack:

I couldn’t afford it myself, so I paid for half and my aunt paid for half -- and then we shared it! For part of the year the Round People resided with her in Ann Arbor and for the rest of the year they lived with me in Detroit. (Has anyone else ever used this innovative approach to buying a piece of art?) My aunt died several years ago, so the little round family now resides full-time with me. It represents one aspect of the Art Fair -- walking around under an oppressive sun, squeezing into noisy, bustling booths and looking over people’s shoulders at paintings and sculptures. The books I bought during those visits represent another side of the art fair -- standing alone in a cool and quiet bookstore exploring the art of the written word.

Everyone deserves a pat on the back for a job well done. And while authors get their fair share of praise (and criticism), it seems to me that publishers, editors, and others involved in the production of a book are usually the “silent partners” who remain unacknowledged. The only publisher I know of that regularly includes the editor’s name on the copyright page is Philomel.

But now a new imprint, Feiwel and Friends, has come up with a novel way of acknowledging the “behind the scenes” folks who contribute to the creation of their books. Each of their volumes includes a page at the end thanking us for reading the book (you’re welcome!) and stating “The friends who made [title of book] possible are” followed by a list of names.

I like how F&F incorporate the theme of each book into this page.

COMPOUND by S.A. Bodeen, about a boy who lives in an underground shelter for many years, uses this motif:

And the baseball novel SIX INNINGS by James Preller utilizes this fun design:


That’s the sound of me getting slapped down by a famous editor. How famous? She’s THE Feiwel of the aforementioned Feiwel & Friends!

Last year I was excited to learn that Ellen Emerson White had written a new volume in her “Meg Powers” series. However, my excitement was short-lived when I discovered that LONG MAY SHE REIGN was going to be published in softcover.

There’s certainly no shame in being published in paperback. It seems like most young adult books in England -- even serious literary works -- are published as paperback originals. Young adult author M.E. Kerr published nearly twenty paperback originals in the 1950s and 1960s as “Vin Packer” and her work was compared favorably to that of John O’Hara and is still considered some of the finest suspense writing of that era.

So my concern isn’t the quality of the book, but more the (cue SFX) “SKITTER SKITTER SKITTER” sound we’ll be hearing in a few years when we try to read these paperbacks and the pages all fall out and land on the floor. So often when I read my Vin Packer books, just turning a page will cause it to pull out of the binding; I once dropped one and the entire spine came off. That’s why I prefer the durability and near-permanence of a hardcover book.

Since Feiwel and Friends had a website, I sent Jean Feiwel herself an e-mail with my arguments against paperbacks (“they only hold up for a few readings at the library before being tossed, so they don’t sit on library shelves for any length of time the way a hardcover does, drawing new fans years after year.”) and even trying to convince her to at least to try a “limited edition hardcover” the way Roaring Brook Press did with last year’s Printz winner AMERICAN BORN CHINESE.

First I went at it from the collecting perspective: “Everywhere I go, I see evidence of products geared toward the collector. We’re now collecting state-themed quarters. The magazine Vanity Fair is featuring 30 different covers this month, leaving collectors rushing around to find all of them. The TV Guide regularly publishes 4-6 different covers for the same issue, and collectors must buy all of them.”

I desperately threw in the CANDY argument! :

“Even candy bars have been experimenting with the trend lately, putting out “limited edition” dark chocolate M&Ms...and “limited edition” Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups with caramel and nut fillings. ...So I’m wondering if it would be financially feasible, from a publisher’s perspective, to issue a limited number of signed and numbered hardcovers to complement a paperback original. I know I’d pay $50 or $60 for a special limited edition of a book like LONG MAY SHE REIGN.”

I then tried flattery:

“I don’t think many other publishers have considered such a thing, but it might be something a new, vital and exciting company such as yours might try someday.”

She wrote back and said NO.

But she was very nice about it, thanking me for my thoughts, and saying she preferred to “publish a beautiful looking trade paperback that would have serious shelf presence, but would be far more affordable” (than what a 700-page hardcover would cost.)

Ms. Feiwel was also very complimentary about Ellen Emerson White, calling her “one of the most talented and brilliant writers I’ve ever worked with.”

But still:

“I am not considering a hardcover special edition.”

I was bummed because, as a book lover and book collector, I’m all about preservation and permanence -- two qualities generally lacking in paperback books.

Oh well, Feiwel & Friends ARE still my friends, as they have released some really great books in their first year of publishing.

I just wish all those books had been hardcovers!


That’s the sound of great excitement slowing fading away, and that’s the sound I made when I read Benjamin Alire Saenz’s new novel HE FORGOT TO SAY GOODBYE.

I thought that Mr. Saenz’s first young adult novel, SAMMY AND JULIANA IN HOLLYWOOD, was one of the best books of this new century and that he deserved the Printz Award for it. So I was really looking forward to this new novel. However, GOODBYE seems very much overwritten and, while it has some nice moments, I felt it needed stronger editing. Not everyone agrees with me on this one. Publishers Weekly actually starred it. If you want to see my detailed criticisms, my review of HE FORGOT TO SAY GOODBYE appears in the current issue of the Horn Book.


This past week, three people whose opinions I value have told me how much they liked the following new or forthcoming books:

LOVE ME TENDER by Audrey Couloumbis

I haven’t read them yet, but after hearing this kind of word-of-mouth praise, these books are moving to the top of my “to be read” pile.


Twice this past week I encountered children’s books dedicated to the authors’ grandparents. That’s not so unusual. The unusual thing is that both dedication pages contained photographs of the dedicatee.

Here’s the dedication page of FIVE LITTLE GEFILTES by Dave Horowitz:


Is this a new trend? Is it a positive trend? Does it make us (heart) the author for being a good grandchild? Or does it intrude on the integrity of the book in some way? I haven’t decided yet.


That’s the sound of me reconsidering an old opinion.

In the past, I have often dismissed children’s books that were issued by regional or university presses, figuring they probably weren’t up to par with the best books released by the major publishing houses.

However, this past week I came across WHO'S JIM HINES? written by Jean Alicia Elster and published by the press at the university where I work:

The description on the back cover stated that the story was based on the life of the author’s uncle, who helped his father deliver wood throughout Detroit and the suburbs during the Depression. Now I’m very interested in reading this story about the history of my hometown and its people. That’s when it dawned on me that this is the primary appeal of books published by regional companies. They may not get much national attention or garner huge audiences, but they often tell “small” human stories that will best be appreciated by readers, families, and cultures within their own communities and should be celebrated as such. Later generations of historians will appreciate them as well.


A couple days ago I wrote about receiving a poster from a blog-friend who attended the American LIbrary Association convention in Anaheim last month. I later received the book that goes with the poster, RAPUNZEL'S REVENGE, signed by co-author Shannon Hale with the jaunty inscription “Yeeha!”

This retelling of Rapunzel, by way of the Old West, is a spirited, entertaining, tongue-in-cheek graphic novel.

A lot of people were surprised last year when a graphic novel, AMERICAN BORN CHINESE by Gene Luen Yang, won the Printz Award. This year’s Caldecott winner, THE INVENTION OF HUGO CABRET by Brian Selznick, may not technically be a “graphic novel,” but it comes pretty close. And now that acclaimed authors such as Shannon Hale are entering the genre, it strikes me that there will come a day when a graphic novel wins the Newbery Medal.

What will the response to THAT sound like?

Loud applause from those who appreciate innovation?

Teeth gnashing and heads imploding from traditionalists?

Cheers? Boos?

Stunned silence?

How will you feel? Insert your own sound effect here.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A truly fascinating blog. I see work by acclaimed children's books illustrator Helen Oxenbury is appearing in Bayard's Storybox series for September StoryBoxBooks They also have some great ideas for a rainy day!,,