Sunday, August 3, 2008

Sunday Brunch for a Dog Day Afternoon

According to my dictionary, the term “dog days” refers to the period between early July and early September, when the Northern Hemisphere experiences hot, slow summer days. We’re right in the middle of it now. But today is a different kind of “dog day” for me: August 3 was the birthday of the special dog I grew up with. So in honor of Rags, and all the other canines out there, I’m throwing a few dog biscuits on the brunch table today -- as well as the usual assortment of random facts and opinions on children’s books old and new.


Rags was a quiet, sleepy dog. In the summer she’d dig a hole under the lilac bush and rest in the cool dirt all day long; in the winter she spent her days either sleeping on the couch or on the bed -- or at points in-between. She was always a good dog. Except for the time she got ahold of Grandma’s dentures and used them as a chew toy. (True story.) And the time we left the oven door open and she stole our dinner. But other than that, she was very good. She was also very human. She was easily embarrassed (if anyone noticed she’d been groomed and said, “Rags, you got a haircut!” she’d turn around, lower her head, and sadly walk away.) She could also hold a grudge. When we had to leave town for a family emergency, our mother had to drop her off at a boarding kennel for a few days; when we returned, Rags was ecstatic to see the rest of the family but refused to even LOOK at our mother. (She finally came ‘round after we stopped and got her a Dairy Queen on the way home.) Rags has been gone for nearly thirty years now...or two hundred and ten dog years...and we still miss her.

And of course she’s represented in my book collection.

Because Rags was a Scottish Terrier, I always keep an eye out for children’s books about Scotties. Here are a few of mine, along with some handmade Scottie bookends my brother found at a thrift store:

Here are two of my favorites, MR. M’TAVISH and JAMES MACGREGOR FROM AMERICA, both by Marion Bullard, along with a wooden Scottie that a friend gave me:

I bought the latter title at a used bookstore and the inscription inside indicates it was given to the previous owner as a gift while she was in the hospital -- in February 1936.

I also like this little paperback reading primer, MAC AND MUFF by Gertrude Hildreth, which was published in 1940.

When I got it, I noticed that every page seemed to have a foil star stuck in the corner:

At first I thought it was just a case of a kid going through the volume and methodically defacing each page, the way Aunt Beatrice ruined her sister’s autograph album by signing her own name on every page in BEEZUS AND RAMONA. Or the way a relative of mine who shall remain nameless (except to say that he’s the same guy who gave me the Scottie bookends above) once went through one of my paperback books and systematically punched a hole in every single page with a paper-punch.

But then I made a discovery. Not EVERY page has a star on it:

It dawned on me that only pages with text had stars. The rest did not. Then I realized why. Some kid learned how to read with MAC AND MUFF in 1940. Every time he could read a page himself, he got a star. (No stars for the pages with pictures only.)

I wonder what ever happened to that kid. He’d be past seventy now....

As for me, there’s another dog in the family now. He’s not mine, but he comes to visit occasionally. Elgin the Yorkie is the exact opposite of sleepy Rags. Elgin is a ball of fire. I’ve seen him jump off the couch and do a three hundred and sixty degree turn before hitting the ground. I’ve seen him jump five feet into the air from a sitting position. He likes to race up and down the stairs simply for the sake of racing up and down the stairs. He grabs socks and slippers off the floor and runs away -- just because he thinks it's funny when someone chases him. This dog is always on the go...but he still occasionally finds time to read a good children’s book.


Although I’m anxious to see which canine is going to win the title of THE GREATEST AMERICAN DOG on TV (especially since my favorites, naughty Elvis and skateboarding Tillman, have been booted), I’m even more interested in figuring out which dogs have won the Newbery and Caldecott Medals. Although “dog stories” have always been a staple of children’s books, surprisingly few of these animals have ended up winning the Newbery. In fact, I can only think of three:

1952: GINGER PYE by Eleanor Estes
1970: SOUNDER by William H. Armstrong
1992: SHILOH by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor

(I should add that the list of Newbery Honors includes several great dog stories including Gary Paulsen’s DOGSONG, Meindert DeJong’s ALONG CAME A DOG, and Fred Gipson’s classic OLD YELLER.)

And it appears only two dog stories have won the Caldecott:

1952: FINDERS KEEPERS, illustrated by Nicolas Mordvinoff and written by William Lipkind.
1996: OFFICER BUCKLE AND GLORIA, written and illustrated by Peggy Rathmann.

If I’ve forgotten any Newbery or Caldecott dogs, let me know and I’ll correct this blog.

(WALK TWO MOONS and CRISPIN don’t count. Those books ARE Newbery dogs, but they’re not ABOUT dogs.)


I attended a BREAKING DAWN book release party on Friday. I’m not really a fan of this Stephenie Meyer vampire series, but I am a fan of “book events” -- especially when my favorite bookstore celebrates with a 25% discount on all books. So I went late in the evening, but was still home long before they broke open the boxes of BREAKING DAWN at 12:00 AM and the midnight mayhem began. It was great fun. Outside the store there were entertainers from the local television show NIGHTMARE SINEMA singing spooky and funny songs like the theme from Casper the Friendly Ghost. There was punch and watermelon slices and cookies shaped like bats. Inside there were streamers hanging from the ceiling and a contest in which fans of the series voted for their favorite vampire, Edward or Jacob. I was looking at young adult books when I heard a lot of excitement in the next aisle. The host of NIGHTMARE SINEMA had arrived. His name is Wolfman Mac. I could hear him greeting various people: “Hi, I’m Mac Kelly, the host of a local horror show” and he had a really soothing and pleasant speaking voice. So I was somewhat startled when I turned the corner and saw what he looked like.

Of course I didn’t shout or jump back in alarm. In true collecting-children’s-books fashion, I just thought, “Oh shoot, I wish I’d brought my copy of BLOOD AND CHOCOLATE for him to sign!”


BLOOD AND CHOCOLATE, as you know, is Annette Curtis Klause’s popular werewolf novel. It’s very hard to find this book in first edition, by the way -- and if you can find a copy, expect to spend at least $60. Is there anyone who does young adult horror better than Klause? Over the years, she's slowly but steadily published a series of first-rate titles -- each one different than the last. Her first book, THE SILVER KISS, is one of the best teenager vampire novels ever. Yes, I contend that it's even better than TWILIGHT and BREAKING DAWN. Anyone who feels otherwise can bite my neck.


It will be interesting to discover which children’s book will next stir up the kind of enthusiasm that necessitates midnight parties. Will there by another volume in the Stephenie Meyer series? (There’s not supposed to be, but what author could turn her back on that series’ $ucce$$?) Maybe it will be THE 39 CLUES, the new series that Scholastic is publishing starting this September. The first volume, THE MAZE OF BONES, is by the hugely-popular Rick Riordan, who also outlined the remaining nine volumes in the series, each to be written by another author.

According to

“The 39 Clues is Scholastic's groundbreaking new series, spanning 10 adrenaline-charged books, 350 trading cards, and an online game where readers play a part in the story and compete for over $100,000 in prizes.”

Although I’m leery about any enterprise that will draw kids AWAY from a book and TOWARD a computer game, I’ve heard Riordan’s book is quite good. So I guess I should wait before passing judgement on THE 39 CLUES.


I was just thinking that it’s time for another volume in Donald R. Gallo’s series of autobiographical sketches from young adult authors. SPEAKING FOR OURSELVES and SPEAKING FOR OURSELVES, TOO occupy a special place on my reference shelf and I refer to them frequently, but it’s been fifteen years since the second volume was published and there are many new YA authors I’d love to learn more about. I wonder if another volume will ever be published or if author’s personal webpages, blogs, and other online material have put this franchise out of business. I’ll be sad if that’s the case. It’s nice to have author info readily available online, but there’s something to be said for having these autobiographical sketches permanently preserved within the pages of a book as well.


It may be stifling outside, but I’ve found an antidote for the heat. Someone recently gave me these two advance reading copies (ARCs) -- FROZEN FIRE by Tim Bowler and BONECHILLER by Graham McNamee. Not only are these young adult novels set in atmospheric, wintry locales, but they are both the kind of spooky stories that send chills up your spine even on the hottest days of summer.

Both are written in fast-paced prose and, best of all, you never know where these haunting narratives are going to go next. They’re full of surprises, shocks, scares and SNOW...and I’m very glad I have these arctic arcs to keep things cool.

Hey, turn down the AC! And does anyone have an afghan?


Nikki in Niagara said...

As soon as you mentioned the stars I knew why they were there. I did the exact same thing with my children when they started their first reader. Kids just love stickers so much and I guess it was just the same even back in the 40s.

P. J. Grath said...

Thanks so much for sharing your memories of Rags. The book SHILOH tipped the odds in favor of Nikki, my Humane Society mutt adopted in 1993. GINGER PYE is still a favorite book of mine. I was thrilled when it came back into paperback reprint so I could carry it in my bookstore.

Anonymous said...

Wow, thanks for a kick back to the past. What an amazing blog. I'm also a librarian turned collector, but mostly ones just for my kids.

My Children's Book Reviews

Emile said...

Three Newbery winning dog books may not seem like a lot, but I bet that there are not that many cat ones (which is perhaps odd given that librarians are stereotypically supposed to like cats). I can't think of any besides The Cat Who Went to Heaven. A subject for next week's brunch, perhaps??? (I could just google the list myself, but it would be more to read your thoughts about it here.)