Sunday, September 28, 2008

Sunday Brunch as September Ends

It’s the last Sunday in September and I’m back with a few random facts and opinions on children’s books from the past and present.


The other day I had occasion to ride on an elevator that was approximately the heighth and width of your average dumbwaiter. I used to be a carefree elevator-rider, but then I read Marijane Meaker’s (AKA M.E. Kerr) "five strangers trapped in an elevator during a blizzard" novel, GAME OF SURVIVAL, and now find myself holding my breath from the time the doors slam shut until they (finally, blessedly) reopen. To calm myself down on that herky-jerky tiny elevator ride the other day, I began thinking about the scenes in HARRIET THE SPY in which the protagonist (willingly!) sneaks into a creaky old dumbwaiter to spy on Agatha K. Plumber. And I realized that every time I hear the word “dumbwaiter” I think of HARRIET THE SPY.

This made me realize how often hearing, or seeing, or just thinking of a certain word or phrase immediately takes me back to a children’s book.

The word “stork” makes me think of THE WHEEL ON THE SCHOOL by Meindert DeJong.

Another bird, the “heron” makes me think of Cynthia Voigt’s A SOLITARY BLUE.

Hearing the nursery rhyme “The Farmer in the Dell” gives me a chill because it immediately makes me recall I AM THE CHEESE by Robert Cormier.

Discussions of strip-mining remind me of Virginia Hamilton’s M.C. HiGGINS THE GREAT.

You don’t see it often, but when I come across the word “chilblains,” I’m up on a hill watching the eclipse with Eleanor Estes' "middle Moffat."

The color “puce” makes me remember THE SUMMER OF THE SWANS by Betsy Byars.

The name “Nellie” always reminds me of CHARLOTTE’S WEB by E.B. White. (Strange, because that name is only mentioned a couple times in the final pages of the book.)

I will not eat gooseberry jam because even the mention of “gooseberries” reminds me of my least favorite character in my least-favorite Newbery winner, WALK TWO MOONS by Sharon Creech.

Whenever I see school kids selling candy, I automatically think of THE CHOCOLATE WAR by Robert Cormier.

Hearing the song “Make It with You” by David Gates makes me think of the wonderful telephone scene in THE VIRGIN SUICIDES by Jeffrey Eugenides. Okay, it wasn’t published for kids, but it’s a novel about young people and probably shows up on high school reading lists.

Finally, here’s another one from HARRIET THE SPY: “egg cream.” I didn’t get to try an egg cream for myself until I visited a small diner in Hartford, Connecticut at age twenty -- and that’s where I learned that Harriet M. Welsch’s favorite beverage contains neither eggs nor cream!

What words or phrases immediately make YOU recall a particular children’s book?


Pour an inch of chocolate syrup into a tall glass.
Add an inch of milk.
Now fill the rest of the glass with seltzer or soda water.
Stir gently.
Serve with a tomato sandwich, of course.


My stat counter allows me to see how many people visit my blog each day and what they were looking for when they came. Several visitors have been trying to find information on how to identify first editions from various publishers. In the coming weeks, I’ll begin including edition points for specific publishers. For now, let’s start with the publisher whose standards for indicating editions can best be described as a “hot mess” -- Harper!

First known as Harper & Brothers (later Harper & Row and today HarperCollins) this publisher is notoriously the WORST when it comes to identifying editions. There is absolutely no consistency in the way Harper marked first editions throughout their history. Some of their books have the words “first edition” on the copyright page, yet many don’t. Meindert DeJong published two books in the same year; one, SHADRACH, contains the words “first edition” while the other, HURRY HOME, CANDY, does not.

Most Harper children’s books published in the 1960s contain nothing to indicate edition, so you must use other methods to figure out whether you have a first. For example, you need to see if the price on the dustjacket flap matches the original price. And you need to make sure that no titles published AFTER this book are listed inside the volume or on its dustjacket.

Prior to the 1960s, Harper used an arcane “two letter code” to indicate the publication date of each nppl. The first letter indicated the month of publication: A was January, B was February...all the way up to L for December.

The second letter in the code indicated the year. M was 1912, N was 1913...all the way to Z for 1925. Then it started all over again with A for 1926, B for 1927...up to Z for 1950. 1951 is A, 1952 is B...and that continued on until it stopped at W for 1972.

After that, Harper began using the common “ascending number” print code, in which a first edition contains the numbers 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10. A second printing states 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10, a third printing is indicated by 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10, etc., etc.

Clear as mud, right?


Last Sunday I wrote about Robert McCloskey doing illustrations for a 1942 edition of TREE TOAD by Bob Davis, which was originally published in 1935.

I now have a copy of the book in hand and want to mention a few more things about it.

Anne Carroll Moore contributed a foreword to this new edition, praising it as “one of the freshest, truest, most delightful records of American family life in print.” Now you can diss ACM all you want (I myself have called her “The woman who set a mousetrap for Stuart Little...the lady who sprayed a Flit gun on Charlotte’s Web...and the owner of the most macabre doll of the twentieth century, with the possible exception of filmdom’s Chucky”) but after reading her foreword, I have to admit she knew how to turn a phrase and I appreciated how she connected the boys in the book to the events of the ongoing war in 1942: “I thought of all the boys -- little boys and big boys moving from place to place in this vast human migration of the 1940’s; of the boys and men moving from camp to camp, from coast to coast, and across strange seas, rivers, and mountains to other lands.”


In last Sunday’s blog, I said of TREE TOAD: “It’s an odd book, featuring a cutesy frontispiece by another illustrator, while the rest of the book contains Robert McCloskey’s vibrant and comical ink drawings.”

What I didn’t know at the time was that the author included an “Introduction to a Frontispiece” at the beginning of the volume, explaining why this particular illustration was used. Apparently the author, Bob Davis, had attended an 1896 dinner with the famous illustrator Charles Dana Gibson. During the event, Davis told several tales about his brother Bill and Gibson encouraged him to record these stories in a book. Forty years later, Davis finally wrote TREE TOAD. When the volume was about to be released in a new edition in 1942, Gibson said, “It would be the culmination of an artist’s dream if I might be privileged to contribute to your re-issued biography the frontispiece disclosing the verdant brat entering your Kingdom of Illusion.”

Gibson uses the term “verdant” because in one scene Bill is painted green. Here you can see Gibson’s rather delicate portrait cheek-to-cheek with one of McCloskey’s more animated and humorous illustrations (which, in fact, shows the brat becoming verdant.)

By the way, Charles Dana Gibson was the creator the Gibson Girls, considered the ideal of feminine beauty at the turn of the century.


Finally, I was thrilled to find a copy of TREE TOAD that was signed by the author. Even better, it once belonged to the English novelist E. Phillips Oppenheim, and was passed down by him to his grandson.

The front endpaper contains the phrase:

Compliments of the author
Bob Davis

in the center of the page. Above and below that, Oppenheim has written in an aged hand:

Aug. 1943

Passed on to my
John Downer by
E. Phillips Oppenheim.

It was the wish of the
author of this story for
boys “Bob Davis” by name
one of the most famous
Journalists + Editors
the USA has ever known
that if ever I possessed a
grandson I should pass
this volume on to him
duly inscribing herein his name.


I’ve been thinking about how Bob Davis gave a signed copy of his book to Mr. Oppenheim with the hope that it would someday be passed down to a grandson.

It seems to me that nearly every aspect of a book -- from start to finish -- is based on HOPES and EXPECTATIONS.

The author originally writes the manuscript with the HOPE that a publisher will buy it and that readers will read it. And love it.

The publisher prints the manuscript with the HOPE that it will sell and be read.

People buy the book at a store or borrow it from the library with the HOPE that they will enjoy it.

On and on it continues right up to the moment the bookstore owner sends it back for a refund, or the librarian “weeds” it from the shelves, with the EXPECTATION that no one is interested in reading the book.

Finally there are just a few copies of the book left, maybe gathering dust in the corner of a used bookstore -- and, as a book collector trying to preserve the history of the written word, I sincerely HOPE they will be found and kept by someone who loves them.


The fact that I now own E. Phillips Oppenheim’s copy of TREE TOAD proves that his grandson didn’t keep the book in the family. For all our hopes and expectations, we can only control things for so long -- and we can never control them from beyond the grave. (Oppenheim died in 1946.) I think about this often in conjunction with my own book collection. I’ve spent a lifetime growing it and it now contains several one-of-a-kind volumes. I plan to leave it to a library or institution when I shuffle off to Buffalo -- my gift to the future. However, when I once mentioned this to a bookseller, she shook her head in disapproval, saying that she’s known many people who left their books to libraries, where they ultimately ended up being neglected.

I still intend to leave my books to a library, though I know there is some truth to the bookseller’s words. I have heard similar stories myself. Laura Ingalls Wilder donated her handwritten manuscripts of both THE LONG WINTER (which many consider the masterpiece of her series) and THESE HAPPY GOLDEN YEARS to the Detroit Public Library. For many years they were kept in the Rare Book Room, an elegant department with a scrolled metal entranceway and glass showcases. A few years ago the library did some reconstruction, permanently closing the Rare Book Room at the same time they opened a coffee shop. I wonder what Laura would think about that.

The good news is that the manuscripts ARE still available to researchers in another collection of the Detroit Public Library.

Please don’t spill any coffee on them.


This morning I was looking in the TV Guide to (lowers voice to whisper) find out what time AMAZING RACE starts tonight, when I noticed that Masterpiece Theatre is running an adaptation of Philip Pullman’s young-adult novel THE RUBY IN THE SMOKE. Checking the internet, I learned they’ve also filmed the second Sally Lockhart mystery, THE SHADOW IN THE NORTH. And there are plans to film the other books in the series as well.


I’ve gotten lots of great e-mails and blog-comments this week, including a note from the daughter of one of my favorite authors, Mary Anderson. Wow!

And here’s another reason to shout “wow” -- I got an award from a fellow blogger, Charlotte at

I haven’t yet figured out how to post the graphic of the award on my site or provide the necessary links to other bloggers, but I’ll eventually figure it out. Till then, THANK YOU!


I miss the old-fashioned science books from my youth, back when palm-sized volumes by Herbert S. Zim, covering every scientific subject imaginable (dinosaurs, trees, fossils, birds and butterflies) dominated the "500 section" of the school and public library.

I also miss the reader-friendly books by Glenn O. Bough (usually illustrated by Jeanne Bendick) which described how Christmas trees are grown, how animals spend their nights, and who dwells in the forest and meadows. On this last Sunday in September -- while the leaves on the trees are still green and it's still warm enough to wear shorts outside -- I’m posting this Bough/Bendick cover as a reminder of what’s yet to come:


Jenny Schwartzberg said...

What a fun post. I have a lot of E. Phillips Oppenheim's books. They are fun reads so I enjoyed that intimate peek at Oppenheim himself. That's sad that his grandson did not keep the book. I hope it doesn't indicate a family tragedy of some kind.

I think children's books are more and more important to rare book collections these days so your collection will be treasured by whatever library you eventually pass it on to. There are some great library rare children's book collections out there and I hope to eventually make trips to see them all!

Anonymous said...

I saw the made-for-TV movie of The Ruby in the Smoke shortly after it originally aired and was disappointed. At only 95 minutes long, it's so rushed that all subtlety and suspense is lost. I wonder how anyone seeing it without having read the book could even follow it. Since Masterpiece Theatre is known for its wonderful, sweeping mini-series, I wonder why they decided this particular book couldn't get the 3 hours it deserved.

danielle said...

What a brilliant site!! I especially like the article about cookbooks...I remember having a 'Peanuts' first aid encyclopedia that was also somewhat practical.

I found you when I searched for "literary comfort" because I just wrote a very brief article that touches on the theme of your site. You are being much more thorough however!!

Alison said...

"...a certain word or phrase immediately takes me back to a children’s book."

'sinew'-I still remember being grossed out by it's many uses in "The Island of the Blue Dolphins"

'tuff' (or tough)-always brings to mind Johnny Cade & the all the other greasers of "the Outsiders"

Those are the 2 that immediately popped into my head reading this blog. But I KNOW I drive my family crazy when I blurt out a line from a favorite book because they've said a particular word.