Sunday, September 14, 2008

A Sunday Brunch Featuring Only Appetizers

Here's a collection of VERY random thoughts, facts, and opinions about children’s books old and new.

1. IS THERE A MONKEY HIDING IN YOUR ATTIC? Consider yourself very lucky if you find a first edition of CURIOUS GEORGE by H. A. Rey stored away in your attic or basement. In 2007, a copy sold at auction for nearly $22,000.

2. THERE WAS A MONKEY HIDING ON THAT BIKE. H. A. Rey and his wife/writing partner Margaret smuggled the original manuscript of CURIOUS GEORGE out of France on home-made bicycles just hours before Paris fell to the Nazis.


4. I THINK ONE OF THE HONOR BOOK AUTHORS PUSHED HER. When Eleanor Estes rose to accept her 1952 Newbery Medal for GINGER PYE, she got up from the banquet table and immediately fell to the floor! Witnesses thought the nervous author had fainted, but it turns out her dress had caught on her chair, causing her to tumble. By all reports, she got up laughing and proceeded to give a grand speech.

5. NEWBERY NO-SHOWS. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe that in the eighty-six years of Newbery history, only two authors did not attend and deliver their own speech. One was Charles Boardman Hawes, who wrote THE DARK FRIGATE. He died before receiving the honor and his widow spoke on his behalf. The other was Robert C. O’Brien, author of MRS. FRISBY AND THE RATS OF NIMH. He claimed his doctor wouldn’t allow him to give a speech, so editor Jean Karl read it for him.

6. THAT POSTHUMOUS WINNER. When researching item #5, I discovered that Charles Boardman Hawes was only thirty-four years old when he “died suddenly,” but I can’t find any reference to his cause of death. Does anyone know?

7. SOMETIMES IT’S BETTER NOT TO KNOW. I just learned that Will James, who won the 1927 Newbery for SMOKY, died sometime around his fiftieth birthday -- of alcoholism. And the 1928 winner, Dhan Gopal Mukerji, who won for GAY-NECK, THE STORY OF A PIGEON, now has three things in common with David Foster Wallace: cause of death (suicide), method of death (hanging), and age at time of death (forty-six.) Sad.

8. STAYING GOLD -- PERMANENTLY. Some weeks back I mentioned walking behind a woman who had those immortal words from S.E. Hinton’s THE OUTSIDERS tattooed on the back of her legs: STAY (left leg) GOLD (right leg.) Imagine my shock this past Friday when I visited a bookstore and one of the employees told me that she’d read my blog, then thrust out her arms to show me that she also had an OUTSIDERS tattoo, with STAY on her right arm and GOLD on her left arm. I don’t know what shocked me more -- learning that there are two people in this world with “stay gold” tattoos...or actually encountering someone who has read my blog!

9. MARKUS ZUSAK TABLOID SHOCKER! I never would have expected to see that wonderful Australian young-adult author mentioned in a supermarket tabloid, but I found a reference to him in this past week’s GLOBE. (Yes...I read the tabloids.) The story concerned a twenty-year-old babysitter from Grafton, Wisconsin who was “tossed in the slammer” because she was late returning two books (ANGELS & DEMONS by Dan Brown and WHITE OLEANDER by Janet Fitch) to the public library.

The final paragraph reads, “Ironically, when cops knocked on her door, avid reader Heidi had her nose buried in Markus Zusak’s appropriately named bestseller THE BOOK THIEF!”

10. ANOTHER AUTHOR IN AN UNEXPECTED PLACE. Last Sunday night I was watching FOOD NETWORK CHALLENGE on TV (yes...I watch the Food Network) and was surprised to see author-illustrator Rosemary Wells as one of the judges in a cake-decorating contest. The theme of the contest was nursery rhymes, so Ms. Wells (who illustrated MY VERY FIRST MOTHER GOOSE by Iona Opie) was particularly well-suited for the job.

11. COOKING WITH THE AUTHORS. Ying Chang Compestine has written picture books as well as last year’s young adult novel REVOLUTION IS NOT A DINNER PARTY. Several months ago I happened upon another Food Network series, ULTIMATE RECIPE SHOWDOWN, and saw her competing with two other cooks in a pasta competition, making spaghetti with lion’s head meatballs.

12. MORE “AUTHORS” ON TV. Rosemary Wells and Ying Chang Compestine are writers who happened to appear on TV. Lauren Conrad is a reality TV star (MTV’s THE HILLS) who now gets to call herself an author thanks to a three-book deal with HarperCollins to write young adult fiction. A THREE-BOOK DEAL? WITH HARPERCOLLINS? At the age of TWENTY-TWO?

13. REST IN PEACE, URSULA. Every time I hear one of these stories about Harper offering big deals to TV stars, hiring movie actresses as editors, publishing movie adaptations, etc., etc., I always say, “Ursula Nordstrom must be spinning in her grave!” Considering the number of times I’ve had to utter this phrase in recent years, they might as well have buried poor Ursula in a Waring Blender.

14. PRE-EMPTIVE RANT. Every time some media personality gets a big book contract and authors (REAL AUTHORS) start complaining about the unfairness of it all, some goody-goody will always self-righteously proclaim, “How can you judge a book that hasn’t been published yet? Maybe ___________ (insert name of favorite bimbo or himbo or politico’s daughter) will turn out to be a good writer! Personally, I will wait to read the book before I condemn it!” Let me respond to this. Yes, it’s POSSIBLE that one of these media-creations may write a good book. But to quote that famous children’s book author Madonna, it’s also possible that “monkeys might fly out of my butt.” In the meantime, imagine learning that your job (teacher, librarian, plumber, whatever) may be taken over by a twenty-two-year-old with no training, no education, no background, no expertise, and no experience -- who simply has a whim to join your profession. As an added kick, their arrival means you might lose your job because the powers-that-be are paying the newbie ten times what you make and now there may not be enough money to pay everyone else. Now do you get it?

15. I GUESS THERE WON’T BE AUTHOR TOUR. I was surprised to see this new book by Kin Platt on Farrar’s Fall 2008 list:

Mr. Platt died nearly five years ago. I wonder if A MYSTERY FOR THOREAU was already contracted for at the time of his death, or if it was found among his papers and manuscripts, or left uncompleted and finished by another writer. It will be interesting to find out.

16. SHE CAN DO IT ALL. Is there any other writer who has tackled as many fictional genres as Cynthis Voigt? She’s done easy readers (STORIES ABOUT ROSIE), intermediate fiction (HOMECOMING), young adult novels (TELL ME IF THE LOVERS ARE LOSERS), fantasy (JACKAROO), mysteries (THE VANDEMARK MUMMY), mystical stories (TREE BY LEAF), animal stories (ANGUS AND SADIE), experimental fiction (ORFE) and an adult novel (GLASS MOUNTAIN.) About the only thing missing is humor.

17. RECOMMENDED READING. If I had to choose, I’d say that my favorite Cynthia Voigt novels are two of the lesser-known titles: IZZY, WILLY-NILLY and TREE BY LEAF. And maybe this is just my male perspective coming into play, but I think the three Tillerman books with male protagonists (A SOLITARY BLUE, THE RUNNER, and SONS FROM AFAR) are actually better novels than the four Tillerman titles featuring female protagonists.

18. WHAT THE H? Cynthia Voigt may be the most consistently misspelled author out there. Everyone wants to add an H to her name and make it “Voight.”

19. WHAT ABOUT US? Other unspellable and/or unpronouncable authors include: Ibtisam Barakat, Gennifer Choldenko, Carl Hiaasen, Ron Koertge, Justine Larbalestier, Lisa Papademetriou, Chris Raschka, Jon Scieszka (I always want to put an “h” in John. Szeiecskcza is of course easy to spell.), Chris Soentpiet, and Jordan Sonnenblick. Personally, I’ve never even been able to wrap my tongue about the name “L’Engle.”

20. SPEAKING OF WORDS NOBODY EVER GETS RIGHT.... Do you think Jon Scieszka will ever win the “Newberry” Award?

21. Does anyone remember this famous figurine? I had an aunt who couldn’t stand to even look at it, because she hated to see the kid poised in midstride, unable to lower his leg and rest. Now I’ve found the literary equivalent of that Hummel figurine -- a book whose dustjacket makes me so uncomfortable that I have to turn the volume backward on the shelf so I can’t see either the cover or spine image, both of which are printed in a typeface so fuzzy and woozy that it makes your stomach lurch and head spin:

Just glancing at the cover of this new young-adult novel, JERK, CALIFORNIA by Jonathan Friesen makes me feel like I’m stumbling in at 6:00 AM after an all-night bender. And I don’t even drink!

22. MULTIPLE CHOICE QUIZ. We all have special books that have changed our lives or touched us deeply in a very individual way. Have you ever attempted to share one of your most-loved books with a friend and discovered they didn’t feel the same kind of emotional connection? Maybe even hated it? How did you deal with that (after the initial hissy fit)?
a) I re-evaluated my own initial reaction to the book.
b) I realized my friends have lousy taste!
c) I realized that friends should enjoy their similarities and celebrate their differences.
d) None of the above.
e) All of the above.

23. THE OLSEN TWINS HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH THIS ONE, DESPITE THE TITLE. One of the most-anticipated novels of the coming months is THIS FULL HOUSE, the final volume in Virginia Euwer Wolff’s trilogy that began with MAKE LEMONADE and continued with her National Book Award-winning TRUE BELIEVER. Mark your calendars for January 27, 2009.

24. CHILDREN’S BOOK CHARACTERS THAT HAVE ENTERED OUR LEXICON. My friend recently mentioned the Eleanor Porter book POLLYANNA. I doubt many people these days have actually read it. Yet the word “Pollyanna” has entered pop culture and is used all the time. (How many times a week do I utter the phrase “I don’t want to sound like a Pollyanna, but....”?) Are there any other names or phrases specific to children’s books that are part of our shared culture? I’m thinking Nancy Drew...maybe the Hardy Boys.... What else?

25. TRADING TYPEWRITERS. Back in the early 1960s, Marijane Meaker was a well-regarded writer of mystery and suspense novels; her friend Louise Fitzhugh wrote books like HARRIET THE SPY for young people. Ms. Fitzhugh always wanted to try her hand at a mystery novel and jokingly suggested to Ms. Meaker that they trade typewriters and switch writing genres. I don’t think that trade ever happened -- and Louise Fitzhugh never did write her mystery novel. That’s too bad, because with her keen insight into human behavior and quirky characterizations, she would probably have written an amazing mystery story. However, Marijane Meaker DID begin writing for young people and, to quote the heroine’s mother in her first young-adult book, DINKY HOCKER SHOOTS SMACK!, “Oh my my my my my" -- what success she has had as M. E. Kerr!

26. MOST SEARCHED BOOK. Barely a day goes by without someone visiting my blog to find out information on Eleanor Estes’s book A LITTLE OVEN. Written three years after the author went SPLAT! at the Newbery award ceremony, the book has been out of print for decades. But it’s obviously well-remembered and well-loved because people are searching for it on the internet every day. Some enterprising publisher should look into reprinting the book.

27. FINDERS’ FEE. If you’re the enterprising publisher who reprints A LITTLE OVEN, remember you heard about it here first. Send your check to

28. FIRST THERE WAS ANDERSEN AND ALEXANDER. Now here are Elizabeth Borton de Trevino, Newbery winner for I, JUAN DE PAREJA and contemporary picture book author-artist Patricia Polacco (PINK AND SAY):

And here’s Edward Lear of “The Owl and the Pussycat” fame and Paul Fleischman of JOYFUL NOISE fame:

29. Is there any author who writes with more cadence and poetry than Paul Fleischman? He was writing “novels-in-verse” before such things existed.

30. LIKE SON, LIKE FATHER. And let’s not forget Paul’s father Sid Fleischman, still going strong with a new biography, THE TROUBLE BEGINS AT 8 : A LIFE OF MARK TWAIN IN THE WILD, WILD WEST, especially notable for its colorful, colloquial writing style.

...Well, that's it. My original intent was to post 100 items, but as the day wore on, I decided 50 would be sufficient. Now the afternoon is almost over and, if I don't stop here at 30 items, "brunch" will have to be renamed "late dinner" or, even worse, "midnight snack"!

In other words: I give up!


Charlotte said...

Izzy is far and away my favorite Voight book. And blah. I just put that "h" in unthinkingly.

Here's another one often misspelled:

Noel Streatfeild (google turns up just as many for Noel Streatfield)

Anonymous said...

Here's number 51--Did you know that Cynthia Voigt is a National Book Award judge this year?


Sam said...

Am amazing post, thanks!

Speaking of Curious George's first edition...

C.G. smokes a pipe in the original story. I'm assuming he no longer does so. At what point was his habit redacted?

Unknown said...

C -- friends should enjoy their similarities and celebrate their differences.

Anonymous said...

Regarding the Kin Platt book, it was one of a number of manuscripts that Kin could not sell in his later years. Even before his death, his son was trying to market the manuscripts, and he finally scored a sale. I held the manuscript in my hands; it was complete, polished, no extra people adding to the text. I'm glad the book is going to see the light of day; a couple of other manuscripts deserve a look as well. And no, I am not his son; I don't even get on well with his son these days. But a good book is a good book.

Library Mermaid said...

Such a feast! I couldn't decide which fact I liked more - or the Stay Gold (ah, Ponyboy) or the mysterious resemblance betweent Alexander and Anderson...a swell list! Thanks :)

Kara Schaff Dean said...

That Anderson/Alexander comparison is spooky!

I'm thinking very hard about characters in our cultural lexicon.....

Anonymous said...

I had Cynthia Voigt as an English teacher in high school, and she would always say, "Take the H and put it back into yoghurt where it belongs!"

Misrule said...

Have you not read Cynthia Voigt's "Bad Girls" books. I think they're pretty smart and funny, but not very well known, it seems.

Brenda Bowen said...

Virginia Euwer Wolff's THIS FULL HOUSE is coming from Harper, btw. And already one very trusted, very respected reader (not me) calls it "triumphant."