Sunday, November 30, 2008

Sunday Brunch with Giblets and Flibbertigibbets

I hope everyone had a good Thanksgiving. Although I realize that, after several days of leftovers, you probably don’t want to see another drumstick or giblet till next November, I couldn’t help serving up a little more turkey in today’s Sunday brunch. This blog entry also includes thoughts on a Pulitzer possibility, examines the book release dates of recent Newbery winners, and notes Aunt Bee’s appearance in an overly-padded teenage horror novel.


A few months ago I came across a 1956 novel with a Thanksgiving theme -- RISKY BUSINESS by Elaine Macmann. A character in the tradition of Beverly Cleary’s Henry Huggins or Carolyn Haywood’s Eddie Wilson, every-boy Terry Morse schemes to earn the money for a new bicycle by raising turkeys to sell for Thanksgiving dinner. Humorous chaos ensues when Terry’s slow-to-grow gobbler, Hector, accidentally unravels an elderly woman’s skirt, disrupts a school Thanksgiving pageant, and -- unlike the rest of his feathered friends -- manages to make it to the end of the book without losing his head.

I actually first encountered RISKY BUSINESS in the library, but when I discovered that an online bookstore had signed copies of both this title and Elaine Macmann’s second, similar book, OZZIE AND THE 19TH OF APRIL (1957), for under ten dollars each, I decided to order them. Imagine my surprise when the bookseller wrote back saying he couldn’t find the books on his shelves and asking if I had any idea what they looked like! (Me: “Well...they’re bound...and they have pages...because they’re, you know, books.” Actually, I was a little more helpful than that and was able to supply their dimensions and pagination.) A day later he wrote to say that, with my help, he had found them. First time I ever located books on a shelf one thousand miles away.

I particularly like the inscription, as it provides some information about the author I didn't know -- that she apparently attended the prestigious Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and that she went by the nickname “Mac.”

Incidentally, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference has been held every summer at Vermont’s Bread Loaf Inn since 1926. Attendees include famous authors as well as aspiring writers who either pay tuition or receive “waiterships,” meaning they attend the conference while also serving meals to the paying guests.

Maybe “Mac” had a waitership and one of the lunch items, turkey on rye, led to the creation of RISKY BUSINESS.


About a week ago I blogged about the National Book Award finalists. In my review of Laurie Halse Anderson’s CHAINS, the story of a slave’s quest for freedom during the Revolutionary War, I loftily and authoritatively intoned: “Many, if not most, slavery stories are set during the era of the Civil War.”

Now I feel like something of a turkey myself.

I can’t believe I completely forgot about another major, just-published book, THE KINGDOM ON THE WAVES by M.T. Anderson, which also concerns a slave seeking freedom during the American Revolution!

And it’s not as if this book is unknown (it’s the concluding volume of THE ASTONISHING LIFE OF OCTAVIAN NOTHING, TRAITOR TO THE NATION, whose first volume, THE POX PARTY (2006) won the National Book Award and was named a Printz Honor Book) or easy to ignore (it’s nearly 600 pages in length!)

Since I had four days off work for the Thanksgiving holiday, I decided to use that time to tackle both the Octavian Nothing books -- all 900-plus pages. I finished KINGDOM OF THE WAVES yesterday and am still somewhat stunned. Has there ever been a book for young readers as densely-written, with as many classical references, and as many passages and even single sentences that both electrify the intellect and pierce the heart?

THE POX PARTY relates the early years of a black youth being raised by a group of philosophers known as the Novanglian College of Lucidity. Although he leads a life of great privilege, he comes to realize that he is nonetheless enslaved. In THE KINGDOM ON THE WAVES, Octavian experiences the horrors of war as a member of Lord Dunmore’s Royal Ethiopian Regiment. However, at various times he, like the protagonist of CHAINS, aides both sides of the revolution and comes to understand that “Rebel or Redcoat, there were none who needed to use us sufficiently to save us.”

I have recently been reading an interesting discussion of the Octavian Nothing books on an internet listserve. Some young-adult librarians said they cannot justify the purchase of THE KINGDOM ON THE WAVES for their collections because the first volume sits on their shelves unread. Others have said that, with sufficient booktalking and urging, they’ve been able to introduce these titles to young people with great success.

I’m sure that some young readers will read and enjoy these books. I also think that many more will be scared off by their ornate and antiquated prose; their obscure references to classic works of literature, religion, and philosophy; the realistic violence of their wartime scenes, and the sheer depth of their plots and characterizations. (I honestly feel that I could read both books over and over and continue uncovering new material, new ideas, and new meanings each time.)

But I keep asking myself: Are these books -- particularly THE KINGDOM ON THE WAVES -- really for young readers at all? What distinguishes an adult novel from a book for young readers? Do these two volumes straddle both genres -- children’s and adult -- or can they be definitively placed in one category? And if so, why?

THE POX PARTY won the NBA for Young People's Literature and was named a Printz Honor Book. I’ve heard THE KINGDOM ON THE WAVES mentioned for both the Printz and the Newbery.

I have another idea. I think the publisher, Candlewick, should submit it for Pulitzer contention. From the little bit of research I’ve done, I don’t see anything in the Pulitzer rules that say a book must be published specifically for adult readers. Instead I read:

Eligibility for these awards shall be restricted to works first published in the United States (check!) during the year in either hardcover or bound paperback book form (check!) and made available for purchase by the general public (check!)

We’re also told that the Pulitzer is an award for distinguished fiction (check! check! check!) by an American author (check!) preferably dealing with American life (check!)

I can easily see it joining the ranks of past Pulitzers, such as THE KNOWN WORLD by Edward P. Jones, ANDERSONVILLE by MacKinlay Kantor, and so many other historical winners. And if the Pulitzer committee is nervous about giving their Letters/Fiction award to a “children’s” book, there’s always the option of a Pulitzer Prize Special Award, such as those given to Alex Haley for ROOTS or Art Spiegelman for MAUS.

This soaring work of fiction, staggering in its historical scholarship, deserves some kind of honor and I’m not sure that, in this case, either the Newbery or even the Printz would be the proper “fit” in terms of reading audience.


You’ll note that in my list of reasons why kids may shy away from THE KINGDOM ON THE WAVES, I did not mention its sheer size. Twenty years ago, a nearly 600-page book for young readers would have been mind-boggling. Now these behemoths are becoming increasingly common. Heck, the two volumes of Octavian don’t even measure up to Katherine Applegate’s two summertime paperbacks, BEACH BLONDES and TAN LINES, which run over 1250 pages!

What has brought about this change in books for young people? Is it the influence of the Harry Potter books, each volume thicker than the last? Are editors getting too lazy to edit? (I began to brace myself for angry letters from editors, then realized any editor too lazy to edit is probably too lazy to send me a letter of protest.) Are writers getting so self-indulgent and egotistical that they refuse to have any of their precious prose cut? (I began to brace myself for angry letters from writers, then realized any writer too egoistical to allow their prose to be edited is probably too egotistical to recognize themselves in my comment.) Are bookbuyers now intent on “getting the most for their money” by choosing only large volumes? I really don’t know. All I know for sure is that books are getting bigger and bigger.

And I’m amused to see how publishers are bulking up what must be fairly short manuscripts into big old hefty books through the use of wide margins, large fonts, and double-spacing. One of the more flagrant examples is Lauren Myracle’s spooky new young-adult novel BLISS. I’m reading it right now and, while I enjoy the sixties setting (with references to the Apollo moon landing, the Manson murders, Trix cereal, and Clairol commercials) and think the characters and their relationships are very intriguing, I’m surprised by how many blank pages the book contains. Some feature only a small vignette of a dove in the middle of a white page. Then there are the black two-page spreads containing just a brief line from a TV ad or THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW. Don’t get me wrong, I love everything about Aunt Bee, from her fried chicken to her willingness to fly a small airplane when other folks her age are content to sit in their rocking chairs. Heck, I even love her kerosene pickles -- and nobody likes those! So as tickled as I am to see her words appear in BLISS, I’m somewhat surprised the book devotes an entire two pages to her favorite two-word scoff, “Oh, flibbertigibbet!”

Actually, I’m not really complaining about books being thicker these days...just making an observation. In a way, I even understand this trend toward supersizing. Maybe it's just a way of being noticed. A way of saying, “We’re still here.” A last ennobling effort to show that books -- real books made out of paper and ink and glue -- still exist and still matter as we head for a time when every novel goes digital and every book is re-Kindled into electronic particles on a lighted screen.


As the year winds down, people are talking more and more about what books may win the Newbery in January. It struck me the other day that many of the titles bandied about earlier in the year no longer seem to be mentioned as much in Newbery discussions: BIRD LAKE MOON by Kevin Henkes, SAVVY by Ingrid Law, THE PENDERWICKS ON GARDAM STREET by Jeanne Birdsall and TROUBLE by Gary D. Schmidt are just a few that come to mind. Is this because, as the year went on, other, better titles supplanted them as favorites -- or have they simply been forgotten?

And is there any rule of thumb about whether books from the spring or fall are more likely to win the Newbery?

I went back and checked the publication dates for the last twenty Newbery winners:

2008 / Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! JULY
2007 / The Higher Power of Lucky NOVEMBER
2006 / Criss Cross AUGUST
2005 / Kira-Kira FEBRUARY
2004 / The Tale of Despereaux SEPTEMBER
2003 / Crispin: The Cross of Lead JUNE
2002 / A Single Shard MARCH
2001 / A Year Down Yonder OCTOBER
2000 / Bud, Not Buddy OCTOBER
1999 / Holes SEPTEMBER
1998 / Out of the Dust OCTOBER
1997 / The View from Saturday SEPTEMBER
1996 / The Midwife's Apprentice MARCH
1995 / Walk Two Moons JUNE
1994 / The Giver APRIL
1993 / Missing May MARCH
1992 / Shiloh SEPTEMBER
1991 / Maniac Magee APRIL
1990 / Number the Stars APRIL
1989 / Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices MARCH

I discovered that of the twenty winners, ten were published in the first half of the year and ten in the last half.

Well, that's fair.

However, in the most recent decade, seven of the ten were published in the fall and only three in the spring.

Yet in the previous decade, seven of the ten were published in the spring and only three in the fall.

Coincidence? The luck of the draw? What do you think?


Back to that other slave-during-the-Revolutionary-War-novel by that other author named Anderson: CHAINS by Laurie Halse Anderson. I love this book. But a couple people have mentioned that the age of the protagonist, Isabel, is not mentioned in the novel. I didn’t notice it either. Did I miss it somewhere? However, someone pointed out to me that Isabel’s age is listed as thirteen on the front flap of the dustjacket. IF this is the only mention of Isabel’s age, does it really count? Do we get our information from the text only, which was written by Anderson herself, or do we accept what’s on the dustjacket, which may have been written by an editor or someone else at the publishing house? Should reviewers say Isabel is thirteen at the start of the book if the only place it’s mentioned is on the dustjacket? What about kids writing book reports? Does it matter?

Of course all this is contingent on the idea that Isabel’s age ISN’T mentioned in the book. Maybe it’s there but I, and a few other readers, missed it because we were focusing so much on her story.

Anyway, that’s all for today. Thanks for dropping by. You can now return to your regularly-scheduled turkey soup, turkey hash, mulligatawny stew, turkey salad, or other Thanksgiving leftovers. Or maybe it’s time to take a break and order a pizza.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

A Thanksgiving Treasure

“Novelizations” of movies and TV shows rarely make good children’s books. In fact, they are usually downright awful:

However, I know at least one exception to the rule.

I still remember the Sunday evening in December 1972 when my family stumbled across THE HOUSE WITHOUT A CHRISTMAS TREE on television. Right from the start it seemed different than most holiday specials. It wasn’t a cartoon. It wasn’t a filmed-in-July musical extravaganza featuring famous stars sweltering in winter coats while "Jingle Bells" and throwing styrofoam “snowballs” at each other. This program was different. Quieter. It started with the image of a construction paper house and a woman’s hands pasting windows to this collage as she spoke: “I live and work in the city now. It’s a landscape of cement and noise and crowds, all very different and very far away from the little town where I grew up -- Clear River, Nebraska, population 1500. ...I often think of that little town and that special Christmas in 1946, when I was ten years old.” The show was presented on tape, rather than film, so it had the feel and immediacy of a stage play. The characters, young bespectacled Addie Mills (played by Lisa Lucas), her gruff, widowed father (Jason Robards) and eccentric grandmother (Mildred Natwick) were all three-dimensional and real -- like people you might know -- and the story of how Addie brought Christmas back to her damaged family was well-developed and touching.

THE HOUSE WITHOUT A CHRISTMAS TREE was an instant classic and I was thrilled when, nearly a year later, Addie Mills and her family returned in another holiday-themed TV special, THE THANKSGIVING TREASURE. This story, about Addie’s attempts to befriend a crochety old man was, if anything, stronger than its predecessor. It was around this time that I read an item in the TV Guide reporting, “CBS is considering two new series for next season -- a spin-off from the MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW about Mary’s neighbor Rhoda, and 'Addie Mills,' a series based on the recent holiday movies THE HOUSE WITHOUT A CHRISTMAS TREE and THE THANKSGIVING TREASURE." Rhoda did get own show. She moved to New York, got married, got divorced, and got cancelled. But although Addie returned for two more holiday specials, THE EASTER PROMISE and the Valentine-themed ADDIE AND THE KING OF HEARTS, she never did get her own series. Maybe it’s just as well. By confining Addie’s stories to TV specials, they always remained...well, special. She never got boring, she never overstayed her welcome, she never got cancelled.

But I always wished that her stories would be published as books. I wanted to be able to dive into Addie’s stories whenever I chose, not be a tethered to a once-a-year broadcast schedule. And I knew that the characters and plots would make strong children’s books -- and actually considered writing a letter to some publishers suggesting the idea.

But they beat me to it! In 1974, Knopf issued the THE HOUSE WITHOUT A CHRISTMAS TREE and THE THANKSGIVING TREASURE in book form. A DREAM FOR ADDIE (called THE EASTER PROMISE on television) was published in 1975 and the following year brought ADDIE AND THE KING OF HEARTS.

Although I’ve always contended that novelizations of TV shows are pretty junky -- written for commercial, rather than literary, purposes, and published to make a quick buck -- I make an exception for the four Addie Mills books. For one thing, while most novelizations are penned by pseudonymous hacks, the Addie books were written -- with integrity and elan -- by Gail Rock, who created the original, perhaps autobiographical stories for the TV specials (the stories were then adapted for television by scriptwriter Eleanor Perry, who won an Emmy for THE HOUSE WITHOUT A CHRISTMAS TREE.) Of the four Addie Mills books, I think my favorite is THE THANKSGIVING TREASURE. It would have been very easy to turn this story into a sentimental, feel-good tale, but Rock avoids that by making Addie a prickly, bossy character whose motivations for befriending old Mr. Rhenquist have a lot to do, at least initially, with just wanting to ride his horse. There is sentiment in the book, of course, but it’s well-earned. I particularly like Addie’s conversation with her grandmother about death and Grandma’s response that “When people leave on a boat, you say, ‘There they go.” But on the other side of the horizon, they’re saying, ‘Here they come.’” Although I'm sure that some part of my affection for THE THANKSGIVING TREASURE is fueled by the nostalgia I have for the TV program, I still think the book is pretty special in and of itself. The prose is tight, the dialogue is often funny, and the characterizations are solid.

For over twenty years I owned paperback copies of these books, and would often read each volume on its special holiday. About five years ago, I decided I wanted to “trade up to hardcover" and found a bookseller who had all four books inscribed by the author to a friend. THE HOUSE WITHOUT A CHRISTMAS TREE is signed “To Pat, Who would certainly have been one of Addie’s best friends if they had met in 1946. Love, Gail.” Even better, Ms. Rock inscribed THE THANKSGIVING TREASURE in her protagonist's voice and even signed it “Addie”! Also tucked inside was an envelope containing an invitation to a publication party for the first two volumes, featuring author Gail Rock and “members of the cast of the CBS-TV Family Specials” to be held at Elaine’s “by invitation only” on November 21, 1974. Across the bottom, the author has written “Pat -- your local neighborhood joint! -- so please come. Love, Gail.” How I wish I could have gone. I know, admittance was “by invitation only” but I now have an invitation right here in my hand! ...Too bad the party was held over thirty years ago.

Oh well, even if I didn’t get to attend the party, I still have the books to enjoy. And since today is Thanksgiving, I’ll probably find myself reading the story of Addie and Mr. Rhenquist at some point this afternoon -- a TREASURE that I continue to treasure.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Sunday Brunch with Hot Cereal and Blueberry Cheesecake

Today’s Sunday brunch offers more random thoughts and info on children’s books, including some that look back in time to the JFK assassination and the Apollo moon landings -- and even way, way back to the medieval era. This blog entry also serves up blueberry cheesecake, breakfast serials, and breakfast cereals.


I once read about an author who received a fan letter shortly after the publication of her first novel. A young girl wrote, begging the author for a sequel. When the author replied that she didn’t plan to write another book about the same characters, the girl wrote again, pleading for “Just one chapter more. Even one page more.”

I understand that desire. It’s the sign of a good book.

I thought about that wish for “one page more” a couple weeks ago when I found a first edition of Clare Turlay Newberry’s 1941 Caldecott Honor Book APRIL’S KITTENS for sale on the internet. It only cost $10 and, desperate to earn some extra money in these rough economic times, I purchased the book with plans to resell it for a small profit. And I knew the profit would indeed be small since the book didn’t include a dustjacket.

However, when the book arrived it turned out to be grubbier and more worn than anticipated. Even worse, the original owner (a girl named Patricia Wetherby Heyer who, according to the inscription, had received this book “with much love from Grandma” for Christmas 1940) was also of the “one page more” philosophy.

In fact, she added her own final page to the volume, crayoning a picture of a cat perched on a fence on the inside of the back cover:

Okay, it’s a cute drawing, but now I’m never going to be able to sell this book for a profit. Ah well, one of these days I’m going to find an old scribbled-in book signed by “Little Maury Sendak” or “Christopher V. A., age 5” or “Davie Wiesner” and may finally get rich.


Yesterday was the forty-fifth anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. For many years, this event was one of those historical touchstones that united every American with “Where were you and what were you doing when you heard?” commonality.

Everyone remembered, everyone had a story.

It’s shocking to realize how much time has passed since November 22, 1963 -- and to realize there are now more Americans who DON’T remember this event than those who do. Generations have passed. The Kennedy assassination has been supplanted by other shared “where were you?” experiences: September 11...the Apollo moon landing...the Challenger explosion...even the death of Elvis.

A couple weeks ago, on Veteran’s Day, I heard that there are less than ten WWI vets left in the entire world. Within a couple years they’ll all be gone. Now I hear that over 1200 WWII veterans die every single day. Someday they too will be gone. And I guess it won’t be too many years till all of us who remember November 22, 1963 are gone as well.

I was pretty young when it happened -- barely five years old. But here's my memory: the night before John F. Kennedy died I saw a ghost. On the evening of November 21, 1963, our family was headed for a funeral in southern Indiana. We left late in the evening -- night-driving was faster, and we needed to be in Indiana by midmorning. My parents settled us in the backseat of the car, half-asleep, and then hit the road. It was dark, it was rainy, my mother had a toothache. And before we’d gone five miles, she remembered that she’d carried my sleeping little brother out to the car in just his socks and left his shoes at home. My father turned the car around, drove back home, and we waited outside in our big, used two-tone blue Ford while my mother ran inside for the shoes. And that’s when I saw, on our dark porch in the middle of our very dark block, a little boy dressed all in white knocking on our front door. Halloween was just past and, in my mind, he was a leftover trick-or-treater wandering alone after midnight. I pointed him out to my father, who of course couldn’t see any kid on the porch. But I could see him and even now, if I close my eyes, I can picture that boy-in-white standing on his tiptoes, reaching up to tap on the door. After a while he got tired and sat down on the edge of the porch step with his cheek resting on his fist, then got up to knock on the door again.

When my mother got back in the car, I asked why she hadn’t gone to the door when the little boy knocked. Of course she had no idea what I was talking about either. My parents questioned me for a couple minutes, then decided I’d been “dreaming” and again hit the road for Indiana. (Personally, if I was about to set off for a long, dark road trip and someone said they’d just seen a boy-in-white knocking on my front door, I would have canceled the trip!) But our ride to Indiana turned out to be quite uneventful. The next afternoon we were all gathered in the dining room of my uncle’s house when a teenaged cousin came running into the house saying he’d just been at the little store across the street and heard that the president had been shot. I don’t remember much else about the event, except returning home that weekend and being disappointed that none of my favorite cartoons were on TV because of the constant news coverage.

I’ve always been surprised that such a major historical event has not been written about in very many children’s books. Sure there are Kennedy biographies, as well as books for young people about the assassination, but I’m not aware of too many novels that portray kids living through those dark days in November 1963. However, I do know one great one -- THE CRUCIBLE YEAR by Norma Johnston, which was published in 1979. Ms. Johnston has written some wonderful books, such as the “Keeping Days” series, which I will blog about some other time. And though there is sometimes a sameness to her stories (her protagonists -- who almost always ends up starring in a play at some point -- are creative, spirited, religious, and prone to “shake with chill” and have to be dosed with cups of hot tea and buried in blankets whenever they’re upset) I really love how Johnston’s characters, even the minor ones, always change and grow over the course of her novels. My very favorite is the little-known CRUCIBLE YEAR -- the story of a sheltered teenage girl whose life changes when she attends public high school for the first time and confronts the changing world of the 1960s -- drugs, alcoholism, adultery, rumors of homosexuality, divorce, the generation gap -- while her class puts on a production of Arthur Miller’s play THE CRUCIBLE. The afternoon of the first performance, Beth needs to do some last minute sewing on a costume:

So after lunch, I gathered the armful of red material and went down to the auditorium to finish Danforth’s cloak. Someone had been making last minute changes with the lights, leaving the stage curtains open. The first act set stood waiting, with the patchwork quilt my great-grandmother had made, Mollie’s spool bed, the chest-on-chest Paul had laboriously stripped and finished, the bull’s-eye windowpanes that I had painted. It looked like a real home.

For the rest of my life, I thought, I’ll remember sitting here this afternoon, alone yet not alone, sewing on Danforth’s cloak. I looked at the clock at that moment; I did not know why. The hands stood at exactly twenty to three. And all at once I realized I was no more alone.

Gramps had come in. He was standing in the back, an odd cracked look on his old face. It was a look that made me involuntarily start to rise, made my lips begin to frame a question. Before I could speak it, he was answering, his voice echoing tinnily through the stillness.

“I just heard it on the car riding, driving over. The President’s been shot.”

In the chaos of the next few moments, Beth -- a creative girl who enjoys drama, art, and writing -- notes that “a corner of my mind stood off, detached and observing” before adding:

At twenty to three, on the afternoon John Fitzgerald Kennedy died, I sat in the Oakdale High School auditorium, sewing a costume for The Crucible, and the red fabric, fallen from my lap, lay on the stone floor like a pool of blood.

Wow. How much do I love THE CRUCIBLE YEAR? So much that, as a soon as I read this book at the library, I rushed out and ordered a copy at the bookstore for myself. And I’ve read it so many times over the years that, when the pages began to pull loose of the binding, I tracked down a SECOND copy of this hard-to-find volume.

The only other title for young people with a Kennedy assassination theme that I know about is PAGAENT by Kathryn Lasky, a 1986 novel about a Jewish girl attending an exclusive Christian school; the story follows the life of the protagonist across several years which, not coincidentally, match the years of the Kennedy presidency from election to assassination. I haven’t read PAGEANT in ages, but remember it as exceptionally good. I think I need to track it down again!

Surely there must be more fictional stories the describe the events of November 22, 1963 from a young person’s perspective. Do you know of any? Do you have a story of your own?


Last Sunday I wrote about the Hans Chrsitian Andersen Prize, an international award given to a children’s author for his or her complete body of work. Presented every two years since 1956, only five American writers have won: Meindert DeJong, Scott O’Dell, Paula Fox, Virginia Hamilton, and Katherine Paterson.

Since 1966 there has also been a Hans Christian Andersen Prize for children’s book illustrators. The American nominees have been:

1966 / Marcia Brown
1968 / Roger Duvoisin
1970 / Maurice Sendak
1972 / Evaline Ness
1974 / Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire
1976 / Marcia Brown (yeah, again)
1978 / Leo and Diane Dillon
1980 / Margot Zemach
1982 / William Steig (he was also nominated for his writing in 1988)
1984 / David Macaulay
1986 / Chris Van Allsburg
1988 / Margot Zemach (rerun nominee)
1990 / Tomie dePaola
1992 / Ed Young
1994 / Barbara Cooney
1996 / Leo and Diane Dillon (back for another try)
1998 / Jerry Pinkney
2000 / Ed Young (back again)
2002 / David Macaulay (ditto)
2004 / Vera B. Williams
2006 / Ashley Bryan
2008 / David Wiesner

Shockingly, only one American illustrator has ever won -- Maurice Sendak, way back in 1970!


Do you know what a BLAD is?

According to the online urban dictionary, the word originated in Jamaica and means "brother, of part of ones blood line, saying that someone is close to them.” In that same frame of reference, it means “friend” or “bruv.”

But in terms of children’s book publishing, BLAD is an acronym for “Basic Layout And Design.” It’s a truncated version of a soon-to-be published book containing the cover art and some sample pages.

Recently, a blad (friend) who works in publishing sent me a BLAD (Basic Layout And Design) of a forthcoming title, MISSION CONTROL, THIS IS APOLLO : THE STORY OF THE FIRST VOYAGES TO THE MOON, written by Andrew Chaiken and illustrated by Alan Bean. If the second name sounds familiar, it’s because Bean was the fourth man to walk on the moon! ...So now we’ll have a children’s book illustrated by someone who walked on the moon to accompany the children’s book written by someone who walked on the moon: Buzz Aldrin’s 2005 title REACHING FOR THE MOON.

From the partial bits of MISSION CONTROL I’ve seen in this BLAD, this oversized volume looks to be “out of this world.”


The other day I came across a volume by Gerald Morris and was reminded of what fun, readable books he’s written over the past ten years. I remember seeing his first title, THE SQUIRE’S TALE at the bookstore and laughing at the amusing cover illustration, never thinking that over the next decade he’d write seven more novels inspired by the legends of King Arthur, each one stronger than the last in plotting, characterization, and theme.

For anyone interesting in collecting these books, here are the individual titles and dates of publication:


And here are the original dustjacket illustrations:

As Houghton Mifflin books, they must have the publication date on the title page to be true first editions. If you don’t see a date on the title page, you’ve got a later printing.


Seeing the medieval pageantry on those Gerald Morris dustjackets reminds me of Betsy Byars’ experience at the 1971 Newbery banquet, where she was honored for THE SUMMER OF THE SWANS. According to Byars:

The banquet was held in Dallas the room was huge and elegant. Eighteen hundred people were there, and the people who were to sit at the head table formed a sort of procession through the tables. Leading us were two teenaged boys in kind of King Arthur page boy suits and they were bearing large banners. The boy preceding me had a banner on which there was a swan made of real swan feathers (hand sewn, one by one) and it was gorgeous. I almost felt like I was back in medieval times. Then just before we were to enter, the boy turned to me and said, “I could just kill my mom for making me do this.” Instantly I was back in the twentieth century.

But Ms. Byars said her “most poignant memory” of the banquet was the blueberry cheesecake that was served for dessert. Though blueberry cheesecake is her “most favorite food in the world” she was too nervous about giving her speech to eat. When she finally delivered her speech, she found herself relaxing and even, toward the end, rushing a bit so she could get back to the table and dig into that cheesecake. But when she sat back down, she discovered the dessert dishes had been cleared away while she was speaking. She said:

Now, I have had many pieces of blueberry cheesecake in the intervening years, but I tell you I have never had one that would have been as good as the one I would have had if I could have delivered by whole speech at the same rapid pace the I delivered the last few lines.


I’m currently reading, and enjoying, THE GHOSTS OF KERFOL by Deborah Noyes, a collection of inter-related short stories inspired by Edith Wharton’s spooky tale for adult readers “Kerfol.” A few years ago, Gordon Korman dipped into another adult literary classic, F. Scott Fitzgerad’s THE GREAT GATSBY, to write an intriguing teenage novel JAKE, REINVENTED. In addition to these adult works that inspired books for young readers, there have also been cases of kids’ books inspiring adult novels -- most notably Geraldine Brooks’s Pulitizer Prize winning MARCH, in which she re-imagines the Civil War experiences of "March," the father of the LITTLE WOMEN clan. And sometimes children’s books can even inspire other children’s books. Neil Gaiman’s current popular and critical hit, THE GRAVEYARD BOOK draws from Rudyard Kipling’s THE JUNGLE BOOK. Gaiman’s young son used to ride his tricycle at a local cemetery, which gave the author the idea of a little boy raised by ghosts in a graveyard, rather than the reared by wild animals in a jungle.


Speaking of THE JUNGLE BOOK, singer Pete Wentz and singer/lip-syncher Ashelee Simpson had their baby this past week and named him Bronx Mowgli. I’d make a crack about crazy celebrities naming the baby after the Disney movie and knowing nothing about the Kipling volume, but it turns out that Wentz is quite a children’s book fan whose hit recording “Under the Cork Tree” drew its name from the 1936 classic STORY OF FERDINAND by Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson.


Pulitzer-prize winning columnist Leonard Pitts, Jr. recently wrote a piece about the future of newspapers. He said:

Lately, many people have asked me about the fate of the American newspaper in an era when circulation, advertising and staff size are all sharply down. I've told them what editors have told me: The next 18 to 24 months may well see the first major U.S. city without a daily paper.

It's a time frame that makes people swallow hard. ''That soon?'' they say. And I say yes. The end could begin in less than two years.

Now I'm wondering if it's going to take that long.

Gulp. That would be a sad development -- though not surprising in this era of online news.

Well, I hope my local newspaper keeps going...and keeps publishing the “Breakfast Serials” for kids -- serialized novels printed, chapter by chapter, on a weekly basis. Conceived by Avi in 1996, the series has introduced kids to some good stories -- and, no doubt, gotten many in the habit of picking up the newspaper. I’m not quite sure why my paper is currently doing a repeat of Liza Ketchum’s ORPHAN JOURNEY HOME, with a serialization of Avi’s 1984 book THE FIGHTING GROUND next (isn’t the point of the project to have kids looking forward to a new chapter each week, rather than being able to borrow the book from the library before the serial has finished its run?) The good news is that it appears Newbery winner Linda Sue Park is waiting in the wings with a new original serial novel called “A Long Walk to Water,” which concerns the plight of the Sudanese “Lost Boys.” Should be worth reading!


Are you a constant reader? Dorothy Parker once wrote a book review column for the New Yorker with that byline -- and since this is a children’s book blog, I guess I should mention her oft-repeated snippy review of A. A. Milne’s THE HOUSE AT POOH CORNER: "Tonstant Weader fwowed up." Oh well, she was an alcoholic and probably fwew up a lot. Anyway, I’m not talking about the kind of constant reader, like Parker, who enjoyed kicking the stuffing out of innocent teddy bears. I’m talking about the kind of constant reader who, when not holding a book, has to read anything and everything in sight. If it’s in print, your eyes automatically veer toward it: labels on bleach bottles, the back of Lean Cuisine boxes, the “do not remove by penalty of law” tags on couches and pillows. The other day I was heating up some Simple Harvest breakfast cereal in the microwave and reading the back of the box when I noticed the ingredients included “rollled wheat.” That’s right, they spelled it with three Ls:

I called the customer comment line listed on the package and asked if anyone had proofread their cereal. A week later they sent me a coupon for a free box of Simple Harvest cereal.

Who said you can’t make money reading?

Thanks, as always for visiting my blog. I hope you’ll be back. Till then, I also hope the coming days are filled with hot cereal, blueberry cheesecake, constant reading, and books that make you beg for “just one page more.”

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

A Surprise

WHAT I SAW AND HOW I LIED by Judy Blundell has won the National Book Award for Young People's Literature. I have to admit I'm shocked. Of the five finalists, I actually thought WHAT I SAW was the least likely to win. It hasn't received the kind of rave reviews or internet chatter that some of the other nominees have enjoyed. In fact, I expected that many people would be surprised to see that I ranked it so highly (#2, just behind CHAINS) on my personal list of favorites in yesterday's blog. This unpretentious novel didn't try to wow us with showy, highly stylized writing. Instead it was simply a good story well-told and, as I stated in yesterday's blog: there is absolutely nothing wrong with that! Congratulations to Judy Blundell and WHAT I SAW AND HOW I LIED.

Tonight's the Night

Although it doesn’t carry the same prestige as either the Newbery or Caldecott, the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature is a significant prize that deserves the attention of both readers and book collectors.

In mid-October, the National Book Foundation announced the five finalists for this year’s award: CHAINS by Laurie Halse Anderson; THE UNDERNEATH by Kathi Appelt; WHAT I SAW AND HOW I LIED by Judy Blundell; THE DISREPUTABLE HISTORY OF FRANKIE-LANDAU BANKS by E. Lockhart, and THE SPECTACULAR NOW by Tim Tharp.

The winner will be named tonight, Wednesday, November 19, at a gala event in New York City. Will the honored book go on to win other awards and become a modern classic like 1998’s winner, HOLES by Louis Sachar, or will it be a steaming hot mess like THE SLIGHTLY IRREGULAR FIRE ENGINE, OR THE HITHERING DITHERING DJINN, the Donald Barthelme stinkeroo that earned the 1972 NBA?

To answer that question, I read all five of this year’s finalists. I’m happy to report that none of them are embarrassingly awful. In fact, most are quite good. I would even call one of them “great.” Since these are books people will be reading and talking about today...and perhaps collecting tomorrow, I thought I’d share my thoughts on the five finalists in order of preference, beginning with what I consider the least successful book and working up to my favorite of the five.

by E. Lockhart
Hyperion, 2008

First edition points: The dustjacket has a price of $16.95 and there is an embossed illustration of a basset hound on the front panel (I mention the embossment only because these extra flourishes are often removed in later printings.) The copyright page must contain the following complete numbering sequence to be a true first edition: 1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2.

Difficulty in finding first editions: Lockhart is a popular author (DRAMARAMA; THE BOYFRIEND LIST) and this novel, published in late March, is already in later printings.

Frankie Landau-Banks spent her freshman year at the prestigious Alabaster Preparatory Academy, as a “mildly geeky” student who joined the debate team and tagged-along with her older sister’s friends. But after a physically transformative summer, Frankie returns for her sophomore year “curvy, lithe, and possessed of enough oomph to stop teenage boys in the street.” She soon acquires a boyfriend who is a member of the boarding school’s all-male secret society. By a mix of luck and skill, Frankie also acquires the club's handbook and wrests control of the Loyal Order of the Basset Hounds from its alpha-dog leader, directing the group’s activities through a series of anonymous e-mails. Frankie is an engaging, think-outside-the-box character whose conversations are studded with what she calls “neglected positives” (“The neglected positive of immaculate is maculate, meaning morally blemished or stained.”) Therefore, readers may be disappointed that the pranks Frankie devises for the Basset Hounds (putting brassieres on school portraits and buildings; having the senior class wear dog masks) aren’t nearly as original or humorous as her oddball dialogue and thought-processes would lead one to expect. And the motivations for Frankie’s behavior remain rather hazy throughout -- perhaps even to Frankie herself. The novel’s most striking component is its deliberately arch and self-conscious writing style (“Information as to the locale and setting of Alabaster, its course requirements, and the sports activities required therein will be given in these pages solely on a need-to-know basis.”) which includes a few first-person interjections by the omniscient narrator. Even those who find the book to slow-to-start and Frankie’s exploits unremarkable may concede that the novel is a triumph of style over substance.

by Kathi Appelt; with drawings by David Small
Atheneum, 2008

First edition points: The dustjacket has a price of $16.99 and the title is embossed on the front panel. A date code of 0508 is on the bottom of the front dustjacket panel. The copyright page must contain the words “First Edition” AND this complete number sequence: 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1.

Difficulty in finding first editions: The book was published in May to great acclaim and fanfare. I don’t know how many copies were printed or if the book has now moved into later printings. I will say that many consider THE UNDERNEATH to be frontrunner for the Newbery Medal (and probably the only title among these NBA finalists having that distinction; the rest are better defined as young-adult novels.) If it does win the Newbery come January, first editions may be difficult to find.

Like the previous novel, THE UNDERNEATH also emphasizes writing style, though in this case it's often to the detriment of the story being told. Appelt braids three separate plot threads. One tells of the friendship between a pregnant calico cat and a hound dog, permanently chained to a porch by his cruel owner, a man known as Gar Face; the second concerns Gar Face’s quest to capture a mammoth alligator in the bayou. The third, and least successful, thread concerns a shapeshifting snake whose fate is ultimately entwined with the hound, the calico, and her eventual kittens. Those who enjoy animal stories (and can get past some painful scenes of animal abuse) will be moved by the relationship between the hound dog and the feline characters that lies at the novel's core. However, the lengthy narrative is slowed considerably by a lot of philosophizing and broad-based mysticism that draws on both legend (the shapeshifting snake is “cousin to the mermaids, the ondines, the great seafolk known as selkies”) and Native American culture. The author’s short fiction (KISSING TENNESSEE AND OTHER STORIES FROM THE STARDUST DANCE) and verse-memoir (MY FATHER’S SUMMERS) show her gift for economical poetic writing. The poetry is here as well, but not the economy. The florid, repetitive prose (“This boy, a boy who sneered at kindness, even from his mother, his mother who loved flowers and birds”) might lend itself well to read-alouds, but seems affected and occasionally silly on the page (“Beware this cruel boy, this boy of darkness” the narrative warns the reader), leading to a generally overwritten work. Some critics I trust are calling THE UNDERNEATH the year’s best; I think it’s an intriguing book that perhaps tries a bit too hard to tell an important story -- instead of simply telling a story.

by Tim Tharp
Knopf, 2008

First edition points: The dustjacket has a price of $16.99. The copyright page states “November 2008,” followed by the printing code 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 and the words “First Edition.”

Difficulty in finding first editions: Just released and should be widely available.

The judges who selected the five finalists for this year’s NBA, chair Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket), Holly Black, Angela Johnson, Carolyn Mackler, and Cynthia Voigt were clearly impressed by highly-stylized writing. Like the two previous titles, THE SPECTACULAR NOW is written in a conspicuous “look at me!” narrative voice which, in this instance, is well-suited to the protagonist and his story. In a nonstop seriocomic monologue, high school senior Sutter Keely relates his frantic, antic experiences with girlfriends, at school, and on the job, through a haze of constant drinking and occasional drugging. Sutter’s brash “life of the party” persona becomes wearing over the course of nearly 300 pages, though there are occasional quiet moments that either allow us a glimpse of this teenage alcoholic’s emotional pain or reveal a startling moment of introspection. The complex relationship between Sutter and a guileless female classmate, which begins with sympathy dates and turns into something resembling love, is particularly well-portrayed. A character study in the guise of a problem novel, THE SPECTACULAR NOW contains a few unnecessary scenes that go nowhere (a runaway kid appears in the first chapter then is never mentioned again; a random revelation of statutory rape only clutters the plot) but on the whole it’s a strong work that comes to an unexpected conclusion that offers equal parts soaring hope and crushing despair.

by Judy Blundell
Scholastic, 2008

First edition points: The dustjacket has a price of $16.99 and the title is embossed. The copyright page must contain the complete printing code 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 and the words “First edition, November 2008.”

Difficulty in finding first editions: Just released and should be widely available.

The Second World War is over and Evie’s stepfather has returned from Europe. On a family vacation in Florida, the fifteen-year-old narrator finds herself enamored by fellow hotel guest Peter Coleridge, a former serviceman who coincidentally -- or perhaps not so coincidentally -- served in her stepfather’s army unit. Blinded by her own first love, Evie barely registers her mother and stepfather’s individual, but equally equivocal, responses to her new friend. The most conventional, least “literary” of the NBA finalists, this love story/crime novel smoothly delivers an authentic historical setting, a well-defined cast of characters (nearly every one living a lie of some type), and a yearning, lovestruck narrator who finds her world shaken by events which are outside her control and, initially, outside her understanding. Some may argue that Evie serves more as an observer to, rather than a participant in, the novel’s central conflict. More than one character describes her as a “watcher." Yet it is Evie who ends up resolving that conflict in a way that, for better or worse, ultimately changes her perspective on life and her place in the world. Lacking literary pretensions, this novel succeeds at exactly what it aims to do: tell an entertaining, thought-provoking story in an almost compulsively readable fashion. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

by Laurie Halse Anderson
Simon & Schuster, 2008

First edition points: The author’s name is embossed on the front of the dustjacket. The front flap has a price of $16.99 at the top and the words “A Junior Literary Guild Selection” and a date code of “1008” at the bottom. The copyright page must contain a boxed icon containing the words “FIRST EDITION” and a large “F” encased in a circle. Further, the complete printing code 2 4 6 8 10 9 7 5 3 1 must present.

Difficulty in finding first editions: The book was just published in October and I have no idea how large the first printing was...but considering the acclaim this novel has received, it might be a good idea to seek out a first edition sooner rather than later.

Many, if not most, slavery stories are set during the era of the Civil War. Not this one. In CHAINS, young Isabel is enslaved in 1776 New York, her struggle for freedom and independence paralleling the country’s burgeoning quest for the same. Though Isabel and her handicapped younger sister Ruth had been promised freedom by their former mistress, they are purchased by the Locktons, British loyalists raising money to support the Tory effort. When Madam Lockton separates the sisters, the enraged and heartbroken protagonist is determined to do whatever she can to earn her freedom and reunite with Ruth -- whether that means spying for the Patriots or volunteering to work for the British army. A vivid, exceptionally-detailed portrait of Revolutionary-era New York is brought to life in Isabel’s pitch-perfect narration which simultaneously conveys the personal atrocities of slavery (Isabel’s name is changed to “Sal” and she is branded on the face with the letter “I” for being insolent) as well as the character’s undying dream of liberty. This is the best historical novel I’ve read in some time and my favorite of the five National Book Award finalists.

...So, will CHAINS win? I’d like to think so, but I’m sure each of the five nominated titles has its supporters and detractors and frankly nothing surprises me these days when it comes to the hithering-dithering world of book awards.

Which of the five books is your favorite?

Sunday, November 16, 2008

A Traveling Brunch

More randomness about children’s books old and new, this time featuring a road trip that begins at the Ann Arbor Public Library, makes a virtual visit to the Newport Public Library, and ends in the great green room. Get in the car and fasten your seat belts.


Although it’s true that I have tennis shoes older than he is (click on image for graphic proof. Then be grateful this isn’t a scratch-and-sniff blog), I am mightily impressed by that very young, very talented young adult author John Green. His first novel, LOOKING FOR ALASKA, won the Printz Award. His second (and, I think, even better) book AN ABUNDANCE OF KATHERINES was named a Printz Honor. His new novel, the smart and funny PAPER TOWNS, hasn’t won a thing...but then it’s only been out for thirty days. Give it time. When I heard that Green was going to be appearing at the Ann Arbor Public Library this past Friday evening, I took an hour of vacation time so I could leave work early, and get there in plenty of time to hear his presentation and get my books signed. Unfortunately, I did not consider that I’d be driving in rush hour. Or that it would be raining. Or that the streets of Ann Arbor would be so crowded. Or that I’d drive past the library twice without noticing it because I am a nitwit. All told, it took me nearly two-and-a-half hours to get there...and I arrived about thirty minutes late. Nonetheless, I figured I’d still be able to sneak into some back row seat, catch the last part of Green’s presentation, and probably get my books signed. Instead, I was shocked to encounter a sign saying the basement where the event was being held was “FILLED TO CAPACITY.” However, we were told the presentation was being simulcast on a TV upstairs on the fourth floor. Well, if I wanted to see John Green on a screen, I could have just stayed home and looked at his vlog (video blog) on the internet or watched him on Youtube. Plus, I figured that us leftover people upstairs either wouldn’t get the opportunity to attend the signing...or would have to wait hours and hours until all the basement attendees got their books signed. So I ended up going home without getting my books inscribed. But that’s okay. I’m sure he’ll be back on tour again. But next time I’ll take off two, maybe three, vacation hours, so I can get there EARLY.


Incidentally, PAPER TOWNS has been issued with two different dustjackets:

The bookstore I go to only had the yellow/happy jacket, so I tried another store and they too only had yellow. I wonder if certain parts of the country only got the green jackets. I’ll be curious to know which version sells better. Completist collectors like me will probably end up getting both.


Ever since writing my previous blog entry on Natalie Savage Carlson, I can’t get this underrated author out of my head. Here are six fun facts you may or may not know about her:

-- ALPHONSE, THAT BEARDED ONE was not the only book Ms. Carlson published with Harcourt during her long career with Harper. She also had three other Harcourt books (did Ursula reject these as well?) One of them, HORTENSE : THE COW FOR A QUEEN was even an Honor Book in 1957’s New York Herald Tribune Children’s Spring Festival Awards. During her career, she won this award twice and had two Honor Books!

-- Natalie was married to Rear Admiral Daniel Carlson of the U.S. Navy and traveled around the world with him, often using the unusual locales they visited for her stories. While they were stationed in Hawaii, Natalie Carlson was an eyewitness to the attack on Pearl Harbor.

-- The above portraits of Rear Admiral Daniel Carlson and Natalie Savage Carlson are on display in the lobby of the Newport Public Library in Newport, Rhode Island. Anyone up for a field trip?

-- Natalie Carlson was the 1966 American nominee for the Hans Christian Andersen Award.

-- Carlson’s 1958 classic, THE FAMILY UNDER THE BRIDGE, was recently presented as an off-Broadway musical -- written by Kathy Lee Gifford.

-- Want to know about her early life? Natalie Carlson wrote two autobiographical novels about her childhood: THE HALF-SISTERS (1970) and LUVVY AND THE GIRLS (1971.)


Because it’s an international award that honors a creator’s complete body of work, the Andersen is sometimes called the “Nobel Prize for Children’s Literature.” Every other year since 1956 (the prize is given in even-numbered years) the U.S. submits one nominee for this prize, which is sponsored by the International Board of Books for Young People. There is no record of which American author was nominated in 1956 and 1958, but the 1960 nominee was Jean Craighead George, which strikes me as odd, since her best work was still to come. The other nominees have been:

1962 / Meindert DeJong
1964 / Madeleine L’Engle
1966 / Natalie Savage Carlson
1968 / Elizabeth Coatsworth
1970 / E. B. White
1972 / Scott O'Dell
1974 / Irene Hunt
1976 / E. B. White (yeah, again)
1978 / Paula Fox
1980 / Katherine Paterson
1982 / Natalie Babbitt
1984 / Beverly Cleary
1986 / Jean Fritz
1988 / William Steig
1990 / Katherine Paterson (if at first you don't succeed...)
1992 / Virginia Hamilton
1994 / Sid Fleischman
1996 / Lloyd Alexander
1998 / Katherine Paterson (try, try and WIN)
2000 / Lois Lowry
2002 / Susan Cooper
2004 / Lois Lowry (there may still be other chances to come)
2006 / E. L. Konigsburg
2008 / Lloyd Alexander (it would have been posthumous)

Of these, the only American winners have been Meindert DeJong, Scott O’Dell, Paula Fox, Virginia Hamilton, and Katherine Paterson (in 1998).

Since 1966 there has also been a Hans Christian Andersen Award for Illustrators. Can you guess the lone American winner? I’ll put the entire list in next Sunday’s brunch.


One of the best parts about writing a blog is seeing who drops in to visit. My previous blog entry received a comment from someone named “Rathacat,” who I realized was Clare Bell, author of the “Ratha” series and many other memorable books including TOMORROW’S SPHINX and THE JAGUAR PRINCESS! How cool is that? In her note, Ms. Bell wondered if anyone had written a biography of her former editor, Margaret K. McElderry.

To my knowledge, there is no such book. Or rather: It’s a book waiting to be written.

Certainly Ms. McElderry deserves a biography. She’s one of the all-time greats. Working at Harcourt for nearly three decades, she published authors such as Eleanor Estes, was known for introducing many European and translated books to American children, and was the first editor whose books claimed the Newbery and Caldecott in the same year -- 1952, when GINGER PYE by Eleanor Estes won the Big N and FINDERS KEEPERS by “Will” and “Nicolas” (as they billed themselves -- actually writer William Lipkind and illustrator Nicolas Mordvinoff) won the Caldecott. In the 1970s she got her own imprint at Atheneum and published some of that decade’s best (including Susan Cooper’s “Dark is Rising” series), then continued publishing “Margaret K. McElderry Books” through Simon and Schuster.

Now nearing one hundred years old, Margaret McElderry definitely deserves a biography!


Incidentally, I always thought the editor’s last name was pronounced Mick-ELDER-ee. Not too long ago I learned it’s Mackle-dairy.


Here’s an old/new trend: adult books being “adapted” for young audiences. In a way it’s an old trend, because throughout the years many classics (ROBINSON CRUSOE, GULLIVER’S TRAVELS, PILGRIM’S PROGRESS, UNCLE TOM’S CABIN, etc.) have been adapted for children. However, in recent years I’ve been noticing that, increasingly, many contemporary books are published for adults and then, a year or two, later, rewritten, repackaged, and retitled for kids. Here are just three recent examples:

I wonder about the necessity of this. Surely any kid old enough to have an interest in Marley the dog can read and comprehend the original MARLEY AND ME (not exactly GRAVITY’S RAINBOW in terms of reading level, depth, or content) without needing an adaptation. If there are words they don’t understand, there’s always the dictionary. If they encounter difficult syntax or sophisticated situations, they’ll muddle through them -- that’s what stretching and growing is all about. Obviously everyone does not agree with me on this, or we wouldn’t be seeing a proliferation of titles “adapted for young people.”

Another recent, questionable trend is acknowledgment pages in novels that have the self-serving purpose and length of a really bad Oscar acceptance speech. Think back at the history of children’s books -- and you don’t even have to think back that far, maybe just ten years. Back then it was common to see “Acknowledgments” in a nonfiction title, where it was necessary to mention certain reference books that an author used for research and thank helpful experts who gave advice or read the manuscript for errors. That makes sense. You might also find acknowledgment pages in historical fiction, where the author needed to mention factual books and experts consulted.

But today you find acknowledgment pages (and pages and pages) in every kind of novel -- and even picture books. I generally don’t mind them -- even the ones resembling Oscar speeches -- unless they turn into something like Greer Garson’s infamous acceptance and the author rambles on like a latter-day Mrs. Miniver, thanking not just their spouse and kids, but the guy who served them an especially inspiring latte at Starbucks and the assistant to the assistant at the computer store who talked them through that ugly paper jam in their printer. And I get irritated by Acknowledgments that are littered with in-jokes (“And to Rob: you will always be my go-get-’em-Tigerboy...RRRRR!” or “Amy, Louise, Katydid, Jillian, and Marta -- BUT NOT Penelope -- you are all pizza-heads and pepperoni-plotters! Save me the mushrooms!”) which make me feel left out, and like I’m eavesdropping on someone else’s conversation -- which, in a way, I am -- but it’s also a conversation, lest we forget, that I paid $16.95 to read. What I DO like about acknowledgment pages are the occasional insights into how a book came to be -- the author’s motivation for creating this story and the circumstances under which it was written.

But I have friends who HATE any type of acknowledgment page in a book.

What do you think -- is it a good trend or a bad one?


Opus, the cartoon penguin who first turned up in Berkeley Breathed’s “Bloom County” and later starred in his often eponymous comic strip, has now reached the end of his run.

Mr. Breathed held a contest for readers to guess where Opus’s journey would end. Out of six thousand entries, fifty-five people guessed correctly -- and a random drawing chose one of those entrants to win a $10,000 grant to their local humane society to help “dogs and cats find the loving home -- their paradise -- that otherwise might have been lost to them.”

So where did Opus conclude his nearly thirty-year journey? In the pages of a children’s book:

According to his creator, “Opus is napping. He sleeps in peace, dreaming of a world just ahead brimming with kindness and grace and ubiquitous bow ties.”

That sound like a wonderful world. Except for the bowties.

But it’s a nice place for Opus to end, and good place for me to end today’s blog as well. I must get back to my reading. I’m currently trying to finish all five of the National Book Award nominees for young people’s literature:

so I can post a review of them here on Wednesday, as the winner will be announced that evening.

Hope to see you back here then.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Big Brush-Off

In 1951, a first-time author named Natalie Savage Carlson submitted a manuscript of French-Canadian tales to Harper and Brothers. Accepted by the brilliant editor Ursula Nordstrom, THE TALKING CAT AND OTHER STORIES OF FRENCH CANADA was published in 1952 and immediately won the prestigious New York Herald Tribune Children’s Spring Book Festival Award. Later that year, however, Ursula Nordstrom rejected Ms. Carlson’s second manuscript, ALPHONSE, saying she did not feel it was “a worthy successor to THE TALKING CAT.” Nordstrom suggested that Carlson submit the manuscript to Margaret McElderry at Harcourt, adding “She does lovely books.”

Apparently ALPHONSE wasn’t quite lovely enough for Ursula’s own list!

As it happened, Ms. McElderry did accept the book and ALPHONSE, THAT BEARDED ONE was released by Harcourt in early 1954. Here’s the cover of the book:

Oh shoot. I didn’t line that up on my scanner quite right. Let me move it over so you can get a look at the entire cover:

Hey...wait a minute....! What’s that I see on the right side of the jacket? Is that...a sticker saying this book won the New York Herald Tribune Spring Book Festival Award...?

How can that be?

Didn’t Ursula Herself say that this book didn’t “come up to the high standard of THE TALKING CAT”?

Yet ALPHONSE ended up winning the exact same prize that Carlson’s first book received two years earlier!

The purpose of this blog entry isn’t to pick on Ursula Nordstrom. She was the best in the business and probably published more classic titles than any other twentieth-century children’s book editor. But even she made mistakes (she also rejected Robert Cormier’s CHOCOLATE WAR and I suspect she was among the myriad who turned down Madeleine L’Engle’s A WRINKLE IN TIME during its long quest for publication.) No editor is infallible. No editor gets it right 100% of the time. I doubt most even get it right 80% of the time. (I personally know one editor who’s only right about 6% of the time, but that’s a whole ‘nother story.)

What fascinates me about this case isn’t simply that Nordstrom rejected ALPHONSE, but that she did it so brusquely. In his indispensable book DEAR GENIUS : THE LETTERS OF URSULA NORDSTROM (a volume that is never far from my desk nor far from my thoughts), Leonard Marcus includes Nordstrom’s actual rejection letter:

December 9, 1952

Dear Natalie,

With a heavy heart I must write you that we still think ALPHONSE (revised version) is not a worthy successor to THE TALKING CAT.

This makes me sad. I read it, and so did Miss Powers and Miss Russell. So we are all sad. We understand that you will want to send it to another publisher and of course we all wish you luck with it.

Declining this book is a tough decision, because of course it probably will be taken elsewhere and so you will probably feel any future books by you should go to the publisher that accepts ALPHONSE. So we are in the unfortunate position of being sorely tempted to take ALPHONSE so that we will keep you on the list. But we shouldn’t accept and try to publish it on that basis because it, in our judgment -- and we may be wrong, doesn’t come up to the high standard of THE TALKING CAT. So we have decided that in spite of everything we must regretfully decline this manuscript. I can’t tell you how sorry I am, Natalie.

If by any remote chance it is not taken by one of the top publishers, we certainly hope that you will send us something else by you in the future. Let me know what happens, will you? I have been happy to think of you as a Harper author up to now. Coming unexpectedly upon the delightful manuscript of THE TALKING CAT, and publishing it so successfully, was one of the high spots in my experience as an editor. Well, let me know who takes ALPHONSE, if you are willing, will you? By the way, I hear via the grapevine that Harcourt turned down THE TALKING CAT and I think they would be EXTREMELY glad to have a chance at ALPHONSE. You know Miss McElderry, don’t you? She does lovely books.

We return the manuscript herewith. Please don’t disappear into the blue now. Let me hear from you and tell me how things go with you and the manuscript.

Yours sincerely,

Now granted, we all see things differently. This letter may sound heartfelt and conciliatory to you (especially if you sit behind an editor’s desk) but to me (someone on the other side of that desk) it seems unduly harsh. I don’t doubt Ursula’s sincerity at all, but I’m just surprised she didn’t try to smooth things over by saying something along the lines of, “Why not set this manuscript aside for a while and try writing something else for us? After stretching your skills on a new book, you may return to ALPHONSE with fresh eyes and see its problems and/or potential.” I guess what bugs me MOST is that Ursula seems quite willing to lose Carlson permanently to a different publisher. Again, this may just be me, but the line “Please don’t disappear into the blue now” sounds awfully dismissive. Granted, it’s not as bad as “Don’t let the door hit ya where the good Lord split ya,” but it just seems like the kind of hollow nicety that's automatically tossed off as an author goes crawling out the door, dejected and rejected -- and with his "tale" between his legs. (Believe me, I know whereof I speak.)

I can only imagine the sense of vindication Natalie felt when, not only was ALPHONSE accepted by Harcourt...but it also went on to win her another New York Herald Tribune Children’s Spring Book Festival Award!

I wonder how Ursula felt. Was she sorry she rejected ALPHONSE or did she always continue to believe she’d done the right thing?

Perhaps the most amazing part of this story is that even though Ursula cut her loose with the expectation that she’d move to a new publishing house, Carlson apparently did not bear the editor any hard feelings at all! In fact, despite the fact that Harcourt published ALPHONSE and she racked up yet another New York Herald Tribune Children’s Spring Book Festival Award (what a mouthful!) Carlson ended up returning to Ursula. Her very next book, WINGS AGAINST THE WIND, was published by Harper in 1955. Incredibly, it was named a runner-up for that year’s NYHTCSBFA (even the acronym is long and unwieldy!) And for the next two decades, Harper continued to publish nearly all of Carlson’s work, which included the Newbery Honor THE FAMILY UNDER THE BRIDGE (1958), the popular THE LETTER ON THE TREE (1964), important early books on civil rights such as THE EMPTY SCHOOLHOUSE (1965), the much-loved “Orphelines” series, and many more.

I ask myself what I would have done if I were in Carlson’s shoes. If Ursula gave me the big brush-off, would I return to her fold? Maybe, maybe not. ...But if I did, I’d probably always show up at her office wearing a sweatshirt embossed with the cover illustration of ALPHONSE “that book I published with Harcourt.” And I’d use 1954 as a touchstone in every author-editor conversation (“Back in 1953...oh wait, it was 1954 -- I remember because that was the year I won that award for my Harcourt book....”) and I’d probably even call my dog, my cat, or even my kid “Alphonse” just so I could repeat the name over and over whenever I got a phone call from Harper (“Hello? Oh hi, Urs. Could you hold on a minute, Alphonse is barking at the back door and I have to let him in the house. In fact, could I call you back later? I also need to go pick up my son Alphonse at school.”)

But that’s just me: pugnacious. Pugilistic. And what’s that other word? Oh yeah, repugnant.

But Natalie Savage Carlson was a much nicer person than that. She obviously didn’t hold a grudge -- and she ended up publishing a great list of books at Harper after the ALPHONSE rejection. I wonder if she and Ursula ever discussed that letter again or just considered it “water under the bridge”? I guess we'll never know. All I know is that in 1971 Ursula wrote Natalie a very different sort of letter, reminiscing about their “wonderful and happy relationship all these years,” and ending with the words “I am so glad that you are ours and we are yours.”

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Brunching with Some Old Friends

Another Sunday, another brunch -- this time featuring old friends, new books, dead teachers, and a June B. Jones toothbrush.


In a recent blog entry, I mentioned an old friend who liked to stretch out her birthday over an entire month. Well, she’s not the only one who enjoys protracted celebrations. Here in the midwest, we’ve got radio stations that began playing all-Christmas-carols-all-the-time starting November first. As much as I enjoy holiday music, I think that’s pushing it. Especially when it’s just now -- finally and tardily -- beginning to look like this outside:

So this year I’ve decided I’m going to prolong Halloween for a couple extra weeks and, luckily, I’ve found just the book to keep me in the spirit. A book-buddy in Connecticut just arranged for me to get an inscribed copy of the new young adult book PRETTY MONSTERS by Kelly Link.

I was not familiar with Ms. Link’s work before now, though she’s published two previous collections, STRANGER THINGS HAPPEN and MAGIC FOR BEGINNERS. This new volume features surreal and spooky stories written in the kind of sublime prose that often makes you stop reading for a moment or two just to savor a particular turn of phrase.

People often ask me about “collecting ahead” -- looking out for current titles that will be desirable in the future. PRETTY MONSTERS strikes me as that kind of book. The design, the dustjacket, the illustrations (by no less than Shaun Tan!) give a classic feel to this volume. Even with our current economy, it’s probably better to buy a first edition today for $19.99 than try to track one done several years from now for $100 or more.


When I was growing up, Joan Aiken books were ubiquitous. In fact, every year seemed to bring something new and dazzingly different from the author’s pen: Dickensian melodramas, fantasies, mysteries, short stories, gothic novels, and even that most neglected genre of children’s books -- plays. I never got into Aiken's sprawling series that began with THE WOLVES OF WILLOUGHBY CHASE (though perhaps reading those books should be my 2009 New Year’s resolution), but I loved some of her mysteries, such as the evocatively-titled DIED ON A RAINY SUNDAY, and still think that MIDNIGHT IS A PLACE is one of the best novels I’ve ever read. I remember carrying a Joan Aiken paperback to junior high school one autumn day and returning home without it. I had no idea how, or where, I had lost it. Several months later, on an early spring morning, I was standing at the traffic light across from school when I looked down at my feet and saw my missing Aiken paperback peeking out from under a pile of dead leaves. Walked over by thousands of junior high feet, then covered by snow and ice all winter long, it was now dirty, waterlogged, and every page was rippled and wavy, yet finding that book was like meeting up with an old friend -- and I took it home and read it, smoothing every page flat as I went along.

I kind of felt like I was meeting up with my old friend again this week, with the arrival of a new Joan Aiken volume, THE SERIAL GARDEN : THE COMPLETE ARMITAGE STORIES.

This posthumous publication contains all the magical tales about the Armitage Family, from “Yes, But Today is Tuesday,” which Ms. Aiken sold to the BBC at age twenty, to four previously-unpublished stories written just prior to the author’s death in 2004. Collected in one volume for the first time, the stories are introduced by Aiken’s daughter Lizza and novelist Garth Nix.

One of the most interesting aspects of this book is that it was released by Big Mouth House, a publishing company owned by Kelly Link and her husband, Gavin J. Grant. According to the dustjacket, Big Mouth House is “an imprint devoted to fiction for readers of all ages. We will publish one or two weird and great titles (short story collections and novels) per year. We expect to publish books for readers aged 10 and up. Future titles include: more Joan Aiken, Holly Black’s THE POISON EATERS AND OTHER STORIES, and Delia Sherman’s THE FREEDOM MAZE."

That’s exciting news! Especially since small presses frequently issue intriguing titles that might be ignored by larger, commercial publishers. I look forward to seeing what comes next.


I was just thinking about the fact that books issued by small presses generally don’t make a lot of money, yet they always seem to be labors of love.

This made me recall some of the publications in my own collection that fall into that same category -- items that have such unique appeal that they were self-published and only shared with a few like-minded individuals: a series of Christmas newsletters from a friend, printed up and illustrated with color photographs...a fanzine that a man in the midwest created in honor of Natalie Nevins, his favorite performer on the Lawrence Welk Show in the 1960s (Yes, I’ve been known to watch Welk repeats on PBS. Yes, I will pause for a moment so you can etch the shape of a SQUARE in the air with your index fingers)...and even a book containing a collection of letters and cartoons that, over the years, my brother and I created for a lifelong friend -- and which she presented back to us in a bound volume called “The Best of Peter and John, 1964-1984.”

You may not find these publications in any other library, but they were clearly viewed as labors of love by those who created them and are thus important to me. Because they are so rare, they’d probably be among the first things I’d grab in case of a fire.


Many blogs ago, I mentioned that it had been a long time since we’d had a new book by one of my favorite authors, Randy Powell. Someone then wrote to inform me that Mr. Powell had a novel coming out this fall called SWISS MIST. I was thrilled to learn this, as several of the author’s titles, including IS KISSING A GIRL WHO SMOKES LIKE LICKING AN ASHTRAY?, DEAN DUFFY, and RUN IF YOU DARE are way up there on my own personal “best books” list.

I just picked up a copy of SWISS MIST and am really enjoying it so far. Powell is especially good at exploring complex relationships -- between boys and girls, between parents and kids, and between friends -- with humor and perspicuity. And I usually find myself thinking about his characters after I’m finished reading each book.

I had to laugh at the dustjacket of this new one though. As we all know, most dustjackets for young adult novels these days are printed on glossy paper, feature a photograph rather than a hand-crafted illustration, and almost inevitably show a decapitated or semi-decapitated face. SWISS MISS breaks from that tradition somewhat in that it’s printed on a wonderful old-fashioned papery-paper and, instead of a stock photo, uses a real illustration from a real artist, Richard Mia:

But -- ACK! -- why did they have to cut his head off!

Ah well, two out of three ain’t bad.


The stat counter on my blog allows me to see the “keyword activity” that brings each visitor here.

Sometimes a person will Google a specific title or author that I’ve mentioned and then come to read that particular blog entry.

Other times they are looking for something completely unrelated to children’s books. For example, they are trying to find “brunch recipes” and are sent here because I refer to my Sunday smorgasbord-style entries as “brunch.”

Occasionally the connections are humorous. Someone Googled “Curly-haired dude on Antiques Roadshow” and, since I blogged about Antiques Roadshow a couple weeks back and, even further back, happened to mention that I have curly hair, the Googler ended up here at Collecting Children’s Books.

Then there are the sad entries. Someone is hunting for “a book to tell a child his parents are getting divorced” or looking for a “a funny book to cheer up a kid in the hospital.” This week someone came here searching for a book to help “a student whose teacher was killed in a car accident.”


I can’t think of any books that deal with the very specific situation of a teacher in a car accident (can anyone else out there?), but I can relate to the topic in general, as I knew several teachers who died while I was in school.

Just after I started third grade, our school’s second-grade teacher -- who I had just spent the previous year with -- collapsed in her classroom. Rumors ran rampant. One kid said the class was gathered together in a “reading circle” and the teacher fell sideways and landed with her head in a boy’s lap. Someone else reported that she had just stood up and said, “Class, I have a big surprise for you!” and then keeled over on the floor. Everyone who was in school that day claims to have been there and seen the whole thing. Even my own brother, only a first grader at the time, claims he was the one who suggested someone put a wet towel on the teacher’s head.

I don’t remember a bit of it -- not even hearing the ambulance sirens.

What I do remember is the next afternoon. Our third grade teacher had just given us each a piece of rock salt as part of a science project and I was anxious to take it home and show my family. Then the principal came in, sat down in front of the class, and told us that “You probably have heard that Mrs. ____ became ill in class yesterday. Now I have to tell you some very sad news. Today Mrs. ____ let die.”

“Let die”? The phrase didn’t make sense to me then and it doesn’t make sense to me now. But I still recall the chill that ran right through me from head to toe. Actually, it was more like an electric shock, followed by a chill. I had never known anyone who died before. I remember running home from school to tell my mother, then sitting down at the kitchen table where she had placed a cup of hot chocolate for me, suddenly afraid to say the words out loud. So I took a sip of my hot chocolate and then licked my piece of rock salt, took a sip of hot chocolate and licked the rock salt, afraid that saying it aloud would make it real. It was an awful feeling.

Strangely, we never talked about it in school after that. (Nowadays they’d bring grief counselors in, wouldn’t they?) But we just accepted it -- after all, she was very, very old. (She was fifty-seven which doesn’t seem so very, very old to me anymore.)

You’d think that one traumatic experience like that would be enough for any schoolkid but, as time went on, more and more of our teachers died. A couple years later, one of the grade school teachers didn’t return from Christmas break and, a few weeks later, she too died.

Then came junior high where our math teacher didn’t return from Christmas break (obviously that is never a good sign!) and she ended up dying. Our cranky art teacher climbed up on a stool to get something from a cupboard, fell off and, in the melodramatic words of our school newspaper, “the death angel came for her.”

High school: one teacher died of cancer, another had a stroke.

I think there were even more that I’ve blocked.

I used to think that this kind of thing only happened at my schools, but I’ve since talked to other people who shared similar sad tales of teachers it’s really surprising there aren’t more books out there for kids who might face this very traumatic situation. The only one I know, and would recommend, is REMEMBERING MRS. ROSSI by Amy Hest, the story of a young girl whose school-teacher mother dies and is remembered by her students. A friend gave me an autographed copy of this book as a gift and I’ve always though Ms. Hest's little heart drawing was telling, as this book is written with a lot of heart and compassion.

I don’t know if the person who came here looking for this type of book will return to my blog, but I hope they do -- as REMEMBERING MRS. ROSSI may be helpful.


On a lighter note, I thought I’d share some children’s book marketing pieces I’ve recently gotten. There’s strawberry gummy-candy celebrating Polly Horvath’s new MY ONE HUNDRED ADVENTURES and a Junie B. Jones toothbrush to brush your teeth after eating them. There’s a baby rattle to promote Barbara Park’s MA! THERE’S NOTHING TO DO HERE! and a vial of glitter for Nicholas Scott’s THE ALCHEMYST. There are also postcards/learning activities cards for Kate DiCamillo’s latest, a bookmark for Nancy Werlin’s IMPOSSIBLE, and a pin (Dr. Seuss), a magnet (OFFICER BUCKLE AND GLORIA) and trading cards (SO YOU WANT TO BE PRESIDENT):


One of my favorite E. L. Konigsburg titles is THE SECOND MRS. GIANCONDA, which tells of Da Vinci’s creation of the Mona Lisa. This season brings us Donna Jo Napoli’s THE SMILE, which concerns the same topic. (Gosh, even the Mona Lisa is semi-decapped in this dustjacket illustration!)

These might make a good pair of readalikes -- especially for those who have an interest in -- but aren’t yet ready to read -- THE DA VINCI CODE.

Thanks, as always, for stopping by Collecting Children's Books -- whether you're an old friend or Googled your way here by chance.