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.


Sam said...

I always look forward to your Sunday brunch and this week decided to wait until Monday so I could savor it.

As for "getting into" the Wolves books, it might help if you skip "Wolves."
Wolves doesn't have enough wolves or enough Dido Twite -- and Dido (and her father) are what make the rest of the series so good.

Two other Aiken items to look for:
*The Haunting of Lamb House for adults
* "The Man Who Pinched God's Letter" for everyone

Sherry said...

SInce you're a children's lit historian of sorts, maybe you can tell me where or when this decapitation fad started. I have a lot of old children's books: Carolyn Haywood, fairy tale books, classic picture books. None of them have half a face on the front.

Ms. Yingling said...

Even though I've been out of school for 30 years, it still makes me sad when I hear that teachers have passed away. It's especially sad when it's just months before they retire. I will have to look at Remembering...

Peter D. Sieruta said...

Hi Sam,

Thanks for your very kind words and your advice on the Aiken books. I'll definitely look for the two titles you mentioned.


Hi Sherry,

I really don't know when or even why the decapitation fade started. All I know is that about a decade ago publishers began using mostly photographic images on book covers; someone told me that this was done mainly to save money, as many of the photos were borrowed from free image banks. Over time the photographic covers have gotten more stylized and "artistic" and I assume the guillotine-effect is just one more example of this. My blog entry of August 21 includes some photographic examples of this trend.

Thanks for visiting my blog,


Hi Ms. Yinglang,

I feel the same way. In fact, I never expect my old teachers to age. Every now and then I'll discover that one of my teachers is now in their eighties and I'll be shocked, as I still expected them to be in their fifties and still teaching at the same school!

Do check out REMEMBER MRS. ROSSI; I think you'll enjoy it.

Thanks for visiting,