Sunday, December 21, 2008

A Mostly Christmas Brunch

Christmas is coming. Unfortunately, it’s coming a little too fast for me, with half my cards unsent, half my presents unwrapped, and only half the tree decorated. And I need more than another half day to catch up.

Today’s Sunday brunch contains some happy Christmas thoughts and a couple sad author stories.


The first Christmas book I remember owning featured Dennis the Menace. I want to say it was a Little Golden Book. The only thing I remember now is a scene where Dennis and his father go pick up a Christmas tree and, on the way home in the car, Dennis says the fresh fir “smells better ‘n peanut butter.” I have no idea what happened to this book. (Where do Little Golden Books go when they die? We all had them as kids...and then one day they’re gone. They don’t carry them in libraries. Even most used bookstores don’t have them. So where do they go?) Periodically over the years I’ve tried to track down a copy of this book, but it doesn’t seem to exist. Did I dream it or -- as so often happens in the world of book-collecting -- will one fall into my lap one day when I least expect it? Like during the middle of July hotspell? I actually still have my second Christmas book. Entranced by the animated version of A CHRISTMAS CAROL on TV (starring Mr. Magoo!), my parents got me this copy of the Dickens original, published by the Peter Pauper Press. It only cost a dollar. It was a dollar well spent, as I still have this book decades later and still re-read it during the Christmas season every couple years. Sometimes when I read A CHRISTMAS CAROL I have the fleeting thought that it’s derivative and stereotyped. Isn’t the name “Scrooge” kind of obvious? Haven’t we seen the story of a character visiting their past in a million TV movies? Then of course I remember that “Scrooge” didn’t mean “scrooge” until this story was published, that A CHRISTMAS CAROL isn’t derivative -- it’s the book that everything else (like those million TV movies) is derived from. It’s not stereotyped; it’s the archetype.


Every year my bookstore friend calls late on the afternoon of Christmas Eve and asks what I’ll be reading that night before bedtime. We both like to read something special on the night before Christmas. I usually read a mix of old and new. Sometimes it’s the aforementioned Dickens book, Truman Capote’s classic story “A Christmas Memory,” or Thornton Wilder’s haunting short play, THE LONG CHRISTMAS DINNER. And I always read the Christmas chapter in Betty MacDonald’s adult memoir ANYBODY CAN DO ANYTHING; titled “Let Nothing You Dismay,” it’s a strange, scary, yet Christmasy story about Betty’s encounter with a loony woman named Dorita who helps Betty and her sister plan a holiday party for a large company...when she’s not ringing doorbells at midnight, following Betty from store to store as she Christmas shops, and emerging from the Seattle fog to ask menacing questions such as “How would you feel if something happened to your children?” I also like to read a new book every Christmas Eve. Last year it was Tomie De Paola’s holiday memoir CHRISTMAS REMEMBERED. This year it will probably be LET IT SNOW, the just-released paperback containing three young-adult short stories by John Green, Maureen Johnson, and Lauren Myracle.


I just realized that three Caldecotts winners, 1960’s NINE DAYS TO CHRISTMAS (illustrated by Marie Hall Ets; written by Ets and Aurora Labastida), 1962’s BABOUSHKA AND THE THREE KINGS (illustrated by Nicholas Sidjakov; written by Ruth Robbins), and 1986’s THE POLAR EXPRESS (written and illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg) have Christmas themes. In addition, there are a number of Caldecott Honors about the holidays.

However, I can’t think of any Newbery winner that focuses on Christmas. Of course there are great holiday scenes and chapters in some of the winning books (including the “I Wonder as I Wander” conclusion to Katherine Paterson’s JACOB HAVE I LOVED) but are there any Newbery books that take place completely during the Christmas season? Even looking at the list of Newbery Honors, I can only find one -- NICHOLAS : A MANHATTAN CHRISTMAS STORY by Anne Carroll Moore, back in 1925.

Have I missed any?


No, this doesn’t concern the Ludwig Bemelmans’ heroine (she spells her name “Madeline”) but is instead about Madeleine L’Engle, who turned Christmas sadness into Christmas joy.

We’ve all heard the horror story of how Ms. L’Engle submitted her novel A WRINKLE IN TIME to almost thirty publishers before it was accepted. Her husband Hugh Franklin recalled one publisher returning the manuscript just two days before Christmas and his wife’s “brave but futile attempts to keep the joyous season joyous that year.” (To quote a blog reader, “There's nothing good about people, especially right before the holiday season.” That applies to editors and writers.) But this story has a very satisfying ending. Not only was WRINKLE eventually accepted and went on to become an award-winning classic, but L’Engle even got to make up for her sad Christmas by creating a new Christmas story for herself and her readers, THE TWENTY-FOUR DAYS BEFORE CHRISTMAS, a lesser-known book about the Austin family which was published in 1964. It makes perfect week-before-Christmas reading.


Another fun week-before-Christmas book is Carolyn Haywood’s SNOWBOUND WITH BETSY, which was published in 1962. The story concerns the days before Christmas when Betsy and her family are snowed-in, along with a family rescued from a stalled car. The story is filled with lots of pre-holiday activities, including cookie-baking. I was a bit put-off by the number of times Betsy smelled the “odor” of Christmas cookies in the air. Maybe it’s because I always associate “odor” with bad smells, but that word seemed really off to me. I wonder why Haywood didn’t refer to the “scent” or “aroma” of the cookies instead.

Of course that is probably the type of thing only an adult thinks of, not a child. I didn't read SNOWBOUND WITH BETSY until I was in my forties. As a kid I devoured all of Haywood’s books about Eddie, but ignored Betsy completely. I decided to remedy that situation many decades later by reading several of the Betsy books. And let me tell you, it takes a special kind of courage for a middle-aged male to belly up to a lunch counter, order a hamburger with fries, and then sit reading B IS FOR BETSY right out in public.


A sad segue from Christmas stories to note that today is the twentieth anniversary of the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. This event has a children’s book connection in that one of the victims was Theodora Cohen, the only child of authors Susan and Daniel Cohen. Mr. Cohen is most famous for his compilations of ghost stories and urban legends, among many other volumes for kids and adults. The Cohens examine the tragedy in a sad and angry memoir, PAN AM 103 : THE BOMBING, THE BETRAYALS, AND A BEREAVED FAMILY’S SEARCH FOR JUSTICE.

Earlier this week blogger Fuse #8 discussed the new movie HOTEL FOR DOGS, based on Lois Duncan’s 1971 children’s book and reported that Ms. Duncan has now written a sequel called NEWS FOR DOGS. I didn’t know that! Fuse #8 (aka Elizabeth Bird) added, “This answers my own personal question; is Lois Duncan still around? Awesome. Well forget the cute animal stories, can she please write us some more scary middle grade novels now? My library's edition of DOWN A DARK HALL is getting lonely.” Ms. Duncan is another author who faced personal tragedy in her life. Around the time her spooky 1989 novel DON’T LOOK BEHIND YOU was published, her youngest daughter Kaitlyn was shot to death. Strangely, some of the events in DON’T LOOK BEHIND YOU paralleled Kaitlyn’s murder -- which was at first deemed “random” by the police. In 1992, the author published WHO KILLED MY DAUGHTER?, a powerful nonfiction account of her own search for justice. At one point, I believe the author vowed not to write any more scary titles, but has since written at least one, GALLOW’S HILL (1998), as well as a paperback called PSYCHIC CONNECTIONS : A JOURNEY INTO THE MYSTERIOUS WORLD OF PSI, borne of her own attempts to use psychics in solving her daughter’s murder.

Incidentally, Lois Duncan maintains a website ( where she updates readers on her doings and even sells autographed copies of some of her books. FROM SPRING TO SPRING is a nice album of poetry (illustrated with photos of the author’s own family) and HOW TO WRITE AND SELL YOUR PERSONAL EXPERIENCES is a great book for writers which I use a lot. I’ve ordered a few titles from Ms. Duncan, including WHO KILLED MY DAUGHTER?, which she inscribed “In memory of Kait.”


While searching for Christmas titles in the library, I came across three older books that I have never read, but look very intriguing:

First there’s CHRISTMAS WITH THE SAVAGES by Mary Clive. Published in 1955, it’s said to be a humorous fictionalized account of the author’s own experiences spending the holidays with relatives in a large country house just before the first World War.

Born in 1907, Mary Clive is still very much alive at age 101!

Next I found a 1952 volume called CHRISTMAS EVE, written by Alistair Cooke and illustrated by Caldecott winner Marc Simont. Originally broadcast as “typical American Christmas stories” on the BBC, these three tales were presented, according to the dustjacket, “to our readers in the proud certainty that if they are not traditional American Christmas stories, they soon will be.”

Did that come to pass? I must admit I’ve never heard of these stories before, but I’m willing to give them a try.

Finally I uncovered SNOW FOR CHRISTMAS by Vernon Bowen:

I don’t know if this humorous story of a boy scientist who learns how to make snow (or, as the dustjacket informs us, “TOO MUCH SNOW”) is good or not, but the Kurt Wiese cover illustration is sure a winner!


And here’s a holiday genre I never expected to see: science fiction. TO FOLLOW A STAR : NINE SCIENCE FICTION STORIES ABOUT CHRISTMAS, edited by Terry Carr, contains such stories as “The New Father Christmas” by Brian W. Aldiss, about a Santa who “does not leave new toys but carries off old people.”

Yikes, with all the AARP solicitations I've begun receiving, I think I'll leave Santa an extra portion of milk and cookies just in case he gets any ideas about me.


Finally, I wanted to share two Christmas presents that I received this week.

I generally buy books from my local independent bookstore, only relying on if I’m in a pinch or for non-book items. I prefer giving my book-business to local merchants. Besides, I hate how Amazon keeps track of your purchases and then hounds you about them. You buy one book -- just one book! -- about a transsexual private detective...and then for the rest of your days you get e-mails from Amazon saying, “Since our records indicate you have a interest in TRANSSEXUALS, you might be in interested in...” (insert name of latest book on that topic, such as TRANSGENDER SURGERY FOR DUMMIES.) But, as I said, I do buy some non-book items through Amazon. Last night I was wrapping presents and picked up a box that had arrived from Amazon the previous day. I opened it, expecting to find a gift item I’d ordered for a family member. Instead I found this book:

ANNIE LEIBOVITZ AT WORK? I never ordered this. They must have shipped me the wrong item by mistake! I turned to the back cover and read, “Annie Leibovitz in her own words. How she made her pictures. The most celebrated photographer of our time talks about Hunter S. Thompson, the Rolling Stones, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Demi Moore, Whoopi Goldberg, the Blues Brothers, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Keith Haring, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Patti Smith, George W. Bush, William S. Burroughs, Kate Moss, Queen Elizabeth, fashion, war, advertising, lighting, cameras, and the ten things she is always asked.”

Hmm...I may not have ordered it -- but now I desperately wanted to read it!

That’s when I fished around for the packing slip and discovered that the book had been sent to me as a Christmas gift from a favorite friend! It’s funny that she knew I’d like to read this book before I even knew the book existed. And what a fun way to uncover it -- wrapping gifts for others and unexpectedly finding a gift for myself!

I also received another gift from a book buddy that couldn’t have been more perfect, as it combined three of my favorite things -- Christmas, children’s books, and (being a collector) limited editions! It’s a handmade Christmas tree ornament featuring an iconic image from a famous children’s book. Being a bad photographer (someone once jerked a camera right out of my hand as I was about to tell my to say cheese, exclaiming “Don’t let Peter take the picture! He takes LOUSY pictures!”), the photograph below can’t really convey the color palette or just how nice this ornament is:

Do you recognize it? Think Caldecott 1943. This is only one of fifteen ever made and it now has a permanent home on my Christmas tree!

Big thanks to these special friends for their special gifts -- and a big thank you to everyone who reads this blog. I will try to post another entry or two before Christmas, but until then I hope everyone has a happy holiday season filled with fir trees that smell better ‘n peanut butter...Christmas carols to sing or A CHRISTMAS CAROL to read...old books, new books...the "odor" of cookies baking in the oven...snow, but not "TOO MUCH SNOW"...wonderful presents to give and get...and good reading for Christmas Eve.


Anonymous said...

I'm not an expert book finder, so I suspect that you've already looked at this and determined that it's not the right one... but just in case:

Merry Christmas!

Peter D. Sieruta said...

Hi Andrea,

By golly, that may be it! The 1961 date sounds right, since I was born in 1958.

I had tried all kinds of searches ("Hank Ketcham" with "Christmas" and "Dennis the Menace, Christmas") but those wouldn't have turned up this book since the author is different and the word Christmas isn't there...though Santa is.

Thanks so much. And Merry Christmas to you as well!


Sarah Miller said...

Is that The Little House on your Christmas tree??

So cool.

Daughter Number Three said...

An especially wonderful post, Peter. Thanks. I covet your Little House ornament!

Varun G said...

Wish u Merry Christmas. I liked your Christmas post... I also want to present my Christmas 2009 just like yours. Would you be interested to exchange link with my PR4 Blog.

Anonymous said...

Aw. Now I feel bad that I insisted that Ms. Duncan write another spooky book. Someday I'm going to figure out how on earth you do all your research, Peter. The mere fact you haven't produced a book full of this stuff yet is baffling. Me want Peter's book!

Anonymous said...

Merry Christmas! Your blog is one of my absolute favorites. So glad you take the time to share your knowledge.

Anonymous said...

Merry Christmas Peter! from your former co-worker Pat

Anonymous said...

Merry Christmas Peter. I always enjoy reading your blog.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for all the joy you have given us and have a very special
Merry Christmas!

Anonymous said...

Peter, Thanks for a year of wonderful blogs. Fuse #8 is right. . . you could write a book. . . me want Peter's book, too.

Charlotte said...

The little house was a favorite of mine as a child. My dad finally photocopied it for me so I could have my own copy. I am Charlotte's mom.