Sunday, December 14, 2008

Today's Brunch Includes Teeny-Tiny Authors

When I was a kid a local radio station would devote one Sunday morning in December to nothing but Christmas carols, calling it “Music to Wrap Presents By.” This year I wish they’d play “Music to Blog By.” Because that's what I'll be doing rather than preparing for the holidays as I should be. Today’s Sunday Brunch contains some facts and (controversial) opinions on literary awards, very young authors, a phantom book, and a Christmas pig.

I love award shortlists. I’ve previously written about the period in the early 1970s when the American Library Association publicly issued lists of “nominees” for the Newbery Award. In my early teens at the time, I tracked down every listed book that I could -- and the pool of nominees was so varied that it contained nonfiction, picture books, and YA novels so advanced they were only shelved in the adult section of my library. As I read intensely in the months leading up to the Newbery announcement, I learned to appreciate those diverse genres, learned what made a good book, and learned a lot about evaluating and critiquing. I’ve always wished the American Library Association would try this experiment again. I can see classrooms of kids reading the nominated titles and voting for their own favorites. I can see the Newbery getting wider visibilty -- not just a news story for one day in January, but something that’s discussed for weeks in advance of the announcement. I’m all for a Newbery shortlist. Or even a long list of nominated titles. If they could try it out in the seventies, there’s no reason they can’t try it again today.

In the meantime, there is a new award with a shortlist. It’s the William C. Morris Award, which honors a young adult book by a first-time author. The shortlist was announced this past Monday:

A CURSE DARK AS GOLD by Elizabeth C. Bunce

GRACELING by Kristin Cashore


MADAPPLE by Cristina Meldrum


By chance, I had already read two of the nominated titles. I HATED them! But that’s good. I mean, what’s the point of a shortlist unless it serves as fodder for debate? I’m currently reading the other three titles. I’ll be writing a blog evaluating the five books sometime before the January 26 announcement. Maybe you’d like to join me in reading all five and we can meet back here to cheer on our favorites, argue the merits of our least-favorites, and either pat each other on the back for having good taste if the Morris committee agrees with our top choice -- or commiserate with each other if the committee picks the “wrong book.”


One thing I like about the Morris Award is that all the authors are new. The nominated titles will be judged on the merits of that book alone, with no thought to the author’s previous works, past award snubs, etc. Of course those things are not supposed to be considered in evaluating any award. But sometimes I think they do come into play.

Just for the sake of being controversial, let me throw out this thought: does anyone think that the Caldecott Medal, in particular, is often a “career” award given to an artist whose “time has come” -- someone who has labored in the field of children’s book illustration for many years and never won before? Of course there are exceptions -- new or newish illustrators who win the Caldecott right out of the box, or artists whose individual works merit a second, even a third (hello David Wiesner) award. Yet when I look at the list of winners for the last twenty years or so, I see so many famous names and wonder if members of the committee thought (and I say “thought” because they could never speak this out loud during deliberations), “Oh thank goodness that” (Chris Raschka, Kevin Henkes, Paul Zelinsky, Allen Say, etc., etc.) “illustrated a worthy book this year; they’ve deserved this award for so long and now we can finally make it happen.”


In a second, sophomoric attempt to engender controversy and get more hits on my blog, does anyone think it would be a good idea if the Caldecott, Newbery, and other children’s and young-adult book awards skipped a year if no book was deemed distinguished enough to win? There is a precedent for this. The Pulitzer Prizes sometimes decide not to name a winner in certain categories; Great Britain’s Carnegie Award had three years (1943, 1945, and 1966) when the prize was “withheld as no book was considered suitable.”

I’m not sure how I feel about this. On the one hand, why reward a subpar book in a weak year? On the other, I’d feel awfully cheated if no winner was announced.


The other day I came across an odd little book from 1931 called THE DIRY OF SYLVIA MCNEELY. Those who complain about the frequent typos in this blog (and they’re all family members) may be disappointed to learn that “diry” is not a typographical error on my part. Instead, it’s just one more misspelled word in a volume FULL of misspelled words. That’s because Sylvia McNeely was only nine years old when she kept this diry -- I mean diary. According to the dustjacket, Sylvia’s journal for the year 1929 “was never touched by adult hands until the year was up, and her mother sent it to the publishers without the author’s knowledge or permission.” (Mother! You read my diary? How could you?) Simple and straightforward, this diary presents an accurate (if occasionally mundane) account of a young girl’s daily life at home, at school, and visiting people in the “hospitle.” (During the course of the book, nearly everyone she knows seems to fall ill, go in the hospital or die. There is occasional humor in the diarist’s dry reportage (Sunday, January 6. “I went to Sunday school. Miss Craigin as usual asked us if we knew our lessons and as usual I said no.”) and those who think that kids misspelling words is “cute” will love most of the entries here (“I tried to right a poem but I didn’t seceed.”) My favorite entry is for Monday, March 4. In addition to noting that Herbert Hoover was made “presindent” of the United States that day, Sylvia notes: “Oh, Mother nearly won a prize. She sent a story to a contest. The name of it was the jumping of place.” Actually, it was called THE JUMPING-OFF PLACE and its author, Marian Hurd McNeely, received a Newbery Honor for this book. It’s one of the hardest Newbery titles to find in first edition, though a paperback was just issued by the South Dakota State Historical Press. I recently found a copy and will be reviewing the book in a forthcoming blog. Incidentally, Mrs. McNeely was prevented from reading or submitting any future "diries" written by her children. Between the time she sent Sylvia's manuscript off to the publisher and the time it was released, she was struck and killed by a car as she disembarked from a bus near her home. Really. No word on who was driving.


Wondering if Sylvia McNeely was the youngest writer of all time, I decided to do some research. I know there are publishing houses that specialize in books written by kids (I previously blogged about Landmark Editions which published a book by Dav Pilkey when he was still a teenager), but wanted to know if any mainstream, commercial houses had published books written by any thumbsucking, Pampers-wearing, Zweiback-spewing carpet crawlers. Not that I’m, like, jealous of their early success or anything. According to the 1974 Guinness Book of World Records, an English girl named Janet Aitchison wrote a book called
THE PIRATE’S TALE when she was only five-and-a-half. It was published by Penguin when she was six-and-a-half in 1969. Thinking it must be a work of genius by a child prodigy, I tracked down a copy and was shocked to discover how awful this picture book truly was. Take away the bright and distracting sixties-style illustrations by Jill MacDonald and you’ve got a flatly-written, episodic, and nonsensical story that sounds as if it were written by a five-and-a-half year old. Or maybe someone even younger. I’m shocked that Harper (what were you thinking, Ursula Nordstrom?) ended up reprinting this book in the United States in 1970.


As it turned out, Little Janet Aitchison did not belong in the Guinness Book in the first place. By 1982 the Guinness editors had discovered an even younger writer who had published her first book way back in 1964. So Guinness kicked Janet to the curb and replaced her with Dorothy Straight, who was only four when she wrote HOW THE WORLD BEGAN in 1962. It was published by Pantheon in 1964. Written and illustrated in one night (you don’t say!) this little volume does offer a bit of charm as it catalogs the God’s creation of the world (“AND THEN HE PAINTED GREEN ON THE GROUND AND A BEAUTIFUL SUN. AND AFTER THAT, HE INVENTED CLOUDS, AND FROM THE CLOUDS, RAIN. AND THEN HE INVENTED LIGHTNING AND LIGHTNING CLOUDS AND STORM CLOUDS. THEN HOUSES AT LAST, AND FURNITURE. AND DOLLS.”) As you can see from the cover illustration, Straight was probably not considered a contender that year’s Caldecott. Still, it appears this book remains well-loved by readers and collectors. Only a couple copies are available for sale at the present time and they range in price from $100-$250. I wonder if any signed copies are available. And I wonder if she signed them in crayon.


Compared to Dorothy, Janet, and even Sylvia, authors such as Gordon Korman (who published his first book, THIS CAN’T BE HAPPENING AT MACDONALD HALL when he was fifteen) and S.E. Hinton (who published THE OUTSIDERS at seventeen) seem positively geriatric. Then there's Katharine Hull and Pamela Whitlock, two English schoolgirls who, at ages fourteen and fifteen, happened to meet while seeking shelter from a rainstorm. Though they attended the same school, they didn’t know each other well, but during their rainy refuge the two discovered they both shared an interest in writing a book “by children, about children, for children.” Without letting anyone else know their plans, the two began their book -- at first writing alternate words, but eventually decided to write alternate chapters. Writing under a deadline (“To make us work hard and fast we made a vow to cut off all our hair on a certain day if the book was not finished by then. So it jolly well was.”) the book took ten months to write. After revising each other’s work, they mailed it to author Arthur Ransome (with return postage!) and he eventually presented this manuscript (written on both sides of the paper in two different handwritings) to his publisher, calling it “the year’s best children’s book.” THE FAR-DISTANT OXUS was released to great success in 1937 and, unlike those one-book wonders Sylvia McNeely, Janet Aitchison and Dorothy Straight, Hull and Whitlock actually went on to write several more books for young readers including ESCAPE TO PERSIA, THE OXUS IN SUMMER and CROWNS.


Incidentally, the dustjacket for THE FAR-DISTANT OXUS above is from 1960 and I discovered something quite interesting on the backflap -- a phantom book!

The back flyleaf contains an ad for a new book by Pamela Whitlock called THE BROCKENS : A COUNTRY FAMILY. The extensive summary describes the nine Brocken children and calls this book “not an adventure story, but a story of people and of many adventures.” A banner at the bottom says, “To be published next year.”

Yet the book never saw print! I wonder what happened to it. Is it possible that some copies were printed but never distributed? Or is a manuscript copy still hidden in some dusty drawer at a publishing house? What a great “find” that would be.


This week I happened across a book I had not seen before, PIPPIN THE CHRISTMAS PIG by Jean Little.

I read many of this author’s books as a kid and particularly liked LOOK THROUGH MY WINDOW. (I also remember that I first encountered the word “sallow” in one her’s funny the odd things one remembers.) Over the years I’ve occasionally seen signed copies of Jean Little’s books; she sometimes writes great long inscriptions -- the kind us book collectors love -- which is pretty surprising since she is visually impaired.

Published in 2004, PIPPIN THE CHRISTMAS PIG is set on Christmas Eve, as a group of barn animals brag about how their ancestors assisted at the navity (the donkey provided transportation to Bethlehem, the cow gave her manger, the sheep gave fleece to cushion the hay, etc.) When Pippin asks what role pigs played in the event, she is told, “ The very idea! The child was a king. The holy stable was no place for pigs.”

The story is simple and heartfelt and I also like the illustrations by Werner Zimmermann -- particularly this spread a bluejay on a branch watching Pippin run away during a blizzard:
Something else that struck me about this book was the first endpaper, which contains a line that says “A gift for--” and a place to sign one’s name.
I thought that was a rather odd logo to include in a book, as it presumes that every copy of the book that’s sold will be given as a gift, when of course that is not true. (Most, for example, are probably sold to libraries.) Still, I suppose that EVERY book is, in one way or another, a gift -- a gift from the author, a gift to the reader.

Which reminds me: only ten more shopping days till Christmas -- and books make the best gifts.


Sarah Miller said...

My controversial Caldecott question:

Why hasn't a solo African-American artist ever won a Caldecott GOLD medal?

(Have I asked this here before?)

Peter D. Sieruta said...

Well, if my theory is correct that famous illustrators are simply "waiting in the wings" for their opportunity to win the award, then I expect Jerry Pinkney will have a Caldecott of his own quite soon.

Thanks for visiting my blog!


Sarah Miller said...

Perhaps. But I'm still mourning the fact that Kadir Nelson didn't get the gold for his illustrations in MOSES.

Sam said...

Speaking of kicked to the curb... no mention of Daisy Ashford's
The Young Visiters?

There's a note n the preface that speaks to the point here:

"The Young Visiters" is the unaided effort in fiction of an authoress of nine years. "Effort,"
however, is an absurd word to use...

The chance you take with kid authors, I guess, is if that effortless work will actually be worth the effort of reading. Actually, that seems to apply to many adult authors as well.

Peter D. Sieruta said...

Sarah, Kadir Nelson is probably on that unspoken "Caldecott shortlist" as well -- and this could be his year. I sort of cringe when I hear people suggest that WE ARE THE SHIP should win the Newbery, as I think the text of the book is fairly boring. But the illustrations...yes, I think they could very well win the Caldecott.

Sam, I have not read THE YOUNG VISITERS, but now that you mention it, I do remember seeing a copy in the library where I work. I will read it and post a follow-up on this blog in the future. Thanks for the reminder.


Monica Edinger said...

I adore The Young Visiters (and there is also a recent weird and wonderful film with Jim Broadbent as Mr. Salinas). However, none other than Philip Pullman has questioned whether Daisy really wrote this as a child or if an adult did (say, James Barrie who claimed to have discovered it in the introduction). Whatever, I still love it!

Charlotte said...

The Far Distant Oxus has just been republished by Fidra Books in Scotland.

Anonymous said...

I too feel that Kadir Nelson should win it someday, but "We Are the Ship" (which I enjoyed) probably won't get so much as an honor. Why? Because the text and the pictures never meld together. You need at least a little interaction to be considered a "picture book", yes? My theory, anyway.

Emile said...

Peter, thank you for another entertaining brunch.

Monica, are Pullman's comments about The Young Visiters available online anywhere? I'd like to read what he says, although suspicion that Barrie wrote it has been around since the book was first published. I'm quite sure it is genuine, because long ago I tracked down the more obscure title, Daisy Ashford: Her book, which has some later writings, and while you can tell the it's the same writer, the stories become progressively more boring as she gets older and more aware of what a "real" novel is supposed to be like.

Anonymous said...

Yet another child author of a quite obscure book is seven-year-old Elizabeth Luling, whose "Do Not Disturb, The Adventures of M'm and Teddy" was published by Oxford in 1937. The main character is the author's own teddy bear M'm. Elizabeth's mom is author Sylvia Thompson.