Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Only My Right Frontal Lobe Exploded

One cold winter evening, Bod Owens walked over to the far end of the graveyard to visit the Collecting Children's Books Blogger. Bod always enjoyed looking at the thousands of antiquarian volumes that crowded every square inch of the Blogger's messy tomb. However, he tried to avoid looking at the Blogger himself, because there was a disconcertingly large crumbling cavity in the old man's forehead. Sometimes when the Blogger stood outside on a draughty day, wind would gust through his head causing his brains to rattle about like seeds in a dried gourd.

"It was my own fault," the old bookman explained. "I made the mistake of stating in my blog that my head would explode if THE UNDERNEATH and AFTER TUPAC AND D FOSTER won Newbery awards."

"What happened?" asked Bod.

"They won." The Blogger sadly laughed, and a new crack appeared over his right eye and spider-webbed across his forehead. "Well, at least they didn't win the big prize. They were just Honor Books. So my WHOLE head didn't explode -- just the right frontal lobe."

"Yes, it could have been worse," Bod replied, thinking of some of the other denizens of the graveyard who had it
much worse: Marie Antoinette...Maximilien Robespierre...Jayne Mansfield...not to mention all those poor headless teenagers who posed for the covers of almost every young adult novel published between 1995 and 2010....

Well, it's the Day After.

By now you've heard that the Newbery went to Neil Gaiman for THE GRAVEYARD BOOK.

Many of my friends in the children's book world are very excited that a book both literary and kid-friendly won the Big N. Although it wasn't my personal favorite for the year (I was a member of the CHAINS gang), I do like much about this post-modern -- or perhaps I should say post-mortem -- take on Kipling's THE JUNGLE BOOK which is, by turns, spooky, funny, and exciting. Some things about the episodic fantasy didn't quite work for me (that interminable hallucinogenic journey Bod takes with the duke and bishop and president; the Indigo Man; the Sleer) but there were also unforgettable scenes (Bod's friendship with Scarlett; the "danse macabre") that are sheer literary magic. From a collecting perspective, the book was only published on September 30 but is already in muliple printings (I've seen copies that state seventh printing) yet a large first printing and the fact that many of those copies were sold in bookstores (as opposed to ending up in libraries) bods well...I mean, bodes well for collectors. THE GRAVEYARD BOOK, which some readers are already calling a future classic, will never be one of those impossible-to-find rare books. I think that first editions will be fairly available on the used book market for many years to come.

This year's Newbery Honor Books were:

THE UNDERNEATH by Kathi Appelt
SAVVY by Ingrid Law
AFTER TUPAC AND D FOSTER by Jacqueline Woodson

THE SURRENDER TREE took me by complete surprise! I hadn't even heard of this book until yesterday morning. I had a few problems with SAVVY, but have to admit that the book has really stuck with me in the months since I first read it -- a sign of a good storyteller. SAVVY is the first book by a fresh and talented newcomer, Ingrid Law, and I'm pleased that it received this honor.

THE UNDERNEATH and AFTER TUPAC AND D FOSTER are responsible for this cavernous new hole in my head. I've already expressed my disappointment with both titles in previous blog entries, so there's no point in repeating and repeating and belaboring my comments the way THE UNDERNEATH repeats and repeats and belabors every point with its prose. I actually do think there are "special readers" out there who will enjoy this book -- and more power to them. I just feel bad for any kids with short attention spans who might have to sit in the classroom hearing their teacher, their teacher, their teacher read this overwritten book to the class no matter how melodious -- like a song, like a bird, like a tinkling bell ringing on the breeze -- her voice, her voice, her voice may be. As for AFTER TUPAC, I found the pace of the narrative odd and the writing to be uncharacteristically weak. And while this is hardly a "literary" criticism -- and it's probably not fair to comment on it outside the context of the novel -- I have to say that I'm still bugged by one particular line of dialogue that occurs when the late rap star is on trial for sexually abusing a young woman: “’No other evidence,’ Mama said. ‘But what that girl’s saying he did....’” I hope that any victimized girl who reads this book is not silenced by the fact that she feels there is no other evidence to support her charges beyond her own words.

The Printz Award went to Australian author Melina Marchette for her novel JELLICOE ROAD.

This one was a major surprise -- a title that I'd never heard discussed as a contender for the Printz. I'm very anxious to read it, especially since it beat out one of the best books I've ever read in my life, THE KINGDOM ON THE WAVES, the second volume of M.T. Anderson's THE ASTONISHING LIFE OF OCTAVIAN NOTHING, TRAITOR TO THE NATION. Yesterday I rushed out to find a first edition of JELLICOE ROAD, but the local chain stores only had second printings; a friend who was checking bookstores in New York said it wasn't available there at all. Luckily, my favorite independent bookstore, Bookbeat in Oak Park, Michigan, had a first edition ready and waiting for me when I arrived. No wonder it's my favorite bookstore!

In addition to OCTAVIAN NOTHING, the Printz Honor Books included:

TENDER MORSELS by Margo Lanagan
NATION by Terry Pratchett

I found Frankie a bit glib and unfocused and will reserve comment on the other two Honor Books until I finish reading them. So far I'm really loving NATION though.

This year's Caldecott Award went to Beth Krommes for her illustrating THE HOUSE IN THE NIGHT by Susan Marie Swanson.

Published on May 5, this book is now in later printings and may be difficult for collectors to find in first edition.

The Caldecott Honor Books included A COUPLE OF BOYS HAVE THE BEST WEEK EVER, written and illustrated by Marla Frazee. Published in March, it may be difficult to find at this late date.

Uri Shulevitz, who won the Caldecott twenty years ago for THE FOOL OF THE WORLD AND THE FLYING SHIP, received an Honor award for the autobiographical picture book HOW I LEARNED GEOGRAPHY.

Finally, Melissa Sweet received a Caldecott Honor for A RIVER OF WORDS : THE STORY OF WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS, which was written by Jen Bryant and published by Eerdmans, a small company right here in Michigan. Because the publishing house is not a New York giant and the book, released in early July, has been long out of stock for bookstores, I suspect that this may be the most difficult of all the award titles for collectors to obtain.

The Sibert Award for nonfiction went to WE ARE THE SHIP : THE STORY OF NEGRO LEAGUE BASEBALL by Kadir Nelson.

This stunningly-illustrated volume was the favorite of many for a Caldecott. Although it "struck out" there, it got its well-deserved top prize from the Sibert Committee.


Although these authors have written many fine nonfiction books, they are both gifted novelists as well. Ms. Kerley recently published GREETINGS FROM PLANET EARTH and Mr. Deem's 3 NBS OF JULIAN DREW was perhaps my favorite novel of 1994.

Finally, Elizabeth C. Bunce won the Morris Award for young adult debut book with A CURSE DARK AS GOLD.

Although I've yet to read it, I think this one one came as a surprise to many who expected Kristin Cashore's GRACELING to claim the prize. Because 2009 is the first year the Morris Award has been bestowed, this would be a good volume to collect. Can you imagine getting in at the ground floor on the years the Newbery and Caldecott began? You can get on the ground floor of the Morris Award this year!

Those who read Sunday's blog may wonder if all my internet searching and hunting paid off with advance word on any of the winners. Believe it or not, it did! Putting our heads together, a couple friends and I figured out two of the winners through clues we found on the web Sunday night. Which ones? I'll never tell!

Waiting for the awards on Monday morning was exciting, but ultimately frustrating. My old computer and dial-up internet connection didn't allow me to watch the live broadcast, but I was able to follow the Twitter feed...which worked great until it shut down just before the announcements of the top two prizes. Arrrgh!

Someone gave me pause to think yesterday when they mentioned that all the pre-award internet buzz about certain books being "shoo-ins" for this or that award may have unintended consequences. My correspondent suggested that this speculation usually gets back to the authors, who end up shattered on Awards Day when their books aren't recognized. There is some merit to that remark. Still, perhaps there is some consolation in knowing that a great many readers out there supported one's book and were hoping it won. And there's always the future....

Award Day: a time of broken hearts and exploded heads.

But also a day for celebrating children's books in all their variety.

Congratulations to ALL the winners past, present and future.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Brunching Before the Big Day

Sitting here waiting to learn the results of the American Library Association’s annual awards -- which will be announced tomorrow morning in Denver -- I’m almost too nervous for brunch. Among other topics, today’s blog touches on possible Newbery winners (what else?), explains why I may never get to Mars, suggests a way for Maurice Sendak to save money, and tells what I learned from a book called ZAZOO.


As much fun as it is to try and predict the winners of the Newbery Medal, it’s nearly an impossible task. It might be easy if the same committee made the selections each year; then they’d have a track record and we could figure out what makes them tick...and what makes them pick. But the committee changes every year, bringing in a whole new crop of members with highly individual tastes and opinions.

There are many other elements that play into the selections as well. One year there could be a dozen great books vying for the top prize and something wonderful will have to be neglected; the following year may be particularly weak and the committee must choose the best of a mediocre bunch. Then there are outside factors that, of course, should not be considered -- but who knows how they subconsciously affect the psyche of the voters? I’m talking about things like current events (could this week’s inauguration -- and its theme of hope and renewal -- play a role in the selection of books?) and even the weather (has anyone checked the weather conditions for 1948 and 1949 when the Caldecott committee honored two successive titles about snow: WHITE SNOW, BRIGHT SNOW, illustrated by Roger Duvoisin and THE BIG SNOW by Berta and Elmer Hader)? Also, this past year there has been quite a controversy about the Newbery not being “kid-friendly” enough. Could that come into play at decision time?

So guessing is always a crapshoot, yet to quote the famous last lines of Colleen McCullough’s THE THORN BIRDS: “And still we do it. Still we do it.”

IF I were selecting the 2009 Newbery winner, my personal choice for this year's most distinguished contribution to children's literature would be Laurie Halse Anderson’s CHAINS.

IF many of my friends and colleagues were choosing, the winner would be THE GRAVEYARD BOOK by Neil Gaiman. (I loved about half of this book and had problems with the other half. I’d be happy to see it with an Honor though.)

IF the awards had been chosen a few months ago, the winner might have been THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins. Since then it has gotten a lot of criticism for weak writing and seems to be out of the running. I’ve always felt it had a better shot at the Printz Award for young adult books. Whether it wins anything or not, with over 225,000 copies in print at present, I think Suzanne Collins can spend Newbery Day laughing all the way to the bank.

IF the Newbery committee is in a poetic mood, they may pick DIAMOND WILLOW by Helen Frost.

IF they’d like to honor a mystery (and there aren’t too many of those in the Newbery canon) CICADA SUMMER by Andrea Beaty would be a fine pick. And it’s funny too.

IF they want to pick something even funnier (and, speaking of kid-friendly, here’s one that definitely fills the bill) we may see ALVIN HO : ALLERGIC TO GIRLS, SCHOOL, AND OTHER SCARY THINGS by Lenore Look on the winner’s stand. Hope Alvin’s not allergic to gold or silver.

IF the committee wants to honor nonfiction, they may elect THE LINCOLNS : A SCRAPBOOK LOOK AT ABRAHAM AND MARY by Candace Fleming. What a nice 200th birthday present for Abe...I mean Abraham (one of the many things I learned from this book is that President Lincoln “detested” the nickname “Abe.”)

IF the committee wants to honor nonfiction with attitude and an individual voice, there’s THE TROUBLE BEGINS AT 8 by Sid Fleischman.

IF the committee loves fantasy, I hope they’ll consider THE CABINET OF WONDERS by Marie Rutkowski (though learning that it’s book one of a series may hurt its chances. Yeah, I know THE BLACK CAULDRON by Lloyd Alexander and THE BLUE SWORD by Robin McKinley were early books in series and they got honored, but they didn’t boldly proclaim “Book One” or “Book Two” on the cover like this one does. I thought it cheapened the dustjacket.)

IF the committee goes for multicultural tales (take a look at the winners and Honors from the 1920s and 1930s -- they provide a veritable National Geographic tour of the world) then perhaps we’ll be CLIMBING THE STAIRS created by Padma Venkatraman.

IF the committee likes old-fashioned, solidly-crafted stories as much as I do, perhaps THE PENDERWICKS ON GARDAM STREET by Jeanne Birdsall will be chosen.

IF they want to honor a brand new author with an interesting, if imperfect, book, we might see SAVVY by Ingrid Law on the list.

IF they like larger-than-life (translated: a little hard to believe) tales from the past, there is TENNYSON by Lesley M.M. Blume.

IF they want to surprise the public with a book that no one has considered for the award, we might find ourselves gasping at the announcement of WHEN THE SERGEANT CAME MARCHING HOME by Don Lemna.

IF they want to reward a previous Honor author with the biggie, there’s always Polly Horvath’s MY ONE HUNDRED ADVENTURES, her most accessible novel yet.

IF they want to reward a previous two-time Honor author with the Gold, it could go to ELEVEN by Patricia Reilly Giff.

IF the committee would like to see my head explode, they could pick one of these inexplicably well-reviewed books that I would hate to place on my “Newbery shelf”: the florid and repetitive UNDERNEATH by Kathi Appelt, the lemony and snickety WILLOUGHBYS by Lois Lowry, the yawn-inducing PORCUPINE YEAR by Louise Erdrich, or the unfocused AFTER TUPIC AND D FOSTER by Jacqueline Woodson. All of these authors are talented, but I am not a fan of these particular titles they wrote.

IF the committee does what I think it’s going to do...the winning book is going to be MASTERPIECE by Elise Broach.

Yes, that's my main guess for the title "most likely to win" Newbery 2009.

And yes, when a totally-unexpected, completely-off-the-radar title ends up winning tomorrow, you are all invited back to this blog to laugh at how wrong I was!


I have no idea.

Everyone keeps talking about Ed Young’s WABI SABI for the Caldecott.

I love the Printz Award and can’t wait to see what’s honored, but really have no idea what will be selected. I can’t WAIT to find out though.

And, yes, I do remember promising to review all five young-adult debut novels on the Morris Award shortlist, but time got away from me before I could finish reading them all. When I do finish reading them, I’ll write a blog about those books and tell you whether I think the award committee got it right with perfect twenty-twenty hindsight!


Around the time Suzanne Collins’ THE HUNGER GAMES was published, we were told she was working on the second volume of that series, tentatively titled THE QUARTER QUELL. Now that title’s been changed (thank goodness) to CATCHING FIRE, with a publication date of September 8, 2009.

Only 216 days to go!


A friend sent me this dustjacket illustration for the British edition of Laurie Halse Anderson’s CHAINS. I thought the dustjacket for the American edition was striking, but feel this one is evocative as well. The only other thing I’d like to see on either jacket is a gold foil Newbery seal!


Several months ago, I blogged about a woman named Anna Olswanger who read some articles I wrote for a little magazine and sent me a few books that she wrote and self-published in limited editions. The other day I received a package containing her latest matchbook-sized volume, BERL’S BLUES. Ms. Olswanger takes elements from family history -- in this case, her father’s youth in 1920s Memphis -- and incorporates them into amusing stories. It’s a nice way of honoring one’s past and I’m so pleased to add BERL’S BLUES to my library.

Anonymous left a comment on my recent blog entry about a mistake in the illustrations for Ludwig Bemelmans’ MADELINE, pointing out an error on the

cover of HENRY REED’S THINK TANK by Keith Robertson. In this Gail Owens’ illustration, a sign states “WELCOME TO GROVERS CORNERS” although the name of the town in the book -- and it’s even mentioned twice on the dustjacket flap -- is “Grover’s Corner.” I have to admit, I’ve read HENRY REED’S THINK TANK more than once and never noticed this error myself. I doubt that Robert McCloskey, who illustrated the first four volumes in this series, would have made that error. Still, I do like the dustjacket for featuring an overweight boy and a girl with glasses -- two things you don’t see very often on dustjackets. (Heck, nowadays you don’t even see HEADS on dustjackets.)

This Tuesday the third and final volume in Virginia Euwer Wolff’s “Make Lemonade” series will be released. I’m very intrigued to see where LaVaughn’s story -- written in free verse -- goes in THIS FULL HOUSE. Watching the inauguration festivities earlier this week I was surprised to find out that our new First Lady’s full name is Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama.”

Finally, I wonder if this has ever happened to you. Many years ago I became intrigued by an adult science fiction trilogy about the colonization of the red planet. The books were RED MARS, GREEN MARS, and BLUE MARS by Kim Stanley Robinson and I asked for paperback copies as a Christmas present. I started reading the first volume but found it a little slow and heavy, so set it aside for a couple days. Well, a couple days turned into a couple weeks which turned into a couple months and now those books have been sitting unread on my shelf for something like nine years! So when this new year began, I vowed I was going to FINALLY read this trilogy. I began RED MARS again, and finally got into the flow of the story. In fact, I was becoming more and more fascinated as a spaceship full of one hundred colonists began slowly breaking the rules established by their commanders on Earth...then a woman sees an unknown man in a corridor of the spaceship (a stowaway?)...and the red planet is getting larger and larger outside the windows of their vehicle as they get closer to their destination. So I got to the bottom of page 84 and when I moved to the next page, the text made no sense. I looked at the next page number and it was 117! That’s when I realized my paperback of this book had some kind of printing error which deleted over thirty pages!

I don’t think I dare try to return a book to the store that was purchased in an earlier millennium! So I guess I’m going to have to bite the bullet and buy another copy or I’ll never get to Mars! (Yes, I know I could check it out of the library, but considering my slow progress the first time I tried to read these books, I don’t want to possibly deal with nine years of overdue fines.)


Earlier this week, School Library Journal blogger Fuse #8 left this note on my blog:

One of these days you must come to New York to see our guestbooks. New York Public Library always made visiting authors and illustrators sign our guestbooks when they were here for events. The artists, however, would frequently compete to create the coolest little doodles in the margins. Imagine Sendak and Bemelmans duking it out. I should probably scan these puppies someday . . ..

Yes, Fuse #8, you should scan them for your blog -- and soon. Not only would we all love to see them, but think of all the money you’ll save us from not having to travel all the way to New York to see them in person.

...Speaking of saving money: I once read that the famously-reclusive movie star Greta Garbo almost never paid a cent for anything. How did she swing that? Well, as everyone knows, Garbo retired from the movies at a fairly young age and spent the rest of her life in New York, dodging paparazzi and refusing to sign autographs. However, she was very smart in that she paid for everything by check. And most people who were paid with checks signed by Greta Garbo refused to ever cash them -- because her signature was actually worth more than the amount written on the check!

Fuse #8’s comments about Maurice Sendak doing the “coolest little doodles” on the pages of guestbook made me think that Mr. Sendak should also take a page from Garbo’s book. Every time he pays for something, he should do one those cool little doodles on the check. Who would ever cash a check that had a Sendak original on it? I sure wouldn’t. So...it would be a win/win situation for everyone involved: Mr. Sendak would never have to pay for anything ever again and a lot of happy merchants would now own Sendak original artworks which they could sell to collectors for even more money than they were originally owed.


Every year, on the Sunday night before the Newbery Award is announced, I sit in front of my computer trying to get advance word on what winning titles will be announced in the morning. I have a variety of time-tested tricks that I use to learn this information. It’s true, none of these tricks have ever actually worked, but I do try them again and again every single year. And sometimes you do hear rumors. I especially remember the night-before-Newbery (a holiday as exciting to me as the night-before-Christmas) in 2002. Around midnight I began to catch murmurings about a novel called ZAZOO by Richard Mosher. Apparently, everyone at the American Library Association convention was talking about this book! So I immediately went to an online bookseller and ordered a copy. At 2:00 AM, I heard that someone on the Newbery committee was seen walking down a hotel hallway HOLDING a copy of ZAZOO. So I went back online and ordered an autographed copy of the book for (gulp) $40. Two hours later (yes, I was still up monitoring the situation at 4:00 AM!) I noticed that the Amazon.com sales ranking for ZAZOO had shot up by hundreds of places overnight. (Checking Amazon rankings is one of my patented tricks for Newbery Eve.) Clearly there was a leak about the winner and thank goodness I was on top of it! I boldly went back online and ordered yet another copy of the book, plus a paperbound advance reading copy!

The next morning I was slumped in front of my computer feeling like I had a hangover (and I don’t even drink!), exhausted but supremely confident that I had figured out the winning title before anyone else. I was still patting myself on the back when it was announced that the winning title was...A SINGLE SHARD by Linda Sue Park.

What the...?

What happened to ZAZOO?

Not only didn’t it win, but it wasn’t even an Honor Book!

I immediately rushed to the bookstore trying to find a copy of A SINGLE SHARD. I was EXTREMELY grateful that they did have a first edition in stock. (In fact, they had two. But when I appeared at the cash register with both copies, the bookstore owner grabbed the second copy out of my hand and calmly said, “No way.”) A SINGLE SHARD had been published very early that year and was already in later printings at that point, so I was elated to find a first edition on Newbery Morning. By the end of that day, first edition copies were selling for over $1000 and they are still priced that high all these years later. In the meantime, ZAZOO is now out of print in hardcover and you can buy nice first editions for under $10.

There are many lessons to be learned here:

Don’t try to second guess the Newbery committee.

Just because a committee member is carrying a copy of a book doesn’t mean it won anything.

Just because a book goes zooming up Amazon’s bestseller charts doesn’t mean much either.

Don’t spend $40 for a book unless you’re certain (of course by the time you’re certain, someone else trying to jump the gun will have bought it anyway.)

It’s not easy to unload six copies of book that didn’t win the Newbery Medal.

Ah well, as I’ve said all along:

It’s all just a crapshoot. I’ve known that for many years.

But still I do it.

Still I do it.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Something is Not Right : A Madeline Mystery

Originally published in 1939, Ludwig Bemelmans' classic picture book MADELINE has entertained generations of young readers. Who doesn't remember the opening lines:

In an old house in Paris
that was covered with vines
lived twelve little girls in two straight lines.

In two straight lines they broke their bread
and brushed their teeth
and went to bed.

Yes, these two lines of girls are one of the most indelible images in children's books:

These dozen girls live happily together until Madeline, the smallest and most daring of the group, suffers a health crisis that awakens their guardian Miss Clavel:

In the middle of the night
Miss Clavel turned on her light
and said, "Something is not right!"

Readers will remember Madeline's trip to the hospital via ambulance and the happy morning when the eleven other girls, bearing a single flower each (Clavel carries the vase) visit Madeline at the hospital and see "the toys and the candy and the dollhouse from Papa" that the little patient received -- as well as her scar from appendix surgery.

At the end of the visit, the girls bid farewell to Madeline at the hospital door:

Then the eleven go home and have dinner, brush their teeth...

...and get into bed. Notice Madeline's empty bed at the bottom left:

Ah, but as Miss Clavel might say, "Something is not right!"

Let's go back and look at the picture of the eleven girls sitting at the dinner table again. I'll enlarge the image a little, so it will be easier to count them: One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven...


There are twelve girls sitting around the table, though with Madeline in the hospital, there should only be eleven!

Who is the imposter?

Or maybe a better question would be, how did this extra-guest-at-the-dinner-table slip past both Ludwig Bemelmans and his editors?

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Brunching with Presidents Obama and Lincoln

Among other things, today’s blog looks at dull orange book covers, notes the appearance of Madeline on TV’s Antiques Roadshow, provides a list of titles about our future president and a past prez, and offers a dissenting opinion on a novel that just received a Mock Newbery Honor.


I just came across these recently-published copies of the 1922 and 1924 Newbery winners. Have you ever seen anything so dull or utilitarian in your life?

They were released by Kessinger Publishing, a company located near Montana’s Glacier National Park. According to Kessinger’s website, the company “utilizes advanced technology to publish and preserve thousands of rare, scarce, and out-of-print books.” I think that’s wonderful. Nobody is more concerned about preserving the history of children’s books than I am. But I’ve got to say that these bland covers are unlikely to attract many young readers. I know, “it’s what’s inside that counts,” but still...the only people I can imagine picking up this book are adult researchers.

I’m hoping that Kessinger makes enough money from these titles that they can someday afford to give them a makeover. How about a contest for kids to see who can draw the best cover? Not only would this entice kids to read the books (gotta read ‘em to know what to draw) but then the winning illustrations could then be printed on the covers of future editions of THE STORY OF MANKIND and THE DARK FRIGATE.


I’m always excited when children’s books turn up on PBS’s ANTIQUES ROADSHOW. Last night’s program featured a woman who brought in two original sketches by Ludwig Bemelmans and I was impressed when the appraiser, Stuart Whitehurst, rattled off several lines of text from MADELINE.

An illustration of a dachsund, done for NOODLE by Munro Leaf, was appraised at $5000. The other sketch, from MADELINE IN LONDON, was evaluated between $12,000 and $15,000!

I thought, “Wouldn’t it be nice to own an original sketch by Ludwig Bememans?”

And then I remembered: I do own one!

Okay, it’s not a full size color illustration from one of his best-known works. Instead, mine is an inscribed sketch in Bemelmans’ 1936 book THE GOLDEN BASKET, a title that few people remember today, although it was actually named a 1937 Newbery Honor Book.

On the half-title page of my copy, Bemelmans has inscribed the book “to my good friend Albert Wiss, the Swiss watchmaker, and drawn a picture of a watch whose chain connects with Wiss’s name.

Though the book was inscribed to him in December 1936, Mr. Wiss apparently turned right around and gave it away as a holiday present, as a note in the bottom left corner says “A.W. to A.J. Christmas 1936.”

Lucky A.J. to receive such a nice Christmas present.

And lucky P.D.S. to have such a treasure on his shelves 72 years later. It probably won’t get me on ANTIQUES ROADSHOW, but this book still means a lot to me.


As mentioned, Ludwig Bemelmans got a 1937 Newbery Honor for writing THE GOLDEN BASKET and went on to win the 1954 Caldecott Award for illustrating MADELINE’S RESCUE. This got me wondering about other double-threat talents. Everyone knows that Robert Lawson is the only person to actually win both awards -- the Caldecott in 1941 for THEY WERE STRONG AND GOOD and the Newbery in 1945 for RABBIT HILL. He also had two Caldecott Honors (FOUR AND TWENTY BLACKBIRDS, 1938; WEE GILLIS, 1939) and one Newbery Honor (THE GREAT WHEEL, 1958.)

But look at how many other creators have received both Newbery and Caldecott recognition over the years:

William Steig won the Caldecott in 1970 for SYLVESTER AND THE MAGIC PEBBLE and had a 1976 Caldecott Honor with THE AMAZING BONE; he received two Newbery Honors for ABEL’S ISLAND (1977) and DR. DESOTO (1983.)

Another double-duty creator, Arnold Lobel won the 1981 Caldecott for FABLES and had Honors with FROG AND TOAD ARE FRIENDS in 1971 and HILIDID’S NIGHT in 1972; meanwhile FROG AND TOAD TOGETHER garnered a Newbery Honor in 1973.

Tomie DePaola had a 1976 Caldecott Honor (STREGA NONA) and a 2000 Newbery Honor (26 FAIRMOUNT AVENUE.)

Kevin Henkes won the 2005 Caldecott for KITTEN’S FIRST FULL MOON, and has a 1994 Caldecott Honor (OWEN) in addition to a 2004 Newbery Honor (OLIVE’S OCEAN.)

Laura Adams Armer won the 1932 Newbery for WATERLESS MOUNTAIN and received a 1939 Caldecott Honor for THE FOREST POOL.

Wanda Gag had two Newbery Honors (MILLIONS OF CATS, 1929; ABC BUNNY, 1934) and two Caldecott Honors (SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS, 1939; NOTHING AT ALL, 1942.) Classics all.

James Daughtery won the 1940 Newbery for DANIEL BOONE and had a 1939 Honor Book with ANDY AND THE LION and a 1957 Honor with GILLESPIE AND THE GUARDS.

Holling C. Holling had a pair of Newbery Honor Books (SEABIRD, 1949; MINN OF THE MISSISSIPPI) and one Caldecott Honor (PADDLE TO THE SEA, 1942.)

Mary and Conrad Buff won Newbery Honors for BIG TREE (1947), THE APPLE AND THE ARROW (1952) and MAGIC MAIZE (1954), in addition to a 1943 Caldecott Honor for DASH AND DART.

Marguerite de Angeli won the 1950 Newbery for DOOR IN THE WALL and had a 1957 Honor with BLACK FOX OF LORNE; she got Caldecott Honors for YONIE WONDERNOSE (1945) and BOOK OF NURSERY AND MOTHER GOOSE RHYMES (1945.)

Kate Seredy won the 1937 Newbery for WHITE STAG and had a pairof Newbery Honors with THE GOOD MASTER (19353) and THE SINGING TREE (1940). She also received a 1945 Caldecott Honor for THE CHRISTMAS ANNA ANGEL.

William Pene du Bois won the 1948 Newbery for THE 21 BALLOONS and received a Caldecott Honor in 1952 for BEAR PARTY and again in 1957 for LION.

Dorothy Lathrop won the 1938 Caldecott Medal with ANIMALS OF THE BIBLE but also had a 1932 Newbery Honor, THE FAIRY CIRCUS.

Have I missed any?


Since I frequently disagree with prevailing critical opinion on many children’s books, I am thinking of starting a column on this blog called “ROOM FOR DISSENT” or “THE CONTRARIAN” or perhaps “THE DEVIL’S ADVOCATE.” Someone suggested I call it “CRANKY SON-OF-A-GUN,” but I thought that was rude. Particularly since they didn’t use the word “gun.” But the point is, since I don’t always agree with the titles that get starred in various publications or honored by prize committees, I probably should speak up since I have this forum.

Oakland’s Golden Gate Library is known for their annual Mock Newbery discussion. Last week they selected PORCUPINE YEAR by Louise Erdrich as their winner. I can’t comment on that one, since I haven’t read it yet. One of their Honor Books, ALVIN HO : ALLERGIC TO GIRLS, SCHOOL, AND OTHER SCARY THINGS by Lenore Look is entertaining and funny and might do well when the actual awards are announced next Monday -- particularly in light of the recent criticism that the Newbery has received for not being “kid-friendly." The other Honor Book was AFTER TUPAC & D FOSTER by Jacqueline Woodson. If you’d like some insight into why these titles were selected as winners, you might like to visit School Library Journal’s Heavy Medal Blog . Realizing that it’s easier to sit here and throw darts at someone else’s winning slate than list and defend my own choices for the award, let me just say that I’m a bit perplexed by the inclusion of AFTER TUPAC, a novel about the friendship between two friends and a somewhat mysterious girl who visits their New York neighborhood. I’ll be totally honest and admit that some of my concern may partially come from my own uneasiness over the way the characters in the book, who adore the late rap singer Tupac Shakur, pretty much ignore his criminal behavior (“then February came and they sent Tupac to jail for some dumb stuff....” and later, when he’s on trial for sexually abusing a young women: “’No other evidence,’ Mama said. ‘But what that girl’s saying he did....’”) but then again, those are the characters’ beliefs and they’re entitled to them and the book cannot be judged by the characters' thoughts and opinions. Reading the novel, though, I can’t help but believe that this is a book that promises more in the opening chapters than it ultimately delivers. And while Jacqueline Woodson is acknowledged as a brilliant writer -- and there are some great things in this book, including the depiction of the friendship between the girls and a wondrous scene in a moonlit park -- there are also moments when I found the writing itself to be uncharacteristically odd or lazy. I’m still puzzling over a reference to “her green eyes like tiny mouths asking me all these questions....” Her eyes are mouths? Green mouths? And I’m bugged by the frequent use of the comparative phrase “as anything” ("I was shocked as anything," "her eyes wide as anything") instead of more appropriate or colorful similes.

So these are some of the reasons AFTER TUPAC AND D FOSTER would not appear on my own Mock Newbery list.

Have at me.


A friend sent me an announcement of a forthcoming title from Bloomsbury called OUR CHILDREN CAN SOAR: A CELEBRATION OF ROSA, BARACK, AND THE PIONEERS OF CHANGE. Written by the pseudonymous Michelle Cook, this book was inspired by a phrase often heard during Barack Obama’s campaign for president: "Rosa sat so Martin could walk; Martin walked so Barack could run; Barack ran so our children can fly."

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is that it will be illustrated by thirteen African American artists, ranging from Bryan Collier to James Ransome, E.B. Lewis, Pat Cummings, and the Dillons.

I was hoping to find a cover illustration to include here, but that image is not yet available. Now I’m wondering, considering all the great artists contributing to this volume, how they will even be able to decide which illustrator gets the cover!


On Tuesday Barack Obama will take the oath of office as President of the United States. Over the past few months, several children’s books about the president-elect and his family have been published. Here are a few more due out in the coming few year:

BARACK OBAMA / Cammy Bourcier / Mason Crest / January 2009

OBAMA FAMILY TREE / Hal Marcovitz / Mason Crest / February 2009

OBAMA MANIA / Hal Marcovitz / Mason Crest / February 2009


BARACK OBAMA / Catherine Nichols / Child’s World / February 2009

BARACK OBAMA : PRESIDENTE DE ESTADOS UNIDOS /Roberta Edwards / Alfaguera / February 2009

OBAMA : THE HISTORIC JOURNEY : YOUNG READERS EDITION / New York Times, Jill Abramson, Bill Keller / Callaway / February 2006

PRESIDENT OBAMA AND A BIRTH OF NEW FREEDOM / Joseph Cummins / Collins / February 2009

BARACK OBAMA : “WE ARE ONE PEOPLE” / Michael Shulman / Enslow / March 2009

MICHELLE OBAMA : MOM-IN-CHIEF by Roberta Edwards / Grosset & Dunlap / March 2009

BARACK OBAMA : PRESIDENT FOR A NEW ERA / Marlene Targ Brill/ Lerner, May 2009

BARACK OBAMA : OUT OF MANY, ONE / Shana Corey / Random House / August 2009

BARACK OBAMA : AMERICA’S 44th PRESIDENT / Carole Marsh / Gallopade / November 2009

...also coming in 2009 are a Barack Obama coloring book by Gary Zaboly (Dover) and set of paper dolls featuring the Obama family by Tom Tierney (also published by Dover.)


Lately I’ve noticed quite a few biographies and storybooks about Abraham Lincoln being published, but I didn’t figure out till now that they are marking a special occasion: the two-hundredth anniversary of Lincoln's birth on February 12. Among the recent and forthcoming titles:

LINCOLN SHOT : A PRESIDENT’S LIFE REMEMBERED / Barry Denenberg / illustrated by Christopher Bing / Feiwel and Friends

THE LINCOLNS : A SCRAPBOOK OF ABRAHAM AND MARY / Candace Fleming / Schwartz and Wade

ABE LINCOLN CROSSES A CREEK : A TALL THIN TALL / Deborah Hopkinson / illustrated by John Hendrix / Schwartz and Wade

LINCOLN AND HIS BOYS / Rosemary Wells / illustrated by P.J. Lynch / Candlewick


MY BROTHER ABE : SALLY LINCOLN’S STORY / Harry Mazer / Simon and Schuster


MR. LINCOLN’S HIGH-TECH WAR / Thomas B. Allen and Roger McBride Allen / National Geographic Children’s Books

WHAT LINCOLN SAID / Sarah L. Thomson / illustrated by James E. Ransome / Collins

It’s been awhile since we’ve had a new novel from that excellent writer Harry Mazer, so I’m anxious to read his take on the young Abe Lincoln. And what about that graphic novel about Gettysburg? Sounds different and intriguing. Meanwhile, Candace Fleming’s THE LINCOLNS is already garnering award-talk.


Last evening I found an envelope the mailman had left behind the screen door. I opened it and discovered a special publishers’ folded box that advertised the 10th anniversary edition of Laurie Halse Anderson’s Printz Honor Book SPEAK and contained an advance reading copy of Ms. Anderson’s forthcoming novel WINTERGIRLS:

A friend had arranged to have this book SIGNED by Anderson (whose CHAINS is my current favorite for the 2009 Newbery) and mailed to me. I was thrilled because I knew nothing about WINTERGIRLS until I opened the box. What a thrill.

Hope the coming week is filled with thrills for everyone. Only eight days until the book awards are announced in Denver.

I'm as excited as anything.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Mimeographed and Stapled

Businesses shutting down or laying off employees. Banks suffering. Homes being foreclosed. People standing in unemployment lines.

Though it sounds like I'm reading the headlines from today's newspaper, I'm actually talking about the OTHER economic depression -- the one that began in 1929.

We've all heard about the New Deal and the WPA (Works Progress Administration, later known as Works Projects Administration) but I never knew the WPA was involved in creating children's books until I came across this volume today:

Compiled and edited by James A. Finley, and published by the Bienes Museum of the Modern Book in Fort Lauderdale, WPA CHILDREN'S BOOKS is a catalog of a recent exhibition showcasing children's books created by out-of-work authors, artists, and editors who were hired by the Pennsylvania Writers' Project, the New York City New Reading Materials Program, and the Milwaukee Handicraft Project during the 1930s.

The latter group only published four titles. The Pennsylvania Writers' Project worked in tandem with Whitman Publishers to produce fifty-cent science books on subjects such as clouds, coal, gold, and plastics. The dustjackets and color illustrations reprinted in the catalog have an appealing art-deco look.

I was most intrigued by the titles issued by the New York City New Reading Materials Program. According to the catalog, the Program published "approximately 200 books in large mimeographed editions using inexpensive and unstable papers and inks that were distributed in huge editions free of charge." These titles -- mostly fiction -- range from fanciful to urban and gritty. Going through the catalog, I see at least one book, MEGGIE AND THE FAIRIES, by an author who would later become much more well-known, Sulamith Ish-Kishor (1970 Newbery Honor for OUR EDDIE) as well as one book, MRS. TALKY AND JIM SPOT by George Barnet, which would be reissued some twenty years later by a mainstream publisher, Macmillan.

Because they were so cheaply produced, using highly-acidic paper and stitched or stapled bindings, few of these works remain. However, poking around on the internet today I discovered that some are still available from booksellers, ranging in price from as low as $20 to several hundred dollars.

According to the catalog, the WPA book exhibit was scheduled to run until March 13, 2009, but some other sources seem to indicate it closed at the end of 2008. If that's the case, we can forget about planning a field trip. The good news is that we can still take a virtual field trip to the Bienes Museum of the Modern Book and view the entire exhibit online right here.

It's a fascinating glimpse into our past. Let us hope that, despite our current economic crisis, it is also not a glimpse into our future.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

And Yet They Spelled "Newbery" Correctly

From today's Los Angeles Times:

You won't be able to see the new movie "Hotel for Dogs" until this Friday, but if you're itching for a sneak peek, check out photographer David Strick's Hollywood Backlot for behind-the-scenes photos from the filming. (Don't worry if the pup in the above photo looks a bit odd; it's a puppet.)

"Hotel for Dogs," which stars Emma Roberts (best-known for her starring role in Nickelodeon's "Unfabulous"), Lisa Kudrow and Don Cheadle, is the story of two orphaned kids who find themselves in a foster home. Things go from bad to worse when they learn that they can't bring their beloved dog, a Jack Russell named Friday, along with them.

You can probably guess that hijinks and hilarity ensue from there, and the kids pick up more needy dogs on the way, creating a home for them in the abandoned hotel to which the title refers. It's based on the novel by Newbery Award-winning children's author Lois Lowry.

Pleasing Some of the People Some of the Time

The other day I asked what single children's or young adult book one would suggest for a reader who reads only adult fiction. GraceAnne LadyHawk proposed David Almond's SKELLIG ("a perfect example, to me, of the richness of writing for children") and I agree that is a superb suggestion. Citing his selection as "NAUSEA for middle schoolers," Sam threw up the idea of Daniel Pinkwater's LIZARD MUSIC. I have to admit I've never read this title. Strangely, the next day I was leaving my office on a Diet Coke run when I passed a bookshelf and my head jerked to the right -- as if someone had grabbed me by the ears and twisted me around -- and my eyes landed square on a bright yellow spine: LIZARD MUSIC. Needless to say, I picked up the book and now plan to read it. Of course I would have read it on Sam's recommendation alone, but when unseen forces join the campaign, one really doesn't have much choice.

I have read several of Mr. Pinkwater's books over the years and have usually liked them a lot (FAT CAMP COMMANDOES comes immediately to mind.) However, I have to admit I've always been a little, well, angry with this author ever since I read a piece describing the creation of his surreal 1982 book YOUNG ADULT NOVEL.

Here's what he said:

I had a contract with a publisher...I owed them a book. They sent me their catalogue, which was one-hundred percent 'problem novels.' I asked the editor to send me two or three of what she regarded as the best on her list. I wanted to read them and perhaps write one. I read two, as did my wife, Jill, and we burned them in the stove. I thought that they were 'sneaky' books because the author had a character experience tension, sturm und drang, and suffering, then just explained it away with a simplistic religious message. I thought it was both a cop out and an abuse of the reader.

He didn't name the book, but based on the few clues I am going to assume that Jacob He Didn't Love. That's fine. Not every book is for every reader. But, really, was there any need to burn this book? I guess I could understand if it happened during a snowstorm in January. When the temperature was below zero. And the furnace was out. And they'd already burned every stick of furniture. But otherwise...guys, couldn't you have just donated the volume to a rummage sale or something?

The longer I'm around, the more I realize that every book I love is hated by someone else. Conversely, every book I can't stand is adored by somebody out there. A recent Horn Book blog cited A GATHERING OF DAYS by Joan Blos as a Newbery winner without much child appeal; the very next day someone wrote in to say that they found GATHERING a "riveting" read when they were a kid. The same blog mentioned that Joseph Krumgold's ONION JOHN lacked child-appeal -- yet I read that book over and over as a kid. Hey, if you really want to see the broad range of opinions offered on any title, check out the reader ratings on Amazon.com. Even a crowd pleaser like HOLES by Louis Sachar -- with over 2000 five-star ratings -- has nearly fifty negative one-star ratings as well.

I don't know if LIZARD MUSIC will remind me of NAUSEA (in a good way) or simply make me nauseous (in a not-so-good way) but whatever the case, I'm sure there will be readers out there on each side of the issue. What I do know is that when I don't like a book, I don't set the stove to Fahrenheit 451. Instead, I just pass the book on -- to a library sale, a community book drive, a used bookshop -- secure in the knowledge that somebody out there is going to love it.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Sunday Brunch

Today’s blog contains more random jottings about children’s books past and present, starting with this group -- who definitely don’t seem like typical Sunday Brunch visitors:


Several people have written in lately, asking “What music group is named for a book by Carol Beach York?”

I didn’t have a clue.

The only children’s book author/rock group connection I knew involved my favorite writer M.E. Kerr. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, she wrote nearly twenty suspense novels under the name “Vin Packer.” One of the best Packer books was THE DAMNATION OF ADAM BLESSING. Some time after it was published, a sixties rock band, struggling to come up with a name, found a copy of the Vin Packer book on a bus and dubbed themselves “The Damnation of Adam Blessing.” They produced several recordings and still maintain a website and Myspace account.

But I’d never heard anything about Carol Beach York influencing a group. So I began to do a little research and discovered several sites, including Wikipedia, that said the musical group “Good Charlotte” (pictured above -- what, you thought it was a photo of this year’s Newbery committee?) was named after a 1969 novel by Ms. York called -- what else? -- GOOD CHARLOTTE. (Some editions have the subtitle A BUTTERFIELD SQUARE STORY, others use THE GIRLS OF THE GOOD DAY ORPHANAGE.) I can hardly believe that a band which recorded “My Bloody Valentine” would name themselves after such a gentle children’s book...but, hey, I guess it’s possible.


Speaking of Ms. York, I just did a little searching on the internet and it appears that all of her books are now out of print. That’s too bad. Over the years she wrote a wide variety of titles, including other “nice” stories about the Good Day Orphanage, scary books for middle-grade readers (ON THAT DARK NIGHT; REMEMBER ME WHEN I AM DEAD), and young adult romances (SPARROW LAKE.) Her prose was often plainspoken and bland -- but that was a quality she exploited quite well in her suspense novels, lulling the reader with the everydayness of her characters and the languid tone of her writing before springing some awful surprises. I’ve blogged before about my admiration for her novel TAKERS AND RETURNERS, which follows a group of kids as they invent a new game that comes to a tragic conclusion; I’ve seldom seen a children’s book that depicts the boredom and ennui of the dog days of summer so well. Even the title of her novel NOTHING EVER HAPPENS HERE sounds unexciting, yet it also comes to a dramatic and emotionally-draining finish. Though no longer in print, these books are worth tracking down at the library.


The media has been reporting the cancellation of the forthcoming book ANGEL AT THE FENCE by Herman Rosenblat, a Holocaust memoir that turned out to be a hoax. There is also a children’s book connection to this story, as Carolrhoda/Lerner had published a children’s version of this story in September. Written by Laurie Friedman (who worked closely with Mr. Rosenblat and his wife in creating the book and was sadly duped by the couple) and illustrated by Ofra Amit, ANGEL GIRL has now been recalled by the publisher. Someone mentioned trying to look it up on Amazon and finding no entry for the title -- “as if it never existed at all.” But the book DID exist and many copies are now in libraries or in the hands of private owners. A few people have asked about the value of these volumes in light of the recall. Is ANGEL GIRL now considered a collector’s item? Is it worth a lot of money?

My guess is that this title currently has some small value as a curiosity -- an example of “a book that was recalled soon after publication and got a lot of play in the media.” But I doubt it’s a book that will continue growing in value. Five years from now people will barely remember this incident. The only way I can see it becoming a major collector’s item would be if Laurie Friedman or Ofra Amit went on to become hugely successful, award-winning creators of children’s books. Then collectors would be anxious to acquire ANGEL GIRL as a “rare” example of their early work.


Earlier this week, School Library Journal blogger Fuse #8 mentioned that the announcement of the Newbery winners will be broadcast live via webcam two weeks from tomorrow.

Well, I guess it will be available for those of you with DSL and all that modern technology stuff. But things will be different for those of us with antiquated computers and dial-up internet connections. My computer is a Mac BC (those who are politically correct probably call it a “Mac BCE” -- Before Christian Era) which (I don’t like to brag) is said to have once been owned by Fred Flintstone himself. And since my dial-up connection to Pangaea-Online is so shaky, usually the only way I can connect to the internet is by holding a tin can with string attached to the side of the computer. Needless to say I will NOT be watching the live webcast. But I can answer Fuse #8’s question: “How did you guys find out about the winners prior to the Internet? Telegrams? Singing telegrams?”

It’s funny, I actually DO remember telegrams being involved. When I was a kid (precambrian era) I once went to the library and asked the children’s librarian if the new Newbery winners had been announced yet. I very clearly remember her reaching into the right hand drawer of her desk, pulling out what looked to be a telegram or mailgram and telling me that SOUNDER had won and the runners-up (because that’s what they were called back then, not Honor Books) were JOURNEY OUTSIDE, OUR EDDIE, and THE MANY WAYS OF SEEING : AN INTRODUCTION TO THE PLEASURES OF ART. (When was the last time anyone read that one?)

The following year I went back around Newbery time (and back then I didn’t really KNOW the exact date the awards were given) and asked the new librarian at the desk about the winners. She said she hadn’t heard yet. I said, “Didn’t they send you telegram?”

“Telegram?” she scoffed. “They don’t send telegrams! We just wait for whoever attended the convention to come back and tell us what won.”

I didn’t argue, but I knew otherwise.

As time went on, I got a lot more savvy about the subject. I knew what day the awards would be given and became desperate to find out the winners ASAP. Sometime around then I discovered that the ALA Convention actually had a Press Room. So every year I would telephone the convention and ask for the Press Room (and, remember, this was a time when making a long-distance call was a big deal...and very co$tly) and then ask what books had won. “Are you calling from a newspaper?” I was asked more than once. “Of course!” I responded, lowering my voice as much as I could. I probably didn’t fool anyone. Incidentally, I used to think I was the only kid in the whole world who called the ALA for this info, but I have since learned about other people who did the same thing when they were young. I wish I’d known them then. We would have been friends.

Things have changed drastically over the past twenty years or so, with more and more people interested in learning the winner and reporting the news. I've heard that just a decade ago the award announcement would be followed by dozens of people running out of the auditorium, anxious to find a pay phone and report the news. Then technology progressed and people would sit in the audience with cellphone or laptop ready to transmit the news immediately. And now we’ve reached the live webcam era.

I’m all about getting the information as fast as possible, but there seems to be such a frantic feeling to Award Day now with everyone rushing to learn the winning titles, rushing to find the books. That includes me. But I sometimes wish for the good old days when things were more relaxed, when people weren't so frantic and desperate, and when a twelve-year-old boy could call Denver or Dallas and say in a faux-baritone voice, "Could you connect me to the Press Room please?"


People have probably always guessed and predicted the award winners, but the internet has made the world so small that we are now privy to nearly every blog that predicts the next Newbery, every library that runs a mock ballot, every bookstore that sponsors discussions of potential winners. I wonder if this helps or hurts the overall process. Do people on the committees feel circumscribed by all the pre-award discussions? If all the Mock Newberys and prognosticators pick the same couple books, do members of the real committee ever feel like they are -- rather than choosing a winner -- merely anointing a book that’s already been selected by public acclaim? I don’t know, but I wonder if some of the offbeat, under-the-radar books that have been selected in recent years were ever chosen -- consciously or subconsciously -- as a committee response to pre-award publicity?


Speaking of Mock Awards, the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana runs one of the most well-known mock award programs in the country. I don’t believe they’ve held their mock Newbery and Caldecott votes yet, but this past week they announced their Mock Printz selections. This year’s books are a pretty literary bunch.

The winner was TENDER MORSELS by Margo Lanagan

The Honor Books were:

NATION by Terry Pratchett
LIVING DEAD GIRL by Elizabeth Scott
THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins

It will be interesting to see how many, if any, of these titles are recognized by the official Printz committee.


A friend sent me this quote from a recent School Library Journal interview with Patricia Maclachlan, who won the 1986 Newbery for SARAH, PLAIN AND TALL:

Q. It’s been 23 years since you won the Newbery Medal. What effect has it had on your career?

A. With the possibility of offending many librarians, I have to say that I have mixed feelings about the award. It definitely changes your life. Winning the award isn’t the important thing; it is the process which is important. However, it has made me a better writer. Times change, and I don’t think that if I wrote Sarah today it would be considered for the award.

What I find so intriguing about Ms. Maclachlan’s comment isn’t only that she thinks SARAH wouldn’t have won the Newbery today, but she also thinks it wouldn’t even be CONSIDERED. I wonder why. Certainly times change and tastes change with the times and I can think of MANY recent winners which probably wouldn't stand the test of time. But SARAH, PLAIN AND TALL has always struck me as a rather timeless novel -- and one which would be as strong a contender in 2009 as it was in 1986. Am I wrong?


One of my favorite award books is ALTERNATE OSCARS : ONE CRITIC’S DEFIANT CHOICES FOR BEST PICTURE, ACTOR AND ACTRESS FROM 1927 TO THE PRESENT by Danny Peary. In this imminently-browsable volume, Mr. Peary lists all the official nominees and winners for each year of the award, then presents his own thoughts who should have been nominated that year -- and who should have won. In some years he agrees with the Motion Picture Academy. In other years, he chooses a different nominee for the prize...or selects a movie or performance that didn’t even merit a nomination by the Academy. I’ve always wanted to write an “Alternate Newbery” volume, going through the previous winners and Honor books, to dump the chaff (goodbye WALK TWO MOONS), name books that SHOULD have been rewarded (hello HARRIET THE SPY) and acknowledge those winners that have stood the test of time.


This blog doesn’t usual discuss adult books, but I read two over the holidays and since one is ABOUT a kid and another was written by an author of kids’ books, I thought I’d mention them here. WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN by Lionel Shriver is the story of a woman whose teenage son commits a Columbine-style murder at his high school. Challenging and intelligently-written, this epistolary novel examines how a family deals (or doesn’t deal...or can’t deal) with a sociopathic child. There’s nothing enjoyable about this book but, boy, does it make you think. I tried to describe the novel to a friend recently, but she immediately began telling me that every child can be successfully raised if they only get the right form of discipline. I said, “But you don’t understand. In the book Kevin is the kind of kid who doesn’t care about anything! He’s unreachable.”

“Every kid cares about something,” she replied. “I know I could reach him.”

I don’t think so. In fact, I almost said, “Well, I hope you get saddled with a kid like Kevin someday,” but then changed my mind. I would not wish a kid like Kevin on anyone.

But it remains a very good literary novel -- and one that provides a different view on childhood than we usually see in children’s books.

The other adult book I just finished was THE GUERNSEY LITERARY AND POTATO PEEL PIE SOCIETY by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. Like WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN, this novel is also written as a series of letters. But where KEVIN is dark and horrifying, GUERNSEY is bright and heartwarming. It tells the story of a how a used book about Charles Lamb introduces a young writer to the inhabitants of Guernsey Island in the years following World War II. Some have compared this book to one of my favorites, 84, CHARING CROSS ROAD by Helene Hanff. I think anyone who enjoys books, writing, entertaining and eccentric characters, and feel-good stories would fall in love with this book the way I did. I’m getting ready to mail my copy to a special friend. It’s the kind of book you want to pass on to someone else.

Incidentally, THE GUERNSEY LITERARY AND POTATO PEEL SOCIETY was begun by Mary Ann Shaffer. When she grew too ill to finish the novel, her niece Annie Barrows stepped in to complete the book. Up until now, Ms. Barrows was best known for writing children’s books such as IVY AND BEAN and THE MAGIC HALF.


I have a friend who reads only big, dark, heavy adult books. Her favorite novels are written by very obscure Nobel laureates, translated from foreign languages, and usually end with the protagonist killing himself. Those kinds of books. She recently told me that she’d read a book for young people for the first time since, well, since she was a kid herself. She said that a friend who knows a lot about children’s and young adult books felt that the best introduction to this genre would be the book ALCHEMY by Margaret Mahy. This surprised me. Great author, good book (though certainly not Ms. Mahy’s most acclaimed title) but it just doesn’t strike me as the “single book” one might recommend to someone who has not read a children’s book in several decades. Besides the classic titles (CHARLOTTE’S WEB, TUCK EVERLASTING, etc.), what contemporary (let’s say published within the past ten years) would you recommend to someone if they were only going to read one book in this genre? I can’t decide whether I’d pick something fun and likable (perhaps HOLES) to show how much joy the genre holds, or something much deeper (maybe OCTAVIAN NOTHING) to show how challenging these books can be. What would you recommend?

Thanks for stopping by.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Tales from a Brother and Sister

Abraham Lincoln once said: "Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt."

Let me update that quote for the twenty-first century: "Better to sit quiet and be called a dumb-ass than to blog and remove any doubt."

It's true. It takes a special kind of bravery to blog-away on the internet, revealing all your ignorance and lapses in knowledge -- especially since Google captures all one's mistakes and preserves them for, like, ever. Today's entry is for every children's book blogger who ever wrote about the "Newberry" Medal...or blogged about Noel "Streatfield" and Mo "Williams"...or didn't know Richard Peck and Robert Peck were two different people.

Yesterday, I was reading a wonderful recent novel (more about that in another blog entry) that contained quite a bit of information on the nineteenth-century British author Charles Lamb. At one point a character wonders how Charles must have felt "coming home from work and finding his mother stabbed to death, his father bleeding, and his sister Mary standing over both with a bloody knife."

The information is presented very matter-of-factly in an "of course we all know about that" kind of way.

Okay, here's where I reveal my own ignorance.

I didn't know anything about that.

And that's rather shameful, considering Charles and Mary Lamb are seminal figures in children's literature. Their 1807 book, TALES FROM SHAKESPEARE, can be found in nearly every children's library and remains in print today. Heck, it's even available on Kindle! I've seen this book my entire life, but never gave it much thought. If I did, I guess I just assumed Charles and Mary were a married literary couple who got the bright idea of cranking-out Shakespeare rewrites for kids. It wasn't until yesterday that I learned their intriguing real-life story. Charles Lamb was born in London in 1775 and taught to read at a very early age by his sister Mary, who was eleven years older. A boarding-school friend of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Charles left formal education behind at age fourteen, and eventually spent over thirty years working as a clerk for the East India Company while simultaneously writing essays and poetry. Both Lamb siblings suffered from mental problems. Charles spent several weeks in a psychiatriatic hospital in 1795 and kept a just-in-case-straightjacket at home to restrain Mary when she especially went off the deep end. In 1796, Mary "worn down to a state of extreme nervous misery by attention to needlework by day and to her mother at night" attacked the family maid, her father, and murdered her mother with a table knife. (Some accounts say it was a fork.)

A few modern-day researchers have referred to Mary as being "bi-polar." Who knows? It was a long, long time ago. But having always heard how deplorable things were for the mentally ill in the days before modern therapies and medications, I was surprised to learn that, after an inquest adjudged that Mary's acts were caused by "lunacy," Charles was given full custody of his sister. He kept her in a private hospital for a few years and then brought her home where -- with the exception of a few stays in mental institutions when things got bad -- the two siblings lived happily and enjoyed many highly-cultured and socially-connected friends. They were even permitted to adopt a child together. As writing partners, Charles and Mary adapted twenty of William Shakespeare's plays for young readers in a collection notable for its clarity, for avoiding words and language introduced after Shakespeare's time, and for shunning the sermonizing and moralizing ubiquitous in most children's books of the era. Although Mary's name did not appear on the cover or title page of the first edition, we do know this was a collaborative effort, with Charles writing the tragedies (ROMEO AND JULIET; OTHELLO) and Mary -- ironic, considering her troubled life -- writing the comedies (TWELFTH NIGHT, A MID-SUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM.) A year after publishing TALES FROM SHAKESPEARE, the Lambs released another children's book, MRS. LEICESTER'S SCHOOL. Highly praised at the time, it never achieved the classic status of TALES. Nevertheless, I'm impressed by the format of MRS. LEICESTER'S SCHOOL, which is written in the varied first-person voices of ten young girls -- similar to the multi-voice narratives we see in books by authors such as Paul Fleischman (SEEDFOLKS; WHIRLIGIG) today.

Charles Lamb died in 1834 and was buried in All Saints' Churchyard, Edmonton, Greater London. Nearly thirteen years later, his older sister was buried beside him. They share a tombstone.

As I admitted earlier, I knew nothing about the Lambs and their tragedy until yesterday. Some editions of TALES OF SHAKESPEARE do provide this backstory. Others, such as the 1946 volume I hold in my hand right now, remain discrete, alluding only to the siblings "living beneath the shadow, which never lifted, of a great family sorrow." It's heartening to realize that these two troubled individuals were able to -- at least briefly -- emerge from that shadow and, in the words of one critic, discover "one of their best consolations in breathing together the pure and bracing air of the Elizabethan poetry."

In doing so, they created a book that is still loved and read two hundred years after it was written.