Suffering from a lack of sleep due to the advent of Daylight Saving Time, I’m taking out my bad mood on this blog today -- preparing a Sunday brunch containing some little oddities and even full-on freaky-weirdness from the world of children’s books.
GIRL FINDS MESSAGE FROM DEAD MOTHER...ON AMAZON.COM
Earlier this week, an anonymous reader left a message on this blog about some rather stunning Amazon.com customer reviews for a children’s book called JESSAMY.
Written by Barbara Sleigh and published in 1967, this time-travel novel obviously made a great impact on many readers...several of whom named their own children after the title character.
One review is titled “I Named My First Daughter Jessamy After This Book”:
I read this book from the library at the age of 10 or 11, I am now 39 and I re-read it every year after I actually got/owned the book when I was 19 (I didn't forget about this book all thoughs years). It was the first time-travel book I had ever read. Jessamy, an orphan, that lives between aunts goes from 1967 (I think because that was the copywrite date of the book) back to 1914 and is suddenly a shy, quite Jessamy living with a family as a servants niece. The 1967 Jessamy is not shy or quite and people notice although they don't know why she changes. It is assumed that the 1914 Jessamy goes forward in time although it is not talked much about in the book. (I think that might be a good sequel). There is a mystery and it is solved at the end. My daughter (Jessamy) is now 10. I am going to have her read it this summer. I really enjoyed that book I have read lots of better written books since then but the time-travel and the name Jessamy really held my interest. The ending is very cool and kind of strange.
That review was written by Lisa Rogers of Seattle, Washington and posted on May 4, 2001.
Several other people have left customer reviews of JESSAMY since Lisa Rogers, but the most recent -- and strangest addition -- is this one, which was posted on April 2, 2007. It is titled, “I'm Jessamy, Lisa Rogers Daughter!”:
Hi i'm Jessamy! Lisa Rogers is my mom. she passed away in 2004. I'm 16 now and i have a school project to find the meaning to my name and when i typed it into google it came up with this review. i was in shock to see that my mom had written something. i sat there stareing at her words and cried. i miss her a ton and she was a great mom.
Can you imagine? Lisa names her daughter Jessamy and writes about it on the web -- and six years later Jessamy herself, researching the meaning of her own name, finds her mother’s explanation on the web?
Talk about time travel!
And how amazing that a little known children’s book led to this unexpected reunion.
WENT TO OZ; WON’T BE BACK
Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, who wrote many of the books in the “Nancy Drew” series died on March 27, 1982 -- reportedly while watching the movie version of another children’s book classic, THE WIZARD OF OZ, on TV.
SOMEONE FORGOT TO TAKE NOTES
You’d think that preserving history would be one of the tenets of librarianship, but someone sure dropped the ball in the early days of the Newbery Medal. In 1922, when the first award was given to THE STORY OF MANKIND by Hendrik Van Loon, there were five Honor Books (called runners-up in those days.) Those titles were THE GREAT QUEST by Charles Boardman Hawes, CEDRIC THE FORESTER by Bernard Marshall, THE OLD TOBACCO SHOP by William Bowen, THE GOLDEN FLEECE AND THE HEROES WHO LIVED BEFORE ACHILLES by Padraic Colum, and WINDY HILL by Cornelia Meigs.
True, we haven’t all read these books (who’s read CEDRIC THE FORESTER? Show of hands please), but at least we have a record of them.
But there is no record of the Honor Books the following year...or in 1924 either!
(“Didn’t you write them down?”
“No, I thought you wrote them down!”
“Next time bring a steno notebook!”)
Apparently someone did bring a stenographer’s notebook the next two years, as we have a list of the Honor Books from 1925 and 1926...but none from the following year!
And if you think that’s bad, we have no record of many of the early acceptance speeches!
Wouldn’t it be fascinating to hear what Hendrik Van Loon had to say upon winning the very first Newbery Medal? The ONLY record we have of the acceptance ceremony is this comment: “Dr. Van Loon responded in a merry vein.”
Wouldn’t you think that someone attending the conference might have said, “Hey, Doc, can I get a copy of that speech?” ...Wouldn’t you think that someone might have at least taken notes on a cocktail napkin?
But apparently this wasn’t a priority. The first acceptance paper on record doesn’t turn up till 1929 when Eric P. Kelly won for THE TRUMPETER OF KRAKOW. Rachel Field’s speech for the following year’s winner, HITTY : HER FIRST HUNDRED YEARS is also available, but in 1931 no one bothered to get a copy of Elizabeth Coatsworth’s speech for THE CAT WHO WENT TO HEAVEN.
Incidentally, that first Newbery meeting where Hendrik Van Loon spoke “in a merry vein” was held right here in my hometown of Detroit. From now on, I intend to check the drawer of every library table or lectern I encounter in hopes of coming across a dusty sheaf of paper containing his speech. You never know what might have been left behind.
SPEAKING OF OLD SPEECHES
Of course maybe it’s just as well they didn’t save those old speeches. At least then they can’t be made fun of by twenty-first century bloggers like me. The speech that makes me laugh the hardest was given by Laura Adams Armer who won the Newbery for WATERLESS MOUNTAIN in 1932. Although brief, she manages to be both ridiculously over-the-top and exceedingly apathetic. Living in Navajo and Hopi country at the time, she boarded a train to attend the library convention in New Orleans and said she felt “as homesick as were the Navajos themselves when forced to take ‘The Long Walk’ to Fort Sumner.” Drama much, Ms. Armer? How many people died of hunger and exhaustion while sitting in the dining car or waiting for the Pullman porter to pull down their sheets in the sleeping car? Then she ends the speech with the most lackluster “thank you” in Newbery history: “It is pleasant that you considered it the most distinguished book for children published in 1931.”
Pleasant? That's the best she could do?
Fortunately, some subsequent winners were a bit more effusive. Three years later, when Cornelia Meigs won for her Alcott biography INVINCIBLE LOUISA, she ended her speech with the following:
So it seems to me, and I take delight in its so seeming, that what you have done today is, in effect, to bestow the Newbery Award upon Louisa May Alcott. She has deserved it for a very long time. I think my publishers cannot object to this division of the honors, for we are both, as it were, daughters of the same house. If I could stretch my voice across the years, I would say, “Louisa, this medal is yours,” and I assure you that Louisa and I both thank you from the bottom of our hearts.
Apparently as Ms. Meigs offered the award to Ms. Alcott she gestured with a graceful sideways flourish, as if Louisa were standing right beside her on stage -- a moment that had many of the librarians in the audience sobbing into their handkerchiefs.
I’m also fond of the speech William Steig gave when he won the Caldecott in 1970 for SYLVESTER AND THE MAGIC PEBBLE. Prefacing his remarks by saying he was a poor speaker and had not given a speech in front of a large group in over fifty years, the shy writer-illustrator offered a short, heartfelt address that ended with a joyous:
And I love you all. I love you because you must love me. Anyway, that’s how I understand your liking my work, which is a large part of me. Thank you.
Make all the jokes you want about Steig's Sally Field Moment...it sure beats the heck out of “It is pleasant that you considered it the most distinguished book for children...,” doesn’t it?
WHO WAS HARRIET?
Harriet M. Welsch is certainly one of the most memorable characters in all of children’s literature.
If you’ve read DEAR GENIUS : THE LETTERS OF URSULA NORDSTROM by Leonard Marcus, you know that Louise Fitzhugh’s HARRIET THE SPY was first submitted to Harper & Row in the form of some sample pages that contained impressions of Harriet’s classmates; this material later appeared in the novel as part of Harriet’s notebook. Although editor Charlotte Zolotow knew “This isn’t a book,” she also added these prophetic words: “...But it could be.”
Ms. Zolotow and Ursula Nordstrom worked hard to draw this novel out of Louise Fitzhugh and there is little doubt that much of Ms. Fitzhugh’s own personality is reflected in Harriet.
But did you know that the great young adult author M.E. Kerr also served as an inspiration for Harriet? In Ms. Kerr’s memoir ME ME ME ME ME : NOT A NOVEL, she includes a chapter called “Marijane the Spy” recalling her own youthful exploits in spying. She reveals:
Long before I ever wrote books for young adults, I wrote suspense and murder novels. I was friends with the write Louise Fitzhugh, who longed to write murder and suspense novels. She thought I ought to write for young adults as she did. We used to laugh about it, and wonder if we traded typewriters we could perhaps each do the kind of books the other was doing.
We used to swap stories and discuss ideas, and when she wrote her first book for young people, called HARRIET THE SPY, I said, “Hey, wait a minute! That’s my story! I told you I was Marijane the Spy, and you stole that idea from me!” Louise said all kids are spies when they’re little. She was and I was..and she just beat me to the punch and told the story first.
“You’d better get going on a YA book before I beat you to the punch again,” she said.
I think she’s definitely one of the reasons I got going.
BUT IT WAS DESTINED
I’m grateful that “Marijane the Spy” did "get going," as she ended up writing some of the best YA books of the past thirty-five years. But even looking back at the score of mystery and suspense paperbacks she wrote under the name of Vin Packer, one can see the beginnings of young adult author in her books. Several, such as THE THRILL KIDS and THE EVIL FRIENDSHIP, dealt with young characters. Her themes, such as identity, isolation, and feeling “different,” are common to young adult fiction as well. One of her Vin Packer books, SOMETHING IN THE SHADOWS, even had a cover illustration by Leo and Diane Dillon, who would later become top children’s book illustrators and win two Caldecott Awards.
ANOTHER FREAKY-WEIRD COINCIDENCE
One of the Marijane Meaker/Vin Packer books mentioned above, THE EVIL FRIENDSHIP, was based on New Zealand’s famous Parker-Hulme matricide in which two schoolgirls murdered one of their mothers. Ms. Meaker’s original title for the novel was WHY NOT MOTHER?, which was taken from a diary entry by one of the young women, who wrote: “Thousands die every day. Why not mother?”
THE EVIL FRIENDSHIP was published in 1963. Several decades later, Marijane Meaker was shocked to discover that one of the two girls involved in the original crime, Juliet Hulme, grew up to become a famous mystery writer herself, publishing books under the name Anne Perry.
I wonder if Anne Perry ever read THE EVIL FRIENDSHIP.
LEMONY COVER STORY
Last year Grove published a book by Bosnia novelist Sasa Stanisic called HOW THE SOLDIER REPAIRS THE GRAMOPHONE. The cover illustration features a man playing an accordion on a beach.
Does he look a little familiar?
The figure on the cover is none other than Daniel Handler, who writes (famously) for kids under the name Lemony Snicket.
Mr. Handler -- who appears at booksigning events with accordion in tow -- once had his picture taken by photographer Meredith Hauer. This was early in the author's career when he didn’t have much jingle in his jeans (1. Boy, would that change with the success of his “Series of Unfortunate Events” 2. Would Lemony Snicket ever wear jeans?) so, in a bartering agreement, Mr. Handler allowed Ms. Hauer to sell the pictures as stock photography.
Years later that stock photo was used for the German edition of HOW THE SOLDIER REPAIRS THE GRAMOPHONE. When Grove published the U.S. edition in early 2008, they used the same cover illustration.
Grove was unaware that their coverboy was a hugely famous literary figure until someone at sales conference pointed it out.
Lemony Snicket didn’t know about it till then either.
With the proliferation of stock photographic dustjacket illustrations, sooner or later it was bound to happen that a well-known person would accidentally end up on a dustjacket. From now on, I’m going to pay closer attention to the faces featured on the books that I read.
What am I talking about? Faces don't appear on the covers of children’s and young adult books these days. Just headless bodies.
In fact, if Grove had published Sasa Stanisic’s book for young readers, it probably would have looked like this:
Thanks for visiting Collecting Children’s Books. Sorry for my Daylight Saving Time-induced bad mood. I’ll be over it as soon as DST ends.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t end until November 1.