Thursday, April 30, 2009

A Slightly Irregular Winner

The children's book judges for the 1972 National Book Award had to pick from an exceptional slate of books.

Among that year's ten finalists were titles that had already been hailed by both Newbery (winner MRS. FRISBY AND THE RATS OF NIMH by Robert C. O'Brien and Honor Books THE PLANET OF JUNIOR BROWN by Virginia Hamilton and THE TOMBS OF ATUAN by Ursula K. LeGuin) and Caldecott (Honor Book HILDILID'S NIGHT, written by Cheli Duran Ryan and illustrated by Arnold Lobel.)

The finalists also included a pair of ground-breaking young adult novels (HIS OWN WHERE by June Jordan and WILD IN THE WORLD by John Donovan), two well-received picture books (AMOS & BORIS by William Steig; FATHER FOX'S PENNYRHYMES by Wendy and Clyde Watson), a middle-grade novel that had gotten a lot of critical acclaim (THE BEARS' HOUSE by Marilyn Sachs) and a nonfiction book that nobody paid much attention to but, okay whatever, ended up on the list anyway (THE ART AND INDUSTRY OF SANDCASTLES by Jan Adkins.)

So which of those titles won the National Book Award?

None of them.

The award went to the tenth title on the list, THE SLIGHTLY IRREGULAR FIRE ENGINE, OR, THE HITHERING THITHERING DJINN by Donald Barthelme.

Donald Barthelme was primarily known as a writer of "postmodernist" short fiction for sophisticated adult readers; much of his work appeared in the NEW YORKER. THE SLIGHTLY IRREGULAR FIRE ENGINE, which he wrote for (some even say "with") his young daughter, was his first and only foray into children's books.

I was about thirteen when THE SLIGHTLY IRREGULAR FIRE ENGINE won the NBA. Having read and liked most of the other titles on the shortlist, I was very curious to read the unknown book that had somehow bested them. But when a copy turned up in our public library, it was not kept in the children's room. Instead I found this tall, skinny volume -- by all appearances a picture book -- shelved with the adult fiction. I immediately sat down to read it and...didn't like it at all.

Not only that: I didn't understand it either!

The other day I happened upon a new edition, published by The Overlook Press in 2006. I wondered how it would hold up after nearly four decades. So I immediately sat down to read it again and...didn't like it at all.

Not only that: I still don't understand it!

The book concerns young Mathilda, who awakes one morning in 1887 wishing, for unexplained reasons, that she had a fire engine. Instead, she steps outside to discover that a small Chinese house has "grown" in her backyard overnight. Inside the pagoda she meets "two fierce-looking Chinese guards," a rainmaker, a knitting pirate, a djinn, and all manner of strange characters. Nothing much happens: Mathilda hears a story related by the pirate, sits down to a meal of fried lobster and sweet-and-sour ice cream, is offered a souvenier of her "escapade" (souvenier choices include "a barrel of pickles surmounted by a sour and severe citizen" or an anatomical diagram) and then returns home. The next morning she awakes to find the little Chinese house is gone but a bright green fire engine sits in its place.

Do you get it?

Me neither.

It's my understanding that Mr. Barthelme composed this story around the collection of nineteenth-century advertising engravings which serve as the book's illustrations. Although THE SLIGHTLY IRREGULAR FIRE ENGINE was honored for its "book design" by the American Institue of Graphic Arts, I find the collage-style artwork cold and off-putting. And what to make of the distracting advertising logos that appear on some of the pages, such as this one (you can click on the image to enlarge the picture) which randomly states "SLENDER-WAISTEDNESS / Corseted Divinities with Waspish Affinities / Worrying, Flurrying"? How does that enhance the book?

And look, here's Mathilda, shown for the umpteenth time in an identical pose because the same image of the girl is used repeatedly throughout the book (isn't she tired of holding that hoop?)

Some have compared Mathilde in the Chinese House to Alice in Wonderland...but I don't see it. I just see a succession of random, sterile images accompanied by an absurd and unstructured (The New York Times called it, rather kindly, "loose-jointed") story. I'd say the book is best appreciated by adults...but I'm adult and I don't really appreciate it. But obviously some adults do. After all, it won the National Book Award. should be noted that THE SLIGHTLY IRREGULAR FIRE ENGINE didn't win the award unanimously.

Judges Lore Segal and Jean Stafford were mainly adult authors whose work, coincidentally (and insert three very large question marks here!) appeared in the New Yorker alongside Barthelme's. In awarding the prize, they hailed this irregular volume as "a book of originality, wit, and intellectual adventure."

The third judge, then-Horn Book editor Paul Heins, cast a dissenting vote and, in an unprecedented move, publicly voiced his displeasure over the selection.

In retrospect, the NBA won by THE SLIGHTLY IRREGULAR FIRE ENGINE seems a totally wasted award. Donald Barthelme was a "visitor" to the world of children's books and his famous name seems to have influenced the judges (well, two of the judges) much more than the quality of his odd and offputting book. Ultimately, its "National Book Award" seal did little to increase sales; reports say that many of the copies from the 12,500 first printing ended up being remaindered. Kids didn't embrace it then and I doubt that even today's "postmodernist" kids will find much to like about it.

Looking back at the list of previous NBA children's book winners, THE SLIGHTLY IRREGULAR FIRE ENGINE will probably always remain the one title that has readers scratching their heads and saying, "Huh. Never heard of that one."

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Woodman and "The Writer from Philadelphia"

When Jerry Spinelli took a job as an editor at Chilton, a Philadelphia publisher of trade magazines and automotive manuals, he confidently told a co-worker that he'd only be working there for about a year or two until his first book was published.

More than a decade later he was still waiting for that first book to be published. By this point he was married with a large family. Money was tight. One evening he stood distraught in a store, debating whether to buy cold syrup for one sick child or milk for the rest of the children; there wasn't enough money for both. Despite these hardships, Spinelli persevered, getting up before dawn to write before work and then returning to his typewriter in the evening.

What is it that separates the wannabe-writer from the published writer? Talent, certainly. Self-motivation. Persistence. And it helps to have someone who believes in you...and also thinks of you as a writer. For Spinelli, that "someone" was his wife Eileen. One evening, as the two watched an auction on their local public television station, an interesting item came up for bid: A Night on the Town with George Plimpton. Jerry spoke of how inspiring it would be to spend time with a famous published writer like Plimpton. Then he sighed and went to bed. That's when Eileen got up, checked their meager savings account and phoned in a bid. They ended up winning the auction.

When George Plimpton learned that a Pennsylvania couple had won the auction, he thought he might take them out to eat, then see a Broadway show and "put the Spinellis on a sensible train back to Philadelphia."

The Spinellis arrived at Plimpton's Upper Eastside duplex on the appointed night and, after drinks, the two men played a game of pool while Mrs. Plimpton showed Eileen around the apartment. Later, while the Spinellis looked at some books in the library, Mrs. Plimpton pulled her husband into the hall and whispered that Jerry Spinelli was an aspiring writer and that Eileen had spent almost all their money on this evening -- $425! -- leaving only $5 in their savings account to keep it open. George Plimpton was mortified. He finally decided, "Then we'll have to turn this into a literary evening" and made plans to take the couple to the well-known restaurant Elaine's, a frequent haunt of NYC writers.

In the taxi, Plimpton said he "murmured a prayer that there would be a good literary crowd at Elaine's." If not, he'd pretend to recognize a few of their fellow diners as ESQUIRE editors while "anyone with a beard" would be identified as the writer Donald Barthelme.

But when they entered the restaurant, Plimpton gave a sigh of relief as "the sudden fancy crossed my mind that Madame Tussaud herself had been working for a week to get it set up for ourselves and the Spinellis." Table after table was filled with literary bigwigs: Kurt Vonnegut...Jill Krementz...Irwin Shaw...Peter Stone...Dan Jenkins. Plimpton guided Spinelli from table to table:

"Mr. Talese, Mr. Hotchner, may I present Jerry Spinelli, the writer from Philadelpha." When he heard me introducing him as "the writer from Philadelphia," Mr. Spinelli beamed. We moved on to Bruce Jay Friedman, sitting with a large crowd. "Bruce, Mr. Spinelli, the writer from Philadelphia."

Then Plimpton saw Woody Allen.

At Elaine's, there is one famous house rule. At a place where table-hopping and squeezing in at a table to join even the vaguest of friends ("Mind if I join you?") is very much de rigueur, it is not done at Woody Allen's table. Even on the way to the Gents, nothing more than a side glance at the brooding figure of Woody Allen, mournfully glancing down at his chicken francese, which I am told is his favorite dish, is permissable. To interrupt his meal by leaning over and saying, "Hi ya Woody, how's it going?" would be unheard of.

But I thought of Spinelli's four hundred twenty-five dollars, and the long trip up on Amtrak, and the five dollars left in the savings account, and the half-finished manuscript in its typewriter-paper cardboard box.

"Woody," I said, "forgive me. This is Jerry Spinelli, the writer from Philadelphia."

Woody looked up slowly. It was done very dramatically, as if he were looking up from under the brim of a large hat.

"Yes," he said evenly.
"I know."

We stood there transfixed. Allen gazed at us briefly, then he returned to his contemplation of the chicken francese on his plate.

Plimpton said that Jerry Spinelli was awestruck and not really sure what had just transpired. "Did you hear that?" he said as he sat down in a daze.

Some time later George Plimpton received a letter from Spinelli saying that his first book had been released. Within a few more years he was one of the most famous names in children's books. How had he made the leap from wannabe-writer to published writer? Through talent. Self-motivation. Persistence. In Spinelli's case, it also helped to have a wife who believed in him and always thought of him as a writer. And maybe it even had something to do with a special night when a whole room full of literary luminaries -- everyone from Gay Talese to Woody Allen himself -- made Jerry Spinelli feel like he was indeed "The Writer from Philadelphia."

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Sunday Brunch

What book would you give a newborn baby? What title should have won this year’s Pulitzer? What is Buttercup Gizzardsniffer’s real name? These questions and more are answered in today’s blog entry about children’s books old and new.


Okay, that’s not her real name.

But that’s how I think of the very young, very eager, and more-than-a-little kooky children’s librarian who works at one of the libraries I frequent. She’s constantly trying to get kids reading -- which is, of course, a very good thing -- yet she always manages to shoot herself in the foot at the same time. For example, last summer she organized an event she felt was certain to bring young people into the library. It was called “S’mores Saturday.” Debbie’s mimeographed flyer said, “What’s better on a hot summer afternoon than a cold glass of lemonade and a s’more hot off the barbecue? Visit next Saturday to make-your-own s’mores and check out s’more books!”

Sounds great, right?

The big day came and she had the reference desk converted into a s’mores station. There were stacks of graham crackers, squares of chocolate, and bowls full of marshmallows set up next to a cute little Hibachi. The kids were having a great time grilling their own marshmallows and making their own s’mores until Debbie kicked them out of the building because “Eating is not allowed in the library.”

See what I mean about shooting herself in the foot? Not a single book was checked out all day!

Even worse, the Hibachi eventually set off the library’s fire sprinklers. ...Sometimes you shoot yourself in both feet.

Debbie means well, but her desperation to get kids reading is not always coupled with common sense. That’s why I wasn’t surprised when I visited the library yesterday and found Debbie was already handing out these bookmarks to kids. I was too embarrassed to take one for myself, but picked this one off the floor near the circ desk to share with you:

Yes, I know how serious a pandemic is. I wonder if Debbie does!


The biggest news that came out of last week’s London Book Fair was the announcement that Dan Brown’s follow-up to the DA VINCI CODE will be released this fall. I wonder if bookstores will stay open to sell this book at midnight the way they did when volumes in the “Harry Potter” and “Twilight” series were released.

In other London Book Fair news, it was announced that Prince Charles will be publishing a children’s book about ecology with HarperCollins in 2011. Many people are not aware that Charles published a children’s book back in 1980 called THE OLD MAN OF LOCHNAGER.

Illustrated by Hugh Casson and released in the U.S. by Farrar, the book was based on a story that Charles made up for his younger brothers when they were taking a trip on the H.M.Y. Britannia as children.

The proceeds for THE OLD MAN OF LOCHNAGER went to the Prince of Wales Charities Trust. Any earnings from the new book will also be donated to charity.


A friend has recently learned that a new grandchild will be joining her family this year. This got me wondering if anyone has a favorite book they always give as a gift to a newborn. In the past I have given the following as gifts to infants:

THE REAL MOTHER GOOSE -- the “Checkerboard Edition” illustrated by Blanche Fisher Wright.

ON THE DAY YOU WERE BORN by Debra Frasier.

I SAW ESAU : A SCHOOLCHILD’S POCKETBOOK by Peter and Iona Opie; illustrated by Maurice Sendak.

PAT THE BUNNY by Dorothy Kunhardt.

Occasionally I will also make my own book of original poems and stories for a baby.

What special books do you give to a special newborn?


...So please don’t mention that cheesy paperback LOVE YOU FOREVER. Yes, I know it’s Oprah’s favorite book. Yes, I know it’s sold about ten million copies. Yes, I know that Joey recited it on FRIENDS.

Still doesn’t make it a good book.

The debate between LYF lovers and LYF haters will never end. If swine flu eradicates the world’s population, leaving only a handful of survivors, I guarantee that half of them will think LYF is the greatest book ever written and the other half will think it’s the worst. An explosive, emotional LOVE YOU FOREVER flame-war occurs about twice a year on every children’s book listserve, blog, or message board.

The trajectory is always the same.

Reader #1: Has anyone here read LOVE YOU FOREVER by Robert Munsch?

Reader #2: Ooh, that’s my all-time favorite book! I can’t read it without puddlin’ up!

Reader #1: I’m writing a paper about it for school. What do you think of its literary qualities?

Reader #2: It’s only the best book ever!!!!!!!!! I cry just thinking about it.

Reader #3 (a children’s lit professor): Bathetic balderdash.

Reader #4: That scene where the mother climbs the ladder is INSANE! It’s not a book about love, it’s a book about OBSESSION!

Reader #5 (never read a children’s book in her life, but just came back from a baby shower and is now an expert on LYF): I just attended an event where this book was read out loud and everyone was crying their eyes out!!!!!!

Reader #2: I’m crying now just thinking about the book. It’s SOOOOOO amazing!

Reader #3: I cried when I read it too. Cried to think we live in a society where this type of pabulum is taken seriously.

Reader #6: Did you guys know that the author wrote this book in response to some sad events in his own life? You should think about that before you criticize!

Reader #7: We can’t judge a book based on outside considerations. Only by what’s on the page. And I agree this book is hokey and manipulative.

Reader #6: I think you guys are really MEAN!!!

Reader #3: Ad hominem attacks don’t further your cause. Why don’t we try to get this conversation back on track. How can it be a “children’s book” when the primary audience is clearly sentimental adults?


Reader #9: I really think the big problem with this book is the illustrations. The text is okay.

Reader #3: It is decidedly not “okay.” Let’s talk about rhythm, structure, word selection, metaphor, imagery--


Reader #2: Anyone who doesn’t love this book doesn’t have a heart!

Reader #3: It’s sentimental claptrap disguised as a children’s book and wrapped-up with a bow of toilet paper!

Reader #2: Oh I LOOOOOVE the picture of the baby with the toilet paper. It’s SOOOOOOO KEY-ute!

Reader #9: I hate the illustrations.

Reader #1: What does anyone think of the book’s literary qualities?


At this point, the owner of the listserve, the webmaster, or the blogger blocks shuts down the conversation and blocks everyone from commenting further. After the dust settles, conversation returns to normal. Then, about six months later:

Reader #1: Has anyone here read LOVE YOU FOREVER by Robert Munsch?

THE SUN AND THE WIND AND MR. TODD by Eleanor Estes ; illustrated by Louis Slodokin.

Praised by critics and beloved by readers, it’s hard to decide if Eleanor Estes is best known for her “Moffats” series, her Newbery-winning GINGER PYE, or her heart-tugging, impossible-to-forget novella THE HUNDRED DRESSES.

But one Estes book that nearly everyone has forgotten is 1943’s THE SUN AND THE WIND AND MR. TODD. This retelling of an Aesop fable about a battle between the wind and sun is set in New England, where Mr. Todd is employed as a weatherman who always gets it wrong (“when Todd said snow, the weather was beautifully sunny. ...And when Todd said clear and cooler, it was quite apt to be rainy and warmer.”) The people of Rockypoint are not happy that their weather man doesn't "come up to scratch.” Traveling to speak to a convention of weather forecasters, Mr. Todd falls victim to a disagreement between the Wind and and the Sun as to which can make him remove his overcoat. The Wind huffs and puffs and tries to blow away Mr. Todd’s clothing, while the Sun turns up the heat and ends up winning. The lesson Mr. Todd learns from this experience -- that “the weather is not the same for everybody. And when I predict rain, it is raining somewhere. And when I predict shine, it isshining somewhere” -- seems a rather underwhelming victory for the little weatherman since the only ones who embrace it are his fellow error-prone weather forecasters; it does little to change his reputation at home in Rockypoint. This unsatisfactory resolution may be one of the factors that prevented THE SUN AND THE WIND AND MR. TODD from becoming as popular as the author’s other books. Another reason may be its lack of young characters. No one is better than Eleanor Estes at getting inside the mind of a child, and expressing a child’s thoughts through deed and dialogue. Though the writing is light and whimsical, we still miss having Rockypoint viewed through the eyes of a young character. And the story’s uneven mix of fantasy and reality is jarring.

In many ways, THE SUN AND THE WIND AND MR. TODD is an odd work. Though the volume has the dimensions of a picture book, it runs a rather lengthy (unnumbered) ninety-six pages -- making it too big for a readaloud, but perhaps too childish-looking and picture-filled for older readers. Louis Slobodkin's energetic, sepia-toned illustrations are superb, though one wonders if the classical, semi-nude forms of the Sun and the Wind were considered a bit risqué for the 1940s. I say this because I have never seen a copy of THE SUN AND THE WIND AND MR. TODD in a public library. In fact, I never saw the book until I tracked down a copy on the internet and purchased it three or four years ago. It remains difficult to find for collectors, with only one ex-library copy even listed for sale today.

Why the book is collectable: Both Estes and Slobodkin are major figures in the world of children’s books. Also of interest to those who collect Aesop variations.

First edition points: Tan cloth binding with brown vignette on front panel. Illustrated endpapers. Roman number “I” on copyright page. Price of $2.00 on front dustjacket panel and “war bonds” advertisement on rear panel.

Difficulty in finding first editions: Quite hard to find. Expect to pay $75-$200.


Last week’s discussion of politically-correct text changes in children’s books led blog-reader Jeanne to write about one she’s noticed. As a child, her copy of THE LITTLE ENGINE THAT COULD referred to one of the passengers aboard the train as “the gayest little toy clown you ever saw.” She sent me a copy of the text plus this picture featuring the clown. Jeanne points out that in modern editions, he is now called “the funniest little clown you ever saw.” I was going to write a blog about the text being “de-gayed,” similar to the way Isabelle Holland’s young adult novel THE MAN WITHOUT A FACE was “straightened-out” when Mel Gibson made it into a film.

However, I’ve now checked some other editions of the book and have found both “gay” and “funny” used to describe the clown. I also have a copy of the book, published by Platt and Munk in 1990, which is supposed to be “the complete, original edition” and it uses “funny.”

So now I’m confused.

Did the original edition actually say “funny”...or was it altered...or does the confusion come from there being way too many editions of this book available from way too many publishers?

I did a bit of research on it and discovered the story behind the story is even sticker than I imagined. Watty Piper never existed! Someone called “Uncle Nat” claimed authorship! There are so many details that I can’t keep it all straight in my head! Rather than try to recap it, check out this fascinating piece called “In Search of Watty Piper : A Brief History of the Little Engine Story” by Roy E. Plotnick, which can be read online here.


Mentioning Isabelle Holland made me think of what an important young-adult author she was during the early 1970s. Within a span of three years she published the groundbreaking MAN WITHOUT A FACE (1972); HEADS YOU WIN, TAILS I LOSE (1973) and OF LOVE AND DEATH AND OTHER JOURNEYS (1975.) Writing literary novels about important issues, she was one of the era’s most noted and influential authors. The critics loved her. She received a National Book Award nomination.

Yet after that trio of spectacular books, she moved away from the field, focusing on gothic novels for adults as well as middle-grade stories. I’d love to know what initiated that change of focus. She never had quite the same level of fame once she moved from the young-adult field.


After my previous posting on book dedications, blog reader Brooke wrote, “One of the best and most memorable dedications I've come across in recent years is from John Green's AN ABUNDANCE OF KATHERINES. The protagonist of that novel is obsessed with anagrams, and so for the dedication Green created a poem that includes some dozen or more anagrams of his wife's name, all listing her various virtues. I wish I had a copy so I could type it up here; go find it if you can, it's really clever!”

Thanks for the tip, Brooke. Here is the dedication:

To my wife, Sarah Urist Green, anagrammatically:

Her great Russian
Grin has treasure--
A great risen rush.
She is a rut-ranger;
Anguish arrester;
Sister; haranguer;
Signature Sharer
Easing rare hurts.

That in turn reminded me of the dedication in Dav Pilkey’s CAPTAIN UNDERPANTS AND THE PERILOUS PLOT OF PROFESSOR POOPYPANTS. (I know, from the sublime to the....) That book is dedicated: “For Buttercup Gizzardsniffer, with love.” In the book Prof. Poop shows a chart to change a normal name into a goofy name. Using that chart, you can figure out who Buttercup Gizzardsniffer actually was.

...Oh, you're too embarrassed to be seen looking at the book?

Okay, I can provide some hints.

Children’s book writer.

Newbery winner.

Missing May.

Figure it out yet?

Cynthia Rylant.


This past week the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction went to OLIVE KITTERIDGE by Elizabeth Strout. The book is already out in paperback and I’m about halfway through it.

Olive is okay, but she’s no Octavian Nothing. I still contend that, children’s book or not, THE ASTONISHING LIFE OF OCTAVIAN NOTHING : THE KINGDOM OF THE WAVES by M.T. Anderson is the most literary, most compelling, and most deserving-of-a-Pulitzer novel published in 2008. I wonder if the Pulitzer committee even considered it. I know what you’re thinking: it could still win School Library Journal’s “Battle of the Books.” Isn’t that even better than a Pulitzer? Isn’t it?

Um...let me think about that.

Thanks for visiting Collecting Children’s Books. Hope you’ll be back.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

"And Tell All the Stars Above...."

To Beatrice. Darling, dearest, dead.

Lemony Snicket's words for "Beatrice" at the beginning of "A Series of Unfortunate Events" comprise one of the most startling book dedications in recent memory.

And it didn't end there.

Subsequent volumes contained the following provocative/scary/funny dedications to the lovely but ill-fated Beatrice:

For Beatrice. My love for you shall live forever. You, however, did not.

For Beatrice. I would much prefer it if you were alive and well.

To Beatrice. My love flew like a butterfly / Until death swooped down like a bat / As the poet Emma Montana said: / "That's the end of that."

For Beatrice. You will always be in my heart, in my mind, and in your grave.

For Beatrice. When we met, my life began. Soon after, yours ended.

For Beatrice. When we were together I felt breathless. Now you are.

For Beatrice. Summer without you is as cold as winter. Winter without you is even colder.

For Beatrice. Our love broke my heart, and stopped yours.

For Beatrice. When we first met, I was lonely, and you were pretty. Now I am pretty lonely.

For Beatrice. Dead women tell no tales. Sad men write them down.

For Beatrice. No one could extinguish my love. Or your house.

For Beatrice. I cherished, you perished. The world's been nightmarished.

The story of Beatrice is intertwined with the tale of the Baudelaire children in the Snicket books but, to be perfectly honest, I'm not exactly sure how she's related to the kids or how it's all resolved. Tired of reading about all that misfortune, I gave up on the series well before it reached the double-digits and moved on to lighter, more uplifting fare such as BEFORE I DIE (leukemia), WINTERGIRLS (anorexia, bulimia, cutting) and OLD YELLER (yes, the dog dies, but it doesn't take him thirteen volumes to do so.) But I do love those Lemony Snicket dedications.

And they got me thinking about other intriguing dedications from children's books. Here is a sampling of amusing, perplexing, touching, and sad ones I've discovered.

Mary Rodgers' hilarious A BILLION FOR BORIS begins: This book is dedicated to my small sons, Adam and Alec, without whom I was finally able to finish it. (One of those sons, Adam Guettel, grew up to become a theatre composer who wrote one of my favorites, FLOYD COLLINS, and won a Tony for A LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA. It must be in the genes. Mary Rodgers wrote the music for ONCE UPON A MATTRESS and her father was Richard Rodgers of Rogers and Hammerstein.)

David Shannon dedicated his picture book NO, DAVID! To Martha, my mother, who kept in line then, and to Heidi, my wife, who keeps in line now.

Patricia MacLachlan pays tribute to a friend and fellow children's book writer in this dedication for THE FACTS AND FICTIONS OF MINNA PRATT: Once I told a class of Natalie Babbitt's
that she had inspired and encouraged me as a writer, as a friend. "Why, then," said Natalie crisply (joking, of course) "haven't you ever dedicated a book to me?" Well, this is it, with deep affection. To Nat from Pat.

The dedications of Kathleen Jeffrie Johnson's young adult novels often leave me scratching my head. They are as mysterious and eccentric as her books. THE PARALLEL UNIVERSE OF LIARS is dedicated:

How can we light our way into the dark
If not by human love?

For those who have helped me light my way

DUMB LOVE is dedicated for lu-u-uvers

and her shape-shifting story A FAST AND BRUTAL WING carries this dedication:

seedcake for my rainbow actor,
my handed crow.

In HOW ANGEL PETERSON GOT HIS NAME, Gary Paulsen describes some of the more foolhardy adventures he and his friends experienced as kids. Like trying to set a speed record on waxed skates. Like going over a waterfall in a barrel. Like...well, I'm not even going to say what they did with the electric fence...except to say it caused them to "walk funny." No wonder the first page says This book is dedicated to all boys in their thirteenth year; the miracle is that we live through it.

Robb White dedicated his 1979 adventure novel FIRE STORM to his son with these words: I have dedicated books to aunts, wives, in-laws, friends, and lovers; to one dog and two myths; so this book is for ROBB WHITE III.

...If I were III, I'd be wondering what took II so long to get around to it.

My admiration for Louis Sachar's HOLES has no bounds, but I can't say I'm a fan of his earlier work. The dedication of this 1983 book reads SOMEDAY ANGELINE, a good story with lots of funny jokes, is dedicated to everyone who can tell whether a book is any good -- by smelling it. (I guess that doesn't include me. I sniffed this book and it actually smelled just fine. ...Then I read it.)

Daniel Pinkwater can usually be counted on for providing some funny book dedications:

ALVIN MENDELSOHN, THE BOY FROM MARS is dedicated For Jill Miriam, my Martian sweetie.

THE LAST GURU : To my brothers and sisters -- They know who they are.

BAD BEARS IN THE BIG CITY : For Larry. Where are you???

FAT CAMP COMMANDOS : To my chubby cutie

In the dedication of her young-adult novel BRAS & BROOMSTICKS, Sarah Mlynowski shows that good-natured sibling rivalry still exists in her family: For Aviva, my baby sister. And yes, she'll always be my baby sister, even when she's seventy-two and I'm seventy-nine. (Fine, Aviva, seventy-eight and a half.)

I've always been touched by WINNIE-THE-POOH's dedication from A.A. Milne to his wife Daphne:

And the saddest dedication I've ever seen is in COWBOY DREAMS by Dayal Kaur Khalsa, the author-illustrator's reminiscence of growing up as a cowboy-lovin' little girl who called her bicycle "Old Paint" and wanted to convert the family garage into a stable=. At the time she wrote the book, Ms. Khalsa was dying of cancer.

Published posthumously, it carries this dedication:

To All My Old, Old Saddle Pals,
There's hardly a trail we didn't roam,
But the sun is setting in the West,
And it's time for me to head on home.

Finally, there's Henry Gregor Felsen, who wrote some odd-but-interesting dedications throughout the years. TO MY SON IN UNIFORM is dedicated To the United States Marine Corps which was always treating me better or worse than I deserved. Actually, he was probably glad to get his son "in uniform", as eight years earlier he dedicated his novel CRASH CLUB with this somewhat worried dedication: To my teen-age son and his teen-age friends. Black leather books, blue denims, turned-up jacket collars, and all... He dedicates HOT ROD To my fellow members of the Iowa Timing Association but can't resist adding a cautionary note saying that he's mailing in his manuscript on Friday afternoon, January 16, 1953, but by the time it arrives in New York on Monday morning "a grim percentage calls for two teenagers to die in auto accidents in Iowa, for half a dozen to be injured, and a score to be arrested." He adds that by the time the galley proofs are mailed back in three months "another fifty-one boys and girls under twenty-one are scheduled to die by the automobile in Iowa, 150 to be injured, and several hundred to be arrested." He goes on...and the numbers keep getting higher...but what's the point of me repeating them. All I can think about are all the teenagers who picked up this book back in the fifties hoping for an exciting, engine-roaring, tire-squealing hot rod story only to learn that some of them are "scheduled" to die. What a killjoy.

Does anyone else have some favorite dedications to add to this list?

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

They Were Strong and Good Enough for 1940

Robert Lawson, the only children's book creator to win both the Newbery and Caldecott Awards, has been the subject of a couple recent blogs. In one entry I wondered if his home, Rabbit Hill, was still standing. Today I received an interesting reply from Connie Rockman, recent editor of the BOOK OF JUNIOR AUTHORS AND ILLUSTRATORS series and also, it turns out, the Program Coordinator of the Rabbit Hill Festival. She wrote:

Yes, Peter, there really is a Rabbit Hill, and it is still there. Since Robert and Marie Lawson had no children, the house passed out of the family and had several owners after his death in 1957. The Westport (CT) library's Rabbit Hill Festival was originally funded by a woman who lived in the Rabbit Hill house for a number of years in the 1980s and 90s. She was delighted to discover her lovely dwelling had been the home of a famous children's book writer/illustrator, collected a number of Lawson titles, and added a lovely library room onto the house. The current owners are also connected to the festival, have their own Lawson collection, and host a dinner for the Rabbit Hill Festival author/illustrator presenters every year. The house has had major additions and renovations, but the main entrance with its stone patio and brick facade looks very much the way it did when the Lawsons lived there. The Festival, in late October every year, draws an audience from all over. Each year focuses on a topic that represents a different aspect of Lawson's work - animal stories, historical fiction, biography, illustration, etc.

More information about the Festival can be found here.

Thanks, Connie, for this info!

In her note, Ms. Rockman also mentioned the recent discussion about racially-insensitive comments being expunged from later editions of RABBIT HILL. She added, "The racist comments and -- even worse -- images are most prevalent in his Caldecott winner, a book we tend to downplay in promoting his legacy."

Of course this made me eager to track down a copy of that book, THEY WERE STRONG AND GOOD.

Luckily, I was able to find both a first edition and recent printing to compare the books side-by-side. Mr. Lawson's book, a history of his ancestors, has a narrative strucure that doesn't really allow for much post-publication revision -- especially in the artwork. Therefore the stereotyped racial images in the illustrations are the same today as they were when the book was first published in 1940:

There have been some changes to the text, however.

The 1940 edition reads:

When my mother was a little girl there were Indians in Minnesota -- tame ones. My mother did not like them.

Today that passage reads:

When my mother was was a little girl there were Indians in Minnesota. My mother did not like them.

The 1940 edition says:

When my father was very young he had two dogs and a colored boy. The dogs were named Sextus Hostilus and Numa Pompilius. The colored boy was just my father's age. He was a slave, but they didn't call him that. They just called him Dick..

The contemporary version differs:

When my father was very young he had a Negro slave and two dogs. The dogs were named Sextus Hostilus and Numa Pompilius. The Negro boy was just my father's age and his name was Dick.

I wonder what Robert Lawson himself would think about these changes. If only there was some way of contacting the long-deceased author (by Ouija board? through the Dead Letter Office?) and asking his opinion. Would he say, "The world has changed since 1940 and THEY WERE STRONG AND GOOD should be changed as well"? Or would he say, "The book reflects life as it was in 1940. Don't mess with it"?

And what would he say if the question was: "Would you rather have it revised and continue to be read by later generations...or not revised and not read at all?"

Unfortunately, we'll never know his answer.

And I sure don't have any answers.

I'm sure that if someone passionately stated their "Don't revise" stance to me, I'd say, "I agree."

And if someone else passionately stated the "revising" argument, I'd also say, "I agree."

That's the way I am.


I do feel strongly that if later editions are revised, it should be noted somewhere in the book. (The later, revised editions of RABBIT HILL and THEY WERE STRONG AND GOOD do not mention they've been altered.)

And, as always, I hate when later editions are lower in quality due to subpar printing and paper. In what I can only assume was a cost-cutting measure, the endpapers of the current edition of THEY WERE STRONG AND GOOD are plain, white, and boring.

Yet look at the amazing endpapers from the original edition:

It's a shame that kids today can't see Lawson's family tree. That's why I always hope that people can track down the earliest copies available of any book. You never know what you'll find. Our library's first edition included this press release (click on the image for easier reading) which provides all kinds of fascinating details about the book and author, from the exact publication date (September 27, 1940) to the author's nickname (Rob) to some background about the accuracy of the text:

And the back panel of the original dustjacket provides this intriguing bit of info about the homestead called Rabbit Hill:

It seems that when the Lawsons acquired a lovely old colonial house in Westport, Connecticut, a large mortgage went with it. There came an opportunity to make designs for Christmas cards -- good pay, steady work -- and they resolved that each (Mrs. Lawson illustrates too) should turn out one card every day until the house was paid for. It took two or three years, but Mr. Lawson declares that those years were splendid training for the more important work to follow.

And the work that followed was indeed important. I'll leave it to others to decide if 1941's Caldecott winner is strong and good enough to stand the test of time without revisions. Certainly kids are still reading that book, and BEN AND ME, and THE STORY OF FERDINAND and so many other Lawson creations -- and every fall a number of children's book authors and illustrators gather for a conference bearing the name of his Newbery-winning book and have dinner in the house that Mr. and Mrs. Lawson paid for one Christmas card at a time.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Sunday Brunch for the 19th of April

Among other topics, today’s Sunday brunch blog looks for the African American woman who disappeared from the pages of a Newbery winner as well as the little boy who walked right out of a Caldecott-winning book, never to return. We also look back at a discontinued book award and look ahead to some future changes at Collecting Children’s Books.


When I saw today was April 19, I remembered that date once appeared in the title of a children’s book. OZZIE AND THE 19TH OF APRIL by Elaine MacMann is an amusing 1957 novel about a modern-day boy who tries to track down some lost pistols from the American Revolution. This got me wondering what other specific dates turn up in the titles of children’s books. Here’s my list, in calendar order:

Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation, January 1, 1863 : The Document that Turned the Civil War into a Fight for Freedom by Frank B. Latham

An Uncommonly Fine Day : January 26, 1788 by John Anthony King

The Death of Gandhi, January 30, 1948 : India's Spiritual Leader Helps His Nation Win Independence by Robert Goldston

The Dred Scott Decision, March 6, 1857 : Slavery and the Supreme Court's Self-inflicted Wound by Frank B. Latham

The Purchase of Alaska, March 30, 1867 : A Bargain at Two Cents an Acre by Peter Sgroi

Circus, April 1st by Louis Slobodkin

Ozzie and the 19th of April by Elaine MacMann

Where was Patrick Henry on the 29th of May ? by Jean Fritz

The 35th of May : or, Conrad's ride to the South Seas by Erich Kästner (okay, maybe this one is stretching it)

The Story of D-Day, June 6, 1944 by Bruce Bliven, Jr

D-Day, the Sixth of June, 1944 by David Howarth

The Execution of Maximilian, June 19, 1867 : A Hapsburg Emperor Meets Disaster in the New World by Robin McKown

Red Hawk's Account of Custer's Last Battle : The Battle of the Little Bighorn, 25 June 1876 by Paul and Dorothy Goble

June 29, 1999 by David Wiesner

Apple Pie 4th of July by Janet S. Wong

Birthdays of Freedom : From Early Man to July 4, 1776 by Genevieve Foster

The Fourth of July by Mary Kay Phelan

Fourth of July fireworks by Patrick Merrick

Fourth of July Mice! by Bethany Roberts

The Fourth of July Story by Alice Dalgliesh

Henry's Fourth of July by Holly Keller

Hurray for the Fourth of July by Wendy Watson

The Glorious Flight : Across the Channel with Louis Blériot July 25, 1909 by Alice and Martin Provensen

September 11, 2001 : Attack on New York City by Wilborn Hampton

September 11, 2001 : The Day that Changed America by Jill C. Wheeler

9.11.01 : Terrorists Attack the U.S. by Patrick Lalley

Saturday, the Twelfth of October by Norma Fox Mazer

Monday, 21 October 1805 : The Day of Trafalgar by Ian Ribbons

Mussolini's March on Rome, October 30, 1922 : A Dictator in the Making Achieves Political Power in Italy by Jerre Gerlando Mangione

Pearl Harbor! December 7, 1941 : The Road to Japanese Aggression in the Pacific by Robert Goldston

Air Raid -- Pearl Harbor! : The story of December 7, 1941 by Theodore Taylor

Brave Eagle's Account of the Fetterman Fight, 21 December 1866 by Paul Goble


This is the inaugural year for the William C. Morris YA Debut Award. The bookstores have recently begun receiving copies of the 2009 winner, A CURSE DARK AS GOLD by Elizabeth C. Bunce, with the seal attached.Compared to the Newbery Medal’s image of an inviting open book and the Caldecott’s runaway horse and “four-and-twenty blackbirds,” the design of the Morris seems plain, but it is also striking and I like to think the rising sun graphic announces the dawn of many important careers in the field of YA books.


Back when I was a kid, this medal appeared on many books at the public library. Although it didn’t have the same gravitas as other awards and, in fact, I can’t recall ever selecting a book just because it sported this seal, it was still part of the cultural landscape back in the sixties and early seventies. Created in memory of their father by the four sons of Charles W. Follett, the Follett Medal “for worthy contributions to children’s literature” was given to an unpublished manuscript submitted to, and later published by, that Chicago publishing company. After 1967 it went to a book they had published the previous year. A few years later, the award was again given to unpublished manuscripts. Shortly after that it was discontinued. Here is a list of the winning books:

1950 : Johnny Texas by Carol Hoff
1951 : All-of-a-Kind-Family by Sydney Taylor
1952 : Thirty-one Brothers and Sisters by Reba Paeff Mirsky
1953 : Tornado Jones by Trella Lamson Dick
1954 : Little Wu and the Watermelons by Beatrice Liu
1955 : Minutemen of the Sea by Tom Cluff
1956 : No Award
1957 : Chucho, The Boy with the Good Name by Eula Mark Philllips
1958 : South Town by Lorenz Graham
1959 : Model “A” Mule by Robert Willis
1960 : What Then, Raman? by Shirley L. Arora
1961 : No Award
1962 : Me and Caleb by Franklyn E. Meyer
1963 : No Award
1964 : Across Five Aprils by Irene Hunt
1965 : No Award
1966 : No Award
1967 : Lions in the Way by Bella Rodman
1968 : Marc Chagall by Howard Greenfield
1969 : Banners Over Me by Margery F. Greenleaf
1970 : The War for the Lot by Sterling Lanier
1971 : No Promises in the Wind by Irene Hunt
1972 : A Horse Called Dragon by Lynn Hall
1973 : No Award
1974 : Red Power on the Rio Grande by Franklin Folsom

Looking back at these titles, I recognize only one “classic” book, ALL-OF-A-KIND FAMILY by Sydney Taylor, though ACROSS FIVE APRILS was a Newbery Honor and may be the single best volume Follett ever published. (But is it also a classic? I’m not sure.) Many of the other titles are now long-forgotten. I’m assuming that part of the reason Follett winners are not remembered these days is because the award drew from such a small pool of nominees -- only books submitted to that particular publishing house -- meaning a lot of these books were not truly distinguished. Still, this award gave us many books with multicultural themes long before that trend was popular. Plus, unlike most other children’s books prizes, it came with a $3000 award, which was undoubtedly very much appreciated by its winners.


I just read a fascinating article in the May issue of VANITY FAIR, “Stealing Mona Lisa,” about the 1911 theft of Leonardo’s masterpiece. I was particularly pleased to see the story was excerpted from the new book THE CRIMES OF PARIS : A TRUE STORY OF MURDER, THEFT AND DETECTION by Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler. The Hooblers have been stalwarts in the field of children’s books for years, publishing such well-regarded works as the “Samurai Mysteries” and the ambitious “Century Kids” series, which traced the history of a fictional family across the entire twentieth century. It was nice to see them pop up in an unexpected location.


I mentioned Robert Lawson’s RABBIT HILL in last Sunday’s Easter blog. This week at lunch, as I ate Tuesday's egg-salad sandwich...Wednesday's egg-salad sandwich... Thursday's egg-salad sandwich...and, you guessed it, Friday's egg-salad sandwich, I took a look at our library’s copy of RABBIT HILL, which has a copyright of 1972. Comparing the quality of the later edition with the first edition was revelatory. Everything about the 1944 edition was better -- the binding, the paper, even the illustrations. Compare the endpapers of the two volumes. 1944 is vividly on top, 1972 is the wan imitation on the bottom:

The internal artwork is poorly-reproduced as well. Look at the fine, textured quality of this illustration from the 1944 edition compared with the dark and muddy picture from 1972 below it:

Kids who read later editions of books are shortchanged when publishers don’t take the time and care to preserve the book’s original qualities. Still, I reminded myself that RABBIT HILL won the Newbery for its text, not its illustrations...and the publishers hadn’t changed the text at all.

Or had they?

Here is a small section from the 1972 volume:

Their attention now returned to the car, which was quivering and creaking strangely. Two or three bundles fell out, then a whole shower of them, as a rather stout and flushed woman heaved herself out of the rear door.

“Well, Sulphronia, here’s our new home. Isn’t it going to be lovely?” the Lady said brightly. Sulphronia looked rather doubtful and, lugging two bulging suitcases, made her way toward the kitchen door.

Phewie slapped Father on the back gleefully. “Will there be garbidge? Will there? Oh my, oh my! I’ve never seen one that shape and size that didn’t set out the elegantest garbidge! Lots of it too; chicken wings, duck’s backs, hambones – cooked to a turn!”

“Folks can be splendid cooks,” Father admitted, “and as a rule extremely generous and understanding of our needs and customs.”

Something did not seem quite right about that passage, so I went back to the 1944 printing and read something very different:

Their attention now returned to the car, which was quivering and creaking strangely. Two or three bundles fell out, then a whole shower of them, as a very stout colored woman heaved her vast bulk out of the rear door.

“Well, Sulphronia, here’s our new home. Isn’t it going to be lovely?” the Lady said brightly. Sulphronia looked rather doubtful and, lugging two bulging suitcases, waddled off toward the kitchen door.

Phewie slapped Father on the back gleefully. “Will there be garbidge? Will there? Oh my, oh my! I’ve never seen one that shape and color that didn’t set out the elegantest garbidge! Lots of it too; chicken wings, duck’s backs, hambones – cooked to a turn!”

“They are, of course, splendid cooks,” Father admitted, “and as a rule extremely generous and understanding of our needs and customs.”

Not only is Sulphronia no longer identified in pejorative racial terms, but she’s also slimmed down -- gone are her “vast bulk” and “waddle”!

This is not the first time that an award winning children’s book has been revised to suit latter-day sensitivities. The year after RABBIT HILL won the Newbery, Maud and Miska Petersham won the Caldecott Award for THE ROOSTER CROWS : A BOOK OF AMERICAN RHYMES AND JINGLES:

Like RABBIT HILL, later editions suffer from poorly-reproduced artwork -- a real shame for a volume that won top honors for its illustrations. But there’s even more. Looking at an edition of the book copyrighted in 1973, I noted that the first and last sections of the book are identical in format to the first edition, but the middle section is a real muddle, with the pages and poems no longer following the same order as the original book. Then I realized why. Two pages from the first edition are no longer included in THE ROOSTER CROWS:

I can understand why text and illustrations with racist (at worst) or racially-insensitive (at best) images are altered or removed from later editions of children’s books, but what surprises me is that there is no mention of these revisions in later printings. Why not a note on the copyright page saying, "This edition contains slight alterations from the original text" or "Some illustrations from the original edition have been omitted to reflect modern sensibilities"? Anyone who doesn’t know better will pick up a post-1972 copy of RABBIT HILL or post-1973 copy of THE ROOSTER CROWS and think they are looking at the same book that was published, and honored, decades earlier. That’s why I think it’s important to always try and track down the earliest edition of a book available: that’s the one closest to the creator’s original intent, that’s the one that provides a window on our history (even the unappealing parts that we try to conceal later on), and that’s the one which will have the better artwork.


Whoa, this one is problematic. A popular children’s author was recently arrested and charged with multiple felony counts for trading child pornography on his computer; he has pleaded not guilty. This has stirred up quite a bit of talk in libraries and bookstores. Some feel the crime (and, remember, he has pled “not guilty”) is such that kids shouldn’t have access to his books without parental approval; others say, “The man is not the book.” I can see both sides of this disturbing case. I’m not sure there is a single “right” answer -- all I know is that it raises a lot of intriguing ethical issues.

On a happier note, a canine named Bo is in the house -- and I’m not talking about the doghouse either. This Portuguese water terrier now resides in the White House with the Obama family. Only a day or two after Bo made his public debut, Mascot Books announced it was publishing BO, AMERICA’S COMMANDER IN LEASH, written by Naren Aryal and illustrated by Danny Moore. How did this book get written so quickly? (I mean, we’ve all done term papers overnight, but books are another story!) Actually the author began the manuscript when the Obamas first considered adopting a Portie; specific details -- such as Bo’s name -- weren’t added until this week.

One of the scenes in BO, AMERICA’S COMMANDER IN LEASH reportedly shows the First Dog attending the White House Easter egg roll. This past week, President Obama used that event to publicize children’s books by reading Maurice Sendak’s WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE to a group of visitors. You can watch it by clicking here.


Traditionally, books illustrated with artwork by Disney Studios haven't been highly-regarded by critics or children's book aficionados. After all, these volumes are usually dashed off by pseudonymous hacks and sold down at your favorite grocery store. It’s hard to imagine someone such as, say, Margaret Wise Brown writing this type of book.

Yet she did!

In 1939 she published LITTLE PIG’S PICNIC, which contained ten short stories (including “The Barnyard Song,” “The Lonely Little Colt” and, Heaven help us, “Pluto’s Chicks” and “Pluto’s Kittens”) all illustrated with stills from Disney cartoons. This was Margaret Wise Brown’s only collaboration with Disney -- although as late as the 1990s some of these stories, such as “The Grasshopper and the Ants” and “The Old Mill,” were rereleased as stand-alone volumes with Disney illustrations and Ms. Brown’s byline.

I’m just glad she moved on to other endeavors. I mean, what if she hadn’t?

Can you imagine this:



In a blatant attempt to lure more readers to Collecting Children’s Books, I am going to start including occasional book reviews on this site.

A blog entry with this heading will critique a current or forthcoming book that, by virtue of its quality, popularity or other factors, may be worthy of collecting for the future.

I am also going to review older books, discussing what makes them collectable, how difficult they are to obtain, and how much the are worth. These reviews will have this header.

But the blog feature I’m most excited to add will fall under this heading. Many years ago, the New York Times Book Review published two opposing book reviews for the same volume -- the young adult novel WILD IN THE WORLD by John Donovan. I’ve always thought that was a great idea.

Although I don’t subscribe to any children’s book review journals, I do occasionally see lists of “starred” books from various publications or hear through the grapevine that certain books are getting a lot of positive or negative attention. This past week I was taken aback when I saw that one publication was starring the new middle-grade novel HEART OF A SHEPHERD by Rosanne Parry, a volume that I found underdeveloped and formulaic. Later I learned another review journal had starred SURFACE TENSION by Brent Runyon, a young adult novel that struck me as, well, pretty bad.

“Dissenting Opinions” will not contain actual “responses” to specific published reviews because, in most cases, I haven’t even read those original reviews. Instead, we'll just provide a differing opinion on titles that may be either overly praised or unfairly dissed by other review sources.

To assist me with this feature, I am adding my friend and alter-ego, Daniel Wright, to the Collecting Children’s Book team. You may not know the name, but Dan has published hundreds of book reviews, considers himself a “literary gadfly” who likes to annoy the children’s book establishment, and, as he loves to boast: “I am always Wright.”

His occasional contributions may make you angry...or they may make you really angry... or they may make you really, really angry...or they may just make you reevaluate your thoughts on a given book! I hope they stir up discussion. Getting people thinking about, and talking about, children’s books has always been a primary goal of this blog.

Thanks for visiting Collecting Children’s Books.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Eternally Yours

The other day I was in line at the bagel shop and thought I saw a girl I went to high school with. She had the same stringy blonde hair, the same wire-rimmed glasses, the same nervous, typically-teenage self-conciousness. She looked about seventeen or eighteen years old.

Then I remembered...oh yeah...I graduated from high school over thirty years ago. It couldn't be the same girl. The classmate I remembered would now be about fifty!

Later that week I saw an obituary for my junior high math teacher. I was stunned to learn she was 87 years old. In my mind she was still middle-aged, still standing in front of a classroom full of kids, holding the same battered blue algebra book and dodging spitballs.

Although I'm quite aware that I am growing older every day, I somehow expect everyone else to remain the same. I don't know if this is a particular quirk of mine, or if other people feel this way as well. Does anyone else ever imagine visiting their old schools and finding the same teachers still waiting "right where you left them"? Or returning to a former neighborhood and finding the same old friends still playing baseball in the street?

Of course the only place where people can remain "forever young" is in books. Readers have been fascinated by Peter Pan, the boy who won't grow up, for over a century. And Natalie Babbitt's 1975 novel TUCK EVERLASTING is regarded by many as one of the greatest children's books of the twentieth century. For decades readers have debated the choice Winnie makes at the end of this novel -- to drink from the spring that will grant her everlasting youth and immortality -- or to continue with the impermanent life we have all been given. Ms. Babbitt has said that many young readers are upset that Winnie chooses to remain mortal although "most of them do change their minds about it later on." The author recalls, "A young girl wrote to tell me that she was so very disappointed with the ending and I wrote back to her to say that that was okay -- there is no right or wrong way to feel. Seven years later, the same girl wrote to me and said that she had changed her mind, and that she realized the book had ended the way it was supposed to. I always tell kids about that because that’s beautiful." Beautiful? I think it's downright amazing that this girl was still pondering the novel's central dilemma seven years after first reading the book -- and felt so strongly about it that she was compelled to write the author again. If that's not a sign of a good book, I don't know what is.

Lois Duncan also tackled the subject of immortality in the guise of a suspense novel. Set in steamy Louisiana plantation country, LOCKED IN TIME (1985) concerns a teenage girl who realizes her new stepfamily is cursed (cursed, not blessed) with eternal youth. Ms. Duncan said, "The idea for LOCKED IN TIME...originated when the youngest of my five children turned thirteen. Overnight my darling Kait changed from an adorable cherub who thought her mother was perfect into a hostile teenager who thought everything about Mother, from her hairstyle to her 'dumb jokes' was 'utterly gross.' My husband tried to comfort me by saying, 'It's just a phase all adolescents go through. Our other kids outgrew it and so will Kait.' The Mother part of me knew that he was right. The Writer part of me whispered 'What if she doesn't?' What if a mother and her adolescent daughter were locked in time? What would it be like to live for all eternity with a hostile, rebellious thirteen-year-old who never outgrew her training bra, who never got rid of her acne...? Once I'd gotten that far in my thinking, I was racing for the typewriter." The author concluded that the idea of being "stuck forever...unable to change and grow" was a "horrible concept."

I suppose it is. Who'd want to be thirteen forever? Or fifteen? Or eighteen? And though I like to picture my former teachers eternally erasing blackboards at my old schools, isn't being trapped in a junior high classroom ducking spitballs for all eternity truly a fate worse than death?

...Actually, when I think about it, there is one place we can revisit where the people never age and never change -- and that's in old children's books. And I'm not just talking about the immortal kids in TUCK EVERLASTING or LOCKED IN TIME. I'm talking about every children's book. No matter how old we get, Claudia and Jamie Kincaid are still going to be twelve and nine. Junior Brown will always be three hundred pounds. Chester Cricket will never get zapped by Raid. Of course all these characters do grow and change within the parameters of their storylines. And our reactions to them may differ when we read these books at different times in our lives. But there is a certain comfort in knowing that, no matter how many years pass, and no matter how much we ourselves grow and change, these characters will be waiting for our return, forever young.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Easter Brunch

This blog entry is being typed with multicolored fingers. After dying Easter eggs last evening, my fingertips are now yellow, red, blue, purple and orange. And for the first time in my life I have a green thumb -- literally. Today’s blog will be a bit truncated as I have an appointment this afternoon at H&R Block.

Yeah, I know: Who gets their taxes done on Easter?

...Only those of us who dragged our feet till April 12.

But before I go, I wanted to share a few items involving rabbits in children’s books, point you toward a new movie trailer for a classic young-adult novel, and answer some reader mail.


Even though the story has nothing to do with the holiday, I still think of Easter every time I see the cover of Robert Lawson’s RABBIT HILL.

Robert Lawson holds a unique place in the world of children’s books. He’s the only person to have ever won both the Caldecott Medal for his illustrations and the Newbery for his writing. Mr. Lawson received the 1941 Caldecott for his family history, THEY WERE STRONG AND GOOD; four years later he won the Newbery for RABBIT HILL. Although this talking-animal story is obviously fiction, it -- like THEY WERE STRONG AND GOOD -- includes a bit of Mr. Lawson’s life as well. The name of his property in Westport, Connecticut was “Rabbit Hill” and he and his wife Marie are the “New Folks in the Big House” mentioned in the novel. It was Lawson’s editor, May Massee, who suggested he write a story about the rabbits on his property, though the author-illustrator put it off until “there weren’t any excuses left.” (He was probably also the type to wait until April 12 to do his taxes.)

Later, Robert Lawson would recall that rabbits seemed to appear mystically whenever he was about to receive good news about the book. One hopped up to his mailbox the afternoon his editorial letter about RABBIT HILL came from May Massee; one appeared on the day his book was chosen as a Junior Library Guild title; others showed up when he received sales reports or a good reviews. Finally, when a small rabbit resembling the book’s protagonist appeared outside his studio and stared intently through the window for a good ten minutes, Mr. Lawson said, “Well, there’s Little Georgie with some good news about RABBIT HILL.”

His wife responded, “I don’t see what else nice could happen with it.”

The next day he received the letter informing him that RABBIT HILL had won the Newbery.

I don’t know what’s more extraordinary: the prophetic powers of those rabbits...or the fact that back then writers received notification of the award in the mail!

I have always wanted to find a first edition of RABBIT HILL signed by the author AT his home Rabbit Hill. So far no luck, but I do have a 1953 Christmas card he sent out from Rabbit Hill and that’s pretty cool too:

I don’t know if the property known as “Rabbit Hill” still exists -- or exists under another name. But there appears to be a road called Rabbit Hill in Westport and every fall the Westport Public Library sponsors the “Rabbit Hill Festival of Literature” which brings together some of the top names in children’s book writing and illustration.


Talking about RABBIT HILL got me thinking about other bunny books. Here’s a baker's dozen more, for every age from infants to young adults.

THE RUNAWAY BUNNY by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Clement Hurd, 1942.

This classic picture book was inspired by a medieval love poem.

WATERSHIP DOWN by Richard Adams, 1972.

Despite winning the top children’s book awards in Great Britain, the book was a bestseller among adult writers when published in the United States.

UNCLE REMUS STORIES by Joel Chandler Harris, beginning in 1881.

These stories featuring the trickster character of “Brer Rabbit” are drawn from African American and Cherokee tales.

BLACK RABBIT SUMMER by Kevin Brooks, 2008.

Talking animals are a staple of children’s books, and here’s a young adult novel that includes a strange kid who claims his rabbit can talk to him. It’s only one small part of the novel, but it’s a memorably creepy component of this sprawling (i.e. overlong) British mystery.

BUNNICULA : A RABBIT TALE OF MYSTERY by Deborah and James Howe, 1979.

Shortly after the publication of this “vampire bunny” book, Deborah Howe died of cancer; her husband later wrote several more books in this series.

THE TALE OF PETER RABBIT by Beatrix Potter, 1902.

The books have sold over 150 million copies and a pic of Pete appears on the package of Enfamil baby formula, a product which has produced over 150 million burps.


The adventures of a toy bunny. In the 1960s, many college students carried this classic around because they found it profound, man.


The adventures of a toy bunny. In 2006, it won a Boston Globe-Horn Book Award because they found it profound. (I thought the book was award-bait. I cannot believe anyone fell for it.)

SHADRACH by Meindert DeJong, 1953.

Some regard this as DeJong’s best, most intense work

PAT THE BUNNY by Dorothy Kunhardt, 1940.

A tactile book in which infants can touch the cottony fake fur of a bunny. I am still trying to figure out if the main character’s name is short for Patrick or Patricia.

VOYAGE TO THE BUNNY PLANET by Rosemary Wells, 1992.

Mini-picture books in which bunnies who have had a bad day get a chance to relive it. Would that we all had that opportunity.

The “Uncle Wiggily” books by Howard Roger Garis, 1910 on.

Begun as newspaper stories for the Newark News, the tales of Uncle Wiggily bred like, well, rabbits and eventually filled dozens of volumes.


Eccentric but memorable rabbit story.


M.E. Kerr is my favorite writer and her second young adult novel, IF I LOVE YOU, AM I TRAPPED FOREVER? appears to be just as hot in 2009 as it was when first released in 1973. On the left is the original edition; on the right is the brand new edition from Marshall Cavendish Classics:

Now a student named Colin has created a short movie “trailer” based on the book. He really did a fine -- and very professional -- job with it, as you can see by clicking here. It makes me want to run out and see an entire movie based on this book. Wish there was one. Maybe some enterprising Hollywood-type will view this clip on Youtube and realize what a great film it would make. Or maybe Colin will eventually make the movie himself. Whatever the case, I’d sure love to someday sit down in a movie theatre and see the words “BASED ON THE NOVEL BY M.E.KERR” appear on the big screen.


Thanks to everyone who wrote in with corrections or suggestions for last Sunday’s list of “Newbery book places.”

I’m especially intrigued when a book doesn’t specifically state its location, yet enough clues are given so that savvy readers can figure it out.

For example, Jen wrote in with a convincing argument that Beverly Cleary’s DEAR MR. HENSHAW is set in California. And Brooke said, “I also believe that Criss Cross, as well as its prequel, All Alone in the Universe is set in suburban Pittsburgh. Perkins grew up in Cheswick, just up the river from Pittsburgh, and while the specific setting is never stated explicitly, any Western Pennsylvanian will recognize specific references to this region -- the constant presence of "fly ash," the houses that climb up the hills "like cliff dwellers," and most particularly the explanation of the word "yinz" in Criss Cross. There may be a few other place names from the region mentioned, but it's been a while since I read it . . ..”

That makes sense. I had been hoping that CRISS CROSS and ALL ALONE IN THE UNIVERSE (two books I really love) were set here in Michigan, since that’s where author Lynne Rae Perkins currently resides, but I now suspect Brooke is right about the Pennsylvania setting.

It’s fun to figure these things out, isn’t it? It’s only happened to me once. Several years ago I was reading a contemporary book by Donna Jo Napoli and even though the name “Ann Arbor, Michigan” was never mentioned, I began to realize it was set in A2 (or A-squared, as it’s sometimes called around here.) I don’t remember all the clues that led me to that conclusion, but I knew for sure when the protagonist mentioned attending Angell School. I had a friend whose parents lived right next door to that school and I'd walked through their backyard and onto the school’s playground many times to push their kids on the swings. I felt like such an insider figuring that out on my own.


Regarding my recent posting about Theodore Taylor having his Jane Addams Award revoked for THE CAY, KT Horning commented:

I have been in touch with Susan C. Griffith who has done extensive research on the Jane Addams Award, including going through the papers included in the archives at Swarthmore College, and she found no evidence that the award was ever rescinded.

But Susan did find the likely source of the misinformation about it (other than Taylor himself). Bertha Jenkinson, chair of the 1975 Jane Addams Award Committee, wrote a statement saying that she thought that giving the 1970 award to "The Cay" had been a mistake. This statement was printed in the Interracial Books for Children Bulletin in 1975, along with statements, pro and con, from several others, under the headline "Revoking The Cay Award: The Establishment Cries Foul!" Since there was nothing in the article itself that indicated the award had been revoked, this headline was misleading, at best.

Unfortunately, follow-up letter from Bertha Jenkinson to Bradford Chambers, editor of the Bulletin, admonishing him for the headline and clarifying that the award had never been revoked and that she had been speaking for herself, not for the Jane Addams Peace Association, was never printed in the Bulletin, in spite of the fact she explicitly asked him to correct this information.

Perhaps at some point Theodore Taylor received a letter, or a copy of a letter, when all of this was in the works that led him to believe there was some sort of official revocation, but that does not appear to be the case.

It’s interesting to learn that, while the award may not have been officially revoked by the Jane Addams Peace Association, Theodore Taylor went to his grave thinking it had. He spoke several times about receiving a letter "from the Jane Addams people...saying they wanted me to return the award” and how, in his haste to send it back -- collect! -- he fell down the stairs and almost broke his leg.

It would be interesting to find out where that award now resides.


...In addition to wondering where THE CAY’s Jane Addams Award is, I’d love to know where old Newbery and Caldecott Medals go when their recipients shuffle off this mortal coil. I’m assuming most are passed down within the family, though there are certainly cases where the winners had no children or, let’s face it, they had children who wouldn’t really care. (How many generations does it take for the Alcott family of literature to devolve into Mama’s Family of television?) Do such prizes end up in library special collections? Have you ever seen one on public display? I’m always hoping I’ll stumble across one in a thrift shop, the way Mrs. Whitaker found the Holy Grail in the Neil Gaiman short story “Chivalry,” or maybe one will turn up in a pile of boxes and overflowing trash cans waiting for garbage pickup on the side of the road.

Can you tell I’m a big fan of TV’s Antiques Roadshow?


In reference to my blog posting on Norman Rockwell illustrations in children’s books, Sam wrote, “Don't forget his book WILLIE WAS DIFFERENT. Unless you are excluding that for some reason?”

Yes, Sam, I did exclude it for a reason.

The reason was...pure ignorance. I never even knew this book existed!

Although WILLIE WAS DIFFERENT : THE TALE OF AN UGLY THRUSHLING was published by Funk and Wagnalls in 1969, I don’t recall ever having seen this book. It wasn’t in my public library when I was growing up; it’s not in the library where I work today. I did track down a picture of the cover
and now wonder if it’s not one of those “children’s books” that’s really meant for adults...yet designated for kids only because it contains a lot of pictures and a skimpy text. I did a bit of research and discovered that Norman Rockwell wrote the original text himself and sent it to McCall’s Magazine. When McCall’s suggested that the prose be expanded, Rockwell’s wife Molly rewrote the story and Norman illustrated it. According to the biography NORMAN ROCKWELL : A LIFE by Laura Claridge, “some people have wondered why Rockwell would call the bird by the same name as his famous World War II hero, Willie Gillis. Perhaps this was some kind of odd parallelism: [his previous wife] Mary had named that protagonist, and now there would be another of the same name reserved for [his current wife] Molly.”


Claridge’s reference to Norman Rockwell’s “famous World War II hero, Willie Gillis” sent me off on another round of research. Willie Gillis was a character that Mr. Rockwell created for wartime issues of the Saturday Evening Post. A young “everyman” soldier, he appeared on eleven Post covers, first as young recruit carrying a package of food from home, then in church, at home on leave, in a romantic black-out situation with a young woman, and finally, at the end of the war, as an older, wiser vet attending college under the G.I. Bill.

I was surprised to learn from the Claridge book that Willie Gillis got his name from a children’s book! Over the years it has been inaccurately reported that he was named after the nursery rhyme character Wee Willie Winkie. But he was actually named after the protagonist of WEE GILLIS, written by Munro Leaf and illustrated by Robert Lawson (yep, the RABBIT HILL guy.) At the time Norman Rockwell was creating the character, his wife was reading WEE GILLIS aloud to their children. As Norman tried to figure out a name for his character, Mrs. Rockwell remembered WEE GILLIS and suggested the name Willie Gillis.


Okay, I’m leaving to have my taxes done. Feel free to take an egg when you go. Every year they have some new kind of egg decorating gimmick. One year it was glitter, the next year it was tie-dye. My favorite were the “egg wraps” from several years ago: decorated plastic sleeves that melded onto the egg when dipped into boiling water. This year’s decorating kit featured “splatter and spray” dyes. I’m not crazy about how they turned out, so I hid them in the bottom of this basket filled with plastic decorated eggs I bought half-price the day after Easter a couple years ago:

Please take as many as you like. Take three, take four. The fewer eggs I’m stuck with, the less egg salad I’ll have to eat this week!

Thanks for visiting Collecting Children’s Books -- and Happy Easter! Hope your holiday is not as "taxing" as mine.