Tuesday, June 16, 2009

"Dealing" with William Speak-a-piece Whackery and Alfred O-Lord Tennisball

A couple days ago I blogged about the children's card game Authors. Several people wrote to say they remembered this game from FAMILY SABBATICAL, a 1956 novel by Carol Ryrie Brink, and a sequel to 1952's FAMILY GRANDSTAND. So I pulled my copies of these books off the shelf and finally got around to reading them this week. Now I understand why so many people like them.

Carol Ryrie Brink (1895-1981) started her career with a bang. Her second novel for young readers, CADDIE WOODLAWN, won the 1936 Newbery Medal and has become something of a classic. Although she continued to successfully write for both children and adults, her later books -- with perhaps the exception of BABY ISLAND -- are generally forgotten these days. Yet many people have told me that FAMILY GRANDSTAND and FAMILY SABBATICAL were among their childhood favorites. The latter titles were based loosely on the experiences of Ms. Brink's own children who, like the fictional Ridgeways, were raised in a midwestern college town.

FAMILY GRANDSTAND introduces twelve-year-old Susan, her scientifically-minded brother George, and their eccentric-yet-wise little sister Dumpling. Growing up in Midwest City with their college professor father and writer-mother, the Ridgeway kids live just a block-and-a-half from the college football stadium and are able watch the games from a tall tower built above the attic of their quaint old home. As an added bonus, the star quarterback of the university football team, Tommy Tokarynski, is a friend of the family. Tommy's fear that he may fail chemistry and get cut from the team is just one of the many subplots in this episodic novel which also concerns the Ridgeways' several pets, the siblings' varied attempts to earn money, and their busy plans for celebrating George's birthday, Halloween, and Homecoming. Though some of these elements may be familiar, the characterizations are fresh (particularly Dumpling, who "did not have to speak; she only had to look thoughtful to impress people"), the dialogue is often funny, and the college-town setting -- and especially that cool tower on top of the house -- gives the novel an extra kick.

FAMILY SABBATICAL is set the following year, when the Ridgeways kids (like the real-life Brinks) visit France while their father takes his sabbatical. Their fish-out-of-water experiences ("it was a nuisance that French people insisted on speaking French.") add humor to a story in which the kids see the sights, befriend an elderly princess, and pass on some bad habits to their French tutor, who ends up learning such rude phrases as "phooey" and "shut up." This is the book in which the kids play Authors, calling the writers names such as "William Speak-a-Piece Whackery" and "Alfred O'Lord Tennisball." They even create their own rules:

George and Susan loved to play Authors, but they did not play it in the usual way. Instead of asking for the eauthors and books by their right names, they changed the names just a little, so that the other player had to guess what was wanted. For instance, if George said, "I want a card called 'The Heck of the Resperus' by Henry Wads-of-gum Tall-fellow," Susan would reply, "I'm sorry, I don't have 'The Wreck of the Hesperus' by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, but please give me 'Snow-Plow' by John Whiteleaf Grennier."

George would would scratch his head a minute, trying to think, and then he would reply, "Okay here is 'Snow-Bound' by John Greenleaf Whittier, and don't me if I've got 'Barbara Itchy' by the same guy...."

Although FAMILY GRANDSTAND and FAMILY SABBATICAL were published over fifty years ago, I'm surprised by how well they hold up today. There may be a few moments that now give us pause -- such as an Indian dance the kids perform on Thanksgiving -- and the writing occasionally seems dated ("'Oh, a picnic,' they cried, hurrying to get trays" -- just one of the many times the young Ridgeways awkwardly speak in a single voice), but the plots still retain interest and there is just enough sass in the dialogue to prevent sugar overload. One of the themes that runs through both books is loss and recovery. Some things -- such as the turtles George receives for his birthday -- are lost forever. Most are later recovered (a canary freed from its cage; a doll dropped in a castle dungeon; a locket the princess lost as a child and the Ridgeways find years later.) In one case, George intentionally leaves his prized collection of rocks hidden in a French grotto "like a buried treasure" for someone to find later. ("Imagine the shouts of glee, the joyous cries of surprise!" the princess prophesizes.) I thought about that scene as I looked at the inscription in my copy of the book. I bought FAMILY SABBATICAL off eBay for $25.50 a few years ago. I have no idea who Matile was. Certainly the grandchildren who might be "old enough and interested" in reading the book in 1957, are now old enough to be grandparents themselves. I don't know how or why the original owners gave this book up...but it felt like I'd found buried treasure when I discovered it on eBay.

I also thought it was interesting that Carol Ryrie Brink inscribed this copy on June 14, 1957 -- 52 years to the day before people mentioned the title FAMILY SABBATICAL on this blog.

...Incidentally, there also appears to be a reference to the game Authors in LITTLE WOMEN. In Chapter Twelve, Jo says, "Let's have a sensible game of Authors to refresh our minds" and later Beth is shown "collecting the scattered Author-cards." I thought this was particularly intriguing, since one day Louisa May Alcott herself would be one of the authors featured in most decks of Author cards. Also, when LITTLE WOMEN was published in 1868, the game of Authors was still fairly new. I guess Louisa May wanted to keep her story timely. If she'd written LITTLE WOMEN a century or so later, she might have had Jo and Beth playing Ms. Pacman or Donkey Kong.

FAMILY GRANDSTAND by Carol Ryrie Brink; illustrated by Jean MacDonald Porter. Viking, 1952.

First edition points: "1952" date on title page; "First published by the Viking Press in October 1952" on verso. Rust cloth cover with vignette illustration. $2.50 price on dustjacket.

FAMILY SABBATICAL by Carol Ryrie Brink; illustrated by Susan Foster. Viking, 1956.

First edition points: "1956" date on title apge; "First published by the Viking Press in April 1956" on verso. Yellow cloth cover with vignette illustration. My dustjacket is price-clipped, but I believe the original price was $3.00.

Difficulty in finding first editions: FAMILY GRANDSTAND can be found as low as $25-30; FAMILY SABBATICAL is harder to find, so the price may be $75 or more.


The Floating Lush said...

I love those books. Thanks for mentioning them!

Sam said...

Can't believe you had a signed copy sitting around. We never had one but checked it out of the church library repeatedly.

not only did the book introduce me to Authors, it also introduced me to candy that looks like actual small rocks and oubilettes.(sp?)

Anonymous said...

I must have read those books a hundred times, but I also loved The Pink Motel. She was quite prolific, but it's so hard to find her books in the library now, except for Caddie, of course.
Jeanne K.

Bybee said...

I really liked Caddie Woodlawn, so I don't know how I missed her other books.

CLM said...

I love these but you should also hunt down Two Are Better Than One and Winter Cottage, also outstanding reads!

Anonymous said...

I seem to recall Authors appearing in an Edward Eager as well, but which one?

Laurie said...

I love these books, especially Family Sabbatical, which I quote constantly to my family. ("You find yourself in France now, Shorsh!") I have visited Paris once and it was at Christmastime, just like the Ridgeways. We admired the store windows, visited Notre Dame, walked along Rue de Rosiers, and even found the nearby place with millions of cats--the Arenes de Lutece. No cats the day we were there, just children playing soccer.

My other favorite novel by Brink is Baby Island, which unlike FG and FS has been reprinted in paperback many times. Thank you for this delightful post.

Carm said...

How funny! I should have read on in my catching up before commenting on your last post! I am a huge Carol Ryrie Brink fan. My first discovery was The Pink Motel and I so love that book.

I had no idea what my copy of Family Sabbatical might be worth. Now I just need to pick up a Family Grandstand and I'll be set!

A few years ago I visited the Kerlan Collection at the Campbell Library at the University of Minnesota. They have an AMAZING collection of first drafts, communications between editors and authors, notes, and so forth from children's authors. So fun to sort through. Carol Ryrie Brink donated her Newbery Award and so I had a solemn moment when I held it in my hand. Ahhh...