Sunday, June 14, 2009

Sunday Brunch with Cards and Quotes

Today’s Sunday Brunch features more random opinions and observations about children’s books old and new.


All our local high schools videotape their graduation ceremonies, which are later broadcast (again and again) on community-access cable. I’m sure most viewers flip right past when switching channels. After all, what could be more boring than watching hundreds of students, from Amy Aames to Zachary Zukowski, march across a stage in caps and gowns to receive their diplomas? But I always stop to watch. I’m fascinated to see how much things have changed since my own high school graduation decades ago. (Since when do the students hug their principal and teachers when crossing the stage? That never happened in the seventies.) And I’m equally fascinated by the expressions on the kids’ faces: excited, bored, tearful, trying-to-look-cool, scared.... Some things are timeless.

I actually spent my graduation day throwing up.

I don’t know if I had the flu or a bad case of nerves or what...but I threw up before leaving the house...threw up in the snow outside the school (I graduated in January)...and threw up out the car window going home.

Looking ahead to a future of fame and fortune (hey, isn’t that what graduation is all about?), I tried to laugh it off, thinking it might someday make a funny anecdote in my autobiography.

Then came a future devoid of fame and fortune and today, rather than finding it humorous, my Regurgitation Graduation instead strikes me as being fairly, well, pathetic. And I can’t even claim it as a unique experience because half the people I talk to these days tell me, “Dude, I threw up at my graduation too!”

I grit my teeth in order not to respond, “Yeah, but in my particular case, I wasn’t drunk... dude.

Watching the Class of 2009 crossing the stage with such promise and hope on TV and remembering my own wretched past (“Could you please hold my mortarboard while I vomit?”) made me start thinking about graduation scenes in young adult novels. Though an important rite of passage for teenagers, I can’t recall many truly memorable high school graduations in fiction.

The one I remember best comes at the conclusion of MY DARLING, MY HAMBURGER by Paul Zindel (1969.) I read this novel before I even started high school, but was still being moved by the melancholy tone of the scene as the characters reflect on how much they changed between the start of senior year and graduation.

A graduation ceremony provides the framework for Stella Pevsner’s 1981 novel I’LL ALWAYS REMEMBER YOU...MAYBE. As the protagonist sits through her commencement, she recalls her high school romances, which are presented in flashback.

In Larry Doyle’s 2007 debut, I LOVE YOU, BETH COOPER, the senior class valedictorian uses his commencement address to declare his love for an unattainable girl. Although technically published as an adult novel, this funny and frantic book seemed like YA fiction to me and I imagine the forthcoming movie version will also appeal mostly to teens.

Finally, I can’t believe I’m including a Christopher Pike paperback here...but I will say that the three-volume “Final Friends” series is probably the best thing this usually-slipshod author has ever written. I expected a fast-moving plot and lots of suspense and surprises -- but perhaps the biggest surprise was how strong the characterizations were. In this third volume of the trilogy (after THE PARTY and THE DANCE), the characters finally reach the end of their senior year -- and what could be more fun than high school graduation with a murderer still on the loose?


An adult book about an elderly custodian probably falls outside the purview of “Collecting Children’s Books,” but since the story is set in a high school and has lots of young supporting characters -- and since this is one of my all-time favorites -- I want to mention it here. Mackinlay Kantor’s VALEDICTORY first appeared as a SATURDAY EVENING POST story in 1938. I discovered it as a teenager in a paperback anthology and loved it. When I left the book sitting around, my father read the story and loved it. Then he passed it on to my mother and she loved it. Since then I’ve given the story to several friends and -- guess what? -- they loved it too. But I only give it to special friends because I know I’d be hurt and take it personally if they didn’t love it. One day, years after reading this story in the anthology, I was browsing in a used bookstore and discovered that VALEDICTORY was printed as a hardcover novella in 1939. This story of Ty, an elderly janitor working his last high school commencement before retiring, is not just a wonderful character study, but also a reminder of how every person touches other lives, sometimes unknowingly. And that high school commencement is not the only “graduation” we face in a lifetime of moving on.


The end of the school year brings summer vacation. To get in the mood, I’ve been reading a new paperback called VACATIONS FROM HELL, which contains five stories about young vampires and witches by Gen X young-adult authors Libba Bray, Cassandra Clare, Claudia Gray, Maureen Johnson, and Sarah Mlynowski. This volume follows on the heels of PROM NIGHTS FROM HELL (stories by Meg Cabot, Stephenie Meyer, Kim Harrison, and Lauren Myracle) and LOVE IS HELL (Scott Westerfeld, Melissa Marr, Justine Larbalestier, Gabrielle Zevin.) There seems to be a trend of novelists contributing entries to themed paperback anthologies. The results are often uneven. Many novelists are not particularly skilled at writing short fiction. Some of their efforts have a “written to order” feel about them. But I wanted to mention these books because I think short story volumes are often overlooked by readers. And fans of the above writers may be interested in seeing them work in a different genre. Certainly any “completist” interested in collecting every work by their favorite author will want to track down these types of volumes.


Thinking about summer vacation reminds me of the year we had a tent in our backyard. Many hot afternoons were spent inside the tent playing kids’ card games: Old Maid, Fish, War, and Authors.

Does anyone else remember the game of Authors? Various classic authors were represented like this:

You dealt the cards out among all the players and then tried to collect all four titles by an author to get a set. For example, if you had Charles Dickens’s PICKWICK PAPERS, you would ask another player if they had OLIVER TWIST. If they did, you’d add it to your hand and keep playing. If not, your turn was over. The next player, having heard you were collecting Dickens, might then ask you for CHRISTMAS CAROL. Or they might be searching for Mark Twain or Louisa May Alcott.

Reading up on the game today, I was surprised to discover the game was originally begun in the 1860s and then issued by Parker Brothers in 1897.

When I played this game at age six or seven, I had no idea who Nathaniel Hawthorne, William Makepeace Thackeray or Alfred, Lord Tennyson were. (In fact, the only book I probably knew in the entire card game was Dickens’s A CHRISTMAS CAROL.) And I remember the pictures on the cards being black-and-white (or perhaps sepia) and the print being very tiny. But looking back I see that the game did affect my “cultural IQ,” so that when I heard those names later in life I knew they were authors and could even list some of their works.

I just did some searching on the internet and discovered these cards are still available. There is even a special deck focusing on children’s authors that includes Dr. Seuss, A. A. Milne, Meindert DeJong, Rudyard Kipling, Hans Christian Anderson, Lewis Carroll, Charles Perrault, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Brothers Grimm, Joel Chandler Harris, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Beatrix Potter, and J. M. Barrie.

I wonder if any kids actually play Authors today. Probably not...unless there’s a Playstation version.

I’m waiting for the Nintendo Wii edition.

Can you imagine dancing with A.A. Milne or kickboxing with Laura Ingalls Wilder?


I haven’t read it yet, but I’m intrigued by a new book called THE HEIGHTS by Brian James, which is a modern young adult novel inspired by Emily Bronte’s WUTHERING HEIGHTS:

A few years ago Gordon Korman wrote JAKE, REINVENTED, which was inspired by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s THE GREAT GATSBY:

I know there are many novels based on classic fairy tales and legends. Robin McKinley’s done a couple. Jane Yolen too. And Donna Jo Napoli has made a cottage industry of it. But I’m wondering if there are any other books for young people, like THE HEIGHTS and JAKE, REINVENTED, that are based on specific, well-known novels of the past. Could this be a trend for the future?

Do contemporary retellings of classic novels represent a paucity of imagination for modern writers (1) Pick classic novel. 2) Change old-timey names to something cool like Aidan and Summer. 3) Move setting from English village to Greenwich Village, etc., etc.) or do they serve a purpose in drawing attention to classics? I can definitely see a high school teacher using both THE HEIGHTS and WUTHERING HEIGHTS in the classroom, or having students compare and contrast JAKE and GATSBY as an assignment.


Those who follow this blog may remember my not-so-recent pledge to read MIDDLEMARCH. More than a month has passed and I’m now only on page 360...out of 890. Depressed by how slow that was going, this past week I picked up a short modern classic and knocked it off in a couple at least I could feel I'd accomplished something. The book I chose was THE GREAT GATSBY (no, not JAKE, REINVENTED -- the real thing) and I loved it from the very beginning to its stunning, oft-quoted final line:

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Gosh, I love that line. I’m dying to find some way to squeeze that quote into conversation one of these days.

And it got me thinking about famous quotations from children’s books. A couple that immediately came to mind:

It is not often someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer.
Charlotte was both.

--CHARLOTTE’S WEB by E.B. White.

Have a carrot.
--THE RUNAWAY BUNNY by Margaret Wise Brown.

I do not like green eggs and ham. I do not like them, Sam-I-am!

Don't cry because it's over. Smile because it happened.
--Dr. Seuss (was this from a book as well?)

I’ll love you forever and like you for always-- (Ack! Enough! Do you want a repeat performance of my high school graduation here???)

Anyway, what wise or witty sayings do you recall from Milne or Travers or Sendak, etc? What quotations from children’s books would you put in your personal copy of FAMILIAR QUOTATIONS?


This past week’s conversion from analog to digital television got me thinking.

Technology is always changing -- and those changes are often permanent.

Remember record albums? They were replaced by CDs. ...And when was the last time you saw a record album?

Remember the age of videotapes, when we had entire stores full of videos for rent? Today a store like Blockbuster only has DVDs...and there are new things coming down the line that will put DVDs out to pasture with our old videotapes.

Now electronic reading devices are impacting the world of books. As more and more books are read only on a Kindle, fewer and fewer hard copies of those titles will need to be printed. That just stands to reason.

But what happens when today’s Kindle is replaced by tomorrow’s “next big thing” in electronic reading devices?

What exactly happens to all the books you read on your Kindle when Kindle no longer exists?

When a book goes out of print -- a real book with ink on paper -- there are still thousands of copies out libraries, in homes, in used bookstores. But what happens when Kindle books -- made of pixels and light -- go "out of print"? I can’t see anyone making the effort to upgrade a midlist or poor-selling book for the next reading device. ...And remember, there won’t be as many paper copies left behind either, since much of the original audience read those titles on Kindle and there wasn’t a need to publish them on paper.

I used to worry about preserving old children's books...and now we also have to worry about books that only existed as letters on an electronic screen. How will save those stories?

So we read on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly toward books of the past.....

Thanks for stopping by.


Monica Edinger said...

Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister
on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had
peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no
pictures or conversations in it, `and what is the use of a book,'
thought Alice `without pictures or conversation?'

Sam said...

I think my first introduction to the game of Authors was in the book "Family Sabbatical." Remember that one?

As for Middlemarch vs. Gatsby... You know I rate Middlemarch as one of the very best. Meanwhile I think Gatsby is bunk. So perhaps they are for different types of people and you may as well give up on Middlemarch...

Anonymous said...

I played Authors all the time with my sister-- mid-1970s and early 1980s. I have yet to actually read any William Makepeace Thackeray. And I do remember how they mangled the names in Family Sabbatical. Love that book.

A Gatsby quote I use every year: "Do you always watch for the longest day of the year and then miss it? I always watch for the longest day in the year and then miss it."

And my talismanic quotes: "Sometimes you have to lie." (Louise Fitzhugh, Harriet the Spy) and "My ears were filled with lizard music." (Daniel Pinkwater, Lizard Music)

Anonymous said...

We played Authors often when I was a kid, and all my kids played it, and we occasionally still play it. But not the variations so much.. I collected them, but for some reason they aren't as appealing, even the children's authors. And of course I remember "Speak-a-piece Whackery". My mom had to convince the school librarian that I should be allowed to read Family Sabbatical (I had already read it through the public library) when the librarian at school thought the French phrases would be too hard to understand.
One of my favorite quotes is from Carrie the Cat in Half Magic when she could talk, but only half the time, and was silent, half the time. She said, "And the rest is silence, Shakespeare!"
Also I think you meant "When I left the book lying around..."
Word Verification: mentione: When you mention something somehow related to Italy, Italian literature, or Italian history.
Jeanne K.

Anonymous said...

How about the graduation scene in Sherri L. Smith's Hot, Sour, Salty Sweet? A water pipe bursts and sends a geyser of water over everyone and making the purple dye in the graduates' graduation gowns run. I thought it was cute. (By the way, Sherri L. Smith's latest book, Flygirl, not to be confused with Flyy Girl, is excellent). I also used to play Authors with my brother in the 70's. I remember we didn't know how to pronounce Idylls of the King so called it "Lillies of the King..."
Thanks for your blog. It's the best one out there about children's books.

Emily said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Emily said...

A perhaps not-so-famous but very worthwhile quote from The Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsay,

"Apologies are totally inadequate," shouted Uncle Wattleberry. "Nothing short of felling you to the earth with an umbrella could possibly atone for the outrage."

Nicole said...

I have Author cards! Someone gave them to me as a gift in college - but I never knew what they were about. I would love to play.

Fuse #8 said...

Speaking of updated adult literature, don't forget "The Young Man and the Sea" by Philbrick or the upcoming "Troy High" which is The Illiad set in a high school. A trend in search of a name, I think.

Connie said...

There's also Paul Fleischman's Dateline Troy and Meg Cabot's Avalon High, a modern day King Arthur romance.

Penni Russon said...

Where am I going? I don't quite know
What does it matter where people go?
Down to the woods where the bluebells grow.
Anywhere, anywhere, I don't know.
Milne (I think it's called Summer Morning. And yes, Arnie reads it in Kindergarten Cop).

You know graduation here in Australia is no big deal, or it certainly wasn't in my public school - perhaps more could be made of it, it seems a good rite of passage to mark. I've noticed a scary new trend of 'graduation ceremonies' for kindergarten. For crying out loud.

Anonymous said...

I recently re-read The Secret Garden. I had forgotten how stunning some of the language is. Frances Hodgson Burnett had such a talent for capturing the meaningful moments of life in, oh, a paragraph. Here is one of my favorites:
"One of the strange things about living in the world is that it is only now and then one is quite sure one is going to live forever and ever and ever. One knows it sometimes when one gets up at the tender solemn dawn-time and goes out and stands alone and throws one's head far back and looks up and up and watches the pale sky slowly changing and flushing and marvelous unknown things happening until the East almost makes one cry out and one's heart stands still at the strange unchanging majesty of the rising of the sun—which has been happening every morning for thousands and thousands and thousands of years. One knows it then for a moment or so...And it was like that with Colin when he first saw and heard and felt the Springtime inside the four high walls of a hidden garden. That afternoon the whole world seemed to devote itself to being perfect and radiantly beautiful and kind to one boy. Perhaps out of pure heavenly goodness the spring came and crowned everything it possibly could into that one place."

CLM said...

Recently someone in my book group suggested we read a well known classic and a modern adaptation, so I suggested we read A American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser. I had read and liked Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly, which was inspired by it. When I suggested we read both, I did not mention that one was a YA because I had been gently scolded for slipping Octavian Nothing by them. Everyone signed on. However, sadly, although we are all enthusiastic readers, no one had the energy to finish 700 pages of American Tragedy so no one except me has read and appreciated this well written book by Donnelly.

Laurie said...

A high school graduation opens Lois Lowry's fine novel Find a Stranger, Say Goodbye, which is about a young woman, adopted, who decides to find her birth mother. Her graduation gifts figure importantly in her quest.

Carm said...

Sam, I loved Family Sabbatical!

I'm intrigued by these "classics revisited" novels. I know there are a few "versions" of Shakespeare works redone in YA format. Haven't read any of them, but I have seen some.

I love Gatsby. And some of the best quotes around can be found in Oscar Wilde's work. As for children's lit -- well, I've always loved Pippi Longstocking. The lines aren't always so portable to be used as pithy quotes, but the dialogues between her and various characters are delicious!

Alison said...

I believe Bette Greene's "Morning is a Long Time Coming", the sequel to "Summer of My German Soldier" opens with Patty's high school graduation. I haven't read the book in years, but if memory serves, the day is not a happy one for her, and it isn't long before she leaves Jenkinsville behind for Paris & then Germany, in search of Anton's family.