Sunday, June 7, 2009

Sunday Brunch

Among other subjects, today’s Sunday Brunch looks back at Loretta Mason Potts and looks forward to a reappearance by Grandma Dowdel.


Mary Chase only wrote two children’s books, but both became cult classics.

LORETTA MASON POTTS (1958) and THE WICKED PIGEON LADIES IN THE GARDEN (1968) may not have been hugely popular when first published, but today these eccentric fantasies are well-remembered by select readers who clamor to have them re-issued in new editions or are willing to pay hundreds of dollars for first editions.

I must admit I came to the party late, not discovering these titles until I was an adult. Because I lack the visceral childhood-connection experienced by many fans, I’m probably more apt to see some pretty major flaws in these books -- but I think I can still recognize what’s made them so appealing to generations of kids. Both titles present beguiling, but increasingly evil, fantasy worlds and both feature unusual-for-their-era “bad girl” protagonists.

LORETTA MASON POTTS begins with scenes of fifties-style domestic tranquility, but we soon realize that things aren't what they seem in the Mason household. First of all, Mr. and Mrs. Mason are separated/divorced -- another unusual element for a children’s book of that time -- and then there are Mrs. Mason’s mysterious Friday night trips out of town.... When Colin hears a rumor that he once had an older sister, he does some investigating. In the attic he finds a portrait of a baby -- smoking a cigarette! -- and then follows his mother when she goes to visit a twelve-year-old girl living with Mr. and Mrs. Potts, a milkman and his wife. It turns out that this girl -- Loretta Mason Potts -- is Colin’s sister, a hellion who insisted, from a very young age, that she wanted to live with the Potts family. Now out of control and no longer wanted by the Pottses, Loretta returns home to live with the Mason family. The oddball premise of bratty Loretta trying to fit into Colin’s more traditional family could have sustained an entire novel in itself, but the author adds an odd twist to the tale: the reason Loretta was drawn away from home in the first place was because she had fallen under the spell of some little people living behind the Potts’s property. Soon these little people -- led by an old General and a beautiful Countess -- have tunneled an entrance into the Mason house and are drawing Loretta, Colin, and their younger siblings into a world of lavish tea parties and indoor sled rides where rudeness and backtalk are actively encouraged. Chase does a great job depicting the appeal of bad behavior. Kids will be equally aghast and thrilled by Loretta’s wicked antics and sassy mouth. And the world of the little people does have its first, but danger soon looms for the Mason family. Unfortunately, this is a novel that begins stronger than it ends. Larger-than-life Loretta fades into the background as the story goes on and it’s ultimately an adult character, rather than the children, who saves the day.

Ten years later, Mary Chase returned with a second children’s book, THE WICKED PIGEON LADIES IN THE GARDEN, that shares several similarities with its predecessor. This time the bad-girl heroine is Maureen Swanson, “a hard slapper, a shouter, a loud laugher, a liar, a trickster, and a stay-after-schooler.” One afternoon, after spraying a neighbor-lady with a hose, Maureen hides out in the long-abandoned Messerman mansion, where she meets a leprechaun, discovers portraits of the seven Messerman daughters, and steals a bracelet. We learn that the Messerman girls, though raised to be kind and charitable, grew up to be selfish and inconsiderate. They also have the ability to transform into pigeons. In a rather jarring plot twist, Maureen travels back in time and joins the snotty sisters for a brief spell. A less-developed work than LORETTA MASON POTTS, this book again shows that what seems to be an ideal world -- a beautiful home full of music, elegant trappings, and seven stairstep sisters -- has an evil underside. Nominated for a Dorothy Canfield Fisher Award, THE WICKED PIGEON LADIES developed quite a cult following over the years and was republished as THE WICKED WICKED LADIES IN THE HAUNTED HOUSE in 2003, with illustrations by Peter Sis.

Although the plots feel somewhat cobbled together and the author certainly leaves a lot unexplained, one can understand why these stories remain indelible for so many readers. The characterizations are strong and the horror elements -- a giant doll crashing into a tiny home, a flock of menacing pigeons waiting just outside a window -- pack a punch. Both novels have a rather adult sensibility that was unusual for books of the fifties and sixties. There’s a mention of suicide in LORETTA MASON POTTS and at one point a mother must ponder a Sophie’s-Choice-like decision. And I’m struck by the somewhat horrifying fact that children in both books -- Loretta and the Messerman sisters -- willingly leave their parents with no qualms or emotional distress. Does this speak to a dark childhood fantasy? Or does the fact that Mrs. Mason ultimately risks her life to save her children and the Messermans pine away and die without their daughters reveal an even stronger childhood fantasy?


Perhaps Mary Chase only published two children’s books because she spent most of her career writing for a different medium. She was best-known as a playwright. Her greatest success, HARVEY, won the Pulitzer Prize for drama and was made into a film starring James Stewart. I was surprised to discover that stage great Tallulah Bankhead got a Tony Award nomination for a play that had its origins in LORETTA MASON POTTS.

Although LORETTA MASON POTTS was not published until 1958, the manuscript was actually written in 1953. Over the next fifteen years, Mary Chase tried adapting this story for the stage with varying degrees of success. First she wrote a version called LOLITA, which was staged at Virginia’s Barter Theatre in 1954. Although not a hit, several producers were enchanted with a character named Mrs. Purvis and suggested that Chase write a play focusing solely on this figure. The resulting play, MIDGIE PURVIS, concerns an upperclass matron who, through a series of comic mishaps, takes a vacation from her family and social responsibilities. The play opened on Broadway in February 1961 with Tallulah Bankhead playing the lead role. Although it ran only twenty-one performances before closing due to poor reviews, Bankhead received her one and only Tony nomination for this show.

Mary Chase went back to the original source material as she continued trying to adapt LORETTA MASON POTTS for the stage. Other versions were known as LORETTA and LORETTA AND THE LITTLE PEOPLE, until it was finally staged as MICKEY. This final revision, which uses both live actors and puppets, was published in 1968 and remains in print today.


Tallulah Bankhead’s Broadway triumphs included THE LITTLE FOXES and THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH, but it’s the transitory nature of theatre that even legendary performances live only in the memories of those who saw them. Today -- if she’s remembered at all -- she’s best-known for her TV roles with Batman and Lucille Ball or from a 1960s horror flick called DIE, DIE, MY DARLING. A smoker, a heavy drinker (her last words were “codeine...bourbon....”) and druggie (she once said, “Cocaine isn't habit forming. I should know -- I've been using it for years”), Bankhead was also a wit and a raconteur whose eyebrow-raising epigrams were usually rated NC-17. Considering this background, I don’t know whether Tallulah would be appalled or amused to learn she has a presence in modern children’s books. She’s quoted in one of Ian Falconer’s “Olivia” stories, DREAM BIG (2006); there’s a young character named after her in Laurence Yep’s CHILD OF THE OWL (1977); and E.L. Konigsburg featured her ghost in a 1986 novel.

UP FROM JERICHO TEL may be Ms. Konigsburg’s most eccentric novel -- the story of two outsider kids who encounter the spirit of a dead actress (referred to only as “Tallulah” here) who grants them the power of invisibility while they search for her missing necklace. The author does a good job bringing Bankhead to life (well, she’s dead in the novel, but you know what I mean!) and creates some very clever quotes for her (“Kids are amateur adults”; “The difference between going to school and getting an education is the difference between picking an apple and eating it”) but it's the fantasy elements that make UP FROM JERICHO TEL probably my least favorite Konigsburg book. I admire the author for trying something different, but I vastly prefer her more realistic stories of everyday kids running away to live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art or casting spells and making flying potions. Hmm...flying in a museum...maybe those other books aren’t so “realistic”...but you know what I mean!


The invisible kids in UP FROM JERICHO TEL aren’t the only things that fade from view. I was looking at my copy of this book and noticed how the dustjacket has faded over time. Originally the spine was the same deep red color as the front and back panels of the dustjacket, but over the twenty-three years the book has sat on my shelf, the spine has faded to a pale pink:

Faded djs aren’t a problem where I work. We remove all dustjackets before the books hit the shelf. Unfortunately, we then end up with faded books. Here’s our library copy of UP FROM JERICHO TEL. The cloth cover was originally a muted green, but now the spine and the top edges of the panels have turned bright blue:

It's probably expecting too much for a book to remain pristine for nearly a quarter century. I mean, do you still look the same as you did twenty-three years ago? Everything changes over time. Sunlight, UV lighting, and just normal handling can fade and damage a book. I guess there are ways to avoid the dreaded “fade.” Some mylar wrappers promise to cut down on UV damage. There are ways to chemically treat a book or dustjacket to retain the original color as well. And of course one could always wrap one's books carefully and store them deep inside a dark box. But volumes hidden away in boxes cannot be read or shared...and isn’t that the whole purpose of a book? I prefer my books to be slightly beaten-up and faded than not read at all.


Of course Kindle readers don’t have to worry about their books fading. When they experience “the fade,” they just need to put in a new battery. Is this the future of books? Last Sunday I wrote about the recent Book Expo in New York City where ARCs (advance reading copies) of forthcoming books were distributed freely. HarperCollins broke with tradition by giving out “eBooks” rather than their standard paperback galleys. A friend sent me these examples, which are printed on laminated cards:

Using the PIN number on the back of the card, one can go online and read these new books from a Sony Reader, iPhone, Smartphone, or Windows or Macintosh computer. Access to these files ends at a pre-determined date. Will there come a time when all ARCs are issued this way? Will paper ARCs eventually fade away?


Until such a time as ARCs do fade away, I will continue to collect them. Actually, the only ones I actively collect are a) ARCs of award-winning books, b) ARCs by very favorite authors, c) ARCs that are unusual for some reason (i.e. titles getting a lot of “buzz,” titles I feel will someday be important, or ones that I think need to be read right away so I can keep up with others in the book world...yeah, the old “keeping up with the Joneses” thing.) If someone sends me an ARC to review, or as a gift, I don’t always purchase the hardcover edition later on. However, if I go out of my way to find an ARC on my own, I have a policy of always purchasing the hardcover. It’s an expensive policy...but it’s a point of honor for me. For example, last weekend I purchased an ARC of Richard Peck’s newest, A SEASON OF GIFTS, off the internet. This one fits all my criteria for buying an ARC: a) the book is part of the award-winning series that began with LONG WAY FROM CHICAGO), b) Richard Peck is one of my very favorite authors, c) this book will be getting a lot of talk so I need to read it early in order to keep up with others in the book world. When the hardcover is released in September, I’ll definitely be getting a copy for my collection as well.

Now if only the ARC would get here!

I ordered it last weekend and knew it probably wouldn’t arrive early in the week.

But by Thursday I thought there was a chance -- Just imagine...a whole new book about Grandma Dowdel! -- so I could hardly wait to get home and see if it had arrived.

No luck on Thursday.

I then figured it would definitely arrive by Friday -- Remember, LONG WAY FROM CHICAGO was a Newbery Honor and its follow-up, A YEAR DOWN YONDER, won the Newbery! -- and I rushed home to check the mailbox.

No luck.

On Saturday I spent the whole morning, padding to the window outside -- Did I mention that A SEASON OF GIFTS is a Christmas story? Gosh, I love Christmas stories! -- until I saw the mailman coming.

No luck again!

Why is this ARC taking so long to arrive? How are they delivering Pony Express? If it takes any longer, the hardcover will already be published, reviewed, and remaindered!

I took tomorrow off work for other reasons, but expect I'll spend part of the day sitting in front of the mailbox waiting for the postal carrier like a kid kneeling in front of the chimney on Christmas Eve waiting for Santa Claus.

If -- I mean "when" -- this ARC arrives, I’ll review it here.


Of course A SEASON OF GIFTS is just one of the forthcoming titles I’m looking forward to reading. And speaking of anticipation, I have to remember to set the VCR to tape the Tony Awards tonight. What does that have to do with children’s books? Well, you never know. Who would have thought Tallulah Bankhead would have been in a play that had its origins in a children’s book?

Besides, a trio of current Broadway shows were once children’s books: THE LITTLE MERMAID, MARY POPPINS, SHREK.

WICKED is based on an adult book by children’s book author Gregory Maguire.

And although IRENA’S VOW has an original script and is not an adaptation, this true story has also been told in the children’s book IN MY HANDS : MEMORIES OF A HOLOCAUST RESCUER by Irene Gut Opdyke and Jennifer Armstrong.

It’s always good to see children’s books adapted for stage and screen. A blog reader recently informed me that the early teen romance FLIPPED by Wendelin Van Draanen is going to be made into a Rob Reiner movie -- and filmed right here in Michigan!

Recent tax incentives have brought a lot of moviemakers to Michigan in the past year. It’s great to have this new industry in the state because our previous lifeblood business -- auto manufacturing -- isn't doing so hot. You’ve no doubt read about that in the newspaper...unless your newspaper has folded or, like ours, cut down from daily delivery to three days a week.

The world keeps changing -- industries fail, newspapers disappear, dustjackets fade. But as long as there are old books to go back to...and new books to look forward to...we can at least keep reading.

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


Anonymous said...

Loretta Mason Potts was also published as Colin's Naughty Sister

> Access to these files ends at a pre-determined date.

only for those who aren't determined

DaNae said...

Grandma Dowdle is coming back. You have made me so happy!

Also Flipped in the hands of the director of The Princess Bride and Spinal Tap, life is good!

Bybee said...

The Pigeon Ladies book rings a faint bell in my memory. Mary Chase rang a faint bell as well when I was reading the first part of this post. Then, when you mentioned Harvey...Oooooh!

Anonymous said...

i am also thinking about this problem of creating illness by these pigeons, as pigeon control is must for the safety of kids also.
pigeon control

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