Thursday, July 30, 2009

A Year Without a Newbery?

Back in 1917, a committee convened to select the very first Pulitzer prize winning novel.

The members of this committe would later report, "Of the five books submitted in competition, all but one seem to us unworthy of consideration for the prize. We are unanimously of the opinion, however, that the merits of this book, though considerable, are no greater than that of several other novels, which though not included in the formal applications, have been taken into consideration by us in arriving at a final verdict. We recommend that the award be withheld this year."

The inaugural Pulitzer novel was finally named the following year (HIS FAMILY by Ernest Poole), but in 1919 the committee again recommended no prize -- until a last-minute decision was made to honor Booth Tarkington's THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS. In 1920 the prize was once again withheld.

And so it continued over the decades, with no Pulitzer given for a novel (the catetgory was later renamed "fiction" to include short story collections) in 1941, 1946, 1954, 1957, 1964, 1971, 1974, and 1977. During some of those years the jury simply felt no book was worthy of the prize; other times they selected a title (FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS by Ernest Hemingway in 1941; GRAVITY'S RAINBOW by Thomas Pynchon in 1973; A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT by Norman Maclean in 1977) but were overruled by the Pulitzer advisory board.

It's rather jarring to read through a list of all the Pulitzer novel/fiction winners and stumble upon those "missing" years. One wonders if those years truly did suffer from subpar titles...or if the juries were just being extra picky. I feel bad for the authors whose careers and lives might have been changed if only they'd received Pulitzer recognition; their books may well have withstood the test of time and grown in importance over the years. After all, the non-winning FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS and A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT hold up admirably well compared to some long-forgotten titles that actually have won the Pulitzer, such as 1933's THE STORE by T.S. Stribling or 1944's JOURNEY IN THE DARK by Martin Flavin.

Great Britain's children's book prizes, the Carnegie Medal (for the year's "outstanding book for children") and the Kate Greenaway Medal (for "distinguished illustration in a book for children,") have also occasionally declared years in which no title was deemed worthy of the award.

The Greenaway did this in 1955 and 1958.

In 1943, 1948, and 1966 the Carnegie was, to quote the winners' list, "withheld as no book considered suitable." Despite no prize being given in 1966, the committee did cite THE BAYEUX TAPESTRY : THE STORY OF THE NORMAN CONQUEST by Norman Denny and Josephine Flimer-Sankey as "highly commended" and THE WILD HORSE OF SANTANDER (Helen Griffiths), THUNDER IN THE SKY (K.M. Peyton) and MARASSA AND MIDNIGHT (Morna Stuart) as "commended." (Apparently "highly commended" translates into "close but no cigar.")

Here in the United States, our two major book prizes -- the Newbery and the Caldecott -- are awarded annually and the rules allow no option for withholding awards.

But what if they could?

While there are many years when a number of truly distinguished children's books vie against each other to win one of the top prizes, there are other years when nothing TRULY distinguished is published and the Newbery or Caldecott goes to an acceptable-but-not-brilliant book. Would it strengthen the merit, intention, and stature of the Newbery or Caldecott for those medals to simply be withheld during such years?

It's hard to imagine a Newbery or Caldecott committee reading, evaluating, and discussing books for many months...only to decide nothing quite deserves that year's award. That kind of decision would take a certain amount of bravery...and chutzpah. And withholding an award would have other ramifications as well. It could hurt the sales of children's books and would certainly cast quite a pall over the one day per year that's devoted to celebrating children's books.

However, it certainly would get people talking -- and arguing, debating, and thinking about the state of children's books is always a good thing.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A Place to Be...Alone?

A couple days ago I blogged about favorite times and places for reading. I mentioned my fond memories of reading in the crawlspace at the top of my neighbors' garage. Blog reader Bybee talked about reading on the subway. I know someone else who has a window seat, just right for reading, at the top of their stairway, and another person with a hammock in their backyard.

Then there is twelve-year-old Robin, who discovers her special place by climbing down a ladder into the bottom of a well...then lighting a candle and inching through a dark tunnel...which ends at the foot of a stone staircase. Climbing those stairs, Robin finds herself inside a large, abandoned home. Except for an occasional dresser or bedframe, all the rooms are empty -- except one. And when Robin turns the doorknob, she steps "into the most wonderful surprise of her life."

A thick pale rug cushioned her bare feet as she moved forward and turned very slowly in a circle. The walls of the room were paneled in dark wood. All along one wall the bright bindings of books contrasted with the wood. The books went on and on, all down one side and across the far wall, on shelves that went almost to the ceiling: except in the center of the wall, where there was a large fireplace with a marble mantel. On the opposite side of the room were four tall narrow windows. Above the windows were arches of colored glass. Sunlight, streaming in through the arches made rainbows on the rug.

The room was full of things, beautiful old things. There were chairs, tables, lamps, a tiny sofa, and a huge square desk with a leather top. At the far end of the room a wide doorway led to a circular alcove.

It was there in the alcove that she first began to call it the Velvet Room. There were heavy drapes of dark velvet at the windows, and the wide doorway that led into the rest of the library had drapes, too. When all the drapes were closed, there was a full circle of velvet. Robin pulled all the drapes shut, and then sat down and looked around.

It was a wonderful, cozy place. A lot of people must have sat there to read in all the years since Palmeras House had been built. There must have been other children who had liked the wide window seats with their deep soft pillows. They probably took their books there and pulled the drapes shut, just as Robin had, and felt safe and comfortable and hidden.

Set in 1937, Zilpha Keatley Snyder's THE VELVET ROOM tells the story of Robin, the middle child in a large migrant family, who finds her special place in the tower room library of an otherwise abandoned estate. On the bookshelves, Robin discovers an old diary that helps her unravel the mystery of the estate's long-missing heir.

Ms. Snyder actually began writing Robin's story when she was a teenager herself -- although she envisioned it as a novel for adults. Many years later, after writing her first children's book, SEASON OF PONIES, the author returned to this "adult novel" which she had abandoned -- midsentence! -- on page forty-five. Lopping a dozen years off her protagonist's age, she re-imagined the story as a children's book. THE VELVET ROOM was published in 1965 to positive reviews. Ms. Snyder then went on to write a variety of highly-regarded books, snagging three Newbery Honors (for THE EGYPT GAME in 1968, THE HEADLESS CUPID in 1972, and THE WITCHES OF WORM in 1974.) Some fans remember her best for her "Green Sky" fantasy trilogy. Others prefer her novels about the Stanley family. I'm a huge fan of her 1981 young adult novel A FABULOUS CREATURE.

But THE VELVET ROOM always stayed in the back of my mind and I've returned to it several times over the years. About a decade ago, I decided to track down a copy for my own collection. Imagine my surprise when I discovered there were almost no copies available. A first edition was $600! An "ex-lib" (i.e. old library copy) hardcover was $300. Even worn "school book club" paperback editions were selling for $30-$40.

It turned out that I was not the only one with fond memories of THE VELVET ROOM. Though out-of-print and generally forgotten by critics, the novel had quietly become one of those "modern classics" that are loved by a small group of readers but pretty much unknown to the general public.

Fortunately, things have changed over the last ten years. THE VELVET ROOM is now back in print -- available from the "print by demand" company iUniverse for less than $15. This has freed-up some of the older, used copies of the book, which can now be found in paperback at very reasonable prices...though a good first edition will still cost around $500. I'm saving up for one of those.

Nearly eighty people have left "customer reviews" for THE VELVET ROOM on and there is one common thread that runs through them:

* I think all introverted, bookish youngsters like myself long for a secret place to get away from their family and others who do not understand them.

* I could relate to the girl and her need to escape to the velvet room to read.

* When I was a young girl in an unhappy family with no escape and no hope, I stumbled on this book. It expressed so many of my thoughts and feelings at that period in my life. It also gave me hope that someday I too would write books that gave others the feeling that they were not alone in their misery. And gave me hope that someday I would find my velvet room.

* I related to the main character since I was a member of large family that struggled somewhat to make ends meet. This book validated the feelings I had, needs for privacy, comfort, and an outlet for the imagination.

* Maybe it was because the heroine in the book had a secret place of her own, something as the middle child among five siblings my world definitely lacked.

* I could taste the apricots, I could feel the warmth of the velvet, I could totally understand her need to be alone (I'm the youngest of six) and I wanted a velvet room more than anything.

So many readers cite THE VELVET ROOM as their favorite childhood book. They remark on its lingering power. And express their childhood desire to have a "velvet room" of their own.

Nowadays, though, that "solitary" room is apt to be packed with fellow fans of this outstanding and much-loved novel.

THE VELVET ROOM written by Zilpha Keatley Snyder and illustrated by Alton Raible. Published by Atheneum in 1965.

Why the book is collectable: It's a well-remembered novel that became a modern classic because readers felt a deep personal connection to the book.

How to identify a first edition: The copyright page must state “First Edition.” The price on the dustjacket (pictured above) is $3.95. The cloth binding is light green and features a vignette of an old-fashioned key on the front panel.

Difficulty in finding first editions: Long out-of-print and impossible to find just ten years ago, new copies are now available in print-by-demand format. Older paperbacks can currently be found for under $5, but if you want a first edition, expect to shell out about $500 for this highly-collectable title.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

It's Sunday Brunch Time. Deal with It!

Among other topics, today's Sunday brunch looks at a couple controversial issues in books for young readers and asks where and when you like to read.


Yesterday I woke up early and discovered it was raining. I immediately grabbed a couple books and got back into bed. Is there anything better than reading in bed on a rainy Saturday morning?

Unfortunately, I’d barely read half a page before I fell back to sleep -- and when I rewoke an hour later, the rain had stopped, the sun was blazing down, and I needed to get up and attend to other things.

But it got me thinking about favorite times and places for reading.

When I was a kid, I used to love laying on the floor reading with my feet pressed against the heating vents during the winter.

Our neighbors had a storage space just under the peaked roof of their garage and sometimes we would climb up there to play. The space was only a few feet long and maybe a couple feet wide, with just enough light coming through the grimy octagonal-shaped window to read by. It seemed so quiet and remote, sitting high up over the neighborhood reading a book. It’s been decades, but sometimes I wish I could head back there now with a book.

In the past, I really loved reading in the bathtub -- but too many books accidentally dropping into the water (especially one particular signed first edition disabused me of that habit.

Now I read a lot while eating out in restaurants -- fork in right hand, book in left.

And of course I love to read before falling asleep at night, although the older I get, the harder it is to remain awake. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve suddenly been awakened by the book in my hand crashing down on my face. No black eyes yet, but I think I’m getting a permanent dent (shaped exactly like the corner of a hardcover book) in the middle of my forehead.

What are your favorite times and places for reading?


Take a look at the cover of Justine Larbalestier’s soon-to-be-released young adult novel, LIAR.

I suspect that, after the early printings, this cover illustration will be changed. That’s my prediction based on the recent uproar regarding this photographic image which, as several readers of the ARC (advance reading copy) have pointed out, does not accurately reflect the character described in the book. The protagonist of LIAR is biracial and said to have short and “nappy” hair. Ms. Larbalestier addressed the controversy in a recent blog, stating that while she’s generally very happy with her publisher, Bloomsbury, she does not like the cover illustration they selected.

She then broadens the discussion with these thought-provoking remarks:

Every year at every publishing house, intentionally and unintentionally, there are white-washed covers. Since I’ve told publishing friends how upset I am with my Liar cover, I have been hearing anecdotes from every single house about how hard it is to push through covers with people of colour on them. Editors have told me that their sales departments say black covers don’t sell. Sales reps have told me that many of their accounts won’t take books with black covers. Booksellers have told me that they can’t give away YAs with black covers. Authors have told me that their books with black covers are frequently not shelved in the same part of the library as other YA—they’re exiled to the Urban Fiction section—and many bookshops simply don’t stock them at all. How welcome is a black teen going to feel in the YA section when all the covers are white? Why would she pick up Liar when it has a cover that so explicitly excludes her?

Well, why continue quoting, when you go to her blog and read her entire take on the issue as well as over two hundred insightful comments from readers.

I think this is the kind of discussion that sheds light on a mostly unspoken topic and could lead to some permanent and positive changes in the publishing industry. It certainly made me start thinking about covers of other books in which an illustration didn’t match the race of the protagonist. Chris Crutcher’s WHALE TALK comes to mind. Heck, even characters described as overweight or bespectacled often aren’t depicted that way on book covers.

This makes me appreciate all the more a book such as the just-published LIBYRINTH by Pearl North which features a compelling cover portrait of a character whose race is not, I believe, explicitly stated in the text:

...In other news, Justine Larbalestier's publisher, Bloomsbury, is said to be preparing a new biography of our nation’s current president and first lady:


Since we’re discussing controversial issues, I guess I might as well add another “hot topic” into the mix.

I don’t subscribe to the Horn Book Magazine, but I do occasionally see some of their articles distributed free on listserves or printed on their website. This past week there has been a lot of talk about a Horn Book opinion piece by Nikki Grimes, which asks “why can’t the Caldecott committee see its way clear to give the Caldecott Medal to an individual artist of African descent?” You can read the entire article here. I always enjoy an article that attempts to stir the status quo and I think that Ms. Grimes makes some intriguing points. The only thing that bothers me right now is the timing of the article. Over the past couple months I have been hearing reports about Jerry Pinkney’s forthcoming wordless picture book THE LION AND MOUSE, which has been described to me as “breath-taking,” “Pinkney’s best ever” and “The book which will finally win Jerry Pinkney the Caldecott!”

Ms. Grimes’ article is appearing just weeks before the publication of Mr. Pinkney’s book and now I wonder if the article will help or hurt the chances of THE LION AND THE MOUSE winning the Caldecott.

While it’s true that award committees are not supposed to take these types of outside considerations into the deliberations room with them, is that humanly possible? (And why write or publish such an article if it’s not meant to sway opinions?) The question is, will this article HELP Mr. Pinkney’s chances of winning or -- if the Caldecott jury is feeling contrary -- could it end up hurting him?

I’m reminded of the incident many years ago when four dozen authors and scholars sent an open letter to the New York Times stating that Toni Morrison deserved to win the National Book Award and/or Pulitzer Prize for her novel BELOVED. She ended up losing the NBA and winning the Pulitzer. Obviously no one can question Ms. Morrison’s supreme talent; she would later win the Nobel Prize for Literature. ...But I wonder how that letter impacted her shot of winning the NBA or Pulitzer. Did she ever ponder whether it prevented her chances with a "Nobody Tells Us What To Do" NBA jury? Even worse, did she ever wake up in the small hours wondering if BELOVED would have, could have, won the Pulitzer on its own merits, without the intervention of outside forces?


The big comics convention was held in San Diego this weekend. I bring this up only to note how the worlds of children’s books and comics have changed over the years. At one time they were considered to be at opposite ends of the spectrum. Some even considered comic books to be the “enemy” of children's literature. Now the two genres seem to have found some middle ground in the booming field of graphic novels. When the Printz Award for young adult literature was conceived, who could have predicted that it would someday go to a graphic novel (AMERICAN BORN CHINESE by Gene Luen Yang, in 2007) or that a writer would pick up his Newbery Medal at ALA...and then be an honored guest at the Comic-Con two weeks later, as Neil Gaiman did this year? I wouldn’t be at all surprised if a few children’s book editors didn’t make their way to San Diego this weekend to fish for talent.


Earlier in this blog I used LIBYRINTH by Pearl North (a pseudonym for Michigan author Ann Harris) as an example of a current hardcover book for young readers that features a person of color on the cover. When looking for pictures of that cover online, I actually came across two different versions. I thought they might be the American and British editions, but that does not appear to be the case. Now I am wondering if the second copy is a variant that was considered and dropped before the final decision was made. Does anyone know?

It's very interesting to compare the two. Not only has the protagonist gained a little friend on her shoulder, but in the actual final cover, her complexion is lighter, her hair is more luxuriant, she exposes more skin, and her eyes are shut.

I wonder what all this means....


In last Sunday’s blog I featured three titles called DEALING WITH BEING THE OLDEST CHILD IN YOUR FAMILY, DEALING WITH BEING THE MIDDLE CHILD IN YOUR FAMILY, and DEALING WITH BEING THE YOUNGEST CHILD IN YOUR FAMILY. School Library Journal blogger, Fuse #8, wrote in to say her “favorite” book in this series from Rosen Publishing was DEALING WITH PARENTS WHO ARE ACTIVISTS.

Who knew?

This got me checking around to find some of the other titles in the series. These are just some of them:


...I can’t tell you how many of these books I could use on a daily basis!


I’ve just learned of two children’s reading campaigns that are worth knowing about.

From July 1 through August 31, Macy’s is running a “Book a Brighter Future” campaign. A $3 donation gets you $10 discount on a $50 in-store purchase at Macy’s. And the three donated dollars will go to Reading is Fundamental.

Also, the children’s singing group The Wiggles is starting up a big tour and will be hosting book drives for “Reach Out and Read” on each of their 72 concert stops.

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


Sometimes you have to read them twice.

I first heard about Rebecca Stead’s WHEN YOU REACH ME a few months ago, when two unimpeachable sources in the children’s book world told me this novel was really special. I was fortunate enough to acquire an ARC (advance reading copy) of the book and, when I finished it, my head was whirling: time travel...a homeless man who sleeps beneath a mailbox...secret messages...and the $20,000 Pyramid? All these disparate elements fit together as neatly as strands in a spiderweb, but I had the feeling that if I read the book a second time, I’d find some holes in the plot and the fragile spiderweb would dissolve under closer examination. Well, I’ve now re-read the book after several months and can report that the plot is so tightly-knit that it easily withstands the test of time. And time is one of the themes of this fully-realized novel. The story concerns Miranda, whose sixth-grade year is altered when her best bud and neighbor, a boy named Sal, suddenly breaks off their friendship. Shortly thereafter, she begins receiving a series of anonymous notes (“I am coming to save your friend’s life, and my own”) that hint at mysteries just out of reach. Although this book might technically be labeled “science fiction,” its New York City setting, circa 1978, keeps the story firmly grounded in the real world. Stead never lets her clever central premise overwhelm the novel, instead presenting a well-rounded story of Miranda also facing the everyday mysteries of growing up -- making new friends, finding a job, and learning that people aren’t always what they seem. In the end it’s astonishing how every element of the plot -- including allusions to Miranda’s favorite book, A WRINKLE IN TIME, and Mom’s appearance on a TV game show -- comes together to reinforce and amplify the mystery at the core of this fascinating novel. Rebecca Stead’s previous book, FIRST LIGHT, marked the arrival of an original talent; WHEN YOU REACH ME confirms it.

Now I need to read the book a third time -- not to look for holes in the plot, but just for the sheer pleasure of the experience.

WHEN YOU REACH ME by Rebecca Stead. Published by Wendy Lamb Books/Random House, 2008.

Why the book is collectable: It’s already picked up a peck of starred reviews and is being mentioned in national magazines. A likely award contender. Has the feel of a future classic.

How to identify a first edition: The copyright page must state “First Edition,” with a complete descending line of numbers above it: 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1. The price on the dustjacket is $15.99.

Difficulty in finding first editions: Though just published this week, the book is already in later printings. At this point, you should still be able to track down a first, but as the months goes on, it will be harder and harder...unless you're a time traveler.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Kindle and the Vanishing Children's Books

So you decided you wanted to read George Orwell's ANIMAL FARM and 1984 on your new Kindle. The titles were available for only ninety-nine cents a piece, so you placed your order, waited a few moments, and the books were transmitted to your reading device via a wireless network.

The next morning you woke up and the books were gone!

This event actually happened last week.

It turns out that the company which offered certain editions of the Orwell titles did not own the legal rights to these works. When Amazon got word of this, they refunded the cost of the books and then -- zap! -- deleted them from the Kindles of everyone who had purchased them.

Many customers were shocked to learn that Amazon had the ability -- much less the right -- to remove already-purchased items from their Kindles.

Here at Collecting Children's Books, we decided to launch an investigation to see if any children's books have vanished off Kindle screens. And, if so, where they have gone....

One Kindle user reported that FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER by E.L. Konigsburg had disappeared from her Kindle. It was later found at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Meanwhile, a prominent Dr. Seuss title has gone missing, though someone recently reported that they think that they saw it on Mulberry Street.

Another reader complained that several Elizabeth Enright books disappear from his Kindle for hours at a time, before turning up again late in the day. Strangely, this only happens on Saturdays and only one Enright book is gone at a time.

Robert Cormier's FADE has disappeared from several Kindles, though some experts claim the book is really still just can't see it.

Some readers claim that JOEY PIGZA LOSES CONTROL and JOEY PIGZA SWALLOWED THE KEY by Jack Gantos have suddenly vanished from their Kindle screens, but before you can report the problem to Amazon, the books get back to you.

Several books by Robert Sabuda have disappeared off Kindle and are now popping-up in the most unlikely places.

Some Kindle users are reporting that Roald Dahl's BFG has gone AWOL.

The Kindle version of Eric Knight's famous dog story is missing and no one knows where it's gone or how to get it back. Lassie, Come Home!!!

Rumor has it that Amazon tried to delete Natalie Babbitt's TUCK EVERLASTING from customers' Kindles but was unable to do so. The book seems to be permanently lodged in your electronic reading device and isn't going anywhere!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Hey, I Can Read French!

An eleven or twelve year old boy enters the library and says he needs to read a Newbery book for school.

The librarian says, "This is the current winner."

The boy eyes the cover dubiously. "What's it about?"

"It's about a plucky little doll with a hickory nut for a head having adventures with her many animal friends."

"NO thank you."

The librarian then holds up another volume. "How about one of this year's Newbery runners-up? It's about a boy helping his uncle build an airplane and trying to catch Nazi spies hiding in the mountains--"

"I'll take it!"

As the boy stands in line to check out the book, he thumbs through the pages and sees:

"Hey," he says. "This book is in French! I don't know how to read French!"

"You will," says the librarian, stamping the date due slip. "By the time you finish the book, you will...."

This type of scenario likely occurred back in 1947 when THE AVION MY UNCLE FLEW was named a Newbery runner-up. (The term "runner-up" was later changed to Honor Book.) Although one of the terms of the Newbery Award states that the book must be "published in English," this offbeat novel by Cyrus Fisher found a way around that rule while simultaneously telling a super-charged tale with lots of kid-appeal.

The story concerns a Wyoming kid who is sent to spend the summer with his uncle in the small village of St. Chamant, France. Johnny is recovering from a serious leg injury and his parents have promised him a new bicycle if he regains the ability to walk and learns the French language. Although he initially resents being separated from his folks, Johnny quickly becomes fond of his "oncle Paul," who is just back from the Second World War and determined to build a new kind of "avion," or airborne glider. Within days John -- now called by the French name "Jean" -- is picking up the language and tossing aside his crutches as he investigates the mystery of a Nazi hiding in the mountains that surround St. Chamant.

We tend to think of children's books from earlier eras as being more conservative and "safer" than modern titles, but I'm not convinced that is true. When published in 1946, just one year after the war ended, THE AVION MY UNCLE FLEW must have seemed startlingly contemporary, considering its MEIN KAMPF-reading villian. And there is real danger in this story. People get killed. A Nazi collaborator is hauled off at the end of the book to "be punished, perhaps beheaded." Although those aspects of the story are serious, Johnny's first-person narration is casual, occasionally humorous, and almost always exciting. The scene in which he escapes captors by flying his uncle's avion off the side of the mountain and over St. Chamant is so thrilling that I can't imagine why this book was never adapted as a motion picture.

Author Cyrus Fisher may not be familiar to many readers. His real name was Darwin L. Teilhet (1904-1964), and he was best known for a series of adult mysteries he wrote under that name, often in partnership with his wife, featuring a detective named Baron Franz Maximilian Karagoz und von Kaz. He also used the pseudonyms William H. Fielding and Theo Durrant. It's too bad that he wrote just a handful of books for children because, from what I've seen, he not only produced exciting and memorable books, but he often employed unusual "twists" in telling his tales. Writing about THE AVION MY UNCLE FLEW, critic Howard Pease said, "over and above the fascinating story, it contains an element new to children's fiction. You will probably say, as I did, 'Why didn't someone think of this before?' Well, no one did -- until now."

Mr. Pease is referring to the page produced above, all printed in French.

In writing the novel, the author gradually and skillfully includes French words throughout the text. At first the words are obvious and unexplained, as when Johnny arrives in France and goes to visit a local "parc." But as the story goes on, more and more phrases are incorporated into the narrative and are either understood through context or unobtrusively explained by Johnny and other characters ("Madame Graffoulier answered, very slowly, 'Ton oncle est avec le forgeron.' I knew every word except that 'avec' and it slipped in like the last piece of a jigsaw puzzle. The only thing could mean was 'with.' My uncle was with the blacksmith.") By the last half of the novel, the pages are liberally dotted with French words and phrases and even the later chapter titles are in French. THE AVION MY UNCLE FLEW concludes with four pages written entirely in French, a victory for Johnny -- I mean Jean -- who has finally mastered the language well enough to write it, but also a huge victory for the reader who, even if he or she had no knowledge of French on page one, has now mastered the language well enough to read it, having learned all those words just from reading the novel!

Back in 1946, Howard Pease said this language-learning technique was new to children's fiction. And in the fifty-plus years since AVION was published, I don't know any other novels that have employed it you? It's one of the factors that made THE AVION MY UNCLE FLEW unique back when it was named a Newbery "runner-up" and keeps it fresh and vital for anyone lucky enough to read it today.

That imaginary kid who checked out the book earlier in this blog ("I don't know how to read French!") was no doubt shocked when he got to the end of the volume and actually could read those pages.

I know I was amazed when I read them just now.

I can read French?


THE AVION MY UNCLE FLEW by Cyrus Fisher; illustrated by Richard Floethe. Published by D. Appleton-Century Company, 1946.

Why the book is collectable: Because it's a Newbery Honor Book. And because of its unusual method of "teaching" French.

How to identify first editions: $2.50 price on dustjacket. There is no date on the title page and the copyright page simply states "COPYRIGHT, 1946, BY DARWIN L. TEILHET. For the longest time I thought there was no other way to identify a first, but recently noted that on the very last page of the book, after the words "LA FIN," there is a number one (1) enclosed in parentheses. When the book went to a second printing, that number changed to a two (2) and I'm assuming it continued to be raised with subsequent printings. So, if seeking a first edition, make sure you copy has that (1) on the last page.

Difficulty in finding first editions: Copies are out there, starting at around $50 and up.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Sunday Brunch with Waffly Balls and Moon Walking

Today’s Sunday Brunch includes an update on last weekend’s American Library Association Banquet, reviews a hot new book, looks at a few items I found on the library shelves this week, and celebrates the fortieth anniversary of the moon landing -- as well as the usual random news and observations on children’s books old and new.


Last Sunday I wrote about the Newbery/Caldecott/Wilder Awards Dinner. Since then I have heard from several people who attended this event and it sounds like everyone had a good time. In the previous blog, I wondered about that evening’s dinner menu and Connie responded, “This year's banquet featured a juicy filet mignon and a piece of whitefish, though everyone else at my table (the SLJ table) opted for the alternative vegetarian plate.” Sarah Park mentioned that dessert included a “chocolate waffly ball and cake.” I'm not sure what a waffly ball is, but I want one. Both Connie and Sarah specifically mentioned Ashley Bryan’s Wilder speech as a highlight of the evening. Connie said, “His passion for poetry and language compelled him to involve everyone in the room in call-and-response poems that punctuated his joyful acceptance of the award. Ashley Bryan is a vital force of nature.”

For those of us who did not attend, Mr. Bryan’s presentation -- as well as the acceptance speeches by Newbery winner Neil Gaiman and Caldecott winner Beth Krommes -- was recorded on a compact disk and given to those who attended the festivities.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that, according to an anonymous tipster, they spelled Mr. Bryan’s name wrong on the cover of the CD!

Someone really dropped the (waffly) ball on that one, didn’t they?


The death of Walter Cronkite probably has most Americans “of a certain age” feeling a bit sad. However, I was shocked to hear a couple twenty-somethings confess they didn’t even know who Mr. Cronkite was! Whenever I hear this type of remark, I find myself wanting to reach for my ear trumpet and cane and start railing against the intelligence and cultural awareness of “kids these days.”

Instead I just sigh and think, “This is what happens when nonreaders grow up.”

Certainly anyone who grew up reading children’s books should be familiar with the name Walter Cronkite. It appeared in dozens of well-known novels from the past, including THROWING SHADOWS by E. L. Konigsburg and the classic BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA by Katherine Paterson. And many contemporary books feature “Walter Cronkite on the news” to evoke an earlier era. A handful of those titles include THE LIBERATION OF GABRIEL KING by K.L. Going, SUMMER’S END by Audrey Couloumbis, BUTTERMILK HILL by Ruth White, FULL SERVICE by Will Weaver, and the Newbery Honor Book THE WEDNESDAY WARS by Gary D. Schmidt.

Kids’ books: the first step toward cultural literacy.


Did you know that Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, who just finished a grueling week of Senate confirmation hearings in Washington, D.C., is a big fan of Nancy Drew? According to reports, Judge Sotomayor grew up reading the Nancy Drew books and once had dreams of becoming a police detective.

Coincidentally (or perhaps not-so-coincidentally) Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg were also childhood fans of the Nancy Drew series.

Gosh, I remember a time when the Nancy Drew books weren’t even allowed in most libraries because they were considered inferior stuff...popular fluff with little redeeming literary value. Yet we now know these books were empowering and life-changing for many kids who grew up to be brilliant and influential adults.

Score another point for children’s books!


I imagine that as soon as Sonia Sotomayor is officially named to the Supreme Court, we will see a children’s book or two about her.

There have already been a number of children’s biographies of other Supreme Court Justices, including Thurgood Marshall, Sandra Day O’Connor, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

And Sandra Day O’Connor has just published a picture book called FINDING SUSIE.

The only book about a Supreme Court Justice to win an award is MR. JUSTICE HOLMES by Clara Ingram Judson, a 1957 Newbery Honor.

Ms. Judson wrote the book because she was interested in helping “readers appreciate the lofty place of law in the lives of all of us” and decided that subject “might become simple and human if viewed through the life and work of some great man in the legal profession.”

Though this book is written in a fictionalized style that is no longer held in favor (“I’m here!"’ Wendell Holmes called from the front stairway. He smiled at his mother as he dashed by, clattered down the stone steps and grabbed Amelia’s hand.), Clara Ingram Judson was considered an important writer of children’s biographies during the twentieth century. In addition to MR. JUSTICE HOLMES, she received Newbery Honors for THEODORE ROOSEVELT, FIGHTING PATRIOT (1953) and ABRAHAM LINCOLN, FRIEND OF THE PEOPLE (1950.) In 1960, Ms.Judson was just the second author to receive the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award for her complete body of work.

I wonder if they spelled her name right at the banquet.


Walking through the library this week, I came across a couple intriguing things I thought I’d share.

First I came across a sixties reprint of the 1932 Newbery Honor Book CALICO BUSH by Rachel Field. The back of the dustjacket contains this note:

I’ve never seen a Horn Book list of “The 30 Twentieth-Century Books Every Adult Shuld Know," have you?

I’m curious now to track it down and find out the other twenty-nine titles.

I imagine this list must have appeared quite some time ago if a title such as CALICO BUSH (a great novel, but generally forgotten these days) was included.

I wonder if any of the titles from that list would appear on a list written in 2009.

And come to think of it, what exactly defines a title that “adults should know”? How would such a list differ from “titles every kid should know”?


As I continued to wander, I came across this book:

I thought it was a fine idea for a children’s book, as the trials and tribulations of being the oldest child in a family need to be addressed! For too long, “oldest children” have been taken advantage of (“You have to take your little brother with you”) or ignored (“Don’t bother me, I’m changing your little brother’s diaper”) or given too much responsibility ("You're supposed to be a role model for your younger brother!") It's high time someone published a book that explains how to deal with this!

However, I then moved farther down the stacks and discovered this volume:

and wondered why in the world anyone felt it was necessary to publish such a book.

I moved to the next shelf and found this thing:

For the life of me, I can't understand why anyone would write this kind of book. Honestly, what kind of problems could a “youngest child” have?

...By the way, I’m the oldest child in my family.


Sometimes I see things on the library shelves that pique my curiosity, but more often I read things in books that start me wondering.

Having recently read Booth Tarkington’s Pulitzer prize winning novel THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS and loved it, I decided to read his second Pulitzer winner, ALICE ADAMS. Lacking the epic scale of AMBERSONS and suffering from an exasperating, posturing protagonist, this book is much weaker than its predecessor, though I did think it ultimately reached a strong conclusion.

However, I was momentarily taken aback to read a scene in which an elderly business owner confesses that he took some action against a rival only because his sons kept “twitting me about it every few minutes!”

What he meant was that his sons were teasing him but -- sign of the times -- I immediately pictured them sending him harassing text messages!

Still on a Pulitzer kick, I next picked up the James Gould Cozzens’ novel GUARD OF HONOR. I haven’t read it yet, but was distracted by this quote from Shakespeare’s THE TEMPEST on the title page:

I and my fellow
Are ministers of Fate: the elements,
Of whom your swords are temper’d, may as well
Wound the loud winds, or with bemock’d-at stabs
Kill the still closing waters, as diminish
One dowle that’s in my plume: my fellow ministers
Are like invulnerable.

And living in 2009, I read that final phrase as “my fellow ministers are, like, invulnerable.”

I guess I’m, like, the last person who should be complaining about cultural literacy, right?


A few weeks back, when I was reading FAMILY SABBATICAL by Carol Ryrie Brink, I was surprised by a scene in which the Ridgeway family came across a display of American food at a French shop. They were particularly enthused about the cans of Campbell’s soup, which included clam chowder, chicken gumbo, vegetable with alphabet, and oxtail.


I’ve never seen Campbell’s Oxtail soup at my grocery store. Either it’s a regional item or, more likely, a product that was made in the past (FAMILY SABBATICAL was published in 1956) but no longer manufactured.

I remember being equally startled a few years back when I read Susan Lowell’s wonderful I AM LAVINA CUMMING, which is set in the early days of the twentieth century, and learned that Jello used to come in “strawberry, raspberry, cherry, lemon, orange, and chocolate.”

Chocolate Jello?

Of course I know chocolate pudding, but never realized that Jello once made a chocolate gelatin. I wonder what it tasted like.

Are there any products you never knew about until you read about them in a children’s book?


Tomorrow marks the fortieth anniversary of man’s landing on the moon.

Getting out my ear trumpet and cane again, I've got to say it’s hard to fathom that for a huge percentage of our population, the moon landing is ancient history...something that happened years before they were born...a fait accompli.

I wish I could explain what it was like to be alive back then -- the increasing excitement as each Apollo mission of the sixties got closer and closer to the goal...that Sunday night in July 1969 when even the youngest kids were allowed to stay up late to watch this historic event live on TV...the stomach-clenching thrill of seeing Neil Armstrong climb down that ladder and bounce onto the surface of an moon.

Nearly everyone who was there will tell you the same thing about that night: after watching the first moonwalk on television, they either went to the window or stepped outside to look directly at the moon...which still looked the same, yet somehow felt different.

Sometimes, even today, you will leaf through someone’s old photo album and find pictures from that night. Not just pictures taken of the moon in the sky, but photographs of murky black-and-white images from television screens. We didn’t have VCRs back then. There was no other way to capture the event. But we all wanted a record of it -- even if it meant snapping pictures of our TVs!

Now of course you can see the whole thing on videos and DVD. You can call up the images on the internet. And there are plenty of books that record the story in text and pictures.

MISSION CONTROL, THIS IS APOLLO : THE STORY OF THE FIRST VOYAGES TO THE MOON is an especially impressive volume. Written by Andrew Chaiken and illustrated by Alan Bean, this oversized book traces the history of the Apollo missions in clear-eyed, well-researched prose filled with insight and anecdote. The expected photographs are here, but what really makes the book special are the powerful paintings by Alan Bean, the fourth man to walk on the moon. It doesn’t come much more authentic than this. And his moonscapes, vast yet personal, are unforgettable.

For a different view, there’s MOON-WATCH SUMMER, written by Lenore Blegvad and illustrated by Erik Blegvad. In this brief 1972 novel, Adam and his younger sister are sent to stay at their grandmother’s farm during the time of the Apollo moon landing.

To make matters worse, Grammie doesn't own a television set.

This is definitely a book of its era, but kids today might enjoy reading it to get a sense of that exciting time so many years ago. ...And speaking of cultural literacy, let’s hope none of today’s readers ask, “What was the big deal about missing the moonwalk? Couldn’t someone just record it for them on the DVR?”

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

Sunday, July 12, 2009

A Banquet, Not a Brunch

I just read the most fascinating thing.

Yesterday, in his online journal, Neil Gaiman wrote:

And to answer a sharp-eyed questioner, yes, there are a couple of changes in the latest printing of The Graveyard Book; I fixed an error in astronomy I'd made, and a misspelled foreign word, and fixed some paragraphs in the acknowledgments that were truncated in the original US edition.

I was amazed to see that even a brilliant and respected writer makes mistakes...and sometimes they aren’t even caught and corrected until the bajillionth printing of his book.

What makes his message especially fun is that he wrote it from Chicago, where he was attending the American Library Association Convention to pick up his 2009 Newbery Medal for THE GRAVEYARD BOOK -- errors, misspellings, and all!

I’m kidding, of course. THE GRAVEYARD BOOK is one of the most acclaimed Newbery winners in years -- hailed by critics and hugely popular with young readers.

Tonight’s the night Mr. Gaiman delivers his acceptance speech at a gala banquet in Chicago. Joining him at the podium will be Beth Krommes, who received the Caldecott for illustrating Susan Marie Swanson’s THE HOUSE IN THE NIGHT, and Ashley Bryan, who has won the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award for his entire body of work.

Today’s blog celebrates these creators and talks a bit about ALA banquets past and present.


CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED: Both the Newbery and Caldecott books were inspired by classic works of literature. Over two decades ago, Neil Gaiman watched his young son playing in a graveyard and got the idea of writing a story similar to Rudyard Kipling’s THE JUNGLE BOOK, but set within a cemetery. The title of Gaiman’s volume is a nod to Kipling’s title as well. Author Susan Marie Swanson stated that a classic nursery rhyme inspired the pattern of her HOUSE IN THE NIGHT text. Here is the original rhyme:

This is the key of the kingdom
In that kingdom is a city;
In that city is a town;
In that town there is a street;
In that street there winds a lane;
In that lane there is a yard;
In that yard there is a house;
In that house there waits a room;
In that room an empty bed;
And on that bed a basket--
A basket of sweet flowers
Of flowers, of flowers;
A basket of sweet flowers.

Flowers in a basket;
Basket on the bed;
Bed in the chamber;
Chamber in the house;
House in the weedy yard;
Yard in the winding lane;
Lane in the broad street;
Street in the high town;
Town in the city;
City in the kingdom--
This is the key to the kingdom.
Of the kingdom this is the key.

THE REALLY BIG GRAVEYARD BOOK: I was surprised to discover that this year’s Newbery winner is the fifth longest Newbery winner ever. The champ remains the very first winner, THE STORY OF MANKIND by Hendrik Van Loon, which clocks in at 548 pages. The following year’s honoree, THE VOYAGES OF DR. DOLITTLE by Hugh Lofting is 364. Lynn Rae Perkins’ CRISS CROSS is 337 pages and Harold Keith’s RIFLES FOR WATIE is 332. And THE GRAVEYARD BOOK comes in fifth, at 327 pages.

AND A REALLY BIG BESTSELLER: By the time THE GRAVEYARD BOOK won the Newbery in January, it had already sold 71,000 copies retail. Since then it has sold tens of thousands more. Compare that to last year’s winner, GOOD MASTERS! SWEET LADIES! by Amy Laura Schlitz, which has only sold a little over 30,000 retail copies in two years.

BLACK AND WHITE: Because Ms. Krommes’ technique of creating black-and-white scratchboard pictures and later adding color is so time-consuming, her editor promised to someday assign her a manuscript that only required black-and-white illustrations. THE HOUSE IN THE NIGHT was that story, though it did require some additional color -- yellow -- to illuminate the dark night. Although full-color artwork has been standard in picture books for many decades, it’s interesting to note that three of the five most recent Caldecott winners (HOUSE IN THE NIGHT; THE INVENTION OF HUGO CABRET by Brian Selznick, and KITTEN’S FIRST FULL MOON by Kevin Henkes) have essentially been black-and-white volumes.

ANOTHER ILLUSTRATION ODDITY: Although illustrations in middle-grade books seem to have fallen out of favor in recent years, four out of the five most recent Newbery titles (THE GRAVEYARD BOOK; GOOD MASTERS! SWEET LADIES!; THE HIGHER POWER OF LUCKY; CRISS CROSS, and THE TALE OF DESPEREAUX) contain illustrations...but you must then go back fifteen years, to 1989 (JOYFUL NOISE by Paul Fleischman) to find an illustrated book on the Newbery roster.

A GOOD TITLE: It seems that THE HOUSE IN THE NIGHT has an especially winning title. No less than seven previous Caldecott books have “house” in the title and five have the word “night”:

HOUSES FROM THE SEA (Adrienne Adams, 1960 Honor)
THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT (Antonio Fransconi, 1959 Honor)
A VERY SPECIAL HOUSE (Maurice Sendak, 1954 Honor)
THE LITTLE HOUSE (Virginia Lee Burton, 1943 Winner)
IN MY MOTHER’S HOUSE (Velino Herrera, 1942 Honor)

SMOKY NIGHT (David Diaz, 1995 Winner)
HILIDID’S NIGHT (Arnold Lobel, 1992 Honor)
IN THE NIGHT KITCHEN (Maurice Sendak, 1971 Honor)
FOX WENT OUT ON A CHILLY NIGHT (Peter Spier, 1962 Honor)
CHILD’S GOOD NIGHT BOOK (Jean Charlot, 1944 Honor)

FROM ACROSS THE POND: Neil Gaiman, like previous winners Hugh Lofting and Susan Cooper, was born in England but was eligible for the award because he lives primarily in the United States. (He is also a naturalized citizen of this country.)


Tonight’s banquet will also honor Ashley Bryan for his complete body of work as an illustrator, writer, and folklorist.

Born in Harlem, he began painting as a child, served in the military during World War II (storing drawing paper in his helmet), and entered the field of children’s books in 1967, illustrating MOON, FOR WHAT DO YOU WANT? by Rabindranath Tagore.


A creator of great talent and integrity, Mr. Bryan will be receiving the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award on the night before his 86th birthday.


I can't say for sure, as I’ve never been. Those who have attended past banquets have described them, by turns, as “thrilling,” “inspiring,” “thought-provoking,” “fun,” and “loooong.”

This year’s event costs $94 and includes dinner, though the “cash bar” is priced separately.

I was hoping to track down a sample menu to share, but couldn’t find that info. The closest I could come was a report from Fuse #8, who attended last year’s banquet, and said it featured “salmon, wine, bread, salad, and a chocolately mousse in truffle-like shell.”

Everyone attending gets a copy of the program and a tape of the speech. I have a number of these in my “Newbery Collection.” Some have been given to me by friends; others I’ve purchased. Here is a program from the 1977 awards that I bought. I especially like it because of the colorful illustration (by that year’s Caldecott winners Leo and Diane Dillon), because it was signed by Margaret Musgrove, who wrote ASHANTI TO ZULU, and because that year’s convention was held in my hometown of Detroit:

It is difficult to track down older programs like this and they usually cost about $75-125. More recent programs can be found for $25-50.

The tapes are nice too:

On his blog, Neil Gaiman said that the tape is played if the winner cannot speak for some reason, but I don’t know if that would actually happen. I’m aware of at least one case when an author was not available to speak -- Robert C. O’Brien in 1972 -- and his editor ended up reading the speech in his place.

I’ve heard there have been a couple occasions when a tape might have been preferable to the live performance, cases where creators -- either overly thrilled by their big moment in the spotlight or handicapped by one too many visits to that cash bar -- have begun ad-libbing their speeches before the crowd....


I must say that I’ve dreamed away a number of hours imagining my own Newbery speech. Of course I’d probably be too shy and flustered to actually give the speech in front of a huge crowd and would likely run off stage in full-panic mode about midway through it. (At which point someone could finally yell “Queue the tape!”) But still, it’s nice to imagine being rewarded for one’s work, and standing before a crowd of appreciative conventioneers hanging onto every precious word of wisdom. I can just imagine their eager and interested faces! (Click on the image to enlarge it and read the “thought bubbles.”)


Earlier in this blog, I made a typo. (See, Neil, you’re not the only one.) I was writing “2009 Newbery winner” and accidentally typed “2099 Newbery winner” instead. It gave me pause, realizing there will someday be Newbery winners I won’t know about...Newbery winners I’ll never get to read. But then I thought about how neat it is to have this kind of continuity: awards given year after year...decades before I was born, and then decades after I’m gone. Yes, there are times we don’t like a particular winning book, times we think they got it all wrong -- but even that kind of situation gets us talking about books, and makes us appreciate the good ones even more. I love to see great books recognized and rewarded and hope that this annual tradition really will continue through 2099 and beyond.

Thanks for stopping by.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

And They All Went Home?

Some rhymes have reasons. Many old English nursery rhymes are said to contain coded references to historical figures and events. Take this powerful verse about the making of a rifle:

John Patch made the match,
And John Clint made the flint,
And John Puzzle made the muzzle,
And John Crowder made the powder,
And John Block made the stock,
And John Wyming made the priming,
And John Brammer made the rammer,
And John Scott made the shot,
But John Ball shot them all.

Some think that “John Ball” refers to a fourteenth-century priest who participated in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. Whether or not this rhyme actually had historical significance, I’m fascinated by the fact that Ed and Barbara Emberley later gave it contemporary significance for readers in the sixties.

In 1967’s DRUMMER HOFF, Barbara Emberley adapted this traditional rhyme, but changed the focus from a rifle to a cannon:

General Border gave the order,
Major Scott brought the shot,
Captain Bammer brought the rammer,
Sargeant Chowder brought the powder,
Corporal Farrell brought the barrel,
Private Parriage brought the carriage,
But Drummer Hoff fired it off.

Utilizing wood cuts and only three colors of ink (red, yellow, and blue -- which through the use of “overprinting” -- would yield thirteen different colors on the printed page), Ed Emberley created radiant, complex images that, in the parlance of the era, might have been called “mod” or even “psychodelic.” Mr. Emberley would later state, “The book’s main theme is a simple one -- a group of happy warriors build a cannon that goes ‘KAHBAHBLOOM.’”

But he also acknowledged that “there is more to find if you ‘read’ the pictures.” He noted that the illustrations “show that men can fall in love with war and <...> go to meet it dressed as if to meet their sweethearts” -- as is evident in this dandified character:

And even more evident in this one:

Although the artist doesn’t mention it, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the phallic imagery in these men-at-war illustrations. As is evident in this picture:

And even more evident in this one:

Emberley himself acknowledges that the artwork shows “that men can return from war sometimes with medals and sometimes with wooden legs”:

Of course many children will not question this soldier’s leg as they delight in the cumulative rhymes that lead up to the double-page spread in which Drummer Hoff fires off the cannon and everything goes red. But they probably will wonder what happened to the “happy warriors"...who do not appear on the final page of the book.

A few years ago, a group of children wrote Mr. Emberley and said, “We enjoyed reading your books and we want to know what happened after Drummer Hoff fired it off?”

He responded, “How smart you are to think about what happened to Drummer Hoff and all the other soldiers after he ‘fired it off.’ We left it to the reader's imagination to figure out what happened next. Some people thought they all blew up!!!!!! Maybe that's true but I know what I imagine, Here are the words I was going to put on the last page: “and they all went home” — maybe to supper...maybe to bed...maybe they all went to the beach!!!”

Maybe all the soldiers did go home. But when I look at the final page of the book, in which the abandoned cannon has been appropriated by flowers and nature, I find myself humming the Pete Seeger song that asks:

Where have all the soldiers gone?
Long time passing
Where have all the soldiers gone?
Long time ago.

I suspect that different audiences will take different things from DRUMMER HOFF. For many kids, it probably does read as a story of “happy warriors” leading up to that big, shout-it-out-loud “KAHBAHBLOOM.” But many adults may view it as an antiwar tale, leading to a quiet moment of reflection.

DRUMMER HOFF won the 1968 Caldecott Medal -- a very daring selection for its era. The Caldecott rules clearly state that "the award is not for didactic intent” but there is also a lot of wiggle-room in these criteria: “excellence of pictorial interpretation of story, theme, or concept; of appropriateness of style of illustration to the story, theme or concept; of delineation of plot, theme, characters, setting mood or information through the pictures.”

Clearly the book deserved the award for its vivid and innovative illustrations alone...but, whether intended by the committee or not, there is a special significance in the fact that DRUMMER HOFF won the Caldecott in 1968 -- a year in which 16,592 American soldiers did not come home from Vietnam.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Sunday Brunch for a Holiday Weekend

Today’s Sunday Brunch contains more random observations and opinions on children’s books old and new.


The Fourth of July is usually our noisiest holiday. Starting in mid-June, early evenings are interrupted by the rat-tat-tat-tat-tat sound of firecrackers being set off by kids who just can’t wait until Independence Day. And the nights leading up to the Fourth get noisier and noisier until the big day arrives and you hear nothing but BANG! BANG! BOOM! from early morning till late at night.

Growing up, I remember standing outside after dark on July Fourth and being bombarded by noise -- not just the tapdance of firecracker strings going off in the street, but also the spooky “whoosh” of bottle rocks shooting into the night sky, as well as distant muffled BOOMS from miles away. I used to imagine that was what the Revolutionary War sounded like.

But this Independence Day felt different. I didn’t hear the clatter of firecrackers at all during the day. There were a few in the evening, but not nearly as much as the past. I’m starting to write this blog a little after midnight and only hear an occasional “boom” or “bang” from very far away. To misquote T.S. Eliot, “This is the way the holiday ends. Not with a bang but a whimper.”

I’m disappointed. I figured the sound of firecrackers would keep me awake and blogging half the night. Heck, I’ve got BOOKS noisier than tonight’s festivities.

Here are a few children’s books with “noisy” titles:

SHHHHH...BANG : A WHISPERING BOOK by Margaret Wise Brown (1943)

BOOM TOWN BOY by Lois Lenski (1948)

CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG by Ian Fleming (1964)

BING-BANG PIG by Sara Murphey (1964)

SAM, BANGS, AND MOONSHINE by Evaline Ness (1966)

BANG BANG, YOU’RE DEAD by Louise Fitzhugh and Sandra Scoppettone (1969)

THINGS THAT GO BANG by Lisl Weil (1969)

BAM ZAM BOOM! : A BUILDING BOOK by Eve Merriam (1972)

THE BANG BANG FAMILY by Gahan Wilson (1974)

SANTA’S CRASH BANG CHRISTMAS by Stephen Kroll (1977)

CHICKA CHICKA BOOM BOOM by Bill Martin, Jr. (1989)

CRASH! BANG! BOOM! : A BOOK OF SOUNDS by Peter Spier (1990)

RUMBLE THUMBLE BOOM by Anna Grossnickle Hines (1992)

BING BANG BOING by Douglas Florian (1994)

CAPTAIN WHIZ-BANG by Diane Stanley (1997)

THE RATTLEBANG PICNIC by Margaret Mahy (1999)



Perhaps the “noisiest” book in my collection is Ellen Raskin’s 1979 Newbery winner THE WESTING GAME. Not only is the dustjacket filled with multicolored fireworks, but she even inscribed this copy with the word “BOOM!”

I do not know Myrtice M. Wickham, who first owned this copy, but it’s clear that she attended the 1979 American Library Association convention where Ellen Raskin accepted her Newbery. Not only is the book signed in the right place (Dallas) and at the right time (6-25-79) but it also included a favor from that year’s Newbery-Caldecott Awards Dinner -- a bookmark that reproduces the thousand dollar bills on the original dustjacket:

Ellen Raskin started her career as an artist but later proved to be an artist with words, as evidenced by this evocative fireworks scene from THE WESTING GAME:


“Happy Fourth of July,” Turtle shouted as the first rockets lit up the the Westing house, lit up the sky.



The heirs gathered around Turtle at the window.
BOOM! Stars of all colors bursting into the night , silver pinwheels spinning, golden lances up-up-BOOM! crimson flashes flashing blasting, scarlet showers BOOM! emerald rain BOOM! BOOM! orange flames, red flames, leaping from the windows, sparking the turrets, firing the trees....

After reading this scene, it’s probably not surprising to learn that THE WESTING GAME was inspired by this nation’s Bicentennial.

“The Bicentennial” there’s a phrase you don’t hear much these days. And unless you were alive back in the early 1970s, you have no idea what a big deal it was, or the excitement of the years leading up to July 4, 1976. There were special Bicentennial coins and a Bicentennial flag. For two years there was a series of “Bicentennial Minutes” on television -- historical information briefs that ran between TV programs every single night. Food products came wrapped in red-white-and-blue packaging. Cities sponsored huge Bicentennial celebrations.

Ellen Raskin acknowledged the Bicentennial in her Newbery acceptance speech, saying that she began work on the novel in 1976 and used the words to “America the Beautiful” in creating clues for her story. She added, “Meanwhile on television, between re-created Revolutionary battles blasting and fireworks booming, come reports of the death of an infamous millionaire. Anyone who can spell ‘Howard Hughes’ is forging a will. Good, I’ll try it too.”

When it came to creating characters, Raskin said that “in honor of the Bicentennial they will be melting-pot characters: Polish, Jewish, German, Greek, Chinese, Black.”

The Bicentennial is now a distant memory. Our nation celebrated its 233rd birthday yesterday. Ellen Raskin died -- far too young -- in 1984. But very few children’s book creators have had such an amazing career. Ms. Raskin started off designing and illustrating dustjackets; perhaps her best-known is the original cover for Madeleine L’Engle’s A WRINKLE IN TIME. She then began illustrating books -- first those written by others, and then many picture books she wrote herself (SPECTACLES, 1968; FRANKLIN STEIN, 1972.) Finally, she began writing novels for young people: THE MYSTERIOUS DISAPPEARANCE OF LEON (I MEAN NOEL) (1971), FIGGS AND PHANTOMS (1974), THE TATTOOED POTATO AND OTHER CLUES (1975) and THE WESTING GAME (1978.) Eccentric, profound (particularly FIGGS AND PHANTOMS), and unlike-any-other-books-by-any-other-author, Raskin’s work is unforgettable.


Ellen Raskin attended the University of Wisconsin -- Madison and later gave manuscript materials from THE WESTING GAME to that University’s world-famous Cooperative Children’s Book Center. Anyone interested in children’s books -- and THE WESTING GAME in particular -- will be fascinated to look at the CCBC’s online archive which contains Ms. Raskin’s early drafts of the manuscript, her working notes, and an audiotape.

It’s an amazing site to see.


Yeah, everyone talks about the Fourth of July, but who cares about the Fifth of July?

Actually, Lanford Wilson wrote a Broadway play by that name -- and a famous children’s book starts off with an important Fifth of July scene:

Jimmy took the firecracker and looked around the circle. “Let’s light it,” he suggested.

The boys stepped back as if it were a hand grenade.

“Not me,” said Chuck. “I’m too young for the draft.”

“It’s too late,” Art said. “This is the fifth of July and anyhow it’s against the law to shoot off firecrackers.”

“Aw, it’s just one firecracker,” Jimmy argued. “What’s the matter, you all chicken?”

You know this isn't going to have a good outcome, right?

So it’s not surprising the book is called:

This perennial Scholastic book club favorite (is there anyone who didn’t order this book in grade school?) was originally published in 1957 and is still going strong after fifty years.

Considering how famous the book is, I’m surprised by how little is known about author James B. Garfield and how his novel came to be written. All I’ve been able to glean, from sources such as CONTEMPORARY AUTHORS, is that he worked as an actor on stage and radio before going blind, then did a public service radio show called “A Blind Man Looks at You” from 1947 to 1967. He also wrote for children’s magazines, though I believe FOLLOW MY LEADER was his only published book. I’d be curious to read his magazine stories, as well as just know more about his life. He died in 1984 at the age of 103. According to CONTEMPORARY AUTHORS, he often visited schools to talk about his life and work. Did anyone ever meet him?


The other night I watched a documentary on the Turner Classic Movies channel called 1939 : HOLLYWOOD’S GREATEST YEAR. The premise was that 1939 was the single year that produced the most classic movies. That year’s films included DARK VICTORY; GOODBYE, MR CHIPS; LOVE AFFAIR; WUTHERING HEIGHTS; GUNGA DIN; CONFESSIONS OF A NAZI SPY; BABES IN ARMS; MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON; NINOTCHKA; OF MICE AND MEN; STAGECOACH; DRUMS ALONG THE MOHAWK; THE WIZARD OF OZ...and a little movie called GONE WITH THE WIND.


That got me thinking about whether there has ever been a similar year for children’s books -- one annum in which an amazing number of classic or acclaimed titles were produced.

Off the top of my head, I can’t think of one.

In fact, comparing award lists, I can’t even find too many years when GREAT Newbery and Caldecott titles concurrently won.

In most cases, great Caldecott years are accompanied by perfectly-fine-but-not-amazing Newbery years...and vice versa.

For example, 1942’s Caldecott winner was the classic MAKE WAY FOR DUCKLINGS by Robert McCloskey...but the Newbery went to nobody’s favorite, THE MATCHLOCK GUN by Walter Edmonds.

Two years later, the Newbery went to a classic title, JOHNNY TREMAIN by Esther Forbes...but the Caldecott went to MANY MOONS, whose Louis Slobodkin illustrations are so ill-regarded now today they were replaced in a modern edition of this book.

Which Newbery/Caldecott combos can claim to be double-classics?

I’m thinking:

1963 when the Newbery went to A WRINKLE IN TIME by Madeleine L’Engle and the Caldecott went to A SNOWY DAY by Ezra Jack Keats.

1970 when the Newbery went to SOUNDER by William Armstrong and the Caldecott went to SYLVESTER AND THE MAGIC PEBBLE by William Steig.

1986 when Patricia Maclachlan’s SARAH, PLAIN AND TALL won the Newbery and Chris Van Allsburg’s POLAR EXPRESS got the Caldecott.

Any others?

Although I haven’t been able to pick out one single year -- akin to Hollywood’s 1939 -- that produced a huge number of classic titles, I do think that one can call the early 1960s the “era” which brought us the most groundbreaking children's books. In addition to those from 1963, we could add THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH by Norman Juster (1961), WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE By Maurice Sendak (1963), HARRIET THE SPY (1964), and probably a few other well-remembered titles.

What do you think?


In last Sunday’s blog, I questioned whether Brock Cole’s THE GOATS has lost any of its luster in recent years. At one point it was considered the go-to example of a particularly fine children’s book, yet I seldom see it cited these days.

Carter commented: "The Goats" hasn't lost its luster here at Simmons College. That, along with Zibby O'Neal's "In Summer Light," are the first two books we read for our introductory course in critical theory and criticism.

Fuse #8 commented: "The Goats" was once on NYPL's Best 100 Children's Books list, which hasn't been updated since [checks files] roughly 1990 or so. To put that in context, "Anna to the Infinite Power" is ALSO on that list. Needless to say, it is no longer on any of the Summer Reading Lists kids hand to us. And our one circulating paperback was tossed during our recent move.

Of course the above two comments are not in conflict. Even if a book is no longer being read in schools or assigned to kids, it can still be worthy of study as an example of great literature. I checked Amazon today and was sorry to see that THE GOATS appears to be out of print in hardcover and IN SUMMER LIGHT (surely one of the best-written young adult novels of all time) is not available in either hardcover OR paperback. Have they become dated in some way, or lost their appeal to kids? What books are turning up on summer reading lists these days? Is it just a matter of older books falling off the list as newer titles are published (how dreary if a list from 2009 had only pre-1990 titles on it) or are books such as THE GOATS no longer on summer reading lists because teachers and librarians have found better options? I'm curious.


Any new book by Chris Crutcher is an occasion, so I was excited to see his latest, ANGRY MANAGEMENT, had arrived in my bookstore on Friday. As I stood in line at the cash register, I flipped through the pages and noticed the book -- which had just arrived in stores that day -- was already in its second printing. So I put it back on the shelf. My bookstore friend is going to try another distributor for a first edition and she’s usually pretty successful with that, so I’m not “worried” that I won’t get a first edition...but I did want to put the word out to other Crutcher fans: if you’re seeking a first edition, make sure the copy you find has the number “1” in the print run on the copyright page -- otherwise you are getting a later printing.


Did you ever go on a treasure hunt as a kid? You know the kind I mean: The first clue would say, “Go to something that has a bark” so you’d go to the closest tree and find nothing. Then you’d run off to find the dog, who had a note pinned to her collar that said, “Find a place to put a butt” and you’d look under the ashtray (nothing there!) then run to the seat of the lawn chair, where you’d find your next note, on and on.

I was thinking today that reading books is a little like going on one of those treasure hunts -- because every book you read sends you running off to find another one.

Case in point: the other day I blogged about reading SEVENTEEN by Booth Tarkington. I enjoyed that book so much that I immediately borrowed Tarkington’s MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS from the library. I liked that one so much that I ran off to find the author’s next book, ALICE ADAMS. Remembering that both of these books won the Pulitzer Prize reminded me that I really should read all the Pulitzer fiction winners. (I get on that kick every couple years, read a few more winners, then quit.) So I checked out a half-dozen Pulitzer books next. One was Jean Stafford’s COLLECTED STORIES. That book reminded me that Stafford also wrote a children’s book back in the sixties, ELEPHI, THE CAT WITH THE HIGH IQ, so I jotted that title down to check out next. Plus I did a little reading about Stafford herself and learned there have been some book-length biographies of her, so I wrote those down too. In the meantime, I started reading another Pulitzer winner, THE HOURS by Michael Cunningham, and realized that in order to fully appreciate it, I probably should read MRS. DALLOWAY by Virginia Woolf, so added that one to my list....

See what I mean? Every book leads to another book. Earlier I likened this to a treasure hunt, but maybe that’s not a good analogy since the path is not nearly that direct. It’s more like every book is a road that forks off into three more roads...and then each of those roads forks off again....

It can be exasperating, but it’s still a fun journey.

Thanks for visiting Collecting Children’s Books. Hope you are having a good holiday weekend -- and that you’ll stop by again.