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.


Sam said...

I've got Elephi kicking around here somewhere perhaps. I was rather fascinated with that book when I was a kid. I had no idea the author was Somebody.

Wasn't The Magnificent Ambersons amazing? Especially relevant as we watch the American auto industry collapse.

And Raskin ... a master!

Peter D. Sieruta said...


Yes, I loved MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS. Living right here IN the Motor City, the auto industry collapse is something we confront every day; so many people are out of work that the roads are now empty during rush hours! Our library copies of both AMBERSONS and ALICE ADAMS (which I'm just starting to read) were first/early editions and I'm fascinated that they are printed in a large font and almost double-spaced. The pages zip past; I wonder why more "adult" books don't use the same technique today.

Raskin's FIGGS AND PHANTOMS is one of my "books for a desert island" picks. I can't praise it enough.


Rosemary said...

Wait a minute, nobody liked The Matchlock Gun? And what's that about Many Moons? I must admit that I don't remember The Matchlock Gun as well as I do Many Moons, but I have fond memories of reading both of them as a child.

I will admit that I don't hand them out at my library very often, but that's mainly because parents consider The Matchlock Gun too short for Newbery reading assignments, and Many Moons is too long for most preschool girls clamoring for princess stories.

Lisa Chellman said...

What The Goats needs is a better cover. Judging by the current paperback cover art, you'd think it was about a misty island populated by invisible goats. Really boring goats.

Anonymous said...
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Kelly Milner Halls said...

Did you ever get your First Edition copy of ANGRY MANAGEMENT? I work for Chris, so he gave me one when he got his author copies, but I also ordered one from Amazon that would up being First Edition. So I was curious about whether or not you snagged one. Sure hope you did. Can't wait to see what you think of it, too.

CC's Assistant

Anonymous said...

hey i am a collector of childrens story books myself..i have quite a collection..would be great if you could suggest a few more me..they are going to be used by my cute little daughter.=D