Sunday, August 30, 2009

Sunday Brunching with Dorothy Canfield Fisher

Today’s Sunday Brunch includes the usual mix of fact and opinion on children’s books and includes the complete list of Dorothy Canfield Fisher Award winners from HOLES and BUD, NOT BUDDY to a few titles I never even heard of before.


There are all kinds of reasons for reading a book -- most of them excellent.

But I just read a book for a rather silly reason.

I liked the way it smelled.

Actually, I first pulled the book from our library shelves because of its strange title, NOTHING EVER HAPPENS AND HOW IT DOES.

When I noticed that one of the co-authors was Dorothy Canfield Fisher (the other was Sarah N. Cleghorne), I was even more intrigued. Ms. Fisher’s reputation as a children’s author pretty much rests on a single book, UNDERSTOOD BETSY (1917), though I’ve recently discovered that two of her adult novels, THE DEEPENING STREAM (1930) and SEASONED TIMBER (1939) were serious contenders for the Pulitzer Prize.

NOTHING EVER HAPPENS is a volume of purposeful stories, written expressly to get young readers discussing a variety of moral situations. A girl realizes a classmate is taking advantage of her. A boy acts out and later apologizes to his family. In one of the strongest tales, the citizens of a town refuse to financially assist a poor, shiftless family, yet turn out en masse to help find the family’s youngest daughter when she goes missing. While I agree that these stories might lead to some fascinating philosophical debates for young readers, many adults would find the volume preachy and fairly basic. I know I did. Yet I couldn’t put the book down till I finished it because, well...because it smelled so good!

When I held this book open, it gave off a strong aroma of furniture polish. I guess we all have specific scents that take us back to a certain time and place in our lives -- and this was indeed a very specific fragrance for me. It came from the days before spray polish, back when furniture polish came in cans and was rubbed into tabletops and chairs with a dustrag. (If I shut my eyes I can picture the square metal container; I can’t quite recall the name, but I remember the can was decorated with stripes.) And of course the reason I remember this smell was because I always associate it with happy occasions.

Back when I was a kid, my family would invite relatives over for Sunday dinner every couple months. The day before these events, our parents would toss us out of the house and spend hours scrubbing, dusting, vacuuming, and cooking. I still remember returning home those twilights, with the setting sun slanting through the front windows. The kitchen floor would be so slick you could practically skate across it, the furniture so shiny you could see your reflection in it. There was usually a cake or pie in the oven (tomorrow’s dessert) and the anticipatory feeling of “Company coming, company coming!” Plus the smell of that old-fashioned furniture polish in the air.

So when I opened NOTHING EVER HAPPENS and sniffed the exact same aroma on every page, I was immediately taken back to my childhood. I even got kind of excited, thinking, “Company coming!” though no guests were expected this weekend. Incidentally, the book was published in 1940 and, according to the bookplate inside, our copy was owned by a married couple for nearly fifty years before it was donated to the library. I assume it sat on a wooden shelf (I like to imagine the previous owners had a den or study or even a “home library”) and that the shelf was polished every now and then with the exact same product my family used. The book soaked up that aroma...which remains there today...taking me back to a time when everything seemed shiny and exciting.


Very few people remember NOTHING EVER HAPPENS these days, but the author’s first book, UNDERSTOOD BETSY, continues to be read and enjoyed. I know at least a couple people who still call it their all-time favorite book. The novel concerns a coddled nine-year-old girl who is sent away from home to live with a loving, no-nonsense Vermont farm family. UNDERSTOOD BETSY provides both an old-fashioned view of New England life in an earlier era and -- as "Elizabeth" transforms into "Betsy" -- a still-timely message about self-sufficiency and personal growth.

Canfield's novel remains in print today (hey, you can even get it on Kindle!) although, strangely, the title is often misquoted as “MISUNDERSTOOD BETSY.” Just this week I saw the incorrect title used in a Jean Stafford short story. And Google led me to a lecture in which Robert Frost also discussed the book “MISUNDERSTOOD BETSY.”


Incidentally, are you familiar with the Dorothy Canfield Fisher Children’s Book Award? It doesn’t get much press, even though it’s been around for more than half a century.

This award -- for books appropriate for grades four through eight -- is selected by the children of Vermont. These days we have many (perhaps too many?) children’s choice book prizes, but it’s important to remember that the Dorothy Canfield Fisher Award, begun in 1956, was only the second such award established in this country.

Here is the list of winning titles:

2009 DIARY OF A WIMPY KID / Jeff Kinney
2008 RULES / Cynthia Lord
2007 FLUSH / Carl Hiassen
2006 THE OLD WILLIS PLACE / Mary Downing Hahn

2005 THE TALE OF DESPEREAUX / Kate DiCamillo
2004 LOSER / Jerry Spinelli
2006 LOVE THAT DOG / Sharon Creech
2002 BECAUSE OF WINN DIXIE / Kate DiCamillo
2001 BUD, NOT BUDDY / Christopher Paul Curtis
2000 HOLES / Louis Sachar
1999 ELLA ENCHANTED / Gail Carson Levine
1997 MICK HARTE WAS HERE / Barbara Park
1996 TIME FOR ANDREW / Mary Downing Hahn
1995 THE BOGGART / Susan Cooper
1994 JENNIFER MURDLEY'S TOAD / Bruce Coville
1993 SHILOH / Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
1992 MANIAC MAGEE / Jerry Spinelli
1991 NUMBER THE STARS / Lois Lowry
1989 HATCHET / Gary Paulsen
1988 WAIT TILL HELEN COMES / Mary Downing Hahn
1987 THE CASTLE IN THE ATTIC / Elizabeth Winthrop
1986 THE WAR WITH GRANDPA / Robert Smith
1985 DEAR MR. HENSHAW / Beverly Cleary
1984 A BUNDLE OF STICKS / Pat Rhoades Mauser
1983 TIGER EYES / Judy Blume

1982 THE HAND-ME-DOWN KID / Francine Pascal
1981 BUNNICULA / James Howe
1979 KID POWER / Susan Beth Pfeffer
1978 SUMMER OF FEAR / Lois Duncan
1977 A SMART KID LIKE YOU / Stella Pevsner
1974 CATCH A KILLER / George Woods
1973 NEVER STEAL A MAGIC CAT / Donald E. Caufield
1972 FLIGHT OF THE WHITE WOLF / Melvin Ellis
1971 GO TO THE ROOM OF THE EYES / Betty K. Erwin
1970 KAVIK THE WOLF DOG / Walt Morey
1969 TWO IN THE WILDERNESS / M. W. Thompson
1968 THE TASTE OF SPRUCE GUM / Jacqueline Jackson
1967 THE SUMMER I WAS LOST / Phillip Viereck
1966 RIBSY / Beverly Cleary
1965 RASCAL / Sterling North
1964 THE BRISTLE FACE / Zachary Bell
1963 THE INCREDIBLE JOURNEY / Sheila Burnford

1962 CITY UNDER THE BACK STEPS / Evelyn Sibley Lampman
1961 CAPTAIN GHOST / Thelma Bell
1960 DOUBLE OR NOTHING / Phoebe Erickson
1959 COMANCHE OF THE SEVENTH / Margaret Leighton
1958 FIFTEEN / Beverly Cleary


I must admit that I’m quite fascinated by the titles that have won the Fisher Award. Of course one expects to find some Newbery winners (NUMBER THE STARS; HOLES) and Honors (ELLA ENCHANTED; BECAUSE OF WINN-DIXIE), a couple classics (INCREDIBLE JOURNEY), as well as books by perpetually-favorite authors (Beverly Cleary) and titles that are more popular than literary (WIMPY KID.) But I’m intrigued by the wide range of books represented, from youngish (RIBSY) to YA (TO CATCH A KILLER; SUMMER OF FEAR.) I’m surprised that Mary Downing Hahn has won three different times. And, most of all, I’m shocked that a few books made this list that I’d never heard of before. Okay, OLD BONES THE WONDER HORSE was published before I was even born...but where was I in 1980 that I never even heard of BONES ON BLACK SPRUCE MOUNTAIN?


Out of curiosity, I decided to look up one of the books I didn’t know, the intriguingly-titled GO TO THE ROOM OF THE EYES by Betty K. Erwin, which won the award in 1971. From what I’ve read, the story concerns a treasure hunt in a large mansion and includes such then-timely topics as the plight of returning Vietnam veterans. Author Betty K. Erwin published a handful of novels between 1965 and 1973, including AGGIE, MAGGIE, AND TISH; THE SUMMER SLEIGH RIDE, and BEHIND THE MAGIC LINE. She wrote both fantasy and “problem novels” with an emphasis on civil rights. Her papers are archived at the famous de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection at the University of Southern Mississippi. I can’t stop thinking of her online bio at the de Grummond Collection's website -- specifically, the last two lines:

Erwin failed to publish anything after Who Is Victoria? in 1973, despite writing several children's novels, short stories, and a romance novel. She died of lung cancer in 1989.

Although I’m unfamiliar with her work (I plan to get hold of GO TO THE ROOM OF THE EYES very soon) I hate thinking about Ms. Erwin writing away for most of the seventies and eighties and not getting published. Clearly her Dorothy Canfield Fisher Award proved she knew how to write books that kids enjoyed. Were her later books somehow inferior? Had the publishing world passed her by? I’d sure like to read those unpublished manuscripts and see if they could find their way into print today. Even if there wasn’t enough interest to justify large printings from big publishing houses, perhaps Print-on-demand and Kindle formats could fill the bill.


Considering that every item in today’s blog seems to be concerned, in one way or the other, with Dorothy Canfield Fisher, I thought I’d throw in something completely unrelated:

When is a CHILDREN’S BOOK not a children’s book?

When it’s written by A.S. Byatt. Her forthcoming novel is titled THE CHILDREN’S BOOK, but it’s not written for kids. It’s an adult novel that spans many years, featuring a character named Olive Wellwood, an author who writes fairy tales. According to a recent interview, Byatt says, “E. Nesbit was a key point of ignition, though Olive Wellwood is not ‘based’ on Nesbit.”

Though not a book for young readers, it certainly sounds like a title that will interest fans of children’s books.


I started today’s blog by mentioning how the book NOTHING EVER HAPPENS took me back decades to a world of gleaming, hand-polished furniture, cakes in the oven, and the excitement of “company coming.”

Well, would you believe that almost as soon as I finished reading the book, company CAME?

My brother made a surprise visit from Chicago, along with The Most Entertaining Dog in the World, Elgin:

And Elgin is always anxious to see what’s on my shelves.

Nearly sixty years have passed since NOTHING EVER HAPPENS was published. Now we use Pledge spray-polish on the furniture. Cakes are bought, not baked. All those relatives who used to come to our house on Sunday afternoons? They’re gone.

Yet the Canfield book was able to take me back many decades to an earlier era PLUS conjure up a weekend guest! Pretty good for a volume titled NOTHING EVER HAPPENS!

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

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Hunting for Answers

You never know what to expect when you read a book for the second time.

Quite often re-reading an old favorite is like meeting up with an old friend; you fall right back into the relationship as if no time has passed at all.

Sometimes you "grow into" a book and like it even better the second time around. Other times you grow out of a book and end up liking it less.

And sometimes it just leaves you asking questions.

I was left with some questions after re-reading Farley Mowat's OWLS IN THE FAMILY this past week. Published in 1961, the story concerns Billy, a Saskatchewan boy who adopts a pair of great horned owls. In a series of sitcomlike episodes, Wol and Weeps turn a town pet parade upside-down, tease Billy's pet dog, and scare off the local minister and postman. It's all great fun, and the fact that forty customers have submitted online reviews about this book to shows that OWLS IN THE FAMILY still has kid-appeal nearly fifty years after publication. I first read this novel in the mid-sixties and remember enjoying the antics of the owls -- and even sort of wishing I had a Wol or Weeps of my my own. Reading the book again in 2009 -- as an adult, in a new century -- what struck me most was the many casual references to guns and shooting. Early in the story, Billy and his friend Bruce go exploring the Canadian prairie. When they come across a small lake filled with mallards, Bruce exclaims, "Wish I had my dad's gun!" Later, Billy obtains Weeps from a boy who "had found an owl's nest in a bluff near Sutherland, and had shot the old owl and all but one of the young ones with his .22 rifle. He only brought the last young one home as a sort of joke he was going to play on his dog." Toward the end of the novel, a group of crows attack Billy's family and Wol in a boat. Billy tells us, "Next morning Dad got out his shotgun and swore he was going to even up the score," which is followed by a shooting scene that ends with "a lot fewer crows around Dundurn." It's not until the end of the book that we realize this story is autobiographical (the family's name is even revealed to be "Mowat") and I guess that's what got me asking questions. Back when I first read OWLS IN THE FAMILY in the sixties, I was unfamiliar with the name "Farley Mowat." Today I know this author is also internationally recognized as a naturalist and conservationist. His 1963 book (later a movie) NEVER CRY WOLF is often credited with changing public opinion on the once widely-feared wolf. This got me wondering: if most of his friends and family were big sport hunters during the years that Farley Mowat was growing up in Saskatchewan, did he participate as well? If so, when he did he change from hunter to naturalist? To find the answers, I had to do a little hunting myself...hunting in the pages of some of Mr. Mowat's other books.

I finally found the answer in his 1993 memoir BORN NAKED.

Farley Mowat's father had worked as a clerk and bee-keeper before stumbling into a job as a librarian. For the next few years the family moved about Canada, as his father held library positions in several towns. At one point they even resided in the library where his father worked. In 1933, they settled in Saskatchewan for a few years. This is where Farley adopted his pet owls Wol and Weep, along with a dog, rats, gophers, and pigeons. It was also where his father became deeply interested in hunting. At first Farley would accompany him, though he began to realize "killing was making me uncomfortable." When his father bought him a twenty-gauge shotgun, he said, "I was grateful but would have been more so had he instead chosen to buy me a decent pair of binoculars." His father then planned a goose-hunting trip, hoping to "recapture the mutual excitement and camaraderie of our first hunting trips."

Farley Mowat would later recount that trip in BORN NAKED:

The windy silence was soon pierced by the sonorous cries of seemingly endless flocks of geese that drifted, wraith-like, overhead. They were flying low and we could see them clearly. Snow geese, startlingly white of breast but with jet-black wing tips, beat past while flocks of piebald wavies seemed to keep station on their flanks. An immense V of Canadas came close behind.

As the rush of air through their great pinions sounded in our ears, we jumped up and, in what was more of a conditioned reflex than a conscious act, raised our guns. The honkers veered directly over us and we both fired. The sound of the shots seemed puny, lost in the immensity of wind and singing wings.

It had to have been pure mischance that one of the great geese was hit for, as we later admitted to each other, neither of us had aimed. Nevertheless, one fell, appearing gigantic in the tenuous light as it spiralled sharply downward. It struck the water a hundred feet from shore and I saw with sick dismay that it had been winged. It swam off into the growing storm, its neck outstretched, calling...calling...calling after the vanished flock.

That was the last time Farley Mowat hunted for sport.

It may not have been the last time he ever shot a gun though.

In doing research today, I came across another anecdote from the author's childhood in which he shot a boy with a BB gun in order to prevent that boy from shooting a bird. Farley Mowat concluded, "He received a bruised posterior and the bird lived. I was happy with that."

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Class Reunion

I am reading a book from 1970 called A STAR TO THE NORTH.

It's about a teenage brother and sister chafing at the upwardly-mobile lifestyle imposed by their business-exec father. Most of the year Nathaniel and Kimberly attend boarding schools, but now that summer's arrived, Dad has a supermarket job lined up for Nathaniel and plans to send Kimberly ("she'll turn out to be some blasted hippie if she doesn't fall into line") off to camp.

But Nathaniel has a secret in his pocket: a cashier's check for $500 and a letter from his grandmother urging him to use the money any way he wishes. ("I want you to follow your own star, and though I can't buy you a star with five hundred dollars, it might help with the first step.")

Nathaniel and Kimberly follow their star to the wilds of Canada, running away from their father to spend the summer with their live-off-the-land outdoorsman uncle Seth.

In one way or another, most young adult novels seem to be about kids finding and following their own particular stars. It’s a rite of passage for every teenager -- whether fictional or real.

So for now, let’s leave fictional characters Nathaniel and Kimberly tromping around the Far North and instead focus on three real-life teenagers growing up in Beverly, Massachusetts, and see where their stars took them.

It was the late 1920s and Barbara, Brad, and Fred were all classmates at Beverly High School.

The three were good friends, but I know almost nothing about their friendship. Did they trade homework assignments? Maybe. Did they hang out at the soda shop after school? Could be. Were there any romantic entanglements between them? I don’t know. All I know is that they were friends.

One thing that Barbara and Brad clearly had in common was a love of writing. At Beverly High, Barbara was class poet. She wrote stories for a magazine called THE TURRET while Brad sold some some of his work to BOY’S LIFE. Was Fred interested in writing too? I don’t know.

After graduating, the three went off in different directions, each following his or her own star.

Barbara went to Wellesley, then worked in the theatre as a prop girl and stage manager. Next came war work with the Navy. There were jobs in advertising and Civil Service positions. Eight years with a celebrity news service in Hollywood and a job in the story department at CBS television. During this time she got a master’s degree and began teaching -- in California, Kentucky, Colorado, and ultimately Montana. And all along she was writing, selling stories to REDBOOK and other slick magazines of the day. She wrote her first novel, SAM, for adults and was surprised when it was published as a children’s book. But soon she was a full-fledged, full-time writer of children’s books, publishing dozens and dozens over the next three decades.

You don't hear the phrase "midlist author" much these days, but back in the seventies and eighties, Barbara Corcoran perfectly fit the profile. While other authors wrote big splashy books, won literary prizes, and hit the bestseller lists, Ms. Corcoran quietly and dependably published solid, well-crafted novels that earned money and were enjoyed by readers, yet never got a huge amount of attention from reviewers or award juries. Ms. Corcoran once said, "I think I'm a competent writer. I know the tricks of the trade." I think she's being modest. In books such as THIS IS A RECORDING (1971), A DANCE TO STILL MUSIC (1974), ME AND YOU AND A DOG NAMED BLUE (1979), and many others, she revealed a real gift for creating multidimensional characters and compelling storylines. It's a shame that she never had that one big bestseller or book award that would have propelled her to the front rank of novelists. What she did have was a long list of titles impressive in terms of both variety and overall quantity. Capable of writing as many as five books a year, Barbara Corcoran occasionally had to employ pseudonyms such as Paige Dixon (MAY I CROSS YOUR GOLDEN RIVER?) and Gail Hamilton (TITANIA’S LODESTONE), so that her books would not compete with each other for sales.

Barbara Corcoran led the kind of life that many aspiring writers dream about, continuously publishing books while traveling the world (Russia, Europe, a year in Hawaii) and enjoying the fruits of her labors, which included a Mercedes Benz purchased in Germany and shipped home to Montana.

Barbara’s high school pal Brad led a much more modest life. After attending Bates College, he began working as a reporter for his hometown newspaper. A lifelong fan of Thoreau, Brad eventually gave up that job -- and the rat race -- moving with his wife to rural British Columbia where they rebuilt a cabin, lived off the land, and became early advocates for organic living. Beginning with AT HOME IN THE WOODS : LIVING THE LIFE OF THOREAU TODAY, Bradford Angier wrote more than three dozen books about wilderness survival, including LIVING OFF THE COUNTRY and FREE FOR THE EATING.

And what of Barbara and Brad’s high school friend Fred? He never wrote a book, nor did he travel far from home. But his star took him in a somewhat unusual direction as well. After graduating from Boston College, he attended St. John Seminary and became a Roman Catholic priest. Reverend Frederick Minigan served in a variety of Massachusetts parishes until he was in his eighties.

I can’t remember where I saw it, but I once came across the expression “Old friends are gold.”

Okay, I do remember where I saw it.

It was on a Hallmark card.

But still, it’s a valid sentiment. No matter which direction we go in life, we often feel a deep connection with our oldest friends. This must have been true for Barbara Corcoran, Bradford Angier, and Fred Minigan because, over forty years after graduating Beverly High School, their lives -- so very different from outside appearances -- continued to intersect.

In 1970, Barbara and Brad joined forces and wrote a book together -- A STAR TO THE NORTH:

It’s an excellent collaboration, combining Ms. Corcoran’s sure-footed plotting, believable characterizations, and natural dialogue with Mr. Angier’s detailed knowledge of how to survive in the woods.

And look who they dedicated the book to:

The reason this is all so intriguing to me is because A STAR TO THE NORTH is one of a handful of Bradford Angier and Barbara Corcoran books in my collection that were once actually owned by Fred Minigan. Throughout the years, these two authors -- one eking out an existence in Northern Canada, the other tooling around town in her Mercedes -- continued to remember their old high school bud and send him copies of their published books, each personally inscribed. Here is the endpaper of my copy of A STAR TO THE NORTH:

Very late in life, Barbara sat down and wrote her autobiography. She recalled, “I wrote at full speed, not stopping to re-read. It was fascinating to come upon experiences and people in my life that I had virtually forgotten, and to find myself giving a different perspective to past events.” Unfortunately this memoir was never published and today, with nearly all her books out of print, she is no longer widely remembered by readers. I doubt that autobiography will ever be published now.

Such is the fate of midlist authors.

And that’s really too bad, as I’d like to know more about her life, her amazing ability to write four or five books a year, her “tricks of the trade.”

And of course I’d like to learn about the friendship of these old friends -- Barbara Corcoran (1911-2003), Bradford Angier (1910-1997), and Fred (1912-1997) -- whose "stars" took them in such different directions, yet obviously stayed in touch all their lives. What adventures did they share in high school? How close were they as adults? How in the world did Barbara and Brad come to write a book together when they were nearly sixty years old and how did Fred react when he learned that book was dedicated to him?

Maybe we’ll never know the answers to these questions, but I think about them every time I see my copy of A STAR TO THE NORTH on the bookshelf.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

A Brief Brunch in August

Today’s shorter-than-usual Sunday Brunch reveals the full names of some fictional characters and lists the “Shoe Books” in chronological order.


I’m always interested in seeing what “search terms” people have used to get to this blog. It gives me a sense of what children’s books people are thinking about and talking about.

Nearly every day someone will drop by looking for “the name of the book where soda pop comes out of the faucets.” When Ruth Christoffer Carlsen wrote MR. PUDGINS in 1951, she obviously created an indelible image that has continued to fire the imaginations of kids and former-kids for generations.

There are also frequent searches for the “Ginnie and Geneva” books by Catherine Wooley -- a series I know almost nothing about and only mentioned fleetingly on this blog about a year ago; seeing how much “traffic” Ginnie and Geneva brings in, I really need to track down these books and write a longer piece about them.

Quite a few visitors appear to be in the middle of homework assignments, based on some of the queries I receive (“What is the climax of chapter 9 in Gary Paulsen’s novel HATCHET?”; “What are the main themes of CADDIE WOODLAWN?”)

And many of the searches pique my interest and send me off on my own research assignments. For example, someone this week wrote in asking “What is Curious George’s last name?”

I dunno.

Did he have one? So many children’s book characters go by single names -- just like, well, Madonna and Cher. Anyway, this query sent me on a mad search to see which one-named characters actually have full names.

Here’s what I found:

CURIOUS GEORGE AND THE MAN WITH THE YELLOW HAT : Like Tarzan’s “Cheetah” or Michael Jackson’s “Bubbles,” H. A. Rey’s famous monkey goes by one name only. He is either called “George” or “Curious George” throughout the books. His human friend is known as “The Man in the Yellow Hat” or just “The Man,” but in the 2006 feature film based on the books he was given the name Ted Shackleford.

MADELINE : It’s not widely known, but Ludwig Bemelmans’ beloved character actually has a last name. It’s “Fogg.” Back in 1955, the author-illustrator created a Christmas booklet for the Neiman-Marcus store in Texas. One of the lines read, "Including Mlle. Madeline Fogg and Genevieve her dog." Years later, when the author’s grandson John Bemelmans Marciano, wrote MADELINE IN AMERICA (1999), he made it official by including the heroine’s full name in the book.

FROG AND TOAD : Arnold Lobel’s protagonists don’t have last names. Heck, it sounds like they barely have first names, as they are known by their species!

DOROTHY FROM THE WIZARD OF OZ : Fans probably remember that, in the book as well as the movie, Dorothy’s last name is Gale. The name was a tribute to author L. Frank Baum’s niece, the similarly-named Dorothy Gage, who died in infancy.

WILBUR AND CHARLOTTE FROM THE E.B. WHITE CLASSIC : Wilbur has no full name, but Charlotte does have a last name. No, it’s not Zweb. Her full name in the book is Charlotte A. Cavatica.

WINNIE THE POOH : No, Pooh’s not his last name. Actually, this is one of the more convoluted character names in the history of children’s books. As most people know, author A.A. Milne named the character after his son’s stuffed bear, which in turn was named after a real bear on display at the London Zoo called “Winnie” and a real swan that was known as “Pooh.” In the books, he’s called “Winnie the Pooh,” “Poor Bear” and, strangest of all, “Edward Bear.” Oh, and let’s not forget that he lives under a sign that says “Sanders” -- though Pooh experts (yes, there are such folks) insist that Sanders is not Pooh’s last name either; the sign was already there when he moved in.

ALICE : Though Lewis Carroll (real name Charles Dodgson) based the Wonderland heroine on a real girl named Alice Liddell, even giving both Alices the same birthday, the character in the book has no last name.

KAY THOMPSON’S ELOISE : The terror of New York’s Plaza Hotel appears to have no last name. How very vulgar.

HORTON : The elephant hero of Dr. Seuss’s HORTON HATCHES THE EGG (1940) and HORTON HEARS A WHO (1954) joins the ranks of all the other individuals so famous that one name is enough: Coolio, Charo, Cher, Prince, Bono, Usher, and Yanni.


Conversely, there are a number of children’s book characters who are best known by their last names. Do they even have first names?

MR. POPPER : The hero of Richard and Florence Atwater’s 1938 classic MR. POPPER’S PENGUINS doesn’t appear to have a first name. His wife calls him “Papa” and he calls her “Mamma.”

MISS NELSON : First introduced by author Harry Allard and illustrator James Marshall in 1977’s MISS NELSON IS MISSING, the character does not seem to have a first name...though her alter ego’s full name is Viola Swamp.

DR. DE SOTO : William Steig’s mouse DDS doesn’t seem to have a first name either.

CORRECTION! : Blog-reader Eric wrote in to say that Steig's second book about this character, DR. DE SOTO GOES TO AFRICA, reveals the tiny dentist's first name is Bernard.

DR. DOLITTLE : At last, a character with a first name : John.

MISS RUMPHIUS : And another one! The protagonist of Barbara Cooney’s 1992 masterpiece goes by the name “Alice Rumphius.”

CAPTAIN UNDERPANTS : If he has a first name, I don’t want to know. It’s probably something gross and scatological. We do know the complete name of his alter ego though: Benny Krupp.

MRS. PIGGLE-WIGGLE : Betty MacDonald apparently didn’t give her character a first name. Let’s choose one ourselves. I think Peggy Piggle-Wiggle has a nice ring to it.

MR. TOAD : Kenneth Grahame never reveals the full name of this WIND IN THE WILLOWS character, but one movie version refers to him as “J. Thaddeus Toad, Esq.”

MISS HICKORY : No first name for the title character of Carolyn Sherwin Bailey’s 1947 Newbery winner.

MRS. FRISBY : Although we know the first names of all Mrs. Frisby’s kids -- and even her late husband - in Robert C. O’Brien’s MRS. FRISBY AND THE RATS OF NIMH, we never do learn the name of the titular titmouse. (Okay, she was a fieldmouse, not a titmouse, but I couldn't resist the alliteration.) Incidentally, when Disney made an animated movie out of this Newbery winner they changed the character's last name to Brisby to avoid conflicts with the flying toy.

YET ANOTHER CORRECTION : Eric also pointed out THE SECRET OF NIMH was not a Disney film, but was instead "a Don Bluth film (American Tale, Land Before Time, etc) distributed by MGM/United Artist. Bluth worked as an animator for Disney from the late 50s to mid 70s before leaving to start his own production company."


A recent newspaper article about shoe buying for the new school year had my parents in a tizzy.

The article advised that each child in a family get two or, better yet, three new pairs of shoes by September and then alternate using each pair so the shoes can “rest” between wearings.

The piece also suggested getting rid of a shoe as soon as its treads wear down.

My folks -- both Depression-era kids -- then began sharing stories of their shoeless childhoods. Well, not quite “shoeless,” but nearly so. They told me that shoes were rarer than hen's teeth back in the day, that they were always purchased way too big “so you can grow into them,” and that they had to last forever. My father got a fifty cent pair of tennis shoes for a holiday “and I was lucky to get them.” My mother’s sister -- to her great embarrassment -- had a pair of wet shoes “literally melt off her feet” at a party. And going back a generation earlier, my grandparents walked around barefoot like Laura Ingalls, the original “long-legged snipe” of the prairie.

I didn't bother to ask if my folks read Noel Streatfeild’s “Shoe” books as kids; if they couldn’t afford footware, they sure couldn’t afford books about them.

Anyway, these books continue to be highly sought-after by collectors, so I thought I’d list the titles in chronological order for those who are trying to track them down to read or purchase.

BALLET SHOES : A STORY OF THREE CHILDREN ON THE STAGE (1936) was the author’s first book for young readers. This story of young ballerinas in training is considered the first British “career novel.” The book became so popular that some bookstore even began limiting “one book per customer” rules to avoid running out.

TENNIS SHOES was published the following year.

1938’s THE CIRCUS IS COMING won Great Britain’s Carnegie prize, but was published in the U.S. the next year as CIRCUS SHOES. This is how it would continue for the rest of the author’s career, with the original English titles being changed to a “shoe” title when the work was published in America.

1944’s CURTAIN UP was published in the U.S. as THEATRE SHOES.



England’s WHITE BOOTS (1951) became America’s SKATING SHOES.



NEW TOWN (1960) became (what else?) NEW SHOES

APPLE BOUGH (1962) was published stateside as TRAVELING SHOES


I was excited by a couple recent e-mails and thought I’d share them here. Cheryl Harness, the well-regarded author of such books as GHOSTS OF THE WHITE HOUSE and the recent HARRY BOOK (about Harry S Truman) responded to last Wednesday's blog about Clyde Robert Bulla with this:

I'm proud to say that I knew dear Clyde Robt. Bulla. In fact, my 'bibliobabe' friends, Joanie, Naomi, Vicki, & I once rode in the back of a pickup truck w/ CRB, in Central MO State's homecoming parade. He was the dearest, most soft-spoken gentleman, fond of margaritas, much-loved by his many friends, a swellegant letter-writer, and downright glorious at the ivories, once seated at his grand piano. bless him forever.

Also, an older blog entry about an obscure book by Muriel E. Cann brought this recent letter:

I graduated from Mount Holyoke College in 1997 and since 2003 I have
lived in an 1890s Victorian in Marlborough, MA. The house was
originally built by Charles "Duke" Farrell, the catcher of the 1903
World Series-winning Red Sox team (then called the Boston Americans).

A good friend of mine and fellow Mount Holyoke alumna is an avid
collector of MHC memorabilia. In 2004, she brought some of her
collection to show me. We enjoyed pouring over the old yearbooks,
songbooks, postcards, and other ephemera. One thing that struck my
interest was a Class Directory from 1926-1927. While skimming through
the home addresses the students listed, I was amazed to read my own
home address! You guessed it, our friend Muriel Evadne Cann, MHC
Class of '27, lived in my house. I thought it very wonderful indeed
that she graduated from Mount Holyoke exactly 70 years before I did.
And what a coincidence that my friend chose to bring that particular
directory with her! She has a vast collection of MHC memorabilia, and
upon checking her collection of other directories, the one she brought
is the only one that listed Muriel's full address.

Thanks to my friend, I own the 1927 Llamarada (yearbook) with Muriel's
senior picture. She was an English major. I also own the
Commencement booklet from 1927; Muriel's commencement.

The College's 1937 biographical directory had this listing:
Muriel E. Cann 1927
Address in 1937: 46 Mountfort St Boston MA
student courses Boston Public Library
assistant to supervisor of branch libraries 1927-?? Boston

I also found some minutes from the Boston Public Library in 1938 and
it has her as the Lead Librarian at the Lower Mills Branch
(Dorchester) of the BPL.

The online alumnae directory has her married to an Ivan L Goad and
that she is deceased. I found her listed in the SSA Death Index as
having passed away in 1994 in Southbury, CT.

Other than that, my trail (and Google-fu) has gone cold. I keep
meaning to visit the College Archives, to see if I can find out more
about her.

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed receiving some more information about Muriel.

Kind regards,

Thanks, Diane -- and thanks to everyone who has taken the time to write to -- or read -- Collecting Children’s Books. I truly appreciate it and hope you’ll return.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Words and Music

When you live to be 93 years old, you've celebrated a lot of Christmases.

But for Clyde Robert Bulla, Christmas 1931 was the holiday he remembered best.

Growing up on a small Missouri farm, he developed an early interest in writing -- despite his father's firm insistence that he could never become an author because "you have nothing to say." During his teenage years, Clyde also got interested in music. When he learned the Metropolitan Opera House was going to broadcast a Christmas Day radio performance of HANSEL AND GRETEL, he skipped out of a family party, citing a recent wood-chopping injury. He later recalled:

It was a raw, blustery day, but there was wood to burn. I had a Christmas dinner of my own -- a dish of cranberries and a can of pork and beans. All this, and HANSEL AND GRETEL! I closed my eyes and I was in an orchestra seat, hearing my first opera. That may well have been my best Christmas.

Ten years later, Clyde Robert Bulla published his first book -- a novel for adults. A friend would later introduce him to author-illustrator Lois Lenski, who encouraged him to try his hand at children's books. In the coming decades he'd write dozens of middle-grade novels (THE DONKEY CART, 1946; GHOST TOWN TREASURE, 1957; SHOESHINE GIRL, 1975) and, while most are no longer read, they earned him enough money to travel the globe seeking story material and seeing opera.

In his early books, Bulla had the strange habit of plunking songs right into the middle of his narratives. 1950's SURPRISE FOR A COWBOY concerns city-kid Danny Hopper spending the summer at his uncle's ranch. Halfway through the book, you turn the page and see:

While it's not unusual for novels to include poems or song lyrics, it is rare to find a tune with musical notations right in the middle of a story. Eventually a critic referred to the songs in Mr. Bulla's books as "interruptions" and he stopped including them.

But then they starting popping up in books by his old friend Lois Lenski! At the time, Ms. Lenski was traveling the country and writing stories about often-disadvantaged children from different regions, including BAYOU SUZETTE (1943), BLUE RIDGE BILLY (1946) and the Newbery-winning STRAWBERRY GIRL (1945.) Each volume would begin with a foreword in which the author described how she came to write the story; most would also include a song about the region with words by Lenski and music by Bulla.

Truthfully, the songs seemed unnecessary intrusions in these books as well -- and I don't quite buy Ms. Lenski's justification that she created "regional songs for the inarticulate children I wrote about, who could not do it themselves." I mean, don't the fields of folk music, bluegrass, country, and the blues exist because those children could do it themselves?

A few years later, Bulla and Lenski would collaborate on several music books aimed at preschoolers. Inspired by hearing a little boy sing the words to a story that had been read to him many times, Ms. Lenski said, "That gave me an idea. Why can't children learn to sing their books as well as read them? I remembered all the controversy over 'why Johnny can't read,' and the thought crossed my mind that maybe if he could sing his book -- the words in the book -- it might help him to learn to read the words." Together, Lenski and Bulla wrote I WENT FOR A WALK (1958), AT OUR HOUSE (1959), and WHEN I GROW UP (1960.) I'm sort of touched that a child went through our library copy of WHEN I GROW UP and laboriously printed out each note on the page:

even as I'm appalled by the content of the book's two songs. "Song for a Boy" lists all the things a boy may become when he grows up -- a pilot, a doctor, a fireman -- while "Song for a Girl" includes such career options as typist, nurse, and librarian..."but oh, a mother is best of all." (Needless to say, "Song for a Boy" makes no mention of becoming a father.)

Clyde Robert Bulla finally discovered the best way to combine his twin loves of literature and music, writing several volumes about the stories behind famous operas. STORIES OF FAVORITE OPERAS (1959), THE RING AND THE FIRE : STORIES FROM WAGNER'S NIBELUNG OPERAS (1962), MORE STORIES OF FAVORITE OPERAS (1965) and STORIES OF GILBERT AND SULLIVAN OPERAS (1968) provide kid-friendly opera summaries written with immediacy and affection.

Incidentally, it was during the time Mr. Bulla was writing these books that he actually had the opportunity to perform at the Metropolitan Opera himself. A friend from publishing worked with the Met's supernumeraries and finagled to get Bulla onstage as a townsperson during a performance of DIE MEISTERSINGER. It was a dream that Bulla probably had from the first time he heard that radio opera in 1931...but it was not to be. The day before the performance, as he sat eating lunch with friends at a restaurant a report, came over the radio saying that President Kennedy had been shot. The next evening, instead of stepping onto the stage of the Met, Clyde Robert Bulla sat alone in his hotel room, looking "down at the people in the street as they drifted up and down, gathering in little knots, and drifting on again. Now and then I heard wailing."

Although never a stellar figure in children's books, Mr. Bulla left his mark with a wide variety of middle-grade novels as well as those opera guides for young people. Regarding his collaborations with Lois Lenski, he said, "I like to think that here and there, now and then, someone may be singing our songs."

I was going to say, "I doubt that"...but who knows?

After all, someone went to the trouble of assigning letters to the musical notes in our library copies of those books. Perhaps one of these days I'll pass someone on the street singing,

I might be a farmer who likes to plow,
Who feeds the chickens and milks the cow.
I might be a doctor -- who can tell?
Who likes to make people well.

If I ever do hear someone singing that song...I hope she has a good voice.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Sunday Brunch

Today’s random discussion about kids’ books identifies Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s least-known book, provides a list of titles about the Special Olympics, and includes an incomplete mishmash of info about the Parents Magazine Book Club.


Look around you.


What are people talking about everywhere you go?

What are they arguing about in bars?

Gossiping about over the back fence?

Whispering about at lunch tables and water coolers?


I listened...and this is what I heard:

Worries about living in a shattered economy...

Mistrust of leaders...

Rumors of public unrest...

Stories about the government actually...killing...its most vulnerable citizens....

I was a little concerned until I realized -- hey, everyone's talking about the upcoming release of CATCHING FIRE by Suzanne Collins! This sequel to THE HUNGER GAMES is due out on September 1 -- and isn’t it great when a book for young readers can cause this kind of buzz?


One of the best things about the Harry Potter phenomenon were the midnight release parties held at so many bookstores. I know a couple children’s book fans who went to these parties not because they necessarily had to start reading the latest volume at 12:01 AM, but just because they wanted the experience of seeing hundreds of kids and their families so excited about a book.

I am curious if many bookstores will do the same for CATCHING FIRE.

Life has really changed in the past couple years. Even when the final HP volume came out, you pretty much needed to hit the bookstore if you wanted a copy. Now, with the advent of Kindle and other reading devices, you won’t even have to leave the house to get your copy of CATCHING FIRE; it can be beamed to you from Amazon at the stroke of midnight on September 1.

Another difference between the Rowling and Collins books is that the publisher was very adamant about not issuing any Harry Potter ARCs (advance reading copies) before the day of publication; if you were desperate to read a copy, you had to wait for one like everybody else. On the other hand, ARCs of CATCHING FIRE have been widely distributed at library and bookseller conferences over the past few months. Many of those copies have been shared (sometimes sold) to eager readers, so that at this point many of the series’ most ardent fans have already read the book. That’s too bad, as it’s these “superfans” who would have been lining up outside the bookstores in the waning hours of August 31.

Anyway, I hope the stores still stay open late that night and that tons of kids show up. When young people get excited about a book, it’s always a time for celebration.


The founder of the Special Olympics, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, died earlier this week. Because the Special Olympics play an important role in the lives of many kids, I figured these Games would have a strong presence in books for children as well. However, after an hour of searching the internet, I was only able to put together a meager list:

CRAZY LADY! by Jane Leslie Conly (Harper, 1993)

WAY TO GO, ALEX! by Robin Pulver (Whitman, 1999)

SPECIAL OLYMPICS by Mike Kennedy (Children’s Press, 2003)

A VERY SPECIAL ATHLETE by Dale Bachman Flynn and Emilio Soltero (Pearl Press, 2004)


SPECIAL OLYMPICS by Fern G. Brown (Watts, 1992)

MY BROTHER IS SPECIAL by Maureen Crane Wartski (Signet, 1981)

P.K. AND T.K. AND THE SPECIAL OLYMPICS by Richard Hurley (Tate Publishing, 2009)

OLYMPIC OTIS by Gibbs Davis (Yearling, 1993)

THE WINNING SPIRIT by Melissa Lowell (Bantam, 1995)

CRISTINA KEEPS A PROMISE by Virginia L. Kroll and Enrique O. Sanchez (Whitman, 2006)

With the exception of Jane Leslie Conly’s solid Newbery Honor CRAZY LADY!, most of these titles -- bibliotherapeutic fiction and pedestrian nonfiction alike -- aren’t truly distinguished books. Can anyone add more titles to my list? Are there any truly great children’s books about the Special Olympics...or are those books yet to be written?


There have been a few mentions of Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s work on this blog over the past few weeks. Many of us who grew up in the late 1960s/early 1970s remember her atmospheric novels (THE EGYPT GAME; THE VELVET ROOM) which often contained an element of magic and mystery (THE CHANGELING; BLACK AND BLUE MAGIC.) However, even some of Ms. Snyder’s biggest fans are unfamiliar with this 1969 book:

TODAY IS SATURDAY is unlike anything else the author ever published -- a collection of children’s poetry, illustrated by photographer John Arms. Although the longish poems contain rhymes that are sometimes over-obvious or -- when pairing words such as “full” and “dull” -- cringe-inducing, Ms. Snyder does contribute a few atmospheric poems that evoke the same mystical chills as her novels. Others, such as the title poem, celebrate everyday joys -- such as the fun of a day free of responsibilities:

The day was like that -- and the things we did
Just happened. And, someway, that made them seem
More special than the things we mostly do,
A little bit like something from a dream,
I guess. It was an ordinary day.
Not cloudy, but the sky was kind of dusty gold,
And never very hot.

But everything we did was fun -- and no one fought
For once. We laughed a lot
At things nobody else might even see.

No one would know what it was like I guess
But guys like Doug and Ben and Mark and me.

This least-known of the author’s works reveals a different side of her talent to fans of her novels.


A couple weeks ago a friend of the blog suggested I write an entry about books published by Parents Magazine Press.

I thought this was a very good idea, as titles published by book clubs -- such as Scholastic, Weekly Reader, and Parents Magazine -- are often extremely popular with collectors, who remember those volumes fondly from childhood and often hunt them down again as adults...either for themselves or for their children.

However, my research has left me with more questions than answers. I’ll report the little bit I know here and maybe other readers can provide some supplemental info.

Traditionally, mail-order book clubs for children offer their subscribers a new volume every month. These selections, originally issued by major publishing houses such as Macmillan or Morrow, are reprinted in inferior “book club” editions -- pressed cardboard covers, no dustjackets, and the name of the book club emblazoned on the back cover or title page. In some book clubs, such as the Weekly Reader, the child was registered by age and automatically received that month’s pre-selected title for his or her age group. Other book clubs, such as the Junior Deluxe, would offer two or more selections per month and the reader could make a choice.

I’m not sure if age range was even an issue with the Parents Magazine book club; all of their titles were for preschoolers and early readers.

When the club first began in the 1950s, they too offered titles originally released by other mainstream publishers. YOUNG KANGAROO by Margaret Wise Brown (1955) was first issued by Abelard Shuman and then reprinted by Parents Magazine Press; Syd Hoff’s JULIUS (1959) had a trade edition published by a Harper, while its book club edition was printed by Parents Magazine Press.

However, this would change in the early 1960s, when Parents Magazine Press began issuing original titles of its own.

Among the earliest original titles I’ve found are THE KING’S CHOICE by K. Shivkumar, which was published in 1961, and TAG-ALONG by Bernice Frankel, published in 1962. From that point on, every Parents Magazine Press title appears to be a new book being published for the first time.

The 1960s were the glory years for this book club. Authors and artists who published with Parents Magazine Press included Marianna Mayer, Tomi Ungerer, Ellen Raskin, Alvin Tresselt, and Roger Duvoisin -- and volumes such as THE COOKIE TREE by Jay Williams (1967) and MISS SUZY by Miriam Young, with illustrations by Arnold Lobel (1964) remain well-known and well-loved.

However, Parents Magazine Press also seem to have issued their titles in more than one edition. If you were a member of the club, the book you received would have a grainy cardboard cover with an illustration printed directly on it. Yet there is evidence that Parents Press also printed some -- if not all -- of their books in classier editions with cloth covers and dustjackets. I assume these copies were for the library and bookstore market.

One Parents Magazine Press title -- THIRTEEN by Remy Charlip -- won the 1977 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award; others, such as MISS SUZY, have become modern classics and have been reprinted by other publishers for modern audiences.

Were you a member of the Parents Magazine Book Club? I'd be curious to hear what books you received. Were they original publications or repackaged editions from other publishers? Did any have dustjackets? Do you have any special memories of these books?


I’m always fascinated to see how books can change in design and title just months away from publication. Case in point: my bookstore friend recently gave me an ARC of a forthcoming book called EPISODES : MY LIFE IN SYNDICATION by Blaze Ginsberg. The author, according to the back of the volume, is a “high functioning autistic teenager” and this autobiographical book is written in the style of the famous Internet Movie Database ( with events divided into television “episodes” containing summaries, notes, trivia, soundtracks, etc.

Before I had a chance to read the book, I came across another picture of its cover -- and it's been completely changed. As you can see in this comparative photograph, the ARC features an illustration of stacked television sets, the subtitle “”My Life in Syndication,” and a blurb by Jamie Leigh Curtis; the hardover illustration features a TV remote, a new subtitle (“My Life as I See It”), and Jamie Leigh’s been replaced by Daniel “Lemony Snicket” Handler:

Being a big fan of novelty-narratives (I love books composed of letters, diary entries, etc.) and a constant user of the imdb, I can’t wait to read EPISODES. Will the unusual structure enhance the text or result in a choppy, hard-to-follow story?

I’ll let you know when I finish reading it. As we say in TV Land, “stay tuned.”

And I hope you’ll stay tuned to this blogspot as we continue to celebrate the old and new in children’s books. Thanks for dropping by.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Typewriter Cemetery

One of the top titles of the year 2000 was CLICK CLACK MOO : COWS THAT TYPE. Perfectly blending a hilarious story (by Doreen Cronin) with splashy color illustrations (by Betsy Lewin), the book was a delight from start to finish. However, I did question if its intended preschool audience would know what a typewriter was. Heck, I even wondered if college students knew! After all, it was around that time when our library hired a student assistant for a typing project. She was a whiz at the computer keyboard -- 90 words per minute -- but unfortunately this typing job entailed filling out pre-printed forms and had to be done on an old-fashioned typewriter. And we soon realized the student was completely lost. We had to teach her how to feed the paper into the roller and line it up. We had to show her how to set the margins and tabs. How to hit the return carriage. She couldn't figure out why hitting the delete key didn't automatically correct mistakes and she wanted to know why that @#$*&# bell kept ringing! She quit at the end of the day.

I can't say I blame her. I have been using a Macintosh computer for nearly a quarter century and doubt I could now go back to one of those archaic typing machines if my life depended on it. Back in the Typewriter Days, my brown desk looked as though it had been painted white because of all the correction fluid I spilled. I'd sometimes pound the keys so hard that the letter "o" would cut through the page and flutter to the ground like a hole from a paper punch. Occasionally I'd type right off the bottom of the page. And I once knew a lady who reached inside her typewriter to change the ribbon and the "N" key accidentally flew up and imprinted itself on her index finger. At first she thought it was cute to have the letter N printed on her finger (her first name started with N) until, over the course of several days, a dark line began to run down her index finger...down her hand...up her arm...and she had to go to the hospital to be treated for blood poisoning. Who knew typing could be so dangerous?

Still, I'm sorry to see typewriters leaving our cultural landscape. After all, they were instrumental in producing so many of our favorite books. In honor of the typewriter, here are a few anecdotes about typewriters and children's books:

Roland Smith (PEAK; ELEPHANT'S RUN) recalls, "When I was five years old my parents gave me an old manual typewriter that weighed more than I did! It was my favorite possession. I spent hours in my room clacking away on that old typewriter. Of course, when I was five I didn't know how to spell and I barely knew how to read, but I loved the sound and the look of the letters on the crisp white paper. Things haven't changed much since then. I still spend several hours a day in my room clacking away and I still love the sound of the keyboard and the look of the letters and words that eventually turn into stories. The only difference is that I can read now and I spell a lot better."

Mabel Esther Allan (AN ISLAND IN A GREEN SEA; THE VIEW BEYOND MY FATHER) suffered from poor eyesight as child, a fact that went unnoticed by her teachers, who, she claims "thought me stupid, almost beyond hope." Things changed when she announced she planned to become a writer and taught herself to type at age eight.

S.E. Hinton was another early bloomer. She taught herself to type in sixth grade -- and ended up publishing her first novel, THE OUTSIDERS, when she was only sixteen. A few years later, her college boyfriend wouldn't take her out in the evening unless she showed him she'd typed two pages of her next book each day. This arrangement resulted in the publication of her second book, THAT WAS THEN, THIS IS NOW, as well as Hinton's marriage to that boyfriend.

Norma Fox Mazer's first novel, I, TRISSY, concerns a girl adjusting to life after her parents' separation. In the opening scene, Trissy's father gives her a typewriter ("Tris, now you can put down on paper all the things you're always making the mistake of saying out loud, and nobody has to know about them except you.") The book is printed in a font that mimics typewriter print, contains typed "pictures," and even includes strike-overs and other typing errors.

Back in the early 1960s, Marijane Meaker was a crime novelist who wanted to write for young readers; Louise Fitzhugh was a children's author (HARRIET THE SPY) who yearned to write crime stories. The two friends joked that they should trade typewriters. That never happened -- and Louise Fitzhugh never did write any crime fiction. But sticking to her own typewriter, Marijane Meaker wrote DINKY HOCKER SHOOTS SMACK!, the first in a series of brilliant young-adult novels she has published under the name M.E. Kerr.

Gary D. Schmidt writes all of his books, including the Newbery Honors LIZZIE BRIGHT AND THE BUCKMINSTER BOY and THE WEDNESDAY WARS, on a 1953 Royal.

By comparison, Richard Peck (A LONG WAY FROM CHICAGO; REMEMBERING THE GOOD TIMES) seems positively modern, typing his books on an electric typewriter because he wants his manuscript "to be a book from the first day."

Meindert DeJong dedicated his Newbery-winning novel THE WHEEL ON THE SCHOOL, "To my nieces, Shirley and Beverly, and their flying fingers".

Raymond Abrashkin created the character of scientific wunderkind Danny Dunn and wrote the popular books (DANNY DUNNY AND THE HOMEWORK MACHINE; DANNY DUNN, INVISIBLE BOY) along with Jay Williams. Unfortunately, Mr. Abrashkin suffered from debilitating paralysis and, as his condition worsened, was only able to communicate with Mr. Williams by pointing to the letters on his typewriter keyboard. Although Mr. Abrashkin died after the publication of the fifth book, he was given co-author credit for the entire run of the series.

I'm not saying that Theodore Taylor (THE CAY; TEETONCEY) was obsessed or anything, but this two-fingered typist once wrote a two hundred page tribute to his manual Olympia.

Mildred D. Taylor won the Newbery Medal for ROLL OF THUNDER, HEAR MY CRY, but I think her recent novel, THE LAND, is perhaps her most towering achievement. The story concerns a young man's quest to own a piece of property in the post-Civil War era. Reading the author's note at the end of the volume, the reader discovers that Ms. Taylor also struggled to purchase and keep a piece of land -- an event which mirrors Paul-Edward's plight in the novel. The author tells us, "Over the years, to obtain and keep the land, I sacrificed and sold many treasured things, including my house, some of my furniture, and my few bits of jewelry. But more precious to me than any of those things was my typewriter, which I sold for two hundred and fifty dollars. I cried when I sold it, for it was the typewriter upon which I wrote ROLL OF THUNDER, HEAR MY CRY."

That story makes me sad as well. If I ever win the lottery, I'd like to open a Children's Book Museum, and if I do, I'd have a special room just for displaying the typewriters that were used to create important books. I wonder if any of those old typewriters are still around -- or has the advent of computer technology sent them all to the local landfill?

Somewhere in those piles of refuse are old Olivettis, rickety Remingtons, and rusty Royals, perhaps waiting for the souls of departed writers to return to them and complete their unfinished tales.

Perhaps, on a quiet, moonless night, you will pass one of the typewriter cemeteries. If you listen carefully you may hear the tap-tap-tapping of ten thousand ghostly fingers typing away on a thousand long-buried typewriters.

Click Clack Boo.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Sunday Brunch with Ladybugs and Bees

Today’s Sunday brunch offers up the usual mix of facts and opinions on children’s books. Want to know which Newbery and Caldecott winners were most popular fifty years ago? Want to know how a fictional character from a children’s book figures into NCAA basketball? Want to know why I’m ticked at JACK AND JILL magazine? Read on.


The mind is a very strange thing.

Well, let me rephrase that:

My mind is a very strange thing.

What quirk in my brainwaves caused me to wake up this morning thinking about, of all things, HUMPTY DUMPTY MAGAZINE? I haven’t thought of that children’s periodical in decades. I can only assume that I dreamed about it last night...otherwise, why did I wake up thinking about it?

I actually had a subscription to HUMPTY DUMPTY when I was preschooler. What I remember best was how thick each issue was. I also remember fanning out the pages and rubbing them against my cheeks because the paper was so soft. (Gosh, maybe that’s how Lennie from OF MICE AND MEN went off track.) I don’t remember much else about the magazine, except I seem to recall a monthly cartoon called, I think, “Twinkle, the Star That Fell to Earth” and featured a star with a face walking around on two of his points. He looked sort of like this:

So for the last couple hours I’ve been looking online to learn more info about this magazine. The first thing I discovered is that’s actually called HUMPTY DUMPTY’S MAGAZINE, not just HUMPTY DUMPTY and that it is still being published. I also learned that from 1952 through 1965 it was edited by Alvin Tresselt, a major figure in children’s books. Among other titles, he wrote WHITE SNOW, BRIGHT SNOW, which won the Caldecott Medal in 1949.

I can’t find any references to the comic strip character Twinkle, though. Could I have made him up? You have to remember it's been decades since I subscribed. In fact, I’d outgrown the magazine by the time I started kindergarten. For a few years after that, I received JACK AND JILL magazine instead. I don’t know if they had a famous editor and, frankly, I don’t care. Ever since age eight, when they rejected the crayon drawing I sent for their “picture exhibition page,” that magazine has been dead to me!


One reference book that I frequently consult is A HISTORY OF THE NEWBERY AND CALDECOTT AWARDS by Irene Smith. Published by Viking in 1957 (an updated edition was published 1963), this volume provides background on the awards, lists the winners and “runners-up,” places the books in subject categories, and ranks them in popularity. I’ve always been particularly interested in those popularity rankings circa 1957. Are the same books popular today? Have most lost favor over time? Have any become more popular than they used to be?

In ranking the Newbery titles, Ms. Smith states that only two “stand out for their real satisfaction to a majority of children": GINGER PYE by Eleanor Estes (1952) and KING OF THE WIND by Marguerite Henry (1949.)

Five more are “usually found in the upper bracket of favor among children”: JOHNNY TREMAIN by Esther Forbes (1944), RABBIT HILL by Robert Lawson (1945), THE VOYAGES OF DOCTOR DOLITTLE by Hugh Lofting (1923), CADDIE WOODLAWN by Carol Ryrie Brink (1936), and STRAWBERRY GIRL by Lois Lenski (1946.)

The following “occupy the middle ground between actual popularity and a prevailing lack of it":

CALL IT COURAGE by Armstrong Sperry (1941)
THE MATCHLOCK GUN by Walter Edmonds (1942)
SMOKY THE COWHORSE by Will James (1927)
MISS HICKORY by Carolyn Sherwin Bailey (1947)
ROLLER SKATES by Ruth Sawyer (1937)
THIMBLE SUMMER by Elizabeth Enright (1939)
MIRACLES ON MAPLE HILL by Virginia Sorensen (1957)
THE DOOR IN THE WALL by Marguerite de Angeli (1950)
YOUNG FU OF THE UPPER YANGTZE by Elizabeth Foreman Lewis (1933)
THE WHEEL ON THE SCHOOL by Meindert DeJong (1955)

Two books are listed as having “less than average use”:

THE TWENTY-ONE BALLOONS by William Pene DuBois (1948)
TALES FROM SILVER LANDS by Charles Finger (1925)

According to Smith, the Newbery biographies (INVINCIBLE LOUISA by Cornelia Meigs, 1934; DANIEL BOONE by James Daugherty, 1940; AMOS FORTUNE, FREE MAN by Elizabeth Yates, 1951; CARRY ON, MR. BOWDITCH by Jean Lee Latham, 1956) “enjoy a fair and steady popularity” with the remaining nonfiction volume, 1922’s THE STORY OF MANKIND by Hendrik Van Look, somewhat less popular.

The rest of the winning books “compose a group considered lowest in popularity.” They are:

THE DARK FRIGATE by Charles Boardman Hawes (1924)
GAY NECK by Dhan Gopal Mukerji (1928)
ADAM OF THE ROAD by Elizabeth Janet Gray (1943)
DOBRY by Monica Shannon (1935)
THE TRUMPETER OF KRAKOW by Eric P. Kelly (1929)
THE WHITE STAG by Kate Seredy (1938)
THE CAT WHO WENT TO HEAVEN by Elizabeth Coatsworth (1931)
SHEN OF THE SEA by Arthur Chrisman Bowie (1926)
SECRET OF THE ANDES by Ann Nolan Clark (1953)
...AND NOW MIGUEL by Joseph Krumgold (1954)
WATERLESS MOUNTAIN by Laura Adams Armer (1932)

Irene Smith also ranks the Caldecott winners in popularity, circa 1957. She includes just two as “top favorites with children”: THE BIGGEST BEAR by Lynd Ward (1953) and MADELINE’S RESCUE by Ludwig Bemelmans (1954.)

Next in popularity are:

ABRAHAM LINCOLN by Ingri and Edgar d-’Aulaire (1940)
MAKE WAY FOR DUCKLINGS by Robert McCloskey (1942)
FINDERS KEEPERS by Nicolas Mordvinoff (1952)
CINDERELLA by Marcia Brown (1955)
FROG WENT A-COURTIN’ by Feodor Rojankovsky (1956)

Those deemed to have “average” popularity are:

MEI LI by Thomas Handforth (1939)
THE LITTLE HOUSE by Virginia Lee Burton (1943)
MANY MOONS by Louis Slobodkin (1944)
PRAYER FOR A CHILD by Elizabeth Orton Jones (1945)
THE ROOSTER CROWS by Maud and Miska Petersham (1946)
WHITE SNOW, BRIGHT SNOW by Roger Duvoisin (1948)
THE BIG SNOW by Berta and Elmer Hader (1949)

At the bottom of the list are five Caldecott winners “not often sought by children themselves”:

ANIMALS OF THE BIBLE by Dorothy Lathrop (1938)
THEY WERE STRONG AND GOOD by Robert Lawson (1941)
THE LITTLE ISLAND by Leonard Weisgard (1947)
SONG OF THE SWALLOWS by Leo Politi (1950)
THE EGG TREE by Katharine Milhous (1951)

Nowadays, most of Smith’s top-ranked books would be pushed further down the ladder because so many kid-friendly titles (HOLES, WESTING GAME, WRINKLE IN TIME, FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES, etc.) have been published in the intervening years. Still, I think Smith’s relative rankings hold up surprisingly well. Those listed as lowest in popularity in 1957, such as THE WHITE STAG and THE CAT WHO WENT TO HEAVEN, still remain fairly unpopular today.


Here’s a book that suits the season:

Unfortunately, this is also a book that makes me feel a little sad. When I look at the cover, I think of opportunities lost and stories we probably won’t get to read. And I blame the publisher.

Bonnie Geisert began her writing career with the texts for HAYSTACK, RIVER TOWN, and other volumes illustrated by her husband Arthur Geisert. In 2002, she published PRAIRIE SUMMER, an autobiographical novel about a young girl growing up on a South Dakota farm in the early 1950s.

Now most of us know about nineteenth-century prairie life courtesy of Laura Ingalls Wilder. But here was another historical, though significantly more modern, view of life on the prairie for a whole new audience of kids. Ms. Geisert had written a fine story, peopled with well-individualized characters and strong sense of place. Publisher Houghton Mifflin seemed to be behind the book as well, giving the book a notably classy design. The volume was issued in a larger-than-normal format, with a beautiful wraparound jacket evoking farmlife under a wide prairie sky. Here’s the back panel:

The book contained line drawings by Arthur Geisert and, that rarest of luxuries in a modern children’s books, illustrated endpapers:

In my mind, I imagined this series running for years, continuing the story of Rachel’s life on the prairie as she progressed through grade school...went to high school...grew older and wiser. I could see more and more larger-than-normal-sized volumes joining PRAIRIE SUMMER on the shelf, each with a gorgeous matching dustjacket.

Three years later, Bonnie Geisert wrote LESSONS, another story about Rachel’s life on the prairie and this is what we got:

Gone were the distinctively oversized volume and timeless dustjacket. Gone were the illustrated endpapers and wonderful line drawings throughout the book. Instead, we got a normal trimsize and today’s “typical” -- and typically bland -- stock photo cover illustration. The book had lost its charm and individuality. The narrative was still appealing (though a bit more narrowly focused than its predecessor) but the whole presentation was now just...ordinary. Houghton had had the opportunity to create a special series of books that might have appealed to readers of Wilder, but it appears that they really dropped the ball. LESSONS is now selling for about $5 on and I doubt there will be any more books in this series. Sad. It had the makings of a classic.


Well, this afternoon I finished this blog entry, braved the 94 degree heat and went out for lunch, then came home and took a nap. When I woke up, I had received an e-mail from a friend of this blog, informing me that a new novel by Bonnie Geisert is going to be be published this fall: PRAIRIE WINTER!

Of course I'm delighted to hear the Bonnie Geisert series will continue, although I feel kind of embarrassed to learn this news two hours after complaining that Houghton had ruined the franchise with their shoddy production of LESSONS!

I just hope that PRAIRIE WINTER is a return to the distinctive bookmaking of PRAIRIE SUMMER and not a slick, ordinary-looking volume like LESSONS. This series deserved better than that.


Wandering the stacks this week, I came across a curiosity -- CHINESE MOTHER GOOSE RHYMES by Isaac Taylor Headland of Peking University:

Published by Fleming H. Revell in 1900, this collection of nursery rhymes was collected from two of China's then-eighteen provinces and the editor contends that there "are probably more nursery rhymes in China than can be found in England and America."

Printed on heavy, patterned paper, each verse is accompanied by a black-and-white photograph and -- a surprisingly respectful touch considering the date of publication -- the poem's text written in Chinese.

Which isn’t to say that some images won’t make modern readers cringe, such as this frontispiece titled “Little Orientals”:

Although many of these verses relate to specific Chinese subjects, others are reminiscent of rhymes from our own oral tradition. Listen to “Lady Bug”:

Lady-bug, lady-bug,
Fly away, do,
Fly to the mountain,
And feed upon dew,
Feed upon dew
And sleep on a rug,
And then run away
Like a good little bug.

In the the west we have “five little piggies,” but in the east they apparently have “five little cows”:

This little cow eats grass,
This little cow eats hay,
the little cow drinks water
This little cow runs away,
The little cow does nothing
But just lie down all day;
We'll whip her.

Oh, and if you missed the little toe going “whee-whee-whee all the way home,” here is a Chinese rhyme called “Five Little Fingers”:

A great big brother,
And a little brother, so,
A big bell tower,
And a temple and a show,
And little baby wee wee,
Always wants to go.

And for those who wonder about the gratuitous violence that sometimes pops up in our western children’s rhymes, here are a couple eastern rhymes that prove it’s a global phenomenon:

Cruel Little Glutton

He eat too much,
That second brother,
And when he had eaten,
He beat his mother.


Pat a cake, pat a cake,
Little girl fair,
There's a priest in the temple
Without any hair.

You take a tile,
And I'll take a brick,
And we'll hit the priest
In the back of the neck.

CHINESE MOTHER GOOSE RHYMES presents a view of childhood that is both specific to Asian culture yet also has a recognizable universal quality.


A friend of mine grew up with Chip Hilton sports novels that were passed down by his four older brothers. I never heard of these books until I was an adult -- probably because they were out of print when I was growing up and -- as “series books” -- our library did not carry them.

Written by Clair Bee, who was both a college (Long Island University) and professional (Baltimore Bullets) basketball coach, the novels concern a wholesome and industrious high schooler (later college student) who participates in many sports, including basketball, football, and baseball.

Well-loved by former kids, first editions of some of these titles -- particularly 1964’s HUNGRY HURLER -- now sell for hundreds of dollars. In recent years, Mr. Bee’s daughter, Cynthia Bee Farley, has republished updated editions of the novels. Here’s a complete list of the author’s books:

NO-HITTER, 1959*
FIERY FURNACE, 2002 (published nearly twenty years after the author’s death)

Clair Bee was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1968 and the "Clair Bee Coach of the Year Award" is given annually to a college basketball coach. Even better, ever since 1997 there has been a "Chip Hilton Player of the Year Award" which is given "to a Division I men’s basketball player who demonstrates outstanding character, leadership, integrity, humility, sportsmanship and talent both on and off the court.” Past winners include Tim Duncan and Shane Battier. The current winner is Jon Brockman from the University of Washington.

I can’t think of too many major awards named for a fictional character.

Much less a fictional character from a children’s book.

Score one for Chip Hilton!


Speaking of honors, I’m happy to report that the Collecting Children’s Books blog has been chosen as one of the top ten book blogs by Larry D. Mitchell of the prestigious Private Library Blog.

Thank you for the honor! And score one for children’s books.

Thanks for visiting CCB. Hope you’ll be back.