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.


Wendy said...

I am a HUGE FAN of Go To the Room of the Eyes, which for some reason I remember bypassing repeatedly as a kid (I used to comb the juvenile shelves at the library and bypassed many famous books many times; something about their titles didn't intrigue me) but have read several times as an adult and recommend frequently. Mentioning that it has a great scene in Seattle's Pike Place Market is generally a good hook.

I'm curious about your listing of City Under the Back Steps by "Honore Lampman". This book was written by Evelyn Sibley Lampman, who also wrote a few books as Lynn Bronson. Is it possible that she also published as "Honore", or is this just a typo somewhere? The curious thing is that Lampman is very much an Oregon author, and the book On to Oregon! was written by Honore Morrow, and that makes me wonder if the two authors were somehow conflated way back east in Vermont, or what. Very strange.

Peter D. Sieruta said...

Hi Wendy,

The Honore Lampman error was a good catch (speaking of the Seattle Fish Market!) In the back of my mind, I knew that author's name didn't sound right, but both the official Dorothy Canfield Fisher Award site and the Wikipedia had the name listed as "Honore," so that's how I typed it, even as a small voice in the back of my head said, "Something is not right." Actually, I think I've now figured out what caused the confusion. Evelyn Sibley Lampman wrote the book, but it was illustrated by "Honore" Valintcourt. I guess the names got transposed at some point. Thank you for pointing that the mistake!

I don't recall even seeing GO TO THE ROOM OF THE EYES in the library when I was growing up. When I return to work on Tuesday, I am going to see if our library has a copy. It's neat to know that someone out there has read it and loved it.

Thanks for reading,


Charlotte said...

Thanks for another great brunch!

I enjoyed Summer Sleigh Ride, when I read it way back when-I'll have to find it again, and see how it holds up!

Wendy said...

Well, that isn't nearly as interesting of an answer to the mystery, though! I loved City Under the Back Steps (and most of Lampman's books), which is about two children who shrink and go to live with a black ant colony, when I was a kid; but when I reread it a few months ago--same battered copy from Multnomah County Library--it was one that hadn't held up well for me. But the childhood memories are there.

Nancy Leek said...

Byatt's The Children's Hour may not be based on the life of E. Nesbit, but the minute I read a review (with no mention of Nesbit), I thought, "That sounds like E. Nesbit." Fabian Society, ne'er-do-well socialist husband, house full of children---Nesbit's life was certainly her jumping off point.

the spirited librarian said...

Thanks for another delicious brunch. When I was in 5th grade we went on a field trip to Old Sturbridge Village and I spent my "souvenir money" on a book: The Mystery at Old Sturbridge Village. When I opened it at home, it smelled just like the scented candles in the gift store. Everytime I read it after that, I sniffed it to be brought back to that fun day. Even now I occasionally take it off my shelf and imagine I can still smell that scent.

Anonymous said...

I've only read one Lampman book, Tree Wagon, but it was really, really good.

Was the first award by children the William Allen White Children's Book Award?

Anonymous said...

speaking of 'misunderstood' titles:



Peter D. Sieruta said...

Anon at 10:21:

Yes, it would help if I got the title right before I threw stones!

Thanks for the correction. I fixed the typo.


Bybee said...

I read Understood Betsy both as a child and as an adult and liked it a lot both times. Even more the 2nd time. I've often been confused about the title, myself. I'd love to read Fisher's adult novels that were Pulitzer contenders.

Does that book of stories co-written by her have a story where two brothers pull a prank on their neighbors by putting a cake of soap in a bucket full of living fish and their father sends them out in the family boat and tells them not to come back till they've replaced all the fish and it takes them 2 days? I remember this story being in one of my textbooks when I was in elementary school. Can't remember (familiar refrain) story title or author, but it sounds like the theme would fit in with Nothing Ever Happens...

Sharon Creech said...

Thanks for the brunch, Peter.

CLM said...

Thank you for an interesting post! I read Understood Betsy at the same time I was reading Carolyn Haywood's Betsy books and the Betsy-Tacy books by Maud Hart Lovelace. While I enjoyed the first two, it was Betsy-Tacy that became the favorite for all time.

Margaret Leighton, author of Comanche of the Seventh,is not well known any more but is another huge favorite of mine. I read her mysteries first but it is Judith of France and Journey for a Princess, two historical novels which are two of my absolute favorites. Judith is the granddaughter or perhaps great-granddaughter of Charlemagne who marries the father of Alfred the Great. It is a wonderful book and I am lucky to have my mother's childhood copy as it is impossible to find. A much more contemporary title was Canyon Castaways, which had some memorable scenes where the stranded children had to eat food from cans that had lost their labels. I seem to recall she was an early graduate of Radcliffe College.

I used to be in touch with Mrs. Erwin's daughter. If I can find her email, I will forward a link to her as she has many interesting things to say about Go to the Room of the Eyes (based on a real house in Seattle, as I recall).

hschinske said...

Hi, Peter -- I'm Helen Erwin Schinske, daughter of Betty K. Erwin, and would be delighted to tell you more about my mother's work. I am just back from the longest vacation I've had in some years (only two weeks, nothing to some people, but it loomed large to me), and am catching up with many tasks, but two friends wrote to tell me of your post and I thought I should say something immediately even if I couldn't write much just at the moment.

My mother was extremely pleased about the DCF award, which at the time was the only one she had heard of that was chosen by the children themselves. (Of course there are others, and probably were then, too, but I *think* the DCF was one of the first such.)

Peter D. Sieruta said...

Hi Spirited Librarian,

I love that story about the scent of candles in the book.

One of my theories about children's books is that they each contain at least three stories:

1) the story told within the book
2) the story of how the author came to write it
3) the individual story the reader brings to the book -- in this case, your story of smelling candles within the volume

Thanks for sharing it here!


Peter D. Sieruta said...

Hi Bybee,

I didn't read UNDERSTOOD BETSTY till I was an adult, but liked it a lot. We have both the DCF Pulitzer nominees in the library where I work and I plan to read them; I believe one is a pioneer-story (standard Pulitzer fare) but the other takes place in a boys' school.

I don't think DCF wrote the soap/fish story, but I'll look out for it.

Thanks for reading,


Peter D. Sieruta said...

Dear Sharon Creech,

Honored you stopped by my blog!

Thank you,


Peter D. Sieruta said...


That's a lot of Betsys!

When I saw the name "Margaret Leighton," I vaguely remembered an actress by that name. I know nothing about the author, but will put her on my reading list now.

Thanks so much,


Peter D. Sieruta said...

Hi Helen,

I'm very familiar with your name and your work in children's books but NEVER knew you had a famous mother!

As mentioned in my blog, I am unfamiliar with your mother's work, but that may be because the library system of my youth (Detroit Public Library) did not have her books. When I go back to work tomorrow (one-day vacation here) I will see if the university library where I currently work have any Betty K. Erwin books. Now I very much want to read them. They sound like they were loved and long-remembered by many former kids. I'd also love to hear more about your mother and her writing.

Thanks for writing,


Michele Roberts said...

My third grade teacher read us Aggie, Maggie, and Tish and the sequel, Where's Aggie by Betty K. Erwin. That was back in the 70s. I still remember these books fondly. I am grateful that my teacher shared these lovely stories
with us.