Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Ilsa, Queen of Terror

Throughout the annals of history, a number of women have inspired terror in the hearts of men.

Perhaps it was the Wicked Witch of the West that made you cover your eyes and shriek for your mother.

Maybe it was the Bride of Frankenstein.

Or was it Mrs. Bates who kept you up until the wee hours, afraid to turn off the lights?

Yes, all those ladies are pretty scary, but the one who made me shiver, shake, clutch my stomach, and bite my fingernails to the quick was...Ilsa.

I have been thinking about this Madeleine L'Engle novel ever since Bookfinder.com reported it was one of last year's most sought-after out-of-print titles. When I mentioned this in my Sunday blog, a reader commented: "Jeepers, the minute the economy recovers I'm selling my copy of ILSA."

I hope they make a mint.

My own experience selling a copy of ILSA turned into something of a (dim the lights and cue the creepy organ music)...horror story.

It all started because I got greedy.

This happened about ten years ago, when the economy actually was pretty good. Or at least good for some. I've never been able to make much money writing or sharing my knowledge of children's books, but I had a regular full-time job in a library. It didn't pay a lot (someone once told me, "My Christmas bonus is bigger than your annual salary") but it covered the bills...mostly. Like a lot of people, I lived paycheck to paycheck, aware that I was one busted transmission or one root-canal-and-porcelain-crown away from the poorhouse.

My problem was that I had expensive tastes.

As a book collector, I was always running across rare volumes...first editions...special one-of-a-kind books that really seemed to belong on my shelves at home.

Luckily, I had a way of supplementing by income. As I haunted used bookstores, I'd sometimes stumble upon things like a first edition of JOHNNY TREMAIN for $5 or a signed copy of GINGER PYE for $15. Knowing these books were more valuable than that, I would purchase them and then turn around and sell them on eBay for $50 or $60. Buy low and sell high...isn't that what the Wall Street guys recommend? It was a nice way to earn money for my own "book fund."

But then I got greedy.

One day I was poking around on eBay and discovered someone auctioning off a first edition of Madeleine L'Engle's early novel ILSA. I watched in amazement as a series of potential buyers bid higher and higher: $100...$200...$500...$1000! The book ended up selling for over $1200!

I knew the book was rare and I knew L'Engle had a lot of fans, but I never dreamed a copy of ILSA could be worth that much money. And it got me excited, as I knew of a place that was selling a signed copy of this same book for "only" $600. I decided I should buy that copy and then immediately list it on eBay. There were obviously a lot of people already interested in buying it...and since this copy was actually signed by Madeleine L'Engle it would probably sell for even more $1200. I was starting to envision $1500...$1800...and even wondered if two grand was too grand to expect. The problem was that I didn't have the $600 seed money. Then I remembered that, for the past six months, I'd been socking away $50 per paycheck -- a grand total of exactly $600! -- to cover my biannual car insurance payment. The bill was coming due in a few weeks, but I figured that if I used that amount to buy ILSA, then quickly sold the book for a fortune, I'd be able to replenish the car insurance money with at least $1000 profit on the side.

So that night I used my car insurance money to buy a signed first edition of ILSA. I listed it on eBay with a minimum price of $1000. Then sat back waiting for the bids to come in.

I waited and waited.

And waited.

And nobody bid.

Still, I wasn't worried. I knew there were plenty of people out there who wanted this book. Hadn't I seen them bidding on that $1200 copy earlier in the week? I was sure they were just waiting till the last minute -- as Ebay buyers do -- to place their bids.

Then came the end of the auction. I planted myself in front of the computer as the minutes ticked down, repeatedly hitting the "refresh" button so I could view the bidding. Five minutes...four...three....two...one...thirty seconds...ten seconds....

Finally I hit the refresh button and saw that the auction had ended.

With zero bids.

Not one blasted bid!

Where were all the people who'd been bidding in a frenzy for that earlier copy of ILSA? Why didn't they bid on this copy?

Even worse: what was I going to do now that I'd spent all my car insurance money on this book?

That's when this incident turned into a horror story.

My insurance bill was coming due. I'd already spent the money. You're not even allowed to drive in Michigan without having proof of insurance. How was I going to get to work every day? What was I going to do, what was I going to do?

I'd lie in bed at night listening to the clock. Tick-tock, tick-tock soon began to sound like IL-SA, IL-SA.

Sometimes, as in all tales of terror, it would start to rain and the sound of raindrops on the roof -- plip-plop, plip-plop -- also began to echo the word IL-SA, IL-SA.

When I finally closed my eyes, colored shapes began to swirl behind my eyelids...

Forming odd patterns....

Until all the pieces fit together...

Like the jigsaw puzzle from hell!

Then I would finally doze off...

Only to be jolted awake as if someone had zapped me with a cattle prod, neon images of Ilsa flickering through my mind:

The next morning I'd have sharp pains in my stomach and knew I was getting an ulcer.

Ilsa the Ulcer.

It sounded like the name of a bad children's book.

With the days ticking down (IL-SA, IL-SA) till my insurance bill was due, I made a frantic last-ditch effort to sell the book again. I re-listed ILSA on eBay for a much lower cost...a bargain basement sale price of $650. Once again, nobody placed any bids on the book. Every time I checked eBay a chill would run down my back as if someone were walking on my grave. I began to imagine that Ilsa herself was walking on my grave. But finally, in the last minute of the last hour of the last day it was listed, someone bid $650 on the book.

Then he asked ("since I spent so much on the book") if I'd be willing to ship it for free. Heck, at that point I would have agreed to hand-deliver the book to his house in Pennsylvania just to clinch the deal.

A few days later I had the $650 in hand.

I know what you're thinking: at least I made some kind of profit on the deal...but I'm not so sure. After all the eBay fees involved, plus the free shipping I agree to, I don't think I broke even! But I did have enough to pay my car insurance bill -- which I promptly did!

In the ensuing years, I have continued to sell an occasional book on eBay and have made the occasional small profit. But I've never again risked big money in hopes of making a killing. I'm just not cut out for the high-stakes world of wheeling and dealing.

Today, just seeing a reference to Madeleine L'Engle's ILSA makes me break into a cold sweat.

And it's not even a scary book!

But ILSA has become my personal queen of terror.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Sunday Brunch for September 27

Among other topics, today’s Sunday Brunch lists the most-sought children’s books on the internet, discovers a shout-out to a children’s book editor in a Pulitzer Prize novel, and describes a bookish job I always wanted.


Someday when I win the Megamillions lottery, I’m going to buy myself the entire set of SOMETHING ABOUT THE AUTHOR books. I can’t imagine anything more glorious than having all those volumes of author info right at one’s fingertips. Seems like I spend half my time running down to the basement of the library where I work to consult those books and find a title, a date, or some arcane bit of background about an author’s life and work. And I never feel so old as when I’m standing next to that series of books, which stretches across shelf-after-shelf in well over two hundred volumes. See, I can remember when the first two volumes were published. They showed up at my local library when I was a kid, hidden away on the “reference and professional publications” shelves which no one ever used. I’d sit for hours staring at these books, memorizing every detail they provided about the lives of my favorite children’s authors -- up to and including religion and political affiliation! You have to remember that this was an era long before author’s websites and blogs. Back then, authors were mysterious entities. You only knew them from the stories they wrote...and perhaps the little bit of information gleaned from the backflap of a dustjacket. Unless that flap included a photograph, you didn’t know what they looked like. You never knew how old they were. You seldom knew about their personal backgrounds or what inspired them to write. SOMETHING ABOUT THE AUTHOR changed all that for me. Those books, which expanded on my local library’s shelves from two volumes to three to six to ten, helped make the authors I idolized more “real” and “relatable.” I always dreamed that someday I’d be profiled in one of these volumes. Later, when I learned that SOMETHING ABOUT THE AUTHOR was published right here in my hometown, I dreamed of someday working there. Decades have passed and SATA keeps publishing. I think our library’s most recent volume is #216. In recent years, I’ve actually come across my name in an occasional volume, quoting a book review or article I’ve written. That’s pretty neat, but I still dream about working for that publication as a contributor or editor. In my wildest dreams, I even imagine seeing my own profile in one of the volumes. Lily Tomlin once said, “Wouldn't it be great if we all grew up to be what we wanted to be? The world would be full of nurses, firemen, and ballerinas.” Wouldn’t it have been great if I’d grown up to be what I wanted to be? I’d be part of SOMETHING ABOUT THE AUTHOR. The sad irony is that I still haven’t given up that dream.


Anyone interested in children’s books of the past will be fascinated by Bookfinder’s Annual Report which identifies this past year’s trends and news stories involving out-of-print books and, best of all, provides lists of the ten most-sought-after titles in a number of categories, from science fiction to biography.

Are you curious about the ten most sought-after kids’ books? I sure was. Here is the somewhat surprising list, in reverse order from number ten to number one:

10 Nan Gilbert / 365 BEDTIME STORIES
I am actually not surprised to see this book is among the most sought-after. Many of us remember 365 BEDTIME STORIES very fondly from our own childhoods. I once wrote a blog entry about it and still get visitors nearly every day looking for information on this book. [Thanks to an anonymous poster for pointing out that the link is actually for the OTHER 365 BEDTIME STORIES book, a Golden Book publication written by Kathryn Jackson and illustrated by Richard Scarry. Both books continue to be sought after , but it appears the Nan Gilbert title is the most popular with readers.]

9 Madeleine L'Engle / ILSA
The author’s long-forgotten second novel is widely-sought by L’Engle collectors, yet I’m surprised to find it on this list because it’s actually an adult novel.

8 Eloise Jarvis McGraw / SAWDUST IN HIS SHOES
Ms. McGraw never wrote a bad book and this circus story is one of her best-known. I had no idea, however, that it was so sought after until I saw this list.

7 Anna Elizabeth Bennett / LITTLE WITCH
A copy of the 1953 first edition might cost a little money, but otherwise you can get a paperback or old library copy for under $20. I believe this is the only book on the list which was widely printed in paperback...thus making it more available than something like ILSA, which only had a single hardcover printing.

6 Holling Clancy Holling / THE BOOK OF COWBOYS
A perennial favorite, from the time it was first published in 1936, this title is not hard to find in inexpensive editions. And here’s a bit of trivia: the protagonist of Gary D. Schmidt’s recent Newbery Honor Book THE WEDNESDAY WARS was named after Holling Clancy Holling.

I’m not familiar with this volume by the author of THE LITTLE ENGINE THAT COULD, but it would obviously behoove me to learn more about it soon!

The name sounds familiar, but I can’t say that I’ve ever seen this book or know anything about it. Checking on the internet today, I learned this 1953 title is VERY hard to find, with copies going for nearly $500.

3 Holling Clancy Holling / THE BOOK OF INDIANS
The author’s Native Americans are obviously more popular than his Cowboys. Copies of this title are available at a wide range of prices, most very affordable.

2 Christine Noble Govan / THE PINK MAPLE HOUSE
Around the time I started this blog, a friend asked me to help identify a favorite book from her childhood. She remembered that it was about two girls who are afraid their friendship might end when one of them moves from the neighborhood. The father of the moving girl suggests that the other girl come visit their new house. My friend was most impressed by the fact that the father (rather than the mother) came up with this idea; it’s always interesting to see what makes a book particularly memorable for a reader. I imagine some fans of this book remember it for the house itself, or the friendship between the girls...but my friend was most struck by the father’s role in the story. Anyway, after hearing a few more details about the book, I was able to identify it as 1950’s THE PINK MAPLE HOUSE. It turned out to be a particularly hard-to-find and expensive book.

1 Anne Alexander / THE PINK DRESS
The number one most-sought-after title for 2008 stunned me, as I am completely unfamiliar with it. I may have heard the (fairly generic) title over the years, may even have seen it at the library, but I know nothing about this 1959 book or what makes it so popular with readers today. I was equally shocked when I checked around the internet this morning and learned that first editions are selling for nearly $1500 each. ...I wonder how many times I’ve walked by this book in a used bookstore never paying the slightest attention -- not realizing I could resell it to a collector and make enough money to pay off my car!


Naturally, I am now interested in learning more about this Anne Alexander, who wrote last year’s most searched children’s book at Bookfinder.

(See, if I had my own set of SOMETHING ABOUT THE AUTHOR, I might be able to look her up and get some more info. I was able to look her up online in CONTEMPORARY AUTHORS (the Big Brother of SATA) and she was not listed.)

I do remember reading a few titles Anne Alexander wrote for Atheneum in the early 1970s, including TO LIVE A LIE and THE TROUBLE ON TREAT STREET, but I was unaware that the seventies were a kind of “comeback” for this author, who had published almost nothing since the fifties, when she wrote ABC OF CARS AND TRUCKS and novels such as LINDA, CONNIE, and, of course, THE PINK DRESS.

I’ve learned we have a copy of THE PINK DRESS in my library. I now plan to read it and try to figure out what causes it to have such enduring power for today’s collectors.


Information on Anne Alexander may be sketchy, but I was able to learn a bit about the author of the #2 book, Christine Noble Govan. In addition to THE PINK MAPLE HOUSE, she wrote over three dozen books published between 1934 and 1972, including titles such as SWEET ‘POSSUM VALLEY (1940), THE SUPER-DUPER CAR (1952) and THE TRASH-PILE TREASURE (1970.) She considered herself a proponent of “cozy books.”

Mrs. Govan was the matriarch of a literary family that included a historian/journalist husband, Gilbert Govan, and a librarian son, James F. Govan.

Her daughter Emmy Govan West wrote KATY NO-POCKET -- still memorable for its H.A. Rey illustrations -- which was published in 1944 when she was just twenty-five. She’d later co-write a series of juvenile mysteries with her mother that included MYSTERY AT THE SNOWED-IN CABIN (1961) and MYSTERY OF THE DANCING SKELETON (1962.)

A younger Govan daughter wrote under the names Mary Q. Steele and Wilson Gage. Christine’s love of “cozy” stories was not apparently inherited by Mary Q., who wrote a number of decidedly dark and disturbing novels including the 1970 Newbery Honor Book JOURNEY OUTSIDE.


Incidentally, the Bookfinder.com site I linked earlier also includes annual reports and “top ten” lists for several previous years. I was surprised to discover that the #1 children’s book for most of those years was THE LION’S PAW by Robb White. This is another title I’ve heard of but have never read. I am much more familiar with the author’s later novels, such as DEATHWATCH (1972.)

Robb White was primarily an author of adventure novels who also wrote for movies (13 GHOSTS) and television (PERRY MASON.) And speaking of famous relations, his daughter June is better known today as Bailey White, the southern schoolteacher whose appearances on NPR led to books such as MAMA MAKES UP HER MIND.

I found it odd that Mr. White’s LION’S PAW could top the Bookfinder list for so many years, but suddenly disappear in 2008. I now think I’ve discovered the reason for that. 2008 was the year that one of White’s later wives (he appears to have been married at least four times) republished THE LION’S PAW in facsimile edition. Ordering information can be found here.


My quest for self-improvement via “The Classics” seems to have stalled. I hit page 650 of MIDDLEMARCH several weeks ago and still haven’t returned to read the last two hundred pages of the novel.

On the other hand, I am doing quite well with my Pulitzer reading project. I finished two Pulitzer Prize novels this past week and ended up liking the emotional historical-novel winner from 1923, THE ABLE MACLAUGHLINS by Margaret Wilson, much better than the rather sterile “modern” novel from 1984, FOREIGN AFFAIRS by Alison Lurie.

The latter novel may have some interest to readers of this blog because the protagonist is a college professor “in the expanding field of children’s literature.”

Alison Lurie herself taught children’s literature at Cornell and authored several books on the topic as well. In 1980 she published a children’s book called CLEVER GRETCHEN AND OTHER TALES with the now-defunct publisher Crowell.

In FOREIGN AFFAIRS, there is a scene in which the protagonist, Vinny sits outside a school copying down playground rhymes. A bold girl approaches Vinny and volunteers to share some (ribald) rhymes in exchange for some money. Vinny claims, “I don’t sell these rhymes,” but afterwards admits to herself that she will be paid when her eventual study of street rhymes is published “and more still if, as she hopes, Janet Elliot in London and Marilyn Krinney in New York agree to print a selection of her rhymes as a children’s book; negotiations for this project are already underway.”

When reading this passage, the name “Marilyn Krinney” popped out at me, as the editor “Marilyn Kriney” (one N) worked at Crowell in 1980 when Lurie’s children’s book was published. I can only assume that Ms. Lurie was giving her a shout-out in FOREIGN AFFAIRS -- though I don’t know whether the name was misspelled by mistake or intention.


Well, I had a couple more items to add, but the afternoon is almost over and I have some errands to run. I’ll save my other children’s book info for a later blog entry. But before I go, I’d better finish my unfinished story about wanting to write for SOMETHING ABOUT THE AUTHOR. For many years, I thought it would be the perfect job -- me + kids’ books. What could be better? Plus the publishing company, Gale, was located in my hometown of Detroit.

Over the years I’ve met a few people employed by Gale and was downright AWED whenever I met anyone who’d worked on SOMETHING ABOUT THE AUTHOR. Strangely, none of them ever seemed particularly impressed to have worked there themselves, merely seeing it as a low-paying first-job stepping stone to other kinds of work...like civil service!

A few years ago Gale moved their headquarters from downtown to the suburbs -- so close I could probably see it with binoculars if I stood on the roof. I took this as a sign: Oh good, now I’m going to get a job there and I’ll be able to walk to work!

Around that time, I found a few freelance writing jobs through the internet...writing about children’s books for a couple of the Gale publications. Talk about stepping stones! I wrote my pieces and was able to hand-deliver them to the front desk of that magnificent Gale complex just down the street.

When the editors wrote back praising my submissions, I always followed-up with letters telling them about my background in children’s books and included samples of published articles and reviews. I asked if they’d keep me in mind for any freelance writing/editing jobs that might come up.

Their typical response: “We currently have no openings for freelance writers or editors.”

So there went my dream of ever making a living from children’s books.

Now I blog for free instead.

And yes, I know what they say: no one is going to buy the cow if they can get the milk for free.

I can only sadly shrug my shoulders and respond with a single word:


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

Thursday, September 24, 2009

I Remember Her

Wandering around the internet today, I came across this message:

I am looking for anyone who might have known or remembers my mother.

A few spare details were provided, followed by the plea:

If you remember her, or know people who knew her, I'd really like to talk with you.

There was something about the message that made me think this man's mother was dead. I did a little more searching and discovered she died last summer -- and felt that momentary twinge I always get when I see that someone almost exactly my age has died. Continuing my searching, I learned that she may have died under somewhat odd circumstances.

...I am looking for anyone who might have known or remembers my mother.

I knew her. I remember her.

For her entire life she'd lived just three or four blocks away, but I never laid eyes on her until the summer before seventh grade when she suddenly showed up on my street riding an old-fashioned bicycle that had an old-fashioned wicker basket covered with stitched flowers attached to the handlebars. Everything about the girl was old-fashioned: her clothes, her hairstyle, even her name. She was very chatty and she'd reveal just about anything in conversation, as if she hadn't yet learned that some things are better left unspoken...just for the sake of protecting oneself. The very first time I met her, she told me that she'd be attending my public school in the fall even though she'd always gone to the local Catholic school where her mother was a teacher.

"Why are you changing schools?"

"Because the nuns and the principal think I'm too attached to my mother and should try going to a different school on my own."

Too attached? I wasn't even sure what that meant. Someone who went to the Catholic school later told me that this girl spent most of her time hanging around her mother's classroom and would cry when she was told to return to her own class. She was an only child and apparently very sheltered and overprotected. For years she rarely played outside and wasn't even allowed to cross the street. When she went somewhere with her parents, all three sat in the front seat of the car -- dad driving, mom in the passenger seat, and daughter squeezed tight between them.

Though I had never seen her before she turned up that day on her old-fashioned bicycle, from that point on she was constantly around, pedaling up and down the streets of our neighborhood and eagerly talking to everyone. It was as though her parents, confronted by the fact that their daughter was "too attached," had suddenly sprung her from captivity. She was liberated. (Well, it was the early seventies!)

During that summer, I went to the library nearly every day and I'd almost always see her there as well. "I loooooove reading," she said. The two of us checked out more books than any kids in the neighborhood. She liked Elizabeth Enright and Edward Eager and horse stories and dog stories. She always rode home from the library one-handed, steering with her right hand and resting her left hand on top of the books stacked over the brim of her wicker bicycle basket with the flowers stitched on it.

When school started in the fall, I discovered that most of the kids didn't like "the new girl" -- she talked too loud, she laughed too much. And did you hear she got KICKED OUT of the Catholic school? Even though her mom worked there? She was "weird"..."dorky"..."different."

But I liked her. How could you not like someone who read that many books?

The following year we started junior high. I wasn't in any of her classes, but I can't imagine it was easy for her, especially because she now had glasses (not cool ones, of course, but desperately old-fashioned glasses) AND braces. She hung out with a group of outcast girls who started their own "knitting club." I still saw her at the library and she'd still jabber away, saying anything that came into her head. She'd still ride home with her left hand steadying the stack of books in her wicker bicycle basket.

One evening, late in August, I was surprised to run into her at the library. The library was in a questionable neighborhood and her folks usually only allowed her to visit during the day, and here it was twilight-turning-to-dark. "I thought your mother said you couldn't come here after dinner," I said.

"My mother doesn't run my life," she replied, then went outside to the bike rack, stacked her books in the basket, and rode off. When school started up, she no longer spent time with the bespectacled, stringy-haired girls in the knitting club. Instead she'd go down to the baseball field and lean against the backstop, talking to the older guys who loitered there every afternoon. She quit wearing her glasses. She started smoking. The girls at school called her a tramp and wouldn't hang out with her. The guys at school called her a tramp too...but they continued to hang out with her.

In the past she seemed defenseless and vulnerable. Now she had a hard, older look about her. She pretended she didn't know me when I'd see her in the halls.

You can guess how this story ends:

"She doesn't even know who the father is!"

"Oh. My. Gosh. What did her parents say?"

"She told them she got raped walking to the grocery store."

"Oh. My. Gosh."

I've always wondered if her parents believed that story. Probably not. Surely they had seen how she'd changed over the last couple years, from a vulnerable, newly "liberated" kid who would talk to anyone on the street to a hard-looking pregnant fifteen-year-old. The irony is that she had spent her first dozen years so terribly sheltered and then, after a couple years of freedom, she became homebound again. Someone who lived on her block said that he'd occasionally see her standing in her bedroom window, but never again saw her outside, even after the baby boy was born. In the years since, I've wondered if her parents constantly thought, "if only, if only," wishing they had kept her at the Catholic school, kept the apron strings attached, kept her from ever crossing the street. Or did things fall apart because they gave her her freedom much too late -- thrusting her unprepared into the scary world of junior high and mean kids and dicey neighborhoods? I've even wondered if she didn't orchestrate events on purpose, ultimately finding a way to return to her parents' shelter and protection. Or maybe I'm over-analyzing the situation when the answer is simply that people change. Though she continued to live just three or four blocks away, I never laid eyes on her again, not even at the library, and that's what I couldn't understand. Yes, people change, but can someone go from visiting the library every day to never going again? Can someone change so much that even books are no longer a part of their life? I hate to even think about that.

Now she's dead and her son, age thirty-five, is issuing this plea:

If you remember her, or know people who knew her, I'd really like to talk with you.

Of course I don't know for sure, but I'm guessing he's trying to figure out his paternity. And I know nothing about that. I'd only be able to tell him about the girl I once knew who loved Enright and Eager and horse stories and dog stories...the girl who rode home from the library every day with one hand resting on top of her wicker basket full of books, protecting them so they wouldn't fall.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Surely, She Needs a Biography

The other day I was wandering through the stacks and came across this fun volume:

Released by Saalfield Publishing in 1935, this "authorized edition" SHIRLEY TEMPLE STORY BOOK has almost nothing to do with Shirley herself, except for the use of her picture on the cover and frontispiece; otherwise it's a fairly routine anthology of fairy tales, animal stories, and poems, mostly written by Dixie Willson and Dean O'Day. But it's a good example of how the image of this young star -- queen of the box office during the Depression era -- was merchandised to sell not just dolls, clothing, and breakfast bowls, but also children's books. Saalfield went on to publish "auhorized editions" of SHIRLEY TEMPLE'S BOOK OF FAIRY TALES; SHIRLEY TEMPLE THROUGH THE DAY; NOW I AM EIGHT (a faux-autobiography which should have been called NOW I AM NINE since Shirley's birth certificate had been altered to make her appear a year younger than she really was), SHIRLEY TEMPLE PASTIME BOOK and many others. Considering the demand for Temple memorabilia, these books can still be found for fairly reasonable prices, with moderately-used copies at under $15.

Although I'd typically grouse about a celebrity getting rich off so-so children's books, I'm willing to give Shirley a break in this regard.


Mainly because so many Shirley Temple films were based on classic children's books.

There's THE LITTLE COLONEL (1935) based on the series by Anne Fellows Johnston, THE LITTLEST REBEL (1935) from the novel by Edward Peple, CAPTAIN JANUARY (1936) from the book by Laura E. Richards, WEE WILLIE WINKIE (1936) by Rudyard Kipling, HEIDI (1936) by Johanna Spyri, REBECCA OF SUNNYBROOK FARM (1938) by Kate Douglas Wiggin, THE LITTLE PRINCESS (1938) by Frances Hodgson Burnett, and SUSANNAH OF THE MOUNTIES (1939) by Muriel Dennison. Granted, some of these adapations are pretty loose -- particularly REBECCA OF SUNNYBROOK FARM which features a truly insane scene in which Shirley, playing Rebecca as a newbie radio performer, sits down at a piano and sings "here are some of the songs I've had the pleasure of introducing to you" which include Shirley Temple's own greatest hits, such as "On the Good Ship Lollipop" and "Animal Crackers."

When the above films were released, most of their source novels were re-issued in "Shirley Temple Editions" which contained illustrations based on the movies, but also contained the complete text of the original novels -- thereby introducing these stories to a new generation of readers. I suspect that the reason some of these books are still known today is because the Temple movies -- on TV, on video and DVD -- have kept the titles somwhat current in pop culture.

And that's one of the intriguing things about Shirley Temple. Although her reign as box office champ ended when she became a teenager, the public never forgot her. Well into the 1940s, Whitman issued two dime store novels featuring Ms. Temple:

which are even today available from Kessinger Publishing, a company "dedicated toward publishing and digitally preserving important literature for future generations." Are these Shirley Temple books "important literature"? No, but they're obviously well-remembered and well-loved enough to merit re-publication in the twenty-first century.

Although I grew up decades after Shirley Temple's heyday, her films were very much a part of my childhood. One local television station ran her movies, in rotation, every Sunday morning at 11:30 AM from the time I was a little kid until I was out of high school. As old as these films were, they were definitely part of the cultural zeitgeist throughout the sixties and seventies. I'm not sure that they're shown on TV much these days, but I have friends whose children still watch HEIDI and POOR LITTLE RICH GIRL and CURLYTOP today on video.

And Shirley still has a presence in children's books. Tomie DePaola idolizes her in his "Fairmount Avenue" Books. The protagonist of IN THE YEAR OF THE BOAR AND JACKIE ROBINSON is named Shirley Temple Wong. Shirley's mentioned in a number of recent Newbery Honor Books including A LONG WAY FROM CHICAGO by Richard Peck, A CORNER OF THE UNIVERSE by Ann M. Martin and LILY'S CROSSING by Patricia Reilly Giff. Cool YA books such as YOU DON'T KNOW ME (David Klass) and CUT (Patricia McCormick) even make reference to her.

So here's my question: if most kids know about Shirley Temple, how come no one has ever written a good biography about her for children? Scrounging around on the internet and in library catalogs, I can only find one volume currently in print -- a 32-page formula bio called SHIRLEY TEMPLE : CHILD STAR by John Bankston. Going back in time, I see a Yearling paperback biography, as well as a couple books (including one by James Haskins) which focus on her adult career as a public servant and ambassador.

But where is the definitive children's book about the definitive child star?

Meanwhile, Amazon.com lists nearly twenty children's biographies for Miley Cyrus, including: MAD FOR MILEY : AN UNAUTHORIZED BIOGRAPHTY by Lauren Alexander, MILEY CYRUS : THIS IS HER LIFE by Brittany Kent, MILEY CYRUS UNAUTHORIZED by Jackie Robb, and many, many more.

Wonder if Kessinger will be reprinting those books sixty years from now. Wonder if we'll even remember who Miley Cyrus was sixty years from now....

Sunday, September 20, 2009

A Soapy Sunday Brunch

More facts and opinions on children’s books, served Sunday Brunch style.


As Book Blogger Appreciation Week comes to an end, we send congrats to all the winners, particularly Steph Su Reads which won the category of Best Writing.


...here are a few children’s and young adult books currently on my bedside table:

LOSER by Jerry Spinelli
LOSING JOE’S PLACE by Gordon Korman
LOSING LOUISA by Judith Caseley
HEADS YOU WIN, TAILS I LOSE by Isabelle Holland
S.O.R. LOSERS by Avi
BEAUTIFUL LOSERS by Barbara Wersba


I have never watched TV soap operas. Well, except for PRISONER : CELL BLOCK H, but I don’t think that counts because it ran late at night and had the added “It’s got to be cultural since it’s foreign” fillip of being produced in Australia.

Having said that, I was sort of sad to hear that THE GUIDING LIGHT went off the air this week after seventy-two combined years on radio and television. I remember flipping past it as a kid on those occasional days when I was too sick to go to school but not too sick to watch TV. It just always seemed to be there. From what I hear, a lot -- though not all -- daytime dramas are losing their audiences these days. I wonder if there will eventually come a time when there are no soap operas on TV at all.

This got me thinking of a time in the late seventies/early eighties when a number of young adult novels featured characters who appeared on television soap operas. To name a few:

IN REAL LIFE, I’M JUST KATE by Barbara Morgenroth (1981)
WICKED STEPDOG by Carol Lea Benjamin (1982)
IT’S NO CRUSH, I’M IN LOVE by June Foley (1982)
BEST WISHES, JOE BRADY by Mary Pope Osborne (1984)
YOU NEVER CAN TELL by Ellen Conford (1984)
TUNE IN TOMORROW by Mary Anderson (1984)

Can you think of any more?


Did you know that several well-known children’s and young adult writers labored in the world of daytime drama?

Cherie Bennett wrote for PORT CHARLES and ANOTHER WORLD
Elissa Haden Guest worked behind the scenes at ONE LIFE TO LIVE
Tessa Duder used to appear on a New Zealand soap called SHORTLAND STREET
Erika Tamar was a production assistant and casting director for SEARCH FOR TOMORROW
Francine Pascal once wrote for the soap THE YOUNG MARRIEDS
Sandra Scoppettone wrote for LOVE OF LIFE

Any others?


I may not watch soap operas, but I do watch ANTIQUES ROADSHOW (using the ”It’s got to be cultural since it’s on PBS” excuse) and last night there was another appraisal with a children’s book connection.

A woman brought in a painting that had originally appeared on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post. She thought the artist was named Ellen Pyler, but appraiser Allen Fausel told her it was painted by Ellen Pyle. And here’s how she connected to children’s books: in 1898-99, when her name was Ellen Thompson, she was a student at the Howard Pyle School of Illustration Art. Howard Pyle was, of course, noted for illustrating a number of children’s books.

From what I’ve been able to piece together from last night’s ROADSHOW and a few other internet sources, while studying at Pyle’s School, Ellen met Howard’s brother Walter and fell in love with him, even though he was much older. And married. With a child.

When Ellen’s parents learned of the romance, they forced her to return home and told her she could never see Walter again. During the next couple years, she also did some work in children’s books, producing the cover art for the “Elsie Dinsmore” series by Martha Finley, as well as illustrating novels such as NATHALIE’S CHUM by Anna Chapin Ray (1902) and BRENDA’S BARGAIN : A STORY FOR GIRLS by Helen Leah Read (1903.)

Ellen was unaware that Walter’s sickly wife had died during this time. One morning in 1903 she found Walter at her front door, holding a bunch of flowers and asking, “Nelly, will you marry me?”

See why I don’t watch the soaps? Tales from the world of children’s books are just as enthralling -- and you don’t have to sit through any detergent commercials!

Incidentally, after Walter Pyle died in 1918, Ellen was left with four children to raise and that’s when she began illustrating magazine covers, including forty for the Saturday Evening Post. The one that turned up on ANTIQUES ROADSHOW this week was appraised at between $25,000 and $35,000!

There is currently a retrospective of Ellen Pyle’s work at the Delaware Art Museum.


Sylvia Louise Engdahl’s ENCHANTRESS FROM THE STARS was one of my all-time favorite novels as a kid. It still is. Ms. Engdahl was the only author I ever wrote a letter to when I was a growing up. I still have her response -- typed on space stationery and posted with a lunar stamp -- and still treasure it.

Back in the early seventies (i.e. when lunar stamps cost only eight cents!) I anticipated a future full of Sylvia Engdahl novels. Little did I know that the stories for her six first novels (JOURNEY BETWEEN WORLDS; ENCHANTRESS FROM THE STARS; THE FAR SIDE OF EVIL; THIS STAR SHALL ABIDE; BEYOND THE TOMORROW MOUNTAINS; THE DOORS OF THE UNIVERSE) had all come to her in a blast of creativity in the early sixties and she’d had no future ideas for narratives/plotlines since then.

The good news is that Ms. Engdahl has returned to fiction writing!

Her speculative novel STEWARDS OF THE FLAME -- particularly timely in this era of health care debates -- was published as a print-on-demand title in 2007 and its sequel PROMISE OF THE FLAME -- which can also be read as a stand-alone novel -- is going to be published within a few weeks. Although these volumes are written for adults, those of us who grew up with the author’s books for young people may be interested in checking out Sylvia Engdahl’s website for additional info.


A few weeks ago I blogged Vermont’s Dorothy Canfield Fisher Award, which was billed as the second oldest children’s choice award in the country. I thought I’d found THE oldest reader choice award a couple weeks later when I wrote about the William Allen White Award of Kansas. But now an anonymous blog-reader has alerted me to what may be the VERY oldest of these awards.

Begun in 1940, the Pacific Northwest Library Association’s Young Reader’s Choice Award is selected by American children in Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington and Canadian kids from Alberta and British Columbia.

Here is the list of winners. You’ll note that, beginning in 1991, there were two winning titles for younger and older readers. Starting in 2002 there were three winners each year for junior (grades 4-6), intermediate (grades 7-9) and senior (grades 10-12) readers.

1940: PAUL BUNYAN SWINGS HIS AXE by Dell J. McCormick
1941: MR. POPPER’S PENGUINS by Richard and Florence Atwater
1942: BY THE SHORES OF SILVER LAKE by Laura Ingalls Wilder
1943: LASSIE COME HOME by Eric Knight
1944: THE BLACK STALLION by Walter Farley
1945: SNOW TREASURE by Marie McSwigan
1946: RETURN OF SILVER CHIEF by Jack O’Brien
1947: HOMER PRICE by Robert McCloskey

1949: COWBOY BOOTS by Shannon Garst
1950: MCELLIGOT’S POOL by Dr. Seuss
1951: KING OF THE WIND by Marguerite Henry
1952: SEA STAR by Marguerite Henry
1956: MISS PICKERELL GOES TO MARS by Ellen MacGregor
1957: HENRY AND RIBSY by Beverly Cleary
1958: GOLDEN MARE by William Corbin
1959: OLD YELLER by Fred Gipson
1960: HENRY AND THE PAPER ROUTE by Beverly Cleary
1962: SWAMP FOX OF THE REVOLUTION by Stewart Holbrook
1964: THE INCREDIBLE JOURNEY by Shelia Burnford
1965: JOHN F. KENNEDY AND PT-109 by Richard Tregaskis
1966: RASCAL by Sterling North
1967: CHITTY-CHITTY-BANG-BANG by Ian Fleming

1968: THE MOUSE AND THE MOTORCYCLE by Beverly Cleary
1970: SMOKE William Corbin
1971: RAMONA THE PEST by Beverly Cleary
1974: MRS. FRISBY AND THE RATS OF NIMH by Robert O’Brien
1976: THE GREAT BRAIN REFORMS by John D. Fitzgerald
1977: BLUBBER by Judy Blume
1978: THE GREAT BRAIN DOES IT AGAIN by John D. Fitzgerald
1979: ROLL OF THUNDER, HEAR MY CRY by Mildred Taylor
1980: RAMONA AND HER MOTHER by Beverly Cleary
1981: HAIL, HAIL, CAMP TIMBERWOOD by Ellen Conford
1982: BUNNICULA: A RABBIT TALE OF MYSTERY by Deborah and James Howe
1983: SUPERFUDGE by Judy Blume
1984: THE INDIAN IN THE CUPBOARD by Lynne Reid Banks
1985: THIRTEEN WAYS TO SINK A SUB by Jamie Gilson
1986: THE DOLLHOUSE MURDERS by Betty Ren Wright
1987: THE WAR WITH GRANDPA by Robert Kimmel Smith
1988: SIXTH GRADE CAN REALLY KILL YOU by Barthe DeClements
1989: WAIT TIL HELEN COMES by Mary Downing Hahn
1991: TEN KIDS NO PETS by Ann Martin
SEX EDUCATION by Jenny Davis
EVA by Peter Dickinson
1993: MANIAC MAGEE by Jerry Spinelli
1994: SHILOH by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
WOLF BY THE EARS by Ann Rinaldi
1995: TERROR AT THE ZOO by Peg Kehret
1996: THE BOYS START THE WAR by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
THE GIVER by Lois Lowry
1997: NASTY STINKY SNEAKERS by Eve Bunting

DRIVER’S ED by Caroline Cooney
1999: FRINDLE by Andrew Clements
SOS TITANTIC by Eve Bunting
2000: MOUSE CALLED WOLF by Dick King-Smith
TAKING OF ROOM 114 by Mel Glenn
2001: HOLES by Louis Sachar
THE BOXES by William Sleator
2002: BUD, NOT BUDDY by Christopher Paul Curtis
MARY, BLOODY MARY by Carolyn Meyer
REWIND by William Sleator
2003: BECAUSE OF WINN-DIXIE by Kate DiCamillo
NO MORE DEAD DOGS by Gordon Korman
HOPE WAS HERE by Joan Bauer
2004: SKELETON MAN by Joseph Bruchac
ARTEMIS FOWL by Eoin Colfer
2005: THIEF LORD by Cornelia Funke
SON OF THE MOB by Gordon Korman
2006: TALE OF DESPEREAUX by Kate DiCamillo
ERAGON by Christopher Paolini
2007: DRAGON RIDER by Cornelia Funke
A HAT FULL OF SKY by Terry Pratchett
PEACHES by Jodi Lynn Anderson
NEW MOON by Stephenie Meyer


It’s always fascinating to look at these kinds of lists, especially when the winners range from the brilliant (MR. POPPER’S PENGUINS, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Beverly Cleary) to the mundane (which Encyclopedia Brown book won? Aren’ they all about the same?) For an award whose voters include Canadian kids, I was surprised by how few Canadian writers have won. It’s also interesting that the senior division titles include adult books. ...And there’s Mary Downing Hahn again, who seems to pop up more on children’s choice lists than any other author. Finally, I’m curious about that three year gap in the fifties when no award was giving. I wonder what was up with that?

UPDATE: Blog reader Laurie A-B just wrote in with an interesting comment:

1940: PAUL BUNYAN SWINGS HIS AXE by Dell J. McCormick reminded me of a passage in Beverly Cleary's memoir, My Own Two Feet. As a young librarian in Yakima, 1940, she traveled to Mount Hood to attend a library conference where the Young Reader's Choice Award is presented. Cleary wrote, "To me the highlight of the conference was seeing Dell McCormick accept the Young Readers' Choice Award for his book Tall Timber Tales, which I had used with success with my little troop of nonreaders. I was awed to hear a real author speak and would have been even more awed if I had known that someday I would win the same award and win it more than once." (Chapter 13, "A Job and a Wedding") Until I read your post today I did not know that Cleary named the wrong book as the winner. Tall Timber Tales, published in 1939, was a sequel to Paul Bunyan Swings his Axe (1936).

Laurie also adds, "Interestingly, the Young Reader's Choice Award Selection Policy was revised in 2008 to include the stipulation that "Nominations of books that are a sequel in a series will not be considered."

Look at all the previous winners that would have been disqualified if this rule had been in place before now!


A friend just gave me the September 7 issue of Publishers Weekly, which features an ad for THE MAGICIAN’S ELEPHANT by Kate DiCamillo (“America’s beloved storyteller”) on the cover.

There are three quotes from three starred reviews beside a picture of the book:


--Kirkus Reviews

--School Library Journal

I am glad they did not ask this blog for a quote, as it would have been:

--Collecting Children’s Books

Ever since bursting into the field of children’s books with her wonderful novel BECAUSE OF WINN-DIXIE, Kate DiCamillo has racked up an extraordinary number of prizes and honors: A Newbery winner and Honor Book, a Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, a National Book Award nomination...hey, she even got a couple of those Pacific Northwest Young Reader’s Choice Awards. Clearly she’s doing something right. But I’ve got to say that I find myself growing colder and colder toward her work. The heartfelt quality that made WINN-DIXIE such a compelling novel seems to be slowly seeping away with each new book. I feel as if each book is trying too hard to be a “classic” (the phrase “Newbery bait” comes to mind) but it’s often at the expense of emotion and characterization.

Obviously many reviewers don’t agree. Just look at those comments for THE MAGICIAN’S ELEPHANT -- spellbinding, brilliant, timeless! But I was mostly unmoved by this story of an orphan boy’s search for his missing sister. Part of it had to do with the remote, vaguely European setting. Part of it had to do with the limited characterizations; each person in the story seemed to be defined by a single characteristic. Then there is the novel’s rather affected voice. Finally, I feel every book -- no matter how fanciful -- requires its own internal logic, but I did not find it here. Peter visits a fortune teller who informs him he must “follow the elephant” to find his sister. Next we learn that a magician has accidentally conjured up -- what else? -- an elephant during a stage performance. It seems a random plot device and the events that lead up to the climax seem created to -- well, they simply seem created to lead up to that climax. There are no startling twists or plot developments. We never doubt that Peter will find his sister Adele.

I’m not saying that THE MAGICIAN’S ELEPHANT is a bad book. Kate DiCamillo is a skillful writer, especially adept at creating atmosphere. But in the end I still felt indifferent. Should I give this book a second chance? Will a second reading cause me to join the ranks who call it spellbinding, brilliant, and timeless? Maybe I should give it another try....


In a fascinating blog entry, Sam Riddleburger notes some amazing similarities between Maurice Sendak’s WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE and some Japanese folktales. Did these tales serve as inspiration to Sendak or is it just an entertaining coincidence? You can read all about it here.

Thanks for visiting Collecting Children’s Books.

Will we ever learn what happened during the “missing years” of the Pacific Northwest Children’s Choice Award?

Will one of us find an Ellen Pyle original illustration in our attic and sell it for $25,000?

Will this blogger re-read THE MAGICIAN’S ELEPHANT and change my tune?

And will this loser ever read his way through all those “loser books” stacked beside his tear-stained pillow?

As they say in the soaps, tune in next time!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Assorted Treats

Every now and then -- probably no more than once or twice a year -- my father would come home from work with a special treat for us.

A couple hours after dinner, he’d bring a white drugstore bag into the living room and turn it upside down over the table. Out would tumble 3 Musketeers, Almond Joy, Nestle Crunch, Baby Ruth, Milky Way, Oh Henry, 5th Avenue, Butterfinger, Clark Bar -- every type of candy bar you could imagine.

My brother and I stared at the table trying to decide which to pick first. Well, we knew the Powerhouse went to our mother; that was her old favorite. But after that -- what to pick, what to pick? It was like being at a candy cafeteria with an overwhelming number of choices.

After a lot of thought and debate and second-guessing, we'd each make a selection. And a little while later we each got to choose again. Is there anything better than two candy bars...on a school night...for no special reason at all? Making our second selection was even harder than the first. There were fewer choices left and nobody wanted to end up with the Bit-o-Honey (the paper wrapper always stuck to the candy) or the Chunky, which was way too small, plus had raisins in it. So the second round of choosing always involved a lot of bartering ("Wanna trade half a Baby Ruth for half my Milky Way?") and fighting ("Hey, who took a bite outta my Butterfinger?")

The other occasional treat my father brought home from work was books. Besides being located near a drugstore with a well-stocked candy counter, his office also had a nearby Goodwill shop where hardcover books could be purchased for just ten or twenty cents a piece.

Every now and then -- again, not more than a couple times per year -- he would bring home some children's books from this store. That's how I first encountered Toby Tyler and Henry Huggins and the Boxcar Children. We also ended up with a few school readers. Of course back then we didn't even know they were textbooks, but just considered them volumes of short stories.

The other day I blogged about first encountering the MacKinlay Kantor story "Angleworms on Toast" in a schoolbook, then later finding the book-length edition, which contained some surprisingly politically-incorrect material. Blog-reader Jennifer wrote to say, "I remember Angleworms on Toast...but not the racist bits. Which, checking back, is no surprise because I know the story from Treat Shop, an old reading textbook edited by Eleanor Johnson. And in this anthology, there's a different illustrator, Sandra James, and the offensive parts have been cut out - it just says "the cook turned green" and she's later shown as white with red hair. Wonder what else was cut out?"

Reading Jennifer's note, I bolted upright in my seat.


I remembered the book well...it was, in fact, the very book where I first read "Angleworms on Toast."

TREAT SHOP was one of the books my father picked up at the Goodwill way back in the early sixties and it had such a ubiquitous presence in our house that, thirty years later, my non-reading brother looked at some blue-and-gold gift wrap on a Christmas present and said, "You know what this wrapping paper reminds me of? That book TREAT SHOP we used to have."

I'm sure TREAT SHOP and other Goodwill finds helped get me interested in reading long before I started school and actually had to deal with textbooks in any kind of serious way. We also had a grubby yellow volume -- title long forgotten -- which, if I recall correctly, had engraved sunburst patterns all over the front cover. I can still remember two of the poems from this book. One was "The Moon's the North Wind's Cookie" by Vachel Lindsay:

The Moon's the North Wind's cookie
He bites it, day by day
Until there's but a rim of scraps
That crumble all away.
The South Wind is the baker
He kneads clouds in his den,
And bakes a crisp new moon that ...
Greedy.... North.... Wind ....eats....again!

(Can't believe I remembered the whole thing and only had to Google the last line!)

The other poem was called "When a Ring's Around the Moon" by Mary Jane Carr and began:

The wee folk will be tripping,
In their silver dancing shoon,
When the ring's around the moon.

I don't know what I thought "shoon" meant back then; I'm sure it never occured to me that it referred to tricked-up Nikes. And, actually, I have no idea why this poem fascinated so much as a child. Stories about fairies and pixies and such usually made me want to throw up. But somehow this poem got stuck in my head and the first time I actually saw a true ring around the moon -- when I was practically middle-aged! -- I suddenly thought about this verse. That's the thing with stories and poems you first encounter in schoolbooks; you often think you've forgotten all about them and then they pop into your head unexpectedly for the rest of your life.

There was also a story in the grubby yellow book that I still think about; I almost feel like the title will come to me if I squeeze my head hard enough. It was about a little girl who liked to hang out with the town baker while he was mixing his dough; occasionally he'd give her a piece of raw dough or a cookie to eat. One day, without knowing exactly why she does it, the girl places a tiny doll in the dough. It's baked into a cookie (or maybe a loaf of bread?) and of course a customer ends up breaking a tooth. Sobbing, the girl confesses her crime to the baker, who forgives her, but never again chats with her or gives her a free cookie.

Does anyone know the name/author of this bittersweet story?

Once I started school, you'd think that I'd no longer be as enamored of reading textbooks...yet some of my best grade school moments came from old, discarded texts that were no longer used in class. Sometimes if we got done with our assignments early our teachers would let us read quietly until the bell rang. I always headed for the cabinets along the side wall which contained textbooks from an earlier era. As someone who was often (inwardly) chafed by the structured classroom environment, I loved having the opportunity to read any story I chose in these books -- and without being held back by the slowest faction of the class. If I wanted to skip to the end of the book and read a story, I could. If I liked a story so much that I wanted to read it three times in a row, I could do that as well. Is there anything better than reading something not because you "have to," but because you "want to"? Opening those old textbooks was like being at a short-story cafeteria with an overwhelming number of choices.

Every one of them was, in one way or another, a treat shop.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

A Sunday Brunch with Maalox Moments

Today’s Sunday Brunch reveals a little-known historical fact about the Newbery and Caldecott Medals, talks about stories we remember from schoolbooks, and serves up an order of toast with, well, let’s just say it’s a “protein” they haven’t yet featured on TOP CHEF. Dig in!


Robert McCloskey’s BLUEBERRIES FOR SAL did not win the Caldecott Medal in 1949...but should it have?

And what about Kate Seredy’s THE SINGING TREE? It was a 1940 Newbery Honor Book (then called “runner-up”)...but might it actually have won the award under a different set of rules?

I was thinking about this after discovering that School Library Journal's Heavy Medal Mock Newbery Blog is up and running for the 2010 season.

My old friend Jonathan Hunt is now contributing to the Heavy Medal blog and recently wrote a post called The Ghosts of Newberys Past, which includes a list of 2009 titles by previous Newbery- and Newbery Honor-winning authors and asks who “has the best chance of repeating and why?”

Recent years have given us a number of repeat winners, but did you know that, for the first few decades of the Newbery and Caldecott Medals, it was virtually impossible for an author or illustrator to win these prizes twice?

In 1930, Rachel Field won the Newbery for HITTY : HER FIRST HUNDRED YEARS. Two years later, her novel CALICO BUSH was considered a strong contender for the award, but the committee questioned whether the same author should be honored twice. At that time the ALA Executive Board made this resolution:

Since the Newbery Medal is intended to encourage an increasing number of authors to devote their best efforts to creating children’s literature, the book of a previous recipient of the Newbery Medal shall receive the award only upon unanimous vote of the Newbery Committee.

Unanimous? That almost never happens!

This same "unanimous only" policy was later applied to the Caldecott Medal. It wasn’t until 1958 that this rule was changed -- in a fairly dramatic fashion.

That was the year of Robert McCloskey’s TIME OF WONDER. Having previously won in 1942 for MAKE WAY FOR DUCKLINGS, the only way McCloskey could ever win again would be with one of those near-impossible-to-get unanimous votes. During their deliberations at the conference that year, the Caldecott committee actually adjourned in order to ask the American Library Association if the “unanimous” requirement could be repealed. The board held a special executive session, approved the request, and the committee went back to deliberations...and declared TIME OF WONDER that year’s Caldecott winner.

Since this rule was changed there have been a fair number of artists who have also won the Caldecott twice: Nonny Hogrogian, Leo and Diane Dillon, Barbara Cooney, and Chris Van Allsburg. And Marcia Brown and David Wiesner have each won the award three times!

Newbery double-dippers include Joseph Krumgold, Elizabeth George Speare, Katherine Paterson, Lois Lowry, and E.L. Konigsburg.

One has to wonder about the years prior to 1958. How many previous winners MIGHT have won a second award but for the “unanimous vote” rule? Obviously there is no way of knowing for sure, but we do know that, up until 1964, Honor Books (then runners-up) were listed in order of their ranking. (Since ‘64, they have been listed alphabetically in order to give them equal prestige.) If we go back and look at “first runners-up” by previous winners, we see that BLUEBERRIES FOR SAL placed second to 1949’s Caldecott winner, THE BIG SNOW and THE SINGING TREE was second to DANIEL BOONE for 1940’s Newbery. Can we assume these books could have/might have won the awards those years if they had received unanimous votes? There’s no way of knowing, but it’s fun to speculate!


Some of the stories that stick with us the longest are those we first encounter in schoolbooks. Blog readers frequently write and ask if I can help identify stories they remember from their school days. I love getting such requests, but rarely have good luck tracking down the answers. I haven’t even had much luck tracking down some of textbook stories from my own past. Here’s one I remember from about sixth grade that I has continued to haunt me for nearly forty years.

The story concerns a popular boy who is running for class president. When he marks his ballot, he votes for himself -- though it feels a little egotistical to do so. The teacher tallies the votes and announces that he has won the election with 29 votes; his opponent just received one vote. To assuage his own guilt over voting for himself, the protagonist shouts out, “That was my vote! I voted for Billy!” He later feels guilty about lying (this kid sure has a guilt complex) and goes to his teacher, confessing that he lied about voting for the other boy. The teacher understands and tells him that it’s natural that he’d want to vote for himself. Then, as he's leaving the room, the teacher adds something like, “Can’t you guess who actually did vote for Billy?”

I don’t know the title or the author. Does anyone have any ideas?


The results of the Book Blogger Appreciation Week Awards will be revealed this week. Collecting Children’s Books was shortlisted in the category of “Best Writing” and if this blog just gets one vote, well ...“can’t you guess who actually did vote for it?”


As I said, I rarely have good luck tracking down stories from old schoolbooks. Some were originally written for the textbook market by unknown/uncredited authors, some were first published in long-forgotten children’s magazines, others were excerpted from novels. Not too long ago I discovered that one school story I remembered from my youth had actually been published as a picture book -- and the author was MacKinlay Kantor, best known for his Pulitzer-winning masterpiece ANDERSONVILLE. Mr. Kantor wasn’t known for children’s books. In fact, besides writing a couple history books for kids, he appears to have written only this one picture book.

It’s called...well, I’ll give you a moment to grab the Maalox bottle first...it’s called ANGLEWORMS ON TOAST.

Yeah, thirty years before Thomas Rockwell gave us HOW TO EAT FRIED WORMS, MacKinlay Kantor served up this story about young Tommy who, whenever he’s asked what he wants to eat, replies, “Angleworms on toast. Angleworms, creamed on toast.”

Published in 1942 and illustrated by the great Kurt Wiese, this funny tale of attention-seeking Tommy comes to a satisfyingly gross conclusion when the protagonist -- staying home from school because he's "sick" -- is asked what he’d like for dinner and gives his standard reply. Eager to please the poor little “sick” boy, Tommy’s family goes out to the garden to dig...and then Mother and the “Colored Cook” whip up a nice gooey plate of angleworms on toast, angleworms creamed on toast.

The meal makes Tommy so sick (for real this time!) that he never asks for angleworms again.

The irresistible title would seem to make ANGLEWORMS ON TOAST a classic, but the book is marred for today’s readers by its racial insensitivity. In addition to references to the “Colored Cook,” there is an offensive illustration of a cannibal. And check out this spread:

Hard to believe that as late as 1942, this type of thing was considered acceptable for a children’s book. For that page alone, I think I’ll need another slug of Maalox.


MacKinlay Kantor unknowingly made another contribution to children’s books when he happened to steer a young author onto the right path.

Back in the 1940s, a young girl returned home from school and discovered a new neighbor visiting her parents. It was MacKinlay Kantor.

This girl was an aspiring writer who was already flooding adult magazines such as the SATURDAY EVENING POST with her childish short stories. When her father suggested that she show Mr. Kantor one of her manuscripts, the girl thought “What an opportunity! A living, breathing, published author was right there waiting to appreciate me!” She later recalled the experience:

I rushed to get the story and stood expectantly at his elbow as Mr. Kantor scanned the pages.

The praise I anticipated did not come.

“My dear,” Mr. Kantor exploded, “this is pure s**t!”

It was the first time the word had ever been used in my hearing. My mother was as shocked as I was.

“Mack,” she said reprovingly, “Lois is only thirteen!”

“I don’t care how old she is,” roared my idol. “If she is putting her stories into the market and expects someone to buy them, she is old enough to take criticism. What kind of subject matter is this for a kid? She has never had a love affair or seen a man get murdered. Good writing comes from the heart, not off the top of the head.”

He turned to me and added more gently, “Throw this stuff in the trash, child, and go write about something you know about. Write something that rings true.”

I was crushed. I was also challenged. Later that week, I did write a story about a fat, shy little girl with braces and glasses who covered her insecurity by writing stories about imaginary adventures. I submitted it to a teen publication called CALLING ALL GIRLS, and by return mail I received a check for $25.

It was the most incredible moment of my life.

The young girl who took Mack’s advice was Lois Duncan. She grew up to write such novels as I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER, STRANGER WITH MY FACE, KILLING MR. GRIFFIN, and many more.

As a fan of her work, I can only say, “Thanks, Mack!”


Many years ago, AOL sponsored a number of message boards devoted to special subjects. I used to spend a lot of time visiting the “Writing for Children” and “Writing for Young Adults” boards. One of the people posting there was named Mary E. Pearson. At that time she had just published her first novel, the unique and thought-provoking DAVID V. GOD, and SCRIBBLER OF DREAMS was about to be released. We exchanged a few notes in passing before AOL shut the message boards down. In the years since, she wrote fan-favorite A ROOM ON LORELEI STREET and the critically-esteemed THE ADORATION OF JENNA FOX. The latter, science fiction set in the everyday world (one of my favorite genres) was one of 2008’s best. Last year a friend arranged to get a signed copy of that book for me. I was so surprised and gratified when it arrived with a note from Mary Pearson, saying that she remembered me from our AOL encounters:

Needless to say, I treasure my copy of THE ADORATION OF JENNA FOX!

And now the author has a new book out that is worth knowing about.


“I pay attention to dates, numbers, and circumstance. Obsessively, some say. I prefer to think of it as careful observation, finding the pattern to coincidence.” For Destiny Faraday, October 19 is a day fraught with coincidence -- and meaning. When she tears that page from her calendar pad before the day has barely begun, she sets in motion a series of events that reveal her past, unsettle her present, and determine her future. She is currently a student at Hedgebrook, the latest in a series of private schools she's attended because, she maintains, her uncaring parents will not allow her to live at home. Wishing for “one day when the good guys win. One day where the world makes sense. Just one day where the world is fair,” Destiny discovers an unoccupied running car and suddenly finds herself riding away from Hedgebrook with three classmates. THE MILES BETWEEN recounts the adventures of these four teenagers on an all-day road trip in which each of their fondest wishes are granted in some unexpected ways. The characters are well-defined, the dialogue is smart, and the plot takes some neat twists and turns. Most fictional road trips are metaphors for journeys of self-discovery and the same holds true for this novel’s often prickly, coincidence-obsessed, unreliable narrator who, during the course of “just one day,” confronts some truths about her past and learns to reach out to others. Some readers may guess Destiny’s secrets before they are revealed within the story, but that will not diminish interest in the novel. One of the most fascinating aspects of THE MILES BETWEEN is seeing how Mary Pearson tackles some pretty heavy subjects with a fairly light, almost magical, touch. It’s a sad story that ultimately leaves you smiling.

THE MILES BETWEEN by Mary E. Pearson. Published by Henry Holt, 2009.

Reasons the book may become collectable: The author’s reputation is growing with each new novel.

How to identify a first edition: Copyright page states “First Edition -- 2009” and must contain the full line of numbers: 1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2. The price on the dustjacket is $16.99.

Difficulty in finding first editions: Just published, first editions are very easy to find at present.


THE MILES BETWEEN is another example of inventive book design. An image of the dustjacket is printed above, but take off the jacket and you get this unusual upside-down photographic illustration on the glossy covers of the book itself:


Tuesday marks the publication of THE LOST SYMBOL, the long-awaited new novel by Dan Brown, whose mega-millions bestseller THE DA VINCI CODE took the world by storm.

I know it’s fashionable to put down THE DA VINCI CODE for shoddy scholarship and weak writing but, in my opinion, any book that has you turning the pages so fast you get paper cuts definitely has something going for it.

Many teenage readers have embraced Dan Brown’s novels and I suspect younger kids have tried to tackle them as well, though I think the subject matter of THE DA VINCI CODE, in particular, would require a lot of “parental guidance.”

To celebrate the publication of THE LOST SYMBOL, I tried to come up with a list of puzzle mysteries and conspiracy tales that might appeal more directly to young readers. Here’s my list:

CHASING VERMEER by Blue Balliett
THE WRIGHT 3 by Blue Balliett
THE CALDER GAME by Blue Balliett
THE WESTING GAME by Ellen Raskin
MASTERPIECE by Elise Broach


Thanks for dropping by for brunch.

Next time I’ll tell MacKinlay Kantor he doesn’t have to bring a dish.

(No really, Mack, it’s not necessary!)

...Well, if he does bring it, I guess I should invite a girl I used to know. She was actually the older sister of one of my childhood friends and she was famous in the neighborhood because she once ate a worm.

I have no idea what precipitated the event.

I don’t know if she ate it creamed on toast or just...tartare.

All I know is that she once ate a worm.

Over the years, generations of younger kids would hear the story and go up to Janet, asking if it was really true: “Did you really eat a worm when you were a kid?”

“Yep,” she’d reply, and her eyes would get misty with the memory. “And it tasted just like bacon.”


Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Cloudy with a Chance of Hope

Twenty-two years ago, on a hot Sunday night, an airplane fell out of the sky.

We’ve all seen air-crash stories covered in the media -- films of tangled, smoking metal...the desperate search for survivors...the endless investigations into what caused the tragedy.

What made this accident different for me is that it happened just outside my hometown. It was the first time such a disaster had occured at Detroit’s Metropolitan Airport. Everyone seemed to know somebody who had flown out of Metro that day or who was due in later that night. Everyone had a story to tell. Northwest Flight 255 crashed just seconds after take-off and the carnage spilled across Middlebelt Road, a major thoroughfare that cuts a swath through our western suburbs. In the coming days I would drive down Middlebelt, passing all the usual stores and schools and houses in my own neighborhood, well aware that just fifteen miles to the south, this same road was covered with recovered bodies, lined up in neat rows.

One hundred and fifty-six people perished in the accident, but there was one survivor: a four-year-old girl who had been traveling with her parents and brother. It seemed like a miracle. There were daily updates about her condition in the newspapers and she eventually appeared on the cover of LIFE magazine. Most of the articles mentioned that her favorite book was CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS, written by Judi Barrett and illustrated by Ron Barrett. I believe she’d even taken the book with her on the plane that day.

A couple months later, I happened to see a copy of CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS at the bookstore, so made a point of reading it. I wondered if the little girl would always remember her deceased mother and father reading this entertaining and silly story
to her when she was very young. I wondered if the relatives now planning to adopt her would get her another copy of the book. Would it remain her favorite childhood story for the rest of her life?

It would be ironic if the little girl, now grown and married, has completely forgotten about this book...because I certainly have not. Every time I see CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS in a bookstore or library, I recall that terrible accident at the airport less than fifteen miles away. Lately I’ve been seeing commercials for the forthcoming movie version and that’s made me think about the event even more. I think about the random nature of tragedies, and what a fragile hold each of us has on life. And how occasionally one person -- by chance? by design? -- somehow gets a second chance.

Of course I realize that even the book in question is random. If the little girl's favorite had been IMPOSSIBLE POSSUM or JUMANJI, those would be the titles I'd now be associating with that long-ago plane crash.

Today when you drive down Middlebelt to the airport you will notice a large memorial for Flight 255 on the side of the road. It features a picture of a dove and the names of all the victims. At various times of the year you may see flags or flowers or stuffed animals on the ground around it. It's one way of honoring those who died in the tragedy, but I find it unsettling. After all, the only time most of us see this memorial is when we’re on our way to the airport to take a trip or drop off a friend or family member. No one wants to even THINK of airplane crashes at those times! So I usually avert my eyes when driving past. Instead of looking at the memorial and remembering the scores who died, I prefer to think of the book as a symbol for the one who lived. It makes me realize that even in the worst kinds of tragedies, there's always the possibility of hope, always a chance of miracles.