Sunday, October 11, 2009

Sunday Brunch with Assorted Scarecrows

Today’s Sunday Brunch includes two book reviews, a retrospective of the National Book Awards...and a variety of scarecrows.


This past week German writer Herta Mueller won the Nobel Prize for Literature. I’m sorry to say that I’d never heard of her before now. When reading the announcement of the award, I came across a startling piece of of information I had not heard before. Did you know that Harry Potter also received a Nobel Prize?

That’s right!

Harry Potter won the 2005 Nobel Prize for Literature.

I guess that merits an explanation. According to one of the articles I read, the Swedish Academy, which awards the prizes, labors hard to keep nominations and winners a secret until the announcement is made. They never deliberate over the internet for fear their e-mail be hacked. If an Academy member wants to read one of the nominated author’s books in public, he’ll often put a different dustjacket on the volume to throw people off track.

On the rare occasions when committee members meet in restaurants or other public places, they use code words to refer to the nominated authors.

Last year’s winner, France’s Jean-Marie Le Clezio was known by the code name "Chateaubriand.”

2007 winner Doris Lessing went by the name “Little Dorritt.”

And the 2005 winner, Harold Pinter, was known to the award committee winners as “Harry Potter.”

Who knew they gave Nobel Prizes to fictional teenage wizards?


Ask any group of kids what kind of books they prefer and one of the most frequent responses will be “funny books.” Yet humor remains one of our least-respected genres of fiction. Take a look at any list of award-winning titles and you’ll notice very few humor books; Beverly Cleary published more than a dozen laugh-out-loud volumes for kids but didn’t win the Newbery until she added a slightly more serious edge to her writing in DEAR MR. HENSHAW. Cleary is one of thirteen authors interviewed by Leonard S. Marcus in FUNNY BUSINESS : CONVERSATIONS WITH WRITERS OF COMEDY, a volume that examines the role of humor in writing for children. The Q&A format features the usual questions (each profile begins with the question “What kind of child were you?”) before moving on to wonderfully specific questions about the author’s work (it’s clear that Marcus is a fan of these writers and knows their books inside-out) and going off on some fascinating tangents with queries about family relations, theater-going, and childhood holiday celebrations. Some of the authors, such as Jon Scieszka, reveal humorous anecdotes from their past, but there is also poignancy in Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket) recalling how the Holocaust affected his perspective (“Things...can happen...not because you’re a bad person, but just because they sometimes do”) or Dick King-Smith remembering World War Two (“Even a bad joke is better than nothing.”) Judy Blume (who admits that her work often makes her laugh out loud while writing it), Carl Hiassen (who never laughs at his own writing), and Anne Fine (who believes “Humor is a healing art, both for the reader and the writer) are among the authors profiled in this insightful and engaging volume. Photographs, letters, and manuscript pages accompany the text. The often heavily-edited typescripts illustrate just how difficult humor-writing can be.


Watch the internet on Thursday to see which books are chosen as finalists for this year’s National Book Awards. Of course I’m always most fascinated to see what’s named in the category of Young People’s Literature. Rebecca Stead’s WHEN YOU REACH ME seems likely for a nomination, but otherwise…who knows? The NBAs always promise few flukes and surprises.


Let’s take a look back at some of the early NBA finalists and winners. Were the best books generally chosen, or have the winning titles been mostly forgotten by now?

The National Book Awards began in 1950, with only three categories. That year’s winners were THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM by Nelson Algren (fiction), RALPH WALDO EMERSON by Ralph L. Rusk (nonfiction), and PATERON BOOK III AND SELECTED POEMS by William Carlos Williams (Poetry.)

A category for children’s books did not exist until 1969 when Meindert DeJong won for JOURNEY FROM PEPPERMINT STREET. Other finalists were THE HIGH KING by Lloyd Alexander, CONSTANCE by Patricia Clapp, THE ENDLESS STEPPE by Esther Hautzig, and LANGSTON HUGHES by Milton Meltzer. In retrospect, JOURNEY FROM PEPPERMINT STREET seems a way of belatedly honoring DeJong for his earlier, better work. Nowadays PEPPERMINT is out of print and not considered one of his best.

1970 : A DAY OF PLEASURE : STORIES OF A BOY GROWING UP IN WARSAW by Isaac Bashevis Singer beat out WHERE THE LILIES BLOOM (Vera and Bill Cleaver), POPCORN AND MA GOODNESS (Edna Mitchell Preston), SYLVESTER AND THE MAGIC PEBBLE (William Steig), and THE YOUNG UNITED STATES, 1783-1830 (Edwin Tunis.) Singer’s autobiographical volume, also now long-forgotten, seems like another “career prize,” possibly awarded as much for his adult work as for his children’s books.

1971 : THE MARVELOUS MISADVENTURES OF SEBASTIAN by Lloyd Alexander won over GROVER by Vera and Bill Cleaver, BLOWFISH LIVE IN THE SEA by Paula Fox, FROG AND TOAD ARE FRIENDS by Arnold Lobel and THE TRUMPET OF THE SWAN by E.B. White. Yet another example of a noted author winning an NBA for one his lesser-known works.

1972 : THE SLIGHTLY IRREGULAR FIRE ENGINE, OR THE HITHERING THITHERING DJINN by Donald Barthleme was clearly chosen by judges way-too-impressed by Barthelme’s work for adults. No one in the field of children’s books took this children’s book seriously. Many of the other finalists, however, were excellent. They include: THE ART AND INDUSTRY OF SAND CASTLES by Jan Adkins, WILD IN THE WORLD by John Donovon, THE PLANET OF JUNIOR BROWN by Virginia Hamilton, HIS OWN WHERE by June Jordan, THE TOMBS OF ATUAN by Ursula K. LeGuin, MRS. FRISBY AND THE RATS OF NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien, HILIDID’S NIGHT by Cheli Duran Ryan, AMOS AND BORIS by William Steig, and FATHER FOX’S PENNYRHYMES by Wendy and Clyde Watson.

1973 : THE FARTHEST SHORE by Ursula K. LeGuin beat nominees THE HOUSE OF WINGS by Betsy Byars, TROLLS by Ingri and Edgar Parin d”Aulaire, JULIE OF THE WOLVES by Jean Craighead George, CHILDREN OF VIETNAM by Betty Jean Lifton and Thomas C. Fox, THE IMPOSSIBLE PEOPLE by Georgess McHargue, THE WITCHES OF WORM by Zilpha Keatley Snyder, and DOMINIC by William Steig. Never out of print in the past three decades, THE FARTHEST SHORE is probably one of the NBA’s stronger choices.

1974 : Eleanor Cameron’s THE COURT OF THE STONE CHILDREN bested A HERO AIN’T NOTHING BUT A SANDWICH by Alice Childress, THE WHYS AND WHEREFORES OF LITTABELLE LEE by Vera and Bill Cleaver (and isn’t it nice to see them getting so much NBA love -- this is their third of four nominations -- when they were always passed over for the Newbery?), THE TREASURE IS THE ROSE by Julia Cunningham, SUMMER OF MY GERMAN SOLDIER by Bette Greene , GUESTS IN THE PROMISED LAND by Kristin Hunter, A PROUD TASTE FOR SCARLET AND MINIVER by E.L. Konigsburg, A FIGURE OF SPEECH by Norma Fox Mazer, POOR RICHARD IN FRANCE by F.N. Monjo, and DUFFY AND THE DEVIL by Harve Zemach. The now-out-of-print winner, a cerebral fantasy, beat out a number of much more emotionally-charged novels.

1975 : Virginia Hamilton’s M.C. HIGGINS THE GREAT was the winner in a field that included THE DEVIL’S STORYBOOK by Natalie Babbitt, DOCTOR IN THE ZOO by Bruce Buchenholz, I TELL A LIE EVERY SO OFTEN by Bruce Clements, MY BROTHER SAM IS DEAD by James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier, JOI BANGLA : THE CHILDREN OF BANGLADESH by Jason Laure and Ettagale Laure, WORLD OF OUR FATHERS by Milton Meltzer, REMEMBER THE DAYS by Milton Meltzer (two nominations in one year), WINGS by Adrienne Rich, and THE EDGE OF NEXT YEAR by Mary Stolz. I especially love the last two titles on this list, but have to admit the Hamilton is a well-regarded choice. This was the first time the same book won the NBA and the Newbery.

1976 : A solid, old-fashioned novel, BERT BREEN’S BARN by Walter D. Edmonds took the trophy over TO THE GREEN MOUNTAINS by Eleanor Cameron, AS I WAS CROSSING BOSTON COMMON by Norma Faber, OF LOVE AND DEATH AND OTHER JOURNEYS by Isabelle Holland, THE STAR IN THE PAIL by David McCord, EL BRONX REMEMBERED by Nicolasa Mohr and LUDELL by Brenda Wilkinson. I always thought that BERT BREEN’S BARN had the feel of a classic, but it doesn’t appear to have caught on the way I expected.

1977 : THE MASTER PUPPETEER by Katherine Paterson won. The other finalists were NEVER TO FORGET : THE JEWS OF THE HOLOCAUST by Milton Meltzer, OX UNDER PRESSURE by John Ney, ROLL OF THUNDER, HEAR MY CRY by Mildred D. Taylor, and TUNES FOR A SMALL HARMONICA by Barbara Wersba. This was the first national prize recognition that Katherine Paterson received; soon she would become the most-honored author in children’s books.

1978 : THE VIEW FROM THE OAK by Judith Kohl and Herbert Kohl beat HEW AGAINST THE GRAIN by Betty Sue Cummings, MICHLING, SECOND DEGREE by Ilse Koehn, ONE AT A TIME by David McCord, and CALEB & KATE by William Steig. This year an out-of-left-field nonfiction book beat out a forgettable list of candidates. I think this may be the single weakest slate of NBA contenders in the history of the award.

1979 : Katherine Paterson scored again with THE GREAT GIILLY HOPKINS, leaving the following titles in the dust: THE FIRST TWO LIVES OF LUKAS-KASHA (Lloyd Alexander), QUEEN OF HEARTS (Vera and Bill Cleaver), HUMBUG MOUNTAIN (Sid Fleischman) and THE LITTLE SWINEHERD AND OTHER TALES (Paula Fox.) What’s so extraordinary about Katherine Paterson’s double NBA win is that within the same general time period she also won two Newberys for different titles!

From 1980 through 1986, the National Book Awards operated as the American Book Awards. The first year under that new name had two children’s categories -- for hardcover and paperback books, and as time went on the categories continued to multiply like Henry Huggins’ guppies, so that eventually there categories such as Hardcover Nonfiction and Paperback Picture Book. The paperback awards were especially odd, as they would often honor books published many years earlier in hardcover. Occasionally (and ridiculously) past NBA finalists would be nominated again when they turned up in paperback. For example, Lloyd Alexander’s 1969 finalist, THE HIGH KING, was nominated again as a paperback in 1981. It was insanity! Eventually the children’s categories were dropped completely and did not return when the American Book Awards reverted back to the National Book Awards in 1987. An NBA category called “Young People’s Literature” eventually reappeared in 1996.

1996 : PARROT IN THE OVEN : MI VIDA by Victor Martinez was the the first book to win in this category. Its competition included WHAT JAMIE SAW by Carolyn Coman, A GIRL NAMED DISASTER by Nancy Farmer, THE LONG SEASON OF RAIN by Helen Kim, and SEND ME DOWN A MIRACLE by Han Nolan. I believe the latter book was either a paperback original, or published simultaneougly in hardcover and paperback.

1997 : In a rather weak field, Han Nolan -- nominated for the second time in two years -- won for DANCING ON THE EDGE. Other contenders were THE FACTS SPEAK FOR THEMSELVES by Brock Cole, SONS OF LIBERTY by Adele Griffin, WHERE YOU BELONG by Mary Ann McGuigan, and MEAN MARGARET by Tor Seidler.

1998 : HOLES by Louis Sachar won -- the second time a book scored both the NBA and the Newbery. The four other finalists were THE SECRET LIFE OF AMANDA K. WOODS by Ann Cameron, JOEY PIGZA SWALLOWED THE KEY by Jack Gantos, NO PRETTY PICTURES : A CHILD OF WAR by Anita Lobel, and A LONG WAY FROM CHICAGO by Richard Peck.

1999 : WHEN ZACHARY BEAVER CAME TO TOWN by Kimberly Willis Holt took the prize over SPEAK (Laurie Halse Anderson), THE BIRCHBARK HOUSE (Louise Erdrich), THE TROLLS (Polly Horvath) and MONSTER (Walter Dean Myers.) In retrospect, do you think ZACHARY is the strongest book on this list? I don’t.

2000 : HOMELESS BIRD by Gloria Whelan beat out finalists FORGOTTEN FIRE by Adam Bagdasarian, THE BOOK OF THE LION by Michael Cadnum, MANY STONES by Carolyn Coman, and HURRY FREEDOM : AFRICAN AMERICANS IN GOLD RUSH CALIFORNIA. This may be the second weakest slate of NBA contenders in the history of the award.

2001 : TRUE BELIEVER by Virginia Euwer Wolff took the top spot, with the other four nominees being THE TIGER RISING by Kate DiCamillo, WE WERE THERE TOO! : YOUNG PEOPLE IN U.S. HISTORY by Philip Hoose; A STEP FROM HEAVEN by AN NA, and CARVER : A LIFE IN POEMS by Marilyn Nelson. When the Printz Awards were announced a couple months later, A STEP FROM HEAVEN won the top prize, with TRUE BELIEVER relegated to Honor Book status.

2002 : And the winner was...THE HOUSE OF THE SCORPION by Nancy Farmer. Other finalists were FEED by M.T. Anderson, 19 VARIETIES OF GAZELLE : POEMS OF THE MIDEAST by Naomi Shihab Nye; THIS LAND WAS MADE FOR YOU AND ME : THE LIFE AND SONGS OF WOODY GUTHRIE by Elizabeth Partridge, and HUSH by Jacqueline Woodson. It was a big year for SCORPION, which also picked up Newbery and Printz Honor Awards.

2003 : Polly Horvath took top honors with THE CANNING SEASON. The other lucky four were Paul Fleischman’s BREAKOUT, Jim Murphy’s AN AMERICAN PLAGUE, Richard Peck’s THE RIVER BETWEEN US and Jacqueline Woodson’s LOCOMOTION. Polly Horvath’s books are an acquired taste; obviously that year’s committee appreciated her off-beat work. I still haven’t finished reading THE CANNING SEASON.

2004 : GODLESS by Pete Hautman won, reflecting this category’s continued domination by young adult, rather than children’s, books. The finalists were HONEY, BABY, SWEETHEART by Deb Caletti, HARLEM STOMP : A CULTURAL HISTORY OF THE HARLEM RENAISSANCE by Laban Carrick Hill, THE LEGEND OF BUDDY BUSH by Sheila P. Moses, and LUNA by Julie Ann Peters.

2005 : THE PENDERWICKS by Jeanne Birdsall was the winner. WHERE I WANT TO BE (Adele Griffin), INEXCUSABLE (Chris Lynch), AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MY DEAD BROTHER (Walter Dean Myers) and EACH LITTLE BIRD THAT SINGS (Deborah Wiles) filled out the scorecard. Yeah, I know, I just got finished saying that the NBA tilts toward young adult titles, and then in 2005 they awarded the prize to an old-fashioned middle-grade novel. Still, I think it was the right choice.

2006 : THE ASTONISHING LIFE OF OCTAVIAN NOTHING, TRAITOR TO THE NATION, VOLUME 1 : THE POX PARTY by M.T. Anderson was the winner. The other finalists were KETURAH AND LORD DEATH by Martine Leavitt, SOLD by Patricia McCormick, THE RULES OF SURVIVAL by Nancy Werlin, and AMERICAN BORN CHINESE by Gene Luen Yang. OCTAVIAN is clearly one of the great modern books, so its selection will always reflect well on the NBA.

2007 : Sherman Alexie’s THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN took top honors with the other four finalists being SKIN HUNGER by Kathleen Duey, TOUCHING SNOW by M. Sindy Felin, THE INVENTION OF HUGO CABRET by Brian Selznick and STORY OF A GIRL by Sara Zarr. People were surprised a couple months later when PART-TIME INDIAN didn’t get Printz recognition.

2008 : WHAT I SAW AND HOW I LIED by Judy Blundell was the somewhat surprising winner in a field that included CHAINS by Laurie Halse Anderson, THE UNDERNEATH by Kathi Appelt, THE DISREPUTABLE HISTORY OF FRANKIE LANDAU-BANKS by E. Lockhart and THE SPECTACULAR NOW by Tim Tharp.


At the end of her interview in FUNNY BUSINESS, author Anne Fine is asked, “What’s the best part about being a writer?” The response: “The silence. Definitely the silence.” In his memoir, STITCHES, writer-illustrator David Small explores the dark, soul-killing aspects of silence. Growing up in 1950s Detroit, Small lived in a silent, unloving home punctuated by an unspoken current of anger (“Mama had her little cough...once or trice, some quiet sobbing, out of sight...or the slamming of kitchen cupboard doors. That was her language.”) When he was fourteen years old, Small had surgery that resulted in losing his own voice; in typical fashion, his parents never told him he was suffering from cancer until he accidentally uncovered the truth. Their response? “Well, the fact is, you did have cancer...but you didn’t need to know anything then...and you don’t need to know about it now. That’s final!” Small tells his story mainly through illustration, with only a minimum of text. The superb artwork has a cinematic flow, occasionally utilizing metaphor (an analyst is depicted as the White Rabbit from ALICE IN WONDERLAND) and moments of surrealism in an otherwise unflinchingly honest, often horrifying, memoir. Written for adults, STITCHES doesn’t exploit the author’s brutal childhood, nor does it wallow in self-pity; instead, it ultimately tells how a damaged young man recovers his voice, both literally and -- through therapy, leaving home at an early age, and discovering his talent (“Art has given me everything I have wanted or needed since”) -- figuratively. STITCHES is a triumphant literary accomplishment by a creator who has triumphed over unspeakable odds.


I use the Wikipedia all the time, but was unaware that a “Conservapedia” -- an online encyclopedia “with articles written from a conservative viewpoint” -- even existed until this week when I heard about the Conservative Bible Project, which plans to remove “liberal bias” from contemporary versions of the Bible by creating “a fully conservative Bible.”

Upon hearing this news, I immediately checked to see if it was a joke.

It wasn’t.

I’ll leave the soundness of this idea to theologians. Right now I’m having nightmares about what the Conservapedia would do if they ever set their sights on children’s books.

The results could look something like this:


THE HIGHER POWER by Susan Patron

BOY MEETS GIRL by David Levithan




THE GIRL OF BLACKBIRD POND by Elizabeth George Speare

GOD by Pete Hautman


The other morning I was leaving for work when I saw a goose walking down the middle of the street. I grew up in the city, where the biggest birds I ever saw were pigeons. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I actually saw a goose live-and-in-person. I couldn’t believe how big they were -- well over three feet tall with their necks stretched out. And they continue to fascinate me. So, back to the other morning: I was leaving for work, saw this big, tall goose walking down the middle of the street, and stopped to stare. And then I noticed there was another goose waddling behind him. And then another. They continued to march solemnly past me, single file, as if they were in a parade. I counted eleven of them! I wish I’d had my camera with me that morning.

Later that day I told someone about the experience and said, “It reminded me of this children’s book called MAKE WAY FOR DUCKLINGS.”

“Everything reminds you of a children’s book,” they replied.

People tell me that a lot.

So yesterday I was driving down a local street when I passed this scarecrow on the side of the road:

Well, of course I immediately thought about WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE, but since I’d just been rudely accused of being over-invested in children’s books, I decided maybe I was just projecting my interest onto something completely unrelated. Geese aren’t ducklings. Scarecrows aren’t Sendak characters.

However, as I drove further down the street, I came across this scarecrow:

Now I knew I wasn’t seeing things! And as I drove on, I saw other familiar figures -- all related to children’s books! I rushed back home for my camera.

I don’t know if one person made all these or whether it’s a community competition or what, but clearly there’s a theme to all the scarecrows decorating the streets.

Here’s the scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz:

I’m not sure about this one, but because there are nursery rhyme titles and images on her outfit, I think she’s supposed to be Mother Goose:

Here’s Little Miss Muffett and the spider:

And the man from CAPS FOR SALE:

There was a crooked man:

And here’s Curious George, along with the (rather chunky) Man with the Yellow Hat:

The king from “Sing a Song of Six Pence”:

Here’s Jack and Jill:

And Pippi Longstocking, who is even holding a sign that says, “Read a good book!”

So you see, it’s not just my over-active imagination connecting everything I see to children’s books. Everything I see really IS connected to children’s books!


Yesterday was my mother’s birthday. She turned [CENSORED!] years old. The other day she told me that she’d recently had a dream about swinging on a wooden backyard swing. Last year on her birthday, my mother was using a cane because of arthritis. This year she is using a walker. Is it any wonder she has dreams about the freedom of standing on a swing and flying back and forth? My mother grew up in an era where kids memorized and recited poems and Bible verses for school (Bible verses in a public school!) When telling me about her dream, she began to recite an old poem she remembered from her childhood. She wasn’t sure of all the words, so I said I’d look it up for her. Here it is -- a belated birthday present for my mother, and a gift to anyone else who remembers playing on the swings as a child:

The Swing

by Robert Louis Stevenson

How do you like to go up in a swing,
Up in the air so blue?
Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing
Ever a child can do!

Up in the air and over the wall,
Till I can see so wide,
River and trees and cattle and all
Over the countryside--

Till I look down on the garden green,
Down on the roof so brown--
Up in the air I go flying again,
Up in the air and down!

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


Eric Carpenter said...

What are the chances Stitches gets some recognition in the adult nonfiction category on Thursday?

Also re: 1978, nothing which includes a Steig title can be called "weakest slate of NBA contenders in the history of the award"

LaurieA-B said...

While you are certainly not the first person to comment on Cleary's winning the Newbery for the "more serious" Dear Mr. Henshaw (I've probably said it myself), re-reading the Ramona Quimby books recently led me to realize that this comment is rather far off the mark. Ramona's worries, especially over her father's unemployment, are quite serious and frightening to her (and to readers). Ramona's sadness over her father's unhappiness with the grocery-store job he finally gets, Ramona's realization that her babysitter Mrs. Kemp does not like her, Ramona finding her cat dead in the basement are not dissimilar from the troubles experienced by Leigh Botts.

What a strange list of books, the NBA winners and nominees. But the only year for which I've read the entire slate is 2006, and it's a strong group. I continue to be puzzled by the strong admiration for The Penderwicks, however.

Sarah Miller said...

Peter - any chance you'll be at the Book Beat this Friday to see David Small?

Linda said...

They have a scarecrow festival like that near us, in Alpharetta, GA. It was fun last year to see all the different costumes: Indiana Jones, Star Wars characters, and many literary characters like Hester Prynne, Long John Silver, the Headless Horseman, and others. No one did THE Scarecrow, though (not Oz, Disney's by way of Russell Thorndyke).

MaureenHume said...

Those scarecrows look fantastic. I especially like the crooked man. What a wonderful surprise to unexpectedly come across them.
Maureen Hume

Bybee said...

Do you think Vera and Bill Cleaver were overlooked because they were a team of writers?

I always liked that swing poem by RLS.