Sunday, November 29, 2009

A Sunday Brunch for a Lucky December

Today’s Sunday brunch reveals a back-story for a classic young adult book, supplies some foggy images, and tells how to have good luck for the entire month of December.


Anita Silvey’s latest, EVERYTHING I NEED TO KNOW I LEARNED FROM A CHILDREN’S BOOK, explores the life lessons that famous actors, politicians, athletes, and others acquire from the books they read while growing up. I’ve learned my share of important lessons from kids’ books as well -- but when I looked at the calendar this morning and realized that tomorrow is the last day of the month, I remembered a trivial, but fun activity that I first learned from one of my favorite YA novels, TRYING HARD TO HEAR YOU by Sandra Scoppettone.

In the story, protagonist Camilla Crawford returns home from a date to discover that her younger sister has had a wild party in her absence. The house is a mess, a valuable antique has been broken, and little sister Rachel is dead drunk. The next morning, Camilla tries to rouse her sister, who is moaning in bed (“Let me die...just let me die”) and begging for a Coca Cola. Camilla responds with some hilarious comebacks (“Coke? Heavens no. You need protein...nice, firm, yellow eggies and thick, not too crisp, bacon. Poor little tyke.”) While describing other breakfast treats for the hungover girl (“Nice oatmeal with heavy cream. How does that sound, hmmm?”) Camilla recalls that it’s the first day of July and yanks Rachel out of bed (“Come, darling, let sister help you”) to perform something called “Rabbit, Rabbit.” Camilla describes it for the reader: “Rabbit, Rabbit is a game -- well, not exactly a game, more like a superstitious thing you do on the first of every month. <...> In the morning, on the first, you have to get out of bed at the end, turn around to the right three times, and say ‘Rabbit, Rabbit’ with each turn. Then you’re supposed to have good luck for the whole month.” I had never heard of “Rabbit, Rabbit” before TRYING HARD TO HEAR YOU, but I’ve been intrigued by it ever since reading the book. Unfortunately, in the thirty-five years since this novel was published (thirty-five years = 420 months!) I’ve never once remembered to get up and do “Rabbit, Rabbit” on the first of the month. Sometimes I remember fifteen minutes after I’ve gotten up, while standing in the bathroom brushing my teeth. Sometimes I remember later in day. Sometimes I don’t remember till about the fifth or sixth day of the month that I was supposed to do “Rabbit, Rabbit” way back on the first.

Ah well, where there’s life, there’s hope. And a new month begins on Tuesday morning. Hope I remember to do it this time!


I’ve written many times about my admiration for Sandra Scoppettone’s TRYING HARD TO HEAR YOU. The story is set during the summer of 1973 -- a time I well remember -- and since the characters listened to the same music, wore the same clothes, and used the same slang as me and my friends, they were particularly real to me. When I first read the novel in December 1974, the characters seemed to spring right off the page -- as if they were people I knew. I’ve re-read the book many times since and now, when I open the cover, it’s like visiting old friends from my high school years.

I did not know until recently that the characters were, at least in part, based on real people. Science fiction writer Chuck Rothman has written a fascinating piece about the novel, contending that he was the basis for Camilla’s friend Walt Feinberg; he even includes a chart, noting the parallels between himself and the fictional Walt. Mr Rothman tells about the summer that he and his friends (members of an “anti-clique” that called itself the “Bull Contingent”) participated in a youth production of ANYTHING GOES, just like the characters in Ms. Scoppettone’s novel. Rothman says, “Now, Sandra has said that the characters were all fictional. And there is truth to that, since their actions were nothing like the real thing. She was writing a story, and what people did had to fit into the story and not real people. I understand that.” But he adds: “If you have a program for the play, you can figure out who was who merely by matching the roles in the program.”

I guess very few programs from a three-decade old youth theatre production of ANYTHING GOES are still extant but, fortunately, TRYING HARD TO HEAR YOU is still around and still remains one of my favorites.


Last week’s Sunday Brunch included a list of books about fog. As I was thinking up titles, the very first one that came to mind was FOG MAGIC by Julia L. Sauer. Then, as I put the blog together, that title somehow disappeared from the list without me noticing -- until I started getting notes from people wondering why I hadn’t included FOG MAGIC!

Published in 1943 and named a Newbery Honor Book (or “runner-up,” as they were called in those years) FOG MAGIC is a quiet, atmospheric fantasy about a girl from Nova Scotia who is able to visit the mysterious village of Blue Cove only on foggy days. Author Julia L. Sauer sent her story to Viking with a cover letter stating, “Sooner or later, I suppose that every children’s librarian sends a manuscript, and here is mine. Please will you read it and consider it? For years I have been obsessed by the cellar holes of the abandoned little village near our cabin in Nova Scotia, and by the tales the old people up there tell us. And this year, when we couldn’t get there, I finally got it into tangible form out of sheer homesickness for the place itself and for the fog that is so much part of it.”

Viking knew they had a special story on their hands and the concluding comment on the dustjacket flap (“This is a book which will not easily grow old nor be outworn, but like the people of Blue Cove itself, will live long in a gracious present.”) proved prescient. Some sixty-five years after publication, Ms. Sauer’s little story remains available for young readers -- on Kindle!

As for the author, Julia L. Sauer reminds me of Elizabeth George Speare and Joseph Krumgold, both writers who published just a handful of books for children, yet won multiple honors for their efforts. Ms. Sauer, who was the head children's librarian for the Rochester, New York Public Library, only wrote three books for kids, but two of them -- FOG MAGIC and THE LIGHT AT TERN ROCK -- were named Newbery Honors.


Incidentally, every time I hear the title FOG MAGIC I immediately picture Lynd Ward’s superb dustjacket, shown above. When I took the book down from my shelf today, I flipped through to look at the other illustrations and was shocked to find there are no internal decorations in the book. In fact, Mr. Ward’s name doesn’t even appear inside the book. Only on the dustjacket flap do we learn “Jacket, binding, and endpapers by Lynd Ward.”

Here is the binding:

and here are the endpapers:

I’m still pondering the fact that no illustrations appear inside...even though I have vague memories of them.

What do you think this means?

Were Lynd Ward’s dj, binding and endpapers so evocative that they set the mood for the entire book, making me think he'd contributed many more illustrations to the book?

Or were Julia Sauer’s descriptions of the fog so powerful that they made me conjure up pictures in my mind?


Lynd Ward must have been the go-to guy when publishers needed illustrations featuring fog, islands, ocean sprays, and other moody elements of coastal life. He also illustrated these books by Mabel L. Robinson, both set on Maine islands:

The style of illustrations, plus the turquoise borders of these books, remind me very much of FOG MAGIC.

Incidentally, several years ago I came across a copy of FOG MAGIC that was inscribed by Lynd Ward to his own daughter. It was a real find, but I couldn’t quite afford the $85 price tag. I kept my eye on the book, though, until finally it was sold to someone else. What a missed opportunity.

Or, considering the theme of the book, maybe I should call it a “mist opportunity”?


Lynd Ward, incidentally, won the 1953 Caldecott Medal for THE BIGGEST BEAR, a book that he both illustrated and wrote. This reminds me of a question sent in last week by blog-reader Anamaria:

How often does an illustrator win the Caldecott for a book he or she has also written as opposed to an illustrator winning for a book authored by someone else?

Good question. I checked the archives and discovered that 42 of the 72 Caldecott Awards -- or somewhat more than half -- have gone to books that were written and illustrated by the same creator. I wonder if artists prefer illustrating their own books -- fulfilling their own vision -- or if they like the challenge of trying to bring someone else’s words to life? Is one job more difficult than the other?


I just finished reading KALEIDOSCOPE EYES by Jen Bryant, an involving mystery about three kids trying to track down Captain Kidd’s treasure in modern-day New Jersey. Fans of Blue Balliett will like this book. I enjoyed it too, though I questioned the use of the “novel-in-verse” format; this is one of those books where the text didn’t read like a poem, but rather like a conventional narrative artistically arranged to look like verse through odd line breaks. It was intriguing to read a story set in 1968 -- yet another era I remember; geez, I’m old! -- with its references to Vietnam, Candid Camera, and Janis Joplin. However, I did note one error -- at least I’m assuming it’s an error -- that the copy editors didn’t catch. At one point narrator Lyza gets a dishwashing job at a local diner -- but her hands are so sore and calloused from digging for treasure that she can barely submerge them in hot water. Lyza says:

so to keep myself from
yelling out loud whenever

my hands hit the suds,
I have begun to sing
“Me and Bobby McGee’
while I’m working, and since

blues goddess Janis yells
at least as much as she sings,
no one in the kitchen is
the least bit suspicious.

Well, that quote made me a little suspicious. In fact, it made me go to Wikipedia to check out some dates. Now I’ve composed a response-in-verse for Lyza:

I heard you yelling
“Me and Bobby McGee”
every time you stuck your hands
in that soapy water

You sounded just like Janis
screaming and wailing --
but I’ve just got one
question I hope you can answer:

Janis Joplin didn’t record
”Bobby McGee” till right before she died in 1970
So how did you know this song
way back in ‘68?


“Say ‘Yes’ to Michigan” is the advertising slogan they use for our state, so I thought I’d borrow it now to tell you about an event my favorite local bookstore is having in celebration of Michigan children’s book creators.

Next weekend the Bookbeat of Oak Park, Michigan, is sponsoring two events. On Saturday new talents James Tobin and David Coverly (SUE MACDONALD HAD A BOOK), John Perry (THE BOOK THAT EATS PEOPLE) and Philip Christian Stead (CREAMED TUNA-FISH & PEAS ON TOAST) will be signing their latest picture books. The next day young adult authors Pearl North (LIBYRINTH), Amy Huntley (THE HEREAFTER) and Helen Frost (CROSSING STONES) will appear to read from and sign their books. All these authors currently live in Michigan, except for Helen Frost, whose latest work, CROSSING STONES, is set in rural Michigan.

For more info or to reserve signed copies of any of these books, you can call 248-968-1190 or visit the Bookbeat’s website.

Say “yes” to independent booksellers!


Oh, and finally...


I finished MIDDLEMARCH this weekend.

Well, that only took five months.

Of course I’ve been reading other books in-between chapters of MIDDLEMARCH too, but still...that took a long time.

Can’t say I loved it.

But at least now I can say I’m better read.

As soon as I closed the last page of MIDDLEMARCH I picked up a young adult novel I’ve been anxious to read, THE KNIFE OF NEVER LETTING GO by Patrick Ness, and discovered the epigraph was a quote from...MIDDLEMARCH!

Boy, did that make me feel literate.

And how’s that for a coincidence?

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


CLM said...

I never read that Scoppettone but my sister and I did try to remember to say, "Rabbit, rabbit," on the first day of the month so there must have been some other book that inspired us, which I hope one of your other readers will remember.

I did love Fog Magic which I found in my elementary school library but never read her other books which I must now hunt down.

Have you read Shadow Castle, which I read about the same time as Fog Magic? My copy was my mother's, printed with color plates but the disclaimer that it was printed on war paper. Not only did I reread it many many times, I tried copying it in longhand to send to my pen pals. I would have persevered had they been better correspondents!

Wendy said...

I first heard about "Rabbit, rabbit" from a Trixie Belden (and I'm sure that's where CLM got it, too). As I recall, Trixie's version was less elaborate, and it meant you got a wish to come true. Trixie wished for a new mystery, which sort of annoyed me, because the mysteries generally just distracted the Bob-Whites from good stuff like folk dancing, running wildly successful antique shows, and eating hunter's stew.

Sandy D. said...

Ah, thank you for another great post, and especially the local Michigan stuff.

I think they've changed the state slogan to "Pure Michigan" now, though, since that's what the sign at the IN/MI border on 1-94 has said for the last two months.

I liked "Say yes to Michigan" a lot more, although my husband I did have a good discussion on the Pureness that is Michigan for a few miles last night.

Daughter Number Three said...

How did you come across the Chuck Rothman post about THTHY? A lucky chance while googling? What a find!

Thanks for helping shed some more light on one my favorite YAs from those impressionable years.

Sam said...

Congratulations on finishing Middlemarch! I'm sorry you didn't love it, but... maybe you'll like Daniel Deronda better!

Bybee said...

I also first heard about Rabbit Rabbit from Trixie Belden. She kind of cheated and put a sign on the footpost at the end of her bed that said "Say Rabbit" ...forgot which mystery it was in. In that same chapter, I learned the word "ennui" from her brother.

I read Middlemarch every ten years: 1999, 2009, 2019...?

Bonnie said...

Trixie Belden - Mystery of the Emeralds....

Carol Baicker-McKee said...

My husband's family grew up playing Rabbit, Rabbit, but a simpler version - all you had to do was say "Rabbit, Rabbit" before you spoke any other words after waking on the first.

Like you, I can never remember. One of my kids had the good idea of sleeping with a stuffed rabbit on the last day of the month, to prompt her to remember.

Laurie said...

Knife of Never Letting Go: as I began reading, I found it hard to reconcile Middlemarch and a talking, pooing dog found within pages of each other. That talking, pooing dog almost turned me off on the first page, but I kept reading and was glad I did.

Anonymous said...

As other commenters have said, I learned of Rabbit Rabbit from Trixie Belden. I re-read a couple of Trixie Beldens recently and was surprised by how instructive they are, including information on how to treat a snake bite, or how to make hamburgers. I must have learned a lot of trivia from those books!

Anonymous said...

P.S. I also like your finishing Middlemarch, only to find the next book you picked up included a quote from Middlemarch! That reminds me of the day I finished reading Vanity Fair. That very night on Jeopardy one of the answers was a quote from Vanity Fair. I felt so literate!