Sunday, March 14, 2010

A Brunch with Napkins

Today’s Sunday Brunch starts, once again, with an apology.

My goal is to write two or three blog entries a week, yet I haven’t posted anything since last Sunday.

Sorry about that.

This past week my father had an adventure, which involved a wild ride followed by three relaxing days of eating breakfast in bed and having his every need attended to by a staff of professionals. Sounds like fun -- until you realize he took his wild ride in an ambulance and spent those three days in the hospital. The good news is that he has recovered, is out of the hospital and, I hope, this blog can now return to a more normal schedule.


Although it’s only been a week, it seems like the Academy Awards were a million years ago. It was nice, though, to hear a couple children’s books -- Roald Dahl’s THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX and Neil Gaiman’s CORALINE -- mentioned on the broadcast, as both were nominated for Best Animated Film.

Since the Oscars, I’ve been intrigued by Howard Stern’s controversial statement that Gabourey Sidibe, nominated for her debut in PRECIOUS, is unlikely to find future work in Hollywood. Personally, I think Gabourey should look to the world of young adult books for future roles. I guess she’s too old to play Emma in Louise Fitzhugh’s NOBODY’S FAMILY IS GOING TO CHANGE, but how about putting an option on MY LIFE AS A RHOMBUS by Varian Johnson, as well as A LITTLE LOVE by Virginia Hamilton? Both of these strong novels could feature powerful roles for Ms. Sidibe.


Speaking of movies, I recently read an article that said the famous logo that appears on the screen before every Paramount motion picture

began as a drawing sketched on the back of a napkin by the company’s founder William Hodkinson.

This got me wondering if any children’s books began in similar fashion.

So far I’ve only found one.

Back in 1988, Neal Waldman received his first assignment to illustrate a children’s book. The title was BRING BACK THE DEER by Jeffrey Prusski. Mr. Waldman recalled how he felt when he received the manuscript: "As I began to read, I felt like I was entering a dark, winding cave. By the time I finished reading, I was totally confused. The story left me feeling that I had missed something. If I hadn't promised to read it five times, I would never have looked at it again. But then a strange thing happened. On my second reading, a few things were revealed to me that had escaped me the first time. And when I read it again, I saw even more. By the fifth time, not only did I begin to appreciate it . . . I began to love it."

But it wasn’t until he met the author for lunch that Waldman figured out how to illustrate the book. “As Jeff [spoke] I felt myself being transported back . . . back . . . back into the story. Images began flooding my brain. I opened my napkin and began scribbling on it. When I got home later that afternoon, I unfolded the napkin and began to study it. One of my scribblings was the image of two rectangles, one inside the other. I envisioned the main subject of each page within the smaller rectangle, with secondary subjects floating around it. The larger rectangle became the frame for each page. The color within the smaller rectangle would be very bright, to focus the viewer's attention on the central image." Soon "the paintings were flowing effortlessly. Each image was like a road sign, directing me to whatever came next. I created a tribe, with its own special clothing, dwellings, environment, and even its own language of pictographs. It was as if I was constructing an entire world, which I lived in as I continued to paint. I painted intensely for two months and when I finished the book it was clear that my life had changed forever. I knew that I wouldn't be working for advertising agencies or design studios anymore. I wanted to do more picture books. I had tiptoed through the window, and my path lay clearly before me. Like a many-colored fan, my life was unfolding before my eyes, revealing colors I had never even dreamed of."

Does anyone know any other children’s books that had their beginnings on the back of an envelope, on a piece of scrap paper, or on the edges of a used napkin?


This past week I saw this new volume at the bookstore:

It’s a sequel to Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A LITTLE PRINCESS, which was originally published in 1905.

I was surprised that a writer as well-known and critically-acclaimed as Hilary McKay -- wrote the “Misfits” series, among others -- would attempt a sequel to another author’s work. Doing a little research, I found the explanation in a Publishers Weekly article:

As a child, the author read and reread the story of Sara Crewe, a wealthy, pampered girl plunged into a penniless, dreary existence at a London boarding school after her father’s death. “I was mesmerized by the world Burnett described: early 20th-century London, an old-fashioned school, rainy pavements and candlelit attics, the smell of hot currant buns to a hungry child, the rustle of colored silk,” McKay recalls. “I knew the details so well I could have lived there myself.”

The author found the novel’s ending “perfect in all ways but one.” She was plagued by the lingering questions she had about Sara’s friends, who are left behind when the heroine drives away at the end of A LITTLE PRINCESS. McKay decided she must answer the question, “What happened next?” In Wishing for Tomorrow, she does just that, continuing the stories of Ermengarde, Lottie, Lavinia and others who remain at the school.

I understand a writer’s desire to continue a story...but is it fair to the original author? I can’t decide.

A couple years back Geraldine McCaughrean gave us a sequel to PETER PAN called PETER PAN IN SCARLET. Some time ago, Susan Beth Pfeffer wrote a series called “Portraits of Little Women” which focused on members of the March family. (And let’s not forget that Geraldine Brooks won a Pulitzer for her adult novel about that same family called, simply, MARCH.)

I’ll be curious to see how McKay’s tale fares with modern readers. Are enough of them familiar with the Burnett classic to read this sequel, or will it be the other way around, with fans of Hilary McKay’s novel seeking out A LITTLE PRINCESS and reviving interest in the work of Frances Hodgson Burnett?


Considering the success of TWILIGHT -- not to mention all the copycat children’s and YA novels published over the last few years -- any writer who wants to continue a classic for today’s audiences should probably add a vampire component.

This would be especially helpful if a character in the original novel died. ...Sequels could bring Beth March and Charlotte A. Cavatica back from the grave...with a taste for blood.

Not to mention: MY BROTHER SAM IS UNDEAD and THE ELEVENTH GOOD THING ABOUT BARNEY -- he was able to return from the dead!


Cleaning out drawers in preparation for moving, I realize that I was born to blog about children’s books. No Johnny-come-lately to this field, I was already serious about children’s books back when I was a kid myself.

Just this past week I found an article I photocopied from the July 17, 1972 issue of PUBLISHERS WEEKLY when I was thirteen years old. (Who remembers the early days of photocopying, when your copy was printed with gray ink on damp paper? Who remembers the pungent scent of that paper? Who remembers the jagged edges at the bottom of each page as it emerged from the machine?) Anyway, this article “Fair or Unfair : Confessions of a Literary Contest Judge” by Jane Langton fascinated me at age thirteen and continues to fascinate me now at age (well, you do the math.)

I don’t think I’ve ever read an article about choosing books for an award as revealing and honest as this one. It concerns Ms. Langton’s stint as judge for the 1972 Children’s Spring Book Festival Award. Working with a librarian in California named Regina Minudri, Langton was charged with choosing five honor books in the Young Adult category, then picking one of those five as the winner.

How’s this for honesty? Langton says that she began the process with a commitment to reading two books a night: “Since I am a writer myself I was very much aware that for every book in the contest there was an author out there somewhere, and at first I could feel him breathing over my shoulder, picking at my sleeve, warning me not to be too hasty, not to make up my mind too soon, to read every single precious word. So at first I did. But as the weeks went by I grew less obsessive about it. By that time I had read enough really good books to eliminate some of the later arrivals with little more than a careful skimming.”

And here’s another candid admission: “Did it make a difference whether a book arrived early or late? Did it have a better chance if the judge’s mind was ready to be imprinted as a a tabula rasa? Or was it better to be among the last, when she was wearying of her first favorites, perhaps, and having second thoughts? ...I would like to think that the order of arrival had nothing to do with the process of selection, but I’m not sure if that was so.”

And here’s the most frank confession of all: Langton found herself “grumpy” that all the submissions were so “dreadfully good” and decided “They had had their chance at a prize in England.... Wasn’t it hard enough on us poor American writers to be competing with each other, with dragging in those diabolically clever foreigners?” So Langton “decided to choose no more than one British book, no matter how hard I had to clench my teeth in disposing of the others.”

(Her chosen British book, by the way, was Jane Gardam’s A LONG WAY FROM VERONA, which Langton described as “a work of genius, a towering phenomenon.” I guess you’d have to be old enough to remember damp gray photocopies to remember the stunning impact of VERONA back in 1972. It was truly revered by most critics at the time. I’m not sure kids loved it (I didn’t at age thirteen) but the reviewers sure did. Incidentally, I’ve always wondered if Jeanne Birdsall was saluting Jane Gardam with the title of her recent, wonderful novel THE PENDERWICKS ON GARDAM STREET.)

Eventually, the two judges share their “ten best” lists with each other and are rather shocked by each other’s choices. (A LONG WAY FROM VERONA didn’t even appear on Regina Minudri’s list.) But their eventual decision was “was settled in a matter of three minutes by telephone:

”I’ll put A LONG WAY FROM VERONA on the list,” said Regina, “but I don’t think it’s the best of the five.”

“Good,” I said. “Which do you think the best should be?”


“That’s okay with me. It’s one of my three favorite, but I couldn’t choose between FREAKY FRIDAY and THE FOG COMES ON LITTLE PIG FEET.”

“Well, FOG is on my list of five too, but the children in my library liked FREAKY FRIDAY the best of all.”

“All right, FRIDAY it is. And VERONA and FOG. Now you get a free book in exchange for giving me VERONA.”


“Okay, that’s fine. It wasn’t on my final list, but it was on my list of ten, and I’d be delighted to have it as one of the five. Now, don’t you think we’ve got to have at least one nonfiction book? What about OH, LIZZIE?”

“Yes, I think that’s the best one.”

That was all there was to it. We gave voice to our regrets about the good books we had had to leave out, and hung up, both of us, I think, relieved and reasonably satisfied.

Gosh, I’m so glad I found this article in my drawer -- not only because I remember the books so well (for the record, FREAKY FRIDAY is by Mary Rodgers; FOG COMES ON LITTLE PIG FEET by Rosemary Wells; THE MOUNTAIN OF TRUTH by Dale Carlson and OH, LIZZIE : THE LIFE OF ELIZABETH CADY STANTON by Doris Faber) but because of the honest insights it provides into how these awards were chosen.

I know, the Newbery and Caldecott panels are sworn to secrecy...but one day wouldn’t you love to read an article of this type about the selection of those awards?


Those who collect unusual dustjackets will be interested in a new young adult novel by Stephen Emond called HAPPYFACE.

The book features a banded dustjacket over about half the cover. When the dustjacket is in place, you see a smiling face; remove the dustjacket and it’s a frown:

It’s so interesting to me that as dustjackets are getting cheaper and cheaper in terms of illustration (most feature royalty-free photographic images -- reportedly so that publishers don’t have to pay for painted images) they are becoming more stylistically sophisticated with the use of die-cuts, unusual sizing, etc.

As for the content of HAPPYFACE? I just got it and haven’t read it yet. Heavily illustrated with comic art, the book also contains an equal amount of text, so it’s likely a good choice for reluctant readers...and the story seems fun so far. I’ll try to report back on this one.

Well, I had a couple more items to bring to today’s Brunch, but there’s no time to add them. That’s because we lost an hour of time last night, plus I have to run out and take some things I found buried in my drawers -- things other than that Jane Langton article -- to the Salvation Army truck, which picks up donations in the grocery store parking lot on Saturday and Sunday. I’ll save those items for next Sunday’s blog, though -- barring any other adventures -- I hope to post a weekday blog or two before then.

Thanks for visiting Collecting Children’s Books.


Charlotte said...

I loved Wishing for Tomorrow...but that doesn't go to show much, because I am Older than the target audience...

And I have an ARC of the Vampire Little Women book (yes, it's been written) in my too be read pile...but a quick dip into it shows that Beth is just as Undead as her sisters. Maybe she will be staked later in the book.

And yes, Jeanne Birdsall is a great admirer of Jane Gardam! (I don't much like A Long Way to Verona, myself, but I Love Bilgewater...)

Unknown said...

Yes, Peter, Gardam Street is named for Jane Gardam, whose books were first recommended to me by Patricia MacLachlan. Thanks for noticing. A few years back I visited a school in Oxford where Jane Gardam's granddaughter had gone. The headmaster told me that Ms.Gardam had visited there, too -- what a thrill! The school also happened to be next door to the house where Tolkien lived -- and wrote his trilogy. I almost passed out from all the stored up glory of the place.

And to Charlotte -- isn't Bilgewater wonderful? For me, it's the perfect blend of literature and comfort book -- a rare feat.

Jeannie B.

Vonna said...

In general, I prefer sequels such as Wishing for Tomorrow which deal with peripheral characters from the original story rather than the main character, but I'm not sure I have a logical reason for this bias. It seems a bit more original, though the basic setting and character set-up are similar in both cases.

I loved the article you shared, Fair or Unfair. What a task! I would hate to have to choose only five from such a huge selection of excellent work.

Bybee said...

Good on you for coming up with new vehicles for young Ms. Sidibe. What does Howard Stern know anyway? When was the last time he cracked the cover of a children's or YA book? Or any book?

I thought A Little Princess ended satisfactorily (sp?) and doesn't need a sequel. But I'll try to keep an open mind.

CLM said...

I remember reading these at about the same time but how different they are: Freaky Friday, The Fog Comes on Little Pig Feet (which I thought I would like because it was a school story but did not), A Long Way From Verona (which my mother gave me for Christmas and I very much disliked, although do not recall why; maybe I'd like it better as an adult) and The Mountain of Truth (the ending both scared me and made me cry; I used to avoid looking at it in the library afterwards). I guess I would have picked Freaky Friday too. Incidentally, I voted for The Diamond in the Window as one of my top ten.

Anonymous said...

Ohh- I was going to post a link to Little Vampire Women too-

And CLM- I voted for Diamond in the Window in Betsy's (Fuse 8) best loved chapter books poll. I thought I was probably the only one....

Anonymous said...

Babymouse began on a napkin. And my brother lost the napkin (actually, I suspect he used it with some take-out).
Jenni Holm

Anonymous said...

Oh NO! I forgot Diamond in the Window on the poll. Ouch!
I thought Wishing for Tomorrow was very well done. She had just the right sort of balance concentrating on Ermengarde instead of Sarah. It's not as good as A Little Princess, but it didn't need to be, if fills a need, and does it nicely. I would love to have it on my shelf next to Burnett. I wish there were more books like the Exiles series, though. That Phoebe just cracks me up.
And by the way, I'm just aching for the next Penderwicks book... how long will I have to wait?
Jeanne in KS

Unknown said...

While going through the Kerlan Collection at the University of Minnesota, I found Scott O'Dell wrote on napkins for his book Island of the Blue Dolphins, complete with little maps. Wether this is how he started, I can't quite remember though.

I for one love Peter Pan, and was rather upset by the new sequel/series. I felt like they didn't quite get what Peter Pan was really about, and sought to change the story to appease children who just can't be as whimsical as they once were.

Yes, yes, strong opinions I know. I just hate when they mess with my childhoods classics. I think Ms. Sidibe did a brilliant job in Precious/Push, and I know that there is a place for her whether on film or stage.

The Never Fairy said...

The Peter Pan in Scarlet book is terrible in the sense that it has errors in it as compared to Barrie's original stories. The fact-checking kind. That's just not right... an "official" sequel with mistakes??

I agree there's a certain level of unfairness to the original author in writing a sequel. But what happens if the sequel is written using notes and such the author left behind for more?

That's precisely what happened with Peter Pan... there's a book out based on Barrie's own ideas for more adventure! Click here!


Fuse #8 said...

And in other napkin-related news, I was recently visited by Susan Marie Swanson of "The House in the Night" fame. Her husband worked on the big brand new Minneapolis Public Library and he told me that the creator of the site basically came up with the shape by scribbling on a napkin at a meeting. That napkin now is framed and hanging somewhere in that library itself.

Bybee said...

Ms. Sidibe could also appear in a film version of one of Christopher Paul Curtis' books.

Anonymous said...

A slight correction on A Little Princess: the first version of the story was actually published in 1888 as "Sara Crewe: or What Happened at Miss Minchin's" I have a copy with a published date of 1889. She then revised it, expanded it and published "A Little Princess" in 1904. The book itself is set not at the turn of the century, but in the 1880s. Small things, but important to this historian and fan of A Little Princess.

Anonymous said...

Oh, oh, I think we have a secret club of Diamond in the Window supporters. We should get t-shirts (that is if I actually wore them, which I don't). ;) I only remember meeting one other person that read the book, and he liked it as much as I did.
Chris in NY

Anonymous said...

I agree on the T-shirts for Diamond in the Window, or maybe a secret sign or pin or something.
All my kids loved the book, too, but outside of our family I've not seen it. It's not in our library system, either. I wonder if it's in print.
Jeanne K. in KS

DLH said...

My husband, my daughter and I all love "the Diamond in the Window" et. seq.

I do believe that Hilary McKay's "The Exiles" series is one of the funniest series ever.

CLM, thanks for introducing me to this blog! Peter, now I have to spend a week reading the whole thing.