Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Stars in Your Face

My cohorts and co-writers Betsy Bird of the Fuse #8 blog and Julie Danielson of Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, have been talking celebrity books this week.

Betsy asks Celebrity Children's Books: Good V. Bad - Who Will Win? while Jules begs for One Not-So-Impossible Favor Before Breakfast.

And now I've decided to join in on the fun.

Ask me what I think of children's books written by celebrities and, after I finish rolling my eyes and gnashing my teeth and foaming at the mouth -- and after you've finished wiping my spittle off your face -- I will tell you that I am not a fan.

Show me a good celebrity children's book and I'll show you one that was written by a ghostwriter.

But as little patience as I have for these "star authors" (not, you'll note, "starred authors"), I reserve most of my wrath for the editors and publishers who acquire these books and foist them on the public.

Surely these editors know better.

Surely they have higher professional aspirations.

Wouldn't it be better to leave this world knowing you were responsible for bringing the work of, for instance, Katherine Paterson, to millions of children, rather than a legacy of placing children's books by Dr. Laura, Dom DeLuise, and LeAnn Rimes in Big Lots stores all across the United States?

I've often wondered how editors treat their "star authors" compared to their "real authors." Are they starstruck? Deferential? (Does Queen Latifah's editor call her "Your Majesty?") Obviously they don't spend much time actually EDITING celebrity books. (If they did, the books would be better.)

I recently uncovered a curious (and completely spurious) series of editoral letters that may answer some of these questions.

Here are some excerpts:

Dear Crystal Alexander:

It isn’t every day that an editor returns from lunch and sees a message from an Emmy-nominated actress on his desk!

According to my secretary, you have an idea for a children’s picture book. I think I can safely say -- sight unseen -- that we’d be very interested in working with you! Please have your agent call me ASAP and we can have a deal by the end of the week.


Rodney Needham
Senior Editor / Logan Books

Dear Helen Holbrook,

It isn’t every day that an editor returns from lunch and sees a manuscript from a Newbery Honor author on his desk.

According to your cover letter, this novel has great personal meaning to you. I will pass the manuscript along to our “first reader” and we’ll get back to you with our decision by the end of the summer.


Rodney Needham
Senior Editor / Logan Books

Dear Crystal,

Here is your contract for ULYSSES M. GOLLYGOOFER AND THE IMPORTANCE OF SAYING “PRETTY PLEASE.” As negotiated with your talent agent, you will be receiving an advance of $100,000 against royalties....

Dear Helen,

I’m enclosing your contract for NIGHT BIRD SINGING. As negotiated with your literary agent, you will be receiving an advance for $10,000 against royalties....

Dear Helen,

I have been editing your manuscript all day today and want to tell you how beautifully written it is. The scene in which young Millie spends the night curled up beside her mother’s grave actually brought to tears to my eyes. I’m including a few editorial suggestions, which you may want to consider as you see fit....

Dear Crystal,

I have been editing your manuscript all day today and want to tell you how beautifully written it is. The rhyme that reads:

Ulysses was a bad boy who never ate his peas
He cussed and kicked and had a sassy mouth and he had a really bad attitude and stuff, plus he never ever ever said “Please.”

actually brought tears to my eyes. As GREAT as your manuscript is, I do think it needs a little help here and there and wondered how you’d feel if we brought in someone to tidy it up a bit. It might help to think of this person as a “script doctor” -- just like you have in Hollywood! -- who will assist you in polishing your story to absolute perfection....

Dear Helen,

The galleys of your novel went out today and I thought you’d be interested in seeing the press release we included:

Though Helen Holbrook has won many prizes during her writing career, including a Newbery Honor and a National Book Award nomination, nothing will prepare readers for her towering new effort, NIGHT BIRD SINGING, the story of a sensitive Appalachian girl coping with the death of her mother. “I based the story on my own experiences,” says the author, whose own mother died when Holbrook was only ten....

Dear Crystal,

The galleys of your picture book went out today, along with several novelty items including three-color buttons with the logo “Don't just say please...say PRETTY please!” and the official Ulysses M. Gollygoofer® plushie. I thought you’d be interested in seeing the press release we included:

Emmy-nominated actress Crystal Alexander makes a remarkable debut as a picture book author with ULYSSES M. GOLLYGOOFER AND THE IMPORTANCE OF SAYING “PRETTY PLEASE.” This delightful tale about the importance of good manners was inspired after Ms. Alexander gave birth to her son Sasha (whose father is Crystal’s former boyfriend, rock star Joe Haley) and her daughter Audrine (whose father, Mark Tyson, is the co-star of Crystal’s current hit sitcom.) “Having children of my own really opened my eyes,” revealed Crystal. “I realized there are no good books out there for kids today...so I decided to write one of my own!”

Dear Helen,

Time to do some publicity for NIGHT BIRD SINGING! Our Promotions Dept. has gotten you a booking on a TV show called “Booktalking with Sheila,” which runs Sunday afternoons on your local public access channel....

Dear Cryssie,

Ready for your book tour? Our Promotions Dept. has gotten you booked for two segments on THE VIEW next Monday, Rachael Ray on Tuesday (make sure to bring a recipe for the cooking segment), Fox News on Wednesday, and Larry King will give you a whole hour on Thursday if you’re willing to talk about your experiences at the Betty Ford Clinic as well....

Dear Helen,

Congrats on the magnificent reviews!

“Emotionally-compelling!” – School Library Journal, starred

“One of the year’s best!” – Booklist, starred review

“Heart-wrenchingly honest!” – Horn Book, starred review

“Every sentence is poetry!” -- Bulletin of the Center for
Children’s Books, starred review

Dear Cryssie,

Don’t worry about the reviews. Nobody cares about reviews. What we care about is sales and, honey, your sales are going through the roof! Your appearance on THE VIEW took you to the top of the Amazon.com charts for two days and we’ve sold 17 thou in the past week alone. As a point of comparison, let me tell you about this “literary” novel we just published. It got starred reviews from all the major review publications, yet sold only 119 copies last week....

Dear Helen,

A Newbery Honor for NIGHT BIRD SINGING! We’re over the moon about it! Congratulations, congratulations, congratulations....

Dear Cryssie,

Pixar bought the rights to Ulysses M. Gollygoofer!!! Congrats, congrats, congrats....

Dear Helen,

In twenty-plus years of publishing, I’ve never missed ALA before. I’m so sorry I won’t be there with you as your NIGHT BIRD is acknowledged as one of the year’s best, but I’ll be there in spirit....

Cryssie, sweetheart,

Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d ever attend the Golden Globes. Thank you so much for the invite. I had to miss an important library convention to attend, but it was worth it. Heck, the gift bag alone was worth it! (Mine included a DVD player, a coupon for a free hotel stay at a resort in Cancun, plus a laptop computer! The gift bags at the library convention contain bookmarks and pencils engraved with the names of book distributors. Which do you think I’d rather have?) Anyway, it was nice to meet the producers of the upcoming Gollygoofer flick at the ‘Globes, plus I got to meet Angelina and Brad, both of whom said they have ideas for children’s books....

Dear Helen,

Just received manuscript for the NIGHT BIRD SINGING sequel. It looks marvelous. I’m going to read it on the red-eye out to the coast. (Taking a meeting with my friends at Pixar about an animated flick we’re doing based on one of our bestselling children’s books.) I do want to warn you, however, that in these tough economic times we don’t have a lot of money to throw around on advances -- regardless of your recent Newbery Honor....

Dear Cryssie,

Your idea about ULYSSES M. GOLLYGOOFER AND THE IMPORTANCE OF SAYING “PRETTY PLEASE WITH SUGAR ON TOP” sounds sequel-icious! And I think we can bump up your advance too. How does two hundred thou sound....

Dear Helen,

I know you’re unhappy that we can’t offer more for the NIGHT BIRD sequel, but I think I have a solution. I could add $5,000 more to your advance if you’d be willing to do a little uncredited ghostwriting for another title we just acquired, ULYSSES M. GOLLYGOOFER AND THE IMPORTANCE OF SAYING “PRETTY PLEASE WITH SUGAR ON TOP.” Let me know if you’re interested. I’ll be in LaLa Land working with Pixar this week, but you can text me or just send me a tweet. Luv ya babes.


Rod Needham
Senior Editor / Logan Books
Advising Producer / GOLLYGOOFERS : THE MOVIE! – a Pixar Production

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Sunday Brunch for April 25

Today’s Sunday Brunch looks forward to El dia de los libros...bids farewell to Caldecott-winning illustrator John Schoenherr...wonders whether a Wimpy Kid or a Lost Olympian will win a Children’s Choice Book Award (and wonders if it even matters)...and looks at the sticky problem of adulatory biographies whose subjects may no longer deserve our adulation.


Sorry to hear about the recent passing of John Schoenherr, who made memorable contributions to both the field of science fiction and children’s books.

Legend has it that he decided to pursue an art career during a high school science class, realizing that he’d rather draw frogs than dissect them. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, he was one of the busiest illustrators working in the genre of science fiction, providing cover art for magazines such as ANALOG, as well dozens of paperback books.

He entered the world of children’s books with Sterling North’s classic animal story RASCAL:

My copy includes a “laid-in” autograph from the author (“We’d share our best crawdad with you. Signed RASCAL and Sterling”) and was also inscribed by Mr. Schoenherr on the the dedication page. Okay, my name isn’t “Elaine,” but I was still thrilled to have a book signed by this renowned artist:

John Schoenherr went on to illustrate a number of important children’s animal stories including Walt Morey’s GENTLE BEN, Allan W. Eckert’s Newbery Honor Book INCIDENT AT HAWK’S HILL, and Jean Craighead George’s Newbery winner JULIE OF THE WOLVES.

In 1988, he received the Caldecott Award for his haunting snowscapes in OWL MOON by Jane Yolen.

Though John Schoenherr died on April 8, he will continue to live on every time a young reader picks up one of the classic works he illustrated.


Last weekend I posted a list of the ten most challenged children’s books of 2009. Blog reader Stephanie wrote in with a good point: "‘Challenged’ can refer to something as simple as being asked, ‘Don't you think this would be better shelved in YA?’ - which is a far cry from banning anything.”

That’s true, and that’s why the whole issue is so, well...challenging.

And then there’s another issue. A patron who would never think of asking a library to remove a contemporary title for its language, sex, or violence might feel differently about, for instance, a book from the 1950s that casts minorities in stereotypical roles. Or what about those old books that show boys they can be doctors, lawyers, and astronauts while girls are told they can be teachers, secretaries or mothers? Is challenging those books the same as challenging Lauren Myracle’s IM series for its language and sexual content?

And what about the controversy over a child’s right to read and a parent’s responsibilities? Should parents have the right to determine what their child is allowed to read? Or should kids have access to any book they want to/need to read, regardless of their parents’ wishes?

I’m glad these are problems I don’t have to face on my job. I'm in awe of those who work in school and public libraries and have to confront these difficult issues every day.


Kids are always eager to read books about their favorite athletes and media idols -- and many small commercial presses fill this need by producing lightweight, flattering biographies of these famous names.

But what happens when these celebrities fall from grace?

To an extent, the books may still contain valid information in their summaries of an individual’s career triumphs on golf course or movie screen, but the fawning prose (which often emphasizes that individual’s honesty, morality, ethics) suddenly sours when the subject faces public scandals.

Have books such as the following become obsolete?


Last week I’d never heard of it.

A week later, I still can’t spell it.

But the eruption of Eyafjallajokull has certainly shown us that, in the greater scheme of things, we don’t have much control when Mother Nature blows her top.

I tried to see if there had ever been a children’s book about Eyafjallajokull, but the answer appears to be no. At least not yet. The closest I came in my library was a 1986 volume called RING OF FIRE AND THE HAWAIIAN ISLANDS AND ICELAND by Alice Gilbreath, a children’s book that focuses on the general region of this volcanco.

If the recent eruption has awakened an interest in volcanoes among young readers, here a few more relevant titles:





VOLCANOES by Jen Green.

VOLCANOES : NATURE’S FIREWORKS by Hershell H. Nixon and Joan Lowery Nixon.

VOLCANOES by Franklyn M. Branley and Megan Lloyd.

DEAR KATIE, THE VOLCANO IS A GIRL by Jean Craighead George.



Somewhere there is a Little Machinery, a magic creature.

He grew up out of some pieces of a steam engine that was in a wreck, an old trolley car that couldn't run anymore, and a broken automobile.

This Little Machinery would rather work than anything in the world.

He does things by steam like the steam engine--

Or by electricity like the electric car whichever he chooses.

And he rides merrily along on a little automobile wheel that goes by gasoline.

Note: You can find his steam engine cylinder and steam whistle and his electric motor and the gas engine inside his footwheel and all the gearwheels that go around and make his arms and legs do things.

Thus begins LITTLE MACHINERY, a picture book written by Mary Liddell, edited by May Massee, and published by Doubleday in 1926.

The dustflap of the original volume trumpeted, "This is the first picture ever done for modern children and their world."

Reviewing the volume for her magazine, Horn Book editor Bertha Mahoney proclaimed, "The moon silver polish of genius has rubbed beauty and romance over engines, steam-drills, cranes and all kinds of machinery in a picture book for small children -- the most original book yet published -- called LITTLE MACHINERY."

Despite this high praise, I must admit I had never heard of the book until recently. Looking at LITTLE MACHINERY today, I can see how a tech-minded kid of the 1920s would be drawn to a volume that follows the (androgynous-looking) little nuts-and-bolts character as he builds birdhouses, blows glass to make dishes and sharpens his animal friends' nails and teeth with a grindstone (ouch.) By modern standards, the anthropomorphic protagonist seems a little weird and both the prose and illustrations are a bit too cute.

LITTLE MACHINERY did not become the kind of classic that Ms. Mahoney might have predicted. Very few libraries own it today. No copies of the original edition are currently for sale on the internet. ...This either means that there is no interest in the title...or that it’s a pretty rare volume and worth a lot of money. I haven’t figured that out yet.

For those interested in seeing this bit of history, a "critical facsimile edition" has recently been published in paperback by Wayne State University Press.

This new volume contains the original text and illustrations, as well as a foreword by John Stilgoe which discusses the book in terms of technology and industry. A lengthy appreciation by Nathalie op de Beck profiles the volume's creator and looks at the book within historical and literary context (I think lines such as "LITTLE MACHINERY inherently expresses practical considerations of modern life ands spins a fantasy about the fate of discarded products in the natural environment itself" are kinda excessive, as is "[Liddell] mimics some collectivist ideals of Russian collectivism in a text that caters to an American capitalist audience.")

Still, LITTLE MACHINERY provides a peek back at an earlier era in literature and may be of interest to collectors of historical children’s books.


According to a press release I just received, kids still have time to vote for this year’s Children’s Choice Book Awards, with the winners being announced “May 11 in New York City as part of Children’s Book Week, the oldest national literacy event in the United States.”

Go to the Book Week website to cast a vote and see the nominees in a number of age-group categories.

Vying for “Author of the Year” are:

Suzanne Collins for CATCHING FIRE
Carl Hiaasen for SCAT
James Patterson for MAX
Rick Riordan for THE LAST OLYMPIAN

Nominees for “Artist of the Year” are:

Victoria Kahn for GOLDILICIOUS
Susan L. Roth for LISTEN TO THE WIND

Who will win?

Well, it probably doesn’t matter.

The authors, artists, and titles on the lists are already big bestsellers and huge favorites with kids.

In that context, they’ve already “won.”

Unlike the Newbery and Caldecott Awards, which reward “distinguished” contributions, the winners of the Children’s Choice Awards will merely be confirming their popularity among young readers. It’s also a transient honor. We’ll probably look back at the winning titles a few years from now and say, “Oh, I remember when everyone was reading that book! Nobody seems to pick it up these days, though.”

Still, anything that stirs up interest in kids’ books is good thing -- and I’m sure young people will enjoy having a say in the selection of the DIARY OF A WIMPY KID and FANCY NANCY...I mean, er, whatever titles do end up winning!


…but did you know about Children’s Book Day?

It’s coming at the end of this week.

This event was the brainchild of writer Pat Mora, who said:

When I learned that Mexico celebrates El dia del nino on April 30, I thought, “Oh, I like the idea of celebrating children, of having a kids’ day. Hooray! And let’s add books to the party. Let’s celebrate children and books every day of the year and then have an anniversary party on or about April 30.”

Since 1996, librarians, teachers, parents and people who want to share “bookjoy” have been planning book fiestas – events that link children to books, languages, and cultures. Celebrations are held at home, museums, community centers, bookstores, parks, schools, and libraries. Together we are growing a nation of readers.

Ms. Mora has even written a book about the event.

BOOK FIESTA! : CELEBRATE CHILDREN’S DAY/BOOK DAY / Celebremos El dia de los ninos/El dia de los libros is a bilingual picture book, illustrated by Rafael Lopez, which features kids reading books in cars and planes and reading elephants; with parents and pals and animal friends. It’s a nice introduction to an event which is growing in popularity every year.

Thanks for visiting Collecting Children’s Books, where we too also celebrate “bookjoy” all year long. Hope you’ll be back!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Stars in My Eyes

A good friend recently gave me this book as a present:

LIGHTS ON BROADWAY : A THEATRICAL TOUR FROM A TO Z was written by picture-book stalwart Harriet Ziefert and illustrated by Elliot Kreloff. Tony-winning actor Brian Stokes Mitchell wrote the introduction.

I was especially thrilled to discover my copy was personally inscribed by both Brian Stokes Mitchell and Elliot Kreloff:

Pretty cool, huh?

This oversized ABC contains splashy color illustrations that capture the energy and excitement of the Great White Way, overlaid with text blocks that define show biz terms (“A is for Audition and Actor and Audience and Applause...B is for Broadway and Break a Leg! and Box Office....”) and offer quotes from Broadway legends (“I knew very young that I had a Broadway voice too. At 15 years, I knew I’d be on the Broadway stage. I knew I had a place on the Broadway stage” -- Patti Lupone.)

Though I love looking at this book, I also question its intended audience. Responding to a recent blog entry, "sdn" -- a noted children’s book editor -- said, “The best test, I find, is to ask oneself: ‘to whom would I give this book?’” In the case of LIGHTS ON BROADWAY, I'm not sure of the answer. Amazon.com lists it for ages 4-8, but I’ve got to wonder how many young kids -- outside of those who live in NYC and began seeing Broadway matinees while still in Pampers -- have any interest in the theater. How many have even heard of Brian Stokes Mitchell, much less Carol Channing, Harvey Fierstein, Billy Crudup or Arnie Burton. (Heck, even I’ve never heard of him!)

Would I have liked this book as a child? I doubt it.

But I think I would have grown to appreciate it as I got older and became fascinated with theater. Starting in my teens, I began attending as many local high school plays as I could; I became familiar with the canon of famous American musicals not be visiting Broadway, but by seeing shows like OKLAHOMA, CAROUSEL, BYE-BYE BIRDIE (more times than I can count), WEST SIDE STORY and others in stuffy high school auditoriums and gymnasiums. It never even crossed my mind that I could -- or ever would -- venture to New York and see a show on Broadway myself. It seemed like a foreign land to a midwestern kid like me. When I heard that a former student at our high school named Zora Rasmussen had actually moved to New York and become a professional actress, I looked her up in an old yearbook. I figured she must have been a very special person -- different from all the other students at our school -- to leave workaday Detroit and head for the lights of Broadway.

Then, a couple summers after graduating high school -- and through a series of strange circumstances and coincidences -- my brother and I had the opportunity to visit New York City for the first time. The night before we left, we took our parents to see a new movie playing at the local mall. A LITTLE ROMANCE was a cute love story which starred an aged Laurence Oliver (years after WUTHERING HEIGHTS and HAMLET) and a very young Diane Lane (years before LONESOME DOVE and UNFAITHFUL) -- but we all thought the movie was stolen by a young actress named Ashby Semple who, in the role of Diane's best friend, provided comic relief with her wide-eyed exclamations of shock at every twist in the plot.

The next day we boarded a flight for LaGuardia and -- from the moment the plane banked over the Statue of Liberty shining in the morning sun -- we began our own "little romance" with the city of New York. During the coming week we did all the touristy things by day -- the Empire State Building, Ellis Island, the World Trade Center -- and at night we saw our first Broadway shows: SWEENEY TODD, THEY'RE PLAYING OUR SONG, THE ELEPHANT MAN....

By the end of the week, New York no longer felt foreign and Broadway was no longer something I only dreamed about. It felt like a home away from home.

The following Sunday we arrived back home and our parents met us at the airline gate. After a week of bustling crowds, ear-splitting noise, and constant excitment, Detroit's airline terminal seemed nearly empty, deadly quiet, and strangely dull. Still, we were excited to tell our folks about all the sites we'd visited and the plays that we'd seen. We hauled out our Playbills to show them the autographs we'd gotten after the shows.

My mother said, "You can get autographs here in Detroit too, you know."

"From who?" I scoffed. "There's nobody famous around here."

My mother then reached in her pocket and handed us this piece of paper:

"Ash--? That little girl from A LITTLE ROMANCE? What?"

Turns out that, as my parents were waiting for our flight to arrive, they'd noticed a teenage girl and an elderly man walking through the empty terminal. They immediately recognized her as the young actress from the movie we'd all just seen. So they stopped and said, "Aren't you...?" and she was. She was here in Detroit visiting her grandfather -- the old man who was walking with her through the airport. My parents told her how much we enjoyed her performance and asked if she'd sign an autograph for my brother and me. How much do I love that autograph, torn from a lined spiral notebook? I especially like how she carefully crossed out her mistake as she wrote it out. It gives the autograph distinction and character. And I still think it was weird and funny and cool that, while my brother and I were chasing all over Broadway getting autographs from stars, my parent met an actress right in our backyard. "Anything can happen if you keep your eyes open," said our father.

That was thirty years ago last summer. Since then, New York may have lost its mystique for me (it no longer feels like a foreign land) but it sure hasn't lost its magic. For many years I held onto a demanding second job, just so I could afford to visit New York once or twice a year. I'd take the overnight train and stay for three nights (three nights = five Broadway plays) or sometimes even five nights (which equals EIGHT Broadway plays!)

New York still feels like my home away from home.

People have asked if I'd ever consider living there permanently.

No, not really.

I think the city might actually lose its magic if I lived there full-time.

For one thing, I could never afford it. If I lived there full-time, I'd spend my days working, just like I do here in Detroit. Evenings wouldn't be a whirlwind of eating out and walking through the brightly-lit streets and seeing Broadway plays. I'd spend my evenings as I do here -- washing clothes, reading, watching the Biggest Loser on TV, surfing the internet, dozing off in my chair.

What makes New York so special is that it remains a vacation from my regular workaday world -- something I only get to experience once in a while.

...Actually, it has been a while since I last visited New York. Which is one of the reasons I so appreciate that picture-book-that's-not-really-for-kids, LIGHTS ON BROADWAY. When I flip through the volume, I'm back in Times Square, surrounding by theaters and it's nearly curtain time.

And tucked in the pages of LIGHTS ON BROADWAY I keep our autograph from Ashby Semple as a reminder that there’s magic here in Detroit too, if you just keep your eyes open.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

A Sunday Brunch...Tick-Tock, Tick-Tock

Today’s Sunday Brunch talks about grandfather clocks, challenged books, and wonders if a small press book could ever win the Newbery or Caldecott.


Thanks to my brother’s childhood toy...

...and Suzanne Whang...

...and a couple kids named Tom and Hattie...

...I am now the proud owner of a grandfather clock!

I guess it all started with my brother’s toy clock, which was produced by Fisher-Price in the early 1960s. Made mostly of wood, as I recall, the open slot on the dial spun slowly around, showing pictures of a child’s daily activities while playing the melancholy song “My Grandfather’s Clock.”

Ever since then, I’ve wanted a grandfather clock of my own.

Over the last few months, I’ve been looking to buy a house. A couple months back, the realtor took me to see a condo. I knew almost as soon as he opened the door that this was the place for me.

Just inside the door was a heavy fabric doorstop in the shape of a cat.

Though I love dogs, I’ve never been a big fan of feline types.

But this cat was different.

It was a Calico Cat, just like the one in the famous children’s poem “The Gingham Dog and the Calico Cat” by Eugene Field.

And just a few feet down the hall was a large grandfather clock, painted my favorite color -- blue -- with a clock-face that contained images of blue jays.

Shades of Palmer Brown’s Hickory and Philippa Pearce’s Tom and Hattie!

It wasn’t just these children’s book associations that made me choose this condo...but they may have helped.

Of course I knew that the furnishings wouldn’t be staying with the house but, as an inveterate viewer of HGTV’s HOUSE HUNTERS, hosted by Suzanne Whang, I’d frequently seen prospective buyers on the show ask their realtors, “Do you think the homeowner would include that _______ (fill in the blank: desk, sofa, lamp, etc.) in the deal?” to which the realtors always respond, “Never hurts to ask.”

So I asked my realtor, “Think the homeowner would include that grandfather clock in the deal?”

He said, “Never hurts to ask.”

I later learned the homeowner had recently died at the age of ninety (putting me in mind of the song’s lyrics, “Ninety years without slumbering, / Tick, tock, tick, tock, / His life seconds numbering, / Tick, tock, tick, tock”) -- though in this case the house belonged to a grandmother, not a grandfather. I told a couple people about my hope of getting this clock, but they threw cold water on my dreams: “That grandfather clock is probably an heirloom, and someone in the owner’s family will surely want it.”

...Well, this past Friday I closed on the house and the owner’s family DID include the clock as part of the deal!

Turns out the clock was actually handmade by one of their relatives in the early 1960s...but since every member of the family already has a grandfather clock of his own, they didn’t mind letting this one go.

Friday afternoon, after signing all the papers, I drove to the condo -- the very first home I’ve ever owned -- and opened the door. Down the hallway I could see the colonial blue grandfather clock, plus curled at my feet was the Calico Cat -- and I hadn’t even asked for that!

It was already starting to feel like home.


Now I’ve got to find a matching Gingham Dog doorstop for the back door.

And I have to learn how to get that clock working. I found some Grandfather Clock instructions on the internet, but considering I’m the type of person who leaves my car clock set on Daylight Saving Time all year because I can’t figure out to reset it, this may be problematic.

People will think I messed up if they ever hear it chime thirteen times -- but for a children’s book fan, a clock chiming thirteen times means merely that it’s time to go out in the garden and visit Hattie....


It’s not very often that you hear a children’s book mentioned on the radio news, but that’s what happened one morning this week as I drove to work. The newscaster mentioned that the American Library Association had released their list of 2009’s most frequently challenged books, which was headed by “Lauren Myracle’s IM series.” I must admit I felt a bit of pride that I actually knew what titles he was talking about -- though I have to admit that the instant messaging format of Myracle’s novels TTYL, TTFN, and L8R G8R gives me a headache. (Of course, these books aren’t really meant for me -- they’re for an audience who spends much of their time instant-messaging and texting.)

Rounded out the top ten, are these titles which were challenged by censors:

2. AND TANGO MAKES THREE by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell



(Pulitzer Prize winner. Classic. One of the most beloved novels of all time. Lotsa luck banning this one.)

5. TWILIGHT series by Stephenie Meyer

6. CATCHER IN THE RYE by J.D. Salinger

7. MY SISTER’S KEEPER by Jodi Picoult


9. THE COLOR PURPLE by Alice Walker

(See comments for TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD above.)

10. THE CHOCOLATE WAR by Robert Cormier

(Geez, they’ve been trying to ban this one since I was in high school in the seventies!)

The director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom responded to the list with “Protecting one of our most fundamental rights -- the freedom to read -- means respecting each other's differences and the right of all people to choose for themselves what they and their families read.”

Right on! (Hey, I told you I came of age in the seventies.)


If you’d like to see the top one hundred books challenged during this past decade, 2000-2009, just click here and weep.

You’ll see books by Nobel laureates (John Steinbeck), Pulitzer winners (Toni Morrison), Newbery medalists (Katherine Paterson, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor) and Caldecott artists (Maurice Sendak.)

What can you say about a list that includes such titles as BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA (Katherine Paterson)...HARRIS AND ME (Gary Paulsen)...A WRINKLE IN TIME (Madeline L’Engle)...JULIE OF THE WOLVES (Jean Craighead George)...and A DAY NO PIGS WOULD DIE )Robert Newton Peck_ except...

...some day I aspire to write a book good enough to take its place beside them on this list!


I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when I saw that FAHRENHEIT 451 by Ray Bradbury placed sixty-ninth on that Top 100 list.

Do those who aim to censor see the irony there?


A number of well-known books and authors were mentioned as possible 2010 Pulitzer contenders.

The the prizes were announced this past Monday and nearly everyone said, “Huh???”

The award for fiction went to a novel called TINKERS by first-time author Paul Harding.

According to an article by in Jessie Kunhardt in the Huffington Post, TINKERS “was turned down by every major publisher over the course of several years. It was finally published by Bellevue Literary Press, a small publisher associated with the NYU Medical School.”

Though the novel received superb reviews, it remained little known (it wasn’t even reviewed by the New York Times Book Review) until nabbing the Pulitzer this week, at which point everyone began talking -- and its Amazon.com ranking shot up like a rocket.

Or, to quote my personal motto:

Editors, take heed! Writers, take heart!


This Pulitzer news makes me wonder if the same situation could occur in the world of children’s books.

Could a kids’ book published by a small press ever come out of nowhere to win the Newbery or Caldecott.

No reason it couldn’t.

In fact, I’m surprised it hasn’t happened before now.

Yet going through the list of previous Newbery winners and Honor Books, nearly all seem to have been published by major, mainstream publishers. Sure, a few of the early books were issued by publishers that now sound unfamiliar (such as Longmans, which released winner WATERLESS MOUNTAIN and number of Honors from the twenties and thirties) those companies were well-known at the time.

The Caldecott seems to be the more daring of the two major awards. In recent years they honored CASEY AT THE BAT (Christopher Bing) which was released by the smallish Handprint Books as well as A RIVER OF WORDS: THE STORY OF WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS, which was published by Eerdmans, a company best know for publishing religious books, and which is located right here in Michigan.

So there is a precedent....

It’s fun to imagine the shock and subsequent fireworks that would occur if an unknown book by an unknown author, published by a teeny-tiny press, ever won the Newbery or Caldecott!


Though I’m looking forward to moving into a house with a calico cat and a grandfather clock, I’m about going crazy packing and lifting boxes. This is the only time I’ve ever wished my entire book collection was electronically stored on a palm-sized Kindle instead of packed in dozens and dozens (maybe hundreds by the time I finish packing) boxes!

And all this time spent packing is putting my woefully behind in my reading.

However, one of these evenings I’m going to take a break from packing and kick back with FIRE WILL FALL by Carol Plum-Ucci -- a novel I’m desperately longing to read.

Ms. Plum-Ucci exploded onto the young adult scene with THE BODY OF CHRISTOPHER CREED, a suspense novel which I felt was a perfect selection as a Printz Honor Book.

Since then the author has published several other YA books which, although I found them interesting, seemed over-the-top in content and over-the-top in writing style. It was as if she were stretching her wings as a writing, seeing how far she could go...and not always receiving a restraining hand from her editors.

But she was back on track with her last novel -- a tight and compulsively-readable story about bioterrorism called STREAMS OF BABEL.

The novel’s sequel, FIRE WILL FALL, has just been published and I’m dying to get back into the story. Right now the book is in a paper bag in the trunk of my car, surrounded by boxes I’m moving from one location to another. But, as indicated, I plan to take a night off from moving preparations, just to relax with this new novel.

It guess that shows how hectic life has been lately.

I mean, reading an edge-of-your-seat story about bioterrorism hardly seems like a calm and relaxing way to spend to an evening, does it?

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

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

I Must Kiss a...What?

Eighteen years ago, I heard that a young bookstore employee from my area -- metro Detroit -- had published his first children's book.

The author's name was David Skinner and the curious title of his novel was YOU MUST KISS A WHALE.

I bought a copy of the brief -- less than 100 pages -- book as soon as it was published, read it in one sitting, then put the volume down and said, "What the heck?"

Or words to that effect.

I had found the story totally incomprehensible.

How could this be? The book was written for kids eleven and up! It was chosen as a Junior Literary Guild selection. It had received positive reviews from leading journals. Newbery winner Joan Blos had even provided a blurb for the back cover.

But I...just...didn't...get...it.

The story concerns thirteen-year-old Evelyn, whose mother -- after her husband's death or disappearance -- has moved the family to a huge battered house in the middle of a desert: "our house has rooms like an onion has rings, and every month the outer rooms, the ones on the fringe, are chewed up and spat out" due to a storm that "circles through this desert once every month, as it has forever, always the same, always along the same path." Evelyn's mother has come to the desert to "define and map" this storm but has now become so obsessed with creating an "Ultimate Raincoat" that she neglects both Evelyn and her infant brother. Exploring the broken-down house, Evelyn discovers a short story that was written by her father many years earlier. This story, which is interwoven throughout the book, tells of a ten-year-old boy who receives a mysterious letter containing the directive, "You must kiss a whale." Or maybe it says, "You must kill a whale" -- the writing is hard to decipher. Young Kevin travels to a coastal town where he discovers a whale has beached itself on the shore. A scruffy man, who describes himself as "an omniscient bum" tells Kevin that he wrote the letter, but doesn't explain why. In fact, Kevin's story ends right at that point...in a very unsatisfactory way. Evelyn's story also reaches an odd conclusion when her mother invents "a raincoat that isn't there because only a person who isn't there can wear a raincoat that isn't there." Okay, whatevva. Mother's epiphany somehow leads to a moment of rapprochement with Evelyn and an epilogue -- set years later when Evelyn is in college -- shows that the family has left the desert and embarked on a less turbulent way of life.

Clear as mud, right?

I must admit I've always been a bit embarrassed that I didn't understand this book. I mean, it was published for ages eleven and up...and I'm clearly older than eleven. No one else seemed to have trouble with it.

Publishers Weekly noted the book's "surreal qualities" but called YOU MUST KISS A WHALE "as compelling and disturbing as a story by Borges."

School Library Journal called it "a thought-provoking experience for mature readers, and a bridge to adult books."

The most phenomenal praise of all came from Patty Campbell, who wrote a column in the Horn Book pairing YOU MUST KISS A WHALE with, of all books, THE GIVER!

Listen to this:

Once in a long while a book comes along that takes hardened young-adult reviewers by surprise, a book so unlike what has gone before, so rich in levels of meaning, so daring in complexity of symbol and metaphor, so challenging in the ambiguity of its conclusion, that we are left with all our neat little everyday categories and judgments hanging useless. Books like Robert Cormier’s I AM THE CHEESE and Terry Davis’s MYSTERIOUS WAYS are examples of these rare treasures. But after the smoke of our personal enthusiasm has cleared, we are left with uneasy thoughts. Will young adults understand it? Will the intricate subtleties that so delight us as adult critics go right over their heads? Will the questions posed by the ending leave them puzzled and annoyed, rather than thoughtful and intrigued? It all depends –- on the maturity of the particular young adult, on how well we introduce the book and follow up with discussion, and on certain qualities in the book itself. In the past year young-adult literature has been blessed with two such extraordinary works: THE GIVER by Lois Lowry and YOU MUST KISS A WHALE by David Skinner.


On a personal level, though, I became disheartened when I read Ms. Campbell's piece. Especially when she asked that series of questions:

"Will young adults understand it?"

This adult didn't understand it.

"Will the intricate subtleties that so delight us as adult critics go right over their heads?"

Hey, they went over mine.

"Will the questions posed by the ending leave them puzzled and annoyed, rather than thougtful and intrigued?"


However, I'm not sure I agree with Ms. Campbell deconstruction of the story elements either.

For example, she says: "The central metaphor of the storm and the house, of course, refer to the turmoil of the female monthly cycle. The womblike house sheds its walls in the storm, and the storm itself is ‘like an unhealing sore in the sky,' and ‘as permanent as the sun and the moon.’”

Don't you love how she tosses in that "of course" to strengthen her argument? In truth, I don't think her interpretation of the metaphor is all that evident to readers -- especially not to male readers. ...At least it wasn't to this male reader. And I truly doubt that any eleven- or twelve-year-old boy would read it that way.

I'm not convinced that she's got it right when she switches to the male perspective either: "The father’s story about Kevin and the whale, on the other hand, can dimly be seen as evoking the male principle with its ambivalence about 'kill or kiss' and the useless power of the stranded leviathan."

I don't know what kind of guys Patty hangs out with, but I'm not familiar with any male who struggles with a "kill or kiss" dilemma...well, outside of inmates serving time on death row.

But I do think Ms. Campbell's piece reaches a valid conclusion:

Perhaps the solution is to enjoy the book for its own mysterious absurdity, and not try to force every bit of it into some larger scheme of meaning –- beloved as such games are to literary critics. As young adults seem to understand instinctively, it is not necessary to hold symbols up to the light of day to feel their underlying power in a well-told tale.

She could be right. I read this book as an adult -- first in my early thirties and then again this past week -- and really struggled with it. Maybe if I'd read it as a child I would have been able to embrace it emotionally without trying to puzzle out its myriad meanings. Perhaps I'm now too old, too pragmatic, and too practical to really let go and kiss the whale.

Have you read YOU MUST KISS A WHALE?

Did you "get" it?

Was your enjoyment of the novel dependent on whether you understood the storyline?

Are there any other well-regarded books for young readers out there that you...just...don't...get?

Sunday, April 11, 2010

A Sunday Brunch with Joseph Pulitzer and Tori Spelling

More random thoughts and opinions on children’s books....


The Pulitzer Prizes will be announced tomorrow afternoon. Since I’m still trying to read all the old fiction winners, I’ll be very anxious to learn what title wins the award this year.

Over at the Pulitzer Prize First Edition Collecting site, a “research scientist and Modern Firsts/Pulitzer Prize book collector” has posted a list of predictions that includes MY FATHER’S TEARS AND OTHER STORIES or THE MAPLE STORIES both by the late John Updike, LARK & TERMITE by Jayne Anne Phillips, THE LACUNA (Barbara Kingsolver) and LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN (Colum McCann.)

I was surprised that a few readers in the blogosphere have suggested ELI THE GOOD by Silas House as a possible Pulitzer contender. If it wins, it would be the first time that a book published for young adults won the award...though certain past winners, such as THE YEARLING and TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD were originally published for adults and later became YA standards. Last year I had hoped that M.T. Anderson’s THE KINGDOM OF THE WAVES : THE ASTONISHING LIFE OF OCTAVIAN NOTHING, TRAITOR TO THE NATION, VOLUME II stood a chance of winning, but it was ignored. Too bad, as I still think that in terms of story, characterization, and brilliant prose it stands head and shoulders over the actual winner, OLIVE KITTERIDGE by Elizabeth Strout.

Incidentally, here is a fun game for tomorrow. If you hear the Pulitzer news reported on the radio or TV, listen to how many ways the word is mispronounced. Some say “PEW-litzer,” others says “Pool-itzer.” From what I understand, the correct pronunciation sounds most like “Pull-itzer.” I’ve heard that every year when the press gathers at Columbia University for the Pulitzer announcement, some mischievous reporter will approach the bust of Joseph Pulitzer and grab his nose, to cries of “Pull it, sir!” from the other journalists in attendance.

Then the winners are reported on the radio and, invariably, the newscaster says, “PEW-litzer.”

Go figure.


This weekend I began wondering how many winners of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction have also written books for children. Here is my chronological list:

Booth Tarkington, who won Pulitzers in 1919 (MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS) and 1922 (ALICE ADAMS) wrote the “Penrod” books for young readers.

Pearl Buck, who won the 1932 Pulitzer for THE GOOD EARTH, also wrote the juvenile stories THE BIG WAVE and THE WATER BUFFALO CHILDREN. Boy, these books used to be in every library when I was a kid, but I think they are no longer popular with children. (I have to admit I never cared for them myself.)

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (1939 winner for THE YEARLING) received a posthumous Newbery Honor for THE SECRET RIVER in 1956.

A.B. Guthrie won the 1950 Pulitzer for THE WAY WEST. I don’t think that he ever wrote a book specifically for young readers, but at least one or two of his adult titles were re-published in edited versions for young adults.


Eudora Welty, who won THE OPTIMIST’S DAUGHTER in 1973, wrote a children’s novel called THE SHOEBIRD. I believe she also wrote the original New York Times book review for CHARLOTTE’S WEB.

John Updike, who won a pair of Pulitzers for two of his “Rabbit” novels (RABBIT IS RICH, 1984; RABBIT AT REST, 1991) also wrote A CHILD’S CALENDAR, which has been illustrated by Nancy Ekholm Burkett and Trina Schart Hyman; the latter received a Caldecott Honor for her work.

Alice Walker, who won the 1983 Pulitzer for THE COLOR PURPLE, saw her first published adult short story, THE HELL WITH DYING, reprinted as a children’s book in 1988. Other Walker books for young readers include LANGSTON HUGHES : AMERICAN POET, FINDING THE GREEN STONE and WHY WAR IS NEVER A GOOD IDEA.

Alison Lurie, who won the 1985 Pulitzer for FOREIGN AFFAIRS, has taught children’s literature at the university level and published titles both about children’s books (DON’T TELL THE GROWN-UPS) and for children (CLEVER GRETCHEN AND OTHER FOLKTALES.)

Toni Morrison won the 1988 prize for BELOVED, then wrote THE BIG BOX (1999) and THE BOOK OF MEAN PEOPLE (2002) with her son Slade Morrison.

1989 winner Anne Tyler (BREATHING LESSONS) wrote a children’s book called TUMBLE TOWER, which was illustrated by her daughter Mitra Modarressi.

Oscar Hijuelos won the 1990 Pulitzer for MAMBO KINGS PLAY SONGS OF LOVE, and then entered the field of young adult fiction with DARK DUDE in 2008.

1992 winner Jane Smiley (A THOUSAND ACRES) recently published a children’s horse story titled THE GEORGES AND THE JEWELS.

Michael Chabon, who won the 2001 Pulitzer for THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER AND CLAY also wrote the young adult fantasy SUMMERLAND.

Can you think of any I have missed?

I can!

There are the writers who have won in other categories, such as Dave Barry, who received a Pulitzer for Commentary in 1988, and now writes children’s books with Ridley Pearson, such as PETER AND THE STARCATCHERS.

And there are several many editorial cartoonists who also illustrate children’s books. How about Jules Feiffer, who won the 1986 Pulitzer for cartooning, but is best known among children’s book fans for illustrating THE PHANTOM TOOLBOOTH by Norton Juster and writing a number of his own books for kids. His latest illustrations can be found in Lois Lowry’s new book THE BIRTHDAY BALL.

I guess I’ll save those lists of other Pulitzer winners/children’s book creators for another Sunday....


I recently came across this series of dragon books by Chris D’Lacey:

I always think it’s nice when the titles and dustjacket illustrations of a series are consistent...and I’m sure the young readers of these books can tell them apart...but I’m just glad I’m not in charge of shelving them in a library or re-ordering them in a bookstore. I’d never be able to tell them apart!

(It doesn’t help that I’m somewhat colorblind.)


I’m always entertained to see what search terms people have used to reach this blog. Yesterday someone came here seeking “Alton Raible stag joke.”

What is that all about?

Alton Raible is primarily known as the illustrator of Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s middle-grade novels.

One of my favorite Snyder novels is A FABULOUS CREATURE, the story of a teenage boy’s obsession with a wild deer. My copy of this book is now packed away for moving, so I cannot check and see if Alton Raible did the dustjacket illustration; if so, did he include some kind of “inside joke” in the illustration? Does anyone know.

Or does “Alton Raible stag joke” just mean someone was searching for the text of joke Mr. Raible told at a stag party many years ago?

I guess I’ll never know until I move, unpack my books, and take a good look at the cover of A FABULOUS CREATURE to see if there is a joke hidden in the dustjacket illustration.


The other day I had a nice e-mail chat with Monica Edinger of the Educating Alice blog.

Because I know of Monica’s interest in ALICE’S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND, I told her my disappoint that the phrase “tea partiers” has now changed in the public consciousness from this:

to THIS:

That set me to wondering what kind of protest signs Alice and her friends might carry at their tea party.

It wasn’t until later in the week that it dawned on me that I actually had seen an Alice-related protest sign once before.

Back in 1971 Atheneum published a young adult novel about the suffrage movement called NEVER JAM TODAY by Carole Bolton. I don’t recall ever seeing the book in hardcover, but I do seem to remember an Aladdin paperback version which showed a girl on the cover holding a protest sign that read “NEVER JAM TODAY.”

Of course the title is a quote from Lewis Carroll’s White Queen, who famously said, "The rule is, jam tomorrow and jam yesterday -- but never jam today” and I believe it was used in Carole Bolton's novel to illustrate the elusive nature of women’s rights during the suffrage era. However, I'm now curious: did Ms. Bolton use this quote simply as a fictional device in her novel -- or did the real-life suffragettes actually utilize this phrase during their marches?

Does this sound familiar to anyone or did I dream it up?

If anyone remembers this book, I’d love to hear your recollections of it.

And if you have a copy of the paperback cover, I’d love to see it.


Does anyone else find it odd how few children’s and YA books focus on the suffrage movement and women’s rights?

There are literally thousands of children’s books about the quest for civil rights for African Americans, but I can think of very new novels or nonfiction books for young people that explore the issue of civil rights for women. (One notable -- and excellent -- exception is CROSSING STONES by Helen Frost.) The same is true for books about the “women’s lib” movement of the late sixties and early seventies.

I wonder why this is.

Any guesses?


I must admit that I’m a fan of the Lifetime Movie Network. True, very few of their movies are Oscar-worthy. Many are formulaic. But there is something kind of satisfying to sitting down on a Saturday night and watching a suspense-filled flick full of scares and chases and the bad guy getting hauled away in handcuffs at the end.

Last night I happened to watch a 1995 movie starring, of all people, Tori Spelling. It was called AWAKE TO DANGER and concerned a teenage girl who witnesses her mother’s murder, goes into a coma, and then awakes to discover that the killer may be after her next.

I was surprised to discover that this movie was based on Joan Lowery Nixon’s young adult novel THE OTHER SIDE OF DARK.

A lot of TV movies are based on adult suspense novels, but those books frequently run 400 or more pages and are stuffed with subplots that have to be cut. But many YA novels are lean, tight, and just the right pace for a concise 90-100 minute TV movie. I wish the networks would option more YA books for television.

Joan Lowery Nixon’s got a batch of other books that would make good TV movies.

So does Lois Duncan.

And don’t forget M.E. Kerr’s FELL.


Congrats to School Library Journal for their successful 2010 “Battle of the Kids’ Books” contest. Was everyone else as surprised by the winner as I was?

And I hope everyone has been counting down the “Top 100 Children’s Novels” on SLJ’s Fuse #8 blog. Elizabeth Bird has been doing yeo-woman’s work compiling the list and annotating the entries. The titles have been presented in reverse order and we’re now down to #2, A WRINKLE IN TIME.

Can you guess what #1 will be?

I have a feeling I know, but the answer will officially be revealed this week on Fuse #8’s site on the...er...Web.

Was that a hint?

Hush, Hush Sweet...er...readers. I don’t know a thing.

I’m just making a guess.

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

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Sisters and Best Friends

I devoted part of Sunday’s blog to author Betty MacDonald, who wrote the “Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle” series as well as the stand-alone novel NANCY AND PLUM, which is going to be reissued by Knopf in October.

In her appealing introduction to this new edition, National Book Award winner Jeanne Birdsall (THE PENDERWICKS; THE PENDERWICKS ON GARDAM STREET) describes how Betty created NANCY AND PLUM as a series of bedtime stories which she told her sister Mary. Ms. Birdsall adds, “I do wonder if Mary ever complained that Betty, who was the younger sister of the two, gave all the best lines to Plum, the fictional younger sister. <...> I choose to imagine that if Mary did complain, Betty told her to write her own books. Which Mary did, but those details are for another introduction.”

Anyone who has read Betty MacDonald’s autobiographical books for adults knows all about Mary -- a force of nature who fairly flies off the pages, full of plans and fibs and schemes and dreams. Consider the opening line of MacDonald’s ANYBODY CAN DO ANYTHING: “The best thing about the Depression was the way it reunited our family and gave my sister Mary a real opportunity to prove that anybody can do anything, especially Betty.” The volume describes, in hilarious detail, how -- even in the depths of the 1929 Depression -- Mary found dozens of jobs for herself, her friends, and family -- especially Betty. Mary has a way with people, as evidenced by this scene, witnessed by Betty:

...(Mary) learned from a long sallow stenographer that her mother, with whom she lived, had a tumor. Mary said, “Oh, think nothing of it. I had two huge tumors. Had them both removed at once and now I’m better than ever.” I looked at Mary, who had never even been in a hospital, with some astonishment. The stenographer looked avid. She said, “Where were your tumors and how much did they weigh?” Mary said, “Oh, one was here,” she pointed to her appendix, “and one was here,” she moved her hand around to the back. “They weighed eight pounds a piece and the operation only took twenty minutes.”

As Mary, who was so vivid, so obviously bursting with health, talked on and on, the stenographer drew in every word and seemed to become firmer, to take shape. It was like watching someone stuff a rag doll. When we left the woman said, almost cheerfully, that she was going to call her mother and tell her about Mary.

Out in the hall I said to Mary, “Mary, you know that nobody in our entire family for generations and generations has ever had a tumor.”

Mary said, “What difference does that make? Evelyn’s mother’s got one and nobody likes to have a tumor all alone. Anyway, can you think of anything drearier than that poor old Evelyn’s life? She works in that stuffy office all day for that disagreeable old Mr. Felton, who has such a bossy mistress and such a nasty wife who knows about the mistress, that his only pleasure in life is kicking old Evelyn every chance he gets.”

“How do you know about all these mistresses and nasty wives?” I asked. Mary said, “People tell me. I’ve got that kind of face. People tell me everything. I don’t know why.” I did. It was because Mary was more interested in their problems than they were.

In ANYBODY CAN DO ANYTHING, Mary -- who views the Depression as a “personal challenge” -- gets her mother a job writing a radio soap opera; gets herself jobs doing radio advertising and organizing a mammoth Christmas party; and gets Betty jobs in the fields of mining, lumber, law, and photography, to name just a few.

And Mary is the one who pushes Betty into a writing career. As Betty tells it:

Then an old friend of Mary’s arrived in town and announced that he was a talent scout for a publishing house and did she know any Northwest authors.” Mary didn’t, so she said, “Of course I do, my sister Betty. Betty writes brilliantly but I’m not sure how much she has done on her book.” (I had so little done that on it that I hadn’t even thought of writing one.)

Yet that push from Mary led to Betty’s first book -- the million-selling THE EGG AND I...followed by three more adult bestsellers...NANCY AND PLUM...and of course the four Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books.

But what became of Mary?

Well, she married a doctor, had a family, and then -- as Jeanne Birdsall stated -- began to write her own books as well.

Mary Bard’s volumes are similar to Betty’s books, in that they’re autobiographical, witty and thoroughly enjoyable -- though many fans think they pale next to the MacDonald titles. She wrote THE DOCTOR WEARS THREE FACES, about her experiences as a physician’s wife, as well as FORTY-ODD, describing the trauma of turning forty, and JUST BE YOURSELF, a memoir of being a scout leader.

Mary wrote a children’s book in 1955 called BEST FRIENDS, about a girl named Suzie, a French girl who moves next-door named CoCo, and the blended family they form when Suzie’s mother marries CoCo’s dad. This was followed by BEST FRIENDS IN SUMMER and BEST FRIENDS AT SCHOOL. I once heard an audio interview with one of Mary’s nieces, who came and stayed with Mary as she wrote that last book. Mary’s own daughters were grown by that point, and she needed a real live girl to serve as a “consultant” when writing about young Suzie and CoCo. Mary’s niece recalled that magical summer of 1960 and how the sunlight filled her aunt’s window-lined office during the day as they worked together; in the evening they gathered around the television to watch JFK accept the Democratic nomination for president. The niece remembered how grown-up she felt that summer, helping to create book and discussing politics and current events with a special aunt.

Does anyone out there remember the “Best Friends” series? I never saw of these titles as a kid -- and I actually grew up in the sixties and seventies when one might expect they’d still be on the library shelves. Someone told me these stories are hugely popular in Europe, but they appear to have gone out of print fairly quickly in the United States and have not been available for well over forty years. I would assume that they were minor, fairly forgettable titles...


...it appears they are truly loved by many readers.

Just try to find a copy of BEST FRIENDS, BEST FRIENDS IN SUMMER or BEST FRIENDS IN SCHOOL these days.

They are so rare that only a handful are on the market at any given time. Battered old library copies sell for over $150. Nice copies can cost between $500 and $1000.

Mary Bard apparently had the gift -- like her sister Betty MacDonald -- of creating characters and stories that deeply touched many readers, leaving impressions that lasted a lifetime.

Which brings me back to this new edition of NANCY AND PLUM -- and Jeanne Birdsall's introduction.

Remember the lines "I choose to imagine that if Mary did complain, Betty told her to write her own books. Which Mary did, but those details are for another introduction.”

Another introduction?

Is that a hint?

Does this mean that, now that NANCY AND PLUM is coming back into print, there could be plans to re-issue the "Best Friends" series for today's readers?

I don't have a clue.

But I think it would be a good idea.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Easter Brunch -- with Corned Beef and Plums

Happy Easter, Happy Passover, and Happy Spring.

Because of the chaos involved with moving, plus assorted family issues, this is the first Easter of my entire life in which I didn’t dye eggs. I miss them. Though I guess I won’t miss the resultant week of brown-bag-egg-salad-sandwich-lunches. This is also the first time my family won’t be sitting down to our traditional Easter dinner of ham, scalloped potatoes, vegetables, olives and pickles, hot biscuits, and rhubarb pie. Instead, we’re getting take-out corned beef sandwiches from a local deli! After things have settled down, we’re going to have a belated Easter dinner in my new condo...probably in late May or June!


Just found out that Knopf is re-issuing Betty MacDonald’s 1952 children’s book NANCY AND PLUM later this year. On Friday my bookstore friend gave me a copy of the ARC (Advance Reader’s Copy) which contains a sample illustration by Harry Potter artist Mary Grandpr√© and a new introduction by PENDERWICKS author Jeanne Birdsall. Ms. Birdsall’s intro discusses the novel’s origins as a series of bedtime stories that Betty MacDonald used to tell her sister when they were growing up.

Characters and stories created in childhood seem to have a special hold on many writers, and when those tales are shared with later generations -- either related aloud or in the form of books -- the new generation feels that emotional connection as well. This is certainly the case with NANCY AND PLUM, a book that didn’t win any prizes upon publication, never appears on any “best” lists, yet is remembered so fondly by readers that first edition copies can sell for nearly one thousand dollars.

NANCY AND PLUM is a Christmas story about a pair of orphaned sisers who escape from Mrs. Monday’s Boarding School. It’s dated and creaky and over-the-top, but it’s also -- to borrow a phrase from my bookstore friend -- a “cozy book” that is deeply loved by many. Here’s what the original Lippincott edition of the book looked like:

I have a feeling that this book wasn’t purchased by too many libraries in the early fifties. Perhaps it was deemed too old fashioned, or considered something of a satire. I know I have never seen a copy of this book in any library. Have you? The hardcover was only reprinted once or twice before going out of print. As I stated, first editions now regularly sell for $500 to $1000. I saved up for a long time to buy a copy and finally found one at the “dirt cheap” price of $199. Over the years, fans have clamored for a new, affordable edition. At one point, Buccaneer books issued a reprint. A paperback edition was later put out by “Joan Keil Enterprises”:

Joan Keil is one of Betty MacDonald’s two daughters. My copy of that paperback is signed on the dedication page by both Joan and her sister Anne:

It’s interesting to see how that dedication has changed over the years. The Lippincott edition is dedicated “For Annie and Joan.” The paperback says, “To Joannie and Annie,” and the forthcoming Knopf edition states “To Anne and Joan.”

Now that Knopf is bringing back NANCY AND PLUM, I hope that everyone who’s been seeking this book will buy a copy so that it sells well and remains in print for a while. Granted, the current economy is preventing a lot of people from buying hardcover books, but if you are a fan, you can still help promote it by word-of-mouth or e-mail or blog.

I have spoken before about my great admiration for Betty MacDonald’s adult books. Although I grew up enjoying her “Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle” series for kids -- stories about an eccentric old woman who is able to cure bad childhood behavior -- I did not discover her autobiographical volumes THE EGG AND I, THE PLAGUE AND I, ANYBODY CAN DO ANYTHING and ONIONS IN THE STEW until I was in my teens. They are both warm family stories and screamingly hilarious. The kind of books one should never try reading behind one’s math text in geometry class. You’ll laugh and get caught. I learned that the hard way. After reading Betty MacDonald’s adult books, I was able to see that her Mrs. P-W stories were rather satirical and adult as well. Kids love them, of course, but now I see the author winking at her grown-up readers over the shoulders of her child characters. You can see the author’s sense of sarcastic humor on the opening pages of her first Piggle-Wiggle book, which she dedicated to her daughters, nephews and nieces: “For Anne, Joan, Mari, Salli, Heidi, Darsie, Frankie and Stevie who are perfect angels and couldn’t possibly have been the inspiration for any of these stories.”

That book was published in 1947, and here’s a picture of Ms. MacDonald signing copies for a group of children, including one of the dedicatees, Darsie:

In 1949, the author published MRS. PIGGLE-WIGGLE’S MAGIC:

I don’t know how I got so lucky, but my copy of this book is inscribed to the aforementioned Darsie and his younger sister Alison. How cool is that?

In 1954, Betty MacDonald published MRS. PIGGLE-WIGGLE’S FARM. This is the oddball title in the Piggle-Wiggle quartet, as it’s the only one in which children are not cured by magical pills and potions (imagine writing a book today in which someone dosed kids with strange medicines to fix their bad behavior!) but instead the young characters learn their lessons through guidance and their own resources. This is my favorite Piggle-Wiggle book, but many fans tell me that it’s their least favorite -- they miss the magic.

Whether the majority of readers like this one or not, it’s considered the rarest of the P-W books and the most expensive to obtain. Can you guess why? Hint: look at the name of the illustrator on the dustjacket. Throughout her writing career, Betty MacDonald spoke of having “an angel on my shoulder” helping her along. That’s how she explained the success of THE EGG AND I, which was published during World War II, when Americans most needed an emotional pick-up; her humorous book came along at just the right time -- and became a monster bestseller. It seems that angel on Betty’s shoulder was working overtime when the young Maurice Sendak was selected to illustrate MRS. PIGGLE-WIGGLE’S FARM; who knew he’d become one of the most-honored children’s book creators of the twentieth-century?

My copy of this book is generically signed by the author:

but I think that if I ever had the opportunity to meet Maurice Sendak and have him sign one book, it wouldn’t be WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE or any of his other beloved classics, but I’d ask him to sign this one, right beside Betty’s signature, to make it even more special.

The final original Mrs. PW title was published in 1957, just one year before the author’s untimely and far-too-young death:

Again, I was lucky enough to stumble upon another inscribed copy. Remember “Baby Alison”? This one was signed to her, a few years later:

Sometimes I can’t believe how lucky I am.


I always look forward to the annual issue of Publishers Weekly that reports the previous year’s bestselling books. That issue was just published on March 22 and I’ve had a fun time looking through the extensive lists of titles.

According to PW, the top children’s hardcover of 2009 was DOG DAYS by Jeff Kinney, which sold over three million copies. Rounding out the top ten hardcovers were:

THE LAST STRAW / Jeff Kinney
TEMPTED / P.C. and Kristin Cast
BREAKING DAWN / Stephenie Meyer
HUNTED / P.C. and Kristin Cast
WITCH AND WIZARD / James Patterson
SHADOWLAND / Alyson Noel
MAX / James Patterson

The top paperback frontlist bestsellers are a rehash of the above names. Following TWILIGHT by Stephenie Meyer, which sold 2.5 million copies, we have more books by Meyer, James Patterson, Alyson Noel, and Rick Riordan. Oh, and one Harry Potter book for variety.

I’ve always been very interested in seeing which backlist titles are selling. Not surprisingly, both the hardcover and paperback backlist “top tens” again feature Meyer, Kinney, Patterson, et al. Then there are the perennial Dr. Seuss and Curious George and movie and television tie-ins. But I ws surprised to see some books on these backlists. I never realized the popularity of the YA novel THIRTEEN REASONS WHY by Jay Asher (over 240,000 copies sold in 2009), didn’t realize that GO ASK ALICE (150,000+) was still read that widely. And it was nice to see that ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS still sells nearly 150,000/yr, that BUD NOT BUDDY is selling 135,000/yr, or that TUCK EVERLASTING is selling over 125,000/yr. In the 100,000/yr group we’ve got such outstanding works as ESPERANZA RISING by Pam Munoz Ryan, TANGERINE by Edward Bloor and FEVER 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson.

The top of these lists feature the flashy titles but, as I said, I prefer the backlists, which show the strong, well-written books that quietly continue to sell from year to year.


The aforementioned Pam Munoz Ryan has a new title out which should draw attention from book design fans. THE DREAMER, which is illustrated by Caldecott Honoree Peter Sis, is a fictionalized story of the young Chilean poet Pablo Neruda.

The writing is lyrical and thoughtful. Those usually called “special readers” will probably be the primary audience for this quiet character study. One of the things that intrigued me most about THE DREAMER was its design. The book clocks in at 370 pages but, as you can see, the pages feature a minimal text:

If the text had been printed in a more traditional style, how long would this book actually be? 200 pages? 100? Even far less?

Still, it’s an arresting design choice, and may draw readers who might not otherwise have paid much attention to this title.

I’ll be curious to learn what young readers think of this book.


I’ve always had a soft spot for novels about teachers. Who doesn’t love GOODBYE MR. CHIPS by James Hilton, GOOD MORNING, MISS DOVE (Frances Gray Patton) and UP THE DOWN STAIRCASE (Bel Kaufman)? But this week I’ve been reading SCHOOLED by Anisha Lakhani, a roman a clef about a teacher at an elite New York private school who supplements her income by tutoring other wealthy private school students for hundreds of dollars an hour. Sometimes funny, sometimes shocking, and often scary (is this really a depiction of this country’s next generation of movers and shakers?) this book is one of the few “school novels” to feature a teacher we can’t admire.

Looking up info on the author, I discovered that Anisha Lakhani seems to have a mysterious background. One source says she’s single; another says she’s been married seven years. There are tons of pictures of her hobnobbing with high society types, yet the gossip columns don’t seem to know her (one picture of her on a celebrity site actually begins, “We have no idea who the hell she is.”) But what intrigues me most about this author is that one article refers to “rumors that she's written young adult novels under a pseudonym in the past.”

Now that interests me!

Does anyone know if there’s any truth to this rumor -- and what YA novels she might have written?


As I’ve indicated in this blog, I’ve been going through a kind of rough time lately...so I wanted to give a special shout-out to the friend who just sent me a box of forthcoming ARCs -- including (whoopee!) the new Louis Sachar novel, THE CARDTURNER.

These Advance Reading Copies kept me afloat during a week that was flooded with bad and sad news.

Guess that’s why they call them “arcs.”


And of course thanks to everyone who reads and leaves comments on this blog. I was especially touched by a recent note from Laurie A-B that said, “I feel like you are my friend just from reading your posts.”

Gosh, thanks!

I feel the same way about everyone who reads this blog. There aren’t too many of us children’s book fans out there (it’s a rather lonely interest, isn’t it?) so I’m very glad to have met so many fellow fanatics -- now friends -- through this blog.

Thanks for reading Collecting Children’s Books. Happy Easter!