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 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!


LaurieA-B said...

Hi Peter: Just wanted to mention another good teacher book, To Sir, with Love by E.R. Braithwaite. I remember my mother recommending it to me, along with Up the Down Staircase, when I was twelve or so. Enjoyed the movie too.

Lisa Yee said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lisa Yee said...

When I was a kid, I LOVED, LOVED, LOVED the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle series. Still do.

Emily B said...

Thank you, Peter, for the wonderful blog! I always look forward to it.

Anonymous said...

I also loved all Betty MacDonald's books. Even The Plague and I. I had to borrow Nancy and Plum through inter-library loan. It was nice, but I didn't feel like I had to own it. I'll take another look now that it might be possible to own it! Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle's Magic was my favorite. I didn't care for the newer Happy Birthday, Mrs.Piggle Wiggle, written by her daugher Anne.
And in spite of Maurice Sendak's cover, I've always loved Hilary Knight's illustrations best.
Jeanne K.

Stephanie said...

My third-grade teacher read us the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books after lunchtime recess. I never knew the connection with The Egg and I, though.

Thinking of that made me ask my girls what they do after lunchtime recess - most of my grade-school teachers read to the class. Not so for my girls, sadly.

I thought of you the other day when NPR had a story on the growth of self/on-demand publishing... wondered: will there be such a thing as a "first edition" (or an ARC, for that matter)? Will such books go out of print? If they do, what will it mean for those books that are ahead of their time and only appreciated later?

Becky said...

When I was a kid I loved books about school too... loved Mrs. Piggle Wiggle especially! My kids love them too, however during spring they prefer to read books about springtime. We are ecstatic about the new Disney Tinkerbell book (more like a comic book), "Disney Fairies" to come out next week (April 13th).

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for featuring Betty MacDonald! As a kid, I was a huge fan of Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, and as an adult, I'm equally in love with her "grown up" books.
I have a few of her volumes in my collection--including Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle's Farm. Had no idea it was such a treasure! Can't remember how much I paid for it, but I think it was less than $10.

Becky said...

Oh for anyone interested in checking out the new Disney Tinkerbell book I mentioned above... I found a great website that gives more details. You have got to check it out!

Anonymous said...

I am a huge fan of MacDonald's adult books, and my daughter was of her Mrs. PW books so this was a real treat. Thanks!
Chris in NY

sdl said...

I didn't know anyone else loved Betty MacDonald's autobiographical books! I loved her biting humor throughout, but The Plague and I was my favorite--it is the one book I am most sorry I loaned to someone.