Friday, May 14, 2010

Sunday Brunch with Nuns and Goblins

Welcome to another brief brunch at Collecting Children’s Books. Moving Day is only three days away and I’m getting worried. Here’s some advice for anyone contemplating a move: start packing a year in advance. Yes, you’ll miss your frying pan for a few months, but at least you won’t be in a blind panic three days before you move because half your stuff is still sitting in drawers, on shelves, and behind those bulging closet doors.


One of the delights of moving...well, there are no delights in moving...but one of the things that makes it somewhat more bearable is the discovery and rediscovery of little bits of the past. Saturday I was at the new condo and needed a nail, so went looking in the previous owner’s kitchen junk drawer, where I discovered a little plastic box of nails. They were purchased at K-Mart, according to the sticker on the package, in October 1984. Although 1984 doesn’t seem that long ago to me, I was stunned by how old-fashioned the writing and graphic on the box looked. And surprised you could buy anything for only seventy-six cents. Later that day, I was emptying papers from my file cabinet and was even more shocked to find notebooks I’d purchased in junior high that cost only twenty-nine cents. The files were also full of mostly half-finished, mostly half-baked stories I’d written over the years and it was fun to see the progression from handwritten tales to those banged out on our old manual typewriter. Then came the electric typewriter years, followed by the early dot-matrix computer era.

One of the most fascinating items came from a children’s writing workshop I attended in the early 1980s. It was a list of all the people who attended the conference, all dreaming of becoming famous children’s writers. I’d love to say that several names on this twenty-five-year-old list are now well-known authors...but I have to admit that I don’t recognize a single name. I guess this shows how really hard it is to break into the field of writing. I had a similar experience when I came across a bunch of old theatre programs in my file cabinet. Many were from local high school and college productions and, in the biographical notes, many of the young performers wrote about their dream of becoming professional actors on Broadway or in Hollywood. I’m sure some of them do continue to act -- perhaps even professionally -- but, looking at these programs today, none of the names looked familiar to me. None of them became big “stars.”

What’s that line about “many are called, but few are chosen”? We celebrate famous actors and writers, but for every one who makes it, there are hundreds who trained for the stage and developed their writing craft -- yet never quite made it....


A few weeks ago I listed the nominees for the Children’s Choice Book Awards sponsored by the Children’s Book Council. Boy, were my predictions I wrong! Here are the winning titles, which were announced this past Tuesday:

Author of the Year
James Patterson for MAX

Illustrator of the Year

Kindergarten to Second Grade Book of the Year
LULU THE BIG LITTLE CHICK by Paulette Bogan (Bloomsbury USA)

Third Grade to Fourth Grade Book of the Year

Fifth Grade to Sixth Grade Book of the Year

Teen Choice Book of the Year
CATCHING FIRE by Suzanne Collins


Nuns were hot in the the mid-sixties.

Let me rephrase that.

The mid-sixties were lousy with nuns.

Let me rephrase that again: during the mid-sixties, nuns were the subject of many popular films and TV show. On TV we had THE FLYING. At the movies we had LILIES OF THE FIELD; THE SINGING NUN; THE TROUBLE WITH ANGELS; WHERE ANGELS GO, TROUBLE FOLLOWS, and, of course, THE SOUND OF MUSIC. In our neighborhood a number of older Catholic schoolgirls were besotted with such movies. I still remember them returning from a Saturday double-feature of Debbie Reynolds movies that included THE SINGING NUN and THE UNSINKABLE MOLLY BROWN. The highlight of the afternoon was that “an entire row of REAL NUNS came and sat right in front of us!” They added that the sisters had left right after THE SINGING NUN, not staying for MOLLY BROWN “because that movie has a word in in that nuns aren’t allowed to hear!”

“What word? What word?” I asked.

The oldest and most daring of the neighbor girls leaned over and whispered the offensive word in my ear:


I gasped.

Well, I was only six.

I also remember when those girls went to see Hayley Mills and Rosalind Russell in THE TROUBLE WITH ANGELS. For weeks afterward, they tossed out the phrase, “I’ve got a scathingly brilliant idea!” just like Hayley in the movie. A couples years after that, I finally caught THE TROUBLE WITH ANGELS myself -- on TV -- and began using the phrase “scathingly brilliant” myself. It’s that kind of movie.

Let me say right off that THE TROUBLE WITH ANGELS is no Oscar-calibre film. Yet it is a thoroughly enjoyable light comedy -- with a few poignant moments -- that everyone seems to like. You’d think a story about teenage girls at a Catholic boarding school would have a limited audience, yet I’ve heard people of every gender, race, and religions mention how much they like this movie. When Elizabeth Smart returned from her kidnapping ordeal, this was the video she watched on her first night home -- it was said to be her favorite movie.

But if there’s one thing that inspires even more devotion than this old film, it’s the original book. Written by Jane Trahey, LIFE WITH MOTHER SUPERIOR was published by Farrar, Straus and Cudahy in 1962. (Must’ve been a banner year for the publisher, as that was the same year they released Madeleine L’Engle’s A WRINKLE IN TIME.) Although published for adults, this humorous memoir of Trahey’s experiences in an all-girls Catholic boarding school was also embraced by young readers. In fact, I found a copy in the children’s department of the library this past week, so checked it out and read it for the first time.

Reading the book closely, one can tell it was originally intended for adults. The tone is nostalgic and the writing lacks the immediacy found in most children’s books. But readers of any age will relate to young Jane’s battles with the sisters of St. Mark’s as she and best friend/fellow troublemaker Mary Clancy smoke cigarettes, give tours of the nuns’ private quarters, skip gym class, and contrive for their school to win a music contest. The movie is surprisingly faithful to Trahey’s episodic book, capturing both the hilarity of the girls’ swimming exam and the sadness of an unexpected death among the faculty. Although she gets her name in the title, the book’s Mother Superior seems a fairly generic character, lacking the towering presence and sly wit of Rosalind Russell’s portrayal in the movie. Oh, and the praise, “scathingly brilliant” isn’t used a single time in the book.

I mentioned earlier that LIFE WITH MOTHER SUPERIOR has inspired some very devoted fans. Even paperback copies sell for over twenty dollars, and a nice hardcover edition could cost $100 or more.


This past week I received the following note and quiz from Karen Liston:

Last Thursday, John Matteson, Louisa May Alcott's Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer (Eden's Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and her Father) moderated a discussion about two Little Women mash-ups at an event in New York City called Monster Throwdown: Vampires, Werewolves and Louisa May Alcott. The conversation, which lasted an hour and a half, touched on many subjects, including whether Alcott herself would be offended or appalled by these books. Matteson started off the evening with a game he called Alcott or Faux-cott, in which he read selections from Alcott's "blood and thunder tales" alongside selections from Little Vampire Women and Little Women and Werewolves to see if the audience members could distinguish Alcott's work from the mashups. In many cases, they could not.

Here are the quotes in John Matteson’s quiz. The answers follow:

1) Nothing human ever wore a look like that of the ghastly, hollow-eyed pale-lipped countenance below the hood. All saw it and held their breath as it slowly raised a shadowy arm.

2) Restless mind and lawless will, now imprisoned in a helpless body, preyed on each other like wild creatures caged, finding it impossible to escape, and as impossible to submit.

3) She advanced upon one of the women and thrust her to the ground, where she ripped off the bodice of her dress and one of her breasts with one efficient bite. The other woman screamed, and the men stood in a shocked stupor.

4) [She] knew nothing till, with a stifled cry, her lover started, swayed backward form her arms, and dyeing her garments with his blood, fell at her feet, stabbed through the heart.

5) She...tasted his fear, a salty thing with a desperate edge, and heard a sob. Someone was crying, either the man or the woman, and pleading for mercy.

6) With a ferocious slam of the door, she was off, a predator in the night hunting for justice, for even if the victims she found were innocent of the crimes committed against her, they were still guilty of something.

7) For an hour she sat so, sometimes lifting the glass to her lips as if the fiery draught warmed her cold blood; and once she half uncovered her breast to eye with a terrible glance the scar of a newly healed wound. At last she rose and crept to bed, like one worn out with weariness and mental pain.

8) The gazes of hunter and prey were locked, and Mr. Davis could not look away from the gleaming golden eyes.

9) My one hope died then, and I resolved to kill myself rather than endure this life another month; for now it grew clear to me that they believed me mad, and death of the body was far more preferable than that of the mind.

10) Oh, what am I doing? I am mad, for I, too, have taken hasheesh.


1) Alcott, "The Abbot's Ghost
2) Alcott, "A Modern Mephistopheles"
3) Faux-cott, "Little Women and Werewolves"
4) Alcott, "V.V."
5) Faux-cott, "Little Vampire Women"
6) Faux-cott, "Little Vampire Women"
7) Alcott, "Behind a Mask"
8) Faux-cott, "Little Women and Werewolves"
9) Alcott, "A Whisper in the Dark"
10) Alcott, "Perilous Play"

How did you do on the quiz? Probably better than I did!


So I see that the comic strip “Little Orphan Annie” is ending its run next month, after nearly eighty-five years.

I didn’t know it was still running.

In fact, I never knew that it ran during my lifetime.

Created by Harold Gray in 1924, the strip was once hugely popular, but now appears in less than twenty newspapers. (Meanwhile, Annie has exchanged her familiar red dress for blue jeans.)

Since Annie never appeared in any of my local papers, I only knew about her vaguely, in the way we somehow know about cultural icons we’ve never seen before. I knew her general story, knew the name “Daddy Warbucks” and knew that she said “Leapin’ lizards!” a lot. It wasn’t until the late seventies, when the Broadway musical ANNIE debuted, that I learned more of her story.

Actually, for many years I think I confused the Glorioski Girl with the scary-weird protagonist of James Whitcomb Riley’s poem, “Little Orphant Annie.” That’s not a surprise, since it turns out that the original title of the comic strip -- “Little Orphan Otto” -- was changed to capitalize on the popularity of Riley’s 1884 poem.

I don’t know exactly where I first encountered “Little Orphant Annie,” but i had to be a school textbook. What I remember, almost more than the words of the poem, was the accompanying color illustration, which was either drawn by, or in the style of, Trina Schart Hyman. It’s haunted me for over forty years.

Here, just for the pleasure of remembering, are the words to the poem:


by James Whitcomb Riley


To all the little children: -- The happy ones; and sad ones;
The sober and the silent ones; the boisterous and glad ones;
The good ones -- Yes, the good ones, too; and all the lovely bad ones.

Little Orphant Annie's come to our house to stay,
An' wash the cups an' saucers up, an' brush the crumbs away,
An' shoo the chickens off the porch, an' dust the hearth, an' sweep,
An' make the fire, an' bake the bread, an' earn her board-an'-keep;
An' all us other childern, when the supper-things is done,
We set around the kitchen fire an' has the mostest fun
A-list'nin' to the witch-tales 'at Annie tells about,
An' the Gobble-uns 'at gits you
Ef you

Wunst they wuz a little boy wouldn't say his prayers,--
An' when he went to bed at night, away up-stairs,
His Mammy heerd him holler, an' his Daddy heerd him bawl,
An' when they turn't the kivvers down, he wuzn't there at all!
An' they seeked him in the rafter-room, an' cubby-hole, an' press,
An' seeked him up the chimbly-flue, an' ever'-wheres, I guess;
But all they ever found wuz thist his pants an' roundabout:--
An' the Gobble-uns 'll git you
Ef you

An' one time a little girl 'ud allus laugh an' grin,
An' make fun of ever' one, an' all her blood-an'-kin;
An' wunst, when they was "company," an' ole folks wuz there,
She mocked 'em an' shocked 'em, an' said she didn't care!
An' thist as she kicked her heels, an' turn't to run an' hide,
They wuz two great big Black Things a-standin' by her side,
An' they snatched her through the ceilin' 'fore she knowed what she's about!
An' the Gobble-uns 'll git you
Ef you

An' little Orphant Annie says, when the blaze is blue,
An' the lamp-wick sputters, an' the wind goes woo-oo!
An' you hear the crickets quit, an' the moon is gray,
An' the lightnin'-bugs in dew is all squenched away,--
You better mind yer parunts, an' yer teachurs fond an' dear,
An' churish them 'at loves you, an' dry the orphant's tear,
An' he'p the pore an' needy ones 'at clusters all about,
Er the Gobble-uns 'll git you
Ef you

And the gobble-uns ‘ll get ME if I don’t finish this blog and get back to packing. My next blog entry should be written from my new residence. Hope you’ll join me there. In the meantime, I’ve got some books to pack.... If you’re anywhere around these parts today, you will probably hear me slamming books and papers around in frustration and uttering quite a few words that nuns are “not allowed” to hear!


Bybee said...

There was also Change of Habit starring Mary Tyler Moore and Elvis Presley.

LaurieA-B said...

There was also The Nun's Story, 1959, starring Audrey Hepburn, based on the novel by Kathryn Hulme.

I haven't seen The Trouble with Angels; it sounds great. Seattle Public Library has a single copy of Life with Mother Superior and I just put a hold on it. Boarding school is always fun [to read about].

I look forward to hearing from you next Sunday, post-moving. Hope all goes well. (Speaking of dot-matrix, I have a small stack of unused printer paper at school that someone gave me for scratch paper; the kids seem to enjoy tearing off the sides. When I was a kid I enjoyed folding those strips into little accordions. Did everyone do this?)

Daughter Number Three said...

Thanks for reminding me of the Little Orphant Annie poem. My mom had a book from her childhood that contained that poem, and we used to read it when we wanted to scare ourselves.

The Spirited Librarian said...

I LOVED (and still love) The Trouble with Angels. Recently a friend at work was made my supervisor. She never told me she was under consideration for the job, and the betrayal I felt was JUST LIKE Rachel's feeling toward Mary at the end of the movie. I actually bought the movie to watch again and yup, the look Rachel gave Mary was exactly how I felt.

Thanks, Peter. Your blog is the best thing out there. Good luck with your move

Deb said...

My Grandmother used to "threaten" us with "the gobble uns 'ill get you if you don't watch out!"

And the great Mary Wickes was in those "trouble" movies too!

Anonymous said...

Like your writing class (sort of), after watching this video I wondered why Cleveland's celebrities (although kind of sweet) aren't known outside the state lines...

Anonymous said...


Sorry, am originally from the town where he lived and where every fall we had to have a celebration for the town drunk.


When the frost in on the punkin...

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