Sunday, August 15, 2010

Brunching with a Cranky Blogger

Today’s Sunday Brunch looks at cranky neighbors in literature (and real life!), shows off a Mockingjay tattoo, tells how publishing’s “Black Wednesday” inspired a new book,and ponders the Delacorte First Young Adult Novel Contest.


One of the most common characters in children’s books is the cranky neighbor. He or she lives in a dark house hidden behind low-hanging trees and an overgrown lawn. All the children in the neighborhood cross the street to avoid passing this house. Their parents warn them to stay away from “that crazy man” or “that nutty old woman.” On Halloween the kids dare each other to race up to the porch, ring the doorbell, and run away. Then one day the young, misunderstood protagonist meets this “old crank,” realizes they are merely “eccentric” and slowly forms a friendship. The old person imparts valuable lessons about “being different” or “being an individual” then, unfortunately, usually kicks the bucket.

I love books like that.

Of course I always identified with the young misunderstood protagonist. But it dawned on me today that I’m well on my way to becoming the cranky old neighbor.

I guess it all started with the hummingbirds.

Was it only last Sunday that I was writing about all the lovely little hummingbirds coming to feast at my feeder? They seemed so fragile…so ethereal…so doggone nice.

Well, I have now come to realize those birds have a mean streak!

Despite all the pictures I’ve seen of dozens of l’il hummers flitting around a feeder, companionably sharing the nectar inside, I’ve since learned that these birds are very territorial. It started on Monday, when I watched a hummingbird fly up to the feeder for a sip of nectar. He had barely settled before another hummingbird shot through the air like a missile and startled him off his perch. Since then I have observed this happening every day -- almost as soon as one hummer arrives for a drink, another one dives through the sky and chases him off! There are four separate feeding stations on the feeder and, in the words of Robert Lawon’s Newbery-winning RABBIT HILL, “There is enough for all,” but you’d never know that based on the antics of these little birds.

So that was my first disappointment this week.

Monday was also the day they began repaving our driveway. The Home Owners’ Association said to park our cars anywhere on the (narrow) street until the asphalt dried and the barricades came down in front of the driveways. So I parked one car around the corner and the other on my own street, but up a rather steep incline. Every morning as I strode up that hill to retrieve my car, I was reminded of how Shirley Jackson came to write her classic short story “The Lottery.” In an article published some years later, Ms. Jackson recalled:

The idea had come to me while I was pushing my daughter up the hill in her stroller -- it was, as I say, a warm morning, and the hill was steep, and beside my daughter the stroller held the day's groceries -- and perhaps the effort of that last fifty yards up the hill put an edge to the story.

Perhaps it was the extra effort of my own hillside-climb each morning that put an edge to the rest of the week.

On Tuesday I phoned to ask a co-worker something and when I questioned her response, she gasped, “Do you think you know more than I do?” and hung up on me.

Wednesday there was a traffic jam on the expressway and I was late for a meeting at work.

Thursday there was another traffic jam.

Friday I got a nasty letter from a blog reader.

Saturday a friend of many years proved to be a major disappointment.

And the doggone driveway was still gummy and tarry and barricaded!

So when one of my new neighbors came ringing the doorbell around noontime, I probably wasn’t in the best of moods to begin with. Especially when he starts by saying he’d called the police on me for leaving a car in front of his house all week. He reminded me that the streets here are very narrow, making it difficult for cars to get by when vehicles sit on the shoulder. He said that some of his neighbors were “a little upset” because the car was blocking their mailboxes. And I needed to move the car this weekend because they were having their driveways repaved next week and my car would be in the way of “all them big CE-ment trucks.”

Okay, the thing you need to know about me here is that I’m basically a painfully shy, socially awkward person. Or at least I am until I get to know you. I never look anyone in the eye. Seldom speak to someone unless they speak to me first. Am unfailingly polite and ridiculously deferential to strangers. But somehow…well…this man really got to me. I mean, he had just walked past my tarry, barricaded driveway to get to the it should have been VERY obvious why I had to park on the street. He’d gotten the same letter from the HOA that I had. And I knew full well that the car was not blocking ANY mailboxes, as I had parked AT LEAST SIX FEET AWAY from the closest mailbox. Plus, I’d have moved the car back to my own garage days ago if only my own driveway had been finished.

So…after a week of dive-bombing hummingbirds and traffic jams and hang-up calls and disappointing friends, I became uncharacteristically vocal and extremely sarcastic. I asked the man if he’d noticed my driveway had just been tarred. Told him I was only following instructions by parking on the streets. Warned him (over and over and over) that if parking on these narrow streets was such a huge problem, then he shouldn’t do it himself when his driveway was being paved and -- for Heaven’s sake -- don’t park within twenty feet of anyone’s mailbox or people might get a “little upset.” AND he’d better make darn sure he parked where none of them big CE-ment trucks could back into his car. Honestly, I almost turned the hose on him. Yeah, he was annoying and, yeah, he was out of line, but he also didn’t deserve the sarcastic response he got from me. I was awful. Hummingbirds, I discovered, aren’t the only ones with mean streaks.

As he walked away, I had two thoughts:

1) All my life people have yelled at me or given me a hard time and I’ve almost never responded in kind. Then I’ve felt bad for not standing up for myself or answering back. Today I answered back and actually felt worse because I did.

2) I was certain he was now going to go back to his house and tell all his neighbors that the new guy on the block was T-R-O-U-B-L-E.

And it crossed my mind that this is how one starts to get a reputation as “the neighborhood crank.”

Within ten years my house will probably be covered with vines, my windows will be shuttered, and I’ll be shouting, “You kids get off my lawn!” and “No, you can’t have your ball back!”


Ah well, if I do become the neighborhood crank at least I’ll be in good company. As I said, some of my favorite fictional characters are cranks.

Here are a few:

Grandma Dowdel from A LONG WAY FROM CHICAGO and A YEAR DOWN UNDER by Richard Peck

Orpha Woodfin in Barbara Wersba’s THE DREAM WATCHER

Captain Hiram Wallace in JACOB HAVE I LOVED by Katherine Paterson

Grandma Tillerman in Cynthia Voigt’s series about the Tillerman family. (This is an especially good example, as one of the best books in the series, THE RUNNER, takes us back to Grandma’s younger years and we see “how she got that way.” Hint: it didn’t involve a freshly-tarred driveway. It did involve the phone company.)

Mr. Pignati in Paul Zindel’s THE PIGMAN. (Actually, he’s never cranky to the kids. But he sure is eccentric.)

Onion John in the novel of the same name by Joseph Krumgold.

Kate in Emily Cheney Neville’s Newbery winner IT’S LIKE THIS, CAT.

Grandpa Blessing in THE SON OF SOMEONE FAMOUS by M.E. Kerr.

Mrs. Zender in THE MYSTERIOUS EDGE OF THE HEROIC WORLD by E. L. Konigsburg. Maybe we can add Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler to this list as well -- she’s not a crank, per se, but she’s certainly formidable.

Maxine in CRAZY LADY by Jane Leslie Conly.

Great Uncle Lester in Louis Sachar’s THE CARDTURNER.

What other memorable fictional eccentrics should be added to this list?


Despite my cranky complaints about events of this week, I should add that I had a good time Thursday night, attending an author event at my favorite bookstore. The store is The Bookbeat in Oak Park, Michigan; the author was Amy Goldman Koss, a native of the Detroit area who now lives in Los Angeles. My two favorite books by Ms. Koss are the unforgettable ASHWATER EXPERIMENT and her stunning look at the vagaries of middle school friendship, THE GIRLS.

The author’s newest book is called THE NOT-SO-GREAT DEPRESSION : IN WHICH THE ECONOMY CRASHES, MY MOM GOES BROKE, MY SISTER’S PLANS ARE RUINED, MY DAD GROWS VEGETABLES AND I DO NOT GET A HAMSTER. I bought the book several weeks ago, but still have not read it. But people tell me it’s very good – and very timely. On Thursday I was fascinated to learn of the book’s inception.

It was inspired by December 6, 2008 -- a day known as “Black Wednesday” in the publishing industry. That was the date when the lagging economy caused many publishers and editors to unexpectedly lose their jobs. In the aftermath of that day, which the industry still hasn’t recovered from, Amy made a sympathy call to one of her editors. The editor (once an editor, always an editor) said, “Isn’t there a book somewhere in this?”

Ms. Koss responded, “I don’t think so.”

After getting off the phone, the author’s husband urged her to reconsider. She did, and THE NOT-SO-GREAT DEPRESSION -- the story of a middle-school girl and her family dealing with the current bad economy -- was the result.

Talk about making lemonade from lemons. On a budget too!

On a less heartening note, Ms. Koss said the children’s book world is becoming more and more like the movie industry. In the past, newly-published books were given time to slowly acquire an audience. Now -- similar to how first-weekend ticket sales so important to a film's success -- publishers are concerned about early sales and, if a book doesn’t do well right away, it’s quickly remaindered…sometimes before it has time to grow an audience. When asked if she had a personal favorite among her own books, the author said that whenever she learns that one of her books is going out of print, she becomes deeply attached to it, remembering the characters and storyline, and all the effort that went into creating that book…a book which will soon no longer be widely-available to readers.


One of the interesting things about Ms. Koss’s book is that it was published as a paperback original. At $9.95, it’s about two-thirds the price of a hardcover novel. Pretty good for a book that concerns our current money problems. There are some positive points to a book being originally published in paperback. It’s certainly more economical, plus readers who would like to own the book do not have to wait a year for the hardcover to be released in paperback. On the other hand, some libraries don’t like to carry paperbacks because they wear out too quickly. I’m probably not the most subjective person on this matter. I’ve always preferred the heft and feel of a good hardcover novel in my hands -- though I’ve heard repeatedly that young people wildly prefer paperback books. My bookseller friend thinks that the future may hold simultaneous releases of both hardcover and paperback editions of new books -- with the paperbacks selling to the bookstore audience and a smaller, hardcover edition mostly for the library market.

What do you think of this idea?


A friend just sent me this transferrable tattoo celebrating the upcoming release of MOCKINGJAY by Suzanne Collins:

Will I wear it to work on publication day, August 24? Or just tuck the unused sticker inside my copy of the book for later reference as an example of promotional material that accompanied this trilogy?

Think I’ll go with the latter option.


He’s now one of the most highly-esteemed authors in the field of children’s books, but for many years Christopher Paul Curtis was a line worker at the Fisher Body Plant in Flint, Michigan. Many readers know the story of how Mr. Curtis’s wife agreed to support the family for one year while he spent those twelve months working on his first book, THE WATSONS GO TO BIRMINGHAM – 1963. But how did Mr. Curtis make the jump from aspiring author to published novelist? According to A READING GUIDE TO THE WATSONS GO TO BIRMINGHAM – 1963 by Amy Griffin:

Curtis didn’t have a literary agent, so he wasn’t sure how to
go about getting the book published. He knew that he would have
to find some way for someone at a publishing house to read his
story. To accomplish that, Curtis submitted the book to Delacorte
Press’s Contest for a First Young Adult Novel. His editor, Wendy
Lamb, recalls opening piles of submissions to the contest and
seeing the title The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963, “words
that filled [her] with curiosity and dread; words that instantly
evoked the church bombing where young girls died in Sunday
school. Well, [she thought] this person was ambitious, trying to
write about something terrible, something important.” She
decided to take a second look later, and while the characters in
the book made it too young to qualify for the contest, she loved it
so much that Delacorte decided to publish it anyway.

The rest is history. THE WATSONS went on to be named a Newbery Honor Book and become a perennial bestseller. His next book, BUD, NOT BUDDY, won the Newbery and continues to be hugely popular with young readers.

So, even though he lost the Delacorte Press Contest for a First Young Adult Novel, Christopher Paul Curtis established himself as an important voice in children’s books and ended up winning even bigger and better prizes.


Oh, it’s still around.

I remember when this award began back in the early eighties. What an opportunity it seemed for young-adult authors! One expected great things from the writers whose first books were introduced by this prize; they were going to be the next generation of YA authors…the ones we’d be reading into the twenty-first century and beyond.

Did it work that way? Not really.

Here is a list of all the winning books:

1983 / CENTER LINE by Joyce Sweeney
1984 / WALK THROUGH COLD FIRE by Cin Forshay-Lunsford
1985 / THE IMPACT ZONE by Ray Maloney
1986 / No winner
1987 / CAL CAMERON BY DAY, SPIDERMAN BY NIGHT by A.E. Cannon / consistent career
1988 / OZZY ON THE OUTSIDE by R. E. Allen
1989 / HANK by James Sauer
1990 / LIZARD by Dennis Covington
1991 / SQUASHED by Joan Bauer
1992 / LIFE BELTS by Jane Hosie-Bounar
1993 / No winner
1994 / THE MERMAID ANGEL by Martha A. Moore
1995 / No winner
1996 / BREAKING BOXES by A.M. Jenkins
1997 / A DOOR NEAR HERE by Heather G. Quarles
1998 / No winner
1999 / NIGHT FLYING by Rita Murphy
2000 / No winner
2001 / CUBA 15 by Nancy Osa
2002 / OSTRICH EYE by Beth Cooley
2003 / WINGS by Julie Gonzalez
2004 / No winner
2005 / NOTES ON A NEAR-LIFE EXPERIMENT by Olivia Birdsall
2006 / SKIN DEEP by E.M. Crane
2007 / No winner
2008 / No winner
2009 / SOMETHING LIKE HOPE by Shawn Goodman (not slated for publication until next year)

As you can see, many of these books remain pretty much unknown and their authors haven’t gone on to great heights in the field of YA fiction.

Inaugural winner Joyce Sweeney received a lot of acclaim for CENTER LINE, which many critics compared to the works of S.E. Hinton. She has gone on to consistently publish YA novels, which range in quality from serviceable to excellent.

The second winner, Cin Forshay-Lunsford, was only nineteen when she won the prize for WALK THROUGH COLD FIRE, a novel that received mixed reaction from the critics -- though I recall that young adult experts Patty Campbell and Don Gallo were extremely impressed by her work. She has not published a novel since. Nor has the following year’s winner, Ray Maloney, who wrote an edgy surfing novel that showed great promise.

1987’s winner, A.E. Cannon has carved out an impressive career with titles ranging from historical novels (CHARLOTTE’S ROSE) to contemporary fiction (THE LOSER’S GUIDE TO LIFE AND LOVE), but the 1988 and 1989 winners have never been heard from again.

Dennis Covington’s 1990 prize-winner, LIZARD, received much acclaim and he followed it up with another strong effort, LASSO THE MOON…but this author seems to have focused on writing for adults in the years since.

Joan Bauer won the 1991 Delacorte Prize for SQUASHED, the first of many excellent YA novels she’s published including THE RULES OF THE ROAD, Newbery Honor HOPE WAS HERE, and the recent PEELED.

Among the remaining winners, Jane Hosie-Bounar, Heather Quarles, Nancy Osa, Olivia Birdsall, and E.M. Crane have yet to publish follow-up novels. Martha A. Moore and Beth Cooley have each pubished one. However, A.M. Jenkins, Rita Murphy, and Julie Gonzalez seem to be doing well, each writing a number of well-received novels since their breakthrough with the Delacorte Prize.

Out of all the winners thus far, Joan Bauer undoubtedly remains the all-star, consistently publishing strong works for the young adult audience. A.M Jenkins is right up there too, with her Printz Honor for REPOSSESSED and several hard-hitting problem novels. A handful of the other authors have also made a dent in the field. But most have never been heard from again; one wonders if they just “got lucky” with their winning manuscripts or whether they never received the kind of all-out support from the publishers implicit in a prize for a “First Young Adult Novel.” Instead of being touted as important new names in YA fiction (and certainly some of them were strong writers…Heather Quarles being a good example) and getting lots of publicity, one seldom hears much about this prize. In fact, usually the only time I know that a novel has won the Delacorte Prize is when I see that designation on the endpaper or back panel of a winning book. Otherwise, they are not sufficiently promoted. And they should be. We need aspiring YA authors to be encouraged by awards like this. We need more truly impressive young adult novels.

Right now it’s kind of depressing to think that the most famous book and author affiliated with this contest -- THE WATSONS GO TO BIRMINGHAM – 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis -- didn’t actually win the prize!


The other day I was delighted to read about a forthcoming young adult novel featuring a character “who's into literature and collecting first edition books.”

How cool is that? I’ll definitely be picking up a copy!

However, I had to wonder why a novel by a first-time author…a novel which won’t even be published till November…would already be receiving such advance publicity -- including a nice interview with the author in, SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL.

Let’s go back and read the first line of that featured article:

“Talk show host Regis Philbin's daughter Joanna talks about her YA debut novel, The Daughters (Little, Brown, 2010), about three BFFs in trendy New York City.”

Do you think the book would have received this kind of publicity if Joanna wasn’t Regis Philbin’s daughter?

...And how telling is it that the famous father’s name even appears before his daughter’s name in the article?

I would expect this kind of piece in PEOPLE magazine but…SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL???

Thiink about all the authors who have written young adult novels over the years. Some may have won that Delacorte Prize. All face the tough industry standards that Amy Goldman Koss discussed: if their books don’t get a lot of acclaim and sales from the beginning, they don’t stay in print for very long these days. Nearly every author -- especially a first-timer -- could really use a featured article and interview in SLJ. But how many of them got this kind of publicity, including an interview and author photograph, on SLJ’s website?

Don’t get me wrong. Philbin’s book, THE DAUGHTERS could become a huge hit. Maybe it will win the Printz Award.

If so, hurray for this new voice in YA fiction!

But at this time THE DAUGHTERS is an unknown quantity. Yet its author is already getting a lot of attention from a LIBRARY MAGAZINE where she’s asked such probing literary questions as “What was it like growing up as the daughter of Regis and Joy Philbin?”

Doesn’t seem quite right.


…Here I am complaining about Joanna Philbin getting unearned attention and I’ve just contributed to the problem by giving her several more paragraphs of publicity on my site.

Next thing you know I’ll see my words quoted in an ad: “THE DAUGHERS could become a huge hit. ..It will win the Printz Award. Hurray for this new voice in YA fiction!” – Peter D. Sieruta of the Collecting Children’s Books Blog.

No wonder I'm on my way to being a crank.

Thanks for visiting Collecting Children’s Books. Hope you’ll be back. In the meantime, get off my lawn! And no, you can’t have your ball back. It landed on my lawn and it’s now my property!

Now, git! Git! Before I turn my garden hose on you!


Nancy Werlin said...

A.M. Jenkins has won a Printz honor for Repossessed, and was an LA Book Prize finalist for DAMAGE.

Anonymous said...

Hi Nancy,

Thanks for reminding me of REPOSSESSED. I added a line about it and her other books to the blog. I hate to say this, but I tend to get A.M. Jenkins and Alex Flinn mixed up for some reason and this morning when writing the blog I forgot to connect REPOSSESSED with the name Jenkins -- which is too bad as I thought REPOSSESSED was a GREAT book!

Thanks again for the correction,


Bybee said...

Regarding cranks, what about that old lady that Kit befriends in The Witch of Blackbird Pond?

Wendy said...

I love Gertrustein in the Anastasia Krupnik books.

grrlpup said...

Gertrustein was my first thought too. :)

Anonymous said...

Yes, Hannah Tupper from WITCH OF BLACKBIRD POND is a great addition -- as is Gertrustein from the "Anastasia" books!


Alison said...

Would the Grumbies, next door neighbors to Henry Higgins, be considered cranky...or tormented?

Unknown said...

Boo Radley!

ChrisinNY said...

Honestly, I am not fixated on "Crunch" - but it certainly fits in with your cranky neighbor literature search. It has one of the crankiest neighbors I read about in a long, long time. This neighbor steals eggs, demands assistance with chores and yells at the kids.