Sunday, September 26, 2010

Brunching with Muskrats, Buffy, and Aunt Bee

Welcome to another Sunday Brunch at Collecting Children's Books. Today's entry discusses the "new house" in my neighborhood, talks about the power of old e-mails, and reviews a scary new book by Richard Peck. Oh, and Buffy (of "Buffy and Jody") and Aunt Bee are here today too.


Are our personalities fixed at birth or are we products of our environment?

Based on my experiences over the last few months, I opt for the latter. I grew up in Detroit, where the only wild animals I ever saw were squirrels and -- as our neighborhood got grungier -- rats. Even after I moved to the suburbs, I never spent much time thinking abour nature. Four months ago I relocated again. Granted, I only moved two miles away, and I still live in a suburban city. But the fact that I now live next to a tiny pond has totally changed my life. Now I spend all my free time growing beans and tomatoes, watching hummingbirds, counting the ducks on the pond, and saying things like, "Think the rain will hurt the rhubarb?" and "He's all vines and no taters." By next summer I'll probably be wearing overalls, a straw hat, and smoking a corncob pipe.

This week I delved even further into my new rural lifestyle when I woke up one morning, went outside to count the ducks (twenty-six!), and saw this mess of straw and cat tails out in the middle of the pond:

I got out the binoculars for a closer look:

Was it some kind of natural formation? A nest? Then I saw a pair of muskrats swim out to that mound and wondered if they'd built it. I should admit that, until I moved here, the only thing I knew about muskrats was that they whirl and they twirl and they tango, plus do the jitterbug out in Muskratland. So when I first saw these creatures swimming in the pond, I put out an S.O.S. to blog readers asking what kind of animals they were...beavers?...water rats? A couple readers kindly told me that I was probably seeing muskrats. A quick visit to "Google Images" confirmed it. So, after seeing the muskrats swimming around the mounded sticks this week, I took another trip to Google and learned that the muskrats had built themselves a house for winter!

Doing further research, I discovered that muskrat houses play a small but portentous role in Laura Ingalls Wilder's masterpiece THE LONG WINTER -- the book which many consider her best. I must have read that book ten times as a kid, but had forgotten this ominous scene, which takes place as Laura and Pa are stacking hay:

One day when Pa came clambering up to the top of the load, she told him, "You've left a haycock, Pa."

"I have!" said Pa, surprised. "Where?"

"Over there, in the tall grass."

Pa looked where she pointed. Then he said, "That isn't a haycock, Half-Pint. That's a muskrat house." He looked at it a moment longer. "I'm going to have a clsoer look at that," he said. "Want to come along?"

...At the edge of the pool stood the muskrats' house. It was taller than Laura, and far larger than her arms could reach around. Its rounded sides and top were rough, hard gray. The muskrats had gnawed dry grass to bits and mixed the bits well with mud to make a good plaster for their house, and they built it solidly and smoothly and rounded the top carefully to shield the rain.

...Inside those thick, still walls, Pa said, the muskrats were sleeping now, each family curled in its own little room lined softly with grass. Each room had a small round doorway that opened onto a sloping hall. The hallway curved down through the house from top to bottom and ended in dark water. That was the muskrats' front door.

...Laura put her hand on the wall of their house. The coarse plaster was hot in the hot wind and sunshine, but inside the thick mud walls, in the dark, the air must be cool She liked to think of the muskrats sleeping there.

Pa was shaking his head. "We're going to have a hard winter," he said, not liking the prospect.

"Why, how do you know?" Laura asked in surprise.

"The colder the winter will be, the thicker the muskrats build the walls of their houses," Pa told her. "I never saw a heavier-built muskrats' house than that one."

Laura looked at it again. It was very solid and big. But the sun was blazing, burning on her shoulders through the faded, thin calico and the hot wind was blowing, and stronger than the damp-mud smell of the slough was the ripening smell of grasses parching in the heat. Laura could hardly think of ice and snow and cruel cold.

Well, we all know how that winter went.

From the description in THE LONG WINTER, I don't think the muskrat house in my pond is as solidly-built as the one Laura saw in 1880.

At least I hope it isn't!


I always say that every book is like a box of Crackerjack...because there’s always a surprise waiting for you inside.

When I took down my copy of THE LONG WINTER to get the above muskrat quotes, I found a folded-up sheet of paper inside the front cover. It was a message to a children’s book listserve that someone named Rebecca Webb submitted on July 6, 1999.

Ms. Webb wrote:

The Lone Cottonwood is no more.

I visited DeSmet, South Dakota on Friday 7/2/99. I’ve been there once before in the summer of 1994. This time I wanted to see Spirit Lake, find the path taken by the children making their way home through the blizzard in THE LONG WINTER, and see the Lone Cottonwood.

The Lone Cottonwood grew on a strip of land between Lakes Henry and Thompson several miles south/southwest of DeSmet and the Ingalls homestead. Laura writes of Almanzo taking her driving along the strip…it was barely wide enough to accommodate the buggy and the shrubs growing alongside the water. The Lone Cottonwood seeded most of the trees in the area (including the five cottonwoods Pa planted on the Ingalls homestead which remain to this day) and served as the last landmark for Cap and Almanzo as they rode to secure the wheat that saved the town in THE LONG WINTER.

The recent wet winters have brought so much rain to the northern plains area that Henry and Thompson have become one huge lake. The ancient tree was swamped and eventually keeled over, according to the folks staffing the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society tour booth on Friday. It was “giant” in Laura’s time (according to Pa) so it must have been a hundred years old BACK THEN…and now it’s gone.

Back in 1999, I found this note interesting enough to print off and keep inside my copy of THE LONG WINTER. And it sort of gave me a lift when I came across it today. Writing a blog can sometimes be depressing. You’re throwing info and opinions out there blindly -- never really knowing who -- if anyone -- is reading your words or what they may be getting from them. But discovering this note made me realize that our words have long shadows. I bet Rebecca Webb – whoever she is, wherever she is – would be surprised that someone saved a note she wrote to a listserve for nearly a dozen years and today shared it with a whole new set of readers on a blog. …Maybe a dozen years from now, someone will quote something from this blog to another set of readers.

And so it goes – stories passed down from decade to decade.


My friend and co-author, Jules Danielson, of the Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast blog, sent me a thought-provoking Publishers Weekly article about Lois Duncan. Beginning next month with I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER, KILLING MR. GRIFFIN, and DON'T LOOK BEHIND YOU, ten of the author's superb suspense novels are going to be republished over the next three years with new cover art, an author Q&A, reading guides and...modernized texts.

According to the article:

When she reread the books, Duncan was surprised at how little needed to be changed. “I’ve been amazed that these books have remained in print and have been so popular for so long,” she says. “I realized as I read the novels back-to-back that the plots and characters had held up all these years, and it was just little fringe things that had to be reworked, mostly due to today’s technology. I loved going through the novels and giving the characters cell phones and computers, and changing their clothes so they were no longer wearing polyester pantsuits. And of course I changed the dialogue slightly so that it sounded more contemporary.”

...Interestingly, it was today’s omnipresent cell phone that presented Duncan with the biggest challenge as she updated the texts. “A strong element of many of my plots is having the protagonist be in a dangerous situation and not being able to reach the outside world,” she explains. “But cell phones let teens be in touch, so I had to keep finding ways of disposing of those awful instruments! I had one fall into a river and another fall into a toilet, and another with batteries that needed recharging. It was tricky coming up with 10 different ways to get rid of a cell phone.”

I'm intrigued. And I'll undoubtedly read these new editions myself, with a copy of the original edition in my other hand to compare the changes in the texts.

But I still have to wonder if it's really necessary to modernize texts for contemporary kids. Can't today's young people just take a step back in time when reading Duncan's books, the way most of us did when reading, for instance, Agatha Christie's books from the thirties and forties several decades later?

What's next...?

Pa was shaking his head. "We're going to have a hard winter," he said, not liking the prospect.

"What the hell makes you say that?" Laura asked in surprise.

"The colder the winter will be, the thicker the muskrats build the walls of their houses," Pa told her. "I never saw a heavier-built muskrats' house than that one."

"What an old wives' tale!" snorted Laura, pulling an iPad from the pocket of her calico dress. "Let's check Yeah, these meteorologists also think the winter will be rough. We'd better tell Almanzo to gas up his snowmobile and go get that wheat now, before it starts to snow. And we'd better stock up on staples early, so we won't starve. And oh -- I just got a text message from the medical center saying they've received a set of donated corneas for Mary! Call the airport and tell them we need tickets ASAP!"


I mentioned last week that, after several months, I had a couple older first edition books for my collection.

One of them was HENRY AND RIBSY by Beverly Cleary.

When I was kid almost none of Beverly Cleary's books were availa ble in paperback. Not having the money for hardcovers, I checked her books out of the library again and again. After many years, Ms. Cleary's hardcover publisher Morrow decided to publish their own paperback versions of these books sometimes around the early seventies. (A few years later they would all be published as Dell Yearling paperbacks.) Although past the target age for Cleary's books, I was anxious to have copies of these titles for my collection, so I bought the Morrow paperbacks one by one as they were released. Over the years the books got dog-eared and the pages began falling out (I guess one never really outgrows the target age for Cleary's books!) so I began the job of replacing these paperbacks with permanant hardcover first editions. It's been a difficult and sometimes expensive project, but over the past fifteen years or so, I've been able to replace all but two of the paperbacks (BEEZUS AND RAMONA; HENRY AND RIBSY) with hardcovers.

This past week a copy of HENRY AND RIBSY came up for sale. The bookseller had it listed as a "true first editon" because the same date (1954) appears on both the title page and copyright page, which is how Morrow generally marks their first editions.

HENRY AND RIBSY arrived in the mail this week and I was really excited to replace my paperback copy with the spillling pages for this first edition:

I double-checked to make sure the 1954 date was on the title page, and it was. But then my eye caught something else that made me realize this was not a true first. Can you see what it was?

Although ostensibly published in 1954, the list of Beverly Cleary's books on the opposite page lists titles that were released in the 1960s and 1970s -- up through RAMONA AND HER FATHER, which was published in 1977.

It always pays to check every detail of a book that's listed as a "true first edition." Often they are not first editions at all.


I've just begun reading Han Nolan's new YA novel, CRAZY, and am somewhat dubious about the book's narrative voice. Jason, the fifteen-year-old protagonist, says he has an "imaginary audience" in his head. Members of this audience comment on Jason's first-person narration throughout the book, functioning as a kind of Greek chorus. There's a "fat bald guy with mustache," another fantasy character called "Sexy Lady" and there's also...Aunt Bee ("yep, the Aunt Bee from the old Andy Griffith Show. You always wondered what happened to her. Well, here she is, in my head!") Now I love Han Nolan's books and I love Aunt Bee (well, except for her Kerosene Pickles) but the whole Greek Chrous thing seems a little gimmicky to me...and I really question the use of Aunt Bee in a book written for today's teens. I've seen articles in which today's kids profess not to know who JFK the idea that they would know Aunt Bee seems even less likely. Yeah, she's been on TVLand...but how many people under forty ever watch that station?

On the other hand, Aunt Bee also had a strong presence in Lauren Myracle's 2008 YA horror novel BLISS....

So maybe I'm wrong.

Is Aunt Bee, of all people, now a teen icon?

Or should we make a "citizen's a-RAY-est" of Han Nolan and Lauren Myracle for utilizing a character that most of today's teens neither know nor care about?


After a recent string of brilliant historical novels, including THE RIVER BETWEEN US and THE TEACHER'S FUNERAL, Richard Peck is back to modern times with his latest YA novel, THREE QUARTERS DEAD.

As she begins her sophomore year, narrator Kerry -- a lonely sophomore -- is shocked to find herself accepted by a group of older students who pretty much run the school's social network. Peck has always been expert at charting the divisions between high school's haves and have-nots, and he doesn't disappoint here -- making glittery hotshots Tanya, Natalie and Mackenzie so appealing that the reader easily understands why needy Kerry feels compelled to perform a cruel Halloween night prank against another classmate on behalf of these girls. The novel then skips ahead several months to a time when everything has changed. Kerry is again friendless and isolated, but when she's asked to meet her former gang for a night in New York, she immediately complies -- despite some serious (and well-warranted) misgivings. Unfortunately, this is where the novel loses focus, devolving into a series of intriguing, sometimes horrific, set-pieces as the girls visit a nightclub, rollerskate around an empty penthouse apartment, and return home for an after-prom party. What began as a sharply-written account of peer pressure and the need to belong comes to a hazy and unresolved conclusion in this eerie, but not wholly effective ghost story.


Are there certain subjects and themes that make a book a harder sell in stores? Make a book more difficult to get into schools and libraries?

I have heard in the past that books for young readers that include abortion, homosexuality, religious elements, and mixed-race romances can face difficulties.

Perhaps those times are changing. One of the titles that people keep citing for this year's Newbery is KEEPER by Kathi Appelt, which includes a gay relationship -- a rarity in a novel for middle-grade readers.

After last year's controversy about black characters having their race hidden or disguised on dust jackets, no one can accuse ALICE IN CHARGE by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor of trying to duck the issue:

And while I personally find pictures of tattoos on dustjackets tacky -- especially if they include religious symbols -- Egmont used this in-your-face dustjacket for the new YA VIRGIN TERRITORY by James Lecesne.

I bring these things up because of the unusual way the subject of abortion is handled in THREE QUARTERS DEAD.

Granted, abortion is a very sensitive topic and not one that I want to see argued -- either pro or con -- on this children's book blog.

But I was quite taken aback by how...well, coyly the topic is handled in Peck's book. The word "abortion" is not even used. Listen to this exchange:

"Why was she absent?" I asked because I was supposed to ask.

"She had a...procedure, Kerry. An oupatient procedure. Not at Crossland Hospital, of course. Somewhere else. Maybe in the city. Maybe Jersey. It doesn't matter where. It really doesn't."

I didn't get it.

"Kerry, do I have to spell it out for you? When Alyssa went in for the procedure , she was going to have a baby. When she came out of the procedure, she wasn't. Okay?"

I knew what she was talking about. It wasn't a word I was used to....

Reading this exchange, it seemed unnatural to have the teenage characters talking all around the issue in 2010. I'm still not sure whether this dialogue sprang from the characters...or the author's (or publisher's) attempt not to make waves by addressing this controversial topic head-on in a book for teens.


My brother came across this book on the internet recently:

He asked how good a cook Buffy could be, considering the fact that she's rolling out her apron. (Yeah, that was a joke; he knew it was dough.)

Anyway, I figured this throwaway paperback was just a novelty TV tie-in for kids and not worth much money. And I was right. You can find it for sale for under $5.

But then I started looking for other TV cookbooks from that area and found this:

And it turns out to be the opposite of a throwaway. For whatever reason, that 1973 Patridge Family Cookbook sells for over $200! ...So if you happen to find one in a box of old, packed-away children's books, you've got a money maker on your hands.


Speaking of paperbacks from the 1970s, does anyone remember the "Harrison High" books by John Farris?

The first book, HARRISON HIGH, was published in hardcover in 1959, when the author was only twenty-three years old. And it wasn't even his first published novel! HARRISON HIGH was made into a 1960 movie called BECAUSE THEY'RE YOUNG starring Dick Clark (!) as a teacher "trying to make a difference."

Years later, John Farris returned to Harrison High in a series of paperbacks that included:


Does anyone remember these books? Although set in a high school (always billed as "America's Most Famous High School" or "America's Most Notorious High School" on the covers) I seem to recall they were geared for adults, not high school readers. And the content was often risque.

Considering how popular the books seemed to be in the seventies, they appear to have fallen off the map today.

Did you read them? Do you have any memories of them? The one that I started reading in high school (and I don't even remember which title it was) was so adult and so different from my own high school experience that I couldn't even finish the book....


Author Tom Angleberger (AKA Sam T. Riddleburger) of the Berger and Burger blog recently sent me a challenge. He asked: "Which current day kidlit author (not illustrator) was an animator on Nimh? Hint: his main character is rather loud."

I didn't know the answer, so asked for another hint.

Tom wrote back to add: "He wrote a bunch of funny poem books and more recently a series if graphic novels for kids. Also worked on Mulan, All Dogs Go to Heaven and Rockadoodle!"

Hmm, I'm still stumped.

And Google has not been my friend in trying to figure this one out.

Anybody know?

Thanks for any responses...and thanks for visting Collecting Children's Books. Hope you'll be back!


Daughter Number Three said...

Peter, I loved the interconnections among the parts of the blog today, culminating in the rewrite of The Long Winter... so much so that I had to tell it to read it to my family. Thanks for the thoughtful laughs.

Greg Pincus said...

For your trivia question, I'm going with David J. (D.J.) Steinberg, whose "loud" character is Daniel Boom.

David J. Steinberg home page

And now you can sleep at night :-)

Bybee said...

I've never heard of Harrison High.

Linda said...

I think it's horrible that they're going to "update" Lois Duncan's books. I read a Betty Cavanna book like that some years ago, SIXTEEN. What was worse that they changed some things, like the name of the principle male character, but not other things.

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Unknown said...

I'm still in a cabin in the Midwest, still lamenting the death of the Lone Cottonwood, and currently reading "Little House, Long Shadow: Laura Ingalls Wilder's Impact on American Culture" by Anita Clair Fellman. Had another nifty Laura adventure recently: And I have half a dozen beloved Lois Duncan books on my shelf. RW

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Sam said...

Well done, Gregory K.! You're right!

The Spirited Librarian said...

Peter, you wrote..."Writing a blog can sometimes be depressing. You’re throwing info and opinions out there blindly -- never really knowing who -- if anyone -- is reading your words or what they may be getting from them." Well, I have to tell you that I love your blog. I was delighted by your post on The Sleeping Giant by Eleanor Estes ( I grew up in Hamden, Connecticut, in the shadow of The Sleeping Giant that inspired her).I checked out of the library the books by Carol Ryne Brink (Family Grandstand and Family Sabbatical) when you wrote about those, and loved them so much I bought them used. (I now live in a midwestern university town and got a kick thinking about how it used to be....)The post about The Lonely Doll by Dare Wright brought back memories of when I first saw that book - I was 6 and at a friend's house, and how the pictures fascinated me, but it always made me feel so sad. I read The secret Life of the Lonely Doll by Jean Nathan on your recommendation and it was so interesting....the list goes on. Each time you write something it strikes a chord with me. So don't stop writing. Maybe you can write something every day?.....
The Spirited Librarian

Anonymous said...

I haven't finished reading your entry yet. I had to stop because I was laughing so hard over your re-write of Long Winter. LOVE IT. I took my daughter to Walnut Grove and DeSmet this summer. We waded in Plum Creek and played under Pa's cottonwoods. You should take the trip sometime if you haven't already.

I think re-issuing boooks with rewrites is unnecessary. I was reading one of the Fudge books to my kids and was taken aback when Peter's Christmas list included an MP3 player. Our children are going to have no concept of cultural and societal change.

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