Sunday, September 19, 2010

Sunday Brunch for September 19

Did you know that Stephen King once wrote a short story based on a famous picture book? Would you like to see a note that Elizabeth George Speare wrote soon after winning her first Newbery Medal? These topics -- plus dancing librarians! -- are served up in today's Sunday brunch-style offering of facts and opinions on children's books old and new.


I have been fired from more jobs than you can shake a stick at.

It’s bad enough having to experience that kind of thing in real life, but once it happens to you (or at least, once it happened to me--repeatedly) you continue to having recurring nightmares about it for years and years and years.

I’ve heard the phrase “You’re fired!” more times in my sleep than the cast of THE APPRENTICE hears during a dozen seasons of that show.

Last night I even dreamed I got fired from a job in a bookstore.

From the children’s book department, no less!

In my own defense, the bookstore in my dream didn’t make good use of my children’s book knowledge. Instead, they had me hanging novelty items (pillows, toys, calendars) from hooks on the wall, and the boss-lady was skulking around behind me the whole time, complaining that I wasn’t doing a good job. At one point I picked up a calendar that was pure white, with no pictures or print on the outside. I went to the boss and said, “Where does this one go?” and she pointed to a TINY line of print on the back that said “Arlene Alda 1991 Calendar,” then hit me over the head with it, snarling, “You idiot!”

(I wasn’t shocked that the boss hit me – that happens all the time in my dreams. What shocks me most was that I dreamed about, of all people, Arlene Alda. And that the calendar was nineteen years old. …I later figured out the Alda part. I’d recently come across an ad for a children’s book called LULU’S PIANO LESSON…written by Arlene Alda. I still don’t know where the “1991” date came from though.)

Because I was such a bust at hanging merchandise, the boss said she’d give me one more chance and brought out a gigantic plastic model of Eric Carle’s “very hungry caterpillar”:

Each of the caterpillar’s segments was about three feet in diameter and I was supposed to hook them all together to create a big floor display that kids could climb on, sit on to read, etc. I didn’t know where to start. Well, I guess I did know where to start -- with the head -- but had no idea which segment came next. So I sat there on the floor, forlornly cradling that big red, vacant-eyed caterpillar head in my lap, surrounded by dozens of loose caterpillar segments and various feet scattered on the floor around me...along with a bunch of tools and nails and bolts...and I didn’t know what to do next.

That’s when the boss stormed up to me, but before she could say, “You’re fired!” I woke up.

Oh well, if you’ve got to have a nightmare, at least it’s nice to have a children’s-book-themed nightmare.


Far be it from me to infringe on my friend Fuse #8's "Video Sundays" series, but when I logged on to America Online this morning and saw this library-related video clip on AOL's main page, I couldn't resist sharing it. The video was created by the library staff from the Central Rappahannock Regional Library in response to the budget cuts affecting libraries everywhere:

Are you like me in that you spend half your time watching library videos trying to spot specific titles on the shelves in the background?


Also on today's AOL main page is a story about Swallow, the eleven-year-old cow (and moo-ther of ten calves) who has just been included in the new Guiness Book of World Records as the smallest cow in the world. She measures 33.5 inches "from rear foot to hind" and I don't think I need to explain that she's the one on the right:

My question is: did anyone check with Katherine Paterson to see if she knows an even smaller cow:


Chris Van Allsburg's picture book THE MYSTERIES OF HARRIS BURDICK contains fourteen black-and-white illustrations, each accompanied by a title and one line of text.

Since its publication in 1984, readers have been mesmeritzed by Van Allsburg's stunning artwork and the mysteries contained with the illustrations and minimal text.

Stephen King was so intrigued by HARRIS BURDICK that he wrote a short story, "The House on Maple Street" based on one of the illustrations; it was published in his 1993 collection NIGHTMARES AND DREAMSCAPES.

There has even been a stage adaptation of Van Allsburg's book.

For decades, teachers have used HARRIS BURDICK to inspire students in creative writing classes.

Not long ago, the daughter of Houghton Mifflin editorial director Margaret Raymo was given such an assignment in school. This gave Ms. Raymo the idea of asking several famous authors to write their own stories based on the illustrations and tantalizing bits of text in THE MYSTERIES OF HARRIS BURDICK.

The result?

A book which may be called THE CHRONICLES OF HARRIS BURDICK, which contains original stories by Sherman Alexie, M.T. Anderson, Kate DiCamillo, Cory Doctorow, Jules Feiffer, Stephen King, Tabitha King (Stephen's wife), Lois Lowry, Gregory Maguire, Walter Dean Myers, Linda Sue Park, Louis Sachar, Jon Scieszka, and Chris Van Allsburg himself. Daniel Handler (AKA Lemony Snicket) will write the book's introduction.

Scheduled for publication next fall, it's sure to be one of the most anticipated books of 2011.

It will be interesting to see if these mystery stories add interest and resonance to the original picture book and give it new life -- or instead provide an unnecessary sense of closure, making readers feel that the mysteries of Harris Burdick have now been definitively solved.


On Friday I stood in the bookstore and read BINK & GOLLIE by Kate DiCamillio and Allison McGhee. It's only 96 pages, heavily illustrated, with just a few lines of text on every page. The perfect book for standing-in-the-store-reading-but-not-buying. However, after getting home and thinking about the book -- which contains three warm and funny stories of friendship and compromise, I think I'm going to have to go back and buy it. Just the final Tony Fucile illustration -- of Bink and Gollie skating while a goldfish, who appears in an earlier story, swims beneath the ice -- is worth the price of admission.

I have read many books by Kate DiCamillo and a few by Allison McGhee. I have no idea if they are friends in real life -- though I assume they are, since they're working together here -- or if their friendship and banter is similar to what's depicted in this very enjoyable book. Nor do I know how well illustrator Tony Fucile knows the two authors. But, as my bookstore friend pointed out to me (instead of saying, "Listen, mister, either buy the book or put it down. This ain't a library") last Friday: don't you think the characters of Bink and Gollie bear a certain a resemblance to their creators:


Maybe it was the millennium. Maybe it's the upcoming arrival of 2012. Maybe it's the economy. Whatever the case, young adult literature has seen a recent run of dystopian novels. Leslie Connor's latest, CRUNCH, might come under the category of apocalyp-lite novels, telling the story of a summer in which gas is suddenly unavailable, but life goes on. Mom was accompanying truck-driver Dad on a trip up north when the gasoline pumps suddenly ran dry, so fourteen-year-old narrator Dewey is left home with only his older sister, Lil, "people phobic" brother Vince, and five-year-old twins Angus and Eva. Lil's summer art class is closed, food and supplies are hard to get, but -- because no one can drive cars -- it's a boom time for the family's bike repair business. Leslie Connor has created a likable crew of characters who -- although faced with missing Mom and Dad, dealing with a cranky neighbor, and a local thief -- learn that family and community support are the best way to weather any crisis. Some may complain that this plainly-written novel feels a little simplistic. The Marriss kids never face any true danger...or even much internal family conflict. Dewey seems like a very young fourteen-year-old. And the problems imposed by a gasless society don't impact this family much beyond making Dewey and Vince take on some major responsibilities running the bike shop. We never doubt that a happy ending is in store. Still, it's refreshing to read a dystopian novel that simply shows young characters facing challenges and getting along -- and proving that bad times don't always mean, either literally or figuratively, the end of the world.


It's been a while since I've purchased any older books for my collection, but this week I found two volumes.

The strange thing is that they are both the same book: THE WITCH OF BLACKBIRD POND by Elizabeth George Speare.

THE WITCH OF BLACKBIRD POND was the author's second book (after CALICO CAPTIVE) for young readers and this historical novel won the Newbery Medal, reportedly with a rare unanimous vote. Three years later Ms. Speare won the Newbery again for THE BRONZE BOW, a brilliant novel set during the era of Jesus. It would be another quarter century before she wrote another novel for kids but -- remarkably -- THE SIGN OF THE BEAVER also received Newbery recognition as an Honor Book.

Elizabeth George Speare's accomplishments are even more amazing when one considers her generally small output of work; she only wrote two other books -- one adult novel and one nonfiction volume for children.

After waiting several decades to find a signed copy of THE WITCH OF BLACKBIRD POND, two of them came on the market this past week. That is the way it always happens.

One copy was a signed first edition. The other was also an early (1959) signed copy, but it was not a first. The way to identify a first edition of THE WITCH OF BLACKBIRD POND or ANY Houghton Mifflin book, is to check the title page. If a book is a first, the date of publication will be on that page:

The later printing will not have the date on it:

Normally I would only have bought the signed first edition of this book. But there were two reasons I ordered both copies. First, both books were relatively inexpensive. Secondly, the later printing was advertised as having a "warmly written eleven-line note from the author laid in." Of course I was very interested in reading that note!

As it turns out, the note was written on a scrap of folded paper barely two inches tall. Here it is, enlarged a bit for legibility:

In case you can't read that, I'll type it out:


Dear Dorothy--

Thank you
so much for
your very
thoughtful note.

The nicest part of this
rather dubious business
of being "Famous" (?) is
hearing from friends. It
makes me resolve to
write more such letters


Eliz Speare

Or does it say "Betty Speare"? I can't tell. Anyway, I'm so intrigued by this note. Does it sound "warmly-written" to you? Or is it written with the reserve of a born-and-bred New Englander? Or is there something more there -- a flaunting of being famous and a brusque brush-off? Hey, maybe it just seemed that way because she was busy and trying to answer many letters that day.

It's amazing what one can read into an eleven-line note, isn't it?

But then I have an overactive imagination.

Now I can see why so many writers were willing to write stories for that forthcoming Harris Burdick book.


I guess we can say that awards season has offically begun with the return of the Heavy Medal Blog at School Library Journal. If you'd like to be kept up to date on which titles might soon be wearing gold, join Nina Lindsay and Jonathan Hunt for some engaging discussions here.

And I hope you'll also join me back HERE at Collecting Children's Books as well.

Thanks for dropping by!


Alison said...

Peter, I'm so jealous! Witch of Blackbird Pond is my absolute favorite book. My copy is a very small, worn, torn, but much loved edition from Scholastic books I purchased in grade school a million years ago. I'm not sure it'll survive another read! :) ENJOY!

Nine Mile said...

Very neat! Looks like Betty to me and my best guess re. "famous" is that the original note probably used the word. Something like, this is the first time I've written to someone famous, or I don't expect to hear back from you, because you are so famous.

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