Tuesday, December 28, 2010

An After-Christmas Blog

Christmas is past.

The new year is four days away.

And the Newbery and Caldecott Awards will be announced in thirteen days!

Time really flies at this time of year. I’m sorry it’s been so long since my last blog. I got caught up in Christmas preparations and suddenly it was December 25 and I hadn’t posted anything in nearly two weeks. Today’s entry is a random round-up of facts and opinions on children’s books old and new. But first, I have to say a word or two about Christmas in my new house….


Everyone loves a fireplace at this time of year and I consider myself exceptionally lucky to have two fireplaces in my new house.

There’s a gas fireplace in the living room. I turned it on Halloween night, then on Thanksgiving, and have been running it every night since the first snow of the season. When my brother came for Christmas, I was anxious to see how his dog Elgin would react to the fire. I’ve observed that most dogs are instinctively afraid of flames and figured that Elgin would stay far, far away from the hearth. I hadn’t considered the fact that his dog is always cold and loves to curl up in blankets and small pools of sunlight coming through the window. After feeling the warmth of the fire, Elgin camped out in front of the fireplace for the entire Christmas weekend!

Meanwhile, I had my own plans for the basement library. It also has a fireplace – though this one burns wood. About a week ago, I finally put the finishing touches on the library, adding a big recliner and a reading lamp. With my brother using my bedroom during his visit, I decided to sleep in my new chair. What better place to spend Christmas Eve, kicked back in a recliner, reading before an open fire? I didn’t make it downstairs until after 1:00 AM, then started my first natural fire. Okay, I cheated. I used a Duraflame log. Within seconds the fire was roaring. I picked up a book, sat in my recliner to enjoy the ambience. Here is a fifteen-second video of that peaceful Christmas Eve tableau:

The video is only fifteen seconds because that's about as long as the moment lasted. Within seconds, my Silent Night was jarred by an ear-splitting sound coming from the ceiling:


One of the smoke detectors was going off loud enough to wake the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future!

I jumped up and began jabbing at the button on the smoke detector, but couldn’t turn it off. Next I tried to pry the plastic lid off the detector in order to remove the battery. As it turns out, this smoke detector is all wired together and, further, wired into the ceiling, so it does not utilize a battery. Ultimately, my brother and I had to muffle the stupid thing by wrapping a bath towel around it.

My brother noted that the basement did look a little smoky and asked me twenty-five times if I’d opened the damper before starting the fire. I assured him that I had and then, after he went back upstairs, I double-checked the damper. (Whew, I hadopened it!) So I sat back down in the recliner, picked up my book, and then heard someone yelp upstairs. No, it wasn’t Elgin-the-dog. It was my brother, yelping in shock because he saw an older man staring into his bedroom window.

No, it wasn’t Santa Claus.

Santa may also arrive at 2:30 in the morning on Christmas, but he doesn’t peer through your windows and then knock on your front door. And he definitely doesn’t wear a red bathrobe as he goes from house to house.

No, the man on the porch was my next-door neighbor, woken from his “long winter’s nap” to let us know that he smelled smoke coming into his condo. He thought our house was on fire! I explained that I had just started my first log-burning fire and he said, “We don’t have those kind of fireplaces here! They use gas!”

I told him that our basement fireplace did indeed burn logs, and he didn’t have to worry because the fire was contained. Contained? I always say the wrong thing. Always. What I meant was, “The house is not on fire. The fire is secure inside the fireplace,” but I think my words made it sound like, “The entire basement was on fire, but I’ve now beaten it back with wet towels and it’s contained in one small corner.”

The good news is that I’ve had several more fires since that night and have never again experienced excessive smoke, beeping smoke detectors, or worried neighbors. I think the problem occurred because it was the first time that fireplace had been used since I moved in – maybe the first time it was used in several years. But everything is okay now. I’m just sorry that I disrupted my neighbor’s sleep – especially on Christmas Eve. I guess I’ll have to make it up to him by re-gifting him and his wife a fruitcake or something. I’m just grateful he didn’t call the fire department. Can you imagine what a fine “welcome to the neighborhood” moment that would have been, with sirens blaring up to my front door at 2:00 AM on Christmas Eve?


The next morning my brother gave me this book as a Christmas present:

He found it at a thrift shop for a dollar and, although he doesn’t know a lot about antiquarian books, he does know a lot about art – and he liked the illustrations. MASHA’S STUFFED MOTHER GOOSE was published by Garden City Publishing in 1946 and this copy was a stated first edition. It’s a collection of about 150 nursery rhymes – some familiar, some not. What makes the book unique is that the illustrations (in both color and black-and-white) depict the figures (Little Bo-Peep, Jack and Jill, Humpty Dumpty, etc.) as stuffed toys and dolls. I imagine that if this book were published today, it would automatically come with a “Stuffed Mother Goose plushie” as part of the deal. Does anyone know of another nursery rhyme book in which the characters are all depicted as stuffed dolls and toys? And does anyone know anything about “Masha.” At first I thought she must have been as famous as Cher, since she only went by one name too. But doing a bit of internet research today, I’ve discovered there isn’t a lot of info about her. But I did learn that her real name was Maria Simchow Stern and she holds a noteworthy place in the field of children’s books, as she illustrated the very first Little Golden Book, THREE LITTLE KITTENS, in 1942.


Ironically, when I first opened MASHA’S STUFFED MOTHER GOOSE on Christmas morning, the book fell open to this verse:

I’ve heard this verse my entire life – but in a completely different context. I know it as this Christmas carol:

I saw three ships go sailing by,
On Christmas day, on Christmas day,
I saw three ships go sailing by,
On Christmas day in the morning.
And what was in those ships all three?
On Christmas day, on Christmas day,
And what was in those ships all three?
On Christmas day in the morning.
Our Saviour Christ and his lady
On Christmas day, on Christmas day,
Our Saviour Christ and his lady,
On Christmas day in the morning.
And all the bells on earth shall ring,
On Christmas day, on Christmas day,
And all the bells on earth shall ring,
On Christmas day in the morning.

I’ve also heard a version of the song that goes like this:

As I sat on a sunny bank, a sunny bank, a sunny bank,
As I sat on a sunny bank
On Christmas day in the morning,
I spied three ships come sailing by
On Christmas day in the morning.

And who should be upon those ships
But Joseph and his fair lady.
And who should be upon those ships
On Christmas day in the morning.

Oh he did whistle and she did sing,
On Christmas day in the morning.

This is the first time I came across the “New Year’s” version, which is secular in tone and talks about the speaker’s wedding…and to think I read it the first time on Christmas Day in the morning.


Friends and relatives often ask me about the value of their old childhood books. I always feel bad having to tell them that, while the books they owned may have been meant a lot to them personally, they are not really worth a lot of money now. But the other day an older cousin (older in that she was already grown up and married when I was born) mentioned one of her childhood books to me and I was able to give her some good news.

I had never heard of PARASOLS IS FOR LADIES before. Written by Elizabeth Ritter and illustrated by Ninon MacKnight and first published in 1941, the story concerns three African American sisters who want to own parasols and describes how they go about earning the money to buy them. My cousin, who taught grade school in the late fifties and early sixties, told me she used to take her copy of this book to school and read it to her classes. When she told me that the three sisters live with their “mammy” and the book is written in dialect, I knew this was a book a teacher would no longer share with her students today!

Doing a little research, I discovered that this title is notable as one of the few children’s books from the forties to feature African American characters – but of course controversial due to the dialect and stereotyped illustrations. And it’s now worth a surprisingly amount of money. One site lists eight copies for sale, ranging in price from $300 to $725. (For once I could tell a relative that one of her childhood books is worth a lot of money!)

Is anyone else familiar with this book?


I haven’t read it yet, but there’s a new adult book that might be of interest to fans of children’s book. It’s called MR. TOPPIT and the author is Charles Elton.

According to the author:

Fifteen years ago I began writing Mr. Toppit when I was a literary agent representing the estate of A.A. Milne, author of Winnie-the-Pooh. I learned the story of Milne’s son, Christopher Robin Milne, who grew to hate the fame his father's books brought him. To reshape that idea in a modern context was the single idea that was the genesis of my novel.

During the years I spent writing, another phenomenon occurred in the world of children's book publishing that made Winnie-the-Pooh's fame seem parochial: Harry Potter. Suddenly, my idea of a modern series of children's stories that take over the world did not seem so far-fetched. What had originally been conceived as a small story about my boy hero, Luke Hayman, suddenly made famous by his dead father's books widened into both an examination of the mechanics of fame and a strange journey towards a literary tipping point that has devastating consequences for the characters in my book.

Hmm…sounds intriguing.

Think I’ll track down a copy!


And speaking of books worth seeking out, next week brings the re-publication of THE SECRET RIVER by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. Though the author’s THE YEARLING was published as an adult novel (and won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction), it has been embraced by generations of young readers. THE SECRET RIVER was discovered among the author’s papers after her death and was published specifically for children. Praised for its haunting, surreal narrative and accompany Leonard Weisgard artwork, the title was named a 1955 Newbery Honor Book.

Now the book is being reissued with new illustrations by double Caldecott winners Leo and Diane Dillon:

Should be worth a look!


Are you as sick of the “headless cover illustration” trend as I am?

I have discovered that, with some imagination and a little Scotch Tape, we can alleviate the situation by taping two dustjackets together to create one complete picture.

This week’s example involves two recent middle grade novels: JAKE by Audrey Couloumbis and BECAUSE OF MR. TERUPT by Rob Buyea.

Individually, these cover illustrations seem incomplete. But tape them together and...well, now we’re getting somewhere!


The very first Borders is located in Ann Arbor, Michigan. When I was growing up, I loved visiting Ann Arbor, which was about an hour from where I lived in Detroit, and spending time in that one-of-a-kind store. As time went on, Borders expanded all across the country and was no longer a one-of-a-kind store. In fact, there are now FOUR different Borders stores within ten miles of my house. Although I usually spent my money at the local independent bookstore, there was definitely something to be said for Borders long hours and big selection and I have definitely bought quite a few books there over the years. In recent months, I’ve been reading a lot about Borders experiencing financial problems, but I was shocked when they decided to shut down the closest store to my house. Driving by yesterday, I saw the sign that said “STORE CLOSING. ONLY NINE DAYS LEFT. 40% OFF EVERTHING!” so decided to stop in.

I kind of wish I hadn’t.

Is there anything more miserable than a bookstore going out of business?

First off the entire huge children’s section was CLOSED – with a barrier of empty shelves and furniture blocking access to that section of the store.

All of the fiction shelves were stripped bare.

Scattered here and there throughout the store were a handful of free-standing shelving units containing a variety of leftover, marked-down books that nobody wanted.

It was a sad sight – and I hope not a trend for the future of books and bookstores.


Since we’re on the subject of trends, I was intrigued by a discussion of trends and “marketability” in children’s books that recently turned up on the Horn Book’s “Read Roger” blog.

Michael Grant, who co-wrote the Animorphs series and recently wrote the YA “Gone” series, contributed the following remarks:

Since you asked, here's what I know about the market. It's like duck hunting. (No, I don't shoot ducks.) You don't aim at the duck as it's flying, you aim just in front of the duck. You lead the target. Don't shoot at the vampire, do what my friend Michael Stearns (with Lauren Kate) did, guess what might be next and shoot an angel.

Another example: just before we sold Animorphs everyone was telling us to go after RL Stine's Goosebumps because MG horror was the big thing. We said, no way. First, it would be derivative. Second he owned an existing market and we doubted we could take him. Third, trends have a life span. 5 years give or take and the 5 years was about up. So we led the target, guessed sci fi and shot a duck.

Mr. Grant’s remarks have sure gotten me thinking.

Yeah, right now it’s all about vampires and the undead and dystopias, but where are children’s and young adult books headed in the next couple years?

What trends can we expect?

If you were going to aim “just in front of the duck,” what would you shoot at?

I’m thinking the dystopia thing has just about worn out its welcome. But what comes after controlled, doomed societies? Maybe stories of rebirth? I’m not sure exactly what that means or how it would play out literarily…. Hopefully not in a spate of novels on teenage mothers. (Though with the recent TV interest in “teen mom” TV shows – not to mention the popularity of Bristol P – I would not be surprised.)

I also wouldn’t be surprised if our current economic woes found their way into children’s books. I guess it could happen in one of two ways – we could either see a trend toward historical fiction in which long-ago characters face impoverishment (i.e. the Great Depression, the first settlers, etc.) or we could go in exactly the opposite direction. During the Depression of the 1930s, many movies featured wealthy society types…so maybe children’s books will also focus on the rich and privileged as a form of wish fulfillment.

It seems like many trends just take current literary themes and view them from a different angle. One classic theme in children’s books is MICE. There’s Stuart Little and Lily and Poppy. There’s a mouse on a motorcycle and another one eating a cookie. Redwall is infested with them. And now I see Lois Lowry’s got a new mouse story coming out. It's a standing rule of children's literature: If you’re despereaux to write a hit book, write about mice! But the thought occurs to me that no one has ever written a YA problem novel about mice. Could that be a future trend? Teenage mice misunderstood by their parents. Delinquent mice. Mice on drugs. Adolescent mice concerned with body image issues (“Is my tail long enough? Why won’t my whiskers grow?”) Clique-ish mean-girl mice attending Rodent High. Pregnant teenage mice (“One moment of passion and now she has a litter of fifteen mouths to feed.”)

It’s an idea.

Okay, I didn’t say it was a good idea, but it’s an idea.

What trends in children’s books do YOU see coming in 2011 and beyond?


Anonymous said...

But the thought occurs to me that no one has ever written a YA problem novel about mice.

LOL... That's it, I'm doing it. Maybe diary-style, like Go Ask Alice for a murine cheese addict.

Melody Marie Murray said...

Having a fire on Christmas Eve is straight out of A Child's Christmas In Wales! You're lucky there weren't small boys throwing snowballs into the smoke.

Kaethe said...

I think you're already behind on the mice/problem thing. Because each beloved installment of Babymouse does address a different middle grade sort of problem (her whiskers are unmanageable, not straight).

So, when you finally got past the fire, where you cozy in your reading chair? That strikes me as an ideal place to be on Christmas Eve.

CLM said...

Intrepid orphans never go out of style but I hope no mice or squirrels are involved.

I set off the smoke detector in my new home on Thanksgiving trying out my fireplace (and attempting to keep my guests adequately warm). It was quite depressing because I was trying to generate heat but to get rid of the smoke I had to open the front door and let all the cold air in. I bought a new space heater the next day.

P. J. Grath said...

I did literally laugh out loud over the "contained fire." Loved the Mother Goose and am happy to hear about the re-issue of Rawling's book. Happy new year!

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Teri-K said...

Please forgive me for saying -I'm not really happy with you right now! It's 2:33 AM and I can't stop reading your blog!!! I've added several books to my "Books I have to Track Down for my Grandkids" list. (I only have one grandkid so far, and he's just 11 months old. But it's never too early, right? His Dad bought him Are You my Mother? for Christmas, and they've already worn out The Hungry Caterpillar,so I guess I did something right.)
Anyway, your blog is wonderful. I'm forcing myself to stop, though. I need some rest. But before I go, can you help me remember a book I always confuse with Henry Reed? I think the boy does magic tricks, and has a lemonade stand at some point. Not much to go on, I know. But it might ring a bell for you.
I'm trying to collect good books for boys, along with my Newbery and Caldicott Collections.
Thanks, and GOOD NIGHT!

Teri-K said...

It came to me in the middle of the night -- The Lemonade Trick by Scott Corbett. (I'd been searching Lemonade Stand.)
Anyway, I love your blog and look forward to much more happy reading in the coming year.
The pastiche of book covers is brilliant!

Unknown said...

The Mouse and His Child... I'm almost afraid to read it because I might have imagined how good it is.

I've been saying chickens are the new vampires for so long. It's about time I got with the program-- mice.

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RatChatReviews said...

Can't wait for the actual Newbery and Caldecott Awards!

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Marianne Khol said...

I have a copy of Parasols is for Ladies by Ritter.
It is a delightful story and yet of course, disturbing to us in our current society... but such a lovely story. This book sells for $150-$800 on various websites. So apparently, it is now collectible due to the racially politically incorrent-ness of its theme. But then again, it is part of history and for that, it has value. The story stands alone as wonderful.

Marianne Khol said...

I have a copy of Parasols is for Ladies by Ritter.
It is a delightful story and yet of course, disturbing to us in our current society... but such a lovely story. This book sells for $150-$800 on various websites. So apparently, it is now collectible due to the racially politically incorrent-ness of its theme. But then again, it is part of history and for that, it has value. The story stands alone as wonderful.

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