Sunday, February 20, 2011

A Sunday Brunch with Urban Legends

Today’s Sunday brunch blog discusses my adventures as a newbie on Facebook, pays tribute to Margaret K. McElderry, presents some urban legends concerning children’s books, and identifies “three little words” I hate to hear.


After much foot dragging, I’ve finally opened up a Facebook account.

I’m still not exactly sure how it all works.

I guess I should have gone to see that SOCIAL NETWORK movie.

But you’re welcome to join me as I wander Facebook land in a daze; just send a friend request to Peter D. Sieruta.


I spent all last evening staring at the “favorite books” section on Facebook, frozen with uncertainty. How can I POSSIBLY choose a handful of titles? There are far too many to choose from. And what if I leave something out?

I’m curious about how other fellow-readers feel.

Do you have one all-time favorite book? (If so, what is it???)

If you can’t narrow it down to one, do you have a list of five…ten…twenty favorites?

Does the list pretty much stay the same or does it change and evolve over time…maybe depending on your life circumstances…or your mood?

Or do you simply find it impossible to limit a booklist at all?

I’d be curious to hear your responses!


On this same topic: How many times have you come across an interview or biographical profile or online survey in which the respondent is asked for a list of favorite books…or books that have been important to his or her life…and the response is:


I hate seeing those three little words.

They seem so sad. So empty. So lonely.

I feel like I can’t – or shouldn’t be able to -- relate to anyone who would say those words.

But of course I do. I personally know a ton of people to whom those words apply. Some are family members. Some are friends. I’ve worked in libraries all my life and have even known librarians who don’t read books, or who claim that they don’t really enjoy reading.

But still, what a depressing one to describe oneself: “Not a reader.”


Speaking of depressing, how many Borders bookstores are closing in your area? We had one close just after Christmas and now four more Detroit-area locations are set to shutter.

But, to use a cliché, it’s an ill wind that doesn’t blow some good.

And I’m hoping that these closings bring a few more customers into their local independent bookstores. Today on Facebook, I saw this excellent list of “Independent Alternatives to Closed Borders Bookstores. Check it out!

And with all the talk of government budget cuts, I found this great story on Facebook as well:

When Winston Churchill was asked to cut arts funding in favor of the war effort, he simply replied “ Then what are we fighting for?”
Unfortunately, when I tried to track down the exact source of this quote, I came up empty-handed. It appears to be apocryphal. But doesn’t it sound like something he would have said? Or might have said? Or should have said?

Oh well, sometimes fiction is better than fact!


Learning that the Churchill quote was an urban legend, I paid a visit to everyone’s favorite myth-busting website,, to see if there were any urban legends out there specific to children’s books.

And several good tales turned up!

Ever heard this one:

One interesting story about Baum is that he used to hold "story hour" for all the neighborhood children; they would come to his home and gather in his study, where Baum would make up fantastic stories off the top of his head. One day he began a story about some characters who travel to an imaginary world to meet a great wizard; a little voice piped up wanting to know the name of the land. Baum looked around his study and his eyes rested on a file cabinet with two labels: A-N and O-Z; thus he created the land of "OZ.”

True or not?

In 1903, L. Frank Baum seemed to confirm part this story (leaving out the stuff about neighborhood story hours) in a press release marking a new edition of the book:

I have a little cabinet letter file on my desk that is just in front of me. I was thinking and wondering about a title for the story, and had settled on the "Wizard" as part of it. My gaze was caught by the gilt letters on the three drawers of the cabinet. The first was A-G; the next drawer was labeled H-N; and on the last were the letters O-Z. And "Oz" it at once became.

However, forty year later his wife would deny this story, saying:

The word Oz came out of Mr. Baum's mind, just as did his queer characters. No one or anything suggested the word — or any person. This is a fact.

She even italicized the last four words in order to prove her point.

Scopes lists this legend as “undetermined.”

And did you hear the one about the Dr. Seuss book banned due to graphic violence and references to suicide?

Not true, as it turns out.

The volume in question, DO YOU KNOW WHAT I’M GOING TO DO NEXT SATURDAY? was not even written by Dr. Seuss, but by his first wife, Helen Palmer. It was, however, published as part of the “I Can Read It All By Myself” Beginner Books series, which is represented by the Cat in the Hat logo, so perhaps the confusion was understandable.

This urban legend got its start as a joke, when a man printed the text of Palmer’s book online without the accompanying illustrations.

Lines such as:

Did you ever beat
more than one kid at a time?
Well, I'm going to beat
five kids at a time.

And then I'm going to beat
their fathers, too.

sound a little violent, until you realize the accompanying photographic illustrations depict the narrator beating five kids and their fathers at table tennis and volleyball.

And this bit sounds pretty serious:

Next Saturday I'll blow my head off.
No one is going to stop me next Saturday.

Unless you can see that it’s accompanied by this picture:

Finally, there’s the oft-repeated story about how television’s Fonzie caused a 500% increase in the number of kids applying for library cards.

When the sitcom HAPPY DAYS began in the 1970s, Fonzie was just a supporting character who appeared for a few minutes in each episode. But he soon became a pop culture phenomenon and basically took over the show. In one 1977, Fonzie was shown receiving his first library card. The Los Angeles Times would later state: “After the show — where Fonzie told how important it was to read — the American Library Assn. (ALA) reported that the number of library cards among kids 9 to 14 increased 500%"

Not true.

Years later, the American Library Association responded to this urban legend:

The American Library Association has been unable to document an increase in signups of the magnitude suggested by Winkler [referring to Henry Winkler, who played the role of Fonzie.] Only a few states track the number of library cards held with any reliability, and there is no report in ALA's American Libraries or in any other library press periodical telling of a surge in signups in the months following the episode.

Check out for more of these stories -- including one that explains “how a short-term holiday promotion [for POLAR EXPRESS] turned into a cybernightmare” for Houghton Mifflin and another about a penguin abduction.

…Did the latter urban legend inspire the picture book TINA AND THE PENGUIN by Heather Dyer?


Editor extraordinaire Margarert K. McElderry died this week just a few months before her 99th birthday.

I first encountered the name “Margaret K. McElderry” in the early seventies when she began publishing books under her own imprint at Atheneum. The books quickly won me over (I still love two of her earliest books from Atheneum -- A PIECE OF THE WORLD by Mildred Walker and NO WAY OF TELLING by Emma Smith.) Within a year or so she had published Susan Cooper’s THE DARK IS RISING, which likely cemented her imprint’s importance from that point on.

Little did I know, as a young teenager, that she had the first named imprint in American children’s books as a reward for an already long and storied career -- first working with the famous Anne Carroll Moore at the New York Public Library and later as editor of Harcourt Brace, where she was known for publishing international books and, in 1952, became the first person to edit both the Newbery winner (GINGER PYE by Eleanor Estes) and Caldecott winner (FINDERS KEEPERS, illustrated by Nicholas Mordvinoff and written by William Lipkind) for the same year.

This week I came across an article about Ms. McElderry, written by Betsy Hearne and published in Library Trends magazine in 1996. I enjoyed this peek into the relationship between the young Margaret McElderry and her formidable boss at the New York library:

As you will have guessed, the situation was extremely formal, and Miss Moore expected perfect discipline. . . . Marjorie Burbank [Anne Carroll Moore’s senior assistant] always brought jelly beans to the office around Eatertime, and it turned out she could perform a remarkable feat. She could balance ajelly bean on the tips of her fingers, palm upward, then hit the heel of the palm with her other hand. This made the bean jump up into the air. Marjorie would then skillfully catch it in her mouth. Well, could I do that? No! The bean would always shoot off in the wrong direction and I’d have to scramble after it. Naturally, I was deter-mined to master this trick which, incidentally, we never did if Miss Moore or Miss Davis, or anyone else, were around.

One morning, with great concentration, I placed the jelly bean just so, hit the heel of my hand smartly, and opened my mouth wide. Miraculously, the bean fell right into my mouth, but also right down my windpipe-and there it stuck. For a few seconds, my breath was cut off, and I knew I might die if I couldn’t dislodge the jelly bean, but even greater than that fear was the fear that Miss Moore might suddenly arrive and find me gagging to death in the corner.

Incidentally, Ms. McElderry was the first NYPL children’s room employee allowed to wear short sleeves in the summer – though “the sleeves came right down to the elbows.” Her New York Times obituary this week noted that she was “known for her elegant personal style, although she deigned to wear jeans for casual Fridays.” The newspaper did not mention that she was well in her eighties at the time. Similarly, the Times reported that Ms. McElderry married Storer D. Lunt, president of W.W. Norton publishers, when she was in her sixties, but did not add that she was married in Green Knowe, the famous British home featured in Lucy M. Boston’s classic children’s novels . Ms. Boston was one of “her” authors. In a Horn Book profile, Ms. McElderry told interviewer Leonard Marcus, “We became very dear friends. I was married from her house, and she gave me away, which I didn't know a woman could do. But apparently it could be done — though she claimed that my husband and I were never legally married!”

The news of Ms. McElderry’s death was sad, but she lived a long life and continued working until just a few years ago. And as long as her name continues to appear on the spine and title pages of each new “Margaret K. McElderry Book,” her legacy will continue. Incidentally, do you know how to pronounce her name? For years and years, I pronounced it “Mick-Elderry,” sort of rhyming the last section with the word “elderly.” It wasn’t until a couple years ago that I learned it was pronounced “Mackel-dairy.”

I still don’t know what the K stands for.


About a dozen year ago, my bookstore friend told me that Ms. McElderry and author X.J. Kennedy had come in her store to browse. I was shocked. Things like that don’t happen here in the Midwest! It turns out that the author and editor were visiting metro Detroit for a conference. I asked my friend if she’d talked to Ms. McElderry and she said she didn’t want to bother her. I can relate. I’d be probably too shy to approach her as well. What do you say to someone that famous and important? It might not even be good form to ask her to sign a “Margaret K. McElderry Book” since I wasn’t sure if editors ever sign the books they publish.

It turns out they do -- at least sometimes.

A couple years later I came across a copy of Elizabeth Enright’s TATSINDA, which Ms. McElderry had published at Harcourt Brace:

Not only was it signed by Elizabeth Enright and illustrator Irene Haas, but Ms. McElderry had signed it as well!

What a trio!


Last month I mentioned that the new novel ACROSS THE UNIVERSE by Beth Revis utilized the usually-blank space on the inside of its dustjacket to include a blueprint illustration. I wondered why more publishers didn’t use this “empty space” and blog reader Jen responded, “The back of the dust jacket is usually blank (or white) because it costs money--generally LOTS of money--to print on the reverse side (also known as 4 over 4--4 color over 4 color). It's not really wasted space so much as extremely pricey.”

But now I’m wondering if we aren’t seeing a new trend.

The just-out novel YOU KILLED WESLEY PAYNE by Sean Beaudoin features this dustjacket:

But beneath has a completely different cover illustration:

And it too contains an image on the inside of the dj:

Incidentally, the title page of the book contains a note that says, “Remove jacket cover to reveal free clique poster! Don’t go clueless!” An asterisk points to this note at the bottom of the page:

Has some knob already stolen the dust jacket? Just turn the page, friend. You can also go to to download the ultra-free clique poster and index. Or, hey, you could lift mom’s gold card and just buy another copy of this book. Totally up to you.

By the way, the front flap of the dustjacket contains this promise: “It’ll tease you, please you, and never ever leave you. Actually that’s not true. It’s only a book.”

Hard to resist a YA novel with this kind of ‘tude.


I hope that Michelle Koh, webmaster of the outstanding M.E. Kerr website won’t mind me stealing one of her stories to share with you here. But it’s got all the components of a typical Collecting Children’s Books post, since it concerns two children’s book creators, a rare long-forgotten volume, and my perpetual theme of how poorly writers are often treated.

The creators are writer Marijane Meaker -- ten years before she became YA legend M.E. Kerr -- and illustrator Polly Cameron, known for children’s books such as “I CAN’T,” SAID THE ANT. In the early sixties, the two friends collaborated on a novelty book for adults, A GUIDE TO THE HANGOVER, a cautionary comic volume on the dangers of over-imbibing. It was published in an oversized format by Dell and the creators hoped to appear on the TODAY show on New Year’s morning to promote their book. That didn’t came to pass and the book never became a big bestseller. When I checked online a few years ago, it appeared that only one library in the country even owned a copy.

Needless to say, neither Marijane Meaker nor Polly Cameron became a millionaire from this book. This is a royalty statement Ms. Meaker received from her literary agent:

In case you can’t read that, it says:

Dear Miss Meaker: For your convenience, we are enclosing stamps for 43 cents representing your 50% share of Kanrom Inc. royalty payment for A GUIDE TO THE HANGOVER per enclosed statement for the six months ending December 31, 1965. Sincerely, Marian Irving, Treasurer

Today, A GUIDE TO THE HANGOVER is quite a rare find for book collectors. Prices start at $40 for copy of this unusual book -- if you can find one.

And Ms. Meaker never bothered to use the stamps she received as a royalty payment -- she framed them with the letter and now displays them on her wall!

Thanks for visiting Collecting Children’s Books. Hope you’ll return for more. Don't forget to "friend" me on Facebook!


Linda said...

Peter, when people ask me what my favorite book is, I tell them that's like asking Olivia Walton which of the seven kids is her favorite. Perhaps to give it a literary bent it could become "like asking Lillian Gilbreth which of the children was her favorite." :-) I just list as many as they let me.

Brer said...

The story about Churchill reminds me of a quote from C. S. Lewis. When speaking of, among other things, art, he said "It has no survival value; rather it is one those things that give value to survival."

I've sometimes tried to make a list of the twenty books I would have to take with me on, say, a desert island, and it's changed over the years, but it's always included The Hobbit, The Wizard of Oz, and Alice in Wonderland.

P. J. Grath said...

Favorites: WIND IN THE WILLOWS: Harlan Hubbard’s SHANTYBOAT; Austen’s PRIDE AND PREJUDICE and PERSUASIAN; THE BORROWERS; Palmer Brown’s THE SILVER NUTMEG; Walter Farley’s THE ISLAND STALLION; THE LAST TIME I SAW PARIS, by Elliot Paul; THE HORRORS OF LOVE, by Paul Dutourd; MALABAR FARM, by Louis Bromfield. I could go on, and different years and different moods would continue the list differently, but these books have been on my list for many years and always will be.

My painter husband and I (the bookseller) loved the Churchill quote, whether he ever said it or not.

Unknown said...

I sincerely believe that we (educators, librarians, and prolific readers) need to change the definition of "reading". I too hear variations on "I Hate to Read" (when I tell people I'm a librarian) only to find out that they read magazines, or role playing games online. If the defintion of "reading" continues to mean "I read fiction" then don't we just end up creating more "non-readers" than "readers"?

Laura Canon said...

I feel the same way about naming favorite books. If you gave me 24 hours, the run of my library and a very large piece of paper I might be able to get started...

Chris in NY said...

I can't list favorite books on Facebook- too many would have to be left out. Have tried and I just can't do it. Maybe someday when I 10+ hours to kill.

Michelle said...

Great blog! I also love that 43 cent stamp story and am glad to see it repeated here!

Cindy Dobrez said...

A student asked me yesterday what my favorite book was. I responded quickly with my standard answer, "Usually the last one I've read." I find it impossible to do. I can give lots of books I love, but to list a favorite is impossible.