Friday, March 25, 2011

A Sunday Brunch with Fire and Water

Today's Sunday Brunch recognizes Laura Adams Armer and other children's book creators who have been honored by both the Newbery and Caldecott committees, discusses a "novelization" of a TV movie that has been in print for an astonishing three decades, and notes the recent passing of that famous children's book author Elizabeth Taylor.


Just heard that Paul Fleischman and Chris Raschka are the American nominees for the 2012 Hans Christian Andersen Award. These awards are presented every two years to a living author and illustrator for their complete body of work. Paul Fleischman's father, Sid Fleischman, was the American nominee for this award in 1994. I haven't seen a complete list of all the 2012 nominees, but I did read that Philip Pullman and John Burningham are representing Great the competition is already tough!


Winning an Academy Award changes your life. Actress Sissy Spacek may have summed it up best: "On my obit it will say, 'Oscar-winner Sissy Spacek,'" she said, adding, "It's like being knighted."

The same is no doubt true of winning the Newbery Medal.

For some writers, it’s a culmination of decades of work. Others get lucky the first time out of the box. That’s how it was for Laura Adams Armer, who wrote her first book at age fifty-seven. When her debut novel, WATERLESS MOUNTAIN, won the 1932 Newbery Medal, Ms. Armer had never even heard of the award, and her acceptance speech reflected that attitude, ending with this underwhelming sentiment: “It is pleasant that you considered it the most distinguished book for children publisher in 1931.”

Yet when she died over three decades later, her obit probably did begin “Newbery winner Laura Adams Armer died today….”

That’s certainly how I always thought of her…when I thought of her at all.

To be honest, I only read her Newbery-winning novel -- an episodic tale about a Navajo boy who dreams of becoming a medicine man -- once as a child and remember being bored by it. Perhaps I need to give it a second chance as an adult. From what I’ve read, it appears that early reviewers praised the author's portrait of the Navajo as authentic, but more recent critics have found the tone patronizing. I'd be curious to know what Dr. Debbie Reese, who writes the American Indians in Children's Literature blog thinks of the book.

I knew that Laura and her husband Sidney were both credited with the artwork in WATERLESS MOUNTAIN. Most of the illustrations are his, a few are hers, and in this one she drew the deer and he completed the background:

It was not until this week, however, that I realized Ms. Armer is probably better known as a visual artist than a writer. It started when a good friend of mine bought a copy of THE FOREST POOL, a title both written and illustrated by Laura Adams Armer which was named a 1939 Caldecott Honor Book.

I tracked down a copy of the book at my library and read it this week. The story, about two Mexican boys hoping to catch an iguana, is fairly negligible -- far too wordy for a “picture book” and with an element of mysticism that seems forced and a prose style that tries too hard to sound poetic. However, the flat, richly-colored ink-and-opaque illustrations are terrific. Some critics have compared them to the work of Gaugin, though most commentators see the influence of Diego Rivera:

Creating a picture book probably came more naturally to Laura Adams Armer than writing a novel. She had trained at the San Francisco School of Art for six years, then worked as a photographer and artist for much of her life. Although she made her first trip through the American Southwest in 1902, it was her return trips in the early 1920s that truly fired her imagination. She photographed and painted Native Americans, sometimes blending both talents (the cover of WATERLESS MOUNTAIN, shown above, is a painting based on one of her photographs.) She gained access to Native ceremonies and was the first to copy Navajo sand paintings; her requests had originally been turned down because this was considered a sacred ceremony, but she was later allowed to photograph them if sacred elements were left out of the paintings.

She also wrote, produced and directed a film of the Navajo "mountain chant" ceremony which, when shown to audience, was narrated by Navojo Indians in their own language. Many of Ms. Armer's artworks are owned by museums; the mountain chant movie is owned by the Wheelwright Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

I do not know whether these examples of visual art are held in high regard these days, though I do have evidence that Armer strove for authenticity in her work. I have one bit of Laura Adams Armer memorabilia in my collection -- a 1923 letter that references a model shooting in which she mentions reversing some of the prints so that the model's left shoulder was bared in "Hopi fashion."

On a lighter note, I laughed when I read that Laura Armer used her son as a nude photographic model from the time he was an infant until he finally age sixteen. Now THAT would have made an interesting young adult novel!

Examining Laura Adams Armer's career, it appears she was talented in many areas. Although she remains known today mostly as a writer because she was lucky enough to join that small pantheon of Newbery winners, I suspect her best work -- and her greatest love -- was for the visual arts.


Laura Adams Armer may have snagged both a Newbery Medal and a Caldecott Honor, but she's not the only multi-talented creator to score with both major award committees.

Here are fourteen more:

Robert Lawson remains the only person to actually WIN both awards. He received the Caldecott in 1941 for THEY WERE STRONG AND GOOD and the Newbery in 1945 for RABBIT HILL. He also had two Caldecott Honors (FOUR AND TWENTY BLACKBIRDS, 1938; WEE GILLIS, 1939) and one Newbery Honor (THE GREAT WHEEL, 1958.)

Dorothy Lathrop won the first Caldecott Medal (ANIMALS OF THE BIBLE, 1938) but also had a 1932 Newbery Honor, THE FAIRY CIRCUS.

Ludwig Bemelmans got a 1937 Newbery Honor for writing THE GOLDEN BASKET and went on to win the 1954 Caldecott Award for illustrating MADELINE’S RESCUE.

William Steig won the Caldecott in 1970 for SYLVESTER AND THE MAGIC PEBBLE and had a 1976 Caldecott Honor with THE AMAZING BONE; he received two Newbery Honors for ABEL’S ISLAND (1977) and DR. DESOTO (1983.)

Another double-duty creator, Arnold Lobel won the 1981 Caldecott for FABLES and had Honors with FROG AND TOAD ARE FRIENDS in 1971 and HILIDID’S NIGHT in 1972; meanwhile FROG AND TOAD TOGETHER garnered a Newbery Honor in 1973.

Tomie DePaola had a 1976 Caldecott Honor (STREGA NONA) and a 2000 Newbery Honor (26 FAIRMOUNT AVENUE.)

Kevin Henkes won the 2005 Caldecott for KITTEN’S FIRST FULL MOON, and has a 1994 Caldecott Honor (OWEN) in addition to a 2004 Newbery Honor (OLIVE’S OCEAN.)

Wanda Gag had two Newbery Honors (MILLIONS OF CATS, 1929; ABC BUNNY, 1934) and two Caldecott Honors (SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS, 1939; NOTHING AT ALL, 1942.) Classics all.

James Daughtery won the 1940 Newbery for DANIEL BOONE and had a 1939 Honor Book with ANDY AND THE LION and a 1957 Honor with GILLESPIE AND THE GUARDS.

Holling C. Holling had a pair of Newbery Honor Books (SEABIRD, 1949; MINN OF THE MISSISSIPPI) and one Caldecott Honor (PADDLE TO THE SEA, 1942.)

Mary and Conrad Buff won Newbery Honors for BIG TREE (1947), THE APPLE AND THE ARROW (1952) and MAGIC MAIZE (1954), in addition to a 1943 Caldecott Honor for DASH AND DART.

Marguerite de Angeli won the 1950 Newbery for DOOR IN THE WALL and had a 1957 Honor with BLACK FOX OF LORNE; she got Caldecott Honors for YONIE WONDERNOSE (1945) and BOOK OF NURSERY AND MOTHER GOOSE RHYMES (1945.)

Kate Seredy won the 1937 Newbery for WHITE STAG and had a pair of Newbery Honors with THE GOOD MASTER (19353) and THE SINGING TREE (1940). She also received a 1945 Caldecott Honor for THE CHRISTMAS ANNA ANGEL.

William Pene du Bois won the 1948 Newbery for THE 21 BALLOONS and received a Caldecott Honor in 1952 for BEAR PARTY and again in 1957 for LION.


Thirty years ago, the ABC television network produced a forty-four minute film called THE WAVE.

The story was based on a real-life incident in which high school history teacher Ron Jones, teaching a Holocaust unit and struggling to understand how so many Germans could have blindly followed Hitler, conducted an experiment with one of his classes. Using the motto, "Strength through discipline, strength through community, strength through action, strength through pride,” Jones enforced strict discipline in his classroom, taught his students a special “salute,” and established a near-militant group mentality in less than one week. He wrote an essay about this experience for THE WHOLE EARTH CATALOG. The movie based on this article was originally scheduled as an ABC Afterschool Special, but when network executives watched THE WAVE, they felt it was powerful enough for prime-time and ran the show one evening in October 1981. (It was eventually broadcast as an Afterschool Special in 1984.) THE WAVE, which starred Bruce Davison as the teacher, won both an Emmy and a Peabody Award.

A paperback “novelization” of THE WAVE was published to coincide with the TV broadcast. Television and movie “tie-ins” are still published today, but the 1960s through 1980s were their heyday. Produced by unknown writers (or well-known authors using pseudonyms) these cheap paperback potboilers are usually written for a flat fee (rather than the standard advance plus royalties deal) and have few literary aspirations (the prose style is serviceable at best.) By its very nature, a TV or movie novelization nearly always enjoys a brief lifespan, disappearing from bookstore shelves within a few weeks or months of publication. I assume the same was expected of THE WAVE. Written by an unknown author named “Morton Rhue” and published by Laurel Leaf on September 15, 1981, who could have predicted this book would still be in print thirty years later? Last evening I picked up a copy at the bookstore and noticed the novel is now in its jaw-dropping fifty-eighth printing! I suspect there are other movie novelizations that have sold more copies during their first big flush of success (I recall William Kotzwinkle’s version of E.T. : THE EXTRATERRESTRIAL being huge) but has there ever been another novelization that has remained consistently in print for three decades? Especially one aimed at a young-adult audience?

I mentioned that the book was initially attributed to Morton Rhue. The copy I saw at the bookstore last night looked like this:

Soon after the book's publication, it was revealed that young adult author Todd Strasser was its actual author. Back in 1981, he'd only written two YA novels (ANGEL DUST BLUES and FRIENDS TO THE END) and opted to use a pen name for this work-for-hire novel. He has since gone on to write over one hundred books for young readers, including the recent, hard-hitting BOOT CAMP and the just-released FAMOUS. His real name now appears on the over of THE WAVE as well. To be honest, THE WAVE doesn't reveal much of the usual Strasser finesse; the writing is flat, the characterizations shallow. That's not untypical of TV novelizations.

Yet one has to ask what has made this particular novelization so popular for such a long time? I think it's safe to say that the appeal of this unnuanced novel isn't really about the characters, or the dialogue, or the quality of its prose; it's all about the MESSAGE. And Strasser's novel delivers that in spades. Young readers are fascinated by THE WAVE'S blatant lessons about peer pressure, mind control, the corruption of power, and the plight of one individual (in this case, student Laurie Saunders) against the system. Another factor in the book's popularity is that the 1981 film is still shown in schools, and the novelization continues to be assigned for book reports. I was fascinated to learn that THE WAVE has struck a particular chord in Germany. In an article from the ALAN Review , Susan Stan reported that this book -- DIE WELLE -- is considered "a significant turning point in German youth literature." Germany has released its own movie-version of Strasser's book (a film based on a novelization -- how's that for a twist?) as well as a graphic novel version of the story.

In this country, the book has gone through many editions (including some in hardcover) and shows no signs of stopping. According to, THE WAVE is their top-selling Todd Strasser book.

After thirty years!

I hope Mr. Strasser didn't write this volume for the standard "flat fee" novelization rate, but continues to receive royalties for producing this monster hit!


When Elizabeth Taylor died this past week, the newspapers praised her beauty, talent, and humanitarian work...but nobody said anything about children's books!

But looking at this Hollywood legend's filmography, I was struck by how many of her film roles were based on books for young people.

One of her first movies was LASSIE COME HOME, adapted from the book by Eric Knight. Then there was NATIONAL VELVET, based on the novel by Enid Bagnold. There was her performance as Amy in LITTLE WOMEN, as well as work in movies made from classic novels that are read by both adults and kids, including IVANHOE, JANE EYRE, and LIFE WITH FATHER. Then there was A PLACE IN THE SUN, whose true-crime source material would later inspire the Printz Honor Book A NORTHERN LIGHT by Jennifer Donnelly.

But did you know that she also wrote a children's book? Long before the current "celebrity author" trend, thirteen-year-old Elizabeth Taylor penned a memoir of life with her pet chipmunk, Nibbles, who was given to her while making the first Lassie movie. Originally published by Duell, Sloan, and Pearce in 1946, NIBBLES AND ME was reissued a few years back by Simon and Schuster. I reviewed it at the time (a few years ago, I mean. Not in aleck) and thought the writing was a bit precious, but was really impressed by what a good artist Elizabeth was; her drawings of Nibbles show talent far beyond her age. If you're interested in seeing the book, the 2002 reissue is available at many used bookstores for less then ten dollars. The 1946 edition is considerably more pricey. I've seen copies of the original book, signed by both Nibbles and Elizabeth Taylor, listed from $500 to $2200. A lot of money, true. But, as one book dealer jokingly noted, "Books signed by chipmunks are rare."


Friday marked the one hundredth anniversary of a landmark American tragedy -- the fire at New York's Triangle Shirtwaist Company. This event is remembered in a new book for young people by Albert Marrin, FLESH & BLOOD SO CHEAP : THE TRIANGLE FIRE AND ITS LEGACY.

Marrin's clear text capably explores the historical events -- such as mass immigrations from Europe at the turn of the twentieth century -- and social conditions -- including the hardships of tenement life -- that lead to creation of the American sweatshop. Although this information is integral to the narrative, it takes quite a while before the book's focus shifts specifically to the events at the Triangle Factory, and a powerful account of the events of March 25, 1911. The volume shows how this tragedy, in which lives of 146 workers (mostly young women) were lost, led to necessary labor and political reforms, but also acknowledges that sweatshops are still flourishing overseas and, perhaps even more troubling, are illegally operating once again in New York City at present. Illustrated with black-and-white archival images, the text is printed in double columns (unfortunately reminiscent of many textbooks) and documented by endnotes and a thorough bibliography.


THE TRIANGLE SHIRTWAIST FACTORY FIRE by Elaine Landau / Children's Press, 2009
THE TRIANGLE SHIRTWAIST FACTORY FIRE by Donna Getzinger / Morgan Reynolds, 2008
THE TRIANGLE SHIRTWAIST FACTORY FIRE by Mark Tyler Nobleman / Compass, 2008
THE TRIANGLE SHIRTWAIST FACTORY FIRE by Brenda Lange / Chelsea House, 2008
(geez, they all the exact same title!)
THE TRIANGLE SHIRTWAIST FACTORY FIRE by Jacqueline Dember Greene / Bearport, 2007
THE TRIANGLE SHIRTWAIST FACTORY FIRE by Jessica Gunderson / Capstone, 2006 (this one's presented in a "graphic novel" format)
THE TRIANGLE SHIRTWAIST FACTORY FIRE OF 1911 by Janell Broyles (unfortunate last name, considering the subject) / Rosen, 2004
THE TRIANGLE SHIRTWAIST FACTORY FIRE by A.R. Schaefer / World Almanac, 2003
THE TRIANGLE SHIRTWAIST COMPANY FIRE OF 1911 by Gina M. De Angelis / Chelsea House, 2000
THE TRIANGLE FACTORY FIRE by Victoria Sherrow / Millbrook, 1995

THREADS AND FLAMES by Esther Friesner / Viking, 2010
UPRISING by Margaret Peterson Haddix / Simon, 2007
HEAR MY SORROW : THE DIARY OF ANGELA DENOTO, A SHIRTWAIST WORKER by Deborah Hopkinson / Scholastic, 2004 (part of the "Dear America" series)
ASHES OF ROSES by Mary Jane Auch / Holt, 2002
FIRE! : THE BEGINNINGS OF THE LABOR MOVEMENT by Barbara Diamond Goldin / Puffin, 1997
FIRE AT THE TRIANGLE FACTORY by Holly Littlefield / Carolrhoda Books, 1995


Thanks to everyone who wrote in with comments and questions last week. I was particularly interested in seeing how widespread the "pinching on St. Pat's" tradition was, considering I'd never heard of it before. Apparently it's done all over this country...but not in Ireland!

I had asked if this pinching custom or our "birthday spanking" tradition had ever turned up in a children's book. Helen Schinske said she remembers birthday spankings from LITTLE HOUSE IN THE BIG WOODS and an anonymous reader wrote to say:

Try Chapter Eleven, "The Wearing of the Green" of the book Kid Sister by Margaret Embry (1958), which says, "The next day was St. Patrick's Day, and in the excitement of having Rosemary at school, Zib completely forgot to wear something green. By recess time her arms were so sore from having all the other kids pinch her and yell "Greenie on you!" she decided she'd ask Miss Barnes if she could stay inside and look through the supply cupboard for a piece of green crepe paper to make herself a hair ribbon."

Thanks Helen and Anonymous for these great examples!

...And thank you for reading Collecting Children's Books. Hope you'll be back. I definitely intend to do a blog or two before next Sunday, so please keep checking back!


CLM said...

Some of my favorite author/ illustrators are Lois Lenski, known for Judy's Journey and her Betsy-Tacy illustrations; John Verney, February's Road, Friday's Tunnel, Ismo (did not realize he had died; N.M. Bodecker, illustrator of Edward Eager and Evan Commager but also the author of several charming books; and Victor Ambrus, who illustrated some of my favorite books growin up, including those by K.M. Peyton, Nicholas Stuart Gray, Hester Burton, Madeleine Polland, Barbara Sleigh, and many others. He also wrote a handful of books himself, although these are much less known.

Debbie Reese said...

I thought I posted a comment yesterday but don't see it now...


I'll try again.

What I wrote yesterday was that the illustrations you shared of WATERLESS MTN reflect Pueblo people, not Navajo people.

I'm going to the library now to get a copy of the book.

Peter D. Sieruta said...

Hi Debbie,

Your previous note somehow got posted in the "comments" section of my March 12 blog.

It's not very promising that the illustrations do not appear to be correct for the culture depicted in the book. I hate to think how many mistakes will turn up in the actual text of WATERLESS MOUNTAIN. I think that Laura Adams Armer TRIED to write a novel that was respectful of the Native culture, but have no way of knowing how well she actually succeeded. I'm glad you're going to read the book now, as I would love to hear your expert thoughts on this Newbery winner!


Peter D. Sieruta said...


Each of the illustrators you mention is so different in style; you must have a very wide-range of taste. I love Lois Lenski and N.M. Bodecker's artwork as well. Victor Ambrus takes me back to my childhood too, as Hester Burton and K.M. Peyton were very popular in the States when I was a kid. I read some of Burton's books, but I'm not sure if I ever read any of Peyton's. I guess I'd better head to the library and check them out!


Anonymous said...

Looks like "The Wave" is due for a remake. Maybe with Matt Damon as the teacher? Hallie Steinfeld as the holdout student?

Debbie Reese said...


I posted the comment to the wrong blog post! Shaking my head...

Anyway, back from the library book in hand.

The cover illustration is also inside, opposite the title page. There, it has a caption:

"When they came to the prehistoric cliff-dwelling high in the rocks, they hurried by."

The caption suggests that the Navajo's are uneasy. Once I start reading, I'll find out why.

The Foreword is by Oliver LaFarge. He writes of how Armer was able to charm a Navaho medicine man to "make a sacred sand-painting for her and, contrary to the ceremonial laws, leave it undestroyed for people to look at." All sorts of red flags in that sentence.

He says Armer made friends quickly, and gained "knowledge of their real selves" that allowed her to "select a difficult theme for her book, the internal processes, the thoughts and feelings and growth of a Navajo boy who feels a vocation to become a medicine man." He then says that she "has probably come as close to painting a true picture as anyone save a medicine man can do."

The foreword is dated Feb 1931.

Leslie Marmon Silko writes that LaFarge (author of LAUGHING BOY) lived amongst Navajos and cared deeply for them. She also wrote:

"In the summer of 1971, the Navajo students in a Southwestern Literature class at Navajo Community College concluded that Laughing Boy was entertaining; but as an expression of anything Navajo, especially with relation to Navajo emotions and behavior, the novel was a failure. And for the non-Navajo or non-Indian, it is worse than a failure: it is a lie because La Farge passes off the consciousness and feelings of Laughing Boy as those of Navajo sensibility."

So... his credibility to comment with authority on WATERLESS MOUNTAIN has a pretty big cloud hanging over it.

Peter D. Sieruta said...

Hi Debbie,

I read LAUGHING BOY by Oliver LaFarge last summer because it was an early Pulitzer Prize winner. I sort of assumed that it presented a less than authentic portrait of the protagonist and his culture. I guess one of the things I struggle with is how to respect these books as a part of our literary canon (with WATERLESS winning the Newbery and LAUGHING winning the Pulitzer) while acknowledging their very real flaws.

Do you think they should stand alone as orignally written? Would including modern forewords, pointing out the authors' errors, hurt the integrity of the books?



Debbie Reese said...

I think these two fall neatly into "the white man's Indian" category.

I'm slogging through WATERLESS MTN now.

You pose an interesting question. As you (and I) have noted on our respective blogs, some books are revised (THEY WERE STRONG AND GOOD). I don't think revisions in that book made it any better. I don't think the revisions should be made. The books ought to be read as originally written because they carry "ideas of the time."

They should be studied for those "ideas" --- wrong as they were --- so that we (society/publishing industry) don't repeat those mistakes.

The thing is, how to let people know the book is a mistake? I think there's a betrayal at work... People think they're learning something about (in this case) Navajos, but they aren't. Is it ok for them to go on believing that?

THE EDUCATION OF LITTLE TREE was exposed as a fraud, and yet, so many libraries still shelve it as an autobiography.

LAUGHING BOY and WATERLESS MOUNTAIN should not have LOC subjects of Indian, Navajo, etc., because they aren't that... They're "white man's Indians" --- so... what to do with them? What do you think?

Debbie Reese said...

Adding a foreword that says what?

"People thought this book was authentic, but it isn't. Still, it is worth buying because...."

How would such a foreword be written?

And I also want to say that STRONG AND GOOD should be read in its original, not by children in elementary school, but by older children in critical media/literacy settings.

Peter D. Sieruta said...


I really don't know WHAT the solution should be. I'm not in favor of revising the books either (and how could one revise an entire novel like WATERLESS MOUNTAIN anyway...?) As for including a foreword, I wouldn't advise anything as blatant as your tongue-in-cheek suggestion, but perhaps an informed essay pointing out the cultural errors included in the book as well as a commentary on the novel's historical context and literary strengths...?

I'm so intrigued by your comment on LOC subject headings. My day-job is cataloging books for a university library. I wonder if there is (or could be) an LC heading such as "Indians of North America as Mythic Figures" or "Native Peoples -- Apocryphal Characterizations" to show a book contains inauthentic representations and which could be used in the library catalog instead of "Navajo," or "Hopi" or whatever group is being incorrectly identified in the book.


Debbie Reese said...

What to say in the foreword is a challenge.

I'd go for a straightforward one that concisely says the book was once thought to be accurate portrayal, but we know otherwise at this point in time.

You go into sticky spaces right away when you try to identify literary elements that are strengths... If we're looking at character, for example, and the character is not accurately developed for the people it is supposed to represent, then as a literary analysis, doesn't it fail?

Same with plot. At one point the little boy is sick, and nobody but the white trader can cure him. The trader brings some medicine and oranges, but what medicine? For what illness?

The little boy is delirious and calls out for the white trader. Not his own parents, or his uncle, or his brother, or his brother's wife (who he seems to have a crush on)...

From what I've read so far, the plot isn't working for me.

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Linda said...

CLM, thank you for the link to Sir John Verney's obituary. I've always wanted more information about him--I loved the Callendar family books and ended up ordering Samson's Hoard from England because I couldn't find it here.

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