Sunday, March 20, 2011

A Sunday Brunch with Pinches and Promises

Today's Sunday Brunch asks if you're a graduate of the public library system, wonders if illustrations are making a comeback in novels, and recommends a new memoir that will interest everyone who likes children's books.


This blog normally focuses on books for children. WE JAPANESE by H.S.K. Yamaguchi was not published for young readers, but this two-volume set was such a big part of my childhood that I always consider it a book for kids. My aunt, who served in the military, was stationed in Japan for several years after the war. She brought this book back from there and gave it to me when I was ten. I remember taking it to school for a social studies report and, for a long time, considered it one of the most valuable titles I owned.

It does have an exotic appearance, as it's printed on onion-skin paper, the binding is handstitched, and the dustjacket is beautifully designed. (I understand that some copies come in boxes fitted with bone clasps, though mine are not boxed.) Over time, I've come to realize the books aren't particularly rare or expensive; I believe they were probably published for the post-war tourist trade. But the information inside remains fascinating, as the two volumes cover nearly every aspect of Japanese history and tradition you can imagine, with one and two page vignettes describing subjects such as kites, foods, and sumo wrestling. I remember poring over these volumes as a kid and, in light of last week's tragic earthquake, tsunami, and the continuing nuclear fears, I found myself drawing to them again this week at a time when we're all feeling a little Japanese in spirit.


The crisis in Japan, plus the problems in Libya, seem to have pushed the Madison, Wisconsin story right off the front pages of the newspaper.

But if you do a Google news search of the word "teachers" you will find that educators continue to face some real issues. Among today's top "teacher" headlines:

* Chicago -- "Teachers Union Official, 1 Other Arrested in School Funding Protest"

* Tennessee -- "Teachers' Bargaining Rights May Hinge on Battle within GOP"

* Michigan -- "Union Preps for Statewide Strike"

I hate to think what will come next.

I was talking to my bookstore friend about this and she told me that her favorite scene of learning from a recent children's book is in A WIZARD FROM THE START : THE INCREDIBLE BOYHOOD & AMAZING INVENTIONS OF THOMAS EDISON by Don Brown. This biography mentions that, at age twelve, Thomas Edison began selling newspapers and candy on the train that ran between Port Huron and Detroit.

The book tells us, "Most days, waiting in Detroit for the return ride home, Tom visited the public library. He'd start at the first book on the bottom shelf and read one after another until it was time to move to the next shelf."

This scene reminded me of something I once read about the great Vera and Bill Cleaver, who wrote some of the best children's books of the sixties and seventies and whose work is now largely, and sadly, forgotten. Both Mr. and Mrs. Cleaver grew up during the Depression, moved around a lot in their youth, and had interruptions in their formal education. Bill would say later that both considered themselves graduates of the public library system of the United States.

Do you too consider yourself a "graduate" of the public library system? Do you feel that libraries supplemented your regular education to a great extent?

With the problems facing our public school system, it seems as if more and more kids may -- by necessity, rather than choice -- end up having to educate themselves in libraries.

...Though I suspect that elected officials who have such little regard for teachers and schools aren't going to be big supporters of libraries either....


For years now I've been bemoaning the absence of illustrations in middle-grade novels. When I was growing up (and you know you're getting old when you start sentences with "When I was growing up") nearly ever intermediate book featured artwork, and even today I picture Henry Huggins and Beezus looking exactly the way Louis Darling drew them.

It was such a loss when, around the late seventies or early eighties, illustrations disappeared from most midgrade novels.

I'm not sure for the reasons behind this.

Maybe authors didn't like sharing their royalties with illustrators.

Maybe kids found it "babyish" to read books that featured pictures.

Whatever the case, they were virtually gone.

I doubt there's any connection, but I do find it interesting that, just as artwork in fiction suffered its demise, we saw the rise of "graphic novels." So maybe artwork didn't "go away" so much as it moved into an exciting and respected new genre.

This spring, however, I've noticed a hopeful new trend. At least three novels I'm reading surprised me by containing supplemental artwork:

Holly Thompson's ORCHARDS -- the story of an American girl spending the summer with relatives in Japan -- contains woodcut illustrations.

DEADLY, a novel about Typhoid Mary by Julie Chibbaro, contains utilitarian artwork (such as diagrams, maps, textual decorations) by Jean-Marc Superville Sovak.

Jennifer L. Holm's latest, THE TROUBLE WITH MAY AMELIA, contains illustrations by Adam Gustavson.

While Gustavson's work, shown here, is confined to chapter-heading vignettes, it's interesting to see any artwork in the novel, especially since its predecessor, the 2000 Newbery Honor, OUR ONLY MAY AMELIA, did not contain any illustrations at all.

I hope the inclusion of this inclusion of artwork is a sign of the future.


This past week, Travis of the outstanding 100 Scope Notes blog wrote an entry called "Bag It," highlighting the cover of Gary D. Schmidt's brand-new novel, OKAY FOR NOW

and featuring other dustjacket images that utilize a bag-on-head motif. You can read about it here.

At the end of his blog, Travis asked if there were any more to add.


He did not add it to his blog, nor did he write me back.

Now I'm hoping (best case scenario) that my note was lost in cyberspace and he never got it.

Otherwise, I'm worried that he received it and thought my note came from stalker/obsessed fan or that I was making some kind of comparative comment about our two blogs!

In actuality, all I wanted to do was tell him about my favorite head-in-a-bag cover, from my favorite author, M.E. Kerr:

I'LL LOVE YOU WHEN YOU'RE MORE LIKE ME was published in 1977. Can anyone find an example of a "poke on the face" earlier than this one?


Two children's books creators.

Two Caldecott-winning books.

Two Newbery-winning books

Two book signings.

I was excited to learn that my favorite local bookstore, BOOKBEAT of Oak Park, Michigan, is hosting two important author signings next month.

Two-time Newbery winner Lois Lowry will be in town to sign her latest volumes BLESS THIS MOUSE and LIKE THE WILLOW TREE, on April 1, 2011.

And, in a rare appearance, two-time Caldecott winner Chris Van Allsburg will visit Bookbeat on April 6 to sign his latest, QUEEN OF THE FALLS, a nonfiction account of a 62-year-old woman who was the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel.

If you're interested in seeing Ms. Lowry or Mr. Van Allsburg, or would like to order signed copies of their books and have them mailed to you (it's never too early to get copies of THE POLAR EXPRESS as gifts for next Christmas!) feel free to call the Bookbeat at (248) 968-1190.


Let's face it: People have such subjective tastes that it's nearly impossible to recommend a book that "everyone will love."

But I think I can say with some certainty that anyone who reads this blog -- that is, anyone who loves children's books -- will be fascinated by the soon-to-be-released memoir THE READING PROMISE : MY FATHER AND THE BOOKS WE SHARED.

Okay, let's start with the author's name. Her real name is Kristen Alice Ozma Brozina. Her father, a school librarian, gave her the middle monikers and anyone who knows children's books will immediately recognize "Alice" and "Ozma" as iconic names from fiction. By the time Kristen Alice Ozma Brozina was in high school, she was ready to dump the first and last name and has since been known, and has now published her first book, as Alice Ozma.

The book concerns a promise that Alice's father makes when the girl is in fourth grade: that he will read aloud to her for the next one hundred nights. When they complete that goal, Alice proposes that they extend the project for one thousand nights. Instead, they continue for another 3218 nights, finishing on the day Alice begins college.

It isn't always easy. The reading "Streak" is kept during tough times (when grandpa dies... when mom moves out...when Alice and Dad are angry at each other) and awkward times (with Dad reading aloud over the phone when Alice is at a sleepover... leaning beside their car after picking up Alice at late-night school function...or with Alice in evening gown and make-up as she's about to head off for her senior prom.)

At the beginning of the book, the author calls the volume "embarrassingly mushy" and she's right. However, the characters (Dad's a true eccentric, and Daughter has inherited a few of those tendencies herself) usually keep the episodic narrative from becoming too precious. The backbone of the novel always remains the nightly ritual between father and daughter -- and the books that they share. For many readers, seeing titles such as HATCHET and DICEY'S SONG and SURVIVING THE APPLEWHITES quoted at the beginning of chapters, analyzed, just mentioned in passing, or included on the "List of Books from the Reading Streak," will be like encountering old friends in unexpected places and they'll feel an instant connection to Alice and Dad. At the end of the volume, the author reflects on the significance of the eight years of nightly reading she shared with her father:

We called it a reading Streak, but it was really more of a promise. A promise to each other, a promise to ourselves. A promise to always be there, and to never give up. It was a promise of hope in hopeless times. It was a promise of comfort when things got uncomfortable. And we kept our promsie, to each other.

But more than that, it was a promise to the world; a promise to remember the power of the printed word, to take time to cherish it, to protect it all costs. He promised to explain, to anyone and everyone he meets, the life-changing ability literature can have.

As does Alice Ozma with this book.


Last Sunday I showcased two different books that used the same "stock photo" image on their covers and asked if anyone had further examples.

Thanks to Rebecca Moore, who spotted this pair of twins:


Somewhere back in my family tree there's a little Irish blood. But even if there wasn't a drop, I'd probably still celebrate St. Patrick's Day. EVERYONE is Irish on St. Pat's, aren't they?

This March 17 I had corned beef and cabbage for dinner, plus cake with green icing.

I also learned something new.

Twice that day -- from two completely unrelated sources -- I heard that it's traditional to pinch someone if they don't wear green on St. Patrick's Day. I'd never heard that in my life, so of course I quickly O'Googled it and was shocked to discover that this tradition goes back to the 1700s!

Who knew?

I asked others if they'd heard about this custom on my Facebook page. (And if we're not Facebook friends already, who not? "Friend" me at "Peter Sieruta.") One person said she'd heard of it, and a couple others had not.

Have you ever heard of it?

And has "pinching on St. Pat's" ever been fictionalized in a children's book?

Come to think of it, has that other funny/cruel holiday custom -- getting spanked on your birthday -- ever been portrayed in a book for kids?

Getting a "birthday spanking" (one slap for every year) was a BIG DEAL when I was growing up; our kindergarten teacher even spanked us on our birthdays. Is this something that was only done here in the midwest in the sixties and seventies, or is it known throughout the country? Maybe the custom died out when child abuse became a known social issue. Personally, I'm surprised there has never been a picture book on the topic.

Or has there been?

Thanks for reading Collecting Children's Books. Hope you'll return!


Lisa Jenn Bigelow said...

I was fortunate that my mom read to me almost every night until I went to college, too! We made exceptions for sleepovers and summer camp, though.

The pinching on St. Patrick's Day was definitely a big deal when I was growing up (in Kalamazoo in the 80s/90s). I still get nervous if I don't wear green on March 17th!

Janine said...

The best part of my youth was sitting in the Coral Gables Library amongst all those delicious books at my disposal. The bus dropped me off everyday and this was my "after school care" until 6 pm when my mom picked up after work. Imagine, free day care! When I became old enough to walk home alone, I still stayed in this library till the wee hours (with my boyfriend at the time)doing homework and stealing a kiss or two. I also spent my summers reading and earning bookmarks. The library of my youth was my lover and my friend, I owe all I am to her care.

Peter D. Sieruta said...

Lisa Jenn: Nice to discover that Alice Ozma is not the only one!

I still can't believe I never heard of the pinching thing. Kalamazoo isn't that far from Detroit, where I grew up!

Thanks for visiting,



When I read a tribute to libraries like yours, I think the American Library Association should solicit "library memories" from patrons and then publish them in a little gift book. I'd definitely buy a copy!

Thanks for visiting,


Laura Canon said...

I don't know if pinching on St. Patrick's was ever done in a children's book, but it does crop up in one of the early Simpsons episodes. And yes, we did it in Kentucky in the late 70s.
I'm glad to see illustrations coming back in any form. I suspect the disappearance of them relates to the decline of commercial art/illustration as a whole. When most print ads were illustrations there were a lot of jobs in that field. Now I suspect fewer people go into it.
(By the same token, every time I see live coverage of a trial I wonder what happened to those unfortunate souls who made their livings as courtroom sketch artists.)

hschinske said...

My daughter says getting pinched if you don't wear green on Saint Patrick's Day is alive and well in Seattle -- even in high school.

Seems to me there are lots of references to birthday spankings, but the only one I remember for sure was in _Little House in the Big Woods_.

My son (who's 12) and I are trying to decide whether I should quit reading to him. We just finished _The Lord of the Rings_, which seems an appropriate place to stop, if you see what I mean.

Helen Schinske

Anonymous said...

> Though I suspect that elected officials who have such little regard for teachers and schools aren't going to be big supporters of libraries either

Opposing teachers' unions is about SUPPORTING CHILDREN.

Any proposal to actually help children succeed is reflexively opposed by the union.

Firing of bad teachers? Sorry, can't do that.

Let's try charter schools. Absolutely not! That might cause others to wonder why we're so bad in comparison.

Never forget that the TEACHER's union is for the selfish interest of the TEACHERS and doesn't care one iota about students.

This is natural and nothing wrong with teachers having a group fighting for their right to be as lazy and incompetent as they want while grabbing all the money they can get their hands on.

Just never think that what the TEACHER's union is fighting for has anything to do with helping CHILDREN.

All this focus on teacher's union is to me a positive sign that we'll finally be able to make some progress in improving education. The unions have been in control of education for decades and clearly it isn't working. Time for something new.

Daughter Number Three said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Daughter Number Three said...

Our anti-union commenter sure packs a lot of assumptions into one anonymous comment.

I prefer the attitude of Diane Ravitch, education historian and former critic of teachers unions, who now supports them and points out that the problem with educational outcomes have almost everything to do with poverty and little to do with teachers or their unions.

And that NCLB and testing mania have a negative effect on educational outcomes.

All too complex to put into one comment. Here's her Diane's web address:

Esperanza said...

Do you too consider yourself a "graduate" of the public library system? Do you feel that libraries supplemented your regular
education to a great extent?

Absolutely, going back at least the five generations I know of in my family. We have loved the public libraries.

Scope Notes said...

Oh man - you know I wouldn't leave you hanging like that, Peter - somehow the note was lost in cyberspace. Your suggestion is spot on. I just went in and updated the post with I'll Love You When You're More Like Me. Thanks!

Sandy D. said...

When I was growing up in a small town in IL in the 60's and 70's, you got your foot stomped on if you weren't wearing green.

Nancy Leek said...

I remember poring over We Japanese as a child too, and I still have it. It is a one volume compilation of Books I, II, and III, printed in 1950. The cloth on the cover is a different pattern from your copy, but the label is the same (except it doesn't have a volume number). We spent 5 years in Japan during my childhood, and I loved reading the stories and descriptions in the book.

Anonymous said...

Hi Peter.

It must be an American tradition. We don't do it in Ireland, and I hadn't heard of it before.


Bybee said...

Can't wait to read Alice Ozma's memoir.

I can't imagine why Vera and Bill Cleaver have fallen so far out of fashion. Their books are wonderful.

Lindy said...

In central Alberta (Canada) we got the "bumps" in childhood instead of a birthday spanking. Four people, one for each arm and leg, would lift the birthday person up and then "bump" back down (gently!) as many times as necessary to match the number of years being celebrated. Onlookers helped with the count, chanting together, One! Two! Three! etc.

I remember the pinching on St Patrick's Day, too.

Brooke said...

I know that luminaries like Ray Bradbury and August Wilson both considered themselves "graduates" of their public library. Wilson even continually referred to his hometown library as his "alma mater."

Peter, your posts are always a treat. Thanks for your hard work with this blog.

carterbham said...

Growing up, not only did we get pinched if we weren't wearing green, but we also got kissed if we wore red.

lin said...

I think we pinched on St. Patrick's Day. I know that in elementary school we said, "Pinch, punch, first of the month!" on the first day of any month. To ward it off, you had to show your crossed fingers. So basically, you went around school with one hand unusable because the fingers were crossed. This was WAY west, in Hawai'i.

I'm sure it got too expensive to print books with illustrations. Don't forget that Newbery winner "The Higher Power of Lucky" has illustrations (as does the sequel, although looks like the third one will have a different illustrator)

Alex said...

I graduated from the Flatbush branch of the Brooklyn Public Library which I borrowed from extensively growing up. I am still attending the local branches of the New York Public Library in Manhattan now. I couldn't live without them.
Re: Pinching on St. Patrick's Day. I had forgotten about this, but I did know it as a kid.
Wow, thanks for the memories.

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Linda said...

Whew! Thanks, Peter! I saw all those references to pinching on Facebook and wondered what on earth that was all about (especially since I was on Facebook last March as well and not one person mentioned it). I grew up in Rhode Island and never heard of such a custom. We did wear green carnations in junior high school on that day, though.

I miss illustrations in children's books, although you sometimes still get some great ones these days. Both The Boneshaker and The Legend of Holly Claus have the loveliest pen-and-ink work.

We were over a mile and a half from both the closest libraries, and I had no transportation except for what used to be known quaintly as "shank's mare," so I didn't go to them often until I was in high school. They were both very small and one had a limited children's book section; the other had very old books which I would love to dig into now but back then I turned up my nose at most of them. (I once told my mother indignantly, "The newest book they have has a car with A RUNNING BOARD in it." And I knew what that was, too!) I was an every Friday visitor at all the school libraries, though. It was in junior high I discovered A Wrinkle in Time, What Katy Did, The Story of Walt Disney, The Family Nobody Wanted, the Heinlein juveniles, and even Gladys Taber.

The Alice Ozma book looks delightful. One of my favorite poems is Strickland Gilliland's "The Reading Mother," the last verse of which I can do by heart:

"You may have tangible wealth untold;
Caskets of jewels and coffers of gold.
Richer than I you can never be--
I had a Mother who read to me!"

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C. Cackley said...

My third graders still sometimes pinch on St. Patrick's day and then I always have to choose between 1. Giving out green stickers so everyone has green or 2. Scolding them for not keeping their hands to themselves or some combination thereof. I think Alice Ozma's father wrote about their reading tradition in either The Washington Post or the New York Times awhile back. The book sounds great!

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Anonymous said...

You asked, "And has "pinching on St. Pat's" ever been fictionalized in a children's book?"

The answer is YES. 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."

Sean said...

I am looking forward to the The Reading Promise. I just put it on reserve at my local bookstore.

Anonymous said...

There are many bindings and variants of We Japanese, as it was published over a series of years. It was originally conceived as a guide to Japan for visitors to the Fujiya Hotel in Miyanoshita, Hakone and was in three volumes.

michelle said...

Hi Peter- I'm sure you covered it somewhere but would you mind doing a post about "If You Liked The Hunger Games Trilogy, You Might Also Like..." because I bet you have some good recs. My YA librarian friend recommended Feed by MT Anderson, Little Brother by Cory Doctorow and Going Bovine by Libba Bray. I read Little Brother and now am a Cory Doctorow fan. My friend read Feed and was underwhelmed. Thanks!

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