Sunday, August 7, 2011

August 7 Brunch Featuring Lucy, Zuccchini, and Birth Day Gifts

Yesterday was Lucille Ball's one hundredth birthday.

Tomorrow is "National Sneak Zucchini on Someone's Porch Night."

We're celebrating both events here at Collecting Children's Books, as well as providing some additional facts and opinions on kids' books old and new.


Yesterday was the one hundredth anniversary of Lucille Ball's birth.

When I was a kid, watching reruns of I LOVE LUCY on the local UHF station (does anyone under forty remember UHF?), it seemed like everybody loved Lucy. It wasn't until I grew up that I met a lot of people who said they didn't like the show. But even those who confess they never cared for Lucy's noisy slapstick humor, should be able to admit her importance as a cultural icon. Even Google featured an I LOVE LUCY logo on their homepage yesterday.

Though Lucy had a place in most of our childhoods, she didn't have any connection to children's books.

Or did she?

Did you know she "starred" in her own 1963 children's book, LUCY AND THE MADCAP MYSTERY?

The book was issued by Albert Whitman of Racine, Wisconsin, a company known for publishing cheap, formulaic books featuring TV stars. I always think of them as "dime store novels," as that was about the only place you ever saw them. Most libraries did not own them, nor were they stocked by most regular bookstores. You normally found them at Woolworth's or K-Mart, on display near the toy section. Released without dustjackets, the books had glossy illustrated covers, pages that were already turning yellow before you bought them, and they sold for a dollar or less. If a TV show was popular with kids, its characters often ended up in Whitman novels. Thus Whitman issued volumes about the Lennon sisters, placing these real-life girls in fictionalized mysteries:

And placed the fictional Walton kids in historical novels:

I'd like to learn more about the history of Whitman books. Though chiefly known for cheap commercial books, there apparently was a time when Whitman was a more serious publisher. In fact, one Whitman publication, PECOS BILL by James Cloyd Bowman, was even named a 1938 Newbery Honor Book.

Though they've continue to publish lots of gimmicky commercial volumes, in recent years Whitman has also begun releasing some original, high-quality fiction and nonfiction. David Patneaude started his career with Whitman, publishing such books as SOMEONE WAS WATCHING and FRAMED BY FIRE. Peg Kehret wrote a couple autobiographical works for Whitman as well; I've always thought that SMALL STEPS, Kehret's memoir of surviving childhood polio, might have been considered for the Newbery Medal if the bookmaking (cheap cardboard cover, no dustjacket) hadn't been so substandard compared to most trade books published at that time.

A couple days ago I was at the bookstore and noticed these two new young adult novels:

Originally published in Great Britain, GUANTANAMO BOY by Anna Perera and THE POISONED HOUSE by David Ford, are both making their U.S. debuts this season -- and both have received some good reviews. Looking at the books, I was surprise to discover they were published by Albert Whitman. Unlike most of the books they've published over the decades, these novels have nice cloth binding and dustjackets. They are "bookstore books" rather than "dimestore novels." It appears that, after all these years, Whitman is again joining the world of quality trade books for young readers.


Tomorrow is "National Sneak Zucchini on Someone's Porch Night."

This vegetable holiday was inspired by the fact that so many gardens are overrun by zucchini that, not only can't you use them all, you can't even give them away!

So the idea is that you sneak out at night and leave gifts of zucchini on other people's porches.

I wish I had that problem!

When I planted my container garden this spring, more than one person advised me to plant zucchini since "ANYone can grow zucchini...even you."

Well, I proved them wrong.

My zucchini plants have grown large and leafy and almost every day I'm greeted by two or more neon yellow blossoms on the plants.

But no zucchini.

Let me correct that: I did harvest a single zucchini.

One morning I went out to check my plants and saw something dark green among the leaves and blossoms. I reached down and discovered -- oh my gosh! -- a full grown zucchini laying in the pot. It had literally appeared overnight. (No, I'm serious. I'd looked in that pot the day before and there was nothing...yet the next morning there was a squash as big as my size ten-and-a-half shoe!) I was thrilled. I immediately picked it and ran around telling everyone about my great success growing zucchini.

That was three weeks ago.

The plant is still thriving and the blossoms are still blooming, yet I haven't another zucchini for myself...much less dozens of extras to sneak onto people's porches.

I looked online for help and learned that my blossoms are apparently not being properly pollinated by bees and insects. The article suggested self-pollinating by picking the male blossoms and, er, inserting them into the female blossoms. But how can you tell a boy flower from a girl flower? Besides, just the idea of performing such a procedure felt a little dirty to me.

Since I can't sneak a zucchini onto your porch tomorrow, I thought I'd instead suggest a bunch of children's books about zucchini and squash instead. I started compiling a list (ZUCCHINI and ZUCCHINI GOES WEST by Barbara Dana; SQUASHED by Joan Bauer.) But then I stopped dead in my tracks when I saw this title:

Suddenly I was back in first grade, where I first encountered this story in our reading primer. I was actually off sick the day our class read the story, because I remember coming back to class the next day, reading it, and being overwhelmed by the phase "squash-you-all-flat" which was so long I couldn't even try to pronounce it. I remember asking the teacher "what this word means" and she told another student to provide the answer. I was delighted by the phrase and remember repeating "Mr. Bear Squash-You-All-Flat" over and over.

Some days later, we put on a theatrical production of this story in the back of the classroom. I'd like to think the teacher chose me for the part of Mr. Bear because of my great dramatic talent and not simply because I looked like I could do a lot of damage if I squashed someone. I remember we used a broken bulletin board leaned against the wall to represent the animals' houses and my fellow actors, playing those animals, hid underneath it. The teacher reminded me repeatedly that I was only supposed to pretend to sit on top of the bulletin board, not actually squash any of my classmates to death.

It wasn't until today that I discovered MR. BEAR SQUASH-YOU-ALL-FLAT wasn't just a textbook story, but a picture book, written by Morrell Gipson, illustrated by "Angela," and published by Wonder Books in 1950. From the research I've done today, it appears that I'm not the only one who remembers this story from their childhood; a reviewer on Amazon even mentions performing it as a play in Cub Scouts. Today's research revealed that demand for this book during the eighties and nineties was so high that copies were selling for $600-$1000 each! In 2000, Purple House Press published a special 50th Anniversary Edition with an afterward by cartoonist Gary Larson, who loved the book as a child. Purple House even issued 250 signed and numbered copies. (Author Morrell Gibson was still around to sign them in 2000 and she's still around today -- living in New York at age 92!) When these new editions hit the market, prices for the original volume went way down in price. Now you can purchase a re-issue for under $15, an original edition for $40 or so, or even a signed limited edition for under $100.

If you don't have any squash to hide on people's porches tomorrow night, consider reading this "squash story" instead.


Over at the Horn Book blog this week Roger Sutton asked, "have you ever noticed how much the menfolk of the children's book biz love to count things? Ask Peter Sieruta or Jonathan Hunt or Ray Barber about what-won-what-when-and-how-many-times and prepare to be amazed. Maybe Travis Jonker should design some Newbery-Caldecott trading cards, complete with stats on the backs."

Although I like the idea of Newbery-Caldecott trading cards, I must object to Mr. Sutton's characterization. What poppycock! I've got better things to do than sit around "counting things." And I'd like to think I have a greater interest in the overall "big picture" of children's literature than just trivia and trivialities!

On a completely unrelated topic, I was just wondering this week where all of our Newbery and Caldecott winners were I compiled the following lists:

Newbery Winners' Birthplaces

California / Laura Adams Armer, Scott O’Dell, Elizabeth Borton de Trevino, Russell Freedman, Paul Fleischman, Susan Patron

Connecticut / Armstrong Sperry, Eleanor Estes, Emily Cheney Neville

Hawaii / Lois Lowry

Idaho / Carol Ryrie Brink

Illinois / Cornelia Meigs, Elizabeth Enright, Irene Hunt, Karen Cushman, Richard Peck, Linda Sue Park, Cynthia Kadohata

Indiana / Phyllis Reynolds Naylor

Kansas / Clare Vanderpool

Maryland / Elizabeth Foreman Lewis, Karen Hesse, Laura Amy Schlitz

Massachusetts / Eric P. Kelly, Rachel Field, Esther Forbes, Elizabeth George Speare, Cynthia Voigt

Michigan / Marguerite de Angeli, Nancy Willard, Christopher Paul Curtis

Mississippi / Mildred D. Taylor

New Jersey / William Pene DuBois, Joseph Krumgold

New Mexico / Ann Nolan Clark

New York / Elizabeth Coatsworth, Ruth Sawyer, Walter D. Edmonds, Robert Lawson, Carolyn Sherwyn Bailey, Elizabeth Yates, Madeleine L’Engle, E.L. Konigsburg, Robert C. O’Brien, Paula Fox, Joan Blos, Sid Fleischman, Louis Sachar, Avi, Rebecca Stead

North Carolina / James Daugherty, Betsy Byars

Ohio / Lois Lenski, Virginia Hamilton, Robin McKinley, Sharon Creech

Oklahoma / Harold Keith

Oregon / Beverly Cleary

Pennsylvania / Elizabeth Janet Gray, Lloyd Alexander, Jerry Spinelli, Kate DiCamillo, Lynne Rae Perkins

Utah / Virginia Sorensen

Virginia / Arthur Bowie Chrisman, William H. Armstrong, Cynthia Rylant

Washington, D.C. / Jean Craighead George

West Virginia / Jean Lee Latham

Wisconsin / Marguerite Henry, Ellen Raskin

Wyoming / Patricia MacLachlan

Canada / Will James, Monica Shannon

China / Katherine Paterson

England / Hugh Lofting, Charles Finger, Susan Cooper, Neal Gaiman

Hungary / Kate Seredy

India / Dhan Gopal Mukerji

Netherlands / Hendrik Willem Van Loon, Meindert DeJong

Poland / Maia Wojciechowska

Caldecott Winners' Birthplaces

California / Berta Hader, Leo Politi, Margot Zemach, Diane Dillon, Arnold Lobel, Mordicai Gerstein

Connecticut / Leonard Weisgard

Florida / David Diaz

Illinois / Elizabeth Orton Jones, Lynd Ward, Alice Provensen, Martin Provensen, Paul O. Zelinsky, Emily Arnold McCully, Eric Rohmann

Iowa / Stephen Gammell

Massachusetts / Virginia Lee Burton, Ed Emberley, Blair Lent

Michigan / Gerald McDermott, Chris Van Allsburg, David Small,Erin E. Stead

Minnesota / Peggy Rathmann

New Jersey / Robert Lawson, David Wiesner, Brian Selznick

New York / Dorothy Lathrop, Louis Slododkin, Maud Petersham, Marcia Brown, Barbara Cooney, Ezra Jack Keats, Maurice Sendak, Nonny Hogrogian, William Steig, Leo Dillon, Richard Egielski, John Schoenherr, Simms Taback

North Carolina / Gail E. Hailey

Ohio / Robert McCloskey, Evaline Ness

Pennsylvania / Katherine Milhous, Trina Schart Hyman, Chris Raschka, Beth Krommes Jerry Pinkney

Washington / Thomas Handforth

Washington, D.C. / Mary Azarian

Wisconsin / Marie Hall Ets, Kevin Henkes

Austria / Ludwig Bemelmans

China / Ed Young

England / Paul Goble, David Macaulay, David Wisniewski

France / Marc Simont

Germany / Edgar Parin d'Aulaire

Italy / Beni Montresor

Japan / Allen Say

Latvia / Nicholas Sidjakov

Mexico / Berta Hader

Netherlands / Peter Spier

Hungary / Miska Petersham

Norway / Ingri d’Aulaire

Poland / Uri Shulevitz

Russia / Nicholas Mordvinoff, Feodor Rojankovsky

Switzerland / Roger Duvoisin

I'm fascinated by the fact that the top state on both lists is New York. Sure, many writers and illustrators end up living in the Big Apple during their lives...but this is a list of where they were born -- before they ever picked up a pen or paintbrush. Yet fifteen Newbery winners and thirteen Caldecott winners hail from there.

I also found it interesting that Illinois was the birthplace of seven Newbery winners AND seven Caldecott winners...and the coincidences continue when you note that California was home to six Newbery recipients AND six Caldecott winners. And to make things even more spooky-coincidental, Pennsylvania had five winners of each award.

It's also intriguing to note which states aren't represented. In all the years of the Caldecott, the winners have come from just fifteen states, the District of Columbia, and a smattering of foreign countries. I'm not surprised that more Caldecott winners than Newbery winners were born overseas; after all, art is visual and doesn't necessarily depend on language. Less than half the U.S. states have provided us with Newbery winners. We haven't even had a Texas storyteller among the recipients of the Big N.

Of course, this list only refers to birthplaces. Many of these creators actually grew up in other states and those places may have informed their work much more than a state where they born and then moved from as an infant. And we should take into account the place where they chose to settle as an adult. For example, we usually associate Robert McCloskey with Maine, even though he was born in Massachusetts.

But those are lists for another time, another blog...if I were a person who sat around making lists of facts and figures of this sort!


It's always nice to get an unexpected package in the mail.

This week I received an envelope from Grand Marais, Minnesota. Since I don't know anyone who lives there and had not ordered anything from there, I was very curious to see what was inside! I opened it up and discovered a hardcover copy of one of this year's most talked-about novels for young readers, THE MOSTLY TRUE STORY OF JACK by Kelly Barnhill.

Things got even more exciting when I opened the book and discovered it was inscribed to me:

It turned out that a good friend had arranged for me to get a signed (signed pre-publication, no less!) copy of the book from a small store in Minnesota. I was very excited and grateful...and now can't wait to read this book! Thank you!


Incidentally, the book came from an author signing at Drury Lane Books, a small independent bookstore owned by writer Joan Drury. One visit to the store's website made me feel like packing my bags and taking a field trip.

Here's a picture of the store from their website:

And here is a picture of Grand Marais, Minnesota:

According to their site, "Once a month, on the evening of the full moon, Drury Lane Books sponsors a reading around the fire. By the lakeshore, people gather to listen to someone read from their own or others' work."

When's the next full moon? How many miles to Grand Marais? Wouldn't it be fun to visit?

SPEAKING OF FIELD TRIPS... anyone up for a trip to Vancouver, British Columbia? The same friend who sent THE MOSTLY TRUE STORY OF JACK just sent me this fascinating article about MacLeod's, Canada's "last great bookshop," from Maclean's Magazine.

This photo from the article alone should attract any book lover:


The package from Grand Marais was not my only surprise this week.

On Friday I stopped at my bookstore and the owner gave me this:

I peeled off the Post-it and nearly crowed with joy.

A MONSTER CALLS is one of this fall's most-anticipated books and I've been anxious to read it for months. My bookstore friend had requested an ARC, but her sales rep instead gave her a copy of the hardcover edition published earlier this year in Great Britain by Walker Books. It's a bit battle-scarred, but that just proves how many other people have read and enjoyed it.

A MONSTER CALLS has quite a backstory. In an Author's Note, Patrick Ness explains that the original story was conceived by writer Siobhan Dowd who "had the characters, a premise, and a beginning. What she didn't have was time." Ms. Dowd was just establishing herself as a brilliant new voice with books such as A SWIFT PURE CRY and BOG CHILD when she died of cancer at age 47 in 2009.

Patrick Ness has taken Siobhan Dowd's original idea -- which concerns, not surprisingly, cancer and death -- and created a powerful and elemental tale that has the feeling of a modern classic.

As his mother suffers from cancer and muses over the yew tree in the backyard, Conor begins suffering from nightmares, as well as visits from a monster which assumes the shape of the yew tree. In a series of grim meetings, the monster tells Colin three enigmatic tales that the young boy only partially understands, although each reflects in some way Colin's current experiences at home and school. Jim Kay's illustrations perfectly match the dark, grotesque tone of the story -- a story which ultimately transcends the horror genre and, despite its profound sadness, delivers the protagonist into the light of understanding and acceptance.


What do you give a newborn baby as a "welcome to the world" gift?

I always try to give a book.

A couple of my favorites for newborns are THE REAL MOTHER GOOSE and Iona and Peter Opie's I SAW ESAU.

Those who follow this blog know that I am writing a book for Candlewick Press with Elizabeth Bird of the Fuse #8 blog and Julie Danielson of Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast .

You probably also know that Betsy and her husband just had a baby. Julie and I wanted to give a gift to baby Lily but this time a book didn't seem like the best idea; Betsy had already received dozens of signed books from friends at a baby shower.

So instead we settled on having a quilt made -- with a children's book theme of course!

Jules knew a woman in the children's book world who makes quilts and commissioned one with an ALICE IN WONDERLAND theme.

It wasn't until the quilt was almost finished that it suddenly hit us: what if the fabric utilized the Disney version of ALICE? Oh no! Heresy for children's book people! As it turns out, our fears were unnecessary, as the fabric was just right and the quilt turned out better than we ever expected:

The person who made the quilt even sewed a beautiful label/gift tag on it. (I'm so glad she did that, because if it were up to me I would have probably attached it with staples or duct tape. I just don't have a knack for that kind of thing.)

Last week Jules traveled to New York on business and presented the quilt to Betsy:

And now baby Lily has her very own children's book quilt, to crawl on, spit up on, sleep on, and dream on...for years to come!

Well, hopefully she won't be spitting up on it for years to come.

But we hope she keeps dreaming.

And maybe someday she'll pass the quilt on to her own children.


I already mentioned a couple of the books I like to give newborn babies.

When kids get a little older, I still prefer to give them books more than any other present. Sometimes I give them old favorites of mine (Beverly Cleary is always a good choice) or I'll get them a brand new book that's receiving a lot of acclaim. And of course I usually try to find a book that matches that particular child's particular interests.

I recently joined Facebook (feel free to "friend" me at "Peter D. Sieruta") and reconnected with an old friend who moved to Chicago many years ago. Last week he posted a picture on Facebook of a Christmas gift I gave his oldest son in 1991:

Twenty years ago this fall I spent every night after work writing a "bedtime book" for then-five-year-old Austin. There was a page for every single day of the year, each containing an original story or poem or nonfiction piece, illustrated with my own horrible artwork. When I got it all done, the 365 pages (plus title page, etc.) were too much to fit into one binding, so I had it bound in two separate books, Volume I -- January through June and Volume II -- July through December. Over the course of the next year, Austin's parents read him each day's entry before bedtime. And I got to read him my own stories whenever I babysat, which was very fun.

I worked so hard on that book -- writing 365 stories in less than three months -- that I actually got carpal tunnel syndrome in my right wrist and could barely open a doorknob for the next year. But the satisfaction I got from writing it -- and, now, from learning the family still owns and remembers the books in 2011 -- makes it worth it!


Just six weeks ago I used this blog to write an appreciation of William Sleator's 1974 novel HOUSE OF STAIRS. Now comes word that Mr. Sleator, whose other mostly science fiction and suspense novels include INTERSTELLAR PIG and the autobiographical story collection ODDBALLS, has died at age 66.

Though gone too soon, his books will continue to be read and enjoyed.


Over three years ago I wrote a heartfelt tribute to author Mary Anderson, whose books are among the most-remembered and requested books by kids who grew up in the seventies.

If you are among them, you will be pleased to hear that Ms. Anderson's books are returning in audiobook format.

STEP ON A CRACK was released first, and YOU CAN'T GET THERE FROM HERE followed last week.

Now is your chance to rediscover Mary Anderson -- or discover her books for the first time!

Thanks for reading Collecting Children's Books. Hope you'll be back soon!


Linda said...

I didn't know Whitman was even still in business! Yes, they were cheap books, but that enabled a kid like me, with only one parent working, and in a factory, to have her own books to read. I had a bunch of the TV tie-ins (Lassie especially), but also many of the classics (Black Beauty, Call of the Wild, Heidi, etc.) and the series books, a book of adventure short stories, and probably still one of my favorite books, a collection of stories about real-life dogs and horses called More Than Courage.

Peter D. Sieruta said...

Hi Linda,

Yes, I probably shouldn't have disparaged them so much today. If those inexpensive Whitman books weren't available a lot of kids wouldn't have had any books of their own. And I wasn't immune to them either. I use to love "The Tuckers" series published by Whitman.

Thanks for reading my blog,


Bybee said...

I had Lucy and the Madcap Mystery and one featuring Janet Lennon (she was working as a camp counselor). I also had most of the Tucker books. I wanted so much to be in that family.

lin said...

Too late for this year, but next year you can try spreading pollen with a soft paintbrush. Just brush it around the flowers' stamens and go from flower to flower like a bee would. With any luck, you'll later be sneaking onto people's porches with crammed paper bags.

Roger Sutton said...

Along with their mass-market books (most notably The Boxcar Children series) and occasional literary trade novels, Whitman has long published the best bibliotherapuetic picture books in the business (favorite title: There's a Little Bit of Me in Jamey, about organ donation). They are books with narrow purposes but do a very good job at what they are.

Grand Marais is one of the prettiest places I've ever been, way north of Duluth on the coast of Lake Superior. Waterfalls from the Boundary Waters to Superior are everywhere and one night when I was there I saw the northern lights!

Sean said...

I have been eagerly awaiting A Monster Calls since reading about it on an Australian blog. The illustrations are amazing. The yew-tree monster reminds me of Green Knowe.

I still have my Whitman copy of Treasure Island. It's funny how in retrospect, the Whitman books were dime-store cheap. As a kid, I thought my copy of Treasure Island was so grown-up because it was a hardcover, and most of my books were paperbacks.

KateCoombs said...

Speaking of the dominance of New York authors and illustrators, when I was at the SCBWI conference in L.A. last week, 2-3 major authors pointed out that they were from Syracuse, New York, and that so were other well-known authors. So maybe there's a nexus point, a ley line, SOMETHING like that there in... [cue eerie music] Syracuse! (One of the authors was Laurie Halse Anderson; can't recall the others.)

J. Lee Graham said...

I love your blogs! They are so insightful and funny and wonderfully "outside the box". Mahalo!
J. Lee Graham