Sunday, August 28, 2011

Sunday Brunching with E.B. White's "Sad Disaster"

This is the first time I've blogged in two weeks. Sorry for the absence. As many of you know, 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 . Two weeks ago we finally finished our latest draft and the days since then have been spent reading, editing, cutting, rewriting, restruturing, and sending thousands of e-mails back-and-forth saying, "Do you think...?" and "What about...?" and "Hmmpf! If you insist!"

It's a daunting task, because the manuscript is currently 562 pages, stands three times taller than my laptop, and weighs more than my brother's dog.

It's due at Candlewick by Labor Day so no wonder I haven't been blogging.

Yeah, yeah, I know: Betsy and Julie haven't stopped blogging over the last two weeks. But in my own defense, I should say:

* Those two have more pep than a pair of Energizer Bunnies. On my best days, I couldn't keep up with them on their worst days. While they're editing, blogging, and keeping up with a hundred activities like those plate-spinners on the Ed Sullivan Show, I'm slumped over my laptop, drooling on my computer....

* They are a lot younger than me. I think if you added their ages together, they'd still be younger than I am. How am I supposed to keep up with that? Come to think of it, I doubt they even know what the Ed Sullivan Show was!

* They both get paid for blogging. I write this blog for free. If someone wants to pay me for writing Collecting Children's Books, I'll wake up, wipe the drool from my computer, and get blogging as well.

Anyway, two weeks is a long time to go without writing a blog, so I'm going to take a break from manuscript editing to write a brief blog today. If you're reading this from the east coast, I hope you've emerged from Hurricane Irene safe and dry!


I'm so old that not only do I remember the Ed Sullivan Show, but I also remember a time when E.B. White had only written two children's books, STUART LITTLE (1945) and CHARLOTTE'S WEB (1952.)

I was just a kid going to grade school in the midwest when TRUMPET OF THE SWAN was published in 1970...but even to me, the publication of E.B. White's third children's book was a Big Deal. It seemed like everyone was talking about it. I'm sure there were articles in the newspapers and in magazines. After all, a new book after eighteen years deserves attention...especially when the novel that preceded it was already acknowledged as a modern classic.

When THE TRUMPET OF THE SWAN was published, it appeared in all kinds of stores that didn't usually sell children's books: airport gift shops, and stationery stores, and department stores. We couldn't wait till it turned up at our school and public library and I think both those places ordered two or three copies at a time when that was almost never done.

Then the book arrived...and I was disappointed.

First I was disappointed by the cover illustration. To me E.B. White = Garth Williams, whose distinctive artwork (whether in White's books or the "Little House" series, or anywhere else) automatically elevated any book it accompanied. The cover and illustrations of THE TRUMPET OF THE SWAN just looked ordinary to the illustrations you'd find in any book of that era.

I always wondered why Garth Williams didn't illustrate this book as well. I learned recently, in Leonard Marcus's DEAR GENIUS : THE LETTERS OF URSULA NORDSTROM, that Mr. Williams was approached, but was just too busy to take on the project at that time. And editor Nordstrom didn't feel she could wait till he was available since E.B. White was in frail health and might not be around much longer. Garth Williams would later express regret that he didn't illustrate the book.

I wonder if the publisher, Harper, ultimately agreed with me about the quality of Edward Frascino's illustrations -- because when they issued a thirtieth anniversary edition in 2000, it was elegantly reillustrated by Fred Marcellino.

But of course you can't judge a book by its cover. It's the inside that counts. And when I read THE TRUMKPET OF THE SWAN, I was disappointed as well. Looking back from a distance of forty years, I can't really remember my specific objections to the novel. I guess it just seemed ordinary didn't have the same kind of resonance that attaches itself to your bones and makes you carry the book inside you for the rest of your life, the way STUART and CHARLOTTE did. Now if I were any type of dedicated blogger, I'd go back and re-read the book today and share my opinions as an adult, but I don't have the time (remember that 562 page manuscript tugging on my sleeve) or the energy (remember, I'm old) but I'll try to put it on my to-do list and report back here eventually.

Although I wasn't crazy about THE TRUMPET OF THE SWAN, it appears that everyone else pretty much loves it. White is usually said to have written "three chldren's classics" and the dustjacket for the anniversary edition claims this novel "along with E.B. White's other masterpieces...has been a favorite of generations of young readers."

Back in 1971, THE TRUMPET OF THE SWAN was nominated for a National Book Award and went on to win a William Allen White Award. Its editor, Ursula Nordstrom expressed shock when it did not receive the Newbery Medal, writing to White's wife: "Well, I just heard that Andy did NOT win the Newbery. It is utterly incredible. What won was a Viking book entitled THE SUMMER OF THE SWAN [sic]. Did you ever hear of anything so odd?...I am simply DISGUSTED."

Despite this talk of awards, I wondered how critics at the time of publication felt about TRUMPET. Did they also consider it award-worthy or were they, like me, somewhat lukewarm about the book?

John Updike reviewed it for the New York Times Book Review (you can always tell how important a book is considered by the pedigree of the critic; Updike wrote this one and, I believe, Eudora Welty did the Times review for Charlotte's Web.) Updike said that TRUMPET was not as "sprightly" as STUART and was "less rich in personalities and incident" than CHARLOTTE, but went on to rave that TRUMPET "is the most spacious and serene of the three, the one most imbued with the author's sense of the precious instinctual heritage represented by wild nature."

Writing for the Saturday Review, Zena Sutherland called the book "a masterpiece."

Other reviewers were more measured, but still quite positive, as when Kirkus Reviews points out some reservations but admits that, during certain powerful moments, "reservations have a way of evaporating."

Junior Bookshelf notes the novel's "disconcerting mix of fact and fantasy," but also mentions the novel's "compassion and wisdom and real feeling for the joy of the free life of the wild."

So in general, it seems that everyone liked the book and found it successful.

Or did they?

I recently came across some fascinating inside info in a personal letter. Written in June 1970 by Lavinia Russ, the children's book editor of the Publishers Weekly, and sent to a very well-known children's book editor, the letter accompanied a small present -- a book of E.B. White's essays for adults. And Ms. Russ signs off with a bit of gossip about White's latest book, THE TRUMPET OF THE SWAN.

In case you can't read her handwriting, she says: "Trade secret: his newest one is a sad disaster."

I'd sure like to see the Publishers Weekly review of TRUMPET OF THE SWAN. Did it reflect Ms. Russ's opinion that the book was a "sad disaster" or was it generally positive, like most reviews of the era? If it was positive, what does it say about the book review world if everyone was praising this book publicly but (trade secret!) offering different opinions behind closed doors?

And now I'm curious about how others feel about this book. Were you underwhelmed by it like I was as a kid, or do you think it takes its rightful place among E.B. White's "trio of classics"?


And who is this Lavinia Russ who dared to diss E.B. White's work?

For many years in the 1950s and 1960s she worked at Scribner's Bookstore in New York, buying and selling children's books. She was so esteemed in the children's book industry that she was ultimately asked to serve as children's books editor at Publishers , working there from 1965 to 1973.

If you'd like to know a little more about her, you might want to track down her 1969 memoir, THE GIRL ON THE FLOOR WILL HELP YOU, which is composed of brief, mildly-humorous essays about working in a bookstore with, of course, an emphasis on children's books. Some of Russ's comments about her favorite types of books ("written with a joyful wonder and read with wonderful joy") are spot-on; others are equally powerful, but a bit diminished by old-school sexism ("The man who first defined a children's book as a meaningful book -- that's the villain I'm after. I shall find him some day, but I have a hunch he will turn out to be a woman and that I shall find her at a wedding reception, a Barbie Doll passing as the mother of the bride.")

I was particularly struck by Russ's list of books "about people, ideas, and things that I couldn't bear to have anybody grow up without knowing." She says the list is for readers up to ten and "If they don't choose their own books after that, they're in trouble -- and so are you." I would have reprinted the list here, but it's over seven pages long. But I'm impressed by the fact that, although over forty years old, the list holds up very nicely today, filled with titles such as THE ANIMAL FAMILY, FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER, HARRIET THE SPY, THE GHOST IN THE NOONDAY SUN and many others.

n fact there are only twelves titles on the list that I have never heard of before. Since they appear to be picture books (never my strong suit), I'll have to ask you if these unknown-to-me titles are still read and enjoyed by kids today:

ELIA / Bill Peet
THE LEGEND OF THE WILLOW PLATE / Alvin Tresselt and Nancy Cleaver; illustrated by Joseph Low
MR. BROWN AND MR. GRAY / William Wondriska (I've never heard of this author, have you?)
NUBBER / William Lipkind ; illustrated by Roger Duvoisin
ONE SMALL BLUE BEAD / B.B. Schweitzer ; illustrated by Symeon Shimon
ONE SNAIL AND ME / Emilie McLeod ; illustrated by Walter Lorraine
THE TOMTEN / Astrid Lindgren

Incidentally, this card was laid in my copy of THE GIRL ON THE FLOOR WILL HELP YOU:

No, I did not know the author; whoever owned the book before me must have.

I wonder who that was!


We've discussed in previous blogs that the current use of stock photos has occasionally caused two books to unknowingly have the same cover. It recently happened again with the paperback reprints of last year's winner of the National Book Award for Young People's Literature, MOCKINGBIRD by Kathryn Erskine and Will Allison's adult novel LONG DRIVE HOME. People Magazine even included a piece about the duplication:

Personally, I was thrilled to see this mention. Anytime a children's book gets even a glancing bit of publicity in magazine like People, it increases the book's visibility and increases sales.


Earlier I wrote about what a big deal it was when E.B. White "returned" to children's books in 1970 after an eighteen year absence.

It appears we are about to experience a similarly momentous occasion, with Nancy Ekholm Burkert releasing her first picture book in over twenty years.

I'm not a picture book expert, so if I have any facts wrong here, I hope someone will write in to correct me. But I will go out on a limb and state that Nancy Ekholm Burkert may be the most honored and admired children's book artist with the smallest body of work.

In fifty years, she appears to have illustrated a scant dozen or so volumes, beginning with JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH in 1961, and including John Updike's A CHILD'S CALENDAR in 1965, SNOW-WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS in 1972, and VALENTINE AND ORSON in 1989. This is a far cry from many children's books artists who, particularly early in their careers, illustrate as many titles as they possibly can. Yet despite, her small output, Ms. Burkert is one of our most honored creators. SNOW WHITE was a Caldecott Honor Book. VALENTINE AND ORSON won the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award. She has been honored with a monograph about her work (1977's THE ART OF NANCY EKHOLM BURKERT, edited by David Larkin) and in 2003 she was the second artist (only after Maurice Sendak) to exhibit her work at the Eric Carle Museum.

So you can see why it is indeed a Big Deal that she's publishing a new picture book this fall, at the age of 78. The book is MOUSE & LION, an adaptation of the Aesop fable by her son Rand Burkert.

It's already getting raves and I imagine it will turn up on many Mock Caldecott lists this fall.

Of course you may now be thinking, like I am: what rotten timing!

After all, Jerry Pinkney just won last year's Caldecott for THE LION AND THE MOUSE, an adaptation of this same fable.

Will this coincidence hurt Ms. Burkert's chances of winning the Caldecott?

Technically, it should not. The award committe is supposed to judge only the book in hand and not take into account any outside considerations, such as the same plot being used in a recent Caldecott winner. Having said that, the committees have historically done a fairly good job of changing things up, with different types of books with different artistic styles winning from year to year -- though of course there have been exceptions (Leo and Dianne Dillon winning two years in a row; two books about snow winning consecutive awards in 1948 and 1949.) Personally, I think it would be a kick to have THE MOUSE AND THE LION and LION & MOUSE show up on a Caldecott list with only one year separating them. Rather than making it look as though the Caldecott committees tend to pick the same types of books over and over, it would instead demonstrate a certain bravery in not caring "how it looks" to reward the same, similarly-titled story twice in three years, but instead honoring the artwork that is deemed best.


A blog reader and Facebook friend just sent me this request:

"Does anyone remember a children's book about a giant with a drawing of the giant looking in the window of the house? What was the name of that book? Anyone, anyone...? It is not BFG, not JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH and not THE SELFISH GIANT."

This one doesn't ring any bells for me. I do seem to recall stories featuring shrunken people or dolls in doll houses in which a human character (looking like a giant) peers into a tiny house.

Does anyone have any guesses?

(And if you'd like to join me on Facebook, don't hesitate to send me a "friend" request.)


This morning I went grocery shopping and passed two people standing beside the road, holding up six foot tall signs advertising Borders' Going Out of Business Sale. As each car passed, they'd shake their signs saying "50-70% OFF! Everything Goes! Including Fixtures!" at the vehicles.

So it's come to this -- begging for bookstore customers...hustling for hardcovers... panhandling for paperbacks.

Remember when going to a bookstore was a destination...something you looked forward to doing...a treat?

I don't think I've seen anything so sad and deperate as those two people shaking their bookstore signs at strangers on a busy street.

I've heard that Borders is selling anything and everything at this point. If it somehow found its way into the warehouse, it's sellable -- and that includes food and clothing. Someone on a blog mentioned buying something at Borders' sale and finding a Target sticker on the bottom of it.

After grocery shopping, another errand took me right past the Borders in question, in Novi, Michigan. I remembered when it first opened up at a different location in the same mall. I particularly liked the dark and cozy young adult section at the back of the store. Then they moved to a much bigger space at the far end of the mall. It seemed more industrial, but it was still a fun place to visit. There were a lot of cars in the parking lot this morning -- bargain hunters picking through the remains.

If they'd all shopped there regularly, maybe Borders would never have closed.


Earlier in the week I received this postcard from a book buddy:

It's a picture of The Strand in New York City -- one of the world's great bookstores. It seems like I'd heard about it all my life, so I couldn't wait to go there in person the first time I visited New York in 1979. Since then, I've been back too many times to count. Every time I've visited New York, I've carved out time to stop at the Strand nearly every day of my trip. I'd squeeze down the narrow aisles of fiction (and often come across things that were valuable...or at least valuable to me); roam through the big wire shelving units full of brand new "review copies" in the basement, all fifty percent off the original price; I'd sit on the floor in the children's section, looking at galleys shoved willy-nilly on the bottom shelf; I'd buy hardcovers at $2.00 a piece and have them shipped home -- one time so many that a neighbor saw me opening the boxes on my front porch and asked if I was opening a bookstore; I'd also take the private elevator upstairs, clinging to the wall while it shook from side to side, to visit there rare book collection. I used to have a second job and set aside the paychecks just to finance twice-a-year trips to New York to see plays and visit the Strand and Books of Wonder. Since losing that job (Sieruta job firing #319) I haven't been back to New York even once...and I've heard the Strand has gone through some renovations. Maybe someday I'll be back. Unlike Borders, I hope the Strand remains open and waiting for me.

Anyway, the front of the Strand postcard clearly sent me down memory lane...but the back of the card intrigued me too. My friend had written:

Hmm, what if? What if?

Usually when I hear about contests where you can win a new car or a vacation or new kitchen furniture, I say, "I'd sell the prize and put the money on my mortgage."

But what if you received $1000 and it could only be spent at this kind of wide-ranging bookstore?

Would I spend it on one or two very expensive books that I could never otherwise afford?

Or would I buy lots of lots of low priced books so I'd never have to worry about running out again?

Would I buy books in a subject area that I've always wanted to explore (such as astronomy) but never had the money?

Would I buy gifts...maybe buy a couple hundred dollars' worth of books for a stuggling school or public library.

I don't know...but it's sure fun to think about!

What would YOU do?


Thanks for visiting Collecting Children's Books. I hope to be a little more diligent with blog writing in the coming days. Hey, maybe I'l even write a midweek blog this week. There's just this little matter of a 562 page manuscript I must attend to first!


Jules at 7-Imp said...

Oh but I *wish* I got paid for blogging. Kirkus columns, yes, but 7-Imp'ing is a labor of love, as they say.

Hang in there, though now I sound like a bad mid-'70s inspirational elementary classroom kitty cat poster.

Peter D. Sieruta said...

Actually, I was referring to the Kirkus columns -- but wasn't as clear as I should have been. Sorry.

But the real point...

The REAL point... that you have no idea what the Ed Sullvian show was, do you?

I thought not!

Peter : )

grrlpup said...

When I think of the three books now, Swan doesn't have its own unique and unmistakable flavor like Stuart Little and Charlotte's Web do. But as a kid I didn't have a concept of classic vs. non-classic, only of liking a book or not. And sometimes a book that was farther from perfect seemed to have more room for me. I read Trumpet of the Swan at least as often as the other two, mostly for the particular little things I liked:
- Sam writing a question in his notebook every night to think about while he fell asleep
- Louis getting his foot-webs cut so he could play more notes on the trumpet. Hardcore!
- His attempt to make the hotel room comfortable, i.e. sleeping on water in the tub and ordering a large number of watercress sandwiches from room service.

Oh, and I still call ducklings, goslings, cygnets, etc. "beeps" because of that book. :)

Jules at 7-Imp said...

Of course I know what it is, even if I was born exactly 11 months after the final episode. (I just figured that out from its Wikipedia link. Neat.)

But I WASN'T looking it up 'cause I didn't know what it was. :) That's the show where New Kids on the Block had their breakthrough performance.


Calliope said...

Giants? Giant people and dollhouses = Big Susan by Elizabeth Orton Jones. Giant John by Arnold Lobel? Or, one of my favorite TV shows from across the Candian Border, The Friendly Giant?

Anonymous said...

The giant book could be Giant John by Arnold Lobel. I have a copy in my classroom and have read it to my class for years when Arnold Lobel is featured as our author of the month.

Lisa Jenn Bigelow said...

Thanks for emerging from the revision cave to write this post, Peter!

"Sad disaster"-- so harsh! My 2nd grade teacher read Trumpet to my class, and we really enjoyed it. I reread it as an adult and found it to be a very strange little book (how much junk did Louis have hanging around his neck, anyway?!), but then I think Stuart Little is a very strange little book, too. I think I prefer Trumpet to Stuart, actually, but that may be less about Trumpet's merits and more because I'm squicked out at the idea of a human mother giving birth to a son that is, by all appearances, a mouse.

Genevieve said...

I loved Trumpet of the Swan, perhaps as much as Charlotte's Web and more than Stuart Little (though that one also has a place in my heart all my life, particularly the bits with the class deciding what would be done with a boy if he had stolen the "for you I pine for you I balsam" pillow, and Stuart plugging holes in his birchbark canoe with chewing gum).

It's funny, but the details I have always carried in my heart include the same ones as grrlpup: the watercress sandwiches and sleeping in the hotel bathtub, and the cutting the foot-webs. But also Louis copying the words "CAT" and then "CATASTROPHE from the blackboard, and untying Sam's shoelace, and the father flying through the music shop window with all the people making silly remarks.

Jason Robert Brown wrote music for it recently, and it was recorded, with John Lithgow singing Louis, and other excellent actors. I saw it performed at the Kennedy Center and liked it very much -- the music was in the perfect style, and they kept all the humor and characterization -- I thought the only flaw was that it was a bit too long to keep all the kids' attention.

Ed Sullivan! Musical theater lovers automatically sing the eponymous song from "Bye Bye Birdie" when they hear his name.

Bybee said...

I haven't gotten around to Trumpet of the Swan, but now I want to. I shyed off of it for so many years because I love Charlotte's Web so fiercely and have warm feelings about Stuart Little.

Brooke said...

I also adored The Trumpet of the Swan as a child when I read it in the mid 1980s; it's thanks to that book that for years I considered watercress sandwiches at the Ritz to be the ne plus ultra of culinary sophistication.

As for the picture books you listed: I recognized two. The Legend of the Willow Plate is a folklorish faux-Asian story explaining the pictures seen on blue willoware china (something about star-crossed lovers meeting on a pagoda, I think).

And I still often find Astrid Lindgren's The Tomten in library folklore collections -- Tomtens are a kind of friendly house-elf found in Scandinavian folktales. I think Jan Brett has even created her own story based on Tomtens.

KateCoombs said...

I was not entranced by Trumpet of the Swan as a child; I remember wishing it were as wonderful as Charlotte's Web and feeling very disappointed that it was not.

ChrisinNY said...

ooohhh- what a great rainy day activity planning what I would spend the $ at the Strand. While I have gone there a number of times, I must admit I get overwhelmed and "forget" what I want/need to look for when I walk through the doors. (Also much of what I like is scarce because most folks were not interested when the books were published so unlikely to appear on the shelves now.)

Laura Canon said...

I never noticed any difference in the three White books but when I read Trumpet to my son, he had kind of a "meh" reaction. He may have been too young to identify with Sam. The one thing I remember about Trumpet is the word "crepuscular."

Alison said...

Peter, The Strand sounds very much like The Arcade in Sheridan Hay's "The Secret of Lost Things". My sister recommended the book to me because she said she could see me moving into the store & living the rest of my days there :) As a west coaster I'm unfamiliar with the Strand, but will add it to my list of things to do if I ever visit NYC, bumping "taste authentic coal oven pizza" to #2.

As for Mr. White's third masterpiece, I vaguely remember my 3rd grade teacher reading it us & have no memory of any of the details from the book, tho Charlotte is indelibly inked in my heart & Stuart is a fond favorite. But you've made me want to revisit it. Thank you :)

Deb said...

I wonder if one of The Borrowers series is the remembered book? Thinking of the boy picking up the register cover and seeing Arietty and family....

Jess said...

I grew up reading Astrid Lindgren's The Tomten and I adore it (although my sister always thought it was creepy). I was reading it in the 80s, and I notice that 4 libraries in my county still own copies.

lin said...

I remember Ed Sullivan! Guest who spun plates; that creepy mouse puppet. I didn't like it as well as the Carol Burnett show, which came on after.

I remember several of Russ' recommended books: Strange Disappearance of Arthur cluck; Look There's a Turtle Flying; Tomten; and One Small Blue Bead (always liked Shimon's work)

No comment on 'Trumpet'. I was so squigged out by Mrs. White giving birth to a mouse that I could never read "Stuart Little," and then never bothered to read "Trumpet"

I, too, thought of "Big Susan" for the giant book. Can you believe it's still in print?

Hope the manuscript got in on time and you can do some relaxing after your laboring Labor Day.

Fawn (Skat the Cat) said...

When I was a kid, my mom used to read Trumpet White books to me but I couldn't remember something special or something unique about it not like Stuart Little. Anyways, I couldn't really imagine what to buy in Strand if I am given a money that much but maybe I would choose to buy the books I've really wanted that I couldn't afford.

Kim Laird said...

My friend thinks Giant John by Loebel might be the one. Thanks for all the suggestions!