Sunday, September 18, 2011

Brunch for September 18

The days are getting shorter and so is the length of today's blog.


I'm missing our hummingbirds!

They've left Michigan on their great migration, so sitting on the deck is now a lot less fluttery and fun. I still haven't taken down the hummingbird feeders, but I should. It's downright depressing to watch ants swandive into a feeder, swim around in the nectar...then drown. Not that I'm feeling much interest in these insects since reading EVERYONE SEES THE ANTS by A.S. King. I loved the author's eccentric PLEASE IGNORE VERA DIETZ, but her new YA novel feels like a flop to me (hey, some ants swandive; others bellyflop.) I'm astonished it's getting starred reviews and great word of mouth. What am I missing? I'll read it again if someone can present a compelling argument.

To celebrate the fall, I've been buying a pot of chrysanthemums every time I go to the grocery store and have lined them up around my teeny-tiny gardening plot:

Twenty minutes after taking this picture, the sun rose over the top of the house and lighted up all the mums like fire. By then I couldn't find my camera.

One of the best parts of autumn is that this is the time of year when we all get serious about book awards. Over at School Library Journal, Nina Lindsay and Jonathan Hunt have started up their Heavy Medal blog, which focuses on the Newbery Award. At the Horn Book, Robin Smith and Lolly Robinson have begun "Calling Caldecott," a blog devoted to you-know-what. And a new blog called Printz Picks plans to focus on possible Printz contenders. Should be a fun fall!


Speaking of the Newbery, one title that seems to be quietly picking up buzz is BLUEFISH by Pat Schamtz. The story concerns new-kid-in-school Travis who, at thirteen, is struggling with the loss of his pet dog, his guardian-grandfather's newfound sobriety, and his own illiteracy. But things slowly start to change when Travis gets help with his reading from an understanding teacher and meets two new classmates -- bullied Bradley and an extroverted funny-girl known as Velveeta, who tells part of the story in first-person sections. The relationship between Travis and Velveeta -- both dealing with loss, alcoholic families, and miscommunication -- is particularly involving. The novel's pared-down prose, larger-than-life, yet completely believable characterizations, and realistically offbeat dialogue are spot-on. (Though if this novel does receive Newbery recognitition, its occasional salty language will leave THE HIGHER POWER OF LUCKY's "scrotumgate" in the dust.) This novel gets so much right on so many levels that the only disappointment lies in the bookmaking. For a story about a kid with reading difficulties, why is the text's font so small? And why are the cover illustration and title (not fully explained until the final chapters) so offputting? Because of these issues, the book may be a hardsell to young readers, but once they open the pages, they'll be hooked by this BLUEFISH.


It's always fun to see the titles of children's books -- whether famous or lesser-known -- appear in other works of ficton. Two titles are mentioned in BLUEFISH. Velveeta is reading Markus Zusak's THE BOOK THIEF while poor reader Travis struggles through Jim Kjelgaard's HAUNT FOX. The latter title is rather surprising since the book has been out of print for many years. However, many of Jim Kjelgaard's other books are still around in paperback. Though not as

popular as they once were, they deserve recognition and rediscovery. Born in 1910, Kjelgaard spent his early adulthood working as a trapper, factory worker, and plumber's assistant before making the decision to write for children. His first book, FOREST PATROL (1941) was based on the experiences of his brother, who wanted to be a forest ranger.

Kjelgaard then began a steady career of writing magazine fiction for adults and as many as five books a year for kids. Most of his work stemmed from his love of nature and animals -- particularly dogs. He's probably best known for a series about three generations in a family of Irish Setters: BIG RED (1945), IRISH RED (1951) and OUTLAW RED (1953.)

Unfortunately, Kjelgaard's life and career were cut short by a mysterious illness whose effects left the author so depressed that he succumbed to suicide at age forty-nine.

Some of his books are available in paperback and at libraries, but I'm hardpressed to think of a contemporary author who writes naturalistic dog stories in a similar style. In fact animal stories (with the exception of humorous talking mouse stories, with three Newbery winners -- Lois Lowry, Cynthia Voigt, and Richard Peck -- all publishing such this year alone!) seem to have fallen out of favor in the past couple decades. Will they ever return?


Thanks to all who wrote in with answers to my query about Janet Lambert books. I'm definitely going to track down some of her books, starting with STAR SPANGLED SUMMER, which so many recommended.

I was especially fascinated by this comment from blog reader CLM:

"One flaw with Lambert for a modern reader is that the men are all groomed for West Point but (other than actress Penny Parrish) the women's role is primarily to support them and they rarely even go to college. As I recall, the one character who attends Barnard dies in a car crash!"

There used to be a legend in YA fiction that gay characters always ended up dying in car accidents. This is the first time I've heard of a character who decides to go to college getting killed in a car crash!

But it started me thinking....

For those of you who are fans of "teen romance novels" of the fifties and sixties written by authors such as Betty Cavanna, Anne Emery, Rosamund DuJardin, and the rest: do the girls in these books usually have career aspirations or do they, like CLM describes in Lambert's books, simply long to be married, have kids, and support their husbands?

I've honestly never read any of those old-school romances. I've read plenty of YA novels from the seventies till today which contain romantic elements, but in those books the girls always seem to have career goals and aspirations of their own. I wonder if that's simply because they were written in a post-feminist period...or if even the 1950s books featured girls who had both career interests and an interest in romance and marriage. And IF girls in novels by Cavanna, et al, longed for both, was that true to the time, or simply done to make the protagonist more interesting? I would think a book in which a girl's only desire is to support her man would be pretty dull. Someone should write a research paper exploring how true such books were to their era.

Come to think of it, someone should write a research paper exploring whether the characterizations of boys were true to their time as well. It seems that in most of the books I read -- even those published in the forties and fifties -- boys had big dreams and lots of goals for the future. Strangely, one of the most honored children's writers of the twentieth century, Joseph Krumgold, wrote against that tide. In his first Newbery winner, ...AND NOW MIGUEL, the protagonist doesn't dream of leaving home for the big city, attending college, or finding a special career; he wants to be a sheep herder like his father. Six years later Krumgold won the Newbery again for ONION JOHN. In this novel, the protagonist's father talks about his son someday going to MIT or becoming an astronaut, while all young Andy wants to do is stay home and run his father's hardware store someday. However, it seems to me that such conventional boys were actually "unconventional" for male characters in fiction even back in the fifties....


I think I've told this embarrassing story before, but it bears repeating with this entry.

Many decades ago, back when RIFLES FOR WATIE was the latest Newbery winner, Mrs. Sieruta went in the hospital and had her first baby -- me. Coming out of the delivery room, she seemed to recall my father saying the baby was a boy. A few hours later she woke up and a little nun (though Mrs. Sieruta wasn't Catholic, the hospital was -- so most of the nurses wore habits) came in carrying the baby. She said, "Here's your brand new daughter!" and my mother said, " husband said it was a boy."

Back then, hospitals put little bracelets on each baby -- blue for boys, pink for girls -- with the baby's last night spelled out in beads.

The nun pointed at my pink bracelet and said, "It's a girl."

My mother said, "Are you sure?"

The nun said, "Well, there's only one way to find out for sure."

She unpinned my diaper and said, "'re right" and handed the new me to the new mom and sat down beside the bed to restring our last name with a set of blue beads.

It's an oft-told tale in our family, but one I've quit telling in recent years because hospital no longer seem to use beads to identify babies. From what I understand, they just wear clear plastic name tags, the same as adult patients.

I did some searching online and the only references to beaded hospital bracelets I could find referred to them as "vintage." (Yeah, I just loved to find out that I'm now "vintage.") But I did find picture frames you can buy for showing off your new baby and the baby's hospital bracelet:

which you will notice is just a plastic band. (Actually, that image is small that the band looks sort of like an EPT test strip which would make areally tacky photo, wouldn't it?)

So...if beaded bracelet and vintage and plastic bands are hip and today, why does the cover of Han Nolan's new, contemporary novel about a teenage mom, PREGNANT PAUSE, feature an old-school bracelet motif?

ARE the beads used anywhere today? Or are modern readers going to look at the cover and thing, "What's THAT supposed to be?"

Are kids going to get it?

Or is putting a beaded bracelet on the cover akin to putting a typewriter on the cover of one of Lauren Myracle's "instant messaging" computer novels?


Look what the owner of my favorite bookstore gave me this week:

I've always known that "cool people read" but it's nice to share that thought with others as I carry around this bookbag!

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


Wendy said...

I count "hopes for future beyond boyfriend/husband/kids" as one of the defining characteristics of YA from the 40s-60s. It's a prominent part of almost every book, more so, IMO, than in YA from, say, the 1980s. And usually it's a more concrete, discussed idea than it is in the average YA now, I think. The occupations/plans are rarely very daring--EVERYONE wants to be a "buyer" for a department store. Other frequently mentioned careers: working for the foreign service as a secretary, teaching, music occupations, fashion/interior design/art-related things. I think this aspect was one of the things that appealed to me most about these books when I was a young teenager in the 1990s.

Some of the girls weren't very ambitious, but their parents and teachers and friends would talk to them about this; overcoming this "fault" was usually a plot point.

I'm not going to make out like these books are early feminist works or anything; a lot of the girls (and their parents and boyfriends) talk about following these careers only until they get married and/or have children, and sometimes plans are changed or abandoned without a lot of discussion because of Romance. But the general theme of the entire genre is that boyfriends are important but there's got to be more to life. (And that Janet Lambert strays from this is part of the reason I've always been unenthusiastic about her books, I think.)

I've talked a lot with my mother (who was a teenager in the early 60s and read these books at the time) about how realistic they are, and with other women as well; of course there's a ton of regional and class variation. My impression is that they're pretty aspirational, but there are aspects that ring true. My mother did say once that A Wrinkle in Time was the first book she remembered reading in which the heroine was a teenage girl who wasn't pretty and friendly--one who was moody and smart and awkward. (Smart girls are almost never the heroines of these books--they're side characters. Sometimes the protagonists are particularly intelligent, but they aren't BRILLIANT, like those girls in the books who are interested in science and are student council presidents and so on.)

Just say the word, Peter, and I'll give you a carefully-selected reading list from the era...

Melody Marie Murray said...

My 17-year-old boy and his friends have bracelets with the alphabet cubes on them. They make them for each other, and try to top each other for silly sayings. So I think the Pregnant Pause is contemporary.

Bybee said...

Here's what I remember from my Cavanna/Du Jardin/Emery reading:

Cavanna - Jenny Kimura. Her father is American and her mother is Japanese. They live in Japan. One day, Jenny Kimura Smith gets an invite to meet her American grandmother and stay for the summer. Cavanna does a great job with the culture clash stuff, but it got boring when she mixed it in obligatory boy-girl stuff. I think Jenny was 16...not thinking of a career yet.

Cavanna - You Can't Take 20 Dogs on a Date AKA That's My Girl. A girl named Jo is planning to go to college, but things fall through for some reason, so she either works in a dog kennel to help out her widowed mom or they open one. One guy who really likes her tweaks her for being unfeminine, and she's always self-conscious about having dirt or dog hair on herself.

Du Jardin - Wait for Marcy. Marcy turns 15, drops her jeans, moccasins and oversized shirts when she gets a white formal for her first prom. The boy next door really takes notice. Then a teenage temptress named Devon comes to visit Marcy's bff for the summer.

Anne Emery - Scarlet Royal. When the father dies unexpectedly, a mother and three daughters are determined to hold on to their horse farm.

Anne Emery - Going Steady - Sally and Scotty get engaged their senior year and decide that they'll get married instead of going to college. Then they visit some friends who did the exact same thing a few months before and see their tacky little apartment and find out that a baby coming sooner than they would have liked. Sally and Scotty decide suddenly to get un-engaged and go on to college.

Lambert - My Davy - A girl named Parri wants to be an actress like her mom. She really wants to go to Hollywood. Blah, blah, blah. Can't remember who Davy is. Like Morrissey, "I was bored before I even began..."

So that's the extent of my exposure to the teen novels of the 50s and 60s. Is this comment too long??

Laura Canon said...

There's an Anne Emery novel (Sweet 16?) where the girl wants to go to college so she can learn to be a farmer's wife.

Actually, most of the books I've read by authors like Jean Nielsen, Iris Noble, Bob and Jan Young, Eve Bennett, etc, the girls do have ambitions, although they are usually for acceptably feminine careers -- journalism, writing, nursing, teaching. Ambition and struggle (college is rarely taken for granted) are usually part of the plot. No one ever wants to be a rocket scientist, although FOLLOW YOUR DREAM by Marjorie Holmes has a protagonist who wants to be a vet.

Cavanna is kind of on the fence. Her girls are a little too young to be serious about the future but they are intelligent and forceful and it's hard to imagine them staying at home.

Frankly I think that since most of these books were written by married women who had a career (writing) they were more sympathetic to the idea of girls having ambitions.

My husband still has a paperback copy of BIG RED, though I doubt he's looked at it since 5th grade. It's interesting to think of those nature books disappearing...less nature, perhaps?

lin said...

I read one of Kjelgaard's books, but found it overwrought for my adult tastes (the dog was unwaveringly noble and great-hearted). If I were 12 I probably would have eaten it up. The closest recent title would probably be Ann Martin's "A Dog's Life." Oh, and "Cracker" by Kadohata. There are a lot of noble and great-hearted animals, but they tend to be in epics like the Warriors series by Erin Hunter or Sunwing by Oppel.

Molly Cone wrote "Crazy Mary" in 1966. It resembled a du Jardin or Cavanna on the surface, about a pretty young girl who follows her boyfriend to college, but she ends up ditching her English major to become an engineer, and ditching her boyfriend, too.

Connie Rockman said...

I fondly remember reading Betty Cavanna in the 1950s; her books dealt with girls' aspirations as well as family and friendship issues and often had a strong sense of place. I remember esp. Paintbox Summer, about a girl striving to get better at art, and there was one about a girl in college trying to decide whether to become a musician. Cavanna herself graduated from college in 1929 and always worked, as a journalist, in publishing, and as a writer. Those of us who were teens in the 1950s didn't have many options - Wrinkle in Time, and even To Kill a Mockingbird were published after we graduated.
I worked with librarians early in my career who had read Janet Lambert and Anne Emery, but Cavanna was the one I turned to while figuring out what "growing up" was all about and she didn't disappoint. Widowed twice, she lived her last two years in France - some role model for growing girls!

hschinske said...

I have a slightly unusual book called _Skating for Marty_, by Barbara Clayton (1959) in which a girl is encouraged to apply to MIT, having discovered that she's rather good at math (though honestly, it's just regular algebra or something she's doing, so it doesn't sound that amazing -- maybe MIT was easier to get into in 1959). But most of the book, IIRC, is about her gaining confidence and losing weight due to, you guessed it, skating.

Helen Schinske

Linda said...

When I cleaned out my Mom's house after she passed away, one of the things I found was my baby bracelet from the hospital; it had my first name on it, not my last. Unfortunately one of the letters is missing, but it's still a nice souvenir.