Sunday, October 30, 2011

Sunday Brunch with Watercolors, Rachel Field, Tickletown, Halloween, and Teenage Girls Trying to Keep Their Heads Above the Water

I guess this blog entry requires no introduction; the title tells you everything you need to know.


Does anyone remember INTERIORS, Woody Allen's extremely serious 1978 movie -- regarded by many as an homage to Ingmar Bergman?

Most audience members left the theater feeling like they wanted to jump off a tall building or stick their head in the nearest oven.

I left thinking, "Gee, I really identify with the character of Joey."

I'd like to report that the character of "Joey" was an intelligent, wealthy, and debonair man-about-town, beloved by all.

In actuality, "Joey" was a mousy middle-aged woman played by the bespetacled Mary Beth Hurt. She was depressed and looked-down-upon because she had a creative spirit, but absolutely no artistic talent.

I can relate.

I've tried all kinds of things: writing, playwriting, gluing together felt Santa Claus figures...I've never been much good at any of it, despite having a creative spirit that impels me to keep trying such things.

It would be bad enough if I confined these creative endeavors to some little basement studio -- but no! I always have to put them out there for everyone to see. So everyone saw the one-star (one out of four) review my play got when it was reviewed in the local newspaper. And everyone sees my felt-and-yarn Santa Claus when I hang it on the wall every Christmas. ("Oh, that' Did you make that in kindergarten?" "Actually, I was nineteen years old.")

My Facebook friends (feel free to "friend" me at "Peter Sieruta" on Facebook) heard about -- and sometimes saw photographs of -- the succession of test pies I made this past summer. That story had a happy ending when Sarah Weeks -- author of the new middle-grade novel PIE -- praised my lattice-topped sour cherry pie at a booksigning. This made me realize that, while practice doesn't necessarily "make perfect," it does make things better.

So now I've embarked on another creative endeavor. When I moved into this house, I thought, "Oh, I'll just paint my own pictures to put on the walls." Never mind that I'd never painted any pictures before -- it looked easy! So I went out and bought a wooden watercolor kit that had little drawers and latches and even a fold-out easel. A year passed and the walls are still bare. So about a month ago, I finally cracked open the kit and every weekend since I've painted a "test picture" -- just like all summer I baked "test pies" -- in preparation for the day that I'm finally ready to do a big painting to put over the fireplace. At the rate I'm going, I think I'll be ready in a hundred and twenty-three years.

This was my first painting:

Someone on Facebook asked if the crossing guard was suicidal and getting ready to jump from a ledge.

I used a photo of two childhood friends to inspire my second painting:

Can't tell you how glad I am that these friends are not on Facebook.

Used another old photo for Test Pic #3, which I titled "Borrowed Cat":

Friends suggested I either try drawing it upside down or get a copy of the book DRAWING WITH THE LEFT SIDE OF YOUR BRAIN. I haven't tracked down the book yet, but I did try it again, using the upside-down technique, which seemed to help:

Yesterday, I painted this one, inspired by my brother's memory of baking potatoes in curbside bonfires when we were kids -- back before ecology was an issue and burning autumn leaves was banned:

The first person I showed it to didn't "get" the whole baked potato thing and suggested I write "POTATO" in the middle of the painting and then draw arrows pointing to each of the kids' hands. Obviously, this same person would have told Whistler to write "MOTHER" in the center of his painting and then draw an arrow pointing to the old lady in the rocker!

Anyway, what's the point of this whole "art exhibit," since it has nothing to do with children's books?

Nothing, really, except I know that when many of us re-read childhood favorites, we're taken back to the world of our youth. I've found that painting these pictures from my own childhood (however badly!) also takes me back to those days. I remembered "borrowing" that cat from a neighbor to take the porch photograph forty years ago. When painting the bonfire picture, I remembered how the leaves smelled in the fire and how charred our potatoes would get in the fire. I remembered how black the smoke was and how it hurt to breathe. So many people I know -- my contemporaries! -- tell me they can't remember going to kindergarten, or can't remember the names of childhood friends. I guess I'm trying to "save" mine now, on paper, before I start forgetting too.

I don't just collect children's books...I also collect memories.


Last year at this time I shared the cover image of the October 1934 issue of CHILD LIFE magazine. I found it in a book of vintage Halloween art and was surprised to see that this one issue alone had work from at least three Caldecott winners (Dorothy Lathrop and Berta and Elmer Hader) as well as two Newbery winners, Rachel Field and Dorothy Lathrop:

Since then I have acquired a copy of the magazine itself. It's considerably more dogearred and tattered than the one pictured above, but it's still a lot of fun to look at -- especially at Hallween time.

The cooking column was written by Clara Ingram Judson, who is listed as "a well-known expert on home economics," who would later be better known as three-time Newbery Honor biographer. In this issue she provides a fruit salad recipe that contains "equal parts of whipped cream and mayonnaise."

Ah, so we finally know who to blame for our long midwestern nightmare -- that potluck, office party, church social staple: ambrosia salad!

Who knew a children's book author was behind it?

The other thing that surprised me about Ms. Judson's column is that it doesn't contain all the usual warnings that would have been found in our kid-cautious era. It's full of instructions to "light the stove," "dice fruit," and pour things into "boiling hot liquid."

Can you imagine this column today? "Ask an adult to turn on the stove," "have mom cut up the fruit for you," "stay away from boiling liquids!"

I was also tickled by Tickletown -- a monthly two-page comic strip by Lois Lenski. In this edition, the children of Tickletown celebrate Cabbage Night (their version of Devil's Night) by putting Deacon Dandelion's garden bench on Old Lady Bluenose's porch roof. On Halloween, Peter Prunepit has a party where "the boys ducked for apples and ate pumpkin pie." Walking home they see a ghost, which turns to be Farmer Sauerkraut's white horse."

Beneath the comic strip we are told in teeny-tiny print:

"Moral note: The Tickletown sisters, the Tickletown brothers
Deserve to be scared, for they scare others!"

The ads are also intriguing. I was particularly struck by this one, pitching Remington Typewriters for elementary grade children. I've never seen typewriters suggested for kids that young. When I was in school, we learned to print in firs grade, learned cursive in fourth grade, and didn't see a typewriter until ninth grade at the earliest.

Nowadays, of course, keyboarding actually is taught in elemenatary schools -- though on computers, and typewriters -- while cursive has been done away with completely.


Although much of CHILD LIFE seems dated today, a two-page drawing by Dorothy Lathrop which frames Rachel Field's poem "Something Told the Geese," still holds up well toay.

Thinking about Rachel Field's (1894-1942) contributions to literature today, I'm convinced she was one of the most gifted and wide-ranging writers of the twentieth-century. This is especially impressive when you consider she didn't even learn to read until she was ten years old. Except for reading and writing, she was an unimpressive pupil and was only allowed to enter Radcliffe College as a "special student," studying writing but not allowed in a degree program. She was also permitted to spend two years in a playwriting program at Harvard. Most of her plays were written for children and she earned enough from drama royalties to buy a cottage (which she named "Playhouse") on the coast of Maine.

Her output was extraordinary. She published plays, poetry, and novels for children -- ofen as many as four volumes a year. Some she illustrated herself. She is best known today for HITTY: HER FIRST HUNDRED YEARS, a story told from the perspective of a wooden doll. She and illustrator Dorothy Lathrop first noticed the doll in the window of an antique shop and pooled their money to purchase it. The book they created about Hitty was acknowledged as an instant classic. It was the first book by a female writer to win the Newbery Medal; some sources also say it was the first book with American themes to win that award. (Personally, I think that honor goes to Will James' SMOKY, published three years earlier.) Among her other famed chilren's book are the Newbery Honor CALICO BUSH (1931) and the lesser-known but no less brilliant circus novel HEPATICA HAWKS (1932.) She also wrote the poem "Prayer for a Child" which, published as a stand-alone volume, won the 1945 Caldecott Medal for illustrator Elizabeth Orton Jones.

Ms. Field did not marry until she was past forty. She and her husband would later adopt a daughter named Hannah. Although she continued to write for children, the author switched focus to adult novels at this point, publishing TIME OUT OF MIND (1935), ALL THIS, AND HEAVEN TOO (1938), and AND NOW TOMORROW (1942.) All three were made into movies (ALL THIS, AND HEAVEN TOO, with Bette Davis is especially great...and, speaking of Halloween, has a nice little "All Hallow's Eve" sequence) and the later two books were considered strong contenders for the Pulitzer Prize.

Rachel Field died of pneumonia after cancer surgery in 1942. She was only 47 and we can only imagine how many other brilliant works she might have written had she lived another few decades. Maybe that's just greedy thinking, though, since she left us wih so many lasting works.

And I am still left wondering if we've ever had another creator with such wide-ranging talent: plays, poetry, children's fiction, adult novels, a Newbery, a Newbery Honor, a Caldecott text, two Pulitzer contenders -- plus she illustrated many of her own books!

I'm also wondering if anyone can answer three questions I have about this author:

Does anyone know where the original Hitty doll is? Is she owned by a library or museum?

Does anyone know what happened to her daughter Hannah?

Finally, I've read that Ms. Field was well-loved by her friends for designing personalized Christmas cards, and for giving them copies of her own books which, originally printed in black-and-white, she had hand illustrated with oolor paints. Has any collector ever come across any of these cards or books? Wouldn't it be a coup to find one?


Some authors seem to disappear into thin air.

Such was the case with Dale Carlson, an author who published her first children's book in 1964 and released books fairly consistently through the next couple decades.

I was particularly fond of the offbeat books she published with Atheneum in the 1970s, including THE MOUNTAIN OF TRUTH (1972), about a camp for young people in the mountains of Tibet, THE HUMAN APES (1973), about a group of humans disguising themselves as apes, and BABY NEEDS SHOES (1974), which revolved around the subject of gambling. THE MOUNTAIN OF TRUTH was considered particularly daring, as I recall, because one of the young characters was labelled "a practicing homosexual" -- probably the first time that phrase was ever used in a mainstream novel for kids. Although Ms. Carlson continued to publish into the 1980s, she eventually disappeared from the scene.

The other day I was roaming around the web and found her!

Since 1993, Dale Carlson Bick has been running the Bick Publishing House.

According to the company's website:

The mission of Bick Publishing House for Teens/Young Adults is to relate modern science and its ethics, communications arts, philosophy, psychology to the teenager's world, so they can make their own responsible decisions about their own lives and future. The Life Sciences books in the series are presented with accessible texts, with glossary of terms, illustrations, index, resources, bibliography,websites.

The mission of Bick Publishing House for Adults is to bring professional information to the general audience in mental illness and recovery, addictions and recovery, in the art of living with disabilities, and in wildlife rehabilitation.

I was intrigued to see that Bick has re-issued many of Dale Carlson's earlier books. Yes, the cover illustrations aren't up to standard:

but I'm sure the novels are still as odd and intriging as they were in the seventies.

If you have fond memories of this author and her books, you might want to track them down too.


Looking through a stack of recent YA novels, I noticed a strange trend in cover illustations:

Stay out of the water, girls. Even bathtubs are dangerous places in the world of YA fiction:


Earlier this week friend sent me this link to a Publishers Weekly article about the large rise in sales for e-books.

But I was most struck by this ent by Karen Chase, who has apparenty published her own novel as an e-book:

My belief is the publishing cycle will reverse from what it has been. Authors and publishers will put out an e-book, then paperback, then hardcover or special editions. It makes more sense to launch books softly, gain the following, and then invest when readers cry for more.

I never thought of that before. Do you think Karen Chase is right that publishing may turn things around, first releasing e-books and only publishing special edition hard covers if the market demands?

I'd hate for that to happen.

But in this topsy-turvey new world of publishing, anything is possible....

Thanks for visiting Collecting Children's Books. Hope you'll be back soon. And I hope Halloween brings you a cup of cider, a bag of candy corn, and a nice bright candle for reading ghost stories in the dead of night!


constant reader said...

drawing on the right side of the brain.
may change yourlife.
you might like this blog
about the book(and not about the book, even more so)

love your blog!

Anonymous said...

I like your watercolors. I think you should go on creating them. They are joyful and unexpected and as you keep working, you'll develop your style.

Maybe you give up too quickly.

Charlotte said...

I am very fond of Hitty, and would love to see her in real life!

An author whose disapperance from the writing scene I wonder about is Nancy Bond...A String in the Harp is an all time favorite of mine, and, although her later books didn't quite match it, I'd happily buy any new book she cared to write!

Sean said...

I agree with Anonymous. I like your watercolors, too. More, please.

Bybee said...

Everyone's a critic. I like your paintings! I tried to do comic strips back in the early 90s and a friend of mine said, "You need to stop doing this now."

I didn't realize that the Rachel Field who wrote Hitty was the same Rachel Field who wrote those adult novels you listed. I hope you find out more about her.

Wendy said...

The real Hitty is in the Stockbridge, Massachusetts library. I urge you to avoid googling information about Hitty. There's a big, scary world out there. And I say this as a Betsy-Tacy Society member.

Laura Canon said...

I can relate. My older sister is an artist and I spent years trying to be just like her.
Actually, honestly, I like your paintings. Part of being an artist is developing your own style and I think you have that.

CLM said...

Clara Ingram Judson was a sort of combination Julia Child/Martha Stewart of her day. I inherited a complete (except for one book) set of her Mary Jane books from my grandmother and mother, and they were my first chapter books and first series (which I still have). Alas, they are much too tame for today's reader but some parts are very memorable - Mary Jane's love of travel and her family's memorable trip to Europe, especially to Italy and Holland. In Mary Jane's Winter Home, as I recall, her mother was ill or away (as you previously noted, a necessary prelude to adventure) and she and her sister Alice teach themselves to cook and keep house by listening to the radio, clearly a show like Mrs. Judson's. The author did not always do her research, however; when Mary Jane visits her uncle at Harvard she is very impressed and says she will come back to attend Wellesley one day. Apparently, Mrs. Judson did not know about Radcliffe, my alma mater!

Dale Carlson's Mountain of Truth was a book that freaked me out as a teen or pre-teen. There was a regeneration theme that was quite interesting but the ending was so distressing I turned the book spine in at the library so I wouldn't have to see it when I passed by the C section. I did recommend it to people who liked John Christopher's White Mountains series.

CLM said...

I meant to add that I always identified more with characters in books whose painting efforts were unsuccessful. In one of Carolyn Haywood's books (Annie Pat and Eddie?), someone decides to paint with striped toothpaste and gets in trouble. Of course, I yearned for that toothpaste for quite a while so I could try it out for myself!

Eventually I graduated to books like Paintbox Summer by Betty Cavanna which involved a real life artist on Nantucket.

Barbara Gourley said...

I think Karen Chase may have a money-saving and even -making idea there.

My children's book "The True Adventures of Tip the Catahoula-Leopard Cowdog" was self-published, and I can appreciate how having a strong e-book following would have helped attract a traditional publisher right out of the gate.

I agree that it would be a shame to lose out on physical books in exchange for e-books. There's just something about keeping your books on a shelf that makes them seem more accessible.

Genevieve said...

In elementary school, our chorus sang "Something Told the Wild Geese." I didn't realize it was a poem by Rachel Field until just now. It had a very haunting arrangement that has stayed with me for decades.

i love books said...

And I can also relate to that. Everyone's wants to be an artist.