Monday, February 20, 2012

Sex, Sponsie, and Other Sunday Brunch Topics

Today's Sunday Brunch features dead monkeys and dead celebrities, all accompanied by the song "Chopsticks" being played on the piano.


I recently stumbled across a set of five volumes titled SAMMY TUBBS, THE BOY DOCTOR, AND SPONSIE, THE TROUBLESOME MONKEY. Written by "E.B. Foote, M.D.," the books were part of a series called "Science in Story."

It is one of the strangest series I've ever seen -- surprisingly progressive for its era, even while being old-fashioned and downright racist.

The stories concern an African-American boy, Sammy Tubbs, who comes north after being freed from slavery. Finding work as a "door-boy" at the home of a physician, he soon begins following the career path of his employer, learning about the various parts of the human body and how to prevent and fight illness. Each volume in the series is concerned with a different system of the body -- "brain and nerves," "digestive, nutritive, respiratory, and vegetative nervous," "arteries, lymphatics, veins, lacteal, capillaries, radicles, villi," and "bones, cartilidges, and muscles." This information is presented throughout the stories, which also feature a pair of amusing monkeys, whose hijinks lighten up the narratives. Or at least they do until the monkeys -- named Sponsie No. 1 and Sponsie No. 2 -- get ahold of a pair of guns and Sponsie No. 2 shoots and kills Sponsie No. 1 as well as Sammy's beloved dog. The book includes a drawing of the dead animals laid out on a table, as the tearful Sammy decides to "lay open the skull of Sponsie" and remove the cerebro-spinal system of the dog for an upcoming scientific lecture. That evening the young scientist, so emotionally overwhelmed that he must at times "bury his face in his handkerchief," presents a medical lecture using the brain and spine of his pets as props!

I told you these books were weird.

The covers of all the Sammy Tubbs books are identical, except for one:

Let's come in closer to read that subtitle:

This, the last volume in the series, is the one that really shocked me. I always thought of the nineteenth century as being quite Puritanical and never expected that a popular series would feature a volume "for private reading" about the "elimination and reproductive system"!

The book is rather coy in some regards. It tries to scare off some readers by stating that this volume "is dryer than any preceding volume," which of course is not true at all. However, the preface acknowledges that "this volume will, in many instances, be detached from the regular series of five consecutive volumes to which it belongs by those who mistakenly, as the publishers believe, adjudge it unsuited to children."

The information about the reproductive organs and their functions are frankly described in this volume. The book also includes these rather graphic illustrations:

But if you look closely at the top of these pages, you will note their odd pagination and a special warning to parents:

Yep, the publisher conspires with parents ("This leaf can be cut out if thought advisable") by labeling the pages 180 1/2 and 18 3/4. If a parent were to carefully remove this page from the volume, the kid would be none the wiser, since the pages before and after these are 180 and 181!

From today's perspective, these illustrations are the least shocking part of the book. Much more controversial is the incorrect info the book provides on several fronts. For example, the concept that a child may grow up to be a murderer if his mother visits a slaughterhouse while pregnant. And speaking of slaughter, Sponsie No. 2 bites the big one in this volume, getting his tail entangled in knife-grinder and becoming "completely disemboweled." Naturally, Sammy dissects the body.

Even if the series had not included this "book for private reading," it's still unusual for a novel from this era to feature an accomplished, intellectually curious African American protagonist. However, while Sammy Tubbs gives lectures on scientific topics and hopes to attend medical school, some of the other black characters speak in dialect and behave like knaves. For example, when Sponsie has his fatal accident, Sammy's friend Diggles cries, "Dat dere monkey am all torn to strings! He am dun gone forever! Oh mi! Oh mi!" We're later told that while he "still knows how to chew twine and crack his knuckles," Diggles never shared Sammy's interest in science. Why? "Among colored people, as well as among those of lighter complexion, under the present system of hap-hazard reprodution, some are born with and some without brains."

Still, Sammy himself remains a trailblazer in many areas. For example, one of his girlfriends is caucasian. Surely, this must be one of the first books for young people -- if not the first to feature an illustration depicting an interracial kiss:

By turns progressive, dated, frank, and often ridiculously wrong in its facts, the Sammy Tubbs stories are among the strangest children's books of their era...or any era.


The subject of the Sammy Tubbs "Book for Private Reading" reminded me of an old favorite of mine published over twenty years ago:

Does anyone else remember this novel?

I'm sure that many readers were drawn to the book by its attention-grabbing title. Some may have been disappointed when the narrative wasn't nearly as explicit as expected. On the other hand, the book was so well-written and intriguing that most probably didn't mind.

The story concerns classmates Livvie and David who, as part of a high school "sex ed" class are told to find someone and "care" about them. They choose a pregnant teenage girl married to a violent young man -- a choice that ends up having tragic consequences.

Jenny Davis burst onto the young-adult field with her 1987 novel GOODBYE AND KEEP COLD. The next year she published SEX EDUCATION, with CHECKING ON THE MOON following in 1990. At the time, all three books were highly praised and their author, a teacher, was seen as an important new voice in young adult fiction.

Unfortunately, CHECKING ON THE MOON was the last book she published. Her novels continued to be read for some years, but now they are all out of print. I keep hoping that, one of these days, she'll turn up with a great new book and that her three early novels -- still quite readable -- will return to print.

Does anyone remember Jenny Davis or know why she disappeared so suddenly and completley from the field of young adult fiction?


Blog friend Susan B. provided a link to the following video -- "How to Beautify Your Bookshelves" -- on her Facebook page and I was so horrified that I had to share it here:

As Susan commented, "Remove the dust jackets? Arrange by color? Put a container of water near hardcover books? NOOOOOO....."

Also the woman in the video shelves at least one of the books upside down!

It reminded me of the time I was watching TRADING SPACES and a designer looked at a room full of books and decided to take off all the dustjackets. If someone had done that to my book collection, I would probably end up in jail for causing them grievous bodily harm!

(P.S. If you'd like to be Facebook friends with me, feel free to "friend" me at Peter D. Sieruta.)


If you're interested in old and collectable books the way I am, you always try to keep an eye out for current books that are offbeat and intriguing; they are the books we'll be collecting tomorrow.

Is CHOPSTICKS one of those books?

I'm not sure. But it's definitely a "different" type of young-adult novel and may pave the way for an entirely new genre.

Created by writer Jessica Anthony and illustrator Rodrigo Corral, and available as both a book and app, this is a graphic novel for the computer age. A minimal text and abundant photographs, collages, video stills, and other well-designed art pieces tell the story of Glory Fleming, a piano prodigy trained by her ambitious father. Glory has performed at concert halls around the world and is known for interpolating classical music with pop songs. When Argentinian teenager Frank Mendoza moves in next door, their ensuing romantic relationship is depicted in posed photos, Instant Message texts, poetry, and samples of Frank's artwork. A European concert tour separates the teens and Glory suffers a breakdown, interrupting her performances to play the beginners' song "Chopsticks." Ultimately, she is admitted to the "Golden Hands Rest Facility, an instition for musical progedies." A rest home for musical progedies? Right there is your first clue that something about this entire narrative is off-base. (It may also be the only YA novel in which Lawrence Welk's ragtime piano gal, Jo Ann Castle, appears as a recurring motif.) CHOPSTICKS has been receiving a lot of attention due to the way it bridges the gap between a standard bound book and a computer app. Those who read this story in the latter format will probably have a very different experience -- clicking on links to view Youtube videos and hear music excerpts -- than those of us who simply turned the pages of the novel. Is one format better than the other? I don't know. But whatever format is chosen, readers will be disturbed and mystified by this tantalizingly inconclusive tale that demands to be be read (or played on the computer) again and again. Each subsequent reading will likely lead to different theories on what is real and what is unreal in the lives of Frank and Glory.


If you work in a public or school library, I'm curious if there has been much demand for books such as these this past week:

One wonders how soon she'll be immortalized in one of those quickie volumes for morbid kids like these:

One thing I've noticed about children's books is how the smaller presses fill a need for pop culture biographies. While these books don't generally hold up as "literature," and only stay in print for a couple years, they do achieve their purpose: serving as biographies that kids can use in writing book reports and papers for school. Although there is only one Tim Tebow book available for kids at the moment -- a "young reader's edition" of the athlete's autobiography THROUGH MY EYES -- I can pretty much guarantee that there will be three or four quickie children's biographies of Tebow on the shelves by the time the next football season rolls aroung. And I bet that, even as you read this, some publisher is contacting an author about writing a Jeremy Lin book STAT!


Last weekend I wrote about the new "50th Anniversary Commemorative Edition" of A WRINKLE IN TIME by Madeleine L'Engle. This week I laid my hands on a copy and I'd recommend that all fans of the novel do the same. It's full of all kinds of treats, including photographs from Ms. L'Engle's life and a chapter from the original manuscript as edited by the author.

Here are some of my favorite things in this new edition:

* Last week I mentioned the newly-designed dust jacket illustration. What I didn't know at the time was that, beneath the dustjacket, the original, well-remembered cover art by Ellen Raskin is printed directly on the front panel of the book.

* Katherine Paterson's introduction includes this fascinating tidbit:

Last March I went to see the documentary CHEKHOV FOR CHILDREN. And there on the screen was a sixth-grader named Rebecca Stead. For me it was sort of a wrinkle in time, for I was seeing the author at just about the time that Madeleine L'Engle made a magical visit to Rebecca's New York City public school. I'm guessing it was about then that young Rebecca fell in love with A WRINKLE IN TIME. Her own Newbery Award book, WHEN YOU REACH ME, is a stunning homage to the book she cherished as a child.

* In an Afterword written by Madeleine's granddaughter Charlotte Jones Voiklis, we learn that there was some concern that the word "tesseract" was not in the public domain, in which case the author considered substituting "sceortweg" for "tesseract" and "scegging" for "tessering." It's hard to imagine that, isn't it? Ms. L'Engle was known for signing books, "Tesser well!" "Scegg well!" just wouldn't be the same, would it?

* The Afterword also provides a tantalizing hint about the "unfinished first draft" of a novel called THE EYE BEGINS TO SEE in which the adult Meg "adjusts to her children's growing up and moving out." Think this book will ever be published? If WRINKLE IN TIME had remained a stand-alone volume, I think the author's literary executors might have said no -- why mess with a classic? BUT, since L'Engle herself continued to write about the Meg and the Murray/O'Keefe family in several more volumes of varying quality, I expect THE EYE BEGINS TO SEE will be considered fair game and that it will be published eventually. That's just my guess. Someday we'll SEE if I'm right.


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


Lisa Jenn Bigelow said...

And speaking of slaughter, Sponsie No. 2 bites the big one in this volume, getting his tail entangled in knife-grinder and becoming "completely disemboweled." Naturally, Sammy dissects the body.

Wow. Just, wow.

Linda said...

Bookshelf Lady: Barbarian! Books are not for decorating purposes! Books are to read and to love and to care for!

Linda said...

Here's the "book for private reading" online:

This looks like Volume 4:

And Volume 3:

One of Foote's books for adults:

Anonymous said...

I DO remember SEX EDUCATION and Jenny Davis. I loved it when I read it and still have my copy, I hope. Did you read GOODBYE AND KEEP COLD, also by her, which I also loved? Really, I should reread both. Somebody, somewhere, recently told me she has another book due out soon. Let's hope this is true!


Karla said...

Hi there,

I am a Barefoot Books Ambassador and love their new book, Grandpa's Garden, for spring.

Hope you have a chance to check it out!

hschinske said...

I remember cataloging that E.B. Foote set when I was working for the American Antiquarian Society. Good times.

Helen Schinske