Sunday, April 29, 2012

April 29 Sunday Brunch

Information and opinions on children's books old and new, delivered Sunday Brunch style.


A few years ago, soon after the publication of Gary Schmidt's THE WEDNESDAY WARS (his second Newbery Honor, after LIZZIE BRIGHT AND THE BUCKMINSTER BOY) the Michigan-based author had a speaking engagement/booksigning at a local library. As I've frequently mentioned on this blog, I am in awe of all my favorite writers -- and very much starstruck. Couple this with my natural shyness and you are not going to see me asking questions from the audience or making smalltalk with an author while my books are being signed. I can't do those things! However, when I attended that event (which was wonderful) I had a question I was just dying to ask Gary Schmidt. So I did what any other shy person would do in that situation: I begged my friend to ask the question for me!

Here was the question my friend asked: "Mickey Mantle appears in your novel but comes across as an awful person. Was the scene based on something that happened in real life? If not, weren't you concerned about depicting a real person so negatively in your novel?"

Gary Schmidt said that the scene in the book was completely fictional, but since stories of Mantle's cruel streak were legendary, he had no qualms about depicting the famous Yankee player in such a bad light. Later, someone who worked on the book sent Mr. Schmidt a note saying that scene rang true because they had once witnessed Mickey Mantle's bad behavior in person.

In the years since THE WEDNESDAY WARS, Gary D. Schmidt has continued publishing outstanding novels such as TROUBLE and last year's OKAY FOR NOW, which was nominated for the National Book Award and recently won School Library Journal's Battle of the Books.

This past week, Gary Schmidt was in town again for a presentation/signing. Because this event was sponsored by a school system and a big turnout was expected, I did not attend. (Plus, if I had gone, I would have had to leave work early. Besides, I was even more in awe of his talent since reading OKAY FOR NOW and probably would have made a fool of myself if I were there.) Fortunately, my bookseller buddy was providing books for the event and kindly offered to get my copies of OKAY FOR NOW signed for me.

This past Friday I picked up the books and was thrilled to see the inscriptions.

My first copy is very rare -- a large bound manuscript that was released even before the ARC (advance reading copy):

Here is how he signed it:

You are probably wondering how I've cost Mr. Schmidt a "boatload" of money. Apparently he sometimes reads my blog (pausing here to do a little happy dance) and has gotten tips on older books he wants to add to his collection. The interesting thing is that Mr. Schmidt has cost me some money too. If you look in the upper right hand corner, you will see that that bound manuscript cost me $12. ...But as he said, "It's all worth it." I treasure this unusual copy of his book.

Next is the ARC of OKAY FOR NOW:

and this great inscription:

Again, who knew he read this blog? I was both thrilled and nervous. Thrilled because I'm one of HIS faithful readers. And nervous because, well, he's a college professor who probably cringes at all my grammatical and punctuation errors.

Finally, he signed my hardcover copy of OKAY FOR NOW:

with this nice inscription:

Just when you thought I was about to add these volumes to the shelf with my other Gary Schmidt books and move on to the next blog entry....

...I'll adopt the voice of a TV infomerical pitch man and say, "But wait! There's more!"

A day or two before the signing, my bookstore buddy received this ARC in the mail:

She said that even Mr. Schmidt was surprised to see she had it, since the book won't be published till September. My friend had just started reading it that day, but asked him if he'd sign it to me. Here's the one-in-a-million inscription he wrote inside:

How cool is that? Even if this book goes on to sell a million copies, I've got the very first copy the author ever signed!

I am not, however, the first person to ever read this copy.

My bookstore friend spent the last couple days reading the novel before telling me to drop by the bookstore this morning and pick it up. I asked what she thought of the book, but she did not want to influence my opinion. So she simply said, "You'll have to read it yourself."

And now I can!


Just bought a copy of Walter Dean Myers' latest novel, ALL THE RIGHT STUFF, and noticed a silver sticker on the cover:

Here's a closer look:

This is the first time I've seen this sticker on a book. Was the same seal used on books by former Ambassadors Jon Scieszka and Katherine Paterson?

Is the sticker used only on books published during the author's tenure as Ambassador, or does it go on all of his previous books? It's great to see this honored acknowledged, but do you think this sticker will draw readers to the book? Or, more specifically, draw young readers?


In the history of young adult fiction, can you remember a narrator ever complaining about his prostate problems? I can't. But then most YA protagonists are somewhere between the ages of thirteen and eighteen...not sixtysomething widowers like the unnamed narrator of Aidan Chambers' new novel, DYING TO KNOW YOU.
Chambers is known for writing lengthy, complex books about big themes: identity, sexuality, death, religion. Though his latest has a less intricate plot than the Printz-winning POSTCARDS FROM NO MAN'S LAND and tighter prose than the doorstop-sized THIS IS ALL, the novel still touches on many of Chambers' familiar themes and offers thought-provoking insights into human behavior, communication, and the artistic impulse. Eighteen-year-old Karl Williamson first approaches the narrator, an elderly author, for help in writing a letter to his literary-minded girlfriend. As usual with Aidan Chambers, style is important as content, with the author employing pages of ping-pong-like dialogue, letters, instant messages, a random footnote, and traditional narrative techniques to show the slowly developing relationship between the younger and older man -- in many ways, two versions of the same self, and both carrying secrets. Smart, mature, and sometimes funny, DYING TO KNOW YOU presents a fascinating portrait of a teenage romance observed through the eyes of an old man while simultaneously exporing a uniquely-memorable intergenerational friendship.


Aidan Chambers is known for breaking with convention in his books for young people. His use of an adult narrator in DYING TO KNOW YOU got me wondering if there are many other books for children and teenagers that employ older narrators. Of course there are many cases where the protagonist is a grown-up looking back on experiences from his or her youth. But I'm thinking of something a little different here. I'm thinking of books FOR and ABOUT young people that are related by an adult who also appears in the story. The only ones that come to mind for me at the moment are two novels by Scott O'Dell. In KATHLEEN, PLEASE COME HOME, at least part of the book is narrated by the mother of a teenage runaway, while CHILD OF FIRE is told by the parole officer working with the book's teenage protagonist. Perhaps FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER would also qualify as a book with an adult narrator, although she only speaks in the first person during the framing device at the beginning and end of the novel. Can you think of any other books for kids with adult narrators?


Many years ago I happened upon this paperback copy of Helene Hanff's 84, CHARING CROSS ROAD at a local bookstore:

Late that night I picked up the book, planning to read a few pages before bed. Instead I read the entire (short) volume in one fell swoop. The next morning, before even getting out of bed to brush my teeth, I read the entire book again!

THAT's how crazy I am about this epistolary "love story" between a New York writer and a London bookseller. Since then I've read the book dozens of times, won a first edition for $25 at a library auction, went to see the stage production during a blizzard, and have seen the Anne Bancroft/Anthony Hopkins movie both in an empty theatre and at home on video. Throughout those years I have shared the book with many special friends.

I think anybody who loves books would love 84, CHARING CROSS ROAD.

Author Helene Hanff wrote several other books including UNDERFOOT IN SHOW BUSINESS, THE DUCHESS OF BLOOMSBURY STREET, and -- a real favorite -- LETTERS FROM NEW YORK.

In all these books, Helene herself pops off the page: larger-than-life, warm-hearted, gregarious -- the kind of person you would want as a friend. (Indeed, many readers felt so attached to her that they'd visit her in New York and even call her up on the phone.) Despite having such a "presence" on the page, Ms. Hanff was rather mysterious and private and no one seems to know much about her personal life. That's why I was thrilled when I recently came across this "biography" of the author:

I just finished reading it and almost speechless.

HELENE HANFF : A LIFE could well be one of the worst books I've ever read!

I'm assuming this book was self-published -- and points out the importance of those often unsung heroes and heroines of publishing: editors. You don't realize how important they are until you read an unedited book like this one, filled with typographical errors and copy-editing mistakes. On one page Helene is described as attractive, on another she's homely. One minute she hates fiction, the next minute she loves novels. We're told that Helene doesn't drive and then, a little later, she hops into "her small red sedan" to visit someone. An relative listed as MIA in World War II is referred to as both her second cousin and her brother.

But beyond that, the book is poorly-written on every level. The chronology is off. Huge events, such as Helene's romance and engagement are described and then dropped (we see her trying on her wedding gown and packing her bags, then her fiance leaves town on a short trip and -- this romance -- is -- never -- mentioned -- again!) Other scenes -- complete with much dialogue, inner thoughts, and plodding descriptions ("Once in her apartment Helene took a long shower and feeling hungry decided to eat a big piece of pumpkin pie and to drink a glass of milk. She started reading some notes on education while she ate but was soon very sleepy so she went to bed for a short nap") -- are so odd that they feel completely fabricated. For example, I have always understood that, as depicted in 84, CHARING CROSS ROAD, Helene Hanff moved to a new apartment on E. 72nd Street in 1956 and remained there the rest of her life. What to make of this biography's description of a homeless Helene living pretty much as a bag lady until a connected friend gets her a job outside New York City as a postmistress and librarian? I didn't believe much of this book. However, if you are a fan of the author -- hungry for more info on her life -- you'll still be interested in this awful volume for the little glints and glimmers of the author's life that might be true.

And I do admit I liked the appended bibliography that lists all the books in Hanff's famous home library. She even owned a few children's books -- classics by Carroll and Milne, as well as, most intriguingly, a copy of THE DARK IS RISING by Susan Cooper. That last one really surprised me, as Hanff was known for her strong dislike of Tolkien.

In 84, CHARING CROSS ROAD, Ms. Hanff makes reference to writing several children's history books during the 1960s. I've seen a few of them and they are typical of the dreary informational "book report" volumes you frequently saw in libraries back in that era.

This new biography also tells about a young-adult book she was commissioned to write in the 1960s, about the political radicals of the time:

I knew about that one, but must admit I did not know that she also wrote two picture books in the 1960s.

Published by Harper in 1964, TERRIBLE THOMAS is the story of a kid running rampant in a NYC apartment. Shades of Eloise. Kirus Reviews described it as a "tedious tomfoolery."

Then in 1969, Parents Magazine Press released BUTCH ELECTS A MAYOR, which Kirkus called "pretty feeble."

Anyone know it? Many Parents Magazine Books were released through their book club and are remembered very fondly today. Is this book remembered as fondly as other book club titles such as MISS SUZY, JELLYBEANS FOR BREAKFAST, and OLD BLACK WITCH?


While Helene Hanff's children's books may be long-forgotten, her best-known work, 84, CHARING CROSS ROAD is so beloved that a commemorative plaque has been placed at the former location of Marks & Co., the bookshop that inspired her memoir.

Perhaps even more unusually, Ms. Hanff's former NYC apartment has been renamed "Charing Cross House," with a plaque outside containing a quote from the book.

This got me wondering if there are any building plaques that honor children's books and authors.

I did a quick internet search and found several in Europe. Here's one honoring Erich Kastner, author of EMIL AND THE DETECTIVES, in Germany:

The location of the sweetshop recalled in Roald Dahl's BOY also merited a plaque:

as did a former home of Kate Greenaway:

and this one marks where J.K. Rowling wrote the early part of Harry Potter:

Can you think of any comparable sites here in the United States? Leonard Marcus wrote a book called STORIED CITY, which contains working tours of famous children's book sites in the Big Apple:

Maybe someday we should all take this tour and stop to put up plaques (or at least post-it notes!) at each location.


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


C. Cackley said...

The book THE WHALE RIDER, about a girl who communicates with whales, is narrated by her adult uncle. The 2003 movie based on the book dropped the narrator as a framing device (which was probably a good idea--it's a gorgeous movie!) making it one of the few movies based on a children's book that I think works equally well as a book and a movie, for all that they are substantially different. The book was marketed as a children's book in the UK, I don't know if it was published as an adult or children's book here in the US.

Wendy said...

The narrator and protagonist of The 21 Balloons isn't just an adult, he's a retiree! I'm sure that would go over well with publishers. Then there's Miss Hickory who... isn't an adult, exactly, I suppose, being made of wood. Oh, I can think of a bunch!

Esperanza said...

Gary Schmidt is one of my favorites. You really scored with his books! Congratulations.

Anonymous said...

Don't know of any building plaques, but maybe you could do a post about statues honoring children's book authors or characters. Most people know about the ducklings in Boston (from Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey), but how about the statue of Amelia Bedelia outside the public library in Manning, SC (home of the author of the series, Peggy Parrish)?
Lori J.

Rachael Vilmar said...

There's also Alice's Shop in Oxford, where Alice Liddell used to buy sweets. No plaque that I know of, but the whole place is devoted to Alice merchandise now:

A Mojgani said...

Really enjoyed reading about Gary Schmidt here. I just recently got turned on to him, when an editor friend of mine gave me a copy of Okay for Now. I thought it was incredible and devoured it over two plane rides. LOVED it.