Monday, December 23, 2013


PEARL S. BUCK WON THE NOBEL PRIZE IN LITERATURE in 1938 "for her rich and truly epic descriptions of peasant life in China and for her biographical masterpieces." Her bestselling, Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Good Earth, detailing peasant life in China, remains a perennial classic. Born to American Southern Presbyterian missionaries, Buck moved to China at the age of three months and lived there until she returned to the United States for college. Despite growing up in a country that did not celebrate Christmas, Buck's family and the families of other American missionaries, along with the English who lived in the British Concession, made Christmas with all the joyous trimmings of home: trees and holly, stockings and presents, parties and feasts. "From such memories of my Chinese childhood," Buck wrote, "it is no wonder that when I had an American home of my own, complete with husband and children, every Christmas was as joyous as we could make it."

For Buck, a large part of that celebration was telling stories, many of which she recorded and published in magazines and as books. "I told my children many stories when they were small enough for bedtime stories, and each year they chose one to make into a book. The Christmas stories, of course, were always special." They included stories such as "A Certain Star," "The Christmas Ghost," "The Christmas Mouse," "Christmas Day in the Morning," and many others, which appeared in special Christmas issues of magazines like Good Housekeeping, Family Circle, Ladies' Home Journal, and Collier's before being reissued as books.

In "Christmas Miniature," a 1956 special insert in Family Circle with art by the Walt Disney Studio, six-year-old Sandy makes the midnight trip downstairs "not indeed to peep at the Christmas tree but only to see what time it was." In so doing, he finds his cat Snips about to eat a mother mouse hiding behind the miniature manger under the tree. He grabs the mouse first, who bites him to escape his grasp, and dashes under the couch to return to her babies. The story was published as a book the next year with illustrations by Anna Marie Magagna, and included in Buck's Once Upon a Christmas with illustrations by Donald Lizzul (seen below).

"The Christmas Ghost," which first appeared in a 1960 issue of Family Circle with illustrations by Gyo Fujikawa, tells the story of Jimpsey, a young boy whose family is celebrating their first Christmas in their new farm house after leaving the city. Mr. Higgins, the hired hand, tells Jimpsey that the ghost of the former owner Timothy Stillwagon walks from the barn to the bridge over the brook every Christmas Eve. When Jimpsey goes out in the middle of the night to see, he only finds Mr. Higgins there, who explains that it is the memory of Timothy Stillwagon that walks with him those nights, and that is what he meant by ghost.

Buck's own gardener "always insisted that the ghost of Old Devil Harry did walk every Christmas Eve at midnight from the big red barn to the bridge, to meet the ghost of a former crony with whom he used to get drunk each Christmas Eve." In the story, Mr. Higgins and Timothy Stillwagon meet to admire each other's Christmas trees. Like "Christmas Miniature," "The Christmas Ghost" appeared as a book almost immediately with illustrations by Anna Marie Magagna. The story was included in Once Upon a Christmas as well.

A story that Buck for some reason did not include in Once Upon a Christmas is "Christmas Day in the Morning," a story that first appeared in Collier's in 1955 (see art at top). "Christmas Day in the Morning" tells of how Rob, the eldest son of a farmer, realizes that the best gift he can give his father for Christmas is to wake up extra early and do the milking before his father has even gotten out of bed. This act grew out of the realization that his father truly loved him when he overheard his father saying to his mother how much he hates to wake Rob in the mornings. When his father finds the milking done, they hug in the darkness, unable to see each other's faces, but communicating their mutual love better than they have ever done before.

"Christmas Day in the Morning" was not strictly a children's story when it was published in Collier's, but it was made into a picture book posthumously in 2002 with some light editing, which removed the adult Rob's memories of his dead wife as well as his dead father. Illustrator Mark Buehner was inspired to illustrate the story after his own children woke up in the middle of the night one Christmas Eve to clean the entire downstairs floor of his house after hearing Buck's story at church, a testament to how touching Buck's work remains decades after her death.

THESE THREE STORIES are really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Pearl S. Buck's Christmas stories for children. That's an understatement when it comes to Pearl S. Buck's children's books on whole, one reason that I have waited so long to tackle her on the blog. I had hoped to have more editions of these stories and some others before Christmas this year, but I waited a bit too long to secure them in time, so there will be some follow up posts possibly into the new year. As a result, I made a very rare exception to one of my rules, which is to have borrowed some scans, from I'm Learning to Share! for the "Christmas Miniature" Family Circle cover, and from The Estate Sale Chronicles for the "Christmas Ghost" cover. In both cases, the original blogs have the entire stories scanned and available to read, so please do click through. The rest of the scans are my own.

If you are looking for more Christmas fun, check out previous year's posts:

J.R.R. Tolkien's "Father Christmas Letters"
Eleanor Roosevelt's Christmas
Warren Chappell's The Nutcracker
Ilonka Karasz's The Twelve Days of Christmas

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Monday, October 21, 2013


PAMELA'S FIRST MUSICAL was Wendy Wasserstein's only children's book, but it wasn't the only thing she published with children as the intended audience. She contributed to Marlo Thomas's 2004 book Thanks & Giving All Year Long.

Thomas is most famous as the creator of the 1972 classic book and album Free to Be...You and Me, an anthology of songs and stories by celebrities meant to teach that it is okay to break normal gender stereotypes. Thomas has since used the format in several other books, the most recent of which is Thanks & Giving. The title really says it all with regards to this book's message, although some of the entries seem a stretch. (Matt Groening's Life in Hell bunny finds a dollar on the sidewalk and buys a banana split?)

Wasserstein shares a bedtime conversation she had with her daughter Lucy Jane, who was four at the time. In "The Rotten Tomato," Lucy Jane asks for a bedtime story about a rotten tomato. Wasserstein wants to tell a story about a good tomato. Lucy Jane is willing to allow a good tomato to be in the story, but the rotten tomato has to win. They go back and forth with Wasserstein spelling out why being a "good" tomato is better than being a "rotten" one.  As you would expect from Wasserstein, the scene is quite funny. (Click on the scans below to read.) Lucy Jane illustrated the story.

Wasserstein did have work included in one other anthology intended for young people, 33 Things Every Girl Should Know, but the essay comes from one of her collection Bachelor Girls, and was not conceived of as a children's story.

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Thursday, October 17, 2013


WENDY WASSERSTEIN IS BEST KNOWN as a playwright. Her 1988 play The Heidi Chronicles won the Pulitzer Prize, the Tony Award, the Drama Desk Award, and the New York Drama Critics Circle. The Tony was the first ever awarded to a female playwright. Her subsequent play The Sisters Rosensweig was then nominated or won almost all of the same prizes. Over her career, she had at least ten plays appear on and off Broadway.

But despite theater being her home, Wasserstein also wrote in almost every other form available. She wrote a movie, a novel, essays, memoirs, books of non-fiction, teleplays, and, of course, a children's book. Pamela's First Musical is, no surprise, about theater. Illustrated by Andrew Jackness, the set designer for Wasserstein's play Isn't It Romantic?, Wasserstein wrote Pamela in the hope that "[my] book would inspire children to fall in love with musicals in the same way [I] had." Dedicated to her niece Pamela (who was in high school at the time the book was published), it tells the story of Pamela's whirlwind ninth birthday, when her Aunt Louise takes her into New York to see her first musical.

AUNT LOUISE MIGHT just as well be called Auntie Mame. She is a clothing designer who goes around saying "Ooooooo, dahling." "(You can tell whether Aunt Louise designed your blue jeans because they are all signed Oooooooh, Dahling on the back pocket.)" While "all of Pamela's friends at school knew grown-ups who went into the city every day to work...Pamela's aunt Louise actually lived there." She also seems to know everybody who is anybody.

After a stop back at her apartment to change "out of her driving clothes into her theater clothes," Aunt Louise drags Pamela to the Russian Tea Room. "'The Tea Room is simply the place to have lunch before your first musical.'"

There they run into the world-famous dancer Bearish Nureyjinsky, who is the first in a list of theatrical celebrities with oddly familiar names that Pamela meets. At the theater, there are the stars Nathan Hines Klines and Mary Ethel Bernadette, the producer Mr. Bernie S. Gerry, choreographer Miss La Tuna, composer Mr. Finnsical, book writers Betty and Cy Songheim (with dogs Roger and Heart), set designer Candita Ivey Zippers, and Jules Gels, the light designer. (Pamela also gets the usher Gladys's autograph on her Playbill.)

Of course, Pamela is entranced with the play. It tells the generic love story, of Billy and Ginger falling in love just before World War II, divided by the war, but reuniting in the South Pacific where Ginger's friend rescues Billy from pirates. Okay, so maybe that last part isn't so generic. The whole thing ends with "a reprise of Pamela's favorite song," and a standing ovation.

After meeting the stars, "the old stage door man waved to Pamela to come stand onstage in the empty house. 'This is the ghost light,' he explained. 'This means the theater always stays lit for all the people who ever performed here. It also means you can come back anytime.'"

That night Pamela recreates the play at home with her dolls before falling asleep and dreaming of "producing, writing, choreographing, designing, and directing hundreds of dancing girls, parades of tapping men...and a cast of thousands, maybe millions."

LIKE AUNT LOUISE, Wendy Wasserstein knew everybody. The back cover of Pamela's First Musical is blurbed by Meryl Streep, Angela Lansbury, Kevin Kline, Glen Close, Cy Coleman, Chita Rivera, Carol Channing, Sarah Jessica Parker, Matthew Broderick, Gregory Hines, Bernadette Peters and others. But despite knowing theater, and knowing everybody, Wasserstein found she didn't know children's books. In an essay for The New York Times about the book tour for Pamela's First Musical, she wrote, "When I look back on my first foray into children's literature, it seems an act of complete naivete and hubris at once." First, she is surprised how similar the children's book business is to theater "in all its ambition, difficulty and quirkiness":
"The boffo book chains of the Barnes & Noble and Borders variety appear to be the Broadway of children's books departments, complete with sets, lights and sizable audiences. There are even over-the-title stars like "Eloise," "Madeline," "Clifford"; and of course the proven box-office talents of Maurice Sendak, Faith Ringgold and Lane Smith."
As she continues to tour she learns that "touring with a children's book required acting, teaching and stand-up skills beyond my playwright's training." It didn't help that, out of town, when she asked audiences of children if they had seen any musicals, only about a quarter of them had if she was lucky. It wasn't until she was back in New York, where "even the boys like musicals [and] the stars of "Pamela's First Musical," Nathan Hines Klines and Mary Ethel Bernadette, are immediately recognizable," that she felt comfortable with the crowd.

WITH MODERN PICTURE BOOKS like Pinkalicious and Fancy Nancy getting adapted into musicals, it is only natural that a picture book about musicals got the musical treatment. Sometime around the book's 1996 release, lyricist David Zippel (who wrote the lyrics for Disney's Hercules and Mulan) “called [Wasserstein] up and said, ‘let’s do a television movie of it.'" Wasserstein liked the idea, and they enlisted Cy Coleman, the three-time Tony winning composer of Sweet Charity, City of Angels and The Will Rogers Follies, who had blurbed the picture book. In 1998, Playbill announced that the piece would be an ABC Sunday night movie.

In 2002, the first public offering of material related to the work was released when Cy Coleman included the main theme from Pamela's First Musical "It Started With a Dream" on his album of the same name. By that time, the musical had transformed into a stage show, a work-in-progress version of which was shown to industry people through Lincoln Center Theater in 2003. Pamela's age was changed, new subplots about prospective stepmothers and stepsisters were added, but at base it was still about going to see a musical with Aunt Louise. In October 2004 it was announced that Goodspeed Musicals would stage a version in 2005, but Cy Coleman died in November 2004, and the Goodspeed performance was cancelled. The team picked themselves up, and prepared for another performance at California Theaterworks in 2005, but Wasserstein's battle with lymphoma forced that production to be cancelled as well. Wasserstein died in early 2006 at the age of fifty-five.

David Zippel was not going to let that be the end of Wasserstein's last play. Pamela's First Musical was virtually complete when Coleman died. All it needed was a venue. At last, on May 18, 2008, Broadway Cares staged a concert of Pamela's First Musical at Town Hall. Kathy Lee Gifford, Joel Grey, Tommy Tune and many others made cameos. Proceeds benefited Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS and Wendy Wasserstein's own charity, Theater Development Fund's Open Doors Program. You can see a performance from that afternoon here.

The real Pamela Wasserstein was in attendance. She told Broadway Cares, “Really it’s Wendy, Cy and David’s tribute to Broadway...I know Wendy and Cy would be so happy. In fact, I just know they’re here!”

I CONSULTED Julie Salamon's biography Wendy and the Lost Boys: The Uncommon Life of Wendy Wasserstein, Wasserstein's essay "Way Off Broadway With Pamela" from the June 30, 1996 edition of The New York Times, and Playbill's website. Much of the information regarding the musical Pamela's First Musical, as well as the photos from the Town Hall performance come from Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS own website. The photo of Wendy Wasserstein is from Wikipedia.

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Tuesday, October 8, 2013


LONG TIME READERS might remember a series I did almost two and a half years ago on Gertrude Stein's children's book The World Is Round. There have been many editions over the years, in many different formats, with different illustrations, all of which I examined then, all of which were out of print. But now thanks to Harper Design, The World is Round is back in print in a 75th Anniversary Edition that features the original illustrations, complete with pink paper and blue text, on nice, heavy paper stock. Illustrator Clement Hurd's son Thacher Hurd, who is also a children's book writer and illustrator, provides a new foreword detailing the publication history of the book along with reminiscences of his father at work. But more importantly, Edith Thacher Hurd's afterword, which originally appeared in a limited collector's edition in 1986 is included, containing correspondence between Hurd and Stein during the creation of the book. The only thing I would have liked to see in addition are samples of Hurd's redrawn illustrations for the 1966 edition, but that criticism is extremely nitpicky. In DVD terms, this is really the Special Edition with Bonus Features, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in Stein's children's book.

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Friday, August 16, 2013


REVIEWING NEW BOOKS is a little off topic for We Too Were Children, but I've been so negligent in my blogging that when my friends over at TOON Books asked if I would review one of their newest releases, I said yes. Better something on the blog than nothing, I figured. And it didn't hurt that it was the new Geoffrey Hayes book, because I love Geoffrey Hayes. So I hope you don't mind taking a look with me at his latest, Patrick Eats His Peas and Other Stories.

Geoffrey Hayes has been making children's books since 1976, and has over forty titles to his credit. His first book, a picture book entitled Bear By Himself, introduced the appropriately-named character Bear, as he enjoyed a quiet day alone. When Bear appeared again two years later, it was in a book that was over one hundred pages and contained five stories, only now Bear had a name: Patrick. This sudden shift in format was one Patrick would undergo several times as Hayes moved the character from publisher to publisher over the years. Patrick sometimes appeared in a picture book, sometimes in a 8x8 book formatted for a spinner rack, other times as a board book, and most recently in comics. Through each of these incarnations, Hayes often reused stories that had appeared in earlier incarnations, sometimes redrawing the stories from scratch. (See the 1976 and the 1998 editions of Bear By Himself, and the 1989 book Patrick Eats His Dinner below.) With the success of his Benny and Penny comics for TOON Books, it was no surprise that Patrick again followed Hayes to a new publisher and a new format, in a mix of redrawn stories and new ones.

But before Patrick ventured into comics, Hayes garnered critical acclaim (including a Theodor Seuss Geisel Award) for his first foray into the form, his series for young readers Benny and Penny. The Benny and Penny books are masterpieces. Hayes's ability to capture the anxieties, the travails of socialization, and the tribulations of very young children is mind-blowing. Benny and Penny are brother and sister, and their stories take place for the most part in their backyard. They must negotiate playing with each other, meeting new neighbors, playing with friends they don't really like, and braving the dark, all of which they do without adult supervision. Mom is always nearby, and sometimes calls to them from off panel, but really Benny and Penny need to figure things out for themselves. By creating an adult-free world, Hayes allows for his characters and his readers to engage with these social anxieties at an emotional level, the way a child would, and so Benny and Penny and the reader must work through the problem, and find a moral solution. There's none of the heavy-handed guiding message that underpins so many children's picture books. Instead, we get children and situations that ring so true that both children and adults can identify with Benny and Penny, find comfort in recognizing their own insecurities, and learn the lesson by experience rather than by being taught.

The Patrick TOON books have the same verisimilitude as the Benny and Penny books, but for Patrick, his parents are an ever-present source of security. As a result, Patrick reads as a younger character (even though he gets sent to the store by himself in one of the stories), and his relationship with his parents--his mother in particular--is in some ways the main topic of the books. Yes, Patrick must contend with the childhood annoyances of taking a nap, taking a bath, eating his peas, and many other typical, "Aw, ma, do I have to..." scenarios, but with the exception of a bullying story in Patrick in A Teddy Bear's Picnic, the books are about the interactions between parent and child. The trick then becomes the balance between Patrick's perspective and his parents' perspective.

In Patrick in the Teddy Bear's Picnic, Hayes manages to tip the balance in Patrick's favor. Mom is there, and a parent reader can recognize her amusement and annoyance at some of Patrick's foibles, but Patrick's experience is the one that both the adult and child reader identifies with. This is in part because Patrick is alone in more of the book than he is in Patrick Eats His Peas. He retrieves a balloon at the park, endures nap time, and takes the aforementioned trip to the store. But it is mainly because Mom's actions are the way in which a child would experience them. She is on the sidelines, almost always placid, happy, and comforting, except for rare, and brief, bursts of annoyance. The focus is on what Patrick is feeling, and Mom, as far as he sees it, is just there as a source of support.

In Patrick Eats His Peas, however, the balance tips in the parents' favor, and the book is less satisfying. Here Patrick makes a mess of the leaves his father has just raked, offers similar "help" to his mother in the kitchen, trashes the bathroom during his bath, and insists on making fudge at bedtime. At each of these points, Mom and Dad's expression is highlighted, usually given a full panel to the parent alone, and often in classic cartoon style, with shock lines radiating from her head. This makes the moments feel more like parental observations, than children's conflict. The point seems to be, "Isn't it frustrating (or amusing) when your kid does this?" instead of tackling what Patrick is feeling. In the case of Patrick offering help in the yard and in the kitchen, for example, we don't get the loneliness and boredom of an only child whose parents are both busy. We get the parents' frustration at having their tasks hampered by Patrick's "help." In the end, it makes Patrick Eats His Peas a disappointment. Instead of the insightful parsing of the conflicts of childhood that Hayes is so good at, we get something closer to anecdotes. Is it a bad book? No. It's still Hayes, and therefore better than most children's books. It's just not in the same league as his other TOON books.

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Tuesday, July 30, 2013


ALMOST EXACTLY ONE YEAR AGO, I contributed a guest post to Vintage Kids' Books My Kid Loves on the book The Little Woman Wanted Noise by Val Teal with pictures by Robert Lawson. The people over at New York Review Books, who bring wonderful out-of-print books back into print, saw the post and loved what they saw, so they tracked down a copy for themselves. Then they got in touch with me and asked if I had any way of getting in touch with Val Teal's family. At the time, I didn't, but thanks to some internet sleuthing, I managed to actually get in touch with Val Teal's daughter, and to put her in touch with NYRB, and so now, today, a brand new, back-in-print copy of The Little Woman Wanted Noise arrived in the mail. Which means that all of you readers who have spent the last year pining after the book in my post (and those of you who haven't) can buy a new copy now! Well, in a few weeks, when the book is officially released on September 24, 2013. So pre-order! And enjoy.

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Tuesday, May 7, 2013


NONE OF SYLVIA PLATH'S children's books were published in her lifetime, but she did see one children's poem in print: "The Bull of Bendylaw," which appeared in the April 1959 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

The Horn Book
is a bimonthly magazine devoted to the discussion of children's literature, along with reviews of children's books, acceptance speeches for major literary awards for children's writers and artists, and occasional poems and stories. The readership includes children's librarians, teachers, children's booksellers, and parents, all of whom use it as a guide for what to read and recommend to children. What that means is, any poem or story published in The Horn Book is likely to reach children through one of these authorities.

As I've discussed in my previous entries on Sylvia Plath, both Plath and her husband Ted Hughes were actively writing for children in the late 1950s. One of their interests was in folktales and ballads, and they each wrote poems drawn from those influences. When Horn Book editor Ruth Hill Viguers approached the couple, asking each to submit poems for consideration, they were able to send several animal poems, which drew on those traditional sources.

Viguers had heard of Plath through a neighbor, but it was when her own children came home from school to say that their English teacher, Mr. Crockett (who had also been Plath's high school teacher) had read Plath's work in class that she chose to reach out to the poet. Not long after meeting with Viguers, Plath sent her husband and her own submissions: "Both of us enjoy writing poems about birds, beasts, and fish, so we are enclosing one from each of us, about an otter and a goatsucker..." In a postscript, she adds "We're adding to the zoo a bull and a field of horses." Only the bull was accepted.

"The Bull of Bendylaw" draws on one of F. J. Child's ballads, and opens with the epigraph:
"The great bull of Bendylaw
Has broken his band and run awa,
And the king and a' his court
Canna turn that bull about."
Plath, however, associates the bull with the sea, and in her poem "The black bull bellowed before the sea," and the sea breaks forth and floods the kingdom. Not only can the king's men not turn the bull or sea back, but in the end
"O the king's tidy acre is under the sea,
And the royal rose in the bull's belly,
And the bull on the king's highway."
The poem was later included in Plath's Collected Poems as the first poem in the 1959 section, where the epigraph is relegated to the notes at the back of the book, and so in the long run, the readership for the poem ended up being adults, but Plath and editor Viguers obviously saw the poem as one that could be shared with children, making it a footnote to any discussion of Plath's writing for children.

I owe this entire post to the article in the Horn Book from 2005 by Lissa Paul, "Writing Poetry for Children is a Curious Occupation": Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, which I have cited for all of my Plath entries. And while I did go and see the Horn Book in the library, I was not allowed to take it out, and so the image of the cover comes from the excellent Sylvia Plath website

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Wednesday, May 1, 2013


IN 2000, FABER & FABER launched Faber Children's Classics, a series of books with uniform trade dressings that included works such as The Complete Nonesense by Edward Lear, Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats by T. S. Eliot, and Peacock Pie by Walter de la Mare. In order to round out the list with some exclusive titles, Faber took advantage of the fact that some of its most well known writers had little known children's books. One of the first books in the series was Sylvia Plath's Collected Children's Stories, released in 2001.

The book is comprised of Plath's two previously released children's books, The Bed Book and The It-Doesn't-Matter Suit, along with a new story, Mrs. Cherry's Kitchen.

Mrs. Cherry's Kitchen was first sketched out in one of Plath's journal entries from either 1957 or 1958 (I have found conflicting dates, and can't find the quote in the 1982 release of Plath's published journals). As quoted by Lissa Paul in her 1995 Horn Book article on Plath's children's work:
"Suddenly, Ted & I looked at things from our unborn children's point of view. Take gadgets: a modern pot & kettle story. Shiny modern gadgets are overspecialized--long to do others tasks. Toaster, iron, waffle-maker, refrigerator, egg beater, electric fry-pan, blender. One midnight fairies or equivalent grant wish to change-about. Iron wants to make waffles, dips point for dents; refrigerator tired of foods, decides to freeze clothes, toaster tired of toast, wants to bake fancy cake..."
Plath submitted the story to the children's magazine Jack and Jill, which had previously published one of her husband Ted Hughes's  stories, but she didn't have much faith in it. It was with disappointment, but not surprise that she recorded in her journal on January 26, 1958 that the magazine had rejected the story.

MRS. CHERRY IS A DOMESTIC GODDESS, who has a great appreciation for her modern appliances. She says things like, "'Thanks to our fine, shiny toaster...It's made us golden-bown toast each day without fail all these years.'" These kind of statements make her appliances proud, but it turns out it's not enough to keep them content. Each wants to do a job that another appliance does.

Unbeknownst to Mrs. Cherry, her kitchen is helped along in its daily tasks by two kitchen pixies with "long, unpronounceable names," who call themselves Salt and Pepper.

When the appliances come to Salt and Pepper and tell them of their dream to trade jobs, the pixies don't think it's such a great idea. "'It would mean a lot of extra work for us,'" they say to each other, but "'If we don't satisfy the kitchen folk, they may go on strike and stop work altogether. And then where would Mrs. Cherry be.'"

So they give their consent. Of course, they have to wait for Mrs. Cherry to leave the kitchen, which she does rarely. At last, a little before lunch time on the day set for the change-about, Sunny and Bunny, the twins from next door, come to tell Mrs. Cherry that their cat Fudge Ripple has had kittens. Mrs. Cherry goes to see them.

"And Whizz! Whirr! Bang! Clang!" The shirts go into the oven, unbaked plum tarts go into the icebox, the coffee percolator swallows ice cream, the iron tries making waffles. Unsurprisingly, they all fail miserably. What's worse, Mr. Cherry comes home for lunch unexpectedly, and sees all of the appliances going haywire. He runs out in a fright.

Salt and Pepper set to work making everything right, and by the time Mrs. Cherry has returned with Mr. Cherry, the mess is cleaned up and everything is as it should be.

DAVID ROBERTS'S ILLUSTRATIONS throughout the Collected Stories are excellent, as can be seen by the examples here. Unfortunately Mrs. Cherry's Kitchen is the weakest of the stories in the book, and it makes sense that it has never warranted a separate book on its own.

The background information for this post came primarily from the Lissa Paul article, but also from the book Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking: Motherhood in Sylvia Plath's Works by Nephie Christodoulides. This post and yesterday's also owes much to

COMING SOON: Sylvia Plath's "The Bull of Bendylaw"

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Tuesday, April 30, 2013


THE THING ABOUT POSTHUMOUS WORKS is that it can be difficult to asses a "newly discovered" story in the appropriate context in a writer's career. A little over two weeks ago, I wrote about Sylvia Plath's "first" children's book, The Bed Book, which was written in 1959 but published in 1976. It was twenty years before Plath's second children's book, The It-Doesn't-Matter Suit was released in 1996, but that book was also written in 1959 in the few months that constitute Plath's "career" as a children's writer.

At that time, Plath did not yet have children of her own, although becoming a mother was very much on her mind. Her husband Ted Hughes had taken to writing for children on their honeymoon in 1956, and had started to publish children's stories in periodicals in 1958, which is what inspired Plath to try her hand at children's work as well. But while Plath tried to publish The Bed Book in her lifetime, her other stories were mostly tucked away.

It was not until a German publisher delved into Plath's papers at the Lilly Library at Indiana University in the hopes of putting together a new short story collection that The It-Doesn't-Matter Suit came to light. Plath's sister-in-law Olwyn Hughes brought the book to Plath's publisher Faber who immediately announced that they would bring it out as a book illustrated by Rotraut Susanne Berner.

THE IT-DOESN'T-MATTER SUIT TELLS THE STORY of seven year old Max Nix, the youngest of seven brothers, and his deepest wish: to own his own suit.

Max and his large family live in the mountain town of Winkleburg, and everyone has a suit except Max. "Now Max did not want a suit just for work (that would be too plain) or just for weddings (that would be too fancy) or just for skiing (that would be too hot) or just for summer (that would be too cool). He wanted a suit for All-Year-Round."

As the youngest of seven, however, Max is last in line for everything, and it doesn't look like his chances of acquiring a suit are all that good. Then one day, the postman delivers a box whose label has gotten wet, so that the only name legible was Nix. No one knows who the box is for, nor can they imagine what it contains. When at last it is opened, "there in the grey box with a wreath of white tissue paper around it lay a wooly whiskery brand-new mustard-yellow suit with three brass buttons."

As per usual, Papa Nix gets first dibs. He is very excited, determined to wear the suit the next day to his job at the bank. "He thought how it would be to wear the woolly, whiskery, brand-new, mustard-yellow suit to work. Such a suit had never been seen before in all Winkleburg." However, as he thinks more about it, he decides it might not be professional to wear such a bright suit, and announces, "'I am too big to wear a mustard-yellow suit.'"

So it passes on to Paul. Mama Nix has to make some alterations, but "when she was through, the suit fitted Paul to a T. He decides to wear it the next day for skiing. "Such a suit had never been seen before in all Winkleburg." But none of his friends where a suit like that, and he decides, "I am too big to wear a mustard-yellow suit.

So it passes on to Emil who is going to sled in it, but thinks of his friends, and decides he is "too big to wear a mustard-yellow suit," as does Otto, and then Walter, and Hugo, and finally Johann. And so, at last, it passes to Max.

Max wears the suit the next day, and he doesn't care that no one in Winkleburg has ever seen a suit like it: IT DIDN'T MATTER. He goes on to wear the suit while doing a lot of the things his brother's felt they couldn't do in the suit: skiing, riding his bike in the rain, ice-fishing, sledding, fox-hunting. And as for the potential difficulties wearing the suit in those situations could create: IT DIDN'T MATTER.

In the end, all of the people in the town, even all of the animals in the town, admire Max's marvelous suit.

OUTSIDE OF THE UNBELIEVABLE PREMISE, that a seven year old boy would want a suit more than anything in the world, The It-Doesn't-Matter Suit is a delightful book. It contains many repetitious refrains, like "Such a suit had never been seen before in all Winkleburg, and "I am too big to wear a mustard-yellow suit," which I'm sure young children would enjoy.

The book is included in 2001's Collected Children's Stories with illustrations by David Roberts, the black and white illustrations in this post.

The little background material I found came from a 2005 Horn Book article by Lissa Paul, a 1995 article from the Daily Mail (London), and a 1995 announcement in The New York Times.

COMING SOON: Sylvia Plath's Mrs. Cherry's Kitchen.

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Friday, April 19, 2013


TODAY MARKS THE THREE-YEAR ANNIVERSARY of We Too Were Children, Mr. Barrie. The number of posts has gone down each year, but my commitment to the blog has never wavered. I'll be back with more Sylvia Plath in the next week or two. Today, I am in Los Angeles for the LA Times Book Awards, so keep your fingers crossed for me. If you are in the LA area, I will be at the LA Times Festival of the Books tomorrow, so come and say hi. Thanks for reading all this time.

Thursday, April 11, 2013


IT MAY BE HARD TO RECONCILE the idea of Sylvia Plath, the patron saint of suicide, the confessional chronicler of depression, with her children's books. That a woman who expressed so little happiness in all her other works had hidden away light, silly verses and stories is jarring. Perhaps that is why it was not until over a decade after her death that any of them appeared.

Written in 1959, but published in 1976, The Bed Book was the first of Plath's children's books to see print. Encouraged by Atlantic Monthly Press editor Emilie McLeod, Plath took the idea of fantastical beds, and composed an almost Seussian poem of imagination.

She wrote in her journal for May 3, 1959:
"I wrote a book yesterday. Maybe I'll write a postscript on top of this in the next month and say I've sold it. Yes, after half a year of procrastinating, bad feeling and paralysis, I got to it yesterday morning, having lines in my head here and there, and Wide-Awake Will and Stay-Uppity Sue very real, and bang. I chose ten beds out of the long list of too fancy and ingenious and abstract a list of beds, and once I'd begun I was away and didn't stop till I typed out and mailed it (8 double-spaced pages only!) to the Atlantic Press. The Bed Book, by Sylvia Plath. Funny how doing it freed me. It was a bat, a bad-conscience bat brooding in my head...A ready-made good idea and an editor writing to say she couldn't get the idea of it out of her head."
Emilie McLeod loved it, but she suggested removing the two children, Wide-Awake Will and Stay-Uppity Sue who had acted as a framing narrative. Plath rewrote the book within a week of receiving McLeod's edits, and was very optimistic that it would soon be accepted for publication. She dedicated it to her friend Marcia Plumer's adopted twins.

That Plath herself still had no children of her own (despite The New York Times's erroneous claim that The Bed Book had been written for Plath's children) was still a source of much anguish to the young poet. Her husband Ted Hughes had turned to writing children's books at the same time. (He went on to have a long successful career as a children's writer, a subject for a future We Too Were Children.) Writing in her journal of both his and her books, Plath mourned, "And no child, not even the beginnings or the hopes of one, to dedicate it to...My god. This is the one thing in the world I can't face. It is worse than a horrible disease."

Plath had to wait until the middle of August until she got back definitive word about the fate of her book. Little, Brown, then the publisher of Atlantic Monthly Press books, felt "that the book is not simple and basic enough, that some of the beds are too farfetched, and that it has more appeal to adults than to children." At the time, while Plath had published many poems and stories in magazines, she had not yet published a book, and so could not rely on her name to carry the book through. Emilie McLeod was genuinely sorrowful that she had to pass on the bad news.

THE BED BOOK THAT EVENTUALLY DID APPEAR deserves none of Little, Brown's criticisms. It begins:
Beds come in all sizes--
single or double,
cot-size or cradle,
king-size or trundle.

Most Beds are Beds
for sleeping or resting,
but the best Beds are much
more interesting!
Plath said in her journal that she had chosen ten beds, but in the final book there seem to be a few more than that. Of course, she may have intended some of these beds to be the same bed. They are: a bed for fishing, a bed for cats, a bed for acrobats, a submarine bed, a jet-propelled bed, a snack bed, a spottable bed, a tank bed, a bird-watchers bed, a pocket-size bed, an elephant bed, and a North-Pole bed.

The Bed Book was later included in Plath's Collected Children's Stories with different illustrations. In the original book, illustrator Emily Arnold McCully infuses her pictures with warmth, depicting a sort of nostalgic idyll.

But the later pictures by David Roberts come closer to the zaniness the book intends.

The collected version also retains additional verses that had been cut from the book's first appearance. Why those particular lines had been removed is unclear.

Jack Prelutsky included an excerpt from The Bed Book in The Random House Book of Poetry for Children, but the book itself fell out of print. It would be twenty years more before another one of Plath's children's works was published

In addition to Plath's own published journals, background information for this post came from Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath by Anne Stevenson, and Rough Magic: A Biography of Sylvia Plath by Paul Alexander.

COMING SOON: The It-Doesn't-Matter Suit by Sylvia Plath

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Friday, April 5, 2013


IN HONOR OF THE NEW OZ MOVIE, I've contributed this beautiful Wonder Books edition to the greatest kids' book blog there is, Vintage Kids' Books My Kid Loves. Click the link to check it out. Head on over to my Flickr to see the whole book.

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Monday, March 11, 2013


CARSON MCCULLERS WROTE ABOUT CHILDHOOD. Her two most famous works, the novels The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and Member of the Wedding (later adapted for the stage) both have as central protagonists young girls trying to navigate the borders between girlhood and adulthood. They are haunting and insightful portraits, but writing insightfully about childhood is not the same as understanding children, as McCullers revealed in her one publication intended for children, the book of poems Sweet as a Pickle and Clean as a Pig.

Written towards the end of her life, Sweet as a Pickle and Clean as a Pig was in many ways an exercise that allowed McCullers to write something, anything. Plagued with ill health all her life, writing became progressively harder in her later years, as pain and fatigue made prolonged writing sessions difficult. Light children's verse was a way to practice her vocation, and the idea that the poems might entertain the children of her friends only added to the pleasure. Published almost by chance, when the editor Joyce Hartman happened upon several of the poems and asked to see more, McCullers dedicated the book to Emily and Dara Altman, the children of her lawyer, and Tony Lantz, the son of her agent.

The book was not well received, and it's not hard to see why. The poems alternate between light nonsense verse in the vein of Mother Goose, and free verse observations and reminiscences tinged with melancholy.

It's hard to imagine what child would be drawn to such disparate work, especially since the poems are neither funny nor particularly rhythmic.

The crude illustrations were provided by Rolf Gérard, a painter and longtime set designer for the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

The book is a footnote to an illustrious career that leaves readers wishing McCullers's ability to evoke dreamlike realities had carried over to her work for children.

WHAT LITTLE INFORMATION I could find came predominantly from The Lonely Hunter: A Biography of Carson McCullers by Virginia Spencer Carr. I also consulted Carson McCullers: A Life by Josyane Savigneau. To see Sweet as a Pickle and Clean as a Pig in its entirety, go to my Flikr set here.

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