Category Archives: Out of Print

Jenny Slate is my Children’s Books Guru

There are so many reasons to love Jenny Slate. The 35-year-old comedian-actress is funny, sexy, fiercely feminist, and just goofy enough that you feel like she could be someone you know. I loved her in Obvious Child (the 2014 indie film that flaunted both her ingenue radiance and raunchy potty mouth) and to this day I cannot order a sandwich without thinking about Catherine, her bizarre 12-part web series that is either totally unwatchable or the best thing you’ve ever seen on YouTube. (I guess you could call it normcore. Please try it!) Of course, Slate is also co-creator of the genius Marcel the Shell web series (and children’s books).

But what really sealed my fandom is that Jenny Slate is a vintage children’s book nerd. How did I learn this? Instagram.

Here’s her shout-out to the Dorrie the Little Witch series by Patricia Coombs. Which I only vaguely remembered and immediately ordered from the library because most of them are out of print:

Here’s a post with her childhood copy of Elmer and the Dragon:

Here, with Tomi Ungerer

A page from Sarah, Plain and Tall:

I have no idea what book this little mouse is from, so if anybody knows, please tell me in the comments:

Ok, I am clearly obsessed. I also did some Googling.

In a recent interview with New York magazine, she says she loves the 1980 book Emma by Wendy Kesselman so much she has it on display in her house where she can see it when she wakes up. (I still have to get my hands on a copy):

“It’s about an old woman who doesn’t love how she’s alone, and then learns to make herself not alone through art, and draws people into her life through art. It’s the fucking best thing.”

She told Jezebel she loves Ox-Cart Man and Miss Rumphius, both also illustrated by Barbara Cooney (I’ve written about Ox-Cart Man here).


And also a book called I’m Telling You Now, illustrated by Lillian Hoban (of Bread and Jam for Frances fame):

She describes it as “this beautiful watercolor book about this boy who did all these things that he wasn’t supposed to do … but he was only curious.”

She kind of sums it all up in this interview with Vogue:

“I always wanted to be a children’s author and I have a really big library of children’s books. All the ones from when I was little, they are just so beautiful. I read kids’ books and they calm me down … I love all the Lyle the Crocodile books. I like Robert McCloskey’s books—One Morning in Maine, Blueberries for Sal, Make Way for Ducklings. I like Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, all the Barbara Cooney books, like Miss Rumphius and The Ox-Cart Man are really good. And I like Chris Van Allsburg, those books like Just a Dream and The Polar Express. I like the classics. They’re classics for a reason.”

In short, friends, she’s one of us.

Still My Favorite Baby Gift: A Teeny Tiny Baby

When friends have babies, I love to give books. I buy the same ones again and again:  Amos & BorisI am a Bunny, The Best NestWhen I Have a Little Girl , When You Were Small, Thank You, Bear, and Max Makes a Million, to name a few. The key is the book can’t be so super well-known that I have to worry that my friend already has a copy. (I was annoyed by the time I got my third copy of The Very Hungry Caterpillar — bratty, I know.)  But lately, I’ve been stymied. One of my longtime favorite titles to give is out of print: A Teeny Tiny Baby by Amy Schwartz.

When it came out in 1994, I was in my 20s and years away from contemplating motherhood. My boss and his wife had just had their first baby and someone must have given them the book as a gift. When I saw it, I was charmed from the get-go. I remember looking at the illustrations of the scruffily bearded dads with babies strapped to their chests and realizing the author-illustrator had perfectly nailed that new kind of Upper West Sidey-Brooklyn parent I’d kinda sorta noticed on my way to drink cosmos or catch the new Janeane Garofalo movie.

The story is told from the perspective of an infant in Brooklyn in his first few weeks of life. He reports his experiences at the center of the household —everybody cooing and fussing over him — in the most matter-of-fact way.

The illustrations, meanwhile, give us the other side of the story. There’s his parents’ undignified struggle with the stroller down the steps to the cleaners and the big night out at a restaurant where the family is seated (with stroller) at at an outdoor table … in an alleyway … next to a trash can. It’s all very subtle and subversive about the beleaguered/besotted emotional state of new parents, which is why it makes such a good gift for new moms. Not to mention that the illustrations are totally charming, from the cosy interiors (Thonet rocker!) to the characters’ outfits (Marimekko?).

After the Teeny Tiny Baby hardcovers disappeared from Amazon, I noticed you could still find board book versions of the book. So I bought a few and gave those as gifts. But these days I can only find secondhand copies of this incredible book for sale. Heartbreaking!

I might have to buy some used copies as gifts. I know this might gross out some new moms so maybe I’ll also include a bottle of Purell.

Call it Roald McDonald’s: Roald Dahl’s Estate Goes for the $$$

In case you missed it, there was a big NYT story earlier this summer about how Roald Dahl’s literary estate is “aggressively seeking out ways to globalize, digitize and monetize his wackily wondrous works.” The piece focused on the (mostly disappointing) recent film, stage, and television adaptations of his works, like Spielberg’s BFG floparoo. But what really piqued my curiosity was the mention of the deals the estate has made with companies like McDonald’s. Yes, McDonald’s in the UK is selling Roald Dahl-themed Happy Meals. I found this image from the creative agency who helped put them together:

happymealboxes

Okay … I admit I would actually kind of love to get my hands on one of those Witches boxes (not for the McNuggets or whatever, just for the packaging). But really, if there was a kids’ author who revered good home cooking, it was Roald Dahl. This is the man who made us crave cold meat pies spiked with hard-boiled eggs buried inside like treasures and fresh fish caught in the fjords and fried that day still wriggling in the pan. Not to sound like a tsk tsking ninny but pimping out the books with McDonald’s?

Roald Dahl’s grandson Luke Kelly, who heads up the estate, also made a deal with the children’s clothing company Boden. Now, I do like the stuff at Boden (great PJs!) but there’s something that makes me feel sad about this collection. It’s so Cheeky! and Quirky!

screen-shot-2016-09-19-at-4-30-27-pmscreen-shot-2016-09-20-at-10-43-15-amHere’s a quote from Kelly who comes off sounding almost cartoonishly money grubbing: “We are really transferring from being a literary estate to being more of a story company.” That’s the kind of thing that you tell your investors, not the press.

Oh, and back to the McDonald’s thing…

One of my favorite books in the world is Memories with Food at Gipsy House, the cookbook/culinary memoir Roald Dahl wrote with wife Felicity Dahl. It’s out of print but totally worth seeking out. You could not ask for more comforting bedtime reading.fullsizerender-1

Wes Anderson Probably Read This Book: The 3 Policemen

3Policemen-coverYesterday when I was browsing at the library  I came across this 1938 chapter book by William Pène du Bois. The author’s Twenty-One Balloons is one of my all-time favorites but I had never read (or even heard of) The Three Policemen. So of course I had to take a look.

The book’s action takes place on a wealthy, top-secret tropical island where the inhabitants all live leisurely, worry-free lives (clearly one of du Bois’s favorite themes) until someone robs them of their fishing nets. The story is charming but the real knockouts are the illustrations, which are refined, sophisticated and whimsical, with gorgeous use of color. The setting, the clothing, the mustaches—everything is as mannered as in an Ernst Lubitsch film. Or a Wes Anderson movie.Scan 11Scan 10And when you turn to the back endpapers of the book, you see THIS! (Click on image below to zoom.)

serpent-boatDoesn’t it remind you of this shot from The Life Aquatic?life-aquaticYes, yes—critics have pointed out that Anderson’s iconic cutaway dollhouse shot has its progenitors in Godard’s 1972 Tout va bien and even Jerry Lewis’s 1961 film The Ladies Man. But come on. The Du Bois illustration is also of a ship! (Specifically, a ship in the shape of a sea serpent.) To take things further, I would argue that Eric Chase Anderson‘s style of illustration (Eric is Wes’s brother and close collaborator) owes a great debt to William Pène du Bois in everything from his color palette to his obsession with diagrams.

And we all know how much Wes loves Roald Dahl, so for him to also be a fan of William Pène du Bois isn’t such a stretch. Is it just me?

Let’s Read about Sex

BreastsIn my daughter’s third-grade class this spring, Friday mornings were devoted to the study of Human Growth and Development, a.k.a. sex ed. As a warm-up to each week’s discussion, her teachers would haul out a huge pile of books about sex and puberty —  several of them with detailed anatomical drawings — and let the kids dive in during morning arrival. You have NEVER seen such focused eight and nine year olds; on these days, instead of idly chatting by their cubbies the kids would scramble into the meeting area and gather around the volumes like a pack of hungry animals. There they’d huddle in groups, goggle-eyed and totally silent save for the occasional chorus of “Gr-ooosss!”  (And then we parents doing the drop-off would look at each other and mouth “Oh … my … god.”)

Fittingly, many of these book titles ended with question marks. There was one called Where Did I Come From? and another titled What’s the Big Secret?. On the slightly more panic-y side, you had What’s Happening to Me? and, for the boys, What’s Going on Down There?

Dr. Ruth Talks to KidsInstead of a typical textbook, the class used It’s So Amazing (1999) by Robie H. Harris, which covers reproductive anatomy, reproduction and puberty in a comic-book style format. It’s a good choice for third graders — not too Nickelodeon, not too New England Journal of Medicine. That said, I couldn’t help but find myself drawn to the quirkier books in the pile.  I mean, there was Dr. Ruth Westheimer smiling up at me, ready to explain masturbation to the younger generation [Dr. Ruth Talks To Kids: Where You Came From, How Your Body Changes, and What Sex Is All About (1998)].

I soon became mildly obsessed with finding more examples of oddball kids’ sex ed books and spent an inordinate amount of time in the library near Dewey Decimal section 612.6. Here are a few of my discoveries:

1) How You Were Born by Joanna Cole (1984 version)

how you were born - coverThe creator of the Magic School Bus series, Joanna Cole is also the author of this classic book for preschoolers. The 1993 revised edition in full color is what you’lll find on Amazon, but my library still had a copy of the original version, illustrated with black-and-white photos. The prose is soft and fuzzy, and the images are (for the most part) mild, with an emphasis on cute baby shots. But there are definitely a few yowza moments.

For instance, you don’t find this one in the revised edition:

"How You Were Born" by Joanna ColeThe tube socks say it all, right?

2. Breasts by Genichiro Yagyu (1999)

Breasts - coverThis book, translated from the Japanese, will remind you of those modern Japanese classics, Everyone Poops by Taro Gomi and The Gas We Pass by Shinta Cho (all part of the same series, My Body Science). Like those books, the illustrations here have a charming, primitive quality and the text — what little there is of it — doesn’t shy from a deadpan joke or two.

Breasts - feeding

Breasts - sumo

The My Body Science series has been translated into multiple languages. Here’s the Spanish version of Breasts:

tetas-cover

3) What’s Happening to Me? by Peter Mayle and Arthur Robins (1977)

what's-happening-coverIf I had grown up in a less Puritanical household, this is the book that I might have read as a kid growing up in the late 70s. It was evidently a huge hit when it came out, and it’s still in print (“over 1,000,000 copies sold!”). But I never laid eyes on it until this year, when a friend told me that he and his sister had loved it as kids. The illustrations have a very groovy Schoolhouse Rock vibe. The text is chatty and matter-of-fact (sex is compared to jumping rope; an orgasm is described  as a sneeze). And I love the fact that it was written by Peter Mayle, he of the ubiquitous 90s novel, A Year in Provence.

Negative-Archive0291-620x609Check out the wide world of women’s breasts:

What's Happening to Me? BreastsFascinating. Boys’ wet dreams in the 70s starred the Breck shampoo girl!

 What wet dreams look like, according to "What's Happening to Me?"

 

 

If Your Son Sleeps With a Light Saber: The Novelization Worth Seeking Out

I would not go as far as to say that Star Wars is sacred in our household. But let’s just put it this way. I never made the slightest effort to keep S and L from the truth about Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy. But I was PISSED when someone told them that Darth Vader was Luke’s father.

Star Wars coverAt any rate, now that the kids have seen the first couple films (Episodes IV and V, that is) I’ve been looking for some good Star Wars books. Most bookstores have the usual: the Clone War novelizations, the ubiquitous Lego Star Wars almanac, the sticker books. But in our school library I found exactly what I was hoping for: a chapter book adaptation that faithfully retells the plot of the 1977 movie in easy language, scene by scene, with tons of color stills. This 1985 adaptation by Larry Weinberg is part of a now defunct series from Random House called Step-Up Movie Adventures. It’s perfect, because even a really obsessed seven-year-old most likely misses some plot points from the film. But this book spells out everything — for instance, Ben’s last moment:

Just then Obi-Wan Kenobi turned his head. He seemed to be looking straight at Luke. A smile was on his face. This was Vader’s chance. With the speed of light he slashed at Ben. The blow should have cut the old man in half. It sliced right through his robe. But the Jedi was gone … Luke thought he heard a voice whispering in his ear. Ben’s voice. “Run, Luke,” it said. “Run!”

Star Wars spread Star Wars spread - LukeAlthough the book is out of print, there seem to be plenty of inexpensive copies available online. And it’s got to be better than this:

Jabba

 

 

Out-of-Print Gem: Happy Mother’s Day (1985)

If you can find a copy, this is a genius book to share with your family — the kids as well as their father — in advance of the hallowed day. Because author Steven Kroll seems to understand what mothers crave on this occasion.happymothersday-flowersNo, not flowers. Though they are a nice touch. And no, not even jewelry (although I do not think a pair of Ted Muehling earrings would be too much to ask for). What a beleaguered mom really wants on Mother’s Day is for the family to HELP AROUND THE GODDAMN HOUSE WITHOUT HER HAVING TO NAG EVERYBODY. In the story, the mother arrives home to find a series of handwritten notes from her six children, each accompanied by a welcome surprise: a tidied-up room, a mended curtain, a swept fireplace.happymotherday-bedshappymothersday-curtainThe father has even gotten the baby into his crib, pajamas and all. Interestingly enough, he Continue reading

Out-of-Print Gem: When I Have a Little Girl (1965)

When I Have a Little Girl CoverCharlotte Zolotow’s When I Have a Little Girl (1965) doesn’t have the arch references of Kay Thompson’s Eloise (1955) but the books share plenty of DNA. Both are illustrated by Hilary Knight and feature heroines who are willful, exuberant, self-centered, dreamy, loving and bratty all at once.

She’s basically Eloise’s less naughty cousin living in the suburbs.

LittleGirlopener

LittleGirlPartyDress2LittleGirlHair1LittleGirlHair_2LittleGirlFurLittleGirlPhoneShe’s a handful. But Eloiseeven 2013’s Brooklyn-reared Eloise — would eat her alive.

EloisePhone

 

Out-of-Print Gem: The Man Who Cooked For Himself (1981)

I bought this used book years ago for 25 cents as a throwaway. We were waiting for a table at a restaurant and I was desperate for something to occupy the kids before they destroyed the place. I was sucked in by the book’s (unintentionally anticlimactic?) title. The pancake letter “o” didn’t hurt either.

ManWhoCookedThe book turned out to be a keeper. It’s basically a child-friendly introduction to locavorism and foraging decades before Michael Pollan, starring a funny little man who looks like a Hanna-Barbera character.

The balding bachelor of the title lives with his cat in the middle of nowhere. As we learn: “He didn’t have a wife or children so he always cooked his own supper, cleaned the house by himself, and made his own bed.” (For an author writing in 1981, Phyllis Krasilovsky has a pretty 1950s-ish take on gender norms, but whatever.) The man also doesn’t have a car, so he relies on a friend to bring him groceries every week. When one summer his friend is unable to make his delivery, the man nearly starves.

ManWhoCooked2_0001Finally, he realizes he can pick wild watercress and blueberries, catch fish and even make pancakes from … acorns. (I don’t think even Rene Redzepi has gotten there.) The story is super simple but charming, and the kids think it’s hilarious when the guy briefly considers eating his newspaper. They also appreciate the size of his hat.

ManWhoCooked4

 

Out-of-Print Gem: Rich Cat, Poor Cat (1963)

The other day at the library I discovered a Bernard Waber book I’ve never seen before: Rich Cat, Poor Cat. And I am in love.The concept couldn’t be simpler. Each left-hand page shows the cushy, pampered life of a rich cat (clearly, a member of cat society’s 1%). Each right-hand page shows the contrasting life of a penurious streetcat named Scat.

There isn’t much of a plot per se, but no matter. It’s sweet, witty, and gorgeous to look at. The scenes of ’60s New York are stunning. How can you not love the outfit on this woman?

Of course, there’s a happy ending for Scat, with a great little twist on the last page. It’s hard to get hold of an original copy of this book (there’s a seller on EBay offering it right now for $99), but I just bought a copy of the 1970 Scholastic paperback on Etsy for $3.00. Now I won’t be tempted to “lose” my library’s copy.