I have been writing this post since the end of March — yet another look at some odd children’s books I read in my youth, or that I’ve found out about more recently.
I’ve just been pasting info/covers in here once in a while, so here’s the final post. It’s not hugely long.
The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet: My elementary school library had a number of books dating back to the 1950s. One series I read that it turned out my dad had also read as a kid was THE WONDERFUL FLIGHT TO THE MUSHROOM PLANET by Eleanor Cameron, which had a premise no kid could resist — a couple of boys are given instructions to build a rocketship and journey to a bizarre fungi-based world hidden from Earth.
I enjoyed a lot of those light-hearted SF books of that era, the sort that had a matter-of-fact, “Hey kids! Here’s some cool SF thing introduced to your everyday life by a wacky scientist person. Check it out!”
There were a number of other books in the series, though I lost interest after the second one, STOWAWAY TO THE MUSHROOM PLANET. Here’s a look at it and the illustrations — I love that sort of cartoony pen-and-ink style from a lot of books of that era. I’m very big on pure black-and-white drawings without tones, which I encountered in a lot of kids’ books growing up.
Elanor Cameron didn’t do a lot of other books outside the series that I know of, though she was a well-known critic who actually got the illustrations in CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY changed after complaining abuot their racist looks, resulting in some exchanges between her and Roald Dahl. Here’s a chronicle of Cameron vs. Dahl.
The original book was last in print with some revised illustrations as of 1988 — that edition you can order from the publisher.
Amy’s Eyes by Richard Kennedy: Was putting some old action figures up on my bookshelf and noticed this book I’ve had since I was a kid — I read it in 1988 or so (based on films I remember being out at the time), and at nearly 500 pages, it was the longest book I’d read at that time!
It was also quite weird. Here’s a review from the Times.
I shared that review with a friend, who replied that he thought the book sounded made-up.
It had that effect. Flipping through it, I was reminded that it had a lot of puns, and strange characters, and some unsettling bit — there’s one where they’re looking for a treasure, and Amy has turned into a doll, so they snip off her button eyes with scissors (!), put them in a bottle, and put the bottle on a string so she can “see” underwater and tell them where the treasure is.
That FREAKED me out.
I was strangely compelled by the idea of turning into a doll, though I suspect that was just social anxiety and stuff.
A while back at a used bookstore, I saw another book by the same author that had a WEEEIIIIRDDDD cover.
I don’t know much about it, but here’s some details:
The Boxcar at the Center of the Universe
I’m sort of obsessed with the idea of a boxcar barreling through a wormhole, though that doesn’t seem what the book is about.
Chicken Trek by Stephen Manes
This was a book that my teacher in third or fourth grade read the class. It was about a boy who had to eat at every franchise of a fried-chicken chain for a contest. The premise kind of turned my stomach, but it was one of those great “funny-weird” books.
The author, Stephen Manes, had quite a career as a technology reporter in the 1980s and 1990s. He did another of my favorites growing up, BE A PERFECT PERSON IN JUST THREE DAYS!, which was adapted to an episode of WONDERWORKS on PBS, one of my favorite anthologies.
Suzuki Beane: You can read the full version of this oddball “tiny beatnik” book at the link — I didn’t know about it until a year or two ago. It was apparently a parody of ELOISE, but it had some considerable charm to it, and illustrations by Louise Fitzhugh, who went on to do HARRIET THE SPY.
It also inspired a TV pilot, some scenes from which are on YouTube.
This is one of those premises that freaks me out. For some reason, “people cursed into animal form to learn a lesson” really, really messes with my head.
I Googled the author, Paul Gallico — he had an oddball career,
including writing the MRS. ‘ARRIS novels, and also the book that became the movie THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE!
He also wrote a book called THE SNOW GOOSE that is considered a children’s classic in England, but sounds depressing as hell
There was a TV-film of it in 1971 with Richard Harris and Jenny Agutter that won some awards. Here is is on YouTube!
The Brave Little Toaster: Thomas M. Disch, author of several of my favorite SF and horror novels (including 334, CAMP CONCERNTRATION and the “Supernatural Minnesota” series with THE MD, THE BUSINESSMAN and more) actually wrote a couple of children’s stories. THE BRAVE LITTLE TOASTER, about abandoned appliances seeking their owner, was printed in F&SF and released as a book, but it’s long out of print and is better known for an animated version that has long been a mainstay of cable. I actually got an animation cell from it cheap years ago.
I found the original story in a “Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror” paperback, but the book version with illustrations goes for a bit on eBay. I did find an illustration by Karen Schmidt from it that is quite charming — also the cover to the sequel THE BRAVE LITTLE TOASTER GOES TO MARS, which I do have in book form and is oddly relevant (machines rebel against “Planned Obsolescence and start a revolt in their own kingdom on Mars).
I just remember seeing that book in a bookstore as a kid and being infatuated with that cover and title, but it took me years to get the first story. Odd that the books have been so long out of print, as the animated film and its sequels have been mainstays of DVD.
–The Watchers of Space and The Crystal City by Nancy Etchemendy — very trippy young-reader SF novels. The first is about a boy on a generation ship from the destroyed Earth trying to head to a new planet who must help his people with aid from cosmic beings based on on the constellations. The second is a sequel set on the new planet where the boy’s sister befriends the native species, giant spiders who travel around in bubbles. It was one of the first times I read a story that had major characters dying and explored the ideas that there were more than absolute good and evil in people. I found my copies of these while moving some stuff out of my childhood house a few years back and wrote Etchemendy an email, mentioning how I was traumatized by a character’s death as a kid but appreciated it — she wrote back she’d gotten a lot of mails like that!
The Trick Books by Scott Corbett: I don’t know how well these hold up, as the premise is sort of disturbing by today’s standards. Basically, this mischievous kid helps this nice old lady who’s sort of witchy, and she gives him a “Feats O’Magic Chemistry Set,” and he winds up, often inadvertently creating magic potions that help him out or cause chaos. The first one is called THE LEMONADE TRICK, and he mixes up a random formula that makes naughty kids good and good kids mean, and it gets in some lemonade and stuff happens. In the age of Rohypnol, this is kinda not cool.
The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles: This is by Julie Andrews — yes, THAT Julie Andrews — under her married name of Julie Andrews Edwards. It’s about some kids who join up with an old professor to journey into a land accessed by imagination to find a rare creature. It has quite a fun, vivid fantasy landscape and would have made a nice film, and encourages kids to use their imaginations to see the world in a different way.
The Polaris Patrol:
As I get down this massive, horrifyingly long list, I realize a good part of my childhood was shaped by my elementary school library not throwing out a wide number of titles dating back to the 1950s and 1960s. One was MUTINY IN THE TIME MACHINE, about some scouts who find, yes, a lost time machine, and use it to have adventures, even recruiting into their number a hairless kid from the future and a Spartan. Google turns up that the original stories are on Google Books for free:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Time_Machine_series
William Pene du Bois
— he did the excellent Newberry winner THE TWENTY-ONE BALLOONS, which I’m surprised hasn’t been turned into a lousy CGI cartoon yet, and there were several others he wrote that were in my school library,. PETER GRAVES (no relation to the actor) is about a kid who meets an inventor with an anti-gravity substance, and PORKO VON POPBUTTON is about an obese kid sent to boarding school who becomes the goalie for the hockey team. More on his various books on Wikipedia
PETER GRAVES also has one of my favorite throwaway lines, describing the title character:
“His teachers described him as ‘intelligent…quick-thinking…most able…terribly lazy!’ His friends could find little wrong with him.”
All right, I’ve written enough. If this has unearthed any repressed memories for you or has inspired you to look something up you missed, please let me know. Also, if you wrote any of these. That always makes me happy.