Kids' Books That Never Grow Old
Tuesday, December 19, 2006
NEW YORK -- How many of us, at the end of our working days, will be able to say with certainty that something we did made the world a better place?
Edwin Frank is one of the lucky few. He brought Alastair Roderic Craigellachie Dalhousie Gowan Donnybristle MacMac back to life.
Frank is the editor who oversees the New York Review Children's Collection, a modest publishing venture that reissues eight or 10 out-of-print books a year. Right now he's sitting in a no-frills conference room at the midtown Manhattan office of its literary parent, the New York Review of Books, showing off some of the titles he's had a hand in reviving.
Here are Lucretia Hale's "The Peterkin Papers" and E. Nesbit's "The House of Arden." Here are "Jenny and the Cat Club," "The Island of Horses," "D'Aulaires' Book of Trolls." And here's the one about young Alastair -- or "Wee Gillis," as the kilt-wearing lad is known to friends and family who find his real name too exhausting to deal with.
Not coincidentally, it's a book Frank loved as a child. "I had my father's copy," he says, "because my father's mother was Scottish and had come over on the boat."
First published in 1938, "Wee Gillis" is a collaboration between Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson, the author-illustrator team who created Ferdinand the pacifist bull. Its protagonist is a boy born of a mixed marriage, Scottish style. The plot turns on the culture clash between his mother's Lowland relations and his father's family in the Highlands. A bagpipe is involved.
We're not talking Harry Potter sales here, of course, but then again, there's no need to lay out Harry Potter money in advances. Reprint rights come cheaply enough, Frank says, for the New York Review to make money on reissues that sell as few as 5,000 copies.
And whatever the numbers, the books' reappearance makes booksellers and buyers happy -- reversing, in a tiny but symbolic way, the odious publishing trend toward keeping books in print for shorter and shorter periods of time.
A customer comes in asking for an out-of-print book "at least once a day, if not more often," says Dinah Paul, proprietor of the Alexandria children's bookstore A Likely Story. Paul's store does well with the New York Review collection, but she thinks the market could stand far more of the same. After all, "we all have favorites from our childhood."
"Bless their little hearts," says Brookline, Mass., children's bookseller Terri Schmitz, when told that the Review intends to keep its reissues in print indefinitely. "That's unusual in this day and age."
Schmitz recently featured "Wee Gillis" in her column on reissues for the Horn Book Magazine. She says the New York Review's choices can be "eclectic" (translation: She thinks Norman Lindsay's "The Magic Pudding" is "the strangest book you'll ever read"). But she praises a string of other "terrific" titles in the series, including Rumer Godden's "Episode of Sparrows" and Eleanor Farjeon's "The Little Bookroom."
Publishers sometimes bring back their own out-of-print titles, of course, and others will buy rights to the occasional orphaned book. "My approach is, these books are just too good to be out of print," says Stephen Roxburgh of Front Street, an imprint of Boyds Mill Press, who recently reissued "The Mark of the Horse Lord" by historical novelist Rosemary Sutcliff.