Fantastic Find at the Bookstore #5: Prolific Garis Family

One of my favorite activities is visiting used bookshops or resale stores that feature books. Often attracted to vintage publications, I’m typically drawn to those reminding me of something from my youth. I enjoy sharing these “fantastic finds,” hoping to spark a memory for blog readers, as well, or to create a new curiosity that leads down an intriguing avenue. Since I write for both children and adults, I have a vested interest in understanding what pulls people toward certain types of books.

Uncle Wiggily” was a popular board game when I was a young child. I remember having mixed feelings about playing with my family or friends and sometimes felt a bit of nerves during the game. Not sure if those related to some of the unsavory characters along the path of play, like the bad “Skeezicks” and “Pipsisewah,” or maybe I just didn’t want to lose! At the time, I was only vaguely aware of stories written about this rabbit, “Uncle Wiggily Longears.”

Hop forward almost forty years to the middle-aged version of me scanning the shelves at one of my favorite used bookstores in Michigan. There it was…a childhood memory in full color, also in rather tattered shape. It was still quite a steal at $8.00. The book, Uncle Wiggily Goes Camping, was mine! Written by Howard R. Garis, I decided to pursue details about the author.

                                            

Further research revealed that Howard Garis wrote thousands of Uncle Wiggily stories, which appeared in the Newark News for many years and in books; I also learned he wasn’t the only published author in his family. During the early to mid-1900s, he and his wife, Lilian, wrote hundreds of juvenile series chapter books. Some sported their actual names, while others were written under various pseudonyms for the Stratemeyer Syndicate, including Tom Swift books as “Victor Appleton” and the Bobbsey Twins series as “Laura Lee Hope.” As you can imagine, I needed more (books and information)!

                                    

 I purchased the treasure above, from the Melody Lane series by Lilian Garis, in a bookstore while living in North Carolina. It’s a former library edition and found its way south from a county in Pennsylvania. I was thrilled to come across it and love the art deco appeal of the cover. The frontispiece illustration and end papers with the dated library pocket (1946) are amazing.

Lilian and Howard had two children, a son, Roger, and younger daughter, Cleo. As a young man, Roger also wrote series books, such as The Outboard Boys. Cleo penned the Arden Blake Mysteries during that same period. The front of Missing at the Marshlands, shown below, isn’t very interesting without a dust cover, but the end papers are beautiful, and the overall condition is very good. This one was bought in a Minnesota bookshop that housed a wonderful vintage section.

                            

In middle age, Roger wrote a biography entitled, My Father Was Uncle Wiggily. I owned a copy, at one point, but gave it away as a gift, so that’s a stock photo, below. The book was a joy to read and has just the right combination of nostalgic family stories and other interesting tidbits, such as tales about Howard Garis being close friends with their neighbor, the poet, Robert Frost! I remember a few hints at some competition between the Garis elders and children, especially as time passes and incomes fluctuate. Roger also tells about his mother’s disappointment in her unsuccessful quest to move from writing for children to more serious works. Overall, the book is a very positive and enjoyable biography, and I didn’t question or care, particularly, whether every bit is true or written through “rose-colored” glasses. Enter the granddaughter, Leslie.Because of my interest in the Garis writing family, I occasionally do a quick internet search to see what I’ve missed. Around 2007, Roger’s daughter, Leslie, wrote House of Happy Endings: A Memoir, which was reviewed as being the story behind the fairy-tale. She recounts a difficult childhood watching her father’s struggle for success, independent of his parents, while he fought depression and addiction. In later years, Howard and Lilian had come to live with Roger, his wife, and three children. Leslie writes candidly about secretly observing much of the goings-on in the large house while hiding in the dumbwaiter.

The book is raw and difficult to read but feels very honest. It certainly dispels any ideas of a Garis utopian life. Not a happy book, but it does contain a certain feeling of hopefulness in the author’s attempts to understand the dynamics between her grandparents and parents, and to come to terms with some issues that follow her into adulthood and even affect her own child. I’ve never come across this memoir at a bookstore but couldn’t resist taking this post full circle. At the time of reading, I borrowed it through the interlibrary loan system. I’m not sorry to have read it, but the story is quite sad. I hope the author, Leslie Garis, has found a bit of her own happy ending.

Fantastic Find at the Bookstore #3: Mapping the Months

December and January are common months in which to buy a new calendar or to receive one as a gift. I’ve saved several collectible calendars that were given to me over the years, including those bearing wonderful illustrations or photos from Norman Rockwell, Dick and Jane readers, and one of my favorite television shows of all time, Castle. While digging through the sale bin at a bookstore, in 1998, I found an excellent calendar marked 50% off, probably because we were already well into spring, even by Michigan standards. Why would I buy a calendar that late in the year? Besides the price being great, this calendar pictured a style of book that I’d already been collecting for years…the Dell map back!

map backs mine

Map backs (or mapbacks) were published by Dell, beginning around 1943. These paperbacks are often mysteries,  are numbered (over 500), and feature a map on the back that depicts a setting from the book. The three above are several favorites from my own collection. I love the cover of The Circular Staircase and the fact that it carries the price of 25 cents! Death of a Tall Man appeals to me due to the cat and because I’ve enjoyed many episodes of those campy Mr. and Mrs. North mysteries on TV. The middle book shows the map on the back of Through a Glass, Darkly, by Helen McCloy. This is a good example of how the maps sometimes show a small area, like a neighborhood or building, while others picture a larger geographic area, like a city or even country.

I’ve been collecting map backs for decades. My sister first introduced me to these often smelly old mysteries that wear such fun art work, front and back, although it can be a bit lurid, at times. As mentioned in a previous post, I had to part with many of my books when I moved from Michigan to Texas a few years ago. I kept my collection of about 50 map backs, however, and still search for additions to it whenever I visit a used bookstore or antique/collectibles shop. They’re usually quite inexpensive, and their conditions vary, of course. Until the day that I came across this map back calendar, I had never known that such a thing existed. What excitement!

calendar front resized

Each month features the cover of a different book with a smaller inset photo of the map from the back. The map grid page then carries some interesting phrases, such as, “Wouldn’t you like to know what the window cleaner really saw?” from this Hercule Poirot mystery by Agatha Christie.

calendar example 1 001 resized

Another favorite month shows this book, below, by C.W. Grafton. That writer was also a lawyer and father of the late Sue Grafton, author of the wonderful “alphabet mysteries” written about the fictional detective, Kinsey Millhone.

calendar example 2 001 resized

 

 

 

 

 

This last photo shows snapshots of all the months and is taken from the back of the calendar, which was published that year by Universe Publishing and distributed in the U.S. by St. Martins Press. I’ve never seen another one like it, have you? I’d love to read your comments, if you also own some of these books and enjoy “everything map back”!          ~Becky

calendar back 001 resized

Fantastic Find at the Bookstore #2

dick and jane

If you learned to read at school in the U.S., sometime from the 1940’s to the 1960’s, there’s a good chance that you learned with the help of Dick and Jane, their little sister, Sally, and the pets, Puff and Spot. By today’s standards of instructional materials for reading, this basal series was quite dry and some might say boring. I loved those books in my first years of school, mainly because…I WAS READING!

Dick and Jane pages

Fast forward many decades, when I trained to become a teacher and landed my first elementary position in Michigan. Although we still used a basal series in fourth grade, that year, it was packed with “real literature” and was supplemented with sets of award-winning chapter books, in addition. By the time I served as a Chapter I reading teacher in North Carolina and later taught kindergarten back in Michigan, sets of charming leveled books (like “Mrs. Wishy-Washy“) had replaced all basals. Reading instruction methods, assessment, and progress tracking had been fine-tuned, as well.

During my years of teaching and even after I retired, collecting vintage children’s readers was a hobby that I enjoyed immensely. Many of those 30+ books were the Dick and Jane variety, while some featured other children, pets, and retold folk literature. I had a few favorites, like the cover that’s pictured above, which I can actually remember from childhood. I had read an article, once, that revealed the Dick and Jane characters originally were a part of other collections before they appeared in their “own series”. These early books were known to be quite the collectors’ items and sometimes brought hundreds of dollars. I stored this information in the back of my mind, but didn’t really remember the details.

One day, as fate would have it, I was looking through shelves of used books in a little shop near St. Louis, Michigan. I picked up an old school reader that was in pretty rough shape. My heart started beating a little faster, since the Elson-Gray name on the scarred cover rang a bell. I leafed through the book, being careful not to tear the somewhat brittle pages any more than they already were…Billy and Nancy, Alice and Ned, DICK AND JANE!!!

pages inside oldest Dick and Jane

I tried not to be too overjoyed, since I couldn’t tell if the price penciled near the front of the book said $2.00 or $200. Yes, I really wanted that 1936 edition, but it wasn’t in great shape, and I’ve never spent that much money on a book in my life. Holding my breath, I walked up to the counter. Luck was with me that day, and I still have the receipt for $2.12, with tax.

When I moved from Michigan to Texas a few years ago, I was forced to dramatically cut back on the books that I would pay to ship, since I had collected many different types, over the years. As an end result, I saved just five of my children’s readers, including three regular Dick and Jane books and this very special precursor of what they would later become. I’ll treasure it forever, along with the memory of that day.

oldest Dick and Jane

I’d love to hear from you in comments if you learned to read with Dick and Jane, or if you would just like to share a memory about learning to read!