In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Quirky and out of print

Dear Aunt Debbie,

While I'm always excited to find new books, some of the ones I've most enjoyed reading to Eleanor are books I remembered faintly from childhood, and then got to rediscover. I'm not talking about the well-known classics here, the Margaret Wise Browns and Maurice Sendaks. No, these are strange, quirky books that no one I know outside my family has ever heard of, which came to mind suddenly and then had to be searched for, because of course they're out of print.

After waiting several weeks, one such gem arrived on the hold shelf of my local library yesterday: Tell Me A Mitzi. Lore Segal's book, memorably illustrated by Harriet Pincus , contains three stories: "Mitzi Takes a Taxi," "Mitzi Sneezes," and "Mitzi and the President." Each is introduced by a brief conversation between a girl named Martha and her mother or father, in which Martha asks them to "Tell me a Mitzi." In each story, Mitzi and her little brother Jacob have a low-level adventure, based in reality and involving a lot of step-by-step detail:

So Mitzi got Jacob's bottle, carried it into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator and took out a carton of milk and opened it and took the top off Jacob's bottle and poured in the milk and put the top back on and closed the carton and put it back in the refrigerator and closed the door and carried the bottle into the children's room and gave it to Jacob and said, "Let's go."

Why do I find this kind of writing so pleasing? Part of it, I think, is because this is the way toddlers think; going through an action in such detail makes total sense to them. As a parent who has been asked to make up a lot of stories lately, I also recognize a narrative trick I've employed to make the story a little longer while you're figuring out what's going to happen next.

This is such a New York book, with its street scenes and taxis; such a 1970's book, with its patterned clothes, and Pincus's drawings are solid and joyful and a little strange. (The IndieBound site has no image of the cover, but the wonderful blog Vintage Kids' Books My Kid Loves has a few images to give you a sense.) It taps into something deep in my childhood experience (in New York, in the 1970's -- and get this: Mitzi's grandparents live one door down from Grandma and Grandpa's house), but, as you wrote about Countdown yesterday, you don't need to have had that experience to love it. At Eleanor's request, we've read it aloud four times already since yesterday afternoon.

Love, Annie


  1. I think your mother gave us Tell Me a Mitzi. Seven years after Mitzi, Lore Segal wrote Tell Me a Trudy, illustrated by Rosemary Wells. Same idea completely, really delightful. And although Wells' illustrations are definitely different, they preserve that rumpled feel. I remember a great sequence of pictures of the father trying unsuccessfully to open a folding stroller. And there's a story of Trudy's little brother being scared of the bad guys in the bathroom, so Trudy summons Superman to come get rid of them. He approaches the bathroom cautiously, wrestles with a bathrobe on the back of the door, and staggers out saying it's all taken care of.

  2. Love Rosemary Wells! Our favorites are Noisy Nora (mentioned elsewhere on this blog, I think), the Yoko books (my favorite so far is Yoko's Paper Cranes) and the McDuff books (set in the 50s, maybe?).