Friday, August 6, 2010

First Friday Favorite Authors: Lloyd Alexander

From the NY Times
E.P. Dutton about 1971
The first author I ever met was Lloyd Alexander.

He was everything a kid would want in an author.  Alexander was very suave; cool without being aloof; very friendly; adult yet very interested in what those of us still in our first decade in life had to say about his books and books in general.

He was also one of the people who inspired me to become a writer.

Back in the late 60s I was part of what I now realize was a very special group.  The absolutely wonderful and fabulous Birdie Law (winner of the ALA's 1981 Allie Beth Martin Award--only the third winner at the time), Head Children's Librarian at the Oxon Hill Library had, a few years before, started a book discussion group called CRABs, or Children Raving About Books.  It was there, every Friday afternoon, that my friends and I found other misfits like ourselves who really, really liked books.  We loved reading them and we loved talking about them.

The first generation of CRABs (just a few years older than we were) had all read Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain.  (Alexander won the Newberry award for the sixth and final book in the series, The High King)  That group of kids wrote a group letter to Alexander, expressing their appreciation for the books and his writing.  They were stunned several months later when he wrote back saying he was going to be in the DC area and wondered if they would mind if he stopped by for a visit.

This was a very active, performance-oriented group of kids.  In true Andy Hardy "Let's Put On a Show!" spirit, those first CRABs put together a play based on Lloyd Alexander's characters and performed it for him during his visit.

Those kids who put on the play were given the title of Royal Prydainians.  It was a very big deal.

They alone were the only ones allowed to sit in the chair Lloyd Alexander himself had sat in during his meeting with the CRABs.  They alone were the elite of the CRABs.  Forget about being older--they had been blessed by Lloyd Alexander himself.

The last time Lloyd Alexander visited the CRABs it was understood that a new play was going to be written by the CRABs playwright (Stephen Hayes) and that the older kids (who were already Royal Prydainians) were going to perform in it.  I had only read one of his books, Time Cat, and somehow (thank you, Mrs. Law) I was asked to play the part of Jason, the human character in Time Cat, in the play.

That makes me the last person inducted as a Royal Prydainian.

So, what does all of this have to do with Alexander as a writer?

If winning the Newbery Medal, the National Book Award (multiple times), the School Library Journal Best Book of the Year, and being a founder of Cricket Magazine isn't enough, if writing engaging, fun and adventurous fiction for boys and girls isn't enough, then it's simply this:

Lloyd Alexander made a heavy-set, awkward misfit of a kid feel special.  He made me feel that life could and would be better.  And even if he never said it, he made me understand that if he could write and get published, so could I.

Thanks, Mr. Alexander.  Thanks, Mrs. Law.

-- Tom


  1. Hey! The guy in that photo sure looks familiar -- he could be the bard on horseback depicted on an old flyer in my collection.

    I bet that night was tape-recorded. You don't suppose the library would have kept that tape all these years, do you? Nahh...

  2. You're thinking of Fflewddur Fflam, the harpist, who bore more than a slight resemblance to the author.

    The image came from the stand-alone story of how Fflewddur came by his harp, called "The Truthful Harp." (Illustrations by Evaline Ness)

    (See: since Blogger doesn't allow for IMG tags in comments)

    Has Charlie read any of the Prydain books?

    -- Tom

  3. I hadn't seen "The Truthful Harp" book before. I read the story in a paperback copy of "The Foundling and Other Stories", with different illustrations. Evaline Ness, wife of G-Man Eliot Ness, amazingly enough.

    Charlie hasn't read any of the Prydain books yet, except for some of the "Foundling" stories I read to him. He was looking at a Vesper Holly book the other day, but I don't think he kept at it. He went to bed with a Danny Dunn tonight.

  4. Where have you found Danny Dunn books? I've looked for them but haven't been able to find any!

    -- Tom

  5. Used book stores, library book sales, Salvation Army stores, the usual places. Amazon's used book sellers seem to have a decent selection of Danny Dunns, even if you avoid the ones that ask for outrageous prices. My town library holds none anymore, but I can get them through our library network (I counted 12 different titles just now).

    I used to believe that once a library had a book, it would keep it forever. But no, libraries run out of space too, and they have to cull their old and unread books. I'm thankful for (A) library networks and (B) Amazon and the Internet for keeping these old books available.

    And (C), my parents' attic.

  6. The University campus where I work has a really good collection of books on writing and publishing. They're well-connected with the Inter-Library Loan network, and that has made getting several well-reviewed titles into my hands. As long as I'm willing to wait a few weeks, the titles eventually make their way to me.

    There's a more-recent title called, "The Homework Machine" that I was *very* disappointed was not the Danny Dunn title. (That was the first of the series that I'd read) I would really like to read them again. Out of curiosity, do they still hold up after all these years? And does Charlie like them?

    Libraries weed out collections on a somewhat regular basis. Our local library system does so on an annual basis, based (I believe) on whether a title has been checked out in the last 12 months. The downside to this is that books can disappear far too quickly from the library shelves. The upside is that once a year the local public library holds a three-day weekend sale (usually in an abandoned factory or grocery store) to get rid of these books and make some extra money.

    (The second day is, I believe, all hardbacks = $1.00; paperbacks = .50¢ We usually walk out with armfuls of books)

    I still have a stack of Three Investigators and all of my Brains Bentons. I wonder why I never had a collection of Danny Dunns?

    -- Tom

  7. I know why: our libraries didn't carry Three Investigators and Brains Benton and Hardy Boys. We had to buy these lowbrow books ourselves (or borrow from friends) in order to read them at all. Danny Dunns were easily available in the library. I never bought a single Danny Dunn until I was 30.

    Does it hold up? Well, I reread "DD and the Homework Machine" a year or two ago and, no, it didn't impress me. The "homework machine" itself was incredibly dated; I think it spit out answers on punch cards. I would rank it somewhere above a Hardy Boys book but below Encyclopedia Brown, giving points for plot, characterization, and humor. Charlie just read "Danny Dunn, Scientific Detective" and announced it "pretty good", for what that's worth.

    I'll tell you, though, "Stuart Little", "The Moffats", and "Homer Price" are three books that are as pleasurable for me to read today as they were way back when.

    As is "The Mad Scientists' Club". I think it's time for Charlie to read "The Mad Scientists' Club". I'll leave it out where he can find it. Right next to "The Book of Three".

  8. I'd have to do some additional research here, but I suspect that Brains Benton was published only in cheap cloth editions and not with Library Bindings. (hardbacks sold to libraries have a special binding that makes them more resilient than the hb copies you or I would buy from our local bookstore. we might read a book two or three times; a library edition will be read 10-20+ times and needs to be sturdier)

    Back when we first moved down to NC we were spending a lot of time in the local library -- our regular Saturday routine was to go to the library and each come home with a stack of books for the week. It was a great education for me in more recent picture books (this was less than a year before I was to become an elementary school librarian). At the same time, I started re-reading a number of books from my childhood including the Henry Reed series. I was happy that they held up pretty well.

    I have an old library copy of The Moffats" which I read a few years ago. I was worried that the turn of the century setting might not hold up well but I was wrong. I ended up reading several others in the Moffats series and thought they all held up well.

    (As did Homer Price and Centerberg Tales)

    You must have read my mind about the Mad Scientists Club & Charlie.

    -- Tom