Something Old, Something New: Reprinting Beyond the “Canon”
It’s that time of year again when Best Of lists start cropping up left and right, front and center. First Publishers Weekly begins the process and then everyone else follows suit. It’s a time of year I enjoy, particularly since I’m desperately trying to figure out what I should be reading before the New Year hits us full force.
There is, of course, a downside to these lists. Often one will find that when you compare them the same names come up over and over and over. The cream rises to the top, to a certain extent, but there is also a tendency in the publishing world to lean on the old reliables. The thinking is that if I know that a certain author or illustrator (or, heck, publishing house) creates consistently good fare, I’m going to be more inclined to read their book during the year, rather than books that fall into that great swath of unknown or debut authors. The end result is that there’s a lot of repetition. Not necessarily a bad thing, but I do notice that some types of books take the hit. Books by diverse authors. Books in translation, in particular too. And then there are the reprints. The books that have no natural place in the world.
Each year the Phoenix Award is granted to books for kids that really weren’t honored properly for their literary merit back when they were first published. It is one of the few awards out there for books not published in the current year. That said, it’s not exactly the best known award out there and it doesn’t really affect book sales.
The fact of the matter is that unless your book is a bestseller, appears on a summer reading list, or is assigned regularly by teachers, more often than not it will forgotten within a couple years of its publication. Then there are those “hidden gems”. The books capable of winning Phoenix Awards, but that languish in their out-of-print status for years. Mostly they remain forgotten but once in a great while they get republished.
The New York Review is one of the few publishing houses out there specializing in reprinting books for children published long ago. This year we’re seeing gorgeous reproductions of books like Leon Garfield’s Shakespeare Stories, illustrated by Michael Foreman (originally published in two parts in 1985 and 1994), The Little Witch by Otfried Preussler (originally published in Germany in 1957, so it is not only a reprint but a foreign language translation – rarest of the rare), and the remarkable New York City-inspired Arthur by Rhoda Levine, illustrated by Everett Aison. The New York Review of Books has been reprinting children’s literature for somewhere around a decade now, and what sets their books apart is that they don’t do the same old “canon”. No Secret Gardens or Alice in Wonderlands are to be found here (though there was, admittedly, a Pinocchio). Instead they dig up all sorts of strange and fancy fare. It’s a difficult line of work since there isn’t a built-in audience for reprints. Boutique bookstores and museum gift shops love them when the packaging is lovely, but aside from that they have difficulty promoting themselves. They can’t really win any awards, and New York Times reviews are few and far between. Yet the world would be a lesser place without them. They find beautiful books and make them live again, if only for a while. There’s great merit to that.
Even books that are considered to be classics can be forgotten too. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is a tricky title from the start. Often lumped in with Huckleberry Finn, it has many of the same problems, but is more often found in the children’s sections of libraries and bookstores. Like a lot of books from the past with out-and-out racist sections, it requires an adult reader to give it historical context. A new edition recently was released by Creative Editions with copious art by C.F. Payne. Indeed, if you were going to have a copy of this book in a children’s room, you would have this edition. The art is lush and the book doesn’t skimp on images. Unlike books like Dr. Doolittle, the edition contains no preface from a contemporary author or reader. But also unlike Doolittle, none of the text has been changed either. It’s an interesting study in historical works for children and what we consider appropriate or inappropriate for young readers. Perhaps we’ve reached an age when most Tom Sawyers are being purchased for YA or adult collections. It’s another conversation entirely to talk about where we place books of Tom’s type. Where are they best suited? We’ve seen a lot of discussions lately about objections to contemporary publications with historical elements. Where do the books that are actually from the past go then? A talk for another post.
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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