Those Underappreciated Backlist Gems

Alison Morris - January 14, 2009

Connie Rockman posted an interesting comment on my "WHEN?" post last week that went as follows: "My all-time favorite is one of Jim Murphy’s lesser-known but most fascinating titles – Across America on an Emigrant Train [Clarion Books, 1993]. Also a ‘who’ book because it’s based on the diaries of Robert Louis Stevenson about his journey to visit his lady-love in California, but he paints a very realistic picture of our country in 1879. The hazards of air travel today pale by comparison to the hazards of rail travel in the 19th century. A great read."

I was struck by the similarity  between Connie’s statement and an experience I frequently have in our store when a customer asks me to recommend a non-fiction book for an adult. Almost invariably this non-fiction fan mentions having enjoyed The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. When I ask if they’ve read any of Larson’s other books, about 80% of them say they’ve read Thunderstruck, but only about 2% of them have read Isaac’s Storm, which I think (and I know others who agree) is his best book.

Reading Connie’s remarks got me thinking about all the authors who reach the spotlight with the publication of one book, when there’s a gem (or several) in their backlist that are continually overlooked. Sara Pennypacker has deservedly reached the spotlight of late for her Clementine series, but my favorite pieces of her writing are the wildly entertaining Stuart’s Cape (which I was devastated to learn is now out of print!) and Stuart Goes to School. Apart from needing to be reissued with much bigger print (MUCH bigger print!!) and a thicker spine, I see no reason why these books shouldn’t have benefited from the recent uptick in Pennypacker passion, but their current lack of widespread availablity certainly suggests they have not. Hmmmm.

Think about the times you’ve said to someone, "If you think THAT book by so-and-so-who-just-hit-the-big-time is good, you should go back and read THIS book." Now would you please take a moment to champion those backlist gems here? I know some of you have been DYING to announce to the world that YOU knew so-and-so was going to hit the big time when you first read their book _______, even though no one else appeared to be aware of it. This is your chance to say "I loved them when" or (possibly better) "I told you so."

10 thoughts on “Those Underappreciated Backlist Gems

  1. Ellen

    Philip Pullman is of course widely known for His Dark Materials, and rightly so. But back in the late 80s I remember discovering his Sally Lockhart books and thinking, MAN, this guy can tell a story! For a long time he wasn’t very well known over here, so every time I went to London I’d discover and buy another Pullman book I hadn’t read. It was like a treasure hunt! Those days are over, sadly, but for a long time it felt like he was writing books only for ME to discover. (And happily, now those books have been reissued, so that a new generation can discover them!)

  2. Monica Edinger

    Actually, I think Pullman is a good one still today as he is mainly known here for HDM. I am quite a fan of his fairy tales (e.g. I Was a Rat!, Clockwork, and The Scarecrow and His Servant). I also love the graphic novelish Spring-heeled Jack.

  3. lucia monfried

    I actually think Phillip Pullman is an example of something else: Who would have ever thought from an early book, that he would get to that masterpiece? I loved his Victorian penny dreadfuls from early in his career. (I think Ruby in the Smoke was his first book to be published in America, but I may be wrong.) As a fan of Louisa May Alcott, they were a natural for me. But I don’t think very many people recognized how truly great he would become. Today there is a much shorter window of time for authors to prove themselves before publishers find it impossible to support them as they grow as writers.

  4. Carin

    Personally, my favorite Judy Blume has always been Ellen Tebbits. And if I can tout an adult author, my favorite Pat Conroy is The Water is Wide. For teens, Daniel’s Handler’s The Basic Eight is brilliant, and I think superior to Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events.


    Our customers – particularly bookclubs – freaked out over David Mitchell’s third books, “Cloud Atlas.” I’d been screaming his praises since his first book, “Ghostwritten,” four years earlier. And in the dubious department, I’d been lauding “A Million Little Pieces” since reading an ARC over 2 years before it got Oprahfied. That, I’ve stopped praising.


    I will be forever grateful that I read an interview of Dave Eggers this year where he cited Walter Wangerin’s, “Book of the Dun Cow” as his favorite young adult read. Well I read it and it is one of my best reading experiences this year. A retelling of the Aesop’s Fable Chauntecleer and the Fox, it’s both epic and personal and every page propels you forward. I just couldn’t put it down. I recommend this for Watership Down fans, Tolkien….. a great good vs. evil read… This book is for the faithful, for the believers in hope, in the possibility of good in us all. There was something almost painfully sweet about the depth this story goes and how it will sound in your heart…..the fate of the world, played out in a barnyard.

  7. Susan

    Jean Merrill is generally best known for The Pushcart War, but it was The Toothpase Millionaire that won my heart. The prolific Richard Peck’s Long Way From Chicago and A Year Down Yonder are his bestsellers, but A River Between Us is a gem that shouldn’t be missed by child or adult


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