Ruth Chew, Scott Corbett, and the Case of the Missing Younger MG Books

Elizabeth Bluemle -- March 15th, 2012

When I was seven, eight, nine years old, the world was full of novels meant for readers my age. These books were longer than the adorable Mercy Watson series by Kate DiCamillo, perhaps a little longer than Mary Pope Osborne’s Magic Tree House books, but they had lightness and child appeal and there were endless numbers of them filling my Weekly Reader book orders. It seems to me that, as a bookseller, I’m often trying to find books like those. No, actually, I’m trying to find those particular books.

I’m thinking here of the Scott Corbett Trick series (gosh, I loved those!), the Ruth Chew magic books (ditto!), the Mrs. Coverlet titles by Mary Nash (with great characters, including older brother Malcolm with his “overactive conscience”), loads of stand-alone titles like Ruth Carlsen’s Mr. Pudgins (one of the all-time great books in the history of child-appealing younger middle-grade fiction), The Case of the Marble Monster and Other Stories by I.G. Edmonds (this one is fantastic for school and library use), The Moonball by Ursula Moray Williams, Professor Diggins’ Dragons (hello, Lisa Dugan) by Felice Holman, Ramshackle Roost by Jane Flory, and on and on and on.

As a school librarian in the early 1990s, I often wished for a set of the Ruth Chews and Scott Corbetts. The Lemonade Trick lasted the longest in print, but even it finally succumbed to the pressures of the mid-list. Publishers have tried to bring back some of these gems; Hyperion did a wonderful but I suspect financially unviable trial run bringing back “Lost Treasures,” which included the Mrs. Coverlet books and other books I had loved as a kid (The Teddy Bear Habit by James Lincoln Collier, which I read several times, though it’s for an older crowd, 10- and 11-year-olds). I think the problem with these reissues from a marketing standpoint is that they don’t get the publicity dollars of a sexy new title, so no one really knows they’re available again, and they die on the vine without ever getting the kind of big push that might ignite popularity with a whole new generation. It’s also possible that some of these books are dated in ways that are problematic and would need to be dealt with somehow, as happened with the Dr. Dolittle books and continues to be an issue with the Little House titles.

I also wish there were a way to publish lighter, shorter books for tweens. I remember absolutely loving Jean van Leeuwen’s I Was a 98-Lb. Duckling, which I read times several at age 11 or 12. Despite its brevity, it was a great friendship and budding-romance story, and it happened to be hilarious. A strong reader, I loved thick books that promised to never end, but man, was it also fun to dip in for a quick afternoon read. But I digress.

So, how about these young transitional MG books? As I think about it, it’s not so much that we have fewer of these kinds of books around. In fact, in the past six or seven years, I’d say the field is better off than it had been for many years. Perhaps it’s that the books I miss had a sparkle to them, a freshness. They lay somewhere between some of the more recent formulaic series that lack those qualities (I am not pointing to the Magic Tree House here, which kids loooove; we booksellers are very grateful for and appreciative of this series), and longer, often more serious, books that are a step too difficult for most typical seven- or eight-year-olds. I’d like to see more brief, sprightly, wonderfully written, delightful, funny stories for this age. Dick King-Smith has loads of them, but even many of those are starting to vanish into OP land.

Publishers, why DO these excellent series drop off and go OP indefinitely? Could you see bringing one or more of these backlist titles back into print and promoting them with activity kits and posters? If there are no new advances to be paid, could that money not go toward some creative publicity?

Teachers and booksellers and librarians, which transitional chapter books (young middle grade books) would you most like to see back in print?

29 thoughts on “Ruth Chew, Scott Corbett, and the Case of the Missing Younger MG Books

  1. Suzi

    Ruth Chew! I loved all of her books. There was one with buttons that fueled my life-long obsessions with buttons, old old buttons. And so much fun time travel. And stand-alones. It seems like when kids ask for books, they only ask for books that are in a series.

    (Children’s librarian)

  2. Erin Murphy

    I think the Hilary McKay Casson Family books fit in this category, don’t they? I wish they got a lot more attention. I grabbed the galley for CADDY’S WORLD at Midwinter and felt like leaving the show to sit outside and read it right then and there; it takes me straight back to the utter joy of reading as an eight-year-old.

    The Nathaniel Fludd books by R.L. LaFevers that I represent also might appeal to the same readership as many of the books named above.

    1. Elizabeth Bluemle

      Erin, I LOVE the Casson family books, but think of those as for 9-12 instead of 7-9. The Nathaniel Fludd books are perfect for that group, though, absolutely!

  3. Deborah Underwood

    What a great post! I loved Mrs. Coverlet (esp. MRS. COVERLET’S MAGICIANS, which I still try to read every Christmas), and it was so nice to see that familiar MARBLE MONSTER cover again. CATHIE RUNS WILD by Elinor Lyon was another favorite, but I’ve never run into anyone else who knows it.

  4. Alison

    A couple of series not yet mentioned: the Miss Pickerell series and the Mushroom Planet series (Eleanor Cameron.) Johanna Hurwitz has some books that might work here too.

    1. Elizabeth Bluemle

      Yes! The Miss Pickerells were great. The first Mushroom Planet has been in print all along, and still is, but it would be fantastic to get the rest of the series back in print. Hint, hint, Little, Brown!

  5. Eric Luper

    I navigated this time with Daniel Pinkwater and Roald Dahl books, Encyclopedia Brown and comic books. And none of them really hit that perfect spot. The picking are slim these days, too…

  6. Jessica Leader

    Ruth Chew! My dearest bedside companion in first grade! I loved those witch books, and I agree, I can’t think of anything like them now–short, breezy, adventurous, and not too character-driven.

    Also, although I haven’t read one in years, I would venture to say that editorially, they were relatively free of adult meddling. Girls left their houses in the middle of the night and went on broomsticking adventures with master-witches (mistress witches?), and there were no overtones of, “But don’t try this your own self, reader!” The witches were crabby, too, and not cute, the way I think many of the Magic Treehouse characters are. Oh, for that unrepentant risk and adventure! (I wish I could write something like this–I will think about doing it!)

  7. Allison

    Mr. Pudgins was one of my all-time favorite books growing up!! I’ve tried to describe it to customers but something about “it was about an older male babysitter and his magical pipe…” doesn’t come out quite right. I remember more about that book — the dodo bird, the Model T, the soda coming from the tap, the magical Christmas Balls — than I do about a lot of contemporary kid’s fiction I’ve read. Amazing the impressions books can make on us when we are at that stage!

  8. Greg Holch

    Many of these look like books from the Scholastic Book Clubs. Scholastic has been making books available to young readers in schools since 1949 when TAB (the Teen Age Book club) was launched. TAB was quickly followed by the Arrow Book Club (for readers in 4-6th grade), the Lucky Book Club (for readers in grades 2-3) and others. Scholastic also publishes about 30 classroom magazines, but the Weekly Reader is not one of them. Many people do get the two companies confused. (For full disclosure: I ran the TAB Book Club for several years, but I am now a recent graduate of library school.) One final note: don’t forget Helen Fuller Orton’s mystery book series or the many series by Enid Blyton.

    1. Jan Carr

      The Ruth Chew books were definitely Scholastic, published by Lucky Book Club. When I worked with Eva Moore, Lucky Book Club editor, in the 1980s, Ruth Chew was one of her authors. I remember proofreading the blues! Those books were indeed very kid-friendly. That cover art brings me back!

    2. Elizabeth Bluemle

      Greg, I’ll bet you’re right. I remember the Weekly Reader order forms, but it’s very possible and likely that we also ordered from the Arrow Book Club. This was back in the early to mid-70s. It’s funny; as a bookseller I’m very conflicted about these book clubs (only because some books in paperback on those order forms aren’t yet in paperback to the trade, and that alienates and confuses my customers; this happened with one of my own books, and it was extremely bizarre not to be able to sell my book to my customers at my store in paperback when they could order it a block away at school). But as someone who LOVED these books that came in like birthday presents and were affordable for almost every family, I appreciate them.

  9. Diana Sharp

    I loved seeing my favorite Weekly Reader authors mentioned here! Another favorite was Ruth Christoffer Carlsen (Hildy and the Cuckoo Clock, Ride a Wild Horse). Also Jane Louise Currey and her book, Mindy’s Mysterious Miniature.

  10. Tim tocher

    You sited many of the titles I used in my third graders’ “literature” reading program in the 70s and 80s. We even had the charming John Peterson to our Tuxedo, NY school. A drawing of Tom Little graced our hallway for years. I know the Ruth Chew books would be popular today – if they were available.

    Tim Tocher, author of ODD BALL: HILARIOUS, UNUSUAL, AND BIZARRE BASEBALL MOMENTS

  11. David LaRochelle

    I, too, LOVED Scott Corbett’s “trick” series, and when I was in fourth grade, I helped stage a mini-play based on Mr. Pudgins (if I recall correctly, there was a bush in the book that made popcorn and we threw LOTS of popcorn in our skit).
    Speaking of popcorn, another out-of-print middle grade book I would love to see on the shelves again is 100 POUNDS OF POPCORN by Hazel Krantz. I’ve thought about that story many times since I read it (40?) years ago. Realistic kids using their imaginations to find ways to sell popcorn from a big bag that they found.
    Thanks for such a great post!

  12. Joyce ray

    I agree. “…more brief, sprightly, wonderfully written, delightful, funny stories” for young middle-grade readers would be wonderful. I don’t know why the best of the best go out of print. Some of the old favorites have managed to stay in print – the Howe’s Bunnicula series and the Boxcar Children series by Gertrude Chandler Warner. My children loved those titles. Thanks for the list of other favorites in the post and in the replies.

  13. Marshall

    Finding new editions books I adored as a child is one of the reasons I was so happy when Purple House Press first appeared. I snapped up all the Mad Scientists’ Club books (aimed around 10-12) as soon as they became available. I’d love to see PHP or someone similar get the rights to reissue Mr. Pudgins.

    1. Marianne Knowles

      Me too! The Teddy Bear Habit was amazing–a mix of music, mystery, heroes, and villains, all wrapped into a story about growing up. And I’ve always been impressed that the author got the gems correct–sapphires were hidden in the bear, which worked great because diamonds (the easy and obvious choice) would have burned in the furnace along with the bear. (Yeah, I was that nerdy as a kid, that I picked up on that detail.)

  14. Mary Quattlebaum

    Thanks for this thought- and memory-provoking post. I loved The Littles series by John Peterson when I was 7 or 8 and having a chance to examine all the little household things they made stuff out of in the occasional black-and-white illustrations. In fact, I came to The Borrowers after reading this lighter series of the dangers facing and awaiting the tiny in the land of the very large. I think The Littles is still around. Do kids still like to read those books?

    1. Carol B. Chittenden

      The Borrowers movie is bringing a few readers back to it.

      I have been wondering if turning a work of children’s fiction into a movie is so profitable that it creates an irresistible financial vortex. So many new titles almost shout “screenplay,” and “casting call.” But I seem to recall not too many years ago that The Indian in the Cupboard was a complete novelty: a children’s book as a movie?? What a bizarre notion! Makes a children’s bookseller want to laugh — and cry.

  15. Mallory

    I love young middle grade because they also make great read-alouds. The Orphelines were some of my favorite books (I love the oversize trim and Garth Williams art) along with the Ruth Chews and Scott Corbetts.

  16. Jennifer

    YES. It seems like what’s available now hops immediately from beginning chapter books like Magic Tree House to 50 pound fantasy tomes. I have so many 7-10 year olds that are daunted by such thick titles but feel the younger chapter books are “too young” for them. The closest thing I’ve seen to what they want is Gordon Korman’s various adventure series, which he, genius that he is (or his publisher) chopped up into smaller books so kids aren’t so put off by the massiveness.

  17. Jana

    AWESOME post! I have to say that I spent years trying to track down Mr. Pudgins. First off because I wouldn’t remember the title, just that it was about an older male babysitter who could turn the water into soda. I was so excited when I finally found the title and a used copy. Now I have it in my possession. And this article gave me so many others to look into! Maybe with the advent of digital books some of these older titles can come back into print…

    1. Barbara

      I was just thinking of that book. I read it in the 6th grade. It was a wonderful book. In 5th grade, I was really big into Sydney Taylor’s All of a Kind Family Series about a Jewish family at the turn of the century. The only one I missed was Ella of All of a Kind Family. I was lucky enough to get the original when one of my girls was in the 4th grade. My best friend borrowed it for her daughter to read. I loved the Weekly Reader as a kid and still loved it as an adult when my kids brought them home. I spent more time with the sheets than they did. I didn’t keep books from my childhood but have kept some of the picture books I’ve bought for my son, including Peef and Felix the World Traveling Bunny (which I’m glad I did because Felix is out of print now. I have 3 or 4 of that series. Not sure about Peef). I don’t spend as much time looking at picture books as I used to.

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