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?