For about 18 years now, I have been bemoaning the out-of-print status of Ruth Chew’s wonderful young chapter books about magic. When I was a school librarian, we had a well-worn set of the paperbacks, read to tatters by the second- and third-graders. This was pre-Internet bookstores, so I used to scour library sales for copies to snatch up. When we opened the Flying Pig, I kept wishing I could hand them to seven-, eight- and nine-year-old readers and their teachers. I blogged about the need for those wonderful transitional chapter books in a post called Ruth Chew, Scott Corbett, and the Case of the Missing Younger MG Books.
So you can imagine how delighted I was when I learned that they would at last be coming back into print. Random House will be bringing out the first two reprints, What the Witch Left and No Such Thing as a Witch, this fall. I caught up with Random House v-p and publishing director Mallory Loehr recently, for a conversation about her decision to bring back this much-loved series.
Elizabeth Bluemle for ShelfTalker: I’m very excited about the Ruth Chew books coming back out. How did that project come about?
Mallory Loehr: I’m going to tell you a couple of different things. One is that I’ve been the Magic Tree House editor for my whole career, and when I first started working with Mary Pope Osborne on these, and it was her first time writing a young chapter book, I said, ‘You have to read the Ruth Chews, because that will tell you what second graders are reading. You don’t have to have subplots, you don’t have to have anything complicated, really, at all. Go straight forward and just keep telling your story.’
I was obviously a big Ruth Chew reader. I read them all, I got them all from Scholastic. Then this past year—I have a second-grader. Last year, when he was a first-grader, I was looking for things for him to read, and obviously we had The Magic Tree House and all these wonderful books we have here, but I also have a child who’s scared of, like, everything, you know, so kind of going retro really works because I think some newer books have a lot of scary things in them. So going very direct works — Mrs Piggle-Wiggle! Pretty direct.
So I went and actually hunted. I had some Ruth Chews in my library that were tattered and falling apart, but I ended up ordering a whole bunch on eBay and reading a lot of them out loud last year with a six-year-old and a four-year-old, and thought, These are just as wonderful today, many of them, especially many of the early ones, and your second grader still isn’t asking for anything more. And these are very different, obviously, from Magic Tree House. There are some that are time travel, but most of them are that immediate, everyday magic.
So I actually started hunting around online and I found a website that said we now have an agent for this. And I want to say your blog came right on the heels of that. And the agent, Gail Fortune, is also a huge Ruth Chew fan. She said, “I don’t actually do very many kids’ books, but these were books that I just loved.” She actually found them, also. So these are all people that are out there looking for Ruth Chew. I contacted the agent and said, “Please send!” and she was just about to send them out, so she sent them to me. The agent had also gone and found the estate and all of Ruth Chew’s children.
We got the rights to all the books, every single one, and then they found an extra one. We are committing to printing ten of them. And all the others we got for e-books, because I feel like it will be parents who read them who will look for them, but I feel like for a kid who goes bonkers over them, you want to have all of them available. And we may end up doing all of them in print, as well.
And I have to tell you that the family had almost all of the original art! I was going out to the west coast and I called the oldest daughter, who is the keeper of the archives, and she took me through enormous amounts of artwork. Ruth Chew had lived in Brooklyn, I want to say on Church Avenue, in Prospect Heights, for almost her entire life. She had the original acceptance letter from Scholastic, she had the rejection letters from everybody…. I kept saying, I want to mount an exhibit of all of her stuff. Somebody should coordinate something with the Brooklyn Museum of Art. I could just see them having all of these pieces, and the whole history of it. And because so many of the books are set there. And of course at the time I lived in Park Slope. When I re-read the books when I was working with Mary, I was, like, ‘Wow! I didn’t even remember this and we now live in the place where these books are set.’
So I went hunting for them. The agent had found them and was putting together a whole thing and was sending them out to publishers and I remember not wanting to dilly dally. I thought, Someone needs to do all of them; you need to commit or not commit.
I emailed the family through the Ruth Chew website. Back on January 26, 2012, I sent an email through the website where I said I had just emailed Gail Fortune to ask for these rights. I had loved these books as a child and now am reading them to my own kids and think there’s a real opportunity to bring these back into print and as electronic books. I currently live in Brooklyn and am fond of the fact that they are set in my neighborhood.
EB: How did you decide which ten to publish, and which two to publish first?
ML: I had to say it’s actually a struggle because there are so many of them. And initially we were thinking to pub in the summer of 2013 and we had different titles that went with summer. And then we realized she has the witch titles, and that seemed so perfect for Halloween, to launch with her best witch titles. So we decided we had to take up that opportunity.
EB: And you’re doing The Witch’s Buttons, right? I remember loving that one as a little girl. Because they come to life, don’t they, the little buttons?
ML: Yes, I was going to say that the other thing we’re going to try to do, and it may not work every time, is that we’re going to try to use the basic — we’re going to get a new cover artist, but I want the covers to somehow remind you of those original covers. So I think we’re going to use a design that’s very similar whenever we can.
EB: Oh, nice, because I loved that cover. And I really did love Magic in the Park. Those were the two stories I remember best. I’m not sure I read What the Witch Left back then, because now having read the PDF you sent, I know would have loved that as a kid!
ML: It was the book clubs. Mostly the libraries didn’t even have them.
EB: I guess that’s true. I used to be the school librarian at City & Country in the West Village, and they had a great collection of them in the early 90s when I was there. I remember even then wishing the Ruth Chews were still in print, because they were paperbacks, and in tatters. Were they ever in hardcover?
ML: Some of them were, because I got some of them in hardcover. But it was really inconsistent. It wasn’t like you could go find them in a bookstore. I may be wrong here, but some of them may have been available in hardcover only in library editions. I want to say two of them were jacketed hardcovers, though.
EB: Are you doing simultaneous hardcovers and paperbacks, or just paperbacks?
ML: We may have to end up canceling the hardcovers if we don’t think we’re going to get enough out there. I like the idea of having both because I feel like there are some people who will be collectors who would love to have these. There will be library editions no matter what, but to do a jacketed hardcover would be really nice, and I’d love to do a printed case with the original art.
EB: I love that!
ML: Yes. So we’ll see. I’m shooting for it. If we do a hardcover, it will have that collector feel. Those are book-people details. You can see them saying, “I love this! Oh my gosh! Look, there’s the original cover right there, hidden underneath!” I want to just say they’re a labor of love — except that I also really think we’ll be able to reach a new audience with them.
EB: When I was re-reading them, I was struck by how simple and direct and plain the writing style is, and amused by how old-fashioned they were. They felt old-fashioned even when I was a little girl, and I loved that about them. I think kids love an old-fashionedy feel, often.
ML: Especially little kids, that first- and second-grader….
EB: There’s something very cozy about that. It’s funny; the writing is very very plain, and you’re right, there are no subplots; it’s very linear. And yet, they are so compelling to that age.
ML: Right. And there are ones that as an adult, you think, it’s not wildly exciting all the way, but somehow it really really works. Some of it is because of what kids’ brains are doing at this age, and what their own imaginations are doing.
EB: And we have to remember these are new ideas to those young brains. So the idea that you could be underground and maybe get trapped in the park underneath the tree — that was — I tell you, I read that book so many times. I was haunted in this really amazing way, just haunted by that Magic in the Park story. And I can’t really quite tell you why. And just the simple fact of the witch’s buttons coming to life [in the eponymous book], there’s something like Edward Eager’s Half Magic, simple everyday magic like you say, but even that is a fresh new idea to a little kid.
ML: And also really does put that everyday magic — almost more than anything else I’ve read — at kids’ fingertips, because it’s even more basic than the Edward Eagers. For those kids who do like Magic Tree House, who do like The A-to-Z Mysteries, it just is another — when they get into that stage where all of a sudden they’re reading a book a day.
EB: You know what else I think your son might love, that I wish you would also reprint, are the Scott Corbett Trick books. The Lemonade Trick is still in print, I think, but the whole series was so good!
ML: I’ve actually been reading one of them, too. I know, that was in your blog, as well.
EB: Yes, that blog post was all about ‘where are those books?’ Why have all the old ones disappeared? It’s not as though they lost their appeal. It’s one thing when a book sort of outlives its usefulness or appeal or charm, but those books and the Ruth Chews were perennial favorites when I was a school librarian, and it didn’t make sense that they’d gone out of print.
Now, I do have to ask, were there some revisions you did need to make in order to bring the books back into line with contemporary cultural understanding?
ML: Well, the ones that we feel like might need a little bit more stuff are the ones that we’re going to publish later on, or they may be the ones in the e-books. But we definitely, I want to say there’s one where they go to the Native American village and it’s at night, there’s something… We haven’t figured out what to do with it yet, but there are definitely some that we feel will need that.
EB: How many editors are working on the books? What is that process like?
ML: I worked in terms of the original acquisition, and then I had two other editors here who are reading through things and working together. They are now with the A-to-Z editor, because I feel that’s a good fit. Between the two of them, different things happen. In the books we’re publishing soonest, we all talked about it being okay to make tiny revisions. We cleared those with the estate, of course. None of it was a big deal; they’ve been wonderful.
Eve Sprunt is Ruth Chew’s oldest daughter, and she is in the sciences. She’s done amazing things and she said her mother always felt that girls should do English and art and boys should do science and math. Which was surprising, because another thing that’s wonderful about the books is the boy and girl characters and how well they work together.
EB: I grew up in a feminist household in the ’70s…
ML: Me, too.
EB: … and so I was kind of aware of those things in books, and I don’t remember if the boys or the girls were more active in the books, but it seemed to me like they were both active.
ML: They were both active. I didn’t notice anything that was really strongly in that direction in the ones I’ve read, but it made me think about that dynamic. The other thing is the free-range children, because these kids are running all over Prospect Park and Brooklyn, and you would NEVER let your children do that!
EB: I thought about whether that would ever get through editorial today, because the girls lie to the moms, they are going to other countries alone. I mean, as a kid, you love that freedom, and it does not lead you to go off into the park by yourself and meet strangers….
ML: Exactly. You don’t necessarily think it’s safe, or the idea in Magic in the Park where they’re fascinated by the old guy. You’d be saying, “No, stay away from strangers in the park!” Just some of those ‘where we are today’ things. But I think there’s an understanding that these books were written a long time ago.
EB: It can be funny to booktalk books these days because we have gotten so cautious about all of that. Some parents don’t like the Carl books by Alexandra Day because the parents have left the dog to babysit the child, and I think, ‘Hello, imagination!’
ML: And humor! I have a one-and-a-half year old, and that’s one of his favorite books.
EB: Of course. They love that.
ML: I know. And I don’t know how much he understands, but he pulls it out along with Dear Zoo and everything else.
EB: I think adults are so literal in some ways….
ML: There’s nothing wrong with being protective. I think it’s also having a reasonable trust of your kids and what they know.
EB: And what their influences are. The parental influence is probably 90% of what a child is made of, and outside influences are probably about 10%. Not even.
ML: I just read my kids Magic or Not? and the kids hitchhike. They let someone drive them somewhere. Reading it to my kids, I didn’t say, “Oh, we would never do that these days,” but I do find my kids will say things when you’re reading these books to them.
EB: They’ll be surprised by reading something like that?
ML: Yes. Actually, my seven-year-old read a bunch of a certain series and said, ‘Mama, I’m not going to read those anymore,’ and I said, ‘Why not?,’ and he said, ‘Well, they’re funny, but I think they use inappropriate words.’ I said, ‘Like what?’ And he said, “Well everybody calls everybody dumb and stupid too much. I just don’t think it’s good.’
EB: Aw, sweet.
ML: I thought, ‘Okay, my strange little child. The Chews need to be out there for you!’ He really doesn’t like meanness. I feel like having some of those books that are just a little sweeter and a little not trying to make a point in any way — not being pointless, but not having to be really funny, just being totally straightforward. That’s actually what I love about Magic Tree House. I mean, you’ve got all the history, but I just love the straightforwardness.
EB: And there’s a reason millions and millions of kids love those books. It’s funny, because we grow up and we develop literary taste and we want beautiful writing at every turn, and it’s not that they’re not well written, because they’re quite well written, but there’s a real argument for that straightforward style.
ML: Especially for a beginning reader, just learning to read, because it moves them forward in a way that for most kids beautiful writing doesn’t.
EB: I do think there are a lot of writers who write simply and well for young readers and they have a lovely turn of phrase, but it still manages to stay simple and direct.
ML: And there are some writers you just have to say, ‘You just don’t need to be so beautiful all the time.’
Really, the one phrase stands out. If every sentence, if every paragraph has something, a metaphor or a simile, it’s just too much. You don’t notice the ones that are really powerful.
EB: And I think it distracts you from the story. It can kick you out of the world. It was really fun to re-read the Ruth Chew stories and remember them. In some ways, it surprised me how little was provided in the way of description, because the stories were so vivid to me as a child. It reminded me how much a child’s imagination fills in the gaps that are left.
ML: It’s Technicolor. You fill it all in.
EB: Kids do that. We adults read shorthand. I think kids build the entire world. I love that. And I think that in the Ruth Chew books, it’s the same thing. That world is rich and complete.
ML: And I think some of that came from her. Some of it was that she knew it so well. I work with some writers who do big fantasies, and many of them overwrite — you have to overwrite in the first few drafts as you’re building a world; you have to know more than your reader and then you take a bunch of it out, but if you don’t know it, then it won’t sink in in the same way. And I feel like some of that was Ruth Chew knowing her setting. Where other people you might have to say, ‘You need to describe more’ to get it in their own head, she didn’t need to do that. She was there.
EB: And she does provide just the right amount of detail. I think kids will be so taken with that little marketplace in Mexico [in What the Witch Left], and the handwoven placemats. She’s very good at taking a few standout details of physical objects.
ML: Yes, she chooses just a few things, and then you fill in all the rest.
I was going to say, she also did way more illustration than they used in the books. There were times, it looks like she literally did 50 illustrations for a book and then they picked 35. And they also had some sketches that were four different versions of something. And she saved everything!
EB: That must have been really fun. So did you go through all those archives once, or will there be repeated visits?
ML: I actually went through almost all of it with Eve, just because you couldn’t help yourself. I brought the first two books—well, the first two books we were originally going to do—home with me, and she’ll be sending stuff, and we may send somebody out again to look through things. I don’t even know who they would talk to in order to get a museum, but this has reminded me, I’m going to talk to someone at the Eric Carle Museum. The quantity is just unbelievable, and her artwork was lovely and uncomplicated. Just like the writing.
EB: I remember loving her little simple illustrations. They were very appealing, and they fill a gap that I don’t think anything else quite fills.
ML: Yes. She was trained at an art school in New York; she did fashion illustrations for kids’ clothes. There’s a whole history of her.
EB: I would love to see a museum do a retrospective. You know, the other place, if the museums didn’t do it, is the New York Public Library. I saw a Hilary Knight exhibit there that was wonderful.
ML: There are just so many wonderful pieces. Ruth Chew’s daughter said her mother kept everything, and everything was labeled. Then, of course, you find out something’s missing. We’re trying to fill in, even if something’s missing, trying to find the cleanest copy of the book we can and scanning an image, because there are so many that we do have, if it’s one or two in a book it’s not a big deal.
EB: How many decades of writing and illustrating does that represent?
ML: She published through the 90s. [Her first book, The Wednesday Witch, was published in 1969.] I feel like her best books are in the first 15 books. I think some of the later ones, that weren’t set in Brooklyn, someone was saying, ‘You’ve got to do something different.” It also feels like she’s trying to be more modern, which weirdly dates them more.
[We were briefly interrupted at this point, and then began talking about our love of the same childhood books.]
ML: The ’70s were a great time to be a big reader.
EB: Yes, they were. We lucked out. We had Louise Fitzhugh, Ellen Raskin….
ML: Yes. And I do love Ellen Raskin. When I first met Mary Pope Osborne I went to her apartment. Her apartment building is where Ellen Raskin lived that inspired writing The Westing Game, because she had to pay her mortgage.
EB: And is that why they were competing for the giant fortune in that book?
ML: Probably. Probably.
EB: Wishful thinking.
[We segued into a long discussion of other specific books we had loved as children growing up at the same time, with very similar taste in books — i.e., anything with “magic” in the title, and for Mallory, anything with a cover by Trina Schart Hyman. We talked about books from the past that kids today still love. I recommended books for her family read-alouds, and Mallory recommended a wonderful out-of-print book called The Girl with the Green Ear.]
ML: I’m always surprised by what they really love. We happened to be at my parents’ house, that was my copy of the book, and I pulled it out and they love every single story in it. So often they love those older books.
EB: What a joy that you can bring Ruth Chews to your own children, as well as a whole new generation of readers!
Mallory, it’s been a delight to talk with you. We can’t wait to see the books.