Telephone Reference: A Children’s Author Learns to Work the Wires

What one children’s author learned about getting the answer to a simple question

January 24, 2011

When I was growing up in the Bronx during the 1940s and ’50s, my family was the only one in our apartment building to own a telephone. It meant we could be in communication with family and friends. And for our neighbors, it meant they were secure in knowing that my mother would let them make a call if there was a sudden need.

Nowadays, despite cell phones and cordless phones, these instruments are taken for granted because computers, iPods, and the like seem so much superior. Recently I turned on my computer and found a message from a teacher. She was trying to locate a book that she had read many years ago to her 6th-grade class. The story was about a Jewish girl who had moved to the suburbs and discovered that all her classmates had Christmas trees. Furthermore, she was invited to a party where the other guests abused her with anti-Semitic comments. It turned out that the worst bully in the group was Jewish. The only other clue the teacher could give was that the book was published in the 1970s or ’80s. Could I identify it?

I guessed the teacher sought me out for help because she thought I might have written the book. No, I didn’t. But in addition to being a children’s book writer, I’m a retired children’s librarian. So of course I was curious and wanted to help track down the book for her.

As it happens, the teacher’s message came to me while I was vacationing in rural Vermont. I had computer access but only dial-up, which was very slow. So it took a long time to check through lists of the novels by Marilyn Sachs and Barbara Cohen, the two authors whose names immediately sprang to mind. No success. I Googled Jewish children’s stories and children’s books about anti-Semitism but the few titles that I got were not what I was looking for. They had wrong story details and were published in the wrong decades.

I remembered some advice that I learned when I was getting my MLS. The instructor once said, “Sometimes your best reference source is the telephone.” That’s why I reached for the phone.

What follows is the sequence of calls that I made. It is not my intention to name-drop but rather to show how helpful people in the children’s book world tried to be. None of us knew the teacher involved. None of us had anything to gain. Yet everyone tried very hard to come up with the correct answer.

My first call was to my friend Barbara Ann Porte, children’s book writer and former director of children’s services for the Nassau (Long Island) Library System who now lives outside of Washington, D.C. She did not know the answer but had at hand the phone number of Trev Jones, book review editor for School Library Journal. “Call Trev,” she insisted.

I did, reaching her voice mail. I explained the reason for my call and hoped for an answer. Who would know more about children’s books than Trev? Within a few hours, Trev left a message on my voice mail (one of the problems with dial-up internet service, of course, is that one can’t use it and receive or make phone calls at the same time). Trev did not know the title of the book although she was sure she could visualize the book jacket. She even remembered whom she had assigned to review it: Jane Marino. Trev phoned Jane but she too had forgotten the title and author, although she also could visualize the jacket.

On a phone call with my friend Eve Feldman, children’s book author and former teacher, I mentioned my quest. She couldn’t think of the answer either although she is very well read in the field. I also called children’s book author David Adler, who had worked as children’s book editor at the Jewish Publication Society for a time. Wouldn’t it be great if he had published the book I was looking for? He hadn’t and he had no clue as to the title.

I wrote back to the teacher telling her that so far I had no answer for her. However, I said, I’m not giving up and I’ll get back to you again. The teacher responded with thanks. She wanted the title for a former student of hers, now a grown man, who had written asking about this book she had once read to her class. She was delighted that he had retained the memory of her reading and wanted to fill in the blanks for him.

On Sunday, I attended a concert at the Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont. During intermission I ran into retired children’s librarian and chairman of the 2010 ALA Caldecott Committee, Rita Auerbach. We embraced and began talking. Suddenly I remembered my question. Despite the fact that she is very well read, she didn’t know the book I was looking for.

The next morning, Barbara Ann Porte phoned me. She hadn’t found the answer but she was going to be having lunch with her friend, children’s book writer and school librarian Jacqueline Jules, who often wrote on Jewish topics. Surely she would a good resource. Talking to Barbara, I said, “The person who could have answered this question is Esther Hautzig.” The late Esther was a good friend of both mine and Barbara’s, she worked in publishing and is best known for her fictionalized memoir The Endless Steppe. Barbara and I had been at Esther’s funeral last fall. And suddenly I remembered someone else who was at the funeral. “I bet Deborah Brodie will know the answer!” I said excitedly.

Years ago I wrote a book for Viking and Deborah was my editor. These days I see her occasionally at conferences so I didn’t feel shy about calling her in Manhattan. Of course she was a bit surprised to hear from me out of the blue and probably was relieved that I wasn’t calling about a manuscript of mine. She did not know the answer to the question, however.

“I can’t think who else to call,” I confessed. “The most knowledgeable person I know in this field is Leonard Marcus but this isn’t the sort of thing that occupies him.”

“You must call him,” Deborah insisted. “Leonard knows everything.” And Deborah knew his phone number. Leonard is a historian of children’s literature but as it turns out there are a couple of things he still didn’t know—such as the book I was looking for. What Leonard did know was the phone number of Sybille Jagusch, chief of the Children’s Literature Center at the Library of Congress. He also gave me the name and telephone number of Lisa Silverman, library director of a large synagogue library in Los Angeles. I phoned both people and left brief messages on the voice mail of these two women. I left my telephone number and e-mail address so they could get in touch with me.

Before the day was out, I received an e-mail from Sybille Jagusch. She did not know the book in question but suggested that I contact an out-of-print book dealer in San Diego who might be able to help me. I still held out hope that Lisa Silverman would get back to me, but with the three-hour time difference and the possibility that she was on vacation, I knew I had to be patient.

Then Barbara Ann Porte called to say that Jacqueline Jules was fairly certain that The Christmas Revolution by Barbara Cohen was the book I wanted. However, I’d read that book years ago so I knew its story was the wrong one.

I sat down at my computer and wrote back to the teacher I was trying to help. One of the ways of being a successful reference librarian is asking the right questions: “Are you sure you gave me the correct details about this book? Are you retired or still teaching? Did you borrow the book from your school library? Have you checked with the school librarian?”

A few hours later I received an answer from her. The school librarian remembered the book: The Turning Point by Naomi Karp, published by Harcourt in 1976. While my computer was still on, I Googled the book title. The description fit and the details made me laugh—the book was about a Bronx girl who moved…. Really it could have been my story. My family moved to the suburbs of Queens when I was 15. Furthermore, the name of the main character echoes mine. She was Hannah.

The school teacher wrote to me that after she contacted me, she had also contacted the American Library Association in Chicago. They put her in touch with a library technical assistant named Jessica Horvath who said she would search for the book title. Indeed, Jessica was successful and so the answer came in from two sources while I was still searching vainly for it.

The Turning Point is out of print but I discovered that Amazon had 15 copies for sale—including two copies available for one cent each. (I guess they make their money from the postage and handling!)

For years I’ve been consoling friends whose books have gone out of print. I tell them once a book is published it takes on a life of its own. One never knows who reads it, what it means to them, and what will possibly happen in the future. This was the perfect example to prove my point.

Delighted to have the answer at last, I began the chore of e-mailing or phoning each of the people who were links on this search chain. It was only fair that they learn the results of the search. Most had never heard of the book and did not recognize the title when I told them. However, Trev Jones said, “Of course. Now I remember it.” The last person I tried to reach was Lisa Silverman in California. She hadn’t responded to my call, but maybe she was still trying to find the answer to the question.

Once again, I dialed the number that Leonard had given me. This time a woman answered the phone.

“Lisa?” I asked.

“No. You have the wrong number.”

I apologized and dialed again more carefully. “Lisa?” I asked the woman who answered.

“No you still have the wrong number,” she said.

“Are you in Los Angeles?” I asked her.

“No. This is Hollywood, Maryland.”

Who even knew there was such a place as Hollywood, Maryland? Not me.

“Did someone leave a message on your voice mail yesterday asking about a book?” I wanted to know.

“Yes,” she acknowledged.

“Well. You don’t have to think about it,” I said. “I’ve found the answer."

JOHANNA HURWITZ is a self-described “old-time librarian" and the author of Busybody Nora, Class Clown, Russell Sprouts, and many other books for children


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