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Why Can’t the English?

whitemountainsWe saw Dawn of the Planet of the Apes last night–ehh. Some the intra- and inter-species encounters were quite moving and dramatic but the plot was on automatic and the fabulously watchable Judy Greer was wasted (she could have been completely blotto given that all she had to do was lie there with a suffering look in her ape-eyes). Before the movie began there were about five different plugs for The Giver, including three of the quiz questions, so somebody is looking out for you, Lois*.

Courtesy of the Kindle Daily Deal, I’m re-reading one of The Giver‘s greatest antecedents, John Christopher’s The White Mountains, first published in 1967. Boy, is it good (I use the interjection advisedly). The text used in the Kindle edition is from 2003, and it includes a preface by Christopher, “What Is a Tripod?,” about how the the book came to be. While Christopher had only written adult novels until then, a London publisher suggested he try his hand at a book for children. He did, the London publisher accepted it, an American publisher had questions:

“Basically, what she said was that she loved the first chapter but the rest of the book was a mess: it would need a complete reworking from Chapter 2 onward. This was something that had not happened to me before. My adult novels had either been taken or rejected as they stood. I was not used to rewriting and certainly not eager to start doing so with a mere children’s book.”

Christopher goes on to berate himself for his patronizing attitude and thank the editor who made his first children’s book so much better: Susan Hirschmann (sic). But the anecdote makes me think of the murmurings I’ve heard about the more interventionist editing of U.S. publishers as compared to that of their colleagues across the pond. Still true?


* And, Lois, I love you, but don’t think for a moment we’re going to let you claim that The Giver (the novel) does not end ambiguously just because you changed your mind. In your Newbery acceptance speech for the book you allowed that thinking Jonas and the baby are dead was a valid way to read the ending. So why are you NOW telling the Times “they are not!”?


Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.



  1. Just loved these books growing up. When the Hunger Games broke, I was hoping it would spill over and bring some deserved attention on this series. Sadly, that didn’t really pan out.

  2. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    With some much emphasis in today’s publishing on new releases, it’s harder to get readers excited about the backlist than it used to be. A publisher was recently asking me my opinions about bringing a particular OP series back via ebook. I think it’s very tough to move beyond adult fans to a new children’s audience.

  3. That’s sad to hear, Roger. It makes me wonder: can you think of examples when older books have been successfully introduced to a new generation of readers? Were there any specific things the publishers did to bring about that success?

  4. Katie Bircher Katie Bircher says:

    We just got hardcover reissues of the Tripod series in the office. 🙂

  5. These days I find that it requires really strong and flexible readers to take on some of the older titles. Way back the Christopher books were definitely perfect for my sci-fi/fantasy 4th grade readers. However, now they just have a different flavor, so to speak, from Collins, Riordan, et al that they like most of all. Haven’t gotten any kids so far to pick them up. When I do have some who like older titles (Secret Garden, The Wind in the Willows etc) they tend to be either girls going for Alcott or Montgomery or boys into Tolkien. I’ve been really curious about this. As a child I happily read books that had been published decades earlier, but I just don’t see that as much among my stronger readers. That said, I’m a teacher and have a tiny elite population that I’m watching. Perhaps public librarians see more kids than I reading these older books with pleasure.

  6. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I got turned onto this series because it was serialized in comics form in Boys Life, the Scouting magazine. Anyone one else find the books that way?

  7. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Jonathan A., I can think of times when an expression of enthusiasm by a popular author (Neil Gaiman, J.K. Rowling, Daniel Handler) has brought about a flurry of interest in an under-appreciated older book but these books seem only to bob briefly among the waves before going back into the sea. If anyone can think of an example where I’m wrong please add.

    Jonathan H., that sounds awesome. In our March/April 2012 issue, M.T. Anderson wrote a terrific essay about first encountering H.G. Well’s The Time Machine as an LP and as a comic book. I found lots of books through Classics Illustrated but don’t remember The White Mountains in Boys Life.

  8. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    And Out of the Box is calling my name?

  9. Katie Bircher Katie Bircher says:

    I just meant that Tripods is getting some love, but if you’re so inclined I certainly wouldn’t turn a blog post down!

  10. I just…SO MUCH your footnote.

  11. Jonathan Hunt says:
  12. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Well, there goes my afternoon, JH, thanks!

  13. As a former publisher who has tried to repackage old series and reignite interest them, it’s hard indeed–and believe me, we try. There is a brief window when a very popular TV series or film can pull a lot of things along with it, but the most successful examples I can think of for that are in picture books,. Finding Nemo came out and we spent that summer selling out of anything with a fish on the cover.

    ANYWAY what Roger wrote about in his blog post is quite true. British children’s and YA editors, who are also trained copyeditors (unlike their US counterparts) are fastidious about small details but not taught to give detailed structural feedback, ask questions about the characters and go through lots of rounds to make the book better. I am very impressed that John Christopher (Sam Youd) was smart enough to take Susan Hirschman’s notes. We once re-edited a Michael Morpurgo book at Viking, and he was gracious enough, once he got over his shock, to let us do it. And we re-edited, mostly for pace, a British novel on Egmont USA’s debut list, which truthfully caused more consternation with the originating publisher than it did with the author.

    The thing that interests me now about The Tripods books is how hard it is to find a British series these days that will become popular in the US. Everyone’s trying, but the trend is US to Europe and not the other way. Since Harry Potter, what other significant British hits have we had over here? Maybe Louise Rennison in YA, but I can’t think of more. And it’s not for lack of titles being made available.

  14. Ron McCutchan says:

    Loved the Tripods series as a child (first read in junior high) – and those trippy early cover illustrations (which, in retrospect, remind me of Friso Henstra’s art, which I also loved, courtesy of CRICKET). Jonathan Hunt’s comment about finding books in serial really speaks to me, since I discovered both Herge’s Tintin and Tolkien’s Hobbit in Children’s Digest and Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe in my weekly Sunday School handout. First- and second-serial were also a big part of CRICKET’s editorial mix back in the early days (before it became cost-prohibitive); I remember reading the opening of Astrid Lindgren’s The Brothers Lionheart in CRICKET and having to track down the book to read the rest.

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