I am sitting at the Reference Desk when a nice older woman asks if she might be able to use the catalog. I lead her over to our catalog computer, as I am wont to do, and all is well. Minutes later the woman is back. She mentions that she is an author and she wants to see if her book is in our system. We’ve a fair amount of people who walk in saying that they are authors each week, and I have found that the older the person is the more I am inclined to believe them. I am inclined to believe this woman particularly.
I ask what the books were.
She says that she stopped by the bookstore one floor up before she came upon us and they hadn’t heard of it.
I reply that the bookstore does not specialize in children’s literature necessarily. What’s the book?
My brain stops functioning for 0.75 seconds. I recover only to find that I am spluttering, "You’re… you’re.. Ruth…"
"I’m Ruth Stiles Gannett," she agrees.
This would have been an opportune time to have said that I read these books growing up, but in point of fact I did not. Just the same, I am more than aware of them. They are huge. Huge here in America. Particularly huge in Japan (where they were turned into what looks like a rather lovely movie). This time last year I filled in as a roving librarian at a nearby elementary school. The school’s librarian had suddenly passed away and they were bringing in public librarians to read to different classes of third graders. It was HIGHLY recommended to me that I bring in a copy of My Father’s Dragon, as the librarian before me had started it with the kids and they were wrapped up in the story. I did and you never saw such enthralled children. I filed that information away in my brain for whenever I have to read aloud to kids around that age again.
The book (books, actually, since My Father’s Dragon was followed up with Elmer and the Dragon and The Dragons of Blueland) came out in 1948 and it won a Newbery Honor that year. 1948. Do you understand why I was flabbergasted to find Ms. Stiles merrily walking about my library, mere minutes before meeting her daughter out front?
Blabbing like a madwoman I assured her that her books were read by children all the time and we had many circulating copies, including the recent 50-year anniversary edition of all three compiled. Then I pulled out this book we keep under the desk so that authors and illustrators will sign it when they’re around, and asked her to put something down. She mentioned that she had been in my library in 1948 to present to the children, and told me the tale of telling them a story about a treehouse. As she signed she also mentioned a little background on the publication of My Father’s Dragon. Apparently she was too shy to drop off the manuscript at Random House, so her stepmother’s maid dropped it off instead (apparently it was conveniently on her way). In fact, her stepmother (Mrs. Ruth Chrisman Stiles) was the illustrator of all three books. If you would like to see the original art, Ms. Stiles says that it is currently housed in the Kerlan Collection in Minnesota. I showed Ms. Stiles the art from the upcoming Archie and the Pirates by Marc Rosenthal, since I think it has a distinctive My Father’s Dragon vibe about it. She agreed but noted that the art in her books (with the exception of the covers and endpapers) is entirely black and white.
It’s not every day a Newbery Honor winner of some 50 years past waltzes in the door, and I was delighted when she agreed to sign some copies of her books. Knowing that if I had her sign our circulating materials they might well waltz out the door never to return again, I decided to have her sign our original reference editions. However, original reference editions are now housed underneath Bryant Park, and it takes a lot of dodging, spinning, inning, and outing for me to retrieve them. But retrieve them I did! Grabbed ’em, ran ’em back, and she signed every last one to the children of New York City.
I wanted proof of this, so I had one of my clerks take our picture with their camera phone. It’s a little blurry, but enough so that I won’t forget about meeting this fantastic author by chance. A good day. A wonderful woman.