Friday, January 25, 2008
What's the Matter with Kids Today?
I grew up during the golden age of Christmas TV specials.
I can remember the very first time A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS aired on television, as well as RUDOLPH, THE RED-NOSED REINDEER; THE GRINCH WHO STOLE CHRISTMAS; THE HOMECOMING (precursor to THE WALTONS) and THE HOUSE WITHOUT A CHRISTMAS TREE. So many of these programs became classics and are still shown every holiday season for new generations of kids.
Another holiday favorite from that era was a Jackie Gleason Christmas special in which Gleason, in his "Poor Soul" guise, wandered wordlessly through a world of fairy tales (The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe; Old King Cole; Goldilocks and the Three Bears) which were all performed as dance numbers and culminated in a giant gift-wrapped box opening up to reveal a set of marching wooden soldiers.
A few years ago PBS repeated this incredible program and I videotaped it. I couldn't wait to share the tape with some friends who had two sons about the same age my brother and I were when we first watched this show in the mid-1960s; I felt like I was passing a wonderful gift down from our generation to theirs. The day after dropping off the tape, I called their house, anxious to hear what they thought about it. Their mother answered the phone. "Did the boys watch the tape?" I asked excitedly.
"Oh, they watched a few minutes of it," she said off-handedly.
"What? They didn't like it?"
"Well...I can see why an adult might like it -- for nostalgia," she sneered, "but it's not really for kids today."
Not for kids today? I wanted to crawl into that giant box with the wooden soldiers and pull the gift-wrapped lid over my head.
Can tastes change that much over a couple generations? Can KIDS change that much over a couple generations?
I've been thinking about this lately because of a favorite childhood book, THE MUMMY MARKET. Written by Nancy Brelis and illustrated by Ben Shecter, the book was published by Harper and Row in 1966 (which, come to think of it, was the same year that Jackie Gleason special aired.) THE MUMMY MARKET is the story of the three parentless Martin children -- Elizabeth, Jenny, and Harry -- who live with their housekeeper Mrs. Hinchley -- AKA "The Gloom." When the children have had enough of Hinchley, they visit the thriving garden of their ancient neighbor Mrs. Cavour, who advises them to seek a replacement guardian at the Mummy Market.
"WHY PUT UP WITH AN UNSATISFACTORY MOTHER? COME TO THE MUMMY MARKET AND FIND THE RIGHT ONE FOR YOU" reads the poster outside a venue filled with booths in which various types of mothers (a folksinger, a sophisticate smoking a cigarette in a long holder, etc.) vie to be taken home by children in need of a mom.
In a series of humorous episodes, the Martin kids test out a variety of possible mothers, including a sugary woman devoted to hearth and home ("Why don't you call me Mimsey? Don't you think that's a sweet name?"), a jock addicted to field hockey and camping, and another who wants to analyze the children like psychological subjects ("I think it will be better if you think of me as a friend and don't call me mother.") before finally finding the perfect maternal match in this shimmering summertime fantasy suffused with quiet magic. Nancy Brelis only wrote one book in her career, but it's a small gem that (I WOULD THINK!) should appeal to generations of young readers.
...However, I'm beginning to fear I'm as wrong about THE MUMMY MARKET as I was about Jackie Gleason's choreographed King Cole. The book has been out of print in hardcover for years and even a paperback version (retitled THE MOTHER MARKET, perhaps because the word "mummy" conjures up images of the supernatural and Ancient Egypt) released in the early 1970s is no longer extant. Even a 1994 film version adapted by Brelis's daughter Tia and starring Sissy Spacek multi-playing all of the possible moms, failed to ignite interest in the book.
There are a number of used booksellers who apparently agree with me that this book is a keeper, as they have copies for sale at prices reaching nearly $300. Even paperback copies are listed for a minimum of $40. Yet I don't see those copies selling.
And last week I tried to sell -- for the second time -- a duplicate first edition of THE MUMMY MARKET on eBay. Thinking that it could fetch $100+, I was shocked when bidding stopped at $21.50.
So many of my blog entries end with me saying that I'm confused...and this is yet another one. I'm shocked and confused that what I perceive as a near-perfect novel of the past no longer seems as well-regarded, or as desirable, to readers today. If you can find a copy at a local library, borrow it and share it with a twenty-first century kid. Will they fall in love with it, or sneer "Well...I can see why an adult might like it -- for nostalgia -- but it's not really for kids today."
THE MUMMY MARKET
Written by Nancy Brelis
Illustrated by Ben Shecter
Harper and Row, 1966
Why the book may be collectable:
First and only book by a gifted author.
Well-remembered and well-loved by readers in the 1960s.
First printing points:
Harper first editions are often near-impossible to identify. This book contains no information on the title or copyright page that indicates edition. But the front flap does contain a $3.95 price in the top corner and a date code of 0966 on the bottom.
Difficulty in finding first editions:
Copies are available at high prices, though at this point there doesn't seem to be a lot of demand for them. I'm hoping that will someday change.