Thursday, December 16, 2010

Follow That Dog (Book)!

Many a bookseller has been asked to locate a book based on the barest of clues. (“It has a green cover—I think—and the author’s name begins with an S. Or an F. I think.”)

I frequently find myself playing the role of the bookseller when dim fragments of memory drift across my mind, dropping hints about books I enjoyed as a child but not being very helpful with specifics.

One such book has nagged at me for three decades. I can remember exactly where I was whenever I took it off the shelf in the children’s section of the Huntington Library on Long Island in New York. I remember being shorter than the bookcase (which was only about 4 feet tall) and that it would’ve been a Friday night, when my father regularly took us kids to the library. I could feel the book in my hands. I remembered it was about a dog. And a girl.

But that was it.

It was pretty hopeless to think that I’d ever track it down. For one thing, books about dogs and kids aren’t exactly in short supply. For another, I was reading this book in the 1960s, at a time when I was enjoying Beverly Cleary’s “Ramona” books—but unlike Ramona, the girl in this book hadn’t become a perennially loved character.

Oh, I made a few feeble forays on the Web to find it. But typing “dog book girl” into Amazon produced more than 1,500 results, and I certainly didn’t have the time or energy to fossick through them. I accessed the Huntington Public Library online, but as I suspected, the book had long since been weeded from their collection.

About a year ago, a random neuron fired somewhere and piped, “Red eft!” Red eft? Right—the girl in the book might have had a pet red eft at one point. I remembered how cool it was to have this information on hand when my family went camping one summer and we found a soft, scarlet, lizardlike animal in a puddle in the woods; I recall the sense of competence in telling my parents it was a red eft. (And, yeah, less nobly, feeling totally smug and superior, because my three siblings were present when I declaimed “red eft” in what I thought was a very wise and considered manner.)

Typing in “dog book girl red eft,” however, was a pretty random experience.

Then, one day, I stumbled on the site WorldCat, which bills itself as the world’s largest library catalog. Plugging in “dogs” as the keyword and limiting the search to books for children published between 1950 and 1960, I turned up several hundred titles—a manageable number. (Surprising to find any dog books on a site called WorldCat...)

I scrolled through them all and jotted down any titles that sounded remotely related to my long-lost book.

No jars were rattled on the dusty shelves in the deepest crawlspace of my mind until I got to the W’s and read the name “Catherine Woolley.” Woolley. I had a vague memory of wondering, as a kid, what it would be like to have an adjective as your last name.

Checking out this author’s book Ellie’s Problem Dog on Amazon didn’t help, however, so I scurried over to eBay—and I still would never have puzzled out if this was the book or not if one bookseller hadn’t included this image in his listing:

That dog jumping over the fence dragged down yards and yards of cobwebs in my mind; his barking woke up the slumbering memories and his tail-wagging whisked away the dust of ages. That was the dog, this was the book, the price was right—sold!

It wasn’t in the house five minutes before I sat down and read it cover to cover again. Was it worth waiting for? It was decidedly more old-fashioned than I recalled, but that wasn’t too surprising—it was written in the ‘50s, when parents weren’t working so hard to be their kids’ best friends and kids weren’t trying on the role of teenager by age 7. But the atmosphere in the book is very like the one I grew up in in the ‘60s—warm, supportive, secure, shielded from the world’s alarming events—and so it felt very much like a visit home.

As for that red eft? It turned out to be a red herring. No eft in this book. It may, however, be lurking in Ellie’s Schoolroom Zoo—the next title to be tracked down.

(Catherine Woolley, also known by the pen name Jane Thayer, wrote 87 books ranging from picture books to chapter books for children in the 7-to-11 age range. Among her best-known works are the Ginnie and Geneva series (which I adored as a girl), A Room for Cathy, The Popcorn Dragon, and The Puppy Who Wanted a Boy. She also wrote Writing for Children in 1989, a no-nonsense, bare-bones assessment of the craft that was as down to earth as her stories.

Woolley started writing children’s books in the 1940s after working as an editor and PR writer in New York City. Many of her books were composed on an old Remington typewriter while living in Truro, Massachusetts. She was 100 years old at the time of her death in 2005.)

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