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Stories worth repeating

The New York Review's reissue project brings `Wee Gillis,' Jenny the cat, troll tales and more to a new generation.

December 22, 2006|Bob Thompson | Washington Post

NEW YORK — How many of us, at the end of our working days, will be able to say with certainty that something we did made the world a better place?

Edwin Frank is one of the lucky few. He brought Alastair Roderic Craigellachie Dalhousie Gowan Donnybristle MacMac back to life.

Frank is the editor who oversees the New York Review Children's Collection, a modest publishing venture that reissues eight or 10 out-of-print books a year. Right now he's sitting in a no-frills conference room at the midtown Manhattan office of its literary parent, the New York Review of Books, showing off some of the titles he's had a hand in reviving.

Here are Lucretia Hale's "The Peterkin Papers" and E. Nesbit's "The House of Arden." Here are "Jenny and the Cat Club," "The Island of Horses," "D'Aulaires' Book of Trolls." And here's the one about young Alastair -- or "Wee Gillis," as the kilt-wearing lad is known to friends and family who find his real name too exhausting to deal with.

Not coincidentally, it's a book Frank loved as a child. "I had my father's copy," he says, "because my father's mother was Scottish and had come over on the boat."

First published in 1938, "Wee Gillis" is a collaboration between Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson, the author-illustrator team who created Ferdinand the pacifist bull. Its protagonist is a boy born of a mixed marriage, Scottish style. The plot turns on the culture clash between his mother's Lowland relations and his father's family in the Highlands. A bagpipe is involved.

We're not talking "Harry Potter" sales here, of course, but then again, there's no need to lay out "Harry Potter" money in advances. Reprint rights come cheaply enough, Frank says, for the New York Review to make money on reissues that sell as few as 5,000 copies.

And whatever the numbers, the books' reappearances make booksellers and buyers happy -- reversing, in a tiny but symbolic way, the odious publishing trend toward keeping books in print for shorter periods of time.

"Bless their little hearts," says Brookline, Mass., children's bookseller Terri Schmitz, when told that the Review intends to keep its reissues in print indefinitely. "That's unusual in this day and age."

Schmitz says the New York Review's choices can be "eclectic" (she thinks Norman Lindsay's "The Magic Pudding" is "the strangest book you'll ever read"). But she praises other titles in the series, including Rumer Godden's "Episode of Sparrows" and Eleanor Farjeon's "The Little Book Room."

Publishers do bring back their own out-of-print titles, and others buy rights to the occasional orphaned book. "My approach is, these books are just too good to be out of print," says Stephen Roxburgh of Front Street, an imprint of Boyds Mills Press, who recently reissued "The Mark of the Horse Lord" by Rosemary Sutcliff.

But the New York Review is publishing reissues systematically. "I very much admire what they're doing," Roxburgh says.

The history of the Children's Collection, Frank explains, can be traced to the late 1980s, when one of the New York Review's founders, Jason Epstein, had an idea for a mail-order venture called the Reader's Catalog -- "a sort of giant annotated Sears Catalog of the 40,000 best books in print."

Between the first and second editions of the Reader's Catalog, says New York Review publisher Rea Hederman, an astonishing 15,000 of those 40,000 books went out of print. A light bulb flashed on. "We began to think about how many books we admired we would like to see back in print," Hederman says.

This led to the New York Review Classics line of reissued adult literature -- which Frank also edits -- and eventually to the parallel series for children.

The children's reissues are hardcovers with distinctive red cloth spines. The parents and grandparents who'll buy most of them, Frank says, tend to value quality and permanence.

And, like him, they also value things they've known and loved.

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