It's December | Newberry

It's December

It is not really the most famous of Ray Broekel’s books. But it is the saddest.

Ray Broekel’s most famous books were about candy, especialy his landmark Great American Candy Bar Book, for which he had to do so much taste testing that he gained ten pounds. He edited a candy journal, and wrote other books about candy. In the world of candy and confectionry, he is considered one of the great historians.

But for over forty years, he also produced an endless array of children’s books, mainly on math and science. Some of these are still readily available today: there are authors who simply know how to write about snakes for children. And, after all, somebody has to. This book is not one of those.

This is a book of a special kind, which spread across the children’s book world in the days when the computer was a novelty and a marvel, a machine which would do thousands of things to make our lives better. I believe this is the same technology which made it possible for magazines to print the names of subscribers not only on the cover but in some of the interior ads. For a time, it also produced Personalized Picture Books.

This one is called The Holiday Dragon. Later editions were published as The Adventures of Jane Doe and the Holiday Dragon. Or The Adventures of John Smith and the Holiday Dragon. Or even The Adventures of Uncle Blogsy and the Holiday Dragon.

Each copy of the book was unique. Some adult would fill out a form with information about a child, and the computer would magically weave this information into the story. I think they might have gone the extra mile and then converted that into something that looked like real printing, but most of these books seem to have been offset from the computer printout. The tale begins something like this:

“You have just received a new book from Daddy and Mama. You start looking at it when something happens. The front door opens at 60 West Walton Street. And guess what walks in, Jane? A real dragon walks in through the doorway.

Now what do you do, Jane Susan Barbara Doe, when you are suddenly face to face with a dragon? What you don’t do is step on the dragon’s tail—the other end of the dragon might get mad.”

The book is pleasant, the illustrations (by Diana Noro, who also drew books about dinosaurs) are fun and goofy. And the recipient of the book is supposed to be thrilled out of her Power Rangers jammies to find herself in the text of a book, complete with her address, and the names of any pets or friends who can be shoehorned into the narrative. Nothing sad about that at all.

Except that the name of the little girl in the book is not Jane Doe. It’s a name I recognize. I met her once or twice, and I knew Mama, who was a regular at the Newberry. It would be nice to give this book back, as it has no great interest to the general reading public that once Jane Doe lived at such and such an address. It’s a drawback of the Personalized Picture Book that it lacks a little excitement for readers with other names.

But I can’t give it back. Mama died entirely too young a number of years ago: cancer. Jane Doe herself died a few years after that. I am given to understand that this was of unspecified causes, and, given her life in the years after she met the Holiday Dragon, no one was overly surprised at this. Heck of a thing to say about a little Jane Doe who used to run along the halls at the Newberry, and must at least once have read this book about the Holiday Dragon.

Unless the Newberry wants this book as a bibliographic curiosity (which it does not) the only person who might care about it is Daddy, who might still be alive. If you read this, Daddy, and can identify some of the names in the book, I’d cheerfully mail it somewhere.

Otherwise, I may just set it aside in my pile of books that are waiting around until I can find someone to treasure them. I pull ‘em out at this time of year, since every columnist is expected to indulge a spot of misery as the holidays drag on.

Add new comment