Once presented with this mini catalog, kids were forced to balance their desires and their resources. The ritual involved several steps: first, even the most casual "wants" were circled in ink (more experienced consumers used pencil.) The if-money-were-no-object subtotal was tallied and instantly deemed "unrealistic" by parents. Next, the child dove back into the catalog for a round of eliminations and a new total was presented to mom and dad. This step was usually repeated two or three more times. Once a successful negotiation was reached the student filled out the order coupon with the precision and care of a monk transcribing a sacred scroll. A check was written and the subsequent bus ride to school became a perilous payment delivery mission.
The weeks-long wait was a bittersweet mixture of grueling expectancy and the excitement of having something to look forward to. Once the window of possible book arrival was reached there was new motivation to get on the bus each morning. Then it finally happened— a new box showed up on the teacher's desk. One last anticipation-drenched wait occurred before the books were handed out, usually at the very end of the day to avoid distraction and jealous classmates.
Lastly, there was the reveal. In standard mail-order fashion there was almost always some discrepancy between expectation and reality. My very first book order caught me off guard when none of the books were hardcover. Posters weren't as large as the ones at the mall, and "patches" could've been accurately called "iron-ons." But once the dissonance passed you still had new books— books that you got to pick out, and books you never had to return to the library.
This sequence of events lasted throughout grade school and continues today. I take great pleasure in helping my son make the perfect book order selections, as well as sharing with him my perfect choices from yesteryear. Speaking of which, here they are, at least the ones that survived my childhood...
Movie Monsters Giant Poster Book (1979)
This came from the very first book order I participated in, and boy, was it a letdown. In my first grade mind the term "Giant Poster Book" described a publication that was three feet tall containing about a dozen massive movie monster photos. I envisioned myself holding it like a newspaper and flipping through them, much like I did at the gift shop's poster display racks, trying to decide which one to tear out and hang up this week. In actuality it's one rather large King Kong poster folded up into magazine size. The back is printed with photos and blurbs related to various classic monster movies. I eventually moved past the disappointment, embraced the poster for what it was, and tacked it on my wall. From that vantage point King Kong watched me grow up.
Here's the poster as seen in an ebay auction...
And here's the weird display of heads from "7 Faces of Dr. Lao" that shall forever dwell in my nightmares...
Zoophabets by Robert Tallon (1979)
This also arrived with my first-ever order and it helped dull the sting of my "poster book." I was attracted to it because the word "monsters" was somewhere in the description. You may sense a pattern emerging. At the time I was way past my ABCs but here they had an appealing, semi-spooky blacklight poster-esque presentation.
Chameleon was a Spy by Diane Redfield Massie (1979)
This book seems to have fallen into obscurity, but by my standards it's a well written story that's driven by the many illustrations. I always liked how Chameleon's changing ability is used in clever ways, almost like a super power.
As I look back at my choices as a whole I notice that only a minority of my selections actually have a narrative, this being one of them. I was a sucker for books full of comics, jokes, quizzes, activities, pictures, games or choose-your-own adventures— short bursts of digestible content. Even then I was ready for the internet.
I Am Bootiful Scholastic promotional patch (1980)
One of my early book orders came with this free patch though to me it was far more significant than a mere sales premium. Today it's hard to understand why, but I fiercely anticipated getting this thing easily as much as any book. It arrived smaller than I imagined at about a square inch and a half, but the elegant simplicity of glow-in-dark sheet-style ghosts will always win me over.
How to Care for Your Monster by Norman Bridwell (published 1970, purchased in 1980)
This was a big favorite of mine. The How-To manual format was appealing because it almost seemed real, putting me in a world where I could own my own werewolf. Bridwell is better known for his Clifford the Big Red Dog series, but this one has all the quality that made the Clifford books so successful. For more coverage see HERE and HERE.
The Empire Strike's Back Storybook (1980)
Before the days of home video, keeping favorite films fresh in one's mind was a battle that required a variety of mementos including trading cards, soundtrack LPs, View-Master reels, or in this case, a full-color storybook. Note the pre-style guide Empire logo. 1982 was still a graphic designer's Wild West.
Scholastic Haunted House Glow-in-the-Dark poster by Bernice Myers (1980)
Many book orders included freebie posters, however this one required a dollar to cover the large format, the incandescent ink, and the pure awesomeness. While books may be more substantial, a poster is seen nearly every day which can leave quite an imprint on one's psyche. The amount of time that a great art scholar devotes to the study of a single piece is dwarfed by the hours that a typical kid invests examining a poster taped on their door as they lay each night waiting for sleep to come. The glowing ghosts always made this poster spring to life any time the lights went out. Incidentally, this art is the work of Bernice Myers who is known for her brilliant mid-century illustration.
Spooky Action Cut-Outs by James Razzi Illustrated by Bernice Myers (1980)
Wow, this is first time that I ever realized this book is illustrated by the same lady who did the haunted house poster (above)!! Oh, how I would have loved to know that when I was a kid. That explains why they came in the same order, and why they are both so wonderful. The wait for the epic order that contained both of them was perhaps the most agonizing of them all. My friend Tim ordered the same thing so we discussed our plans for our life-changing purchase every day. I wrote a post on this one here.
1000 Space Monsters Have Landed by Alan Benjamin with pictures by Sal Murdocca (1980)
This is a book where you cut all the pages into three separate panels and mix-and-match the head, torso, and feet to make new monsters. I, like a stupid, inpatient fool couldn't wait for parental assistance and butchered the cuts with my dull school safety scissors which caused jagged, uneven cuts and made the pages difficult to turn. This mistake never stopped tainting my enjoyment of the book, though it is still enjoyable.
One of the best elements is the mix-and-match text which is way more foreboding than most kiddie books. For example, one set of possible phrases is: I think terrible thoughts. I wait till you're asleep. Someone may get hurt. Whoa. Here's another one: I'm here for a reason. I'll see you tonight. Others are on the way.
The Haunted House by R.A. Montgomery (1981)
This came out near the dawn of the choose your own adventure craze. CYOA books first emerged by way of a small publishing house in the mid 1970s, but in '79 Bantam started putting them out on a huge scale. Like many kids, this was the first I'd heard of the concept, and when you've got a novelty book and a haunted house, well, you've got yourself a sale. I remember being a bit shocked that some of the endings were so bleak, like irreversibly turning into a giant rat, or even semi-death in a couple cases. That added so much weight to each decision, and it was delightfully video game-esque.
Ziggy Poster (1981)
As you may have suspected I had this hanging on my door for a time. Sometimes I would close the door and wait for a knock just so that I could say "I'm in... but I'm not coming to the door!" Having wiped away my tears of laughter I'd congratulate myself for being the comic genius of the century.
Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume (1981 edition)
This is the first chapter book I ever purchased. Someday I'll finish it.
Sign In, Please! (1981)
This is an odd shell of a publication that's made for polling your friends about their favorite stuff. I thought, "Boy I'll sure get a kick out of reading my friends' answers when I'm a grown up!" I was wrong.
Monstickers puffy stickers (1980)
This was another monumental purchase. I could not have adored these any more than I did. The ones you're looking at came from ebay, the pack in the top left corner is the only one I got with my book order. That one's great, but the set on the bottom left with Creature is simply transcendent. I only recently discovered that the others exist. Good heavens, I don't know if child me could have handled the whole set! I would be a different person now— a better person.
Just the one sheet was nearly too much responsibility for me. I kept it untouched for eons trying to decide on worthy sticking surfaces. Keeping them on the page was not an option, it would have robbed the monsters of their ultimate purpose. It was determined that the mummy would adorn my window for maximum visibility, except that the sun stripped me of that joy when it destroyed it. The others were preserved in sticker albums or other books. But so help me I can't remember where the Frankenstein head went. This is a deeply disturbing thought because of all of them, that would have been the toughest and most memorable challenge! What devilry has plagued my mind?!
Grandpa's Ghost Stories by James Flora (published 1978, 1981 edition)
This one was a mind-blower. It's got great storytelling that can be genuinely frightening. Few kids books tap into such a sense of dread, and the unrelenting horrors manage to get progressively worse. The artwork is gorgeous. It wasn't too long ago that I realized James Flora is also Jim Flora who is one of my favorite mid-century artists.
One of the things that's always stuck with me is on the first page. We immediately see that the world is a harrowing place where even the sky is out to get you. Soon your eye settles on Grandpa's warm, well-lit, cozy refuge...
Grandpa relaxes with his pipe, paper, and a smile, totally unfazed because he's survived so much. For me this image has always embodied the concept of sanctuary. As a young reader I didn't want to turn the page and leave this inviting shelter, and as it turns out my instinct was correct.
You can see more here and here. There's even a youtube animation of the whole thing here.
The Littles and their Friends by John Peterson (1981)
This was a very pleasant surprise. What I thought would be a standard storybook turned out to be a detailed "cutaway" picture book that I loved to get lost in.
Garfield collection by Jim Davis (1982)
I was indeed among the legions of Garfield (and especially Odie) fans. These were released over a span of several years. The first two brought me chuckles and had pretty nice art, but by the time he visits space and the underground the quality drops significantly as indicated by the lifeless covers. This didn't stop me from throwing money at "The Book of the Seasons," an early sign of my completionists disease.
Like the Empire Strikes Back one, the pages of these storybooks were dominated by stills from the films. Always a good time.
My Gripe Book by Keith Dayson (1982)
Yes, it's a book designed to document your complaints. I filled out the entire thing and ended up hiding it under a book shelf for years because I had revealed my meanest thoughts regarding friends and family. And now it serves as an ugly archive of all the hatred I harbored at age ten. Yay.
The Jedi Master's Quizbook compiled by Rusty Miller (1982)
This was actually written by an eleven-year-old, and yet many of the questions are fiendishly difficult, and were nearly impossible in an age before widespread home video.
How about: "What was the name of the freighter that Biggs Darklighter served on after graduating from the Academy?" or "What were the names of the two suns of Tatooine?" and "What was the code number of the trash compactor?" Some were only answered in the Star Wars novelizations. The book offered me the painful realization that I wasn't the super fan I thought I was.
More Pac-Mania by Haller Schwarz (1982)
We have now reached the video game age of my book buying. This first entry contains rudimentary Pac-Man related sight gags and puns, such as Pac-Man with donkey ears and it says "Pac Mule" or Pac-Man with an elephant foot sticking out his mouth with the caption "Very hungry Pac-Man." Staggering! A couple of my friends had the original Pac-Mania and I was so enamored with it that I borrowed theirs and re-drew nearly every gag in a crude act of piracy. When I saw this one in the listings I knew I wasn't about to be left out of the pac again. HaHaHaHaHa!
Scholastic Puppy poster (1982)
Tron Mixed-Up Mazes (1982)
Congratulations Tron book people! You slapped together this thing and I paid for it.
Tron poster (1982)
This enabled me to look at and/or draw Tron anytime I wanted to. Well worth the dollar.
Tron The Storybook (1982)
The world of Tron has always been a feast for my eyes, so this book delivered. However, I always found it disturbing that the cover shows Tron and Yori on the lightcycle grid, and Tron's legs appear to be derezzing.
Vid Kid Newsletters (1982)
These were four-page pamphlets of video game news that cost 75 cents apiece, I think. In those days of slow information these were actually quite informative.
The Kids' Video Scorebook and Diary (1982)
Once again I was suckered into buying a book that is mostly blank pages. I filled out one page tracking my progress on Journey Escape for Atari 2600. I would have scanned it, but my spelling was just shameful.
Blips! by Jovial Bob Stine (1983)
I had a feeling I would like this so much that I ordered two copies, one as a backup in the event of some catastrophe. Years later my reading copy was somehow mangled and I was able to put my extra to use! I guess I need another backup now.
By the way, Jovial Bob Stine is another name for R. L. Stine of Goosebumps fame.
Video Game Joke & Puzzle Book by Ronald W. Lackmann (1983)
The Star Wars Question and Answer Book About Computers by Fred D'lgnazio (1983)
These days it serves as an interesting look into early computing, but to young me it was a low point of the library. I was sore because I felt like the droids had tricked me into buying a textbook.
Advance Dungeons & Dragons storybooks (1983)
If I'm being honest with myself, I liked the idea of these more than I actually liked the books. Though I was glad to finally own a piece of the D&D legacy.
Sign In Again, Please! (1983)
The sequel to "Sign in, Please!" as seen earlier. I loved sequels just for sequels sake. In my young mind, a sequel somehow justified the original. This one did top the first simply because the cover art is by Jared Lee, the guy who drew "Bummers" in Dynamite magazine. He was one of the first artists whose style I could recognize.
Dragon's Lair: The Rescue of Princess Daphne (1984)
This is a hollow account of the video game's storyline accompanied by screenshots. Sadly the "Marvel Books" factor gave it extra value in my mind.
Ghostbusters Storybook by Anne Digby (1984)
Movie photo books were so great for finally catching the details you missed in the theater. This one helped me perfect my Halloween costume that year. However, the "backward" ghost in the circle always bothered me.
Ghostbusters mini story book (1984)
Ah, proper use of the ghost in the circle.
Wizards, Warriors & You: The Siege of the Dragons (1984)
This is a fun series, but I was totally sucked in by the free promotional poster that came with any purchase. I didn't want to have the poster without knowing what it's all about.
Wizards, Warriors & You promotional poster Illustration by Earl Norem (1984)
BOOK FAIR BOOKS
More Than You Care To Know About Monsters by Dick Smith (1979)
This is a monster fact book that goes well with "How to Care for your Monster" seen earlier. The illustrations are pleasing and Dick Smith went a step further by hiding a little bat-like creature in every picture. By the way, it seems that this is the only existing image of this book on the internet.
Dreadful Mazes by Dick Smith (1979)
Dick Smith was dominating the book fair's spooky market that year. What's most remarkable about this one is that after covering the standard movie monsters and generic spooks the book turns to real life meanies like Al Capone, Stalin, and Hitler. Yes, I can thank "Dreadful Mazes" for my first grade introduction to the Holocaust.
OTHER SCHOLASTIC STUFF...
Love a Book Scholastic Premium Patch (1981)
May the Force Be With You Scholastic premium patch (1980)
Dynamite Magazine (1981)
The act of writing this retrospective brought to mind an unforgettable book order related memory. At one point I had noticed that there had been a lack of book orders offered to our class for a while, so I ask the teacher about it. She informed me that she received order forms nearly every month, but she only chose to issue them periodically. I was shocked by this betrayal, but my ill will was washed away when she handed me a full teachers' Troll book order kit. This resembled a thick magazine that contained a classes' worth of book orders stapled in the middle. The rest of the pages were like a deluxe full-color catalog with more in depth information and artwork for each listing. It also had teacher incentives and articles. I was humbled.
I was overjoyed when the afternoon bell rang. A bus ride home was all that separated me from uninterrupted time with my treasure, a treasure that was never meant to be seen by the eyes of a kid. Moments before stepping on the bus, a guy from my 4th grade class asked if he could see my prize. I let him flip through the pages when he abruptly turned around and bolted into the crowd of newly-dismissed students. My pending bus departure left me helpless. I had no choice but to ride home in a fog of angry tears.
Teachers nor parents were able to bring me justice in the next days. But about four years later this same creep jumped me while I was taking a whiz in an empty junior high bathroom. As a student of Taekwondo I was able to compose myself, assume a fighting stance, and smash his face exactly one time before he profusely apologized like some bully in a Disney Channel movie. It was real life revenge of the nerd.