Children's alphabet book is a hit 33 years after it was written

Books for children

November 28, 1990|By Molly Dunham | Molly Dunham,Evening Sun Staff

BEFORE ISABEL Wilner's book, "B Is for Bethlehem," hit the stores in September, her editor at Dutton called to gather background details on the book from Wilner.

"You needn't mention it languished in publishers' offices for so long," said the editor, Donna Brooks.

Wilner laughed as she recalled the conversation. She was sitting in her sunny Towson apartment, leafing through one of the three-ring binders she has used to chronicle the long and mostly lonely publishing history of the book she originally titled, "A Christmas Alphabet," when she wrote it in 1957.

"The book is doing very well," said Brooks, a senior editor for Dutton Children's Books. "We've just about sold out our first printing [of almost 20,000 copies], which is great."

"I don't expect to make a fortune on this, but I'm certainly having fun," Wilner said.

And for Wilner, telling the story of how long it languished in publishers' offices is a big part of the fun.

She was working as the librarian at Lida Lee Tall, the laboratory school at Towson State, in 1957, and her friend Ella Bramblett was teaching second-grade at Lida Lee Tall. "They were working with alphabet books, and Ella wanted one with the Christmas theme," said Wilner, who proceeded to compose the alphabet that Bramblett's class performed in the school's Christmas program that year.

"Friends said I should try to get it published, so I started sending it out in 1958," said Wilner, who retired from Towson State in 1988. "Sometimes I got a good letter; occasionally I got a printed form letter." But most of the time she heard nothing. Two different publishers kept the manuscript for eight years each. Others returned it after a year.

The happy ending came two years ago, when Brooks called to say that Dutton Children's Books wanted to publish the alphabet. "Donna had the brilliant idea to call it 'B Is for Bethlehem,' " Wilner said.

Brooks also came up with the ideal illustrator, Elisa Kleven. Each page is devoted to a letter -- "I is for Inn where the innkeeper said/There was not any room, not even a bed," for example. Kleven's intricate cut-paper collages give each page of the book a three-dimensional feel. The angels' wings sparkle like jewels and the stars almost blink in the blue night sky.

"I can't think of any illustrator, living or dead, I'd rather have do it," Wilner said. "It was worth waiting 33 years for this."

Wilner hasn't met Kleven, who lives in Albany, Calif., but they've talked often and exchanged letters. "I feel as if Elisa is a friend," said Wilner, who is also one of Kleven's biggest fans.

"I can pull out this book and show it to anyone," Wilner said. "I was in the Nashville airport . . . and I just said to the person behind the airlines counter, 'Would you like to see a beautiful book?'

"I never could do that if they were MY illustrations."

Another well-known illustrator, Ashley Wolff, has already finished the page proofs for Wilner's next book, "A Garden Alphabet," which Dutton is publishing next summer. Soon after Dutton accepted "B Is for Bethlehem," Brooks asked to see anything else Wilner had written.

"I had written this garden alphabet for Ella [Bramblett], but I'd never sent it to any publishers," Wilner said. Brooks liked it, so Wilner revised and polished it with help from another friend, Maud Broyles, who is an expert gardener. Like Bramblett, Broyles is now retired from the education department at Towson State.

"A Garden Alphabet" will be Wilner's third published book. In 1977, Scribner published "The Poetry Troupe," an anthology of poems that Wilner and the students at Lida Lee Tall had selected to read aloud and perform in front of audiences.

The daughter of Episcopal missionaries, Wilner spent her first seven years in China. The family then moved to the Philippines, where she lived until she was 18. She came to America to attend William Smith College and Carnegie Library School, and later worked as an Army librarian in the Philippines before starting at Towson State in 1949.

Wilner -- who won't reveal her age except to say she was in her 20s when she came to Towson State -- still travels to local schools to tell stories and perform poems with students. She's also making several book-signing appearances for "B Is for Bethlehem," including:

Saturday, Dec. 1, at the Children's Bookstore, 737 Deepdene Road, Roland Park (11:30 a.m.-1 p.m.); Dec. 14 at Greetings and Readings, Loch Raven Boulevard and Taylor Avenue (6-8 p.m.); Dec. 15 at Waldenbooks in the Towson Town Center (1 -3 p.m.).

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