Curiosity and the Cat: About a Book

Why I love this book

The latest book I’ve borrowed from the library was originally written in 1953, by Eloise Jarvis McGraw (it’s called Mara Daughter of the Nile). I picked it up and immediately loved it. Not because the first sentence drew me into the story like magic (though it is a good sentence). Not because the cover art is amazing (this version was published in 1985 – you get the idea).

No, the reason I love this book is that it is supple. The covers are smooth, the pages are soft, the thickness is actually thin… and I’ve discovered I really like the old-fashioned Lino Bodoni Book typeface.

This love might stem from the fact that I’m an amateur book historian. Or, my interest in book history might, in fact, begin with my love of the materiality of books. That is, the feel, the weight, the smell, the experience of the book that doesn’t exist in the newfangled e-formats. Or at least, exists in an entirely different way.

I decided I had to know how to experience more thin, supple books. So, having been trained in collections development, I immediately looked for the publisher: Puffin. I remember Puffin from my childhood, so I suspect this book was marketed, if not to children, at least to young adults.

The story is like so many others I read in elementary school – girl experiences change in circumstances, begins a voyage, meets boy, resists boy’s charms at first, falls in love … you get the picture.

Curiosity killed the cat

So, I’m curious. At what age group was this book marketed, in 1985? I wonder, was it marketed at a younger age group than was targeted in 1953?°

Satisfaction brought it back

To answer the first question:

I check the History of Puffin* online (sure enough, their website is all citrus colors and bubble letters).

Sadly, nothing relevant to this book and publishing practices in the chronology. A title search on the Puffin site brings no results, probably because 1953 and 1985 happened a long time ago, and who wants to search online for books from way back then?

The book itself states that the Reading Level is 8.1. Wait, what does that mean?

Whew. After a search on Puffin, and a library database search, I finally hit on the idea of going to the Department of Education – surely, they have something to do with assigning national reading levels. Turns out, they do! It’s called the National Assessment Governing Board**, but… I find out that they use the terms “basic,” “proficient,” and “advanced,” which is singularly unhelpful.^


Google to the rescue: a pdf titled “Reading Levels Chart”^^ – which throws even more confusion into the mix, as apparently there are/have been multiple reading level systems (of course). Wikipedia hints that “readability levels” is a key phrase. Back to the library database!

Got none.

Well, according to Wikipedia (yes, yes, I know) the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level System has determined that a Reading Level 8-point-whatever indicates a text that would be understandable by an eighth-grader.

Second Question:

A quick Google leads to results from Penguin, and it appears that the original publisher, Coward McCann, merged in the 1950s with Penguin. A search through the library database results in an NASSP (National Assocation of Secondary School Principals) list of publishers for secondary schools from 1945, with Coward McCann making two appearances on the list.

Aha! From the Penguin website:

1936: G.P. Putnam’s Sons forms an alliance with London-based Coward-McCann … , which enables it to publish writers from both sides of the Atlantic, including Elizabeth Goudge, Siegfried Sassoon and, later John Le Carré.

Okay, well, nothing there about children’s books. However, given the NASSP report, I can pretty safely assume (for the purpose of this blog post, anyway) that Coward-McCann also published secondary school books, even if Penguin doesn’t mention it.

The End.

I wearily conclude that in 1953 this book was intended for secondary school students, and in 1985, well… it was intended for those [eighth-graders] who read at level 8.1. Therefore, the book was aimed at very similar audiences with each printing.

Of course, these ratings and such are problematic, but there are plenty of articles out there on this subject, so I’ll just say that even as a reading-addicted adult, I am enjoying this book immensely (and not just because it feels so right in my hands).

Furthermore, if I want more supple books, I’ll be looking to Puffin, especially those published during the 1980s.

Discussion questions

Does anyone else meander down these random research paths, or is it just me? Does the materiality of the book make a difference in how well you like it, or which edition you buy?

°Clearly, this is my attempt to rationalize reading a Puffin book at my advanced age.

*Incidentally, according to the Penguin website, Puffin was formed as a children’s imprint in 1941.

**Did you know, two years ago they submitted notice to the public for comment on the reading level system?

^This increasing amount of effort requires more ergonomic seating arrangements.

^^This from Harcourt Achieve’s Educational Support Services Department.


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