In her more than 30 works for children, author Jean Merrill (1923–2012) was a champion of the underdog. And the theme of the small triumphing over the big was never more apparent than in her best-known novel, The Pushcart War; this month is the 50th anniversary of its initial publication, and the book is being reissued in a new edition from New York Review Children's Collection.
The near-future-set tale of pushcart vendors in New York City (aided by the clever use of peashooters) taking on the big trucking companies that were colluding and trying to put them out of business had often been cited as a classic over the years, and was frequently adapted for stage and even classroom productions. That’s why it was surprising to many people, including Sara Kramer, managing editor of Classics and Children’s collections at New York Review Books, when the book went out of print several years ago.
“We really do rely on recommendations that people send to us about books they would like to see reissued,” Kramer says. “We get lots of letters from people who want to buy a favorite childhood book for their kid but they can’t find it. In spring 2012 someone wrote to us that The Pushcart War was out of print. I was incredulous. That’s like saying that Goodnight Moon is out of print,” she adds. “I thought, ‘No it’s not. It’s a classic! A find! Everyone reads this book.’ ” Then, in 2013, Kramer received another letter about it. “I spoke to the series editor here and said, ‘We have to jump on this.’ I was flabbergasted that no one had pounced on it already.”
Kramer tracked down Merrill’s longtime partner Ronni Solbert, who illustrated The Pushcart War and many other of Merrill’s titles and she was enthusiastic. Solbert told PW, “I was delighted when I heard from Sara because, as a classic, The Pushcart War belongs with the distinguished works of children’s literature on the NYR list.” In a series of email exchanges with Kramer, Solbert shared information about various reactions to the book over the last five decades, including a 1998 newspaper clipping describing how a union of self-employed women workers in India won a long-fought legal battle for vendors’ rights after staging a play adapted from The Pushcart War. After that initial contact, Kramer got in touch with Merrill’s agent and nephew, who were eager to see a new edition to celebrate the book’s 50th anniversary. “We wanted to hurry and get it on the schedule for the anniversary,” Kramer explains.
Kramer believes that the enduring message of The Pushcart War is timeless. “Someone said to me, ‘Oh, it’s an allegory for Vietnam.’ Another person said, ‘It has the spirit of the Occupy movement.’ And someone else said, ‘This is what happened in Cairo.’ It’s about a situation where people rise up and confront something greater.”
Today’s young readers can draw all sorts of parallels to this story in their own lives, according to Kramer. “They see that even a little kid can affect change, and that they have power,” she says. “Maybe they see an injustice in their school and they can organize and take action. That’s why it appeals to kids. And it’s goofy and silly, not a tract. It’s a fun, funny book.”
There were some challenges as the new edition went into production. “For many years, The Pushcart War was only available in paperback,” Kramer explains. “The illustrations were cropped and it was not the best paper quality. We wanted to restore it to its original glory and let it shine through.” To that end, Kramer says they worked from one of the original ink drawings and “a great first edition” to re-shoot the art. “We did two press checks, which is rare. We lavished a lot of attention and care on this because I wanted to make sure it did Jean and Ronni justice,” Kramer says.
The anniversary edition features a blurb from Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner, an unabashed fan of the book who had worked on a screenplay adaptation in the early 2000s. Though that earlier project did not come to fruition, a new potential film adaptation is in the works with Adam Mansbach (Go the F**k to Sleep) attached as screenwriter.
Marketing plans for the book’s 50th are still somewhat fluid, though publicity manager Nicholas During hopes that fans will be inspired to recreate their favorite scenes from the book in video form and share them on social media platforms using the hashtag #pushcartwar. “We want to encourage parents and children to put on their favorite scene from the book and post it,” he says. “It could be kids in costumes, acting, or kids could make a set with their toys and different props, without actors.” During cites a video book report circa the 1980s by a young Lin-Manuel Miranda, the composer/actor behind Broadway’s In the Heights, as one of many video tributes that already exist online. The campaign may also include a contest component in the near future, but details are still being finalized.
The new edition of The Pushcart War has received warm support in recent essays and articles in such publications as the Washington Post and the New Yorker. For Kramer, one of the most gratifying aspects of this celebratory project is that Solbert is among those who are pleased with the end result. “She’s glad that people will see it again,” says Kramer. “And Ronni sent me a lovely note saying ‘I know Jean is happy. Long live The Pushcart War, with peace and justice for all.’ ”